To Vienna and beyond

V Melk Abbey BLOG

 

IN 1971, I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT. That year, I made my first unaccompanied trip abroad. I was travelling by ferry and rail to Vienna and beyond. My late mother, who was very worried about how I would fare, wanted me to stay in a decent hotel for my first night on the Continent. That was to be in Cologne (Köln) in what was then West Germany. Back in 1971, there was no Internet to look up hotels in Cologne or anywhere else for that matter. The only guidebook to Germany in my possession was a pre-1914 Baedeker guide to The Rhine. Amongst the few hotels listed in the book in the entry for Cologne was a Dom Hotel. I rang the international telephone directory operator and asked if the place still existed. It did, and still does, and she supplied the number. I rang the Dom and booked a room for one night. My mother was happy about this, and said that as soon as I arrived, I was to ring her from the hotel.

I set off from London with my luggage in a metal framed canvas rucksack, kindly lent to me by my uncle Sven. I arrived in Cologne in the early evening and soon arrived at the very grand Dom Hotel, the ‘poshest’ in Cologne, in the late afternoon. It was a short distance from the Hauptbahnhof. I was greeted at the bottom of the steps leading up to its main entrance by a liveried doorman. He asked me for my luggage. So, I handed him my well-used rucksack. He held it gingerly as if it were a rat that had been dead for several days. At great expense, I telephoned my mother to assure her that I had survived the journey so far. From then on, she seemed to lose interest in my well-being during my adventure. I was not required to send progress reports back home.

After Cologne, I spent every night in a youth hostel or similar. From Cologne, I travelled by train to Würzburg, where I was planning to see the brilliant paintings by the Venetian painter Tiepolo inside the city’s Würzburger Residenz. Between Frankfurt and Würzburg, there was a middle-aged lady in my compartment. She wore what looked to me like very old-fashioned traditional German clothes including a hat with a feather stuck in its hat band. As the afternoon light began to fail, we began travelling through hilly country. I had just enough German to understand that the barely visible hills we were passing were the Spessart Hills. She told me that they were very beautiful. I have no idea why I remember her telling me about those hills. The next day, having spent a night in a comfortable youth hostel, I fulfilled my desire to view the Tiepolo wall and ceiling paintings.

At each of the German youth hostels in which I stayed, there was a different method employed to wake the guests in the morning. At Würzburg, A young man playing a flute wandered from dormitory to dormitory. At Munich, where I stayed one night, the morning call was someone shouting “Raus, Raus!”, which immediately conjured up thoughts about POW camps in Germany during WW2.

I decided to attend an opera performance on my first night in Munich. I bought the cheapest ticket for Berg’s “Wozzeck”. I note from the Internet that the opera was performed in Munich on March the 23rd 1971, which helps to date my trip. The ticket I bought allowed me to see the opera from the highest tier of the auditorium. When I arrived in my casual travelling clothes, I was the only man in the audience not dressed in formal evening wear. I enjoyed the opera from my eyrie near the ceiling of the theatre.

The following morning just after I had eaten a very modest breakfast, I met my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, at the famous Hofbrauhaus. We had arranged this sometime earlier when we were both in London. Each of us ordered a large stein of lager, probably a litre each. We chatted and drank in one of the establishment’s large noisy halls. Then, we went our own ways. I walked to the railway station with my rucksack on my back. It seemed to me that the hitherto flat pavements had become wavy. The alcohol had gone to my head.

My uncle Felix had recommended that I should make a stop at Linz in Austria in order to visit an interesting monastery nearby. I enjoyed the trip from Linz to Sankt Florian in what looked like an antique tram. The composer Anton Bruckner was associated musically with Sankt Florian.

From Linz, I travelled eastwards to another town with an important monastery. The monastery at Melk is perched on a hill overlooking the Rhine. I spent a night in the town’s youth hostel before continuing eastwards.

Deliberately, I overshot Vienna and continued from there by bus to the small town of Rust on Lake Neusiedl. The water of this shallow lake is shared between Austria and neighbouring Hungary. I was told that if the wind blows hard, the lake shifts position: more of it moves into Hungary or into Austria depending on the wind direction.  From Rust, little could be seen of the lake apart from endless beds of reeds. I was the only guest at the youth hostel because it was so early in the year. At night, I was left alone in the hostel. As I lay waiting to be overcome by sleep, I could hear an incessant croaking of a multitude of frogs coming from the direction of the lake. This strange sound did not help me fall asleep.

