Venturing from the Alpine guesthouse she runs after months in lockdown, Natasha Hecher explores Austria as it reemerges from Covid-19, with Mozart as her muse.
The First Movement
At this moment, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lies a mere 100 meters away from me in the Old Town (Altstadt) of Salzburg, Austria. Whilst I scribble on parchment by candlelight, I should probably listen to some of his works. Should it be a sonata or a requiem? Probably both.
Kinda like my fluctuating moods during isolation. If I could be bothered to put on a bra, then it was a sonata. If it was wine for breakfast in a leopard-print onesie, the requiem. Constantly flipping between C major and D minor.
Traveling during this time feels much the same, aside from my choice of attire.
I ventured out from my Alpine hamlet on a cautious expedition before the borders opened – targeting destinations that I had previously dismissed for their tourist overflow. Because when else would I get the opportunity to explore places in such a manner? The empty streets leave time for alternate tones while pondering the new face of travel.
My backpack was ready to go some months ago (this trilling restlessness is often referred to as Fernweh). Not only had I been I in isolation alone for seven weeks, but my habit — as soon as the ski season had finished, the last guest checked out, and the door to my pension is locked — is to go a-wandering until December. Even though this last ski season ended abruptly with a frightening, en masse evacuation, the yearning crept up. To keep my sanity amid the chaos, I dreamt of past and future adventures while simultaneously exploring the nuances of my well-hidden introvert.
Once hotels started opening, I boarded the train with gusto. It was close to empty, the conductors keeping a safe distance. A sign specified that face masks were to be worn on public transport and in public areas at all times. But the dining cars were still open. How does one eat while wearing a face mask? Not a desirable ensemble.
I began in Innsbruck — a town I am acutely familiar with — and checked into Stage 12. As I walked in and looked to the right, the bar appeared to be busy. Only they weren't people but rather mannequins. A clever way to adhere to social distancing. After such a long quarantine, they actually looked very attractive and were a nice alternative to talking to the tree in my backyard. I called my mannequin Klaus. Or Matthias. Or something. I can't remember, as we got pretty tipsy.
I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow description, but the next day I went to the hairdresser for a blow dry and, possibly, another unmentionable treatment that subtly supports my insistence that I am a natural blonde. Wearing a mask for three hours at the salon was just not the same. There was no delicate Prosecco sipping, just formal interaction with no gossip. (I am not sure why I said "just," as there is nothing normal about not having a gossip with your hairdresser.) I felt a sense of trepidation, from both clients and stylists, as both the former and latter often smiled from a distance and said, "Sheisse corona." No shit.
I spent a few days of catching up with friends at the Kitzbühel Golf Club, but this is more aptly demonstrated with a sophisticated picture. And yes, there were people playing golf: Watching them tee-off from Kaps Steakhouse, where head chef Kevin Donovan works his magic, was a spectator sport in itself. The high-society that encapsulates the Glitz of Kitz was in good form and seemed relieved to be naturally blonde again — and for this there was glass tinkling and golf claps all round.
My next intended destination was to be the town of Hallstatt, the most Instagrammed spot in Austria, but, as the forecast was for rain, I decided to save it until the weekend. My amended travel plans saw me heading to Salzburg on a quiet train once again.
The Second Movement
This brings us back to the present, where perhaps being in the proximity of such unbridled genius has simultaneously replenished the brain cells culled off at the golf club and also inspired me to write. Splurging on a decadent hotel — Gasthof Goldgasse — may also have play a part. My internal negotiation system resolved that it seemed a reasonable expense, as it does not look like I will need the euros for international flights in the immediate future.
I have never been here before, and yearned to see it quiet, and that it is.
The squares are empty, but I can imagine they are normally filled with buskers, musicians, and not only the culture of Mozart but also Mozart's Balls being force-fed to visitors. I'm not being dirty. A very kitsch confection local purveyed in abundance is the Mozartkugeln found in the windows of all of the shuttered souvenir stores.
Only a few souls in black jackets wander from baroque to romantic spots on drizzly cobblestoned streets. I am the lone tourist.
The hotel staff are admirable in all distancing precautions. There is of course disinfectant on arrival, and everyone is required to wear a mask and maintain physical distance. A sign in my room assures me it has been duly sanitized. I had a conversation with Ulrika, the receptionist who is much more than a receptionist. She is a saucy, middle-aged minx — the ultimate advocate for Wolford stockings — and a consummate professional with hilarious, dry humor. I encourage you to to drag out the "R" in her name with a feisty growl.
