I do a lot of thinking after I travel.
Actually, I probably think a lot more about my travels after it’s done compared to when I am actually on it. Which probably makes sense given I am generally more reflective in nature. That’s not to say I am an imbecile during my travels. The obvious subtexts can still scream out at me, but for the most part I try and enjoy thing as they unfold. It’s only when I gird myself for a flight home, suffer banal airplane food, drag my luggage to a waiting car, endure a car ride that’s usually more frantic than I want it to be, unlock the doors to my home, turn on the air-conditioner, have my first local meal sometime in the next couple of hours, and look at the pictures many times over the next few days, that things start to sink in and I start to think about the trip.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this trip concerns a specific occurrence that happened during my time in the mountainous town of Heiligenblut, more or less in the middle of our trip. I had made my way up to higher ground with my father-in-law (FIL) to grab a picture of The Church of St Vincent at dusk, which is really the centerpiece of this otherwise quiet mountaintop town. We were on the way back to the town center to rendezvous with our respective wives when I saw the thing that has stuck in my mind so vividly since. No, it wasn’t a portly man crossing the street, naked, except for a pair of boots, in freezing weather, although that would be pretty hard to scald out of your mind as well. It was an aged gentleman, with a bottle of milk in hand, coming out of the only supermarket in town, walking up an open staircase just next to it, opening the door to his home, which is stacked rustically on top of the market against a hill, and going in.
What? No nudity? Hamsters spontaneously combusting? A dog peeing while doing cartwheels? Just a man with a bottle of milk heading back to his home? You’re out of your mind joe. No I am not. Hear me out. I can’t profess to have travelled extensively so whatever I say in regards to this, you’ve got to adjust it a little against the ‘talking out of your butt’ scale. So yeah, I’ve not travelled a lot, but I have travelled quite a bit in the last two-three years. At no point in any of our travels, did I look at the life the people had in those countries and wished that I had it too. Not even when we were high up in the quite magical town of Kilmuir, surrounded by sea with the clouds just slightly above us, did I feel this. Not even when we were walking along the almost-unimaginably beautiful beaches of Paros did I feel this too. I definitely did not feel it in the cosmopolitan cities of London, Edinburgh and Athens as well. Don’t even get me started about Australia. There was an itch in Bangkok, but it did not amount to much.
But up there, looking at him, I was boiling green with envy. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just the combination of the very pleasant weather, the small town infrastructures of Heiligenblut (The town center was basically just a single street with one market, and one bank), the view that was right there in front of his home, how completely stress-free he looked. I tried to reserve a small percentage that the man I saw was just a tourist renting the place for the night or maybe a terribly unhappy man inside but it was no use. Someone had to live, somewhere in this town right? Jealousy justified then.
I wanted what he had. Being born here (Taking massive liberties now), in this gorgeous town that just purrs in autumn but looks like Santa’s holiday home during Christmas from the snow and the simple but beautiful life that he was given no choice on. Yes, perhaps we always want what we don’t have and secretly inside he may be wishing that he has made it a corporate banker somewhere in warm and stressful Southeast Asia and we could just trade roles but I am going to fashion a guess and say, no. He doesn’t envy my life, but I envied his terribly.
Nature has a way of righting the wrongs of men. If our exposure to Austrian civilization thus far (Salzburg) had left us cold (literally) in regards to the people in this country, then this seem to become better the further we venture into the wilderness. Thematically it felt like a similar point to the one I made about Greek towns and how they look more beautiful the closer they are to the sea, almost like they are nourished by it. It’s the same thing with Austrian people and the woods – they seem happier and friendlier the further we ventured away from a city. It’s almost as if men become less pre-occupied with oneself when they retreat to basics. Okay that’s stating the obvious. I guess removing oneself from the usual tropes, expectations and stress that come from trying to live and succeed in a dusty, loud and obnoxious city can allow someone to focus on other things, like being a decent human being. Heiligenblut represented the furthest into the Austrian woods we ventured into but before we got there we managed to spend two days exploring the region of Tirol, namely Hall and Innsbruck.
