At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.
A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have given up his dreams of martial glory for the sake of heavy metal.
Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare and the three-hour trip to Vienna was comfortable. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees. Across the aisle on the train, some Brits and a spherical though pretty Indian girl with an American accent had some ‘psychedelic’ colouring books that didn’t keep them entertained for very long. Two of the chaps vanished to the bar carriage.
If anything Vienna was even hotter than Budapest. Every twenty minutes, late that night, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and neck. At the Westbahnhof we had gone down to the packed U-Bahn but on the Volkstheater station platform I simply couldn’t see the correct exit, it was so far away, so we emerged on the Burg Ring and passed the correct exit on our last daylight slog, up to the Hotel Admiral. That night we made it back over the Ring, down through the dark Burggarten and up the steps to the Paumen Haus with its red neon sign. There we sat outside and got things we needed such as chairs, drinks and food.
After each of two brief stretches of sleep I had a shower in which I turned the tap from lukewarm to cold. Then I went back to bed again, my ears full of water from that and from sweat rolling into them. Even my shoulders were sweating. I’d been turning the old air conditioning unit on the wall on and off and sometime after dawn I just left it on and finally managed to sleep properly until nine.
We spent the whole day walking around the Ring and the Innere Stadt. There was no way we were going to any outlying palaces with vast gardens of low hedges and shrubbery that offered no protection from that sun. My companion really liked the Café Central and we got to hear a young string quartet on Kärtnerstrasse (“They’re not gypsies, they’re conservatory students”). I’d still like to know the name of this tango.
We did the walk I’d mapped out:
(1) up the Ringstrasse to Schreyvogelgasse (Harry Lime’s doorway);
(2) down to Freyung to the Ferstel Passage;
(3) a pit stop in the Cafe Central;
(4) along Herrengasse to the Hofburg and a detour through the arches to Heldenplatz;
(5) back through the arches to Kohlmarkt and Graben (we lunched in the vicinity);
(6) down to Stephansdom (in and around the cathedral);
(7) Kärtnerstrasse (incl. a detour to the Loos bar where I tried a mojito, because I recognised the name, but it was like mint soup);
(8) back to the hotel via the Opernring.
At eight in the evening we went to the Witwe Bolte, which was practically around the corner from the hotel. After a garden supper, during which the skin of my head still felt a bit prickly, we were back in the hotel by ten.
My head continued to melt. The dissolution restarted as soon as I lay on the bed. Cold water from the tap gave brief relief but then a rivulet rolled down somewhere. I filled the sink so I could have a dunk now and then.
There was a slim, dark girl doing long hours down at reception. She was wearing a white garment with buttons, that evening. It made her look like a nurse. She had matching dark frames for her glasses and she kind of embodied the female cool around there, even though most were typically, for Austria, solid and well built. She’d checked us in the day before. By then my head was already melting, unconnected to this hotel, given the time it took to sort out the three-stop journey on a packed U3 line from the Westbahnhof and then make our way on foot. I explained we had just come from Budapest and she looked at me quite sympathetically before remarking on the weather (“Das ist heiss”).
A Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast, applying a serviette to my face, and he came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell (“Hölle! Hölle!”). His wife was Danish, a quite tasty blonde, twenty years younger. She appeared at reception as we were checking out and asked about the fire alarm that was going off, only to be told it was nichts, nur das verflixte Telefon. The woman at the desk was waving the receiver as she spoke.
On the way to Salzburg we got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on ebay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them to Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.
We were in Salzburg by 2pm and though it was a hot if reasonably short walk to the hotel, my companion wanted to make the most of the afternoon, in case it pissed rain the following day. We got the no. 3 trolley bus as far as Mirabell. On entering the gardens we passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said.
Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer Bierhaus, where two wasps had to be killed, one by me, one by the waiter (“Raus!”). My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the best, with the most stylish clobber. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. We retreated to the hotel early. The rooms had electric fans.
Though I didn’t hear anything, it rained for much of the night. The breakfast at the Guter Hirte was the best, with scrambled egg, scrambled rashers, little sausages, and then we did the Festung. These mist-covered mountains were all now to see. Anyway, across the river we climbed the Kapuzinerberg steps, though the greenery that hadn’t been there that snowy February curtailed the view.
Down from the hill, I had a look in the Shamrock and my February wingman, Daniel, was there on his own. He told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space. After there it was a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd gathered on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.
I had a few more in the Shamrock that night. At half past eight my pal had to leave. It seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. Only recently, he said, he’d opened the door onto Rudolfskai well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of indeterminate nationality in front of cops and onlookers.
After a hot dog at the Heisse Kiste Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke, I walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. The warm red light was on but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants. I didn’t have a theoretical hour to spare.
We left the hotel at ten the next morning. This time I had heard heavy rain but it was only gloomy out by then. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. These war wounded had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.
I managed to sleep a few minutes on the train to Munich. We dined across the street from the Hofbräuhaus, which was very hot and mental, on the evidence of a few seconds inside. What is it, though, about Bayerstrasse? This day I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec.