The web page of the ABPress based in Oxford and Sibiu, soon open for business: muses and misspells on its books. Randomly decrepit, stiff joints, possibly neo-bankrupt: so out of touch it needs help, but so analogue it cannot be helped. Nonetheless temperamentally enthusiastic, moderately irascible.
Salzburg on a clear day is an impressive city to fly into. The city is stockaded by mountains, mainly southward, but when the stockade appears to consist of both mountain and cloud, and when the difference between the two becomes difficult to determine, it is an overwhelming and breathtaking entrée. The vista of its hinterland beauty is contrast to how underwhelming your first impact of the city can be, for the airport is scaled as a tented village, threadbare (as if from Millet’s) and as eerily silent as a cloister: what little bustle there is to be found there sets the tone for the city outside. The city is populated by much under 200,000 people and each person that I witnessed was seemingly devout in prayerful aspect. Maybe the Saturday I arrived was as lacklustre as any other day: shops in denial of their opening hours, buses languishing in torpor, the sun shining brightly on the blessed and the thrifty (each playing with their rosary beads), and everywhere dignified by a lack of commercial purpose. Mahler was relayed through the Tannoy as we disembarked the plane. Mahler is probably the composer who links best the classical to the modern, who links the perfect cadence to the dodecaphonic tone row, Mozart to Alban Berg. But on my arrival I am unaware of what it is that links Salzburg’s burger – its Festung Hohensalzburg was started to be built in the eleventh century, its expansion piecemeal throughout the centuries – to Salzburg’s sprawling, low ground suburbia that straddles its river. At some point in its history an urgent need for hard limestone security gave way to a penchant for fashion and culture.
Christopher Hitchens it was, I think, who said that Austria’s greatest achievements were to have made the world think that Hitler was born in Germany and that Beethoven was born in Austria: an edifice, if only in its assumption, of innocence and splendour. Yet you only have to recall that awful waltz music Johann Strauss wrote – the dissolute culmination of the chandelier finery, the wigs and the talcum powder one associates with Mozart and his tasteful tomfoolery – to imagine how tasteless we might expect its underbelly culture to be: Mozart’s heritage distilled to Johann Strauss is rather a shocking formula. Oompah-pah oompah-pah Strauss is the musical equivalent of Ferrero Rocher chocolate and as pointless as the hollow New Year’s Day festivities it so often celebrates. It is a disgrace far more dreadful than our own knitting machine music equivalent, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan; at least Gilbert’s banal lyrics attempted to thread some humour through the stitch, am not certain you can laugh at a single crotchet of Strauss (two of the buggers, father and son). This thought alone has made me wary of Austria, wary that it is not what it seems on its assumed facade.
And my facade? I am not quite the Brit abroad, no handkerchief with knots tied in each corner upon my head, no umbrella, no bowler hat, and no attaché case with only my sandwiches inside; I don’t carry a crossword, talk loudly or hold an opened lager can in my hand, but everybody understands still that I am English and without my uttering a word the baristas challenge me in my native tongue. This isn’t so strange because if I don’t spot lederhosen and hear yodelling (at least not immediately), I see what can only be Austrian faces, bald in a symmetric fashion, chiselled and tapered skilfully to the chin, smart shirts open at the collar, and if no lederhosen are on display there is a sense of order to their attire. This is a relaxed and pan-European meeting point for the day where, Brexit to one side, we attempt to ingratiate each other: as guest I am an honorary Ludwig Wittgenstein peppered with BBC vowels, my hosts are John Snagge with an umlaut. In fact there is that sense of relaxed sensibility and accommodation everywhere, as if a silent committee has met behind a closed door, no minutes kept to record what hasn’t been spoken, and yet accord has been met. I am relaxed just being here; why everybody is so relaxed is a mystery. I haven’t tasted the city’s holy water, I haven’t witnessed the variety of its pagan-like weather, though the totem poles of mountain that frame it are like a gigantic and natural Stonehenge and must afford some megalithic absolution. I imagine that Austrians listen to James Last all day (they think probably I model my backhand on Tim Henman’s), and that would explain why it is that people tend to look relaxed here and profoundly miserable too (and why my follow-through is so out of place). James Last’s music, if not megalithic, is relaxed but is miserable also; any country that boasts James Last and Johann Strauss in its musical repertoire has to be questioned.
The city’s sense of order (a prerequisite for relaxation) I glean in its architecture and the debris of its history, too. Its Renaissance flair for hierarchy and compass, its Baroque filigree and scope, its deft use of perspective, light and shadow – these are architectural impressions that Austrian society was deferential by turn to the building surveyor with his sharp lines of brickwork, the town planner with his grid footprint, the bureaucratic car park attendant who snatched clipboard order from chaos, and now so obviously to the traffic light and its gift of hierarchy and patience, everybody everywhere waiting at the side of clear roads for a green light. Now, no doubt, it must be deferential to the computer scientist and their mother boards, and I imagine that if I see a queue of people then all have been filed in alphabetical order, by date of birth and by height (how unlucky to be a midget born in the 1930s with a surname starting with Z). Its whole ethos seems to be sustained by a schoolroom culture, a culture of hierarchy and order. The fine fonts that embellish walls and shop signs are called to attention by the rather shrill and headmaster-like lettering of its Gothic street signs; in the street cafes and hotels, the waiters, concierges and bellboys fuss like prefects; strangely I see no policeman, so here there is no Flashman, no school bully – and this is the giveaway sign of a well ordered school; of course there is no graffiti, that would unleash a caning or to be sent down.
Counter-intuitively the outward and apparent misery of its inhabitants is parried by its skittish street furniture. In fact the whole city is a welter of immaturity. Its intentions started loftily: Tomasso di Garona’s sensuous fountain in the centre of the Residenzplatz with its four snorting horses – two upright and ready to bolt, two on their haunches and sedentary – and water cascading over its edges and through its crevices and inner courses, has a near-orgasmic effect (I am told) and no doubt its marbled figures, including dolphins, giants and a Triton at its peak, have been in a state of neo-climax from the time they were begun to be carved in 1656. Today the miniature water cascades that splatter the streets of the Altstadt are, if more innocent, less impressive but offer the notion of aquatic continuity; children splash amidst their fracas, skipping or playing hopscotch. Considering that Salzburg’s older ornamentation is not especially flamboyant, modern sculpture floods the city, each piece taking on the hue of a child’s rattle or Action Man toy: the spawn of Alfred Hrdlicka (all modern effigy in Austria seems to follow the roughly hewn and erotic Hrdlicka); Markus Lüpertz’s bewildering cast of Mozart, ambiguously female, left arm missing thanks to protest and a vox pop tarring and feathering; Stephan Balkenhol’s gigantic three dimensional cartoon, Sphaera, incoherently placed in the Residenzplatz (it looks like my friend Jeremy is balanced at its apogee) and which resembles one of those McDonald Big Mac giveaway models so treasured by children; Lotte Ranft’s man resting on a bike, Radfahrer, near the Makartsteg bridge, floppy, idle and daydreaming.
The buildings are a thing. The celebration of the straight and parallel line is everywhere: William Blake may well have suffered a migraine if on a day trip here. Blake abhorred the straight line. “The crooked roads without Improvement” could well be an English vision only, for so much of Europe is mapped out by the perpendicular line (there are parts of Maida Vale that look like this and I must check to see if their architects were middle European emigrés!). But here in Salzburg the buildings consistent use of line and form is arresting. Even the window blinds seem choreographed, the windows on each facade usually uniform although occasionally a complementary arrangement features, most often in the centre. At night with the lights on and a variety of décor colourings on display, the elevation of a building can resemble a box of chocolates – the taller windows in the centre are of an adequate size to house the Toffee Twist, the Nougat Montelimar and Hazelnut Twirl would fit in around the outside. During the day, stave manuscript paper, a chess board or noughts and crosses paper seem appended haphazardly as building detail. There is a love of promontory and relief: window boxes, verandas, balconies, porches, stoops, pebble-dash even in the more modern buildings (I had thought of pebble-dash only as architectural lava bread, the preserve of the Welsh). Two faces of a building at their focus can have a huge and bulging appendage fixed, like a zip sewn on; I assume that if unzipped the building’s contents would disburse on to the street.
All in all I have been vaguely disappointed in my Salzburg experience so far, as though I have been short-changed. It is as though the postcards and Time Life photographs have been overexposed in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s reveries, as though this Venice of the north has very large feet of clay but a shrunken head of gold and a pigeon-breast of silver. There is an ever so slight tawdry aspect to much of the Altstadt. The length of the Dreifaltigkeitsgasse and its many tributaries are oddly disrespectful of its age: shops loaded with baubles, bangles and trinkets are the mania in its bipolar personality. The whole city has the feel of Harrod’s toy department: large and pastel shaded toy bricks are perched precariously on top of each other, and if you walk by too fast you feel as though you should look behind to check that a cupola, rotunda, chimney or some aspect of an architectural summit hasn’t been swept away or toppled in your wake. For the Baroque in full splendour then surely it is best to go to Prague; for symmetry go to Brno, an unsung city if ever there was. If looking for the Renaissance it is best to stay in Italy; as you progress more northerly, the Renaissance and its ideals are blitzed with a Gothic hangover and washed through with the silt of commerce and trade, and here the salt mines – Salzburg and its River Salzach are names derived from the word “salt” (salz, the city raked the ships passing through for tax), and close by is Hallstatt, the world’s first salt mine – have been more crucial than culture in the timeline of the city, although today Mozart is Salzburg’s proudest emblem and he is as sweet as sugar and they won’t let you forget that: I am sure that you will be able to find him as one of those shaky-up snow globes in a gift shop as well as hear the Linz Symphony in one of the churches.
