Monday, June 27, 2005


Yesterday we went to the Camel and Donkey Festival at Schloss Hof in Austria ( It is just over the border. In fact, from Slovakia you can see the schloss and from the schloss you can see the VW plant in Slovakia.

I find out about these things because, in Austria, they put posters for local events up in every little village. Sometimes they are on billboards or poles. Sometimes they are on easels that sit on the sidewalks.

Last year I had seen posters for a Grosse Pferde Fest (Big Horse Festival) at the schloss, and we had gone. Apparently the property belonged to Prince Eugene of Savoy. The website says that in 1726, he purchased Hof Castle, which at that time was rather modestly sized, and had the famous architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt transform it into a magnificently princely refuge.

The site actually has two castles or manor houses, a large baroque garden (complete with an enclosure of moose and another of buffalo), and a baroque farm. Most of this is new since we were there for the horse fest. When we came the last time, everyone parked on the little village streets and on neighbors lawns. Now there is a big, lovely parking area. The villagers must have gotten fed up. But seriously, now there is an appropriate place for buses. Signs are clear and logical. The walk way is nice.

The website says this about the farm:

North of the castle, in an area stretching over six hectares, is one of Central Europe’s largest baroque farms. In former times, this is where an entire army of domestic servants saw to the comfort of the prince and his guests and ensured that everything functioned smoothly at the glittering parties.

This tradition was revived with the renovation of the Festival Castles. Carpenters and basket-makers, pewterers and blacksmiths pursue these old handcrafts on the old farm, jams and schnapps are again being produced, and traditional remedies are made according to old recipes in the herbal apothecary.

The stables are once again inhabited by horses, and in the menagerie one encounters not only peacocks, white donkeys and spectacled sheep but also exotic animals like camels and bison. A petting zoo and a special adventure farm have been set up for children. Visitors can get a taste of life on a baroque farm by strolling through the estate or – an especially enchanting experience – on a coach ride around the extensive grounds.

In keeping with the fashion of the times, the prince also established a menagerie, where all kinds of exotic animals could be admired. In the course of revitalisation of the imperial castle, the Baroque tradition of animal husbandry was taken up again. In close cooperation with the zoo at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, an environment suitable for some 20 different various species has been created on the spacious grounds.

At present, the pastures, enclosures and stables are home to many animals, including:

• Lipizzaner horses
• Nonius horses
• Gidran horses
• Shetland Ponys
• Noriker horses
• White donkeys
• Bactrian camels
• Mangalitza pigs
• Valachian sheep
• Sulmtaler chickens
• Silkie chickens

So the Baroque menagerie is a good excuse for having all these interesting and rather exotic animals. I also suspect that many of them were adopted from the Safari park that used to be not too far from the schloss. It was a wonderful place to go with children, but closed for lack of money.

The grounds behind the castle has a large, flat area (about the size of a football field) that is enclosed by a low, wooden railing. The organizers set up benches all around it. There are food vendors and picnic tables along one side, and an announcers booth with a sound system along another. On the far side of the field was an area set up for pony and camel rides, a children’s play area with a terrific bubble making station, and a yurt.

The yurt was next to a vendor who had Middle Eastern looking household items: pillow covers and incense and jewelry and candles. That sort of thing. We just peeked at the yurt, which was large and decorated with oriental carpets on the grounds and lovely colored fabrics hanging from the walls.

We got drinks (it was hot and muggy) and found a bench in the shade not too far from the yurt and the children’s area. Exotic music started to play, and the camels were led into the ring, followed by a harem of Eastern Austrian housewives, all dressed up as belly dancers with veils and bangles.

Then the skies opened up.

I had raincoats and umbrellas for everyone. In the car. On the other side of the castle grounds.

“To the yurt!” someone said. And off we ran with most of the people on that side of the field.

Let me tell you, if I had to live in a yurt, I think it wouldn’t be half bad. Of course, you need your camels to carry the heavy poles that support the center of it and all the rugs and pillows to make it cozy. This one had bales of hay all around the inside walls. The bales were covered with pretty fabric, so they made good places to sit. The center of the yurt had an opening (I assume your cooking fire might vent there) and since it was now raining quite hard, some water did come in that way. But not much.

A lot fo people had the same idea, and we estimated there were as many as 50 people in the yurt. The belly dancers ended up in there, so we got to see their costumes up close. Because the ground was covered with nice carpets and fabrics and this was Austria, everyone took off their shoes. Eventually, a clown appeared and made balloon animals (and good ones!) for the children.

We must have been in there for almost an hour. With all those people, it never got uncomfortably hot. Eventually the rain stopped and we ventured back outside. It took a while for the show organizers to get their act together, so we walked around the castle, looked at the gardens and the fountains and the gift shop.

The show did go on and we got to see lamas (accompanied by a rather Chinese sounding song that I am sure included the word “Yokohama” to rhyme with “lama,” as well as a line the Spouse swears was something about “Where did the fork go?”). The lamas, who were cheeky and generally uncooperative, pulled a small cart, when they felt like it. Mostly they just walked around, proudly, and did what they pleased. The belly dancers got to do their thing. There were also draft horses and four types of donkeys and ponies, and then the camels returned. The girls got to ride the ponies and pet the donkeys. We were holding out for camel rides, since there was clearly a place set up for them, when the skies opened up again.

This time we gave up and made for the car. But it was a long way to the car, and by the time we got there all of us were soaked through and the rain had stopped. We rode home in wet clothes. Today, the car still smells a little musty.


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