The Austria trip — Part VII: Elevated return

28 JUNE 2018 — The sky shared our sentiment, raining all morning as we packed our bags and loaded the car. My wife didn’t sleep well in our silent room, disturbed in the middle of the night by a screeching cat fight outside. We said farewell to the quirky Telfes house and to our traveling companions. Tomorrow, everyone was moving on to Italy in a hired car, first to Modena then Venice. 

With the VW filled with petrol, Katherine and I headed west towards Zürich, hoping to devour as much scenery as we could. That meant avoiding the endless Arlberg Road Tunnel. We veered off the highway just before, heading up the mountains and breezing through the nearly-vacant resort town of Lech. Large lodges clustered together to form what was known as a premier ski destination, but there were few people around in the off-season. Subsequent towns were the same way until we reached Warth, where busloads of serious hikers, predominantly retirees, milled about. It was a good place to stop and find a place for lunch. The cozy Dorfcafe drew us in, a quiet diner where an unflappable woman seemed to single-handedly run the place (the cook was unseen behind a counter portal). A large group of casual hikers finished their meal nearby, presumably at the end of their day’s activity. Clouds rolled outside the window, reminding us of the altitude. We were excited to find gröstl on the menu—a perfect hearty dish to energize a day-tripper.

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Descent was inevitable but a thrill to see as we wove down steep ridges and meandered through Käsestrasse (cheese country) and the town of Egg (a coincidental name), until the sun emerged and we were back where we began, bidding a reluctant farewell to Austria as we crossed the Rhine at Lusterin. 

The crowded Swiss highway was bleak as big city life pulled us back—the concrete tendrils that flow towards airports are rarely a pleasant sight. We said auf widersehen to our VW companion and descended with our bags towards the subterranean train lines. The cars were crowded with long-distance travelers and no one bothered to check our tickets—we were onboard for only fifteen minutes, feeling like we wasted eleven francs. 

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Zürich was a bustling old metropolis, especially at rush hour. The busy underground train station was more like a mall, with distinct lines on the floor to navigate by. Large suitcase in tow, Katherine and I surfaced and walked across the river to Hotel Wellenberg, a stylish but affordable place to spend the night, popular with tourists. Happy to have time to ourselves, we explored the historic Swiss city, marveling at its immaculate Old World architecture and the abundance of magnificent giant clocks. Its prevalence as a banking hub was clear as we walked the pristine streets, especially the way its inhabitants and visitors looked and dressed, people from all over the globe, undoubtedly members of the financial sector, especially small clusters of men in suits, many with slicked back Wall Street hair, discussing their only common interest: business. Of course there were families and tourists too, and an infinitude of shops to accommodate both. My wife and I wandered through altstadt, in and out of stores, ascended a hilltop overlook, then back to our hotel in search of a meal. Every cuisine on earth was available, but we just wanted regional fare. The place we chose was busy and the bratwurst was fine. The crusty old waiter kept us entertained. 

With another World Cup match about to begin, we found a bar with an outside TV and settled down to watch England battle underdog Belgium. I unintentionally ordered pear schnapps—somehow the name was similar to the beer I wanted—but rather than make a fuss, I accepted the mistake. It was interesting to sip, sweet and strong, but not satisfying like a beer. Rain started falling so everyone huddled inside.

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Perhaps because this was “neutral” Switzerland, or simply a cosmopolitan city, there was little enthusiasm for either the match or the teams themselves, even from the lone British businessman who allowed us to share his table. His name was James and we talked after the game ended and the restaurant cleared out. He explained that it was just as well that his home country lost; they would have a much harder line-up in the final round. He also had some intriguing insights on the state of the world, particularly Brexit and the current American president, rational explanations I hadn’t heard before, how the stagnation of world order needed a big shake up if any progress was to be made. I thought Katherine would be annoyed that this was how we were spending our last night on vacation, but she was more intrigued than me. James rationally explained that the impending divorce of the UK from the EU, as well as the wildly unpredictable resident in the White House (while enormously daunting and destructive) could be positive forces to shake up the old order. I considered his perspective and, long after we parted, came to the conclusion that his justification was complete rubbish.

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The rain had stopped, so my wife and and I strolled down to the sparkling lakeside, amidst likeminded nighttime revelers. Illuminated trolleys rolled this way and that and the whole city felt somewhat timeless and cinematic.

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