The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.
At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips as I called it a night. Stopping for a burger on an almost snowy evening, I’d soon try to catch up on the letter z. Miles to go yet.
A lot of the Saturday morning journey to Salzburg was spent talking to two young couples on the train. The Basque girls were from Bilbao, the Spanish boys from Madrid. They were all pleasant but there was something really mignon sweet about the dark girl who sat directly opposite. She smiled like we had a private joke, then she ducked her eyes or looked out the window. There was snow everywhere outside, though the sun was shining.
In Salzburg I walked to the Vogelweiderhof but there an Indian woman said that it, too, was overbooked. She blamed the Internet and mentioned a place called Elvido. She then called a taxi with the assurance that the hotel would pay for it. In the car, of course, the driver said that such wasn’t the case. He offered a receipt but even if she had been telling some kind of truth, what was I meant to do? Walk all the way back with it to reclaim six euro?
The Elvido on Rainerstrasse was a mystery joint that denied any access. Down by the Salzach, I thought of going to the hotel where I had a Monday booking to see if they could help. At the Staatsbrücke bridge two cops were checking their submachine guns and one popped a bullet from a clip out onto the ground. At the Goldenes Theater, out along Linzergasse, a girl with glasses got me into the nearby Hotel Mozart and I gave her a tenner, with thanks. At the other reception counter I gave the guy a fiver. When I came back down from the room he told me he’d been talking to the girl at the Goldenes Theater again on the phone about the weirdness of my story and how bad that kind of thing made Salzburg look.
On the way back to the river I slipped curiously up the narrow Steingasse to locate an address from the imagination of the Grimms. The house, in business since Mozart’s time, belonged deep in a wood and some day the red button beside the heavy door might have to be pushed but not this day. Douglas Adams may have found Innsbruck dull but it was there, full of beer and lying on the ground, looking up at the stars, that he thought of writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the few things I ever found funny in Adams was the scene where the chap on the spaceship could not resist pushing the red button.
Needing something to eat, I crossed the river and went into the Zipfer Bierhaus for a grill and a drink. That was at four. Around five I went down into the imaginatively named Shamrock pub to watch a rugby match. The barman was from Cork and before he finished his shift at eight he asked would I still be there if he came back later. I assured him I would be. I was.
An afternoon customer who returned was a man from Yorkshire but anyway his night would end badly after he got into an argument with a little Arab at the counter. Over a stool, I think. One of the other barmen told him he’d had enough and, outside, he took a swing at a bouncer with a shaved head. That only earned him a bloody nose, which then necessitated an ambulance, which could be observed on the quay through the high windows.
The fact that a strawberry blonde in her early thirties came over when I was full of drink in the by-then crowded bar (live band, Valentine’s night) must have meant that she liked the cut of my jib or else thought I was kind for helping a disabled girl get through the crowd to the toilets. My arm was around her and her hair was in my face. She asked why I didn’t just speak English to her, when German aphasia was setting in. I can’t have been that bad, though, because when it was all over I stopped at the Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke for a bottle of water. It was very late. The next morning, wired or not, I got a train to Innsbruck.
The landscape on the way was even snowier and I tried the email address she’d provided along with a phone number. She had a six-syllable name, like that of a ski jumper or an opera singer. Or both. In the mail I explained my German was a bit better today and asked her to meet on Monday for dinner or a coffee oder etwas zivilisiert. I’d made a mess of her number the night before by putting the code for Ireland in front of it. She replied to the mail sometime in the afternoon. Das ist wirklich sehr charmant von dir but she was already on her way back to Vienna. It turned out she was a shrink. Up to their necks in bulimics and anorexics, who knows?
I was in bed early in Innsbruck after heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain towers over the city, where shop fronts glowed though all were closed.
After a quiet Sunday evening meal near the Goldenes Dachl and a walk in the dark around the Altstadt, it was time to do nothing.