In the list of ‘places we could do without if we ever came back to Austria’ (basically a useless list), Innsbruck hangs pretty high up there. It has neither the cultural richness nor medieval vibe of Salzburg and not enough of pizzazz to be Vienna. The selling point that it is a ‘city surrounded by mountains’ becomes moot when part of your program involves driving and hiking up said mountains and generally being surrounded by them a lot. Innsbruck felt a little like an Australian city to me. Yes I am aware I was in Central Europe and not somewhere in between the Indian and Pacific Oceans despite their similar names. It was a pleasant city, with wide roads, brisk wind and pretty architecture. Shops were arranged neatly in designated blocks that were obviously calculatedly-painted in various colors. But it lacked character and it ranked really low in the possibilities scale (For more info on what that is, go here), with buildings neatly arranged in grids so you can see the block you’re walking on is clearly going to be boring. The chances of you being pleasantly surprised by a store felt rather unlikely when you can see that the next large block consists of basically just a Spar.
Hall on the other hand, cares little for trying to be anything but itself. The town center in Hall feels like a place out of time. In a tribute to the randomness of my mind, I find myself thinking about that scene in that kitschy Master of the Universe movie in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren where a portion of the city was transported back to Eternia because of some cosmic key. Wasn’t Courtney Cox in it? She looked really fetching. Wasn’t Skeletor basically just a man behind a skull mask? There was also being that looked a little like a Troll. Yeah, the ones on a keychain. What, the movie has a RT rating of 17%? Come on, that’s harsh. Oh thank God it just about shaves it against that awful Gerard Butler romantic comedy. Man, Gerard Butler has been in some seriously awful films, except 300 that is. That I enjoyed. Hey wait, that scene where he kicked the emissary into the large hole, who actually has to go down there to clean the hole of bodies? Are there steps to go down? I don’t remember seeing any. Maybe they are lowered down.
Oh sorry, got seriously distracted there. Hall yes a city that was out of synch with time. Yes it was like that scene in that He-Man movie because its town center felt so old and medieval, which is quite displaced from the more modern surroundings you have to pass through to get into it. But it’s precisely this jagged edge to its geographical existence that makes Hall endearing. It’s akin to that friendly uncle you have that has become so unfashionable that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hall felt like that. It seems neither interested to be gradually more modern like its outer fringes, or to fully embrace its medieval-ness enough to make it relevant to modern times. Instead it sits somewhere in between – generally unbothered with what everyone else has to offer, comfortable in what it is. Flower shops stood beside pizza parlors and bookstores in a un-curated manner, all geared towards serving the locals rather than tourists. I do generally prefer towns that appear more concerned with serving its locals rather than pandering to tourists. I’ve always preferred a more immersive travel experience and I am not able to do that if the town/city I am visiting insists on treating me like a vacationer.
I had put off eating a Wiener Schnitzel up till this point. Seeing it as the closing cut at the end of an encore, the epic orchestral finale to a concept album. I need it to be perfect. My resilience wore at Hall. Why? No idea. Probably a combination of early morning driving, hunger and the friendly waitress in a milkmaid dress at the restaurant in Hotel Goldener Engl. Actually it may be because they had a veal one on the menu. It’s normally pork. It was nice. Fluffy, breaded flattened veal deep fried and served with potatoes and elderberry jam. It was nice, but hardly world-altering. My mind drifts back to something my wife said while we were on a short break in Bangkok earlier in the year, in reference to a stir fried cabbage dish in the restaurant Supanigga (I know, a rather unfortunate name), ‘How nice can a cabbage dish be?’ Nevertheless we went with the majority, given that everyone in the restaurant had that dish on their table. It was seriously awesome. So I would transplant that same thought here, ‘How nice can a piece of deep-fried breaded veal’ be?’ Or to weave in a more Malaysian-centric version of the same thought, “How nice can a veal version of a Chicken Maryland’ be? The answer is nice, but far from awesome. It was no Thai-style cabbage. That saying it was decent enough for me to eat it a few times more for the remainder of the trip. But what I thought would be the epic finale to a widescreen concept album turned out to just be a catchier pop cut in the middle of an unlistenable album. Appreciated, but was never going to make the album good.
