Travel

For the Ultimate Holiday Snow Globe, Go Straight to the Viennese Source

Austria's Perzy family has been peddling their dazzling-and accidental-creation for more than a century.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

The most popular souvenir at the Original Vienna Snow Globe Factory and Museum-AKA Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur-is, as you might guess, a snowman. And though some choose to shake his watery chamber to get the full effect, that’s actually a misguided technique. Rather, to experience the real magic of a schneekugel, flip it over, and wait for the flecks to pool. Then turn it right side up, and watch the confetti float down languidly, bathing your snowman in his own personal blizzard. (The fact that the blizzard is theoretically made of the snowman’s flesh is probably best ignored.)

The snowman is adorable, sure, but I have my eye on a globe of a very different motif. Here, in this museum and store stuffed with memorabilia, the snowy piece of kitsch I’m focused on captures a very recent era. It’s clear, gloriously bulbous, filled with those pulverized white flecks, and awash in the finest Viennese mountain spring water. And in the center, piled on a hospital blue base, are toilet paper rolls. While most of the institution’s snow globes resemble collectible favorites from childhood, this one was created in 2020.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

“I heard on the TV or internet that [during the pandemic lockdown] people were buying toilet paper like crazy,” explains Erwin Perzy III, a man who assumes virtual royalty as the grandson of Erwin Perzy, designer of the first snow globe, and whose family still runs the business. Playing around on the computer one day, Perzy III designed a corresponding globe intact with requisite holiday flair. “I painted a toilet roll and mounted it around the snowman,” he says. “He was just looking out at a bunch of toilet paper rolls.”

The factory was shut down at the time, so he uploaded his design to the WhatsApp group his daughter Sabine had created for the employees. “My daughter saw this and she called me and said ‘Daddy could you print out one toilet paper roll and mount this in the snow globe?'” They took a picture, put it on Facebook, and it was so popular that they decided to add it to their online shop.

“20 minutes later, the shop broke down,” says Perzy. “Because, in this 20 minutes, we sold 1,600 snow globes.” The curious bit of holiday decor ended up being the year’s bestseller, and they’ve sold 16,000 of the design to date.

It was a happy accident, which seems to be a theme in the land of snow globe manufacturing. But perhaps the most famous accident of all was how the snow globe came to be.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

A brilliant past

Once the crown jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna has always been a town of creators and artisans, from Mozart to Freud to Egon Schiele and his mentor Gustav Klimt (a recent target of climate activists inside the city’s Leopold Museum). The Wiener Werkstätte, a collective of artists in the 1920s born of the Vienna Secession, was the longest-running design movement of the 20th century, and it was in Vienna that Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and was rejected-twice. Some historic high-brow designers still maintain storefronts modern day visitors can peruse, like the glass ephemera and chandeliers of J. & L. Lobmeyr, founded in 1823, silver from the Wiener Silber Manufactur dating back to 1882, and the 1718 porcelain company Augarten so significant, with clients including Habsburg Empress Maria Teresa herself, that the lower level of the shop is designated a museum. (For an enthusiastic tour of these stores today akin to museum-hopping, Shopping With Lucie! is your gal.)

And then there’s the humble, delightful snow globe, a childhood trinket and symbol of the holidays, an item at once fitting with the local traditions, but in more ways an outlier. And that all began with its accidental invention.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

In the late 1800s, a young Viennese designer named Erwin Perzy indulged his fascination for toys by building a workshop in his parents’ home. Perzy grew up to become a surgical instrument mechanic by trade, but never lost his love of toys, continuing to tinker with models in his free time.

One day at work, he was asked by a surgeon to create a brighter lighting system than the then-new Thomas Edison lightbulb for their operating rooms. He took a Schusterkugel, or a water-filled glass ball that shoemakers and other craftsmen used to focus illumination, and began experimenting with materials that might intensify the light. One of those materials was a semolina substance that did nothing for illumination, but when it fell to the bottom, was transcendently reminiscent of snow.

Simultaneously, Perzy was helping a friend create a miniature model of the Austrian countryside Maria Zell Church to be sold as a souvenir. He looked at his ball of water and thought, ‘Hey, why not put the church in a snowy globe?’ It would not only magnify the religious iconography, but would also evoke a pleasing winter tableau. His globes subsequently became an instant hit among the upper echelons of society, those that could afford the twinkling handcrafted ornaments.