The hotel receptionist was young, a blonde, pleasant and looked a bit like the girl I’d met the night before, if that wasn’t the work of hangover goggles. After a restless, thirsty sleep, the Stadtturm was quite a tough climb the next morning. Up there the wire mesh prevents any jumping. The Olympic ski jumping slope lies to the south.
People who go to Austria to go skiing generally aren’t interested in the country, they are interested in the skiing, but the sight of a pair of stylishly suited and booted German-speaking women, in their sixties, nimbly boarding a city bus with their skis was a different matter. They were cool.
When I went back to the hotel for my bag, another girl was at reception. This one, with long dark hair, a sweet white smile and a great big rack, saw me away. Austrian women are solid. I read somewhere once that Alpine people were stocky. There was a lot of shapely girls in this neck of the woods who wouldn’t have been the first to die of starvation, god bless them.
The train passed through some thick fog before Salzburg but the sun still shone back there. The hotel was busy and after checking in I ended up back in the Zipfer B., for the same grill. A young shoe salesman sat down at the big wooden table. By the time he’d decided to stay and find a hotel, I’d noticed he was very keen on the beer. He said he’d driven over from Bavaria that day to get away from Fasching. He also explained that one piece of their folk wisdom was enough if one wanted to understand Bavarians – the view that if something wasn’t a complete disaster then it should be looked on as a success.
I left him there after three hours but said I’d be in the Shamrock later. After another shower, back at the hotel, I fell asleep for an hour. On getting to the pub I didn’t notice him at first but then overheard the Bavarian Al Bundy nearby, putting his oar into a couple who seemed to be English. He was locked by then and I wanted him to drink some water but I ended up with it. Leaning over the counter to tell the Austrian manager that there had been a misunderstanding, that the water was my recommendation for him, helped to clarify the situation.
“Es gab ein Missverständis. Das Wasser war meine Empfehlung für ihn.”
The manager then leant forward too.
“He’s an annoying prick who won’t get served anymore.”
After Al left, quietly at least, I got talking to that couple. The guy was English. He asked if I wanted to have a drink with them somewhere else and she nodded and smiled, so we went to O’Malley’s, which was right next door. These are the only places with any life, at least midweek.
Though from Swindon, he looked Middle Eastern but the top-heavy and good-looking blonde was from the Dutch-German border. He got harmlessly drunk while moving his arms to the likes of Oasis and Stereophonics on the speakers and she told me she’d had a stroke eighteen months earlier, as a result of which she’d put on twenty kilos and lost her job. I told her she was lovely and added she was lucky she wasn’t dead. Or worse.
He was with BMW and had a problem learning German, although, he claimed, knowing Turkish would have been more useful at work. Together eight years, she had two kids and they lived in Munich. This night was their anniversary. They were nice people. I drank very little.
In the morning nonetheless, Kapuzinerberg felt an even tougher climb than the Stadtturm, even forty-eight hours after waking up wrecked after Valentine’s Night, and even after the scrambled egg and scrambled rasher breakfast at the hotel, over which I could hear an Irish table, older than me, talking about hangovers.
Then I crossed the river and took the funicular up to Hohensalzburg. The heights were even brighter and we seemed to be above the zero-degree haze. Salzburg had a lot of well-wrapped beggars hunkered down; most but not all were gypsies but all seemed to call out cheerfully “Hallo!” or “Grüss Gott!” to passers-by. By the sound of them at least, they were the chirpiest homeless I’d ever come across.
In Munich Hauptbahnhof I got a spicy Vietnamese meal before the hotel. Later I had a couple of steins at the Hofbräuhaus where Fasching (carnival) was coming to an end. In the city centre a mechanised army of bin-men was clearing up a major mess. Overcast Munich was very cold the next day so I made it to the airport by half three. The flight was at five past eight. One guy on the street had asked for €2 for a coffee and then asked had I a heart but he was well dressed and he wasn’t even parked in a spot. I did give a euro to one with one leg, on Bayerstrasse.