“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
Not tired or nerve-shaken, but over civilized? Guilty and happily so, thanks to days traipsing through spectacular boulevards in Vienna and schnitzel in Salzburg. I won’t forget any time soon hearing my daughters sing for their last time as students together* in their school choir.
It was, after all, our incentive to go to Austria. We saw them perform and waved good bye as they continued on to Prague. Then we jumped in a rented convertible and headed south.
The approach into the Alps matches a list of other first impressions imprinted forever in my mental map: bumping between potholes through mango valleys in St. Lucia; driving in sleet through the hills of Connemara before the Irish mist cleared; sprinting from the car over the Prince Edward Island dunes to shout hello to a wild Atlantic; stopping for a minute, then an hour, then two, at Cathedral Grove to stare at trees en route to Tofino on Vancouver Island.
Driving into the valley that would be our last stop before flying home, the conversation broke off. It was enough just to ogle.
Deep in the woods, hiking one of a myriad of trails in Hohe Tauern National Park, a thunderous waterfall almost drowned out the pounding in my chest. A steady ascent will do that to an infrequent hiker.
Around a twist in the path and we stood before a wide clearing, cool alpine air filling our lungs. The peaks were hidden but still, suddenly massive.
I began to make little deals with myself about leaving it all behind-the toxic soup of city summer weather, the clogged tedium of traffic, the colliding and shoving, the search for a parking spot, the punishing pulse of activity rushing forward.
It is an ancient reckoning: small as we are in these valleys between high mounds of rock, we bump up against ourselves. I am home in these parts unknown.
I had my love to keep me moving and we were the last people on earth. Is there anything better than this?
Well, yes, in fact, there was an alpine hut waiting, with cold beer, wild blueberries and fish almost as blue. A note of caution when ordering poached or “blue” fish from the menu, it is in fact, just that: blue.
The alfresco meal gave us momentum to push on, for the next, slightly steeper ascent, strewn with twigs and other hazards to trip you up, should you falter, you in your Birkenstocks. Hiking boots would have tipped the weight balance of my suitcase, so there! The end of the path is the beginning of another long ascent, to a higher peak where a lake shimmers. Alas, we turned back, time waning and knees whining, but were rewarded with a view that kept us company all the way down.
We had been gone for hours. If I had a little skip in my step, it may have been the anticipated swim in our inn.
Gruner Baum hotel Hoteldorf in Badgastein
Although most come to the Gastein valley to ski, it is known across Europe as a health resort town, due to thermal spring waters.
We loved to end the day in the healing pools.
That and glass of wine, and I might never have come home.
I will take up picnics to workers in the hills, I thought, and hand out beer between hikes. Braid my hair and wear dirndls, plunging neckline and all.
But there was one last adventure. To do it, I had to stare down a phobia. I didn’t know I had any until I slid into forty. Spiders and snakes? I went to summer camp. Podiums before a crowd? I am the middle of five and was encouraged to speak up. Heights? The higher the better. But… I won’t peer over the cliff. There it is. I love being on top of a ski hill but don’t have me ride shotgun, cliffside, on car routes that lead to magical spots. Just beam me up, Scotty.
There is evidence somewhere in our home movie tapes of me panting and emitting tiny shrieks. Shut off your dirty minds, naughty readers, I was in jeep, racing to Myrtos beach, known as one of the most spectacular on the planet, high praise in Greece where there are pretty beaches everywhere.
Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia island, Greece and yes, the water is really that colour.
To get there, drivers must negotiate steep hillsides and “you’re kidding me-we’re driving that?” roads. Along the route are little shrines to remind drivers of all those who took the turns to a tragic end. With shaky hands, I handed the video to my kids in the backseat and gripped the seat in a cold sweat. We made it but it was only floating in the stunning water that brought my breathing back to normal. Four years later, I am in a convertible, on a much, much, higher trek, on the Grossglockner High Alpine Road.
Note the tight grip on my bottle and no, it is not vodka.
The road winds through meadows and ice to the highest mountain in Austria, the Grossglockner (3,798 m) and its glacier, thePasterze. Hugging cliffs, our car began the climb as I cursed myself and my stupid ideas. Yes, it was my idea and the Friendly Greek jumped on it. His idea of a great date once was to drive me from Toronto to the Big Apple on the 401 for a piece of apple pie. This is a man who loves to drive (and eat pie).
