On Days Like These
- Categorized in: September 2011
No one likes to be woken up too early.
And over the course of this, by now, rather lengthy journey, I have found my precious sleep disturbed by a number of different things: the screech and squeal of rusty brakes as trucks negotiated a high altitude bend in the road; the odious crawl of ticks on the nape of my neck; the call to prayer and the accompanying howl of local dogs; the timid scuffling of a mouse stealing my chocolate; the whipping of the wind lashing the side of my tent; the somniferous grunting of a human pig.
But on this morning, the muted clanging of a church bell didn’t seem so bad. No one else in the little apartment was stirring so I got up taking my camera with me and crept down to the smart pontoon which rested on the lake in front of the hotel.
Not a breath of wind. A gently thinning mist floating dreamily above the dark water, like “the spirit over the deep”. The sky was quickly lightening but the rising sun had not yet broken through the eastern cut of the lake valley. I waited and watched the ducks painting pictures on the mirrored surface of the water with their tails.
The first sunbeam
The light intensified to the east. Finally a burst of sunlight escaped from its box and shot across the lake over my head, illuminating the hilltop behind me with a blaze of morning fire. It was quite a scene.
There was a noise to my left, and I noticed an old man opening his little wooden gate at the bottom of his garden. He took off his dressing gown, and edged slowly but deliberately into the icy water.
View to the north
“These Austrians are crazy,” I thought to myself.
Then another person appeared, with a camera lens as long as his forearm. A Chinaman intend on recording the scene, just like me. He positioned himself right in the way.
“Great, now he’s blocking my shot.”
I glanced back at the hotel behind me, and did a double-take. On at least a dozen of the balconies, the black Cyclops eyes of heavy Nikon cameras glared out at the rising sun. Chinese hands snapping a thousand photos a minute to capture every angle of its arc.
The sun is now "up"
“Time for breakfast.”
Inside, Skipper and Lloyd were already installed at the breakfast table.
“How d’you sleep, Lloydy?” Skipper was asking.
“Not great. That bell didn’t help.”
“Did you find your iMask?” Skipper asked.
“No, not yet. I can't think where I put it.”
An iMask? I wondered what I was missing out on. Maybe I should have got one for this trip. My mind instantly imagined a clinically white device wrapped around my head, which could whirl me into a deep sleep with soporific videos and soothing music.
“What’s an iMask?” I said. “They didn’t have those when I left.”
“You know. They had iPads, but I never heard of an iMask before.”
“An EYEmask, you moron,” said Skipper. “You cover your eyes with it.”
“Ahhhh. O-K. Oh, yes. I’ve got one of those. Sorry!”
This is a misunderstanding that could only happen in the 21st century.
Christian and Chrissie appeared looking like the cats that had got the cream, having upgraded themselves to the penthouse suite unbeknown to us, which had the best balcony view across the lake.
“Great hotel this,” said Christian.
He was wearing one of his “I’ve won and I’m the best” looks. I suspected Hallstatt would hold fond memories for my brother and his wife for all sorts of reasons.
Chrissie with her brothers-in-law
The Hallstatter harmony seemed to have rubbed off on our little group, and we set off good and early to cover the 70km to Salzburg. In theory this was more or less downhill. In practice, it was nothing of the sort.
We didn't know this yet. And while the early kilometres of the day were promising, the harmony was soon shattered by a little miscommunication on the main road back towards Bad Ischl.
A last glimpse of Hallstatt
We’d got into a kind of half-baked system, of riding in a peloton (which here meant a file one after the other), and if the tail-end rider felt like shouting a warning, occasionally you would hear, “Car back!” or “Truck coming through!” or some such variation. If you were the front rider you’d be pushed to hear this every time, and usually it didn’t make much difference anyway.
But on this occasion, with Skipper leading the peloton (of course), a call went up from Lecka at the back, which was very clearly relayed by Lloyd in the middle as, “STOP!”.
