"Day of Days"
The philosophy of travel must be a study of some complexity. I don't profess to have mastered it, but certain questions do come to mind. Why do humans feel this compulsion to see new places? What are they really looking for when they go? Do they find what they are looking for?
Time after time, we launch ourselves forward for the sake of rest, excitement, adventure, curiosity, isolation, happiness. Sometimes we find it. Many times we don’t.
Often what is going on inside us doesn’t match up with the actual moment we find ourselves living.
You’re walking through a beautiful wood or along a sunlit beach, but you’re thinking about the business deal that just fell over last month. Or how you can secure a mortgage for the house you want to buy, now that you didn’t get the promotion you thought was coming your way? Or why your kid can’t concentrate at school? Or what life would have been like if you’d learnt another language? Or how you’re going to tell your husband you really can’t spend Christmas with his parents again this year?
It’s quite rare - and, it increasingly seems to me, not only a gift, but an acquired skill – to be able to enjoy the present as the present. To enjoy something for what it is, where it is, but also when it is.
You might call this different things: at these moments your chi is aligned; it is the power of now; the peace of God that transcends all human understanding; you are feeling centred. Different worldviews have different ways of expressing the mystical power of the realisation of one body in one place at one moment in the whole history of time. It is a bewildering mystery when you think about it. But I think the real enjoyment of a place comes from some of the delicious and profound associations that form in your mind (and then your imagination, and then your heart, and then, if you’re lucky, your soul), when you finally allow it to be filled with the present.
This is how it seems to me. The lasting things of a journey come, not because of the pure aesthetic qualities of a place – how it looks or smells or even feels to you - but because of what that place means to you.
Having had a bit of time to think about this, I’ve begun to understand better why certain places along the way have had the effect that they did on me, and why, among all these places, a lake in Austria had the most profound of effect of all. In a word, it is because as a place, it is the closest expression of who I am that I know.
But I will explain this a little later.
We have to get there first.
I left off the thread in the little town of Bad Hall. This place lies not far from the edge of a region in Austria called the Salzkammergut – a series of lakes and sharp steel-coloured peaks linked by pretty woodland valleys and running streams, meandering their way through vibrant meadows. Deep mines puncture the rock throughout the region, out of which, for millennia, the inhabitants have dug salt deposits, which brought them great prosperity well into the 20th century. These days salt mining has diminished in importance; forestry and tourism have taken over as the mainstays of the Salzkammergut’s economy. The region seems no poorer for it.
It was only our third day on the road, and either out of necessity or as a precautionary measure, the application of the “butt cream” (from our one big pot) to each bottom had by now become the opening event of the day.
The daily application
If any product achieves what it sets out to do, it is this one, provided everyone stuck to the golden rule: “No double-dipping”. But the sensation it created, as if refrigerated air was being gently blown at your more tender parts, lasted well into mid-morning and was unfailingly soothing.
I’m sure the others would agree.
Skipper leads the way on an early descent
It need hardly be said that it was yet another spotlessly bright morning. Spirits were high, and everyone seemed to have benefitted from an early night and a decent sleep, having been rather weary the previous evening. We needed our energy since for the first time we had to do a bit of climbing.
The others following behind
Only relatively gentle hills, but hills none the less and quite a few of them. But the landscape became lovelier and lovelier. Everywhere around were fields of maize spread amongst close cut meadows, dotted with crooked apple trees and indolent looking cows or goats or sheep, munching on the late summer fruit that had fallen to the ground.
Little dark wooden hay-barns stood in the corners of these meadows, of the kind you might expect Steve McQueen to burst out of at any moment riding a stolen German motorbike.
Christian started singing, “The hills are aliiiiive, with the sound of music.”
Although we weren’t within 100km of Salzburg, I guess it was appropriate enough, especially since he is the musical one of us. I’d been singing that way back in China after all.
Green meadows, blue hills
Chrissie was at the back of the line during one fast descent into another little village, when she had a vision – a glimpse behind the veil of perception into the reality beyond: as she saw the six of us strewn out whipping round a sweeping curve in the road at the bottom of the hill, she realised she wasn’t on vacation with five men at all, but a gang of 12 year old boys.
Fortunately real 12 year olds don’t get to do things like this very often, or there would be nothing for them to look forward to in life.
We came to a town called Gmunden, which rests at the northern end of the Traunsee, one of the bigger lakes in the region. There we took a late morning break, sitting in the sun drinking Radlers, on the main town square. The gentle “trink, trink” sound of taught wires striking against the metal masts of the yachts that bobbed at the quayside was accompanied by the sudden flutter of a dozen wings as a few pigeons launched from the cobbled stones up to their little holes in the tower above the striking clock.
