The Austria trip — Part I: Alpine drive

22 JUNE 2018 — Paris looks awful from thirty thousand feet, a colorless infection wrapped around a manically windy river. The geometric design of Hausmann’s grand boulevards, the radials emanating from the Arc de Triomphe, Concorde, and Bastille were equally exciting and disappointing to see when I woke from a truncated night’s sleep. The green-brown Seine seemed desperate to shake off the blight. Only the Alps could maintain their splendor at all magnitudes, as they did several minutes later. The sharp, cold slabs of rocks were majestic, entwined with veins of fertile green and glacial blue.

There is little adventure in an international flight. It’s more than a teleportation tube, numbing you up with a buffet of food and drink plus an overwhelming selection of movies to watch on your personal screen. Sleep is inadequate but no amount can prepare you for the time change, thrust into a premature day where you hit the ground running and real adventure can begin.

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Our transatlantic airplane glided into peaceful Zurich. The terrain was surprisingly flat when I was expecting to be surrounded by giant peaks. Coming from crowded JFK, it was a relief to emerge into a quiet airport where multi-lingual travelers knew exactly where to go and what to do. The underground tram had a flickering Zoetrope of Swiss sounds and sights projected on the tunnel walls. Flower-covered slopes, jingling cow bells and harmonic yodeling.

This was what we were most enthused about—the road trip. A little lingering at the Auto Europe rental desk and then we were given the first clue in a scavenger hunt. Thick keys led me and my wife, Katherine, to a white Volkswagen SUV, where we received our next task: escape the labyrinthian parking lot and find our way to Salzburg, Austria, five hundred kilometers away, in time for dinner. How anyone got around this world without GPS navigation is the great mystery of human civilization. We had six hours for a scenic road trip across Austria. I curated a custom playlist specifically for this journey, a mixture of evocative film scores, symphonic classics and uptempo electronica to serve as our soundtrack, primarily Germanic artists like Hans Zimmer, Johann Strauss, Ulrich Schnauss and Schiller.

For a family of giants, the alpine peaks were elusive until we skirted around the bright blue Bodensee and gradually approached an ominous set of craggily mountains. The Austrian border came fast after driving over the unassuming source of the Rhine River and through a simple gatehouse with innocuous police directing traffic. The only clue that we changed countries was the quality of the roads, with Austria’s being slightly less impeccable than their Swiss counterparts.

A petrol station in the compact border town of Lustenau, Oberscheider Carworld, had a hospitable shop for picking up an Austrian highway pass—a prepaid sticker that “permitted” our car to use the nation’s express roads, despite no visible indication this was even required. It was my first chance to practice the German I’d been learning over the past few months. I stepped up to the cashier with a bit of stage fright and stammered my request with enough clarity that he understood (I think). With the sticker on the windshield and some salty and sweet snacks in the car, we were free to make our swoop across the northern valleys of Austria, although Lustenau’s congested main thoroughfare added some delay. The VW engine mysteriously shut off at every stop, only to gently spring to life whenever I released the brake—an unfamiliar new method of fuel efficiency.

The ragged mountains invited us in through a long series of tunnels; some were short, others never-ending, especially the fourteen kilometer Arlberg Road Tunnel on the S16. The alpine scenery we so eagerly wanted to see was replaced by darkness and well-lit signage. This was the price we unexpectedly paid for speed. Nearing Innsbruck, we returned to uninterrupted vistas. This city would be our second Austrian destination. Pausing at a rest area, I was able to absorb the panoramic splendor that until this day was limited to my imagination. That the air smelt of manure only added to the bucolic charm and brought reality to a legend.

For my entire life I’ve been hearing about Austria. My mother spent a short portion of her childhood there, between the ages of eight and ten. The experience had such a significant impact on her life that it became fixed in my memory as well. Tales of post-war Europe, plus a few German relics in our possession: books and toys and a maniacal red devil—the Krampus—who was part of our Christmas decorations (we called him the “Grumpus”). A family trip was always discussed, if only hypothetically, but didn’t come to fruition until my nieces reached the age of my mother when she lived there. She wanted to revisit this fabled place through their eyes. Finally, in June of 2018, sixty-three years after she left Europe, we set off to bring life to these old memories, and generate new ones.

Austria, 1954 — one of my grandmother’s many photos from the time.

Austria, 1954 — one of my grandmother’s many photos from the time.

Since Katherine and I were making good time, we veered off the schnellstraße for a scenic detour through little mountain towns like Sankt Johann, where alpine architecture was well on display — sharp-roofed chalets, antique barns, and cozy hotels. Brawny, bell-necked cows populated the countryside and tractors worked the hilly fields. The roads led us across the little German tooth that bites into its wary neighbor, through Bad Reichenhall, and into the foothill splendor and urban sprawl of Salzburg.

The ease of country roads devolved into the stress of city driving, especially in a foreign one where my New Yorker driving habits might not jive with the orderly Austrians. At 6pm, we arrived at the Hotel Villa Auersperg and were greeted in the lobby by a cheery little girl, my adventurous six-year-old niece, Charlotte. The entire family was staying in the hotel’s auxiliary “villa”, the second of two similar buildings linked by a small parking lot. Everyone else arrived from Munich the day before and already had a chance to unwind and explore Salzburg. Katherine and I were given no such luxury, thrust immediately into our room to quickly freshen up then set off with our companions for the “Welcome Dinner.” 

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[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]