Archive for November 13th, 2007

Where Eagles Dare…

Thursday, November 8, 2007

I’m in Salzburg, snug in the soporific warmth of the Gasthof Hinterbrül. I flew in on the 0635 Ryanair flight from Stansted this morning and was in my hotel room by ten thirty this morning. Owing to the need to catch a 0340 bus, I didn’t sleep last night and fell asleep the moment the plane took off. It was a marvelous little snooze that only ended when the wheels hit the tarmac and I was jolted awake. Next thing I knew there was a terrifically loud fanfare, followed by a recorded announcement that this was another “on-time flight,” giving Ryanair the best record around. In the dizzy aftershock of such volume, I found myself thinking I ought to blow my own trumpet more often… No pun intended.

So, I was in Salzburg, in the old town, and it was cold, grey and wet. I had a good look about on the way through and was quite excited by the Festung overlooking the town. I would have to be strong in such conditions to avoid being lethargic about getting out and about and seeing a thing or two. Alps! Old stuff! Yet, upon opening the door to my bedroom and seeing my bed, I had such fond recollections of my recent snooze that I decided to go straight to sleep. I set my alarm for two and a half hours later and off I went.

I can’t say I felt any great hurry when I woke up. I did feel a good deal better, but outside nothing had changed. Indeed, it had gotten worse. The rain was coming down harder. So, I asked myself once, what the hell was I doing here?

You see, the truth is that I almost didn’t make it to Salzburg today. There were no great obstacles or terrible mishaps, no technicalities or legal complexities, but rather, I wasn’t exactly sure I could be bothered. The doubts began to set in on Tuesday when I looked at the BBC’s five day forecast. It was heavy rain from Thursday through Sunday. On the unlikely chance that this might be some freak local weather pattern, I thought I’d better check a few neighbouring cities. Unsurprisingly the forecast was precisely the same for Linz. I tried Vienna – the same. I look at Bratislava – the same. Indeed, it seemed pretty well everything north of the Alps, including most of central and northern Europe, was under a huge mass of stormclouds. Gale force winds were sweeping across Scotland and the North Sea, blowing through Scandinavia, across Germany, hitting the alps and driving a great storm pattern on the northern side. It didn’t bode well for my holiday.

Being November, such things are perhaps to be expected, yet somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that I would encounter bad weather. My head was full of crisp blue skies and pristine snow-caps; low temperatures yes, but not heavy rain. Where was the fun in that? Whilst heavy rain is undesirable for anyone going on holiday, it is particularly annoying for me because of the way I like to travel. I tend to move quite rapidly from one place to the next. Arrive in a town, hit it hard for three hours, photograph the living hell out of it, then move on to the next one. I often don’t arrive at a hotel until late in the afternoon or the early evening, by which time I’ve been marching about all day with my pack on and am quite understandably exhausted. Such a strategy is highly dependent on good weather for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that it is very difficult to change lenses in the rain, and taking photographs is made much more complicated by the need to protect the lens. It requires an umbrella, which is a terrible drain on dexterity and, makes it nigh impossible to opt for my standard deployment of feedbag[1] and spare lens in one hand, camera in the other.

It didn’t look good at all. Indeed, it looked decidedly as though there might be a repeat of the Bruges / Brussels debacle of February ’07, where I nearly froze to death on magic mushrooms and was left cowering under the duvet in an unheated hotel room whilst rainbow Mandelbrot sets unfurled and multiplied behind my eyelids. But that is another story. Despairing thus for my holiday, I began to consider other options. Rather than flying out of Bratislava, perhaps I could book a flight back from northern Italy and head south fast like a duck on steroids. The problem was, however, that I’d only recently been back to Venice and Verona and the cities of the Po and felt this was something of a cop out. It was then that I began to wonder whether or not this weather pattern had actually penetrated south of the Alps. Perhaps south was the way to go – but the question was, how far south was far enough? Well, what do you know, I took a look at the forecast for Klagenfurt and Graz and it was a completely different story. Sunny intervals, warmer days, but freezing nights. It seemed a much better option. Screw the Danube valley, I was taking the southern route. I was crossing the Alps!

Despite this new hope, I still despaired for my trip. Was it really worth it? To go and shiver my way through Austria, take second-rate photographs in dim, low-contrast conditions and miss most of the scenery as it crouched behind a wall of gloom? The night before I left I was entertaining healthy thoughts of pulling out and had not, as a consequence, made any arrangements whatsoever re. hotels, or even the basic step of planning an itinerary. I decided to go for a run to mull things over and set off out into the cold Cambridge afternoon, ears plugged with iTunes. Now, I have always sought a narrative in the selections thrown up by random play, in the hope of divining some form of prophecy to help with my decision making. This time I was blessed with an immediate and clear sign. The first song that came up was A Soldier is Always a Soldier, sung by the Red Army Choir. This song has long been interpreted as a sign to “stick with the plan” to forge on regardless of doubt or fear. Indeed, the only other song that ranks alongside it on this plane is The Cutter, by Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s exhortations to “spare us the cutter” who “couldn’t cut the mustard” have got me through many a wavering moment, most particularly saving me from the psychedelic maelstrom of Rotterdam by giving me much needed confidence and strength at a crucial brink. Arnold Rimmer once said of a dice-roll in a Risk game, “well, it got me into Irkutsk,”. The Cutter got me safely to Breda.