The thematic and literal high-point of the trip was our drive up to the summit of Edelweißspitze. Well not exactly the drive-per se because I was the driver so all I was focused on was for our Jeep not to be a large orange dot falling from a height to people at a distance. I have spoken before about how the Caldera view in Santorini at times appeared so large that it feels impossible for our eyes to take it all in at a glance. The feeling is the same at many points during our summit up the High Alpine Road. The trees looked more imposing here, threatening to reach towards the heavens, the mountains standing tall like a threatening monolith designed to suffocate your point of view and the river valleys seemed so far away down that it feels no longer real nor tangible. Nature of this sort heals the soul in a way. Suddenly, you no longer feel like the most important thing in the world. All self-centeredness recedes because you discover that there things out there that are put in this world to make your life’s narrative feel so insignificant. All the pressures of modern life, the intoxication we feed ourselves to survive it, the arguments we start and end to endure the people in it – it all just fades away in one fell swoop and you’re for a moment, rewound back to a vanilla state and you start gaining some perspective on your existence again. I love that feeling. It doesn’t last of course. But to feel it even for a moment, once in a while, is rather nice.
If Edelweißspitze brought us up to the clouds, then our next destination Hallstatt ensured that we fell back down to earth with a loud thud. In my recent travels, I have quite often encountered nature of staggering beauty in loggerheads with the tourism industry around it that aims to earn a buck out of it. And in most of those encounters, while the industry is mostly off-putting, in all instances it has largely failed to diminish the sheen of nature at its finest. Not quite so in Hallstatt.
The charm of Hallstatt is probably still somewhere in there, buried under caked layers of side-street peddlers, touch-and-go travelers and touristy restaurants but not quite enough of it peeks through to remind me of it. Instead the experience I get is a town that’s chiseled and constructed out of a holiday brochure. It has betrayed the spirit and soul of its history to serve its new master – tourism. I find towns and cities like that unappealing. The mental image is likened to to a sound stage for a movie studio. Construct a historical town out of nothing? Sure. Which is tragic because Hallstatt is a town steeped in history. But all that has been defaced by a glossy exterior that leaves a plastic taste to the mouth.
That’s not to say Hallstatt isn’t still beautiful. It clearly is. The sight of swans and sucks waddling in the lake, framed against the mountains and a seducing sunset remains one of the most enduring images of the trip for me. In some strange way, I am glad I experienced it, even more glad that it was only for a night but a place I am certain I would never want to return to again.
I had made it a habit on the trip to rise early to read my book in the morning, mostly outdoors, wherever I was and my most favorite experience doing that was at our accommodation near Hallstatt. The house had a nice backyard garden with a view of the distant mountains. I sat there, some sun radiating the ends of my toes, in relatively freezing temperatures, snuggled under a blanket, reading my book. It was very nice. I have the twinklies now just thinking about it. Many people may remember Mozart’s house or Mirabell Palace but I will always remember these little intimate moments more than the big tourist attractions. I basically travel for them.
People have asked me what I thought of Austria. The truth is, every time I do, I largely think about the time we spent away from the city and in the outback regions of the country. I think about the wonderful hike we had up to Lake Sandersee in Großglockner. Our scenic walk through the Margaritzen reservoir to get there. The spicy goulash we had at Panoramarestaurant at Kaiser Franz-Josefs-Höhe after our hike. All the places we stopped at along the High Alpine Road to try and take the view in. A moment at the summit of Untersberg, when I was alone with my camera with a view of the entire valley in front of me. Trying to take a picture without gloves at 3 degrees C and watching my hand turn red from the biting cold (it was fun, really). The night walk we made from our accommodation in Heiligenblut to our dinner place 15-mins away, through streets lined with homes, dwarfed by the mountains around them. The wonderful staff together with the two lovely Bernese Mountain Dogs Ella and Lucy at our accommodation at Tirol, Gasthof Badl, who gave us the first and probably only proper warm hospitality we would receive in Austria. In a sense, our trip joy curve was bell-shaped. It summited at the mid-point of it all before spiking up again when we hit Budapest.
So what do I think of Austria?
‘The nature there was worth the trip’.