This is Austria – Day 4-8 (Hall, Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Hallstatt)

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.

Go tell it on the mountains

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.

The medieval-like city of Hall

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.

A veal Schnitzel

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.

Imagine, a cup of coffee here

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.

Hello

So what do I think of Austria?

‘The nature there was worth the trip’.

This is Greece – Athens (Day 8 to 10)

If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.

My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.

‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?

The aspiration of thousands of Chinese uncles back home …

I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.

So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No

For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.

There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.

There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.

An ancient city …

We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.

It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.

The street we lived on …

It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.

Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.

But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.

The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)

That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.

The ancient and the less ancient …

In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.

The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?

Our apartment. What did I say?

For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’

A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.

It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.

Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.

Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.

They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.

As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.

At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).

We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.

But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.

Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.

But yes, it’s time to ‘Take me home’ …