A Gmunden square
It was a remarkably pleasant scene. So much so that Lloyd and I coined a new adjective.
“Gmunden”. As in: “this place is very Gmunden” – meaning a place in which it is unexpectedly pleasant to be.
In fact everywhere from that point on was very Gmunden.
The view across the Traunsee
We had very little climbing to do for the rest of the afternoon, instead following the cycle paths that led around the edge of the Traunsee, and then along the floor of a steep-sided valley towards Bad Ischl.
The Traunsee presents a dramatic scene. You wouldn’t need to be seated more than an hour or two on its rocky shore before you would start composing dark and brooding sagas of battles deep in mountain caverns, with the ring of steel heavy in the stifled air, and the scamper of the callused feet of trolls surrounding the flashing blade of a hide-clad youth with tousled blonde hair. Or a peasant girl stooping to cup in her pale hands the cool clear water of a passing stream to her crimson lips, and catching the eye of some wandering beggar prince. Etc. etc. If Siegfried and a whole gang of dragons, shape-shifters, lake spirits, and icy-blooded witch-queens didn’t roam through this place at some point I should be very surprised.
The lad himself...
Bad Ischl on the other hand leaves these shadowy images behind. Instead, you enter a clean, light and perfectly-manicured picture of 19th century sophistication. A spa town for the rich and royal where the last of the Hapsburg Emperors Franz-Joseph I would take the waters and fresh air.
The town is also said to be a favoured spot of his tragic wife, the last Empress Elisabeth, affectionately known as Sissi. She was a kind of historical pre-cursor to the superstar Princesses of the late 20th and 21st centuries. A 19th century Diana if you like – particularly because, after the mysterious death of her son, she became estranged from her husband the Emperor, and saw out her days in relative isolation. Her early life was not much happier amid the stifling atmosphere of the Hapsburg court. She was certainly beautiful and unconventional, though it is very doubtful whether her beauty, of which she was quite obsessed, made her happy. (These days she would have been diagnosed anorexic.) Nevertheless, her charm meant she had the love of pretty much everyone she met.
Empress Sissi (not my photo)
Well, not quite everyone. In her 60th year she was murdered. Assassinated in Geneva in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. To be fair to him, he claimed he’d killed her not because she was Sissi, but because she was an Empress. He’d actually been in town to do in the Duc d’Orleans who’d rather inconsiderately changed his travel plans. Sissi just happened to be the next blue-blood along. So we shouldn’t think too harshly of our swarthy Italian.
Sissi's Assassin - Luigi Lucheni
The Italian said in carrying out the assassination he wanted to send a message “with the object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position”. Presumably he would think it indicative of appalling lack of initiative on the part of those of “low social position” that there are still a few members of royalty walking around Europe today.
Evidently the late 19th century and early 20th century was a dangerous time to be of Central European royal stock, especially if you were a Hapsburg. The Emperor Franz Joseph himself evaded more than one assassination attempt, and in 1914 it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Emperor’s heir apparent, that plunged the whole world into the Great War. But, unlike Sissi’s, this killing wasn’t about world revolution. Instead the peoples of the nations rallied around their flags and not their foremen, and embarked on a wholesale mutual slaughter, which didn’t really come to an end until thirty odd years later.
However, by providing her with a tragic end, Sissi’s assassin did at least secure her legendary status as an icon of forlorn and ill-fated beauty, nowhere more so than in Bad Ischl itself where you are surrounded by establishments with names like the Grand Hotel Sissi, or the Kaiserin Café, or the Restaurant Elisabeth of Bavaria.
The bright streets of Bad Ischl
Aside from Sissi, in Bad Ischl, my path once more crossed with Sir Harry Flashman VC, whose adventures in Flashman and the Tiger saw him flirting with the Empress as he waltzed her around a ballroom in her prime of life, and doing his best to avoid being tipped headfirst down an empty salt mine by the son of one of his many nemeses, Count Rudi van Starnberg. I don’t know whether it counts to be “following in the footsteps of…” a character of fiction rather than fact, but I inadvertently seem to have been doing this from as far back as Hong Kong and the Pearl River delta.
Our own experiences here were quite a bit less exciting.
A late lunch threatened to turn into an early dinner at the rate the waitress seemed willing to serve up our Wiener Schnitzels (and assorted other dishes). However, there was a practical solution to this.
Chrissie laughing at, or possible with, Skipper
On a motorbike trip some years ago, Christian’s bike wouldn’t start. Looking on, a friend with us at the time said the surest way of getting it to start was if he lit up a cigarette. Sure enough, one puff in and the thing fired up.
