On warm summer nights in Austria’s eastern province of Burgenland, the music of Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) floats across the calm waters of the lake and into a starry sky. About a mile away, the small guest houses, cafes and restaurants in the village of Mörbisch am See (population 2,350) are brightly lit, ready to welcome thousands of operetta fans who will arrive en masse after the evening concert.
For over 50 years Austrians and international visitors have been coming to Mörbisch for Die Seefestspiele Mörbisch, the Mörbisch Lake Festival, where they spend several days enjoying operettas and exploring the region’s other summer attractions.
Travelers sample the fine wine of Burgenland, especially the Grüner Verliner whites, and Blaufränkisch reds.
It is also common for tourists to bike or walk into Hungary, the neighboring country which Burgenland belonged to until the Treaty of Versailles, which resulted in a complicated, but uncontested, land transfer.
The festival theater, which fills its 6,000 seats for every performance, overlooks Lake Neusiedler, which was created 13 million years ago by a receding glacier. The festival stage itself is actually constructed over shallow water, on the southwestern part of the lake just one mile from the center of Mörbisch, Hungary.
More than 200,000 visitors attend the festival every summer. Some drive down from Vienna, about 40 minutes away by car via the A3 Autobahn.
The smart ones stay overnight.
At Mörbisch’s Casa Peiso, owner Klaus Sommer offers three beautifully furnished, very affordable apartments, each with its own garden, in a refurbished 1890s white-washed vintner house, in the middle of the village.
In addition to the rustic, yet eclectic décor in the apartments, including a winding staircase leading to a cozy upper bedroom, Mr. Sommer and his family operate Weinkantine und Greisslerei, a gourmet food shop located in the building next door.
Ask for Mrs. Sommer’s homemade jam, her pumpkin seed puree, or the excellent wine and cheeses found only in the Mörbisch area.
Burgenland’s musical heritage goes back to the 18th century with the birth of Joseph Haydn in the village of Rohrau. Haydn became the house composer to the Hungarian noble family of Esterházy, who lived in a palace in the town of Eisenstadt.
Eisenstadt hosts the Haydn Festival every September, drawing classical music fans from around the world into this historic city.
Burgenland also recently celebrated the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt, born in the town of Raiding in 1811. Raiding has only 836 residents, but the Franz Liszt Museum, as well as a modern, new concert hall next door, turn this small, pretty village into the center of classical music every year during its popular Liszt Festival.
During my visit to Burgenland I was anxious to visit Gols, where Helmut and Herbert Bernthaler run a winery out of a small estate house in the village.
I was hoping that perhaps the owners would be long-lost relatives of mine, especially after Helmut gave me a tour of the vineyards, where the Bernthaler family has been planting grapes on the hills of the east side of the Neusiedler See since the 1700s.
Alas, I discovered, we only have a variation of our last name in common.
As a fragile, afternoon light bathed the vineyard in the sunshine of late summer, Helmut walked along a row of alte reben (old vines), the grapes ripening in the warm air, sounds of dried leaves and twigs crackling under his feet, as he talked about Burgenland and its long Austro-Hungarian heritage.
“It is a shame that more Americans don’t visit this part of Austria,” he said, gazing across the lake as the sun dipped below the horizon. “We have so much to offer, with our food and wine, and of course the music from our famous composers.”