The Red Army seemed to be a pretty clear sign, yet the doubts had not gone away altogether, and I was still looking for anything faintly prophetic. Then, sure enough, another sign was sent. Only two days before, in discussing my prospective jaunt with my Irish housemate, he told me that he had visited the fortress where the film Where Eagles Dare had been shot, having been in the area looking at ice-caves. Apparently it was not far from Salzburg and I rather liked the idea of going there myself. Well, the night before my expected departure, I returned from my run to find my German housemate watching, of all things, Where Eagles Dare, which just so happened to be on the television. Despite the fact that this was amusing enough in itself, it was clearly another sign. To misquote David Gilmour, it seemed the hand of fate was fitting just like a glove, albeit, the left glove on the right hand. Surely I had to go now?

So, I was going, it was decided, and I hit the internet, confirmed my itinerary and booked all my hotels. This took me so long that I had no sleep whatsoever and grew increasingly fragile as the night wore on; as the time approached for my departure. The time of the lowest ebb, when people pass away in their sleep. I was filling up with doubts as quickly as the drinking horn in that Scandinavian myth. Or was it Hercules? Either way, I was once again wondering if I should not just pull out at this late staged. As I walked to the shower to begin the long, long day ahead, I asked myself, should I really catch that bus, or should I perhaps just lie down, give up, and then accept that it’s too late to change my mind? After all, some friends in London had invited me down for yum cha…

It was Hallstatt that kept me in check. Not the Red Army nor the Bunnymen, not the daring of Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood et al. but the image of this lakeside village at the foot of soaring peaks that got me through breakfast, into my clothes, got my pack on my back and saw me marching across town. But still, it was no flawless buttress, no omnipotent bolster, for, sure enough, at Stansted airport, lying on the floor of the waiting area for gate 34, I wondered if I shouldn’t just let myself fall asleep and miss the flight. What would be the worst thing that could happen? I had no checked luggage. I could slink away without embarrassment. Yet, I began to feel now as though it might, at this late stage, be too shameful an option. What would I say to my friends? My colleagues, my housemates? As with so many things in my life, I was at the brink of something and it was a fear of shame and humiliation that decided things.

And so, it was with no small amount of reluctance that I finally boarded my flight to Salzburg. With such a mix of doubts and signs in the lead up, I felt certain that something significant would come of this decision. Either the plane would crash, or I would get laid in Salzburg.

In the end, neither happened. I finally dragged my carcass out into the streets at two in the afternoon and made straight for a bratwurst salesman. He was extremely cheery, and I ate my first meal in Austria in seven years in good company. Perhaps things would be fine after all. To hell with rain and gloom, surely I was in charge of my own mood? I knew of course, that this was false, for I have never been in charge of my own moods. But that too is another story.

I bought a cheap umbrella (five days later I was to find out just how cheap it was) and walked up to the Festung to have a panoramic view of the rainy rooftops. There was a charge to go beyond a certain point and enjoy a significantly improved view,  but I was quite happy with my free vantage point on the road up the, the… dammit, the acropolis – it’s the ancient historian in me. I noticed that they were replacing the copper roof of the Dom in the centre of town. It was very shiny and, well, copper coloured, as opposed to the older, oxidised sections. It got me thinking of long cherished schemes to clean and fix other famous monuments around Europe. They could set the army to do it – instead of killing people they could make themselves useful scrubbing copper. It might even improve their self defence capabilities – wax on, wax off, a la Mr Miyagi.

Yet, despite my enthusiasm for shining copper, principal amongst my schemes is the re-gilding of the roof of the Pantheon in Rome. I believe it was the Emperor Constans II who stripped the gold off it in 663 AD. Take one look at his portrait and you can see he was clearly a lunatic:


Re-gilding the roof is of the utmost importance in my opinion, but not quite so important as rebuilding the Coliseum in Rome. I have thought about this at great length. The way to do it is to replaced all the missing blocks with glass bricks which can be illuminated from within at night. This would not only create a completely spectacular display and allow for a clear demarcation of what remained to the present, but it would also return to the building the integrity and functionality of a complete structure. In any circumstance requiring pragmatism, it is best to ask “what would the Romans do?” I have gotten through many tight situations by resorting to this, well, resort, and I highly recommend it. If the Romans were still around and they had the money, and they weren’t Christians, I suppose, then without question they’d either fix the thing up, or rip it down and build something bigger that worked.

Anyway, now I’m rambling. Travel is great for tangents as there is so much time to pursue them. There I was, here I am, in Salzburg. It’s raining, the yellow, copper and auburn leaves of autumn cling all about. Across the way, behind the shining wet roofs and spires rise the wooded slopes, made patchy, quilted, by a mix of evergreen and deciduous. It’s pretty, in a sodden, melancholy way, and I’m happy to be here. Looking forward to another sleep, very, very soon… I must remind myself, perhaps in a dream, that I have been looking forward to this holiday for some time.

[1] “Feedbag” denotes a plastic bag containing a few basic groceries, most commonly, sandwich components such as bread rolls, cheese, butter, ham. It cuts costs and allows for longer forced marches.

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