Skipper, being efficient in this as in all things, applied his brakes with his characteristic decisiveness and had screeched to a halt within about 15 yards. At no. 2, I can say I came extremely close to crashing into him, and so on down the line behind me.
This had an unfortunate effect. In fact, what Lecka had called was, “Truck back!” since he had spotted a rather aggressively wide lorry bearing down on our little group, which seemed intent on giving us as a little room as possible. (All good cyclists would be on the designated cycle path after all.) Instead of being able to concentrate on holding their line as the gathering whoosh of wheels swept past, Lecka and Chrissie and Christian suddenly found themselves avoiding a pile-up of Colonel Hathian proportions caused by our sudden halt, which meant squashing themselves into the verge or under the wheels of the big truck.
Fortunately they all opted for the verge.
“We were looking death in the face,” was the general consensus immediately afterwards. Their faces certainly reflected a momentary vision of something beyond this life. Once the danger had passed, the recriminations began.
I’ve watched Christian for a number of years now, and, on the road at least, he only ever gets angry when he’s had a fright. This was just such a moment.
He laid into Skipper with all he had. Shouting how we’d nearly got them killed, and what were we thinking, and how we should make a signal if we were going to stop suddenly, and how stupid we were, and did we realise how stupid we were. Etc. etc. etc. with a few colourful adjectives thrown in.
It was all very edifying to hear. When Skipper ventured that he was merely complying with the urgent-sounding plea to “STOP”, this was not accepted as an excuse. (Lloyd at this point, I noticed, was keeping rather quiet.)
“OK. We’re very sorry. From now on, I’ll give a signal if I’m going to stop. OK?”
But it wasn’t ok. Christian had had such a fright, he wanted to make sure we knew it. So the recriminations began a second time. And then a third. (Even Lecka chimed in, so it must have really been a dangerous situation.)
After the fourth round of how we were so stupid, Skipper rode off. This infuriated Christian even more. (The battle of wills between these two goes way back.)
I should also point out that Christian comes from a long line of shouters. The only person I know how can outshout Christian is my father. And his father before him. And perhaps so on ad aeternum, following the line of first-born sons as far back as it will go. He wasn’t nearly done with his shouting.
But there comes a point, even for a mild-mannered person like myself, that being told I am stupid by a blustering red-face for the 15th time is enough.
“I think we got you on the fifth time of telling us, Christian! We’re not total morons, you know. “Make a signal when we’re going to stop.” Blah blah blah.”
I rode off too.
I could sense the boiling fury in the rider behind me, but happily this never lasts for long in Christian.
The bad feeling should have blown away in the clear mountain air, but it wasn’t long before we would have more problems on the road.
According to me, the best route we could take was to follow the main road straight to a town called St Wolfgang only about 15km from Bad Ischl. According to everyone else, it was better to take the cycle route.
But the cycle route wasn’t immediately obvious, so they agreed to do what I said. Within barely a few hundred metres of joining the main road beyond Bad Ischl, the mouth of a tunnel loomed before us.
“Are you sure we can go in there?” Chrissie shouted from the back.
“It’s fine,” I called back. “I do it all the time. It’s only 600m long anyway.”
In we went. Skipper in front. Me no. 2, the others behind.
Immediately on entering, I had to admit it wasn’t quite like other tunnels I’d been through. The main difference was that every single vehicle that overtook us decided to blast their horns. Evidently they didn’t think we should be in there.
The second problem was that most of the vehicles were 10 ton trucks, with a dozen headlamps dazzling the vision of anyone foolish enough to look back.
“OK, this is actually a bit hairy,” I thought to myself.
After a couple of hundred metres I glance back. There is no one there.
“Erm……Skipper! Skipper, we seem to have lost everyone.”
Beeeeeeeooooooooooooowwwwwwww! A massive truck nearly takes my elbow off.
“Stoooooppppp!” I shout.
We stop on the tiny concrete shoulder and consult.