In a similar fashion, when Christian and Lecka got tired of waiting for the arrival of our order, they disappeared across the road into a McDonalds. Mere seconds before their return, the food arrived.
Different problem, same principle.
It was a short but very beautiful ride from Bad Ischl to the hallowed waters of Lake Hallstatt. The thought did occur to me as we set out from the smart little town that maybe I had an exaggerated recollection of how remarkable this place is. Having talked it up a good deal (both to you and to them), I hoped they wouldn’t be underwhelmed by what they saw.
Perhaps now is the time to explain why this place holds such affection for me.
The first time I ever visited this place was in July 2004. I was on a motorbiking road trip through Europe with a very close friend from university. We had travelled up from the Italian Riviera where earlier in the month Christian and Chrissie had tied the knot in another beautiful spot not far from Portofino.
At the time I was living in London in a house with three other friends, all of whom I would consider to be as close as brothers, and they remain so today.
The early summer had been spent finishing up my legal exams. I had sat like a limpet to my kitchen table, revising legal case names while listening to a CD I had picked up for a couple of quid, completely absent-mindedly, in a Fulham music store – Highlights of the Ring Cycle. As in, Wagner’s series of operas. At first I found this music heavy and ponderous and hard to listen to. But after about another 15 listens, it started to mean something to me. And after another 15, I became moderately obsessed with it.
It’s basically all about the Norse Gods, fate, power, love, courage, freewill, betrayal, heroes, dwarves, river nymphs, beautiful (if slightly homicidal) handmaidens and a big spear. Oh and some gold. But more than this, it was a door into a world of what I might call Old Europe. The pre-Christian paganism of the old Germanic and Scandinavian worlds (whose blood beats in my heart), with its superstition, codes of honour, sex, blood and sorcery. Quite meaty fare for an over-active imagination. C.S. Lewis sums all this up in one word – “the Northerness”. It was only years later that I read about this term that he coined, but I knew exactly what he meant, and it evokes exactly what had seized my mind.
The Ring Cycle was only a door, which opened into the ancient sagas and tales which Wagner used as sources to create his work: the Niebelunglied, the Saga of the Volsung, Beowolf, the Hávamál (or Sayings of the High One), the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. All of which conjured up a sort of mood of fixation on the natural world and geography of northern Europe, with its ancient tales and forgotten heroes, and the mystery of a hidden and sensual spirituality that permeated all of this.
Six months prior to this, I had set out on an investigation which had at its heart (I can now see) a simple desire to know “the truth”. What do I mean by “the truth”? Simply, everything as it really is.
The origins of the universe and of humankind, spirituality, the meaning and consequences of life, moral frameworks, parallel dimensions, ghosts, Gods and men. This investigation started out rather excitingly in the exotic locations of Aztec and Mayan archaeological mysteries in Central America, but rather quickly (far too quickly for my mind), I found the trail of investigation had led not into a new and revelatory liberating spirituality, but rather through it and out the other side. And onward into moral consequences, the existence of God, history, the gospels, Jesus. And that is where the trail stopped.
The quest for “truth” which had seemed exciting and unconventional at first was now blocked by the gospels. I couldn’t go forward without getting past this Jesus person which they described, and there didn’t seem any way round him. The trail led right up to him.
This was awkward.
During all this, I had been greatly enjoying the company of my three housemates, Sammy, Bruce and Dave, living together in west London. Possibly the highpoint of this period of friendship was a two month block of Monday nights, which we named “Consolidation Mondays”. On these evenings, we were to eschew any other social engagements in favour of “staying in”, when we all cooked a big meal together and then watched an episode of the HBO series Band of Brothers. This is the story of a US paratrooper unit, “Easy Company”, and their journey through Western Europe during World War II. The last three episodes we watched on one evening, one after the other. I don’t believe any of us had a dry eye as the credits rolled on the final episode, which was all about the culmination of the paratroopers’ journey as a unit of comrades and the end of the war. The end of their story all took place among the mountains and lakes of high Austria.
So that summer I found myself in this region on this motorbike trip.
When we came to the placid shores of Lake Hallstatt, all these things were circulating in my heart and mind. The delicious mystery and hidden magic of the Northerness which the Salzkammergut landscape evoked; the awesome majesty and beauty of the place itself; the powerful emotions of brotherly love and friendship of which Austria and its mirror lakes reminded me; the pathos of the suffering and pain of a world war that had splintered this land; the quiet glory of the sacrifice of men who had died to restore its peace; the possibility of a real and living God who held the secret to why there was evil in the world, and why there is good; the perfection of Jesus, and yet the terrible awe that he instilled in me; and the new consciousness of the shadow across my own soul, my own sin, that made me want to hide even as I approached closer; the pin-prick shard of hope that “the truth” I was looking for and this God of the Christians, the God of history were one and the same.
