Kirtag – a weekend wine festival in Vienna

Every summer, the wine producers in the 19th district of Vienna celebrate their harvest. It’s a quiet suburban place; they don’t get much business over the year. But, in late August, they flog it all with a large, happy wine festival. The wine producers are the heurigen – wide, stone faced buildings with a charming alpine feel.

The streets are buzzing. Thousands of people are walking about in lederhosen and dirndl. But it’s not cramped or uncomfortable. I had comparisons with Oktoberfest in mind, but this is different. It’s calm, happy, and family friendly. Or so I thought, at least, on the streets outside the heurigen, where people exchange heart shaped gingerbread biscuits, and children have their faces painted, and couples sit on benches eating schnitzel. Inside the heurigen is a different story. These large buildings are the centre of it all – and where the moods escalates out of a sleepy Viennese suburb, to a raucous Austrian drinking party.

I walk through the large wooden doors, and into a courtyard. Ahead there is a long, stone-floored garden, with bushes, little trees and walls giving it shape. It’s 5pm and there are hundreds of people. In the corner, a group of old men are arm in arm belting out an old Austrian song, accompanied by an accordion. In the centre people are crowding, dancing, moving around endlessly whilst people hustle by with trays of wine and wiener schnitzel. One young man is heroically cradling six bottles of wine through the hurly.

I follow the group to the table at the back of the garden, at the top of the incline – and by our table are grape vines, thick and green, rolling off into woods at the top of the hill. We sit down for all of five minutes, and then the Austrians are up.

We dart back through the crowd to get the stuff we’re here for. Inside, there are counters selling hot schnitzels and kartoffelsalat (authentic potato salad), and another one selling wine. I sidestep the schnitzels and head to the wine.

‘Zwei weisser spritzer, bitte,’ I say, in fractured German.

Behind the counter is a maidenly old lady in dirndl. She looks as bemused as I do.

She comes back with little glass tankards filled with white wine and soda water. This is not what we want at all.

After some hand waving and help from a nice Austrian chap, we land ourselves a collection of bottles – some with soda, some with the local wine.

Back at the table, we merrily chink our glasses and start drinking the fizz. The Austrians drink quickly.

The concoction is light, refreshing, and the soda takes the edge off what would be, otherwise, a harsh wine. Don’t forget – the wine is very new, and made all of five metres from where you’re sitting.

It is supposedly drunk with soda to keep you hydrated in the sun – and also because necking barely chilled, young wine in 35 degrees isn’t fun for anyone.

After a few hours, when the sun has settled below the horing roofs, people begin to head in for schnitzels. Soon every table smells of crisp, fried breadcrumbs and vinegary potato salad. I’ve had many schnitzels, and its variants; but nothing comes close to these. They’re thin, and crispy, and the crust has bobbled off the meat – apparently an indicator of quality.

Revived, we head into the next stage of Kirtag. It’s about 8pm, and the 50:50 wine-soda ratio is ignored. People are pushing the soda to one end of the table, and slurping the wine quickly, chinking glasses and demanding a comrade.

And, then, more schnitzels, and we head outside around 11pm. All the men buy gingerbread hearts for their loved ones, and the first-timers, customarily, have to get a tattoo spray painted on. We head down the dark, cobbled street, and off into Vienna to continue the festivities.

And that is it, until the same thing happens on Saturday, and Sunday, if you are so inclined.

 It was a great long weekend. Importantly, I didn’t queue for the food, I didn’t queue for a drink. The litre of wine is 15£ – the schnitzel and kartoferlsalat £10. This event can be whatever you desire; there are grandparents and children waltzing in the streets, and there are riotous men and women of every age getting squiffy in the sun. But, if you fancy a bit of both, and some amazing food, in an inexpensive, authentic, and unspoilt place, I can think of no better way to spend a long weekend in August.


How to enjoy The Cinque Terre

The towns of the Cinque Terre are beautiful to look at, but horrible to be in.

In Riomaggiore, the southern most village, you get off the train with a few hundred Americans and walk below the tracks to the high street, along which are little shops that serve bad and expensive food. There are billboards with pictures of Greek-looking pizza. You can smell tinned olives and dried up oregano. One shop is playing a loud Justin Bieber song. Waiters stand on the streets and wait for people to grab.

The towns get better as you go north, climbing to Corniglia, a mid point rather than a destination, and then on to Vernazza; but then you reach Monterosso, which is the worst of all. The train track is twenty metres from the sea and it follows the length of the town so that there is no escape from the rattling trains. On the thin beach are more bad restaurants that serve frozen pizzas, and iceberg salad with bottled Heinz dressing.

In the Cinque Terre you must walk, and not stop walking. That is the sole purpose of this place. But it is easy to assume that the towns will be quaint and beautiful and worth some coffee-time – as I did on my arrival. Save yourself the trouble, and leave the towns behind.

The good news is that the towns stop abruptly. You pass the last building, and the last wall, and then you’re out. The walk is beautiful. The traverse holds close to the sea, and you always have that breeze and freshness that makes even mid-August jaunts a possibility.

There are no dull bits. Whether you are at the top of the hill or climbing down does not matter because it is all beautiful; the cliffs move in and out to create headlands and coves so that you are always looking at something interesting.

The paths are not challenging, and although many of the passers by wear Northface and Solomon shoes with climbing poles and zealous little backpacks with water tubes, you can do it in a pair of trainers. The entire path is about twenty miles, and can be done in one day, or split up with a night in the middle of the walk. Vernazza or Corniglia are best. Make sure you eat Pesto in the Cinque Terre.