Home»Culture»This Is What It’s Like To Have Dinner with a Count and Countess at Their Castle Deep in the Austrian Alps

This Is What It’s Like To Have Dinner with a Count and Countess at Their Castle Deep in the Austrian Alps

Schloss Friedberg. Photo Schloss Friedberg.

By Mark Orwoll

Elisabeth Gürtler moves effortlessly, gracefully, through the woody, clublike corridors of the Alpin Resort Sacher, the recently rebranded Hotel Astoria, in Seefeld, Austria. The mountain views are magnificent from every window. The deeply upholstered lounge furniture calls out for cuddling. And the life-size toy sheep seemingly bleat to be petted. Yes, toy sheep, scattered here and there throughout the lobby and lounge. The Sacher, theres no doubt, enjoys a bit of whimsy.


Alpin Resort Sacher. Courtesy of the hotel.


We are about to leave on a special journey, one that Id been looking forward to for the past several days, and arranged by Gürtler.


I met Gürtler a week earlier as part of a press trip in Vienna, where she invited our group to join her later at her 5-star hotel on a high plateau in the Tyrolean Alps. The doyenne of Austrian hospitality, known among international hoteliers for her years as managing director of the Hotel Sacher (Viennas most famous hotel and home of the iconic Sacher torte), Gürtler had planned our visit to the same degree of thoughtfulness she demonstrates in managing the hotel. The Alpin Resort Sacher, which will join Leading Hotels of the World in 2023, has been Gürtlers pet project since handing over the reins of the Vienna property to her children several years ago.


General Manager Anton Gustav Birnbaum and Elisabeth Gürtler.


After arriving at the chalet-style hotel, our group of journalists rides a funicular to the top of Seefelds Olympic ski jump, a treat unavailable to the average tourist. We tour Seefelds medieval core with a historian. We sample Märzen beer at the brewery-hotel of one of Gürtlers friendly rivals. And now we are about to have dinner in a castle. With a count and countess.


Schloss Friedberg, built in the late Gothic style in 1230, rises dramatically from a hillside in Volders, near Innsbruck. The wide cinder footpath narrows as a visitor approaches the entrance, leaving one to wonder if hes taken a wrong turn. We are greeted at the castles doorway with glasses of Champagne, then enter a courtyard where a brass quartet is playing lively tunes in three-quarter time.


Count and Countess von Trapp at the castle entrance. Photo Schloss Friedberg.


Standing literally head and shoulders above all his guests is Count Gaudenz G. Trapp, dressed in a traditional Tyrolean jacket and a scarf tied in a complicated French twist. Next to him is his smiling wife, the porcelain artist Christiane von Trapp. His Excellency and Madam von Trapp moved permanently into the castle in 2009 after extensive renovations. They live on the second floor, and rent the rest of the fully serviced castle to guests, almost exclusively wedding parties. 


Christiane von Trapp has chosen to use the full family surname, even though Austria abolished the use of the aristocratic von” in 1919 after the fall of the Hapsburg empire. Aristocratic titles these days are inherited, but carry no privileges. Official paperwork doesnt permit the use of von” in a surname. Nonetheless, numerous hereditary aristocrats continue to use those three letters. England’s Guardian newspaper calls it the von trap”: to use it or hide it? The Austrian government made an exception for artists, like the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Born as a knight in Salzburg in 1908, von Karajan threatened never to appear in Austria again unless permitted to use his full name on official documents. Nowadays, some people of noble lineage use it, some dont. Count Gaudenz doesnt.


Photo Schloss Friedberg.
Photo Schloss Friedberg.


After our introductory Champagne, we climb a set of curving steps to a vestibule bearing ancient portraits on the walls. The room is brightly lit by overhead lanterns. Our every footstep echos among the stone floors and the columns that support the vaulted ceiling. A dining room adjoins the vestibule. Before I can take a seat with my fellow travel writers, a majordomo asks me if I would like to join the count, countess, and Elisabeth Gürtler at their table. Im too nervous to say, No thanks, Im too nervous.”


Honestly, like most Americans, royal titles dont impress me much. Viscount, marchioness, and the like are to me not dissimilar to such phrases as mullioned window and wabi-sabi—colorful words to adorn travel stories. But to be invited to sit down to dinner with a count (or graf, as they say in Austria)—thats a different matter entirely. I take my seat and strain to make small talk.


Count and Countess von Trapp. Photo Mark Orwoll.


I admire your jacket, your Excellency,” I say (having Googled the appropriate form of address minutes before arriving). In the traditional Alpine style, his loden-green coat has a high collar and ornate lapels, yet there is a modern cut to the garment. May I ask where you bought it?”


Graf Gaudenz looks down at the jacket as if surprised to be wearing it.


