NORTH of Vienna, Austria borders on the Czech Republic. The scenery is pleasant, agricultural, forested, and not touched by industry or motorways.
Here you will come across quaint towns such as Freistadt, which translates as ‘Free Town’, giving a clue to its former importance.
Back in 1220 Duke Leopold V1 decided to establish the town in an area of dense forest. Anyone who came there to build and live in the town were given absolute title to their house and land, and did not have to pay feudal duties – they were free people. The town grew in importance as a vital ‘stake in the ground’ of the mighty Austrian Empire, holding back the Czechs.
Freistadt became a key stopping point on trade routes, and goods were obliged to be held in the town for three days to give citizens the opportunity to buy them. Then more privileges were granted whereby only the town’s citizens could offer food, drink and accommodation in the whole area, which led to the growth in breweries. Every citizen, defined as householder, within the town walls, has the right to brew beer. Today this still applies, but in practice each household owns a share in the town brewery (which makes a great range of excellent beer).
There are 149 houses with ‘shares’ in the brewery. As houses are of different sizes, so the shareholding varies, measured in buckets of beer. One bucket holds 56 litres of beer, the minimum is 15 buckets and the maximum 140 buckets, and today there are 6,390 buckets. The brewery was moved to just outside the town walls in 1770, to reduce the fire risk, and it is still there today, owned by the ‘braukommune’, elected by the citizens. You could not take over this brewery without first buying all the houses in the town. This is unique in Europe.
Wars and trade patterns and boundary changes have left Freistadt a little isolated, which is good as it has preserved the town’s buildings and character. There was a wide moat, fed from a small lake, the Frauentiech, which ensured that it did not run dry. There are two main gates. One is the Bohmertor, which was the way to Bohemia, but it is now mostly in ruin following the last big fire in the town in 1880. The Bohemian capital of Ceske Budejovice lies around 60kms north. On the other side of town is the mighty Linzertor, on the road to the regional capital of Linz, which is 40kms south. It is kept in good condition, and includes the letters "K u K" on it, standing for Imperial and Royal, emphasising its former importance. Today the moat is grass, and the drawbridges replaced with a roadway, but the rest is unchanged. Inside the walls there is the huge castle, completed in 1398. This solid building contains the town museum, established in 1926 and added to over the years, including the conversion of the stables to give more exhibition space. This replaced the old castle called the Salzhof as salt, which was a precious commodity worth more than gold, was stored here. Today this building is a cultural centre.
The parish church has the only five-aisle basilica in Austria, and looks down the main square. This is on the highest part of Freistadt, and is dedicated to St Catherine, patron saint of the town. Surrounding this are buildings with graffiti style painting on the facades, and even false windows and walls to make them look grander than they are. In one corner is a passage through arcaded arched ways opening out frequently in 27 small courtyards, with the houses having little balconies around it, and where people still live today. Built for defence, there is the public fountain in the square, and another huge tower built in the 14th century to guard the flour mill, so that in the event of a siege the town would still have bread. Many of the old houses are built into the walls themselves, all adding to the difficulty for any attacker to attempt to invade.
The town has an air of peaceful calm about it, probably helped by the lack of constant traffic through the small streets. It just feels like a nice place to live for its population of 7,500 people. Local people still greet you as they pass you in the streets, which are clean and tidy. The old shop signs and hotel signs still hang over the cobbled streets, and there are no empty or boarded-up shops. It seems prosperous and cared for. The local tourist office provides guided city walks, guided tours of the museum, in English, both for groups or individuals, arranged by calling at their office, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
There are some good hotels in the town, and one of the oldest and best is the Hotel Diem, Zum Goldenen Hirschen (golden stag) run by Mr. & Mrs. Jager. This four start hotel, nestling against the Bohmertor, has been a hotel for at least 280 years. It serves traditional Austrian cuisine, and menus where each course is served with an appropriate beer, starting with a light beer, through to the strong dark beer that is almost a meal in itself. Frau Jager dresses in the traditional "dirndl" costume, while her husband wears the typical jackets of the region. It is classed as one of the top hotels in the region, see www.hotels-freistadt.at or email them at email@example.com
It is always fascinating to discover somewhere a little different, with a style and character that is unique. There are surely no other towns where all the inhabitants own the brewery. Freistadt is not well known, and does not boast of itself, which makes it well worth looking out and visiting. It is also the gateway to the whole region and so a good base for touring. For attractions in the region look at www.muehlviertlerkernland.at