It was with a certain degree of relief that I boarded the tiny Lufthansa plane to Austria. The five days in Birmingham between arriving back from a two month trip around South-East Asia and jetting off into central Europe had offered me little in the way of a holiday blues reprieve. The feeling of utter dejection as I stood, tanned and confused at Digbeth Coach Station, blinking into the world’s most disappointing solar eclipse, was enough to make me yearn to take back to the skies and discover another part of the world I had thus far not been to. Two months of back sweat, night trains, face sweat, mosquito bites, and foot sweat was about to yield to 10 days of relaxation in two newly foreign Western cities and one mountain retreat. Though possibly the biggest first world problem I’ve ever had, it was sorely needed.
After a late arrival in Munich and two incredibly poorly calculated train schedules, I arrived in Salzburg as I had done in Birmingham. What I had lost in tan I had gained in confusion, walking out as I did into the train station’s front courtyard and seeing some strange Germanic language adorning all of the signs (later research confirmed this as ‘German’).
Austria’s fourth largest city is famous for two main exports. The first is ‘Salzburg’ which goes by the rather impressive ‘Salt Fortress’ if translated literally from Bavarian, hinting heavily at the level of protection it offers its treasured sodium chloride. Of the two fortifications that stand staunchly watchful atop Salzburg’s neighbouring hills, one has never been attacked; a fact that evoked in images of a utopian haven for salt, where individual refugee grains could gather and feel safe as a defended mass.
The second is Mozart. Even the briefest of stints in Salzburg will overload the senses with the once local icon’s image, sound and taste. Mozart’s presence around the old town has only increased since his 18th century death: every street corner duly embellished with cardboard cut-outs of the great man holding his trademark violin and eponymous (and questionably sourced) dessert treat: ‘Mozart Balls’. Any of the plethora of buskers will be clamouring to entice tourists with tired renditions of his music, and will duly earn a daily fortune more often than not. It’s hard to think of Salzburg as much more than a pretty husk without him.
I found a similar affection towards the musical maestros of yore in Vienna. Vienna is undisputedly the capital of Western classical music and, as such, has entire tours and countless attractions devoted to the two schools of composers that made the city so admired throughout the world for its arts. Ludwig van Beethoven moved house over 60 times around Vienna through fault of his refusal to pay rent and his intolerant attitude to irksome neighbours (a series of decisions that now provides easily-amused tourists with a constant stream of squealed excitement when they pass by a former abode on one of the city’s many tour buses).
The buses themselves offer such yipping passengers the best way of seeing Vienna. I should interject at this point that Vienna looks ridiculous. It’s outstanding. Every corner turned in the Austrian capital reveals a fantastically ornate building or classical statue draped in grandeur. It is enough in Vienna to simply sit on an open-top bus and take in the beautiful fade of red brick to white, of antique gargoyles to tributes to queens, and of baroque to classical to art nouveau. It’s all so tremendously grand that the marvellous state opera, at its inception, was considered the ugliest building in the city, leading the two lead architects to commit suicide out of shame. A man called Otto Wagner is responsible for a great deal of the architecture in Vienna and his name is uttered with the same reverential tones almost exclusively reserved for composers.
I watched the beauty dissipate over the course of a one hour train journey to the east, as the Museum Quarter’s highly concentrated architectural magic washes wistfully into memory, replaced by the contrasting starkness of Bratislava.The Slovakian and Austrian capitals are the two closest in Europe, right across the dividing line for the ridiculously over-cautious between Western and Eastern Europe; where the comforting safety of Vienna gives way to Bratislava’s envisioned bedlam of stab-inducing alleys.
The reality of Bratislava could not be further from this worn perception. While not as consistently pristine as Vienna, its adorable old town could easily rival Salzburg’s for the UNESCO world heritage listing. Its simply navigable streets, uniquely coloured and patterned buildings, and horrendously cheap beer are enticingly conducive to the flowing of open-minded tourists on a day trip from Austria.
Returning across the border, I passed Vienna and hurtled through the picturesque lumpiness of Austria’s perennially changing landscape towards Lake Hallstatt. The area is one of international acclaim and you’d be literally swimming in accolades should you take a dip in its perfectly calm waters. The powerful summer heat and placidly shimmering water gives the town of Hallstatt an aura of mirage. Nothing should or could look as appealing at this tiny lakeside entity, set against the colossal alpine backdrop in proud and understated certainty. And yet: there it stands, attracting visitors from the other side of the globe with its uniquely alluring combination of Korean soap opera film sets and that most precious of Austrian commodities: salt.
This seems to have been the running theme in the establishment of Austria: a winning coalition of salt and scenery. They lie at the heart of the country’s appeal, along with a location perfectly framed by a number of easily accessible countries. The accommodation I stayed in for the final few days was run by an English couple who had emigrated 11 years ago. There was never anything but a beaming smile on their faces. It was ridiculously easy to see why.