Monday, 15 March 2010

Out of vienna

Sunday – Andrew and I meet at the Westbahnhof just missing a train by three minutes but that gives us achance to have a coffee and strudel while wait for the next Salzburg departure. We have a spacious compartment to ourselves, three seats to a side like a first class compartment in England, with pullout tables and movable headrests. At the last moment we are joined by a very friendly young language teacher who has had a weekend in Vienna – she calls it her cultural petrol station. We talk about why smoking is still allowed in cafes etc – this is due to the Austrian belief in compromise, she says. The idea is that the smoke will stay in its proper half of the room, and she compares this to a swimming pool where you can pee – but only in one end.... She is a linguist and has visited England many times, and we agree that Worthing is a dull place compared to Brighton. Our train is moving through an undramatic countryside, where farming retains what hold it can on tracts of land where new roads and warehouses spread out beside the train. She has a son who is 3 and a partner who works with addicts, and we get on fine, swapping contact details. She promises to show us round Steyr next time we come.

We eat our picnic – by this time a tall young man in army uniform has joined us. We offer chocolate biscuits. He declines because he says he is a strict Catholic and has given up sweets and alcohol for Lent. However she and he both take some orange – always difficult to resist because of the smell. St Peter will allow fruit, it seems.

At Attnang-Puchheim we are given an ecstatic welcome by Edith and Michi, and they drive us to see some of the local lakes. The car (Lancia Phedra)has self-opening side doors which impress me, and it also has a built-in satnav and phone system with full colour console. However it is the swift change of landscape which is really remarkable. We go to Gmunden, a medieval town on a fabulously beautiful lake called Traunsee, very deep cold water, salt mines in the mountains, and rich architecture reflecting centuries of wealth.... Special gingerbread is on sale for Lovers' Day and they buy us one as a souvenir. It says Hello Liebling! The town has a famous ceramics works, and the town bells are ceramic but they are not rung in winter. The mountain by the lake is Traunstein, now covered with brown forests and swathes of snow.

Then on to Ebensee (calm water) with a magnetite mine beside it, and past beautiful little dwellings and fabulous rocky precipices to yet another lakeside town, Bad Ischel – where Emperors whiled away the time, and Sisi from Schonbrunn in particular liked to come. There we feasted on more coffee and cakes at Zauner, a glorious old-world establishments where you choose your cake on entry and are handed a tiny red ticket, which the waitress sweeps up from your hand once you are seated at your table. This way there can be no mistakes about exactly which chunk of chocolate or almonds or strawberries or cream you selected. The coffee and chocolate is delicious of course, the chandeliers very pretty, the loos very select with solid oak doors and wonderful expensive fixtures.

The landscape is spectacular, not unlike the Black Hills of Dakota, actually, which I wrote about in an earlier blog as you may know... but sharper and rockier, and very beautiful in its snowy aspects, with the darkness of evening bringing a wonderful bluey-grey tone to everything. Edith bemoans the wintry cold and says we must come back in summer when it's possible to swim in the lakes, and the skies are blue but actually there is a powerful monochrome reality to what we see.

We skirt Attersee, driving through the Weisenbachtal and thence to their amazing house back in Attnang-Puchheim. This was originally Michi's dad's house, which they have extended and altered, which once made him angry though he likes it now. Office downstairs, warm woodlined rooms upstairs, and their three pretty daughters + two boyfriends to welcome us. The meal is Wiener Schnitzel, the most festive, and we eat in the Wintergarden, or conservatory.... with candles and pretty glassware.

Eating with us is Gus, a strange relic of the house's past – a man whose brain has been shot away by booze and whatever else, who lived in the cellar before they came here... They put his affairs in order for him, found him a flat, feed him once a day, and in return he does odd jobs for them.

We have a look through Edith's photo album from her time with us in London and Kent from 1987 and 1988 – wonderful pictures from a happy time in our lives, with our little children and all their tiny friends from the street, and Edith and her friend Hanni revelling in London and in these pictures looking just as I remembered them... Edith says, while she was in London her Michi wrote her 100 letters from Austria, demanding her return. A wonderful evening and I am cross at the end that I did not take photos – the girls slide off to bed or friends' houses and we may not see them again now, unless they come to stay with us in England. Anja would like to do that.

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