In Vienna, two days after Christmas Day in 2015, I wasn’t half-finished. I had to get the airport train to Landstrasse, then the underground to the Westbahnhof and then another train to Linz, on which two hippie-ish German girls were yakking nearby for a while. The sun was shining. Having not looked up where Hotel Kolping was for quite some time, I had to ask three pretty young ladies for help on Bürgerstrasse in Linz. Two were surely sisters and maybe even twins – the same black-rimmed glasses and stylish highlights. Late teens. I was on the wrong side of Landstrasse but at least on the right north-south echelon of it. The Hotel Kolping lies behind the casino. After checking in, paying and having a shower, I stopped for a hot dog at the twin of the Bosner Eck stand before heading to the river.
Past Hauptplatz the Danube bridge crosses to the Urfahr end. The car lights shone through the murk as an icy mist blew up from the water.
Back on Hauptplatz I found the Old Dubliner pub down a long tunnel. The pretty young barmaid didn’t know what a hot whiskey was so I had a bottle of Weizenbier instead. I had five of them, though my eyes at times were stinging with the smoke, long banned in Ireland, as the place filled up. It was small and dark but there was a lot of people then and it was quite amazing how the girl handled it all alone. She was an engineering student. Some people were coming to the counter, some were ordering from tables, some were paying up front, some were running a tab.
The guy next to me at the counter had come in with someone with short hair and glasses. I thought it was a young lad at first but it turned out to be his wife. The chap himself wouldn’t have looked out of place among the crew of U-96 (Das Boot), down with all the scraggy beards and hunted eyes. He said the informal people of Upper Austria hadn’t much use for Sie, except with Polizei und Richter (police and judges). He ordered something that looked like a grilled slice of a large brown loaf, with some pizza toppings. He told me what it was called (I forget) and then I had it too. According to him, it had been a traditional meal for poor people working im Wald (in the woods).
I also got to know the barmaid’s name – Laura – and kissed her extended hand. That kind of thing didn’t please a lad – her boyfriend, I presumed – at a crowded table where she took a break in a lull around ten. I spotted her looking around at me as he started to complain but, whatever she said in response, she cooled his boots. I was old enough to be her father.
Anyway, I was about to leave. I didn’t want to be wrecked in the morning. I wanted to get to Mauthausen.
Sitting on the toilet lid in the morning just before a shower at nine brought a life first. It shattered and my arse plunged south. I’d often seen people sit on toilet lids for one reason or another in films but I’d never seen that happen there either. On the way to the breakfast room I confessed at reception. The lady said there was no need to pay for it. In other words I hadn’t blown up the mini-bar or anything like that. It was only a piece of plastic.
The train to Mauthausen took only about twenty minutes. There were no taxis at the station and I did the 5k winding hike uphill to the camp. “This is some hike, man,” I said to myself before I realized that the phrase rhymed with Eichmann. When I got high enough away from the wet Danube fog, the sun lightened the soup but I still could see f*ck all except some of the road in front. I was even wondering was it just the murk or was it the effort of the climb too. I started wiping (steam?) off my glasses. Higher again, the sun was just beginning to burn off some of the fog in the afternoon. The Lager loomed, finally, as a long stone fort of no great height on top of the hill. A woman at the visitors’ centre – a concrete maze – told me it was closed and she unlocked a door to get me a brochure – so I wasn’t going to see the gas chamber – but she added I could walk around the exterior. Past the monuments, now the highest fog had cleared, there was a piece or two of metal building site fencing across the top of the path down to the Todesstiege (death stairs) and the quarry but it was possible to get around that with no trouble. This was the place I most wanted to see. I was the only one down there, where the fog was brightly waxing and waning. At the time it didn’t feel eerie. Oddly peaceful and even beautiful, by the black pond below the cliff, the site proved the birds did sing. I’d even heard a distant cock but the suffering that was inflicted there was and is just unimaginable.
Forty nationalities were consigned to hell in that place. It was like the UN of concentration camps. There is even a monument to the Albanians. Of the 23,000 Spaniards who had fled to France in 1939 to escape from Franco only to end up at Mauthausen or one of its satellite camps, 16,000 were killed. All the first consignment of Dutch Jews sent here in 1942 were thrown off the quarry cliff that the SS nicknamed die Fallschirmspringer Wand, the Parachutists’ Wall. Many other prisoners saved the SS the trouble and just jumped.
On the way back up the leafy Todesstiege I counted the 186 steps, stopping to straighten my legs on nos. 75, 100 & 130, though I wasn’t carrying any granite block. I took a look then around the back of the camp. Though the entrance is on the left-hand side, where I got a photo of the gravelly yard via the gap under the wooden gates of the entrance arch, the front is really the long side wall facing the road. Anyway, around the back there was no wall but a fence topped with barbed wire. The remaining huts could be seen across a wide open space drenched in sunshine.