I am a hopeless tourist. I rarely visit the ‘sights’, and I wouldn’t know how to for I never carry a map. My time in foreign cities (I am a frequent traveller, pointlessly so, I will often travel to a foreign city for one day only) is spent roaming from teahouse to coffee parlour, eating in hotel restaurants. I ricochet around a metropolis like a golf ball on a crazy golf course; on some visits I will finish my round under par and championship leader, other visits I’ve missed the cut and am back in the clubhouse disappointed. My fellow traveller is also devoid of any satnav sentiment. So whilst an impressive building at the top of the steep climb in the city at the tail end of the Altstadt had been noted, it had never consciously logged in thought that, of course, it is the castle. So as a last rite of the visit and bravely without an oxygen mask, an ascent to the castle, wending a way up a steep and forbidding climb (although in practise it was not so hard and taken at ease). In no time at all one looked down upon the city where parked cars looked as Dinky toys, where people who walk the impressive golden mean courtyards and squares looked as ants. As we climbed, the clocks throughout the city stroked seven o’clock, vibrated and dampened, loud and harsh, soft and gentle, a symphony of chime and peel. This melodious cacophony made sense, as though it should be heard from a height: the bells’ regularity might have sounded predictable perhaps or even annoying in the lower quarters of the city where Mozart once played and skipped as a child to his rondos, but at this level they perfumed the air with both plangent and joyful sound. As the ascent continued, the wall motifs, the frescoes, the small figurines each softened and appeared more heartfelt, more episcopal and less bellicose. The modern city below had been a trumpet of intent – swashbuckling drama and polished military buckles, echoes of the various empires in which Salzburg had comprised, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrian Empire, Bavarian rule, whenever. Here in the castle shadow there was harmony and peace rather than discord and violence, odd for a military theatre. The filigree on the sides of domestic quarters were decorated with what looked like stitched lattice work; it suggests a sense of craft before toil and love before duty. There was a smack of individuality rather than community, of a strong will and a strong purpose, no committee meeting behind a closed door from whence emerged a decision. Salzburg began to make sense.
To meander through the various concentric fortifications – a palimpsest of various outworks, ring walls, ramparts and barbicans – was gobsmacking. My grasp of geography became misshapen, and, if I became bewildered as I traced its bulwarks, I can but guess as to how befuddled onlookers would have become if fixated on scaling the fortress. With its defences sealed and tanked, I doubt that Houdini could have gotten in (let alone gotten out), and I could see that this was a castle never to be breached. I speculated on its origins: why would somebody have come up with such an idea – to crack an egg with a sledgehammer in a time when life could be only nasty, brutish and short even if housed within a secure stronghold such as this? The Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg were its driving forces, no doubt driven by the need for self-preservation and to display authority, yet the castle’s true rationale, it seems to me, was to exert will and to create purpose, the stuff of primitive life and certainly not the stuff of the modern city’s comforts or its fashion and glitz. Yet mostly the Archbishops lived in the Palace in the Residenzplatz: extraordinary, for that meant that although they aspired to assert will, focus and purpose, mostly they hankered for comfort, fashion and glitz.
The story of Lot came to my mind. The angels who visited Lot urged him and his family to flee from Sodom, to escape God’s wrathful retribution soon to be cast upon the city, and the instruction was not to look back as they did so. Ah! but Lot’s wife did look back and she was turned into a pillar of salt. The scholarly interpretation is that Lot’s wife revealed her yearning for the fast life of the evil city, and her saline metamorphoses was punishment for that lust. And as I turned to look out at the city below the castle, at the lights and glitz and the modern trappings of fashion and civilization that today are the equivalent of the wigs and talcum powder of Mozart’s time, I realized that I had forsaken the cocooned purpose and strength of will that the castle stood for, and I sensed that I might become as one with it, the Hohensalzburg, the “high salt” castle. From my fortressed eyrie for one brief moment I feared that I, too, would be cast into a pillar of salt.