If you had seen me sitting on the side of the lake, my feet dangling in the freezing water that summer afternoon in 2004, all this was stirring around inside me as I stared out at the jagged peaks that cascaded into the still water to the north.
This was one of those “moments in the present”. The power of now – which is really the power of forever. The eternal. And a profound effect it had indeed.
The story continued to unfold for a further six months, when eventually I realised the only way to continue the journey towards the truth I was seeking was through Jesus. And this meant overcoming my pride and becoming a Christian, which I finally did.
The homecoming to the place of Norfolk after 17,000km was a great feeling and I shall never forget it. But it is as nothing when stood against the feeling of homecoming to a person, the person of God through Jesus Christ. If you seek, you will find. It’s quite simple. What you do with that discovery has far more to do with pride, rebellion and fear, than reason. Reason you can keep, but the others have to go. But I guess that is for each person to find out for themselves.
Well, you probably don’t want to hear about all this. But it gives you some idea why Hallstatt was so important to me. If the story of God and man is a love story of a father looking for his lost children, Lake Hallstatt was an important scene in this tale of love. And more than anything else, this place will remain one of great affection for me for this reason.
As we got closer and closer, I felt the approach of an arrival that I had anticipated more than any other, except perhaps the end of the whole journey.
The others momentarily broke away up ahead, and I reflected (rather deeply) on this arrival. How far I’d come, what it meant to me… Blah, blah, blah.
I thought maybe now was the time for tears of gratitude, relief, vindication and (moderate) triumph to flow. And waited to see whether they would.
If it had been a movie they would….
But it wasn’t happening. I guess I was having too much fun.
So I turned the crank and caught up the others.
Instead, we bombed along the last few kilometres along the western edge of the northern end of the lake.
The sun had dropped behind the wall of rock and the surface of the lake was now in shade. We suddenly broke out beyond a headland and found ourselves at a junction in the road, left to the little town of Hallstatt, right into the tunnel that led around it.
We dropped down into the town.
And I suddenly remembered why I was so struck by this place.
There in front of us was this quaint little village, a picture of prettiness, with a jumble of wooden gables and eaves, flower boxes, and church steeples, stone walls and dark jetties, backed by two dark wooded peaks that had just fallen into shadow.
The team and the lake
It looked as beautiful as I remembered it. Whatever the others thought, I thought I hadn’t been wrong. But I still wasn’t going to weep.
Hallstatt in the shade
Snapping a couple of team photos, we jumped back on board and rolled off down the hill into the town.
We were off for a swim.
Time to get wet!
At first, I was a bit disappointed we hadn’t got there sooner, since I imagined a swim in the sun might be more inviting. It looked cooooooolld. But we were going in.
Then on the other side of the town square we saw a great beam of sunshine that had not yet died, given a late afternoon reprieve by the low cut between two peaks.
We didn’t have long.
Suddenly, Lecka shouted, “There!” and broke off to the left. He had spotted a brightly lit area of close-cut grass, on which were spread a few pieces of children’s climbing equipment, and over-hanging the smooth waters of the lake, a long springboard.
Less than a minute later we were all in the lake. Well, all except Skipper who, for once, was pleased about his torn buttock, which allowed him to avoid freezing his butt off along with the rest of us in the icy water.
It felt good.
I was so happy. In fact, I have rarely been happier.
Here’s a picture of me jumping for joy.
And us looking happy.
It was and is a rare moment in life, to share that feeling with my two brothers and close friends. Even if two of them were scared of cold water.
Lloydy not quite sticking with the team...
That evening, despite Lecka and I leaning the group towards making do with the local youth hostel, we somehow ended up in the most expensive hotel in town. Since Christian and Chrissie ended up in the penthouse suite overlooking the lake, I can only imagine the subtle influence of his unseen hand had something to do with it.
The little town centre of Hallstatt
Almost as a mark of approval, even vindication, that we were indeed in a special place, the whole town was swarming with Chinese people. This was a little unexpected and hadn’t been the case the last time I had visited in the dead of winter. But I suppose I couldn’t complain having come from China myself to see this place. It was definitely worth the bother.
That night we sat down to a dinner by the lakeside and passed away the time going over each of our favourite moments of the day. They were becoming so numerous now on each day that this could feed the conversation for some time. Then, as was our custom, we rounded off the evening with yet another argument.
The sign that a perfect day was now complete.
Hallstatt in winter
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