I bought this at a shop that was closing,” he says, seemingly pleased at having gotten a good going-out-of-business bargain. Im glad you like it.”


For a moment, I’m afraid he is going to remove it and give it to me.


Elisabeth Gürtler chimes in, saying to the count, And I love Marks jacket.” She pinches my left sleeve. Leather. Very fine leather.”


But thousands of microfibers gave their last best effort to make my blazer, so I promptly change the subject and ask Christiane von Trapp about her background. Surprisingly, Christiane, a German, is distantly related to Donald Trump, according to her husband; both her family and Trumps come from the same German village.


Do you know Trump?” Count Gaudenz asks me. I assume he means whether I know Trump personally. We know him,” he continues, though not enthusiastically. He was a guest here. Whatever else you hear about him, he is very charming.”


Later, over our main course of venison, the count mentions a friend of his, the lately deceased son of a prominent Nazi, who became successful in New York banking.


Fun guy!” says Count Gaudenz.


Donald Trump. Nazi offspring. When youre part of the European aristocracy, apparently, you bump into the oddest sorts. And why not? If you own a castle, everyone wants to know you.


Castle courtyard set for a banquet. Photo Schloss Friedberg.


For most of its existence, Schloss Friedberg was the property of the Fieger dynasty, which embellished the castle with frescoes and paintings on marble. It came into the hands of the Trapps in 1844 after the Fieger family died out. The counts ancestor Ludwig Trapp updated the castle in 1847. But it didn’t enter the mod-con world until Graf Gaudenz and Madam von Trapp took over. During the 2006-2009 renovation, the Trapps connected the castle to the internet, updated the ventilation system, and modernized the heating. (Castles, it seems, are notoriously drafty places.) They installed an elevator to the guest suites and contemporized the interior decoration while respecting the building’s Gothic and Classical heritage.


Guest suite. Photo Schloss Friedberg.


Weve gotten to the point in the evening where too much wine has been poured. I finally pose the question that Im sure is on everyones mind. Because I’m sitting next to Graf Gaudenz, the onus is on me to ask it.


Your Excellency,” I begin, hoping that I’m not slurring. What is your relationship to the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music?”


He doesn’t even blink—probably because I am the thousandth person to have asked him about the connection.


Distantly related,” he says. But Im used to the question. It doesnt trouble me. Sometimes it takes more time to explain the relationship than to just nod and smile.”


There’s an example of noblesse oblige if ever I saw one. Simply to grit your teeth and bob your head instead of shouting, “I’m not one of those von Trapps!” takes some practice, I would imagine. And sometimes, Count Gaudenz even gets an amusing story from the understandable confusion. For instance, he was in New York several years ago when he had an emergency operation.


“Later,” he recalls, “I was recuperating in the hospital room. I could tell that some of the staff were curious about me, and would peek into the room as they passed by. Then one day, three nurses, very shy, came into my room and in harmony began to sing Eidelweiss.’”


At this, the count breaks into a smile and holds back bemused laughter.


You get used to it,” he says.


As we finish our dessert, Count Gaudenz rises to address the assemblage, in particular to thank Elisabeth Gürtler for her many years in the Austrian hospitality industry and for bringing us together on this evening. Back in his seat, the count presents me with a business card; it identifies him as the principal of a private investment firm, without regard to any aristocratic title.


Please,” he says, may I have one of yours?”


Normally I carry at least 20 or 30 business cards. I keep a few in my inner jacket pocket. I always have five or six tucked away in my wallet. A dozen or more can usually be found in my day pack. And on this occasion, I have precisely…none.


Another travel writer sitting at our table notices me frantically searching my pockets, and raises an eyebrow. I look at him hopefully.


You know that business card I gave you last week in Vienna?” I say. Can I have it? Ill give you another one later.”


Sorry, man,” he says. I think its back at the hotel.”


I scour every pocket once more, and again search the crannies of my wallet. What luck! There, hidden between my outdated library card and a Shoprite Price Plus grocery discount card, is a lone business card. One corner is torn. Somehow, the card has become wrinkled, as if folded and unfolded several times. On the back is a smear that looks like dried mud. I can only hope its dried mud.


I stand as grandly as I know how, after all the wine, hold the card with two hands, Japanese-style, and present it to our host.


Your Excellency,” I say with a gracious but, I hope, not subservient nod, my card.”


Mark Orwoll, former International Editor of Travel + Leisure, is a freelance writer and the author of John Wayne Speaks (St. Martin’s Griffin).


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  1. Terry Gallagher
    December 21, 2022 at 5:28 pm — Reply

    Love this story. So interesting, funny and relatable!

    • December 26, 2022 at 8:53 am — Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Terry. It was an experience I won’t forget anytime soon (as you probably already figured, haha!).

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