The next day, I took a bus to Mörbisch am See, a village on the lake, close to Austria’s border with the then communist Hungary. I asked a village shopkeeper if I could leave my heavy rucksack in his shop so that I could take a stroll. My aim, which was fulfilled, was to see for myself the notorious ‘Iron Curtain’. I walked south of the village and soon spotted the tall watch towers overlooking the no man’s land between the two countries. I only crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time about ten years later. Then, I hurried back to the village because I knew that there was a bus about to leave for Vienna at noon. The bus was waiting. I asked the driver to delay departure while I collected my rucksack. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for its lunch break. The forbearing bus driver helped me find someone to unlock the shop. We set off for Vienna.

My father had an American secretary called Nancy Berg. She and her husband had very kindly torn out and given me the pages about Vienna from their copy of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day”. From this useful source of information, I discovered that there was an extremely cheap, centrally located hostel near Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. This was no ordinary hostel. It was subterranean. It had been a bomb-proof underground shelter built by the Nazi Germans. The rooms were somewhat spartan, but each was served by an air-conditioning system that had been installed by the Nazis. The hostel required guest to leave the premises between 8 am and 4 pm. This was not a problem because there was so much for me to explore in and around Vienna.  The hostel was good value as was almost everything else in the city. In 1971, £1 Sterling was worth 80 Austrian Schilling. About ten years later, when I next passed through Austria, £1 only bought 20 Austrian Schilling.

I ate most meals at the popular Rathauskeller under the City Hall, which served good food at very reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed ‘Gulaschsuppe’. One memorably enjoyable meal was at Grinzing at one of its Heurige, or wine taverns. I was not alone there. My friend Michael Jacobs had arrived in Vienna, where he was about to study German for a few months. He joined me and some other people, friends of my Uncle Felix. They were a couple in Vienna, whom my uncle had met. He was very keen that I should meet them. They invited me to afternoon at their residence in the city. It was a fine day and we sat on their terrace. I remember being given a cup of tea and a warm soft-boiled egg in its shell at the same moment. I had never been given this combination before. I hoped that it was not the local habit to break the egg into the tea. Had it been, I am sure that I would have not been able to even sip the strange mixture that would have resulted. Fortunately for me, the egg was designed to be consumed separately. I introduced Michael to this pleasant couple, and they became good friends.

By the time I travelled to Vienna, I had become a fan of the Dreigroschen Oper (Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. I had a gramophone record of the main songs in this work, which I never tired of hearing. Most people will be familiar with one of its opening songs, “Mack the Knife”. Many years later, I discovered a recording one of Ella Fitzgerald’s renderings of this song to a ‘live’ audience, during which she forgets the words following the first half of it. As luck would have it, there was a performance of the opera while I was in Vienna. I sat spellbound, listening to it at the city’s Volksoper.   

Amongst Vienna’s many attractions, there were several that I particularly enjoyed. One of these was the magnificent fairground at the Prater. This was on a scale I had never seen before. The Soviet War Memorial also sticks in my mind. I loved walking amongst the stalls in a street market that ran along the banks of a canal. Many of the stalls sold food from a part of Europe that I had not yet visited but wanted to: the Balkans and Communist Eastern Europe. Seeing road signs in Vienna pointing to places such as Bratislava and Budapest, both behind the Iron Curtain, thrilled me. I was also delighted by my visits to the Albertina art museum, Schönbrunn Palace on the edge of the city, and the Belvedere within the city.

It is curious that many details of my first ‘solo’ trip to mainland Europe remain in my mind but the return to London by train has left me no memories at all. I can only suppose that I travelled back without making any intermediate stops before reaching the English Channel. One thing that I regret is that I have mislaid the photographs, which I know that I took on this trip. I have an idea that they might be in a remote storage place that we rent on the outskirts of London. This is not accessible at present and even if it were, it might take hours or days sifting through what is being stored there to find them.

 

Photo: Melk Abbey from Wikimedia Commons

 

Hotel Lokomotiv

IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was  becoming a renowned travel writer.

 

SOPRON 1

Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.

On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway).  Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.

The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop — only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang…

Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.

After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary.  To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.

The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.

After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.

On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:

Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”  

I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.

After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:

You like wine?

I replied that I did.

Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.

“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.

We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.

During our drinking session, my friend said to me:

It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York.  But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”

Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.

Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”

By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.

I will take you there,” he said slurring.

As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:

Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”

With that, we parted company.

I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.