Some points she made chimed so very true. While she was happy to be open again and have her vocation (and income) back in order, she admitted to a sense of trepidation as no one is wants anything else to go wrong. Because what if something does, and what if it is traced back to the hotel?
We've all been asking ourselves these questions about the whats, ifs, and hows for months, but we're still in the middle of it. In the hotel's case, their carefully cultivated reputation could be gone as quickly as our freedoms were in March. These are the themes I have pondered over the months as a guesthouse bad-ass lady boss in the Austrian Alps. Even though my next winter season is a safe distance away, it is close enough for me to already start worrying.
I tried to cure all this overthinking with retail therapy, but I can't say it helped, despite being the first day of the mid-year sales. Shopping also has intricate and perplexing issues. Why is one permitted to go into a store, try on clothes, and try to social distance — even when you and the sales assistant are both touching hangers? Why bother wearing a mask if I breathe on merchandise as I pull it over my head? It is a peculiar dichotomy, and not something that I have reached a comfortable relationship with.
Following dinner in an empty restaurant, I got a small aperitif from the mini bar and sat on the tiny bench outside Mozart's birthplace to siphon for myself an essence of genius. Much more appealing to me than the fountain of youth.
What will my next movements be?
The Third Movement
There is a small possibility that I didn't note the public holiday and sunshine forecast for the weekend, and the fanfare has picked up considerably. I called in the cavalry: a friend who was celebrating her birthday and feeling slightly melancholy about having been enclosed in the valley with the same people and the same faces for so long. By lunchtime she had arrived.
The last two days we've been exploring the streets, with much laughter and delicious food: After all, it is white asparagus season here. During our long lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant at Goldgasse, we had a particularly wonderful server whose sophisticated, clear plastic mask allowed us to see her beautiful smile.
In most touristy European destinations, you can normally find the focus on not only the historical center but also the bridges weighed down by kitschy declarations of love like proposals and padlocks. Not my thing. But I gotta say, a lone busker in harmony with an acceptable sunset on the near empty Markarsteg was quite poignant. I may have temporarily exercised some empathy.
Gradually, the buskers go home. I try and spare some change, but not for the guy playing "My Heart Will Go On" on the violin near a fountain. There is no space for such negativity in my life.
My friend has now left, and I feel tendrils of trepidation creeping in. The borders are open and with them an influx of people, many of whom have no consideration for social distancing. Kids everywhere, eating ice cream and putting their sticky paws on everything: No shiny surface or window is safe. I see bars packed, with flirting in full force. Me? I was good with my mannequin, thanks.
The opening of the borders and being here has crossed a few of the lines I drew for myself when it comes to caution. Traveling in Northern Myanmar (my other home) alone for five weeks and finding myself on the back of a drunk, 12-year-old kid's motorbike is one thing. But in Covid exploration terms, the behavior I'm seeing in Salzburg feels reckless.
The Fourth Movement
Alas, dear reader, my final movement of this amateur chord-flipping composition finds me in the confines of my kitchen, having made a stealthy retreat. It's not Salzburg; it's me. Seeing the Salzburg that I wished for was a unique experience, but there's a but.
Perhaps I would have marched on had it not been for the ten days of rain forecast and my mental overstimulation. I felt secure in this decision after I arrived back in Arlberg on an overcrowded train bound for Zurich. In more ways than one, I left in one world and came back in another, and I feel that I got to walk a very rare bridge leading to the beginning of the new normal.
Now that I am not feeling so flat and my washing is done, I'm considering backtracking on the backpacking. For years I have expanded my comfort zone through travel and new experiences, but I have also trusted my instincts. Being in self-isolation for such a long time — aside from a few geriatric neighbors waving from their balconies — and not being able to travel was out of my comfort zone. I became used to solitude, the mountains surrounding me, and the walks within them. I think I'll go up and down those paths a little more for now and spend my time in overnight stays in huts, on three-day wanders in the Alps, supporting local businesses, with maybe an occasional mid-week venture farther afield.
A different me in a different world.
This is by no means the end of my movement. It's just a little less allegro and a little more andante.