“They’re not following us,” I shout above the din of the traffic. That was pretty obvious.
“No problem. They can find another way round, and we’ll meet them in St Wolfgang. It’s only 17km.”
I look at him nonplussed. It was very unlike Skipper to suggest something like that.
“Yeeaaaaah. That’s not a good idea. We gotta go back.”
So waiting for a gap in the traffic, we hopped our bikes around and crept along the slim walkway back to the tunnel mouth.
When we got outside, there were the others in a little lay-by. Lecka had his arm around Chrissie who was sobbing.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
It turned out, almost immediately upon entering the tunnel, after the first horn, Chrissie had lost it. She is moderately claustrophobic anyway, so the tunnel itself was bad enough. Add to that the hazard of ending up flatter than a Wiener Schnitzel under some uncaring Austrian’s front tyre, and she quite logically reasoned that it was better to get the hell out of there.
So she had burst into tears, pulled up, got off her bike and run back along the walkway, leaving her bike on the roadside behind her.
This brought the whole train to halt, unknown to me and Skipper. They had then, equally precariously, made their way back out of the tunnel, Lecka managing to retrieve Chrissie’s bike at the same time.
I apologised to Chrissie and promised I’d never lead her through anywhere so terrible again. (So far so good on that promise.)
“Now, that is much more what I thought this trip would be like,” said Lloyd.
“You should have joined me on the expressway in Slovakia then. You would've loved that!” Nevertheless, Austrian truck drivers were making a serious play this morning to outdo Chinese bus drivers as the most lethal road-users in the world.
Of course, they’d say we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.
Back on track after our two little "incidents"
Chrissie dried her eyes, and we all mounted up, making our way back into Bad Ischl to pick up the real cycle route to St Wolfgang, which wasn’t so hard to find after all.
Do I have to say it?
It was yet more idyllic Austrian riding. Cowbells (on cows of course), the exploding colours of window boxes on dark tan wooden chalets, set amongst a pallet of green. Green meadows, green trees, green mountains, blue skies, the glimpse of sky-blue lakes. The clean black ribbon of road rolling ever downhill towards the St Wolgangsee in the distance, its precise white road markings giving a clinical crispness that matched the clean air.
Just missing a cow or two
Since Christian and I always have the same cultural references going on in our heads at the same time, it turned out we were both singing “On Days Like These” – a tune so familiar to me having watched the original movie of The Italian Job about 65 times that it seemed completely synonymous with the situation. (If you have 3 minutes to spare, watch the youtube clip and you'll see what I'm talking about.)
We stopped off in St Wolfgang at a rather smart hotel which promised a lakeside terrace on its roadsign.
Probably the best Radler in the world...
In we went for our morning Radlers, but there was some objection raised when I tried to enhance the ambience by playing “On Days Like These” on my phone.
Apparently this was offensive to other clientele. I couldn’t see how they could fail to enjoy it. It was so appropriate. But since only Christian agreed with me, the music was turned off.
Before we set off again, we understood from the very helpful waitress that the cycle route certainly continued on along the northside of the lake, and we would be able to reach St Gilgen, at the end of the lake if we just carried on.
So off we went for a little while, until we came to the dead end that she had assured us wasn't there.
By now, Skipper had almost completely assumed the leadership role, so we left it to him to decide how we’d proceed.
There seemed to be a path leading quite steeply up a meadow, which disappeared into a gathering of trees further up the hill. We followed the path, but only just, it being so steep I could hardly get my beast up there. A short distance further on, we lost the tarmac, and then it became clear this was a hiking trail, not a cycle path.
It's a long way to the top...etc. etc.
It did seem that there was nothing for it but to push our machines onwards and upwards and see what happened.
This was easier said than done.
Having pushed the bike from the bottom (more or less), the view was probably worth it
While extremely picturesque as a walk, as a kind of mule train bludgeon up this woody path with 50kg of bike and kit, it was less so. It was notable that those with the luggage (Christian and myself) took quite a bit longer than those without.