I was making deals again. Forget Bush Woman and giving up my backyard BBQ bashes, pedicures and TIFF. How about trying not shout more than half a dozen times, “Slow down!” so that he didn’t drive off the road. Somewhere between a gasp and a tremble, I began to sink back in my seat and take it all in. We were travelling through a tunnel, snail’s speed, built through the mountain, and as we came out into the light, I sat on my fear. If I was going to die, this was the place. It would be a sensational dive. There would be a crowd to witness my scream. I’d have that chance finally to yodel as I went down.
Joining us on the road were tour buses, a parade of Porsches, packs of motorcycles, cyclists, all of us, tiny dots moving in circles, round and round the mountain, the car temperature gauge slowly dropping. We stopped for a picnic and I gulped down the mineral water. It was heaven.
48 kilometres. 36 heart stopping bends. Altitude 2,504 metres. All of it spectacular.
The best kind of holidays leave you wanting to return.
I want to shout from the cliffs,
” BRING IT ON, BABY”.
You have to stomp on your fear.
Life is out there waiting.
Auf Wiedersehen, Austria.
For other posts from my Austrian Adventure, see:
“Don’t worry, we have our own private tour. It will focus only on informative things. You don’t have to worry about all that kitschy stuff”.
The tour guide was sure she was doing my daughters and their choir group a favour on a recent tour in Austria as they got set to depart for The Sound of Music tour in Salzburg.
I was on that same tour on a different day and time yet we discovered our reactions at the conclusion were similar: that’s it, that’s all, folks?
The tour is based on the hit movie, based on the hit Broadway show, based on an actual narrative that has been famously diluted in the transition. What was added to the film were wallops of sentiment helped along by catchy songs, love interests (no sex though, need that G rating), and sweeping panoramas of the Austrian Alps. Decades later, hundreds of visitors to Salzburg line up daily for a bus tour to various iconic locations. At 40 euros a ticket, I expected at least an insider peek, at most a rollicking ride of sing-along silliness.
I wanted to yodel, dammit.
Ready for the bus: I have confidence!
We climbed in to an airless van, three couples and our guide, a charming Brit decked out in dirndl. She drove us to several spots and out we hopped, dutifully snapping photos of each location, as she detailed, over a microphone, well worn lore about the cast and crew. Leaving Salzburg en route to other locations used nearby, our guide turned on the film soundtrack and the woman in front of me began to hum in a faint, barely there sort of drone. Four hours later, we were dumped out at Mirabell Gardens and told to wander about as we would surely see the sights of the Do Re Mi song scene.
I was flat out crushed. That’s it? Just about every Austrian travel book makes mention of the tour and reviews are gushy, if not ecstatic. Yet, I was nonplussed. It was all just flat, like the hum of my fellow passenger.
If we were going to be in a group, I wanted a busload of fans that knew every line, like my sister Jane, who has yet to work any of the dialogue into her legal career to date that I know of (there’s still time). We should all have been wearing alpine hats, given out as we stepped onto the bus, or parts of a nun’s habit.
(I admit that would have been repeating myself as I once dressed as a nun for a Toronto Sound of Music Sing-a-long. Others in my group were brown-paper-packages-tied up-with string. Our kids went as girls-in-white dresses-in-blue satin-sashes. Not quite Rocky Horror but we roared just as loud. I was a good nun. I kept it to a chant.)
And the bus? The movie—the whole three hours of fabulousness—should have been playing inside the bus with a pause for every pit stop, and our guide telling us, “Did you like that scene? Well, at our next stop, you’ll have your chance to do your best Julie Andrews imitation.”
We needed to run on the hills and wave our hands about like idiots. We had the real mountain backdrop (they’re alive!) but a fake might even have sufficed. After all, the birch trees and brook were cheated, added on by special effects crew later in Hollywood.
Does this sound familiar? If you’re thinking Mickey Mouse, you’re warm. The genius behind Disney World, and Universal Studios and the like, is that visitors all understand from the onset they are in the land of deep fromage. Once through the gates, we don Mickey ears and wave at the cartoon characters, even though we know the poor sop inside is sweating to death and likely to tell us to fuck off if we step on a foot by error. (See good nun.) Venerating big musical films requires kitsch. Anything less is Monty Python.