From there the descent into the fog gloomily took me back to Mauthausen village where I bought a shirt and some t-shirts in a C&A, thinking I hadn’t brought enough. Before the pub that night I got a tasty Bosner from the Bosner Eck. Then I walked up to the Schloss and took more photos on the way. There was a different girl working in the Old Dubliner, a slim girl with some Italian features (e.g. black hair, a higher nose bridge) but with rather Germanic pale eyes. Though the place was busy again, she wasn’t under as much pressure, as the orders weren’t flying in like the night before. Letting her keep the change out of a €20 note surprised her (“Eh, Danke schön”), unsurprisingly, over there, where they don’t expect much of a tip, but letting Laura keep change had been a pleasure. I’d had four drinks, during which time I got talking to a bespectacled young darts fan called Jakob, with a shaved head and a goatee, who was only into the darts on TV because some Austrian had qualified for the last whatever of the world championship. He wasn’t the only person during this trip to ask, Warum Österreich? I quoted Christoph Waltz and he interpreted the parallel as wie ein kleiner Bruder. On the way back I had another Bosner, this time from the other of the twin stands. This one was OK but it wasn’t as good as the first. I hadn’t wanted the Bosner Eck woman to think she couldn’t keep those dogs pucked out to me.
Over there, despite the lights, I could forget it was Christmas. I was missing the sixth Irish storm of the season (“Frank”) too, though it hadn’t stopped raining there in the meantime. In the morning I went to the Lentos Kunstmuseum where I bought a lot of postcards, including three of Kokoschka’s Die Freunde, which up close looks like it was painted with his fingers. After a short stop at the Neuer Dom it was time to head to Steyr.
On the train a Pakistani paterfamilias – who smelled slightly of shit, the smell of poverty – wanted to know where they should get off (St. Valentin) and change for Grein. One of his hijab-ed teenage girls told me, “Speak English” but, when I asked her if she could, she indicated with her fingers that it was only a little bit she knew. I didn’t know if any of them understood anything but at least they got off at the correct stop.
The train got to Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend like the Waterford Blackwater’s on the Enns that here meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairytale town. I had to enter another tunnel, on Stadtplatz, and head upstairs to find the reception area of the Stadthotel Styria. The guy at the desk looked like Tom Petty. The room was quite luxurious. The two nights there were dearer than Linz. I had an hour’s kip and then a bath. There was even an armchair with a round coffee table beside it.
I had to go out and find something to eat. Wandering around, I saw the streets were practically empty. Here and there I could smell something nice but the only outdoor menu I checked, on Enns Kai, had indecipherable handwriting. It was more hurried than Gothic. Finally I read the one outside the Hotel Mader, which was almost next door to mine. The girl at the first counter directed me down the back, through another tunnel, and I saw three more dining rooms, plus a bar. There was life alright but the Upper Austrian love of tunnels kept it off the streets.
A club sandwich plus wedges did the trick, despite a nearby table of yakking Germans, and then I wandered over to Steyrdorf again. Back in the hotel by ten, I didn’t even want to go to a pub that night. Crossing back over the Steyr river, I’d climbed to the Schloss. A bird was hooting in the wood of the Schloss park behind it but sounded a bit high-pitched for an owl. Empty dark alleys around there were less spooky than dreamlike.
After no drink, bar a single dunkel in the Mader the night before, while eating, I still didn’t sleep very well. A pair of cleaning women had the window thrown open when I got back from breakfast around ten. I went over to the spot at the end of the Enns bridge outside the Hotel Minichmayr to film the meeting of the waters. There were seagulls here, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy. On the way there I sneaked a few snaps of a cute little female postie with glasses. She wore a woolly cap and a black and yellow jacket. She was young. She had a matching little black and yellow van. That time I didn’t stay out long. The morning was cold so I returned to the hotel for my jumper. Shirt and heavy jacket weren’t enough. Then I knew I had to get some more sleep.
Out again in the afternoon, I wandered around to the churches. I must have got the habit. The sun was half-out. Then in the Christmas market on the Stadtplatz I ate another Bosner. I counted three elderly German-speaking tourist groups passing by. The dog was followed by two mugs of Glühwein, from two different huts. Next stop was the Café Werndl for a Fiaker (basically a rum shot that just smells of coffee) and what proved to be a small block of Sachertorte, with Schlagobers.
Further wandering over in Steyrdorf ended at nightfall. In the murky interior of the Michaelerkirche I suddenly heard organ music but it was only the ringtone of a guy who appeared out of nowhere and who hadn’t even taken off his cap off. The wind near water felt like being out at sea. That evening again someone was setting off fireworks somewhere across the Enns. Travel is a mixture of slogging from A to B and onward but also spending a lot of time thrown in bed relaxing and even writing. That was my experience. In this country, as in Italy, or even France, there always seemed to be a lot of steps to be climbed too.
At an English pub in Steyrdorf, by the name of Sir Patrick, one also had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.
The place wasn’t busy and I left after three drinks. At least it wasn’t full of smoke. I tried the noisy Treff Café on Enns Kai then but (1) I couldn’t find the jacks and (2) if I wanted alcoholic Weizenbier I had to go/do somewhere/something a nice young girl behind the counter said but I didn’t catch. At a normal bar counter I shouldn’t have had to understand so I gave up and didn’t even ask her to repeat it. I was back in the hotel room by eleven. The mini-bar was going to get a little hit.