He patented the design, which he called the “glassball with snow effect,” or schneekugel, and partnered with his brother to open a business in 1900. After playing around with different recipes for snow (an eventual mixture of wax and plastic whose exact measurements is a closely guarded family secret), he opened Firm Perzy in 1905, later named Original Vienna Snow Globes. The company grew rapidly, and in 1908, Perzy received an award from Kaiser Franz Josef I for his work.

By the 1920s, Perzy’s globes were being exported to countries around the world. And though the two world wars sidelined distribution, by the 1950s, things were back on track. That was when Erwin Perzy II took over the business and moved it to the former carriage house where it operates today, nestled in the nondescript 17th district neighbourhood. It could be easily missed if not for the snowy sign that reads Original Wiener Schneekugelmanufaktur. Look closely, and you’ll also see decals of snow globes pinned above a line of windows.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

It should be noted that the Perzy snow globe was not really the first of its type. Glass ball paperweights were quite popular at the time, and there’s a record of a glass company showcasing paperweights comprising hollow balls filled with water in the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition. The ball in question featured a man with an umbrella posing beneath powder that fell like snow. But Perzy, ever the savvy businessman, was the first to patent the idea, and so the Perzy snow globe took off.

Today, the Austrian company makes about 300,000 snow globes each year, shipped all over the world with profits split between factory designs and custom orders. Only the glass bulbs, which come in five different sizes, are made elsewhere, with all the tools made in-house. Motifs are either handcrafted, injection-moulded, or produced by 3-D printers, of which they now own nine.

Ask Perzy III what his favourite snow globe is, and he’ll say it’s the last one he made. Currently, that means two very massive ones, fashioned expressly for display in their booth at the Vienna Christkindlmarkt in front of the City Hall. “In one is St. Stephens Church, the most important church in Austria,” says Perzy. “And the second has the Vienna City Hall inside. Both buildings are surrounded by little Christmas markets.” Unlike regular snow globes, these gargantuan versions contain no water. At 31 inches in diameter each, they would simply be too heavy.

The City Hall Christkindlmarkt is one of several area markets where those who don’t have the time to trek to the museum can get their authentic Viennese snow globe fix. (For an original Perzy, look for the words “Vienna Snow Globe Austria” stamped on the bottom of the black base.)

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

Shaking up–er, flipping over–the future

These days, less breakable plastic snow globes can be found just about anywhere. But the glass ones are more dramatic, used for everything from advertising to plot points in movies like The Santa Clause and TV’s Sons of Anarchy. In the art world, they’ve crossed the line from holiday kitsch to serious handicrafts, with the dystopian works of artists like Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz turning jolly motifs on their heads.

There have been changes on the Austrian front, as well. Two years ago, Erwin Perzy III retired, and, in a first for the lineage, his daughter Sabine took over the business. In addition to being a skilled toolmaker, she also holds a degree in International Business, and some of her first moves included renewing the webshop, updating the website, and creating the Facebook account that broadcasted the toilet paper globes to the world.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

A trip to the store-slash-museum-slash-factory is free (complimentary tours must be scheduled beforehand, and won’t be available until after Christmas). In addition to family photographs, manufacturing tools and machinery, and an adorable photo series of a snowman globe making his way across the world, you’ll see notable custom orders, including a replica of a globe made for Bill Clinton containing confetti from his inauguration party, and one Barack Obama commissioned for his daughters. Bulbs produced for popular Viennese brands, like Vulcano Schinken or Manner Schnitten, are also on hand, plus replicas of a very famous Perzy globe-one which Perzy III wasn’t even initially aware his grandfather had made.

“A journalist came to my office many years ago and said he found out that my grandfather made the Citizen Kane globe,” says Perzy. “And he brought the idea up to make a replica of this snow globe. I was looking for two years for all the moulds from my grandfather, and I could not find this mould. I think this was just a single globe made for this movie.” Some years later, he made a replica mold, and now you can buy your very own piece of memorabilia from the movie’s famous opening sequence. Hopefully for you, it’ll bring happier memories.

Show up during the holiday season, and perhaps you’ll see Sabine in action, or even Perzy, though he’s technically retired. “Since my daughter is my boss, I work much more than before,” he chuckles. It’s a family business, after all.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She did not, in fact, buy a toilet paper snow globe.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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