James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Following In the Footsteps of Brahms: Composer, Beer Swiller, Skinny Dipper

Following In the Footsteps of Brahms: Composer, Beer Swiller, Skinny Dipper

Beer Beside the Wörthersee

A big, frothy glass of beer seems in order after a brisk hike up to the Gloriette lookout, high above the Wörthersee, a beautiful turquoise-blue lake in the southern Carinthian province of Austria.

It’s definitely what composer Johannes Brahms had in mind at the end of his daily excursions up into the mountains.

From the lookout, my composer-husband and I soak in the views in all directions over the 10-mile wide lake, trying to imagine how it looked in 1877, when Brahms first arrived at the sleepy little fishing village of Pörtschach. This was to be his composing retreat for three long summers.

Today, if you’re up at this lookout you can actually recline on a wooden chair and press a button to hear one of the magnificent pieces Brahms conceived here, like the Symphony No. 2 or his Violin Concerto.

Upon our descent back into town we seek out a watering hole to quench our thirst. Brahms’ favorite hangout was Weißes Rössl, the White Horse Inn. Today, it is sadly derelict and ready for demolition, much to the chagrin of Waltraud Arnold, director of the Brahms Competition that has been held in the town for the last 22 years, an event that helps to keep the memory of Brahms alive today.

Frau Arnold also takes us to other Brahms haunts, including Schloss Leonstain, where he stayed during his first summer, with a statue of a young and handsome Brahms in the courtyard.

Still in search of our refreshment, we make our way to a terrace on the waterfront at the end of what is now called the Brahms Promenade, the actual path he walked every day, and take in another of Brahms’ favorite views. In moments, we are drinking his preferred beverage.

I’m sure Brahms’ walk was more strenuous than ours on the less well-trodden trails of the day. His was certainly longer! And who knows if his beer was as refreshingly cold as ours? But it tastes so good as we take in the peacefulness of the lake and tree-covered mountains that surround it.
Today, Wörthersee, or Lake Worth, is still relatively free of motorboats, helping to keep the waters pristine, yet offers ferry service to and from various ports through the day. Water temperatures are remarkably warm for an alpine lake, reaching around 75 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. How inviting is that for an energetic hiker at the end of an excursion? Brahms took the plunge regularly, which was alarming to the locals who were not accustomed to recreational swimming, and definitely not prepared to see a composer, visiting from the big city, taking the plunge buck naked.

Another difference between Brahms and me is that I haven’t got the makings of a symphony or a violin concerto swirling through my mind as I march through the forest and along the lakefront. But is my composer-husband inspired? He won’t say.

We smile at each other, sip, and soak in the sights of the beautiful Wörthersee with Brahms’ sunny melodies dancing in our heads.

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