If you’re on the tour, you are a fan already. There’s little dignity in fandom. To pretend distance by having us all shuffle along, museum style, is missing the point. Who doesn’t know the words to at least one of the songs? Why not ask bus passengers if anyone wants to sing a verse? The hands will go up faster than you can say send up.
Most information, delivered with schoolmarm sincerity, was not new. We SOM fans have had four decades to squeeze out the juice and then, the cast has been on Oprah. In the fun fact department, I did learn that the child carried over the mountains by Christopher Plummer in the closing scenes was not the same actress seen earlier playing Gretl. She got chubby during the shoot. Plummer, who famously referred to the film as “the Sound of Mucous”, refused to carry her for the scene so a skinnier stand child in was used for that shot. That was almost worth my ticket price but I wanted more.
As for the locations, we could have driven to all of them ourselves as all were visible to anyone with even a passing interest. (That would not include the locals who have very little interest in the film). Squinting across the lake at the Leopoldskron Castle, we are told that the facade and terraces were locations used for many scenes but, as it is now an international conference centre owned by Harvard, no, one cannot simply waltz across the terrace.
Interiors were never used. Instead producers copied the Venetian ballroom on a Hollywood sound stage. The glass gazebo used for the love scenes has been moved from its original location on the castle property to the Hellbrunn Palace grounds where anyone can peer inside and imagine Liesl and Rolf prancing about in the rain. But then, this scene too (and Maria and the Captain’s love scenes) was also shot back at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood.
The festival hall where the family performs during the Salzburg festival was closed on our tour date, and we could visit the Nonnberg Abbey where the nuns sang”Maria” but not on this tour.
And so it went.
Still, Salzburg, like most of Austria, is gorgeous. I loved our jaunt out of town to the Mondsee Cathedral where finally, we could walk in Maria’s footsteps (that would be the fake Maria, not the real Maria) and glide up the aisle, orchestra swelling in our heads. The cathedral has since been painted, curiously, a California pink, but at least we were inside!
I did resist hopping down the Do Re Mi flight of steps in Mirabell Gardens, but the cast was really here and the statues and fountains did not disappoint. There is no shortage of thrill to stand on the fountain edge and sing full throttle “Me, a name I call myself, Fa-a long, long way to run“, but I will leave it up to you to imagine whether I did or not.
There is fun to be had in schlepping about town and reliving moments from a beloved film with seemingly endless appeal.
It just wasn’t on my No Kitsch Here tour.
Too bad it won’t make my list of my favourite things.
Much as I’d like to be able to judge a city by pastries and filtered coffee, I do concede the quinoa crowd may scoff. Where we will come together, toned and tubby alike, is ground less caloric, yet richer than any torte.
Vienna is culture at its most transparent and for a Canadian, circa 2013, it slams you upon entry.
How does one feel places unknown? Do we read travel books and websites that point us to wonders? Pick up audio guides while we gape at great works of art?
Hound concierge staff, hoping for unsullied directions? Ask those who’ve travelled before what should we see?
I admit to all methods. Mostly, I get the most from hopping on a city’s transit system to see how people are pumped through its quarters, wandering boulevards to fall in step with locals, looking at shoes, posture, gait, affectations, applause, peering in the shop windows, watching families on a Sunday in the square.
Checking out the men (old habits die hard). In Vienna, at our hotel, all the men wore jackets, many of them Tyrolean coats, to breakfast.
We forgot our finery.
On the ubiquitous hop on/off bus tour, the audio playlist buzzed through my ear buds: Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn-all either born here, or wrote some of the world’s greatest music here and the tour guides and everyone else in the country want you to know it, want you to hear it. Easy to do with four opera houses and numerous concerts: we heard Mozart’s greatest hits at The Golden Palace along with a few thousand other gullible tourists. I resisted waving a baton from my seat but it was tempting. Strolling to work off the schnitzel, we stopped by the Vienna State Opera where the production inside the house was playing outside the house on a massive screen. Camped out on blankets and rows of chairs, getting their opera buzz for free, a few hundred of all ages on the sidewalks. Tourists? Maybe some but they were hardly there for the gimmick. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was the live show and many of them were rooted for the long haul, like my very own opera fanatic, who kept telling me “just one more aria-then we’ll go.”
