The girls are in dirndls. Usually pink, with a darker apron and neckerchief and a waist-cinching bodice of black velveteen, buttoned up under old-fashioned chests. Puff-sleeves of white starched blouses. They wear this folkloric costume quite unselfconsciously, about their everyday jobs, in bank or supermarket alike. This is a feminist’s nightmare.
The apple-cheeked men are in lederhosen or some dark green Knickerbocker equivalent of the same, laced at the knee and stoutly supported by colorful galluses (Brit braces), with a sort of crossover martingale strap striving to join them in front and keep that beer in order. Under the chestnut trees of the park a brass band brays out oompah-pah Styrian marches while well-behaved, self-possessed blonde children play beside a river, its panes of white water happy to have escaped the gorges above whose snowy peaks and glacial streaks look severely down on mere man.
But it’s no good: one can’t write about the picture-perfect Salzkammergut any more than one can photograph it, during one of its mountain villages’ religious festivals, such as that of Corpus Christi. At some point in such festivities everyone takes to the benches of the Kurpark to scoff bratwurst and beer, the ladies included. Truck drivers and construction workers alike wear some tribute to local costume, generally the so-called Tyrolean hat, showing its variety of shaving brushes in the band. Hansel-and-Gretel children, entirely unrehearsed, offer the visitor bunches of narcissi—without the panhandler’s paper cup of New York’s subway “system” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). There are no drugs, there is no inebriation, though I am surprised by the number of cigarettes dangling from the fingers of these dirndled maidens and cheery locals.
For this, folks, is the heart of the Salzkammergut, echt Austria if you will, that bucolic area of astonishing beauty familiar to everyone but for the two or three human beings on planet Earth who didn’t see the Julie Andrews movie The Sound of Mucous. Happily lodged, at Bad Aussee I watched its festival of the local narcissus flower held at the end of each May, replete with parades and processions from surrounding villages, flower floats of great ingenuity (to take to the water on boats at nearby Grundlsee), marching bands, and, natch, a Miss Narcissus-Queen, a local girl with a smile of riveting wattage. About fifty thousand invaded Bad Aussee for the thirty-second such, and there wasn’t a scrap of litter to be seen when they had left.
With its manicured meadows and deep blue waters, those of lake Toplitz supposedly guarding Nazi gold, this region lies to the southeast of Salzburg and owes its name to the salt mines that provided local employment for centuries and can still be visited (the Habsburg art treasures were sheltered in them in the last war, as were some of the British National Gallery’s treasures in a salt mine in Cheshire). The Salzkammergut has always been obstinately independent and egalitarian, little lakeside Alt Aussee even spurning the approaches of His Apostolic Majesty Franz Joseph I in 1850. The area proudly wore the see of Kammergut, or crown land, independent of Mozart’s city (though I saw two splendid flower floats dedicated to the composer who died in poverty and seems to be supporting much of Austria’s tourism today). To one from Manhattan these lovingly tended flowers and families seem so idyllic as to be caricatures acted out. But it is all quite natural, a daily way of life.
Apart from neighboring Germans, not too many tourists seem to want to penetrate it off-season, at least as far down as to Bad Aussee and Mittendorf, whereas Salzburg year-round is inundated with bus-borne armies that make it impossible to move around its Innere Stadt at all, let alone get the feel of its charm. I haven’t been to the Louvre lately, but the Brueghel room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorische is a rugger scrum. I am reminded of those days just after the war when, if you knew someone in the Vatican, you could see the Sistine ceiling—alone.
The countryside in the heart of the Salzekammergut is by contrast almost too good to be true: villages like St. Wolfgang (home of the White Horse Inn), Bad Ischl, Hallstatt, this last with its glorious lake site yet depressing bone bin by the upper church; lacking land, Hallstatt apparently buries its dead until they are skeletonic, when they are literally piled up, one on top of another, in a church-side charnel house (no entry fee, but contribution accepted). Mostly it’s timbered inns, Gothic churches (of great antiquity), shuttered houses, their handcarved gingerbread wood balconies boxed bright with geraniums (and plump cats), all decorating the bright green meadows and the silent lakes where the immaculate swans keep guard. From the Loser peak high above Altaussee I watched hang gliders taking off over some of the most sumptuous scenery in the world.
So far these have not been spoilt. Modern Austria enjoys a high sophistication of appurtenance. Its roads are the best in Europe, its drivers the most disciplined. The latest technology of Japan and the wizardry of nearby Switzerland jostle in store windows. Hygiene—as witness my own stupefaction before various men’s room gadgetries— seems at some science-fiction high, roadside toilets putting to shame those in most American doctors’ offices. Supererogatory health is everywhere emphasized. Joggen is a German verb here.
It must perhaps be confessed that contemporary art of consequence is inconspicuous in these parts, as also to some extent in Vienna. Seven vast tourist buses were lined up when I went to see the Hundertwasser attempts, recently opened, to convert housing-style buildings into poor paintings (imitated in Hamburg now). The intellection is feeble, and the playful, childlike nature of the interpretation bounces back from these bleak walls. It is minor “art,” or architecture.
Not so the well mounted Kokoschka exhibition in the Freyung, not far from St. Stephen’s square, now so well preserved from automobile traffic. I left the Belvedere in sunshine and in mobs, all doubtless to be yelled at in front of the incomparable Klimts, and Schieles, to find very few interested in “O.K.,” as he liked to sign himself. I have never liked him as a painter, seeing him as the source of someone like de Kooning who simply tore him up and made him as ugly as possible; but I admired him as a man (bayoneted in the trenches, after all, then blown up by a grenade). This new Sammlung opened my eyes. O.K. does not do well in reproduction, his fiery vision being ironed out flat. Besides, he could draw.
If Vienna was its usual handsome self, it was generally jammed with tourists, and I was happy to return to Bad Aussee and its admirable old hotel, the Erzherzog Johann; Gault/Millaut has done Austria but to date Michelin has not. When it does, the Erzherzog should wear a lot of red and many stars.
As should the Salzkammergut. Grüss Gott!