Trail of the unexpected: Burgenland

Burgenland was Hungarian until 90 years ago, when residents voted to join Austria – creating a unique region.

A cutting wind scythes across a plain that stretches all the way to the Urals, turning the white poplars inside out like ragged umbrellas. Around me stretch fields of kohlrabi, birch coppices, huntsmen's hides on stilts, and the occasional plantation of wind turbines. Ahead, a battered stone arch looms against a leaden sky. Beside it lies a massive chunk of fallen masonry, its crumbling mortar studded with Roman tiles.

It was here, in the frontier town of Carnuntum, that Marcus Aurelius wrote the second book of his Meditations as the sun began to set on his empire. The scattered ruins – two amphitheatres, a bath complex and this colossal triumphal arch, known as the Heidentor ("Heathens' Gate") – stretch for 5km between the villages of Petronell and Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.

The popular image of Austria is of snow-capped peaks and Alpine meadows. Yet the country's easternmost province, the Burgenland, is very different.

As I walk back along the cycle path into Petronell, the way is lined with tidy rows of vines. The results are the fruity, refreshing reds – Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt – that I have enjoyed in the region's heuriger: wine taverns serving the latest vintage fresh from the barrel. Puzzled by the rose bushes at the end of every few rows, I ask the woman in the tourist office, who tells me they show where one grower's vines end and another's begin.

Since the terrain is flat and distances small, this is ideal cycling country, criss-crossed by biking routes: the Roman Way, the Wine Way, the Neusiedler See Way. Under the Habsburgs, Burgenland was part of Hungary. In 1921, its people voted to be part of Austria – except for the residents of the capital, Odenburg, which, under the name Sopron, now sits in a spur of Hungarian territory that almost cuts the region in two.

To this day, places have both German and Hungarian names. Under a hazel tree in Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, I climb aboard a local bus crammed with schoolchildren and elderly women on their way to market. It trundles through the little towns of Rohrau, birthplace of Josef Haydn, and Bruck an der Leitha, with its soaring 55m Baroque spire.

As the bus labours up the wooded slopes of the region's only significant uplands, the Leithagebirge, I glimpse, far to the west, the white mass of the Schneeberg, easternmost rampart of the Austrian Alps.

Cresting the hills, the bus descends a hairpin zigzag to the regional capital Eisenstadt (Kismarton), depositing me in Domplatz beneath the sheer whitewashed walls of the cathedral. The well preserved Baroque centre is dominated by the vast yellow palace of the Esterhazy family, who employed Haydn as court composer. The façade was later remodelled, but the imposing hall remains as Haydn would have seen it, and regularly hosts concerts of his music.

I walk up the hill to the Burgenland State Museum, where an impressive collection of gravestones, mosaics and domestic utensils testify to the highly Romanised way of this frontier region. Lumps of iron ore explain how the place got its name: Eisenstadt means "Iron City". Next door is a moving remnant of the city's Jewish quarter: a synagogue set up in a private house in the late 17th century, one of the few in Austria to have survived the Nazi era.

From Eisenstadt, I take another bus to Rust, the most attractive of the little towns on the shore of the Neusiedler See, a mysterious reed-fringed lake that edges across the border with Hungary. At the landward end of the cobbled Rathaus Platz broods the ancient Fishers' Church, as darkly Gothic as a medieval woodcut. The chimneys of the Baroque houses are crowned by storks' nests; in one, a big old stork preens himself, eyeing a stall selling eels, carp and catfish from the lake.

The lake is a Unesco World Heritage Site and draws birdwatchers from all over the world. Some 36km from north to south and 12km from east to west, it is flanked with watermeadows and reedbeds. Herons and great white egret – the lake has Europe's largest population of these endangered wading birds – spear fish in its shallow waters, while enormous dragonflies hover like prehistoric raptors.

Back in Eisenstadt, I board a bus for my final destination, some two hours to the south.

Beyond the Sopron salient, the countryside becomes hillier, and by the time the bus drops me at the crossroads in Bernstein, the sleepy village is battening down the hatches for the night. A fingerpost directs me up a long drive beneath an arcade of chestnut trees to the castle, Burg Bernstein.

Under a swinging lantern in the gatehouse, a marble plaque records the fact that this was the home of the Hungarian aviator Laszlo Almasy, protagonist of Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient.

In the courtyard, the air is tangy with woodsmoke and the great rock on which the castle is built surges up through the flagstones. My hosts, Alex and Andrea Berger-Almasy, show me through a heavy wooden door along a corridor lined with hunting trophies to a suite of vaulted rooms hung with portraits of Habsburg-era ladies and be-whiskered gentlemen, including the Emperor Franz Josef. When I step out on to the ramparts, I look down across treetops 30m below.

Over an excellent dinner of wild mushrooms, braised beef and apple tart (local produce cooked on the castle's wood-burning range) in the Rittersaal, a large hall lit only by candlelight, Alex explains that the florid 17th-century ceiling depicts scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The conversation ranges from the history of the castle – the name Bernstein means amber, a reference to the ancient Amber Route that passed through here – to his grandfather, the subject of Ondaatje's novel.

He is relaxed about the scant resemblance between this work of fiction and the real story. "There are many ways of telling the truth," he says, "and one is as good as another."

Throughout the Burgenland, truth is filtered through many layers of history. What's certain is that it has been, and remains, a beguiling place for visitors.

The writer's latest book, Mapping the World, is published by Editions Place des Victoires, price €69

Travel essentials: Burgenland

Getting there

* Vienna is served by Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; aua.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) from Heathrow; and by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick.

* Petronell-Carnuntum can be reached by S-Bahn from Vienna Mitte station, €7 one way (oebb.at/en). Several buses run to Eisenstadt from Vienna Meidling each day, €11.20 one way (vor.at).

Getting around

* Buses run from Eisenstadt Domplatz to Rust and Bernstein.

Staying there

* Burg Bernstein, Bernstein, Austria (00 43 3354 6382; burgbernstein.at). Doubles start at €150, B&B.

More information

* Burgenland Tourist Office: 00 43 2682 633 840; burgenland.info/en

* Austrian National Tourist Office: 0845 101 1818; austria.info/uk

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