On the sleek streetcars, we watched bikers keep pace in wide boulevards, and looked for congestion, finding none.
The global consulting firm Mercer has ranked Vienna the best city in the world for excellent living standards and surely the merry dance of car, bike and streetcar is stunning to behold when you come from a city fixated on a rotund suspected crackmeister. We never saw street litter, crop tops, Lulu gear, tight jeans or panhandlers. Were they whisked away, Giuliani style, to corners unseen? Instead, there is low crime rates, no slums and 450 carnival balls a year. One night, we stepped into the dusk, and almost headfirst into a parade of glittering gowns the likes I’ve never seen, en route to the Fête Impériale, to raise funds for the protection of Europe’s oldest cultural horse breed, the Lipizzaner. I wish I had snapped photos but I was in full on stare mode (and yes, checking out the shoes again..and the gowns).
The birthplace of the waltz and operetta is also a central meeting point for international congresses and they have their pick of vast, grand spaces and architecture from the Middle ages to Baroque. We spent an afternoon at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph I to house the art collection of the Habsburgs, and came out staggering from the weight of all those masters.
Another afternoon was spent with Gustav Klimt at the Leopold, in the MuseumsQuartier Wien, a massive complex of modern art, where acrobats practised flips and toy boats whizzed in a man made pond amidst colourful outdoor furniture called “enzis”.
On a streetcar out to the Sigmund Freud museum, we met an American cameraman in town to shoot a European version of CSI. He spends 6 months a year here and tells us he loves the wagon wheel design of the city districts, adding ‘it’s a nice change from Vegas”.
Would Vegas have a crowd like the one packing the Stephansdom for morning mass where my daughters’ school choir, here on a summer concert tour, performed in the same space Joseph Haydn was a choirboy? The girls in their gowns singing Frozen in Frobisher Bay, a stunning song about whaling in the Canadian arctic, was my perfect culture cluster, resonating here in this historic cathedral that stands in for Vienna in postcards at every stop.
Late one evening we were sent by our concierge to what he described as the best street food in the city. Thinking of the North American hot dog stand, I wasn’t overly keen. Steps from the opera house was Bitzinger’s Würstelstand with a variety of delicious sausages; sliced on a serviette or stuck in long baguettes, could be washed down with beer or wine, in a glass if you preferred. Lined up around us were groups of teenagers, clubgoers.The guys were in suits, straight pants, slicked Euro-dos, their dates in stylish dresses and heels. The opera had just let out and people were streaming the streets. One middle-aged couple exiting the opera house approached the mass of bicycles locked up by the sidewalk. He pulled out what appeared to be a leather “murse” and handed her some flats. She, at least sixty but trim, elegant, took off her heels and put them in his bag. They hopped on their bikes and went into the dark.
It is, of course, the sum of its parts and Vienna is nothing short of beautiful efficiency. If there is formality in the dress and step of culture, it is at once dense and open, historic and new.
For all the cobbled corners and gothic arches, the place felt like advanced living.
Chronicle readers, thank you for your patience. A holiday for me is just that: no missives except those to family who need a hey, hello and Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo….
But I’m back, to hail and brimstone in this sorry state some sadist calls “summer” in Toronto.
Go ahead. Tease us with sunshine. We know you don’t mean it.
Send me back to the Austrian mountains where I will now retool my idea of the perfect picnic after the high (!) of an alpine feast of simple sandwich and mineral water.
Location, location, location. Here I thought is was all about the grub!
Near the top of the famous Glossglockner High Alpine Road
Who needs dessert? Uh…that would be baker girl me.
Austria was unknown to me but for Julie Andrews cavorting in the hills while a helicopter’s down draft almost knocked her over to shoot the opening scenes in The Sound of Music (and yes, I did go on the tour), Mozart mania and a vague sense of the breadth of an empire.
But was I prepared for the desserts?
The perfect strudel at Café Lantmann
Our first stop was Vienna where we were schooled in strudel, the national dessert of Austria and what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire. My Greek mother-in-law has promised to show me the secret technique of baklava, a close cousin. At the imperial bakery in Schonbrunn Palace, pastry chefs demonstrate the method and make it look easy.
