When that great Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, left Vienna for a house he had bought in the hills that rumple the otherwise flat land of Salzburg, he did so to flee the consequences of war and influenza in 1919.
When I followed in his footsteps one hundred and one years later to the month, it was to flee terrorism and coronavirus, as I wrote about in these pages.
Although, that was not the whole truth: I had always had a plan not to be in a great city during the inevitable second – and third – wave lockdowns which will flow across Europe like questionable trends in fashion. My favourite capitals – London, Madrid and Vienna for example – are too impersonal to feel at home in if one cannot step into the street, too vast to police politely, and too expensive to rent the space necessary to make house-arrest, however light, tolerable.
Regional capitals, though, like Oxford or Seville, have all the beauty of former wealth and powerful minds to direct it into buildings that please the eye, but also, within an hour on foot, you are in the countryside. In Salzburg, even in the heart of the city, the countryside stares back at you.
My own residence, a perfect little 700-year-old apartment at the foot of Salzburg’s castle-hill, a charming little apartment rented from Marco via AirBnB, is faced by the formidable 6,000-feet of the Untersberg massif, a terrifying wall of mountain that make appearances at my study window, and then disappear just as quickly, whatever the weather.
The mythology of the mountains still runs deep here, with Europe’s ancestral king, and the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne being said to lie sleeping buried underneath, waiting for his summons to the last battle between good and evil.
My own fiancée, Klarina, is one of the very few to have spent some considerable time living on her own on that bewitched and bewitching rock, where they say time runs differently, witches still hold sway, and the unmapped and immeasurable tunnels yield entrance to other realms.
As a scholar of both the empirical sciences and analytic philosophy, I cannot deny my reflexive, Oxford-armchair doubts. And yet… if the readers could hear her stories of weeping figures appearing on stone walls in the dead of night miles from the nearest light, let alone nearest living… I still look at the Untersberg with a chill in my bones.
However, the town beneath this origin of the Wild Hunt, and so many other legends, continues in its charming and prettified manner.
Smart, stuccoed houses in tasteful but bright colours line the river, and, despite government intervention – in fact, because of it – the sunny side of the Salzach is lined with cyclists, joggers, walkers and sun-bathers. Fresh air and sunshine, regular exercise and a diet of moderation are all we have until the vaccine comes, and, in 99.75 per cent of cases, this is enough.
Of course, it will be nice when the hotels, restaurants and cafes that define this town reopen. The famous five-star Sacher Hotel, with its sachertorte desert invented for Prince Metternich (although I am still loyal to the Hotel Imperial in Vienna who sent me on my travels with a whole box of their variant.)
Or the oldest hostelry in town, the Hotel Stein, founded in 1399, but whose eatery is the cutting edge of ethical cuisine, with its Rosen Café, whose kitchen is run by Birgit Schattbacher from the produce of her own organic farm.
However, for now the town has returned to an older version of itself. To come back to the words of Zweig,“a sleepy, old-fashioned, romantic little city on the slopes where the Alps fell gently away to the plain among low mountains and foothills.”
In his poignant memoir, The World Of Yesterday, written while in exile in Brazil in 1942, Zweig wrote: “The small wooded hill on which I lived was like the last wave of the mighty mountain range rolling in. Beyond that I could gaze at the panorama of the beautiful Alpine chain—and also, admittedly, at the Salzberg near Berchtesgaden, where a then entirely unknown man by the name of Adolf Hitler was soon going to take up residence opposite me.”
Zweig never saw his beloved Salzburg again, taking his own life – as did his wife – the day after he posted the typescript to his Swedish publishers.
However, rather than sign off on a sad note, I will end more happily.
While in England they speak of reopening for Christmas, in this part of the world, they hope to reopen for skiing, and the amazing – and strangely forgotten wonders – of Bad Gastein nearby. Although they have had to cancel their Imperial Snow Polo Cup – if anything would have been socioeconomically tone-deaf it would have been transporting thoroughbred horses and their wealthy players and audience across Europe during a pandemic – they still hope to have their population athletically testing themselves against gravity and snow in the bright sunny uplands.
As the composer Franz Schubert wrote of this part of the world in a letter to his brother in 1825, en route to Gastein from visiting Salzburg, where his musical hero Mozart was born.
“Think of a garden with countless castles and mansions that look out of the trees. Think of a river that winds through in the most varied way, think of meadows, like so many carpets of the most beautiful colours… all of this enclosed by an unpredictable set of the highest mountains, as if they were the guardians of this heavenly valley, think this, so you have a faint notion of its unspeakable beauty.”
Salzburg, a little more than just the backdrop to The Sound Of Music, and as good a place as any to weather our global storm.