Some of the best sleep-over experiences happen when the place you stay is also what you have gone to see. Taking this to the extreme, the other day I got a chance to spend the night in an art exhibit. That brought visiting a gallery to a whole new dimension! But that is a story for another time.
Better examples are historic homes, or places where a famous person stayed. These are places where the mists of time are so thick that you can easily lose yourself in the story of the place. Reports of ghosts are not uncommon in such places, and in certain ways the accumulation of things and experiences from past occupants do amount to something tangible that continues to affect visitors.
But this alchemy of experience is not easy to achieve. It requires a delicate balance between “leaving things alone” and some proper care-taking and maintenance, and it usually involves someone with a passion for the place and an enthusiasm to share it with the world. Where this is achieved, magic can happen.
On the other hand, certain comforts that we expect from normal accommodations work against us in these places. How often have you booked a room advertised as historic, only to find all the “old” is completely obscured by layers of “modern” amenities? All the magic has been cleaned out, leaving a place which, may in fact be old, but the fabric of its history is ripped beyond repair.
For those who seek out these rare history-packed places, we have a good one to share with you.
Schloss Bernstein is a medieval castle dating back to the 12th century. It’s located in the town of Bernstein in the Burgenland region of Austria bordering Hungary, not too far from Vienna.
Actually, Burgenland was part of Hungary until the end of WWII when it became Austria’s youngest county. The fortress, sitting on a solid rock outcropping, overlooks Styria to the south and the Hungarian Lowlands to the east, perfectly positioned to see enemies approaching from any direction.
For the last century Schloss Bernstein has been the home of the Almasy family. And today it is Andrea and Alexander Almasy, along with their son Erasmus, who are in residence and welcome guests into their fortress from May till October each year.
Count Laslzo Almasy … was indeed a real Count, and Schloss Bernstein was his home until he set out to explore the Middle East.
Why just May till October? Well, castles have no central heat. And if it were heated, the constant variation of temperature and humidity would eventually degrade the castle’s ancient wooden furniture and paneling, not to mention the destruction created by running modern utilities through the ancient walls. So, as it has for hundreds of years, the house slowly cools each winter and reawakens in the spring, ready for visitors. And that is why the Schloss Bernstein of today is very much the same as it was 200 years ago.
If the name Almasy has a familiar ring to it, you might recall in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winning novel, The English Patient, a character by the name of Count Laslzo Almasy, played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie version. And there was indeed a real Count Almasy, and Schloss Bernstein was his home until he set out to explore the Middle East.
The real Count Almasy’s story is no less exciting than the one written about in the book and you can see some of the memorabilia from his expeditions on display in the long corridors of the castle. Some of the objects are referred to in the book. I was fascinated to see the Count’s pilot license, wrist watch and his saber hanging over the daybed where he used to read, as well as some oil paintings he made as a young boy. It’s a strange mix of fact and fiction.
Around the castle you can also see vintage toys that Erasmus and his two siblings played with, and the tricycles they raced up and down the maze of castle hallways, suggesting additional layers of stories of the castle’s history.
When we arrived, Erasmus and his mother Andrea rushed out and greeted us warmly. They have a quiet, down-to-earth charm about them and you immediately feel that you are amongst friends.
Andrea refers to herself as restorer, gardener, cook, antique dealer, and, most importantly, the current custodian of the place. Erasmus returned home from Vienna after completing a degree in physics to help with the family business, and will eventually take over responsibility for the place. Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Andrea’s husband Alexander, who in true Almasy tradition, had taken advantage of some down time to set out on a month-long motorcycle trip.
Andrea who was born and raised in the castle tells us that in the 1950s, her mother, in order to keep the house maintained, rented out a few rooms in south wing to students wanting to learn German. Over time the castle’s southern rooms were outfitted with bathrooms, some en suite and some shared, and thus began the new Almasy tradition of hospitality.
You will not find any internet, TVs, minibars or even telephones here. It really is authentic. However, you will find a large selection of well-worn books in your room and all around the castle. Erasmus and Andrea are always ready with suggestions for something to read that matches your interests.
Rooms do not have numbers but rather names. The Vinzenz and Tantalus rooms have a resident ghost, “the white lady” who frequents this part of the castle. Ghosts not your thing? Maybe you would rather stay in Tanten, Kisebb, Lori, or Oklahoma. The Oklahoma room however comes with the responsibility of defending the castle in case of attack. It is outfitted with the armory ready for action.
Each room is unique, and for the most part, still contains the original furniture. As you walk around, old floors creak as they have under the feet of visitors coming and going for hundreds of years. I found the writing desks in each room particularly poignant. They must have seen their fair share of joy and sorrow, carefully written down in long hand. Large heating stoves sit prominently in each room giving a glimpse into amazing craftsmanship of days past.
The views out the windows are stunning. Over the green rolling hills you can see all the way to the Alps on a sunny day. It is easy to see why Schloss Bernstein has had its fair share of return guests seeking a slow, quiet respite from modern life.
Of all the stories Andrea told me during our stay, my favorite was of a guest who has been coming regularly for many years, always staying in the same room. At some point, on the wall in her room, a double-sided photo was put up. A portrait facing forward on one side and one from behind on the other. When she is in residence the forward facing portrait is on display. When she leaves the photo is turned around with her back turned to the room. It’s a perfect anecdote to describe the Almasys’ wonderfully eccentric approach to their castle.
After several hours of navigating our way through the castle’s maze of hallways and corridors, we took a little break on the terrace next to the castle tower, where Andrea surprised us with coffee and some amazing homemade cake. Andrea is a fantastic cook specializing in classic local cuisines. You will experience her talents every morning with the included breakfast, and if you like, at dinner in the castle’s “Knights Hall”. The hall is one of the most famous parts of the castle. It features a gorgeous moulded ceiling depicting scenes of Greek mythology by Italian Renaissance architect Bartholomew Bianco. Dinner in the hall features classic Austrian dishes and a great wine selection from nearby vineyards.
Looking for a quiet retreat, away from the world, and all your demanding electronic devices? This is your dream hideaway. The perfect place to let the day slowly go by.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
Schloss Bernstein is open from May till October. Prices include Breakfast. Dinner is served Thursday through Sunday. For more information, go to; www.burgbernstein.at
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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