Yes, Austria is mighty beautiful. Here in the Muhlviertel region we aren't even in the Alps and still the scenery is voluptuous. Cows chew on green rolling hills, flowers grow wanton by the roadside, and far below the Danube River is silvery with sunlight.
Yet it's people you always remember most. Klaus Bauernfeind is the best thing about my Uniworld shore excursion beyond port town Linz. He has curly hair, a boyish grin, twinkling enthusiasm, a farmer's rough hands. He pours us pear cider with all the courtesy of a prince in a palace, and every one of my fellow river-cruise passengers is reluctant to depart as the afternoon ends.
Klaus rushes to greet us from among a bevy of white goats as we arrive at Koglerhof farm. When he took it over in 1996 it hadn't changed for 50 years. They inherited a few cows and pigs, some sheep and geese, and a few hectares of forested hillside. There were outdoor toilets, and no electricity except in the stables.
He and his wife Elisabeth had no way to increase production on limited land and no money to buy fertiliser, so they started selling direct to consumers just as farm-to-plate and organic foods became popular in Austria. Eventually they opened a restaurant and shop as a market for the farm's produce.
"We have 20 pigs each producing 80 kilos of bacon a year, and 400 geese, very popular on St Martin's Day and for the Christmas season." The geese are traditionally stuffed with apple, carrot and onion seasoned with honey and nutmeg.
The farm seems endearingly old-fashioned, but its carbon-neutral footprint, sustainable ethos and charging station for passing e-bikes say otherwise. The modern glass extension that houses the restaurant sits, odd as a Tardis, on the hillside nearby, capturing lush views of buxom hills. On clear days, snow peaks shimmer.
We lunch on potato salad, smoked meats and local cheeses as Klaus introduces us to his ciders. The first is an acidic pear cider, cold on the tongue, perfect for summer. The second is an intense cider made with old apple varieties.
"Have it with the sour bread," suggests Klaus. "It produces a sweet feeling."
Our next course is a regional baked dumpling stuffed with ham, sour cream and potato. We drink it with a light, fruity cider the way farmers would traditionally have made it. We finish with a buchtl, a sweet yeast bun accompanied by plum jam. Klaus's wife slips an extra one onto my plate, still warm from the oven.
"Before the 1950s when beer culture took over, Austrian farmers made cider for their own consumption," says Klaus. "Now it's become trendy. We've planted 600 fruit trees in the last two years. This autumn has been good because it was cold, which stimulates the fruit to produce more sugars."
Klaus has a knack for engaging people, for making the curious corners of culture interesting. We ply him with questions about cider making, about old-breed pigs, about farming regulations and whether his children will follow in his farmer footsteps.
Klaus shows us the shed where his pears and apples are washed and pressed. The juice settles in tanks and is 'beautified' by the removal of suspended matter, then fermented and bottled. The reek of decaying, discarded pulp fills the enclosed space.
"People sometimes think they're coming to a museum but as you can smell, this is a real working farm," says Klaus happily.
We set off back to our Uniworld ship Maria Theresa, but not before I've bought some cider. Later as we sail into Vienna I pop it open, the sweet-sharp flavour of a beautiful corner of Austria captured in a bottle.
Uniworld's two 10-day itineraries Enchanting Danube and Munich (which runs between March and November) and Enchanting Danube and Prague (May to November) incorporate city hotel stays followed by a river cruise between Passau and Budapest. Prices from $5599 for an all-inclusive fare with shore excursions. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com/au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Uniworld.