You never know whom you’re going to meet as a 20-year-old exchange student in Vienna. Even more of a surprise when you’re away from home for the first time, find out you have no place to live and cry your eyes out in the dean’s office. Probably not one of my finer moments, but that was how I met Nik Berger, a fellow classmate. What I didn’t know then is he would go on to be a two-time Olympian in beach volleyball and travel all over the world. He’s settled in Vienna all these years later, and is sharing his insider spots in this imperial city, which should be on everyone’s destination list.
Christine: It’s pretty amazing to see what you’ve accomplished in 20+ years, as a two-time Olympian — in Sydney and Athens. Of all the places where you played volleyball as a pro, which was your favorite and why?
Nik: Thanks so much for the kind words. As a professional athlete, you train rigorously, so it’s optimal when you can be in a good destination. I started out playing indoor volleyball at the University of Hawaii for two years, then four years professional indoor in Vienna, where we met. I turned pro in beach volleyball1999, and my coach was from Rome, where I lived and loved it. Our training camps in the winter were held in Rio de Janeiro, another magical place to be, to ride out the cold months in the sun.
Some of my favorite places I played were a tournament in Norway (Stavanger), Paris, Bondi Beach in Australia, Rio de Janeiro and, of course, Austria (Lake Wörthersee), which were pure magic.
*Original Photography by Nik Berger
I eventually retired in 2008, but my son and daughter are now playing volleyball, so it’s still a big part of my life, as is travel, which is another passion of mine.
Christine: How many countries have you been to?
Nik: Around 70 countries. When all this pandemic is over and we’re traveling again, on my bucket list are the Cook Islands and Fiji, more of Iceland with the capital Reykjavík, Bretagne and Normandy in France, and South America and Africa. I’m now working for a private plane company, Fly Airness, which you know because we’ve been in touch quite a bit for your clients. We can fly virtually everywhere in the world and can make it happen even last minute, like your clients!
Christine: I know, you have been able to work miracles for us. Now working with a private plane company, where would you fly private, if you could get on a plane tomorrow and go anywhere in the world?
Nik: I would start with the Caribbean Islands and the nicest beaches in the world, move on from there, or maybe visit friends in Australia. I did play beach volleyball for most of my career, so beautiful beach destinations are special to me. My all-time favorite restaurant is at the Isla de Margarita Surf Paradise Hotel, where you have dinner right on the beach and look out at the ocean while eating lobster and ginger pasta.
Christine: A beach sounds pretty glorious right about now. So while we’re in the pandemic, how are you managing?
Nik: As you know, I’ve been an avid cook, and especially now we’ve been staying at home or going to my lake house outside of Vienna. Right now, I have to say, I watch all the cooking shows to refine my game. I love Mexican, so perfecting more Mexican dishes. Other than that, I’m doing more vegetarian and regional dishes, such as the lovely green and white asparagus, which are in season in Austria right now. I’m including some photos of my meals; I do everything from making my own dumplings from scratch to some complex tasting menus, as you can see.
I love cooking for others, so when we’re on the other side of the pandemic, I’m thinking of doing an eight-course dinner with six to 10 people. My style is about seasonality — pumpkin, sweet potato, mushrooms when they are at their prime. For example, I love paring lamb with sweet potatoes and mushrooms for fall, creating a sesame tuna, or to be healthier, vegetarian cuisine like lentil curry. I love creating, and I love food.
Christine: It’s nice to see that some things don’t change; you’re still at the Olympic level with everything you do. Those meals look incredible. Speaking of which, so does your photography. We’re going to include some of your travel photos as well. You certainly have a gift.
I need to daydream about Vienna. What are your top recommendations for meals?
Nik: I live in the 9th District of Vienna, which is walking distance to the 1st District and well located to local neighborhood spots. I really like Kim Sohyi, where she does a 100€ tasting menu, which is off the charts. Hangar-7 is also terrific, as they bring in top chefs around the world. I appreciate the fine dining experience when I go out; Steirereck is a classic Vienna institution where their dishes are works of art.
Christine: Vienna is known for coffee. What’s your go-to spot?
Nik: Once again, I stay local in the 9th District, where I like Café Français. They have great coffee as well as good French food. It’s close to the Haupt Uni, so filled with both students and business guys.
Christine: Technically, we met at the university, but I was too busy crying to realize we had met. We ran into each other later than night at Club U4. If I want to relive our university days, where should I go today?
Nik: X Club, where you need a key. They play hip-hop. Dots is also good in the 6th District, as is Pratersauna Club. For a more chill vibe, in the Volksgarten, there’s a techno café, if it’s nice, on Tuesday evenings.
Christine: What about for cocktails?
Nik: I’m not a big cocktail guy, but Cocktail de la Nuit, Roberto’s, or Kleinod has a nice terrace, for wealthier older guys and fancy people. More of my scene is to have a Stiegl or Zwickl, my favorite beer from Salzburg.
Christine: Thank you for getting us so excited to return to Vienna. We’re looking forward to flying with you, too, at your new company Airiness.