Looking downhill this time
But we did all make it up to the little saddle, probably 1,000 feet above the lake. Chrissie later nominated this her favourite part of the day (well, we knew which was her least favourite for sure). There was a small hollow clearing at the top, where stood a little white chapel, and a spectacular view back down to the western end of the St Wolfgangsee. The descent down was a bit precarious, which could be ridden in parts, scuffed in others, slid in others.
Chrissie's favourite bit
It was quite a relief to reach the lakeside once more. And it was beautiful.
Christian couldn’t resist a dip, but the rest of us just enjoyed the azure blue water, and the spreading arms of the beech trees that stretched over our heads to dangle gently on the surface of the lake. Beechnuts cracked under our wheels as we rode along one of the prettier sections of all Austria, watching the fish through the crystal waters playing in and out of the roots at the water’s edge.
We were closing in on Salzburg now.
I kept telling Lloyd that this was the last bit of uphill we had to do. He stopped believing me after the fourth time I said this.
Bye bye St Wolfgangsee
Eventually I was telling the truth, and we were speeding down the steep s-bends into the outskirts of this characterful city.
Salzburg is of course the city of Mozart - his birthplace and where he first established his brilliant musical career under the patronage of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg.
The towers of the Salzburger Dom
Any visitor cannot fail to be touched by a little bit of his magic. His face and silhouette, and name and melodies are scattered around the city whichever way you turn down the little streets of the Old Town.
The old centre of Salzburg is dominated by a forbidding-looking castle, the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which stands at one end on a great shoulder of rock called the Mönchsberg. This rock cuts off the old town from the western part of the city, though it is punctured through its heart by a looming tunnel through which traffic continually comes and goes.
As described - the Mönchsberg tunnel
The views and walks along its length are remarkable when you consider you are in the second city of Austria, and you can lookout at the rising hills and mountains in every direction, around which the city has been built.
As a city, Salzburg feels much older and much simpler than Vienna. It has an almost complacent feel to it – that it knows it has already established its name in the world. People will come because of what it is, and what its children have done. Should the world really expect too much more from this place?
We arrived later in the day than we had intended, but early enough to have a leisurely late lunch on the Residenzplatz, enjoying frothy Weissbier in tall and slender glasses, watching the sun pass behind the towers of the Salzburger Dom and listening to the tuneless chants of Slovakian football supporters, in town for a match that night.
View west from the Mönchsberg
That evening, after we’d found ourselves a hotel for the night, we climbed up the Mönchsberg and wandered through the woods on its top, and on into the fortress, perched up a slope so precipitous I wondered what a drudgery would it be to work as a footman at the Prince-Archbishop’s court, tramping up and down that every day. But we got up there eventually. From a parapet hundreds of feet above the foot of the cliffs, we watched the sun slowly fall in the west, and the sky light up in a gorgeous blaze of pinks and oranges over the spires of Salzburg.
Everyone looked very happy and content.
Even Chrissie and Christian seem to have forgotten their scares of the morning, as we all gazed wistfully out over the city.
The spires of Salzburg
I had grand plans of “going out” in Salzburg. Surely there must be bars and clubs and people and music in this place? Maybe there were, but we never found them. We were all pretty wiped out anyway.
The old centre was totally quiet and subdued, the streets nearly empty save for a few tourists meandering aimlessly past bizarrely arranged shop windows. Everywhere wanted to sell you Mozart chocolate balls.
Don't mind if I do...
We settled down for the finest Schnitzels of the tour in front of Mozarts Geburtshaus, and ran through the best moments of the day.
“Tomorrow the mountains then?” asked Chrissie.
“Oh yes. You wanna swap bikes?”
“Hyaa, right!” she guffawed. (She sometimes does.)
“Well, if I remember rightly there’s only a couple of tunnels to get through too.”
She stopped laughing.
“Nooo….” she said, almost in a whimper.
I said nothing, and just smiled at her sweetly.
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