There was an ancient minibus doing the rounds outside in daylight, more magnolia than pale yellow, with “Christkindl” painted on its side, and every time it turned up in the Stadtplatz it blared the same two pairs of notes, like a ship’s horn. The first pair rose, the second pair fell. It did this again before it departed. The nearer you were to it, the more annoying it got.
In the crisp sunshine of New Year’s Eve I was heading back to Linz because it was cheaper and simpler to get to back to Vienna that way. It was gone noon. I didn’t fancy drinking that night either. Maybe I’d go to Stephansplatz later. My man from Das Boot had recommended that. When the whole Christmas season was over – it is literally a season now in terms of how long it feels – I’d be thinking back to moments like this. The sun was shining and I was travelling comfortably on a quiet train. A little bit tired (no hangovers), I got a boost from a Semmel I’d filled again at breakfast time. It was a good day to travel.
The Westbahn train from Linz was crowded but I easily found the hotel after getting the U-Bahn to Alser Strasse. Three young Italians were taking a long time to check in but, when these other guests around reception cleared off, I ended up talking to the man behind the counter, comparing the death tolls of the Irish and Ukrainian famines. He didn’t want to pin the latter on Stalin, just “die Moskau Regierung” (the Moscow government), and I wasn’t going to argue with him about the 1930s. Not on New Year’s Eve. He must have asked me something about Ireland for us to jump on to that topic but in fairness he was curious about Irish dancing as well. He imitated the arms held down by the dancers’ sides, a style I explained was ordained by the puritanical priesthood. Das war ein Befehl von den Priestern. Sonst, zu sexy.
Anyway, I dropped the bag in the room and set off to find Berggasse and Freud’s apartment, even though I presumed it would be closed. It wasn’t. It was packed. A mixed French group pushed the street door ahead of me. Upstairs a stubbly Frenchman with a woolly cap didn’t bother going in. His wife turned to him. Tu restes au café en face? He chuckled and nodded. Il y a un sex shop en face.
A little video of a couple of Freud’s hats in a glass case and the preserved waiting room beside them was a good memento to come away with but, before leaving Berggasse, I also took a photo from the street of the lit windows on the first floor. The people jumping the ‘queue’ to swarm around the entrance desk had been more of an illustration of Alinsky’s key psychological principle – that people only push to get on a bus which they think has limited seating – than anything Freudian. Schlange means both queue and snake in German but there, one couldn’t dream of either.
The temperature had dropped below zero and my legs froze as I kept walking, having passed a locked-up Irish pub I’d looked up, on Landesgerichtstrasse. Ending up in the Museumsquartier, I said I’d keep going and get something to eat in Flanagan’s. A hot whiskey prepared by the manager thawed me out and I didn’t ask him about food, having already stopped for a final Bosner. Though the single sausage had looked more like a Käsekrainer, it was just as well I’d had it, as there was no sign of anyone eating in the pub. After a beer to follow the whiskey, I slipped away. A place like that is too much like home and only alright for one or two at most, if you want to keep it country. Another country.
The hotel room window, even if it had been double glazed, which it wasn’t, couldn’t compete with the fireworks and bangers. I got back around ten, having wandered through the crowds in the lit-up Innere Stadt. They were enjoying the amenities (food, drink, music). Before turning into the hotel I strolled to the far end of Theresiengasse just for a look and to kill more time. Ganz Wien was blaring from some open third-floor windows on Kreuzgasse, as I passed that junction. A Falco moment. Once more my legs were feeling the cold so I called it a night.
Talking again to the man at the desk, I found out he was from Kiev. My impression that he missed the USSR was reinforced. He was proud of Nikita Khruschev and Ukrainian generals and a nearby monument to the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. I’d have guessed he didn’t care much for Jews either, though all he did was express sympathy for the Palestinians. Woher kamen diese Juden? (‘Where did those Jews come from?’) He told me his two sons were soccer players but I didn’t want to peer too hard at his name tag to get the surname. Something ending in -ov, I thought. It was raining firework debris on the roofs and the racket was quite intense. There were sirens too, now and then. The curtains were closed. He didn’t look at all Slavonic. He was swarthy and reminded me of some actor, such as Lee J. Cobb (smile, voice, moustache) or Pernell Roberts or a combination of both. A group he said were from Odessa then emerged from the lift and when one of them came over to talk to him I said goodnight.
Though he’d claimed Rokossovsky was Ukrainian, that invited a later check. The Marshal was of Polish origin and spent almost three years as a prisoner of the state from 1937 until his release without explanation in 1940, during which time he somehow never signed any false statement. He later told his daughter that he always carried a revolver so they would not take him alive if they ever came for him again.
Up at half past eight on New Year’s Day, I opened the curtains. That revealed some snow on the windowsill. It was still snowing at the airport. The plane needed de-icing. Before leaving the hotel I’d asked a different chap at reception if the Christian name of the man from Kiev was what I’d thought it was. He found it amusing when I added that we’d had a long conversation, like it was nothing new.