Apples, cinnamon, salt, bread crumbs, vats of butter and that crispy,wafer-thin dough should be simple enough, but as we forked our way through coffee palaces, where coffee and confectionery are meant to be lingered over, we tasted versions better than others.
Rhubarb, strawberry and other fruit are seen in a strudel but the apple is king and rightly so, save the sour cherry, sure to ascend to the throne, my cherry addicted companion planning the deposition.
Cherries were in abundance throughout the country, in roadside stands, and on most menus.
Breakfast in our Vienna hotel was a long table of treats where the strudel shared space alongside other traditional confections and champagne because we need bubbly to get the day going in this gem of a city. I stuck to my coffee. But, as you will hear, that was hardly roughing it.
SCHOKERLKUCHEN ( fudge cake with egg liqueur): decadent
GEWÜRZGUGLHUPF ( spiced citrus cake): delicious
The richest of these is by far the Sacher torte, once the subject of a nine year legal battle between the Hotel Sacher and Café Demel over the dessert’s specific characteristics.
SACHER TORTE ( chocolate sponge cake with apricot jam filling and dark chocolate glaze)
We won’t take any sides on dessert debates but will say the Café Demel reeks of storied regulars and footsie romance and I will fly back anytime just for another afternoon of sweets with my schatzi.
Having a coffee in Vienna is not for the hurried, what with liqueurs, whipped cream and little spoons that say go ahead and stir, sucker. If you forgo the strudel, you are still done in by all that cream.
The city is dotted with historical cafes, some 1,083 of them.
We tried as many we could fit into a schedule packed with art ogling and musical madness.
(more on that tomorrow)
Whether inside the gorgeous Café Central with the piano player keeping our jet lag at bay, or outside on the terraces of Café Landtmann, a favourite of Gustav Mahler, Marlene Dietrich and Sigmund Freud, Viennese coffee served up a whole new manner to punctuate an itinerary.
In 2011, the Viennese coffeehouse culture was officially included in the UNESCO National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
There is nothing intangible about the strudel,at least for the moment it sits, a tease on the plate. The contented sigh that follows consumption is much harder to measure.
Pastry parties have their own natural end. Ours came at the foot of a peak that provided a room with a view for a moment far too brief. Check back tomorrow for more.
Much as Canadians crave the big melt mid March, it never quite happens on schedule. In NYC, however, there is a meltdown happening right on cue: the third annual Big Cheesy grilled cheese competition.
Next weekend, on March 23rd and 24th ( still time for you to get there!), some of New York’s finest sandwich makers gather to compete for the people’s choice awards of grilled cheese. Ticket holders sample and celebrate seven gooey versions of a very simple pleasure. Last year’s champions were the wizards who work the grills at the The Melt Shop. These guys caused a sensation by creating three variations on the theme: Sharp cheddar, pulled pork, BBQ sauce on sourdough; blue and cheddar with bacon and cranberry pepper jam; goat cheese and fontina with roasted wild mushrooms and parsley pesto. The competition was over.
I have put in some miles for great eats including a three hour road trip date on the promise of the perfect piece of apple pie.
( It wasn’t but I married the driver anyway). Would I travel to NYC for a sandwich? Would you? Here’s a peek at the The Melt Shop and no, there’s no scratch and sniff option but I am betting you can hear the sizzle.
Canadians have their own version of this competition and it occurred at the CNE last August.
I wasn’t there but I’ve no doubt that the best cheese can be found in this country. On yet another foodie fool’s errand, I ventured to Sainte Jérôme, Quebec after being sent by a waiter from one of that province’s finest kitchens, L’Eau à la Bouche in nearby Sainte-Adèle. Chef and co-owner Anne Desjardins is renowned across the province for using local produce and her restaurant is one of very few with Relais & Châteaux prestige. The cheese course was ridiculously divine and we inquired as to the origins. Our servers sent us to find Yannick Fromagerie and off we went, nose first, in search of cheese gold.
We were not unlike the stars of the British comedy, The Trip, screening tonight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Food on Film series. Tonight’s screening will also include insight on the film from Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland. If NYC or Quebec are too far, then travel on screen instead across northern England with the stars of the film, two nut bars in search of great food.
Comedy+Food Road Trips ( grilled cheese included)= recipe for sane life