When that great Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, left Vienna for a house he had bought in the hills that rumple the otherwise flat land of Salzburg, he did so to flee the consequences of war and influenza in 1919.
When I followed in his footsteps one hundred and one years later to the month, it was to flee terrorism and coronavirus,
as I wrote about in these pages.
Although, that was not the whole truth: I had always had a plan not to be in a great city during the inevitable second – and third – wave lockdowns which will flow across Europe like questionable trends in fashion. My favourite capitals – London, Madrid and Vienna for example – are too impersonal to feel at home in if one cannot step into the street, too vast to police politely, and too expensive to rent the space necessary to make house-arrest, however light, tolerable.
Regional capitals, though, like Oxford or Seville, have all the beauty of former wealth and powerful minds to direct it into buildings that please the eye, but also, within an hour on foot, you are in the countryside. In Salzburg, even in the heart of the city, the countryside stares back at you.
Der Untersberg, The Mystic Mountain
My own residence, a perfect little 700-year-old apartment at the foot of Salzburg’s castle-hill, a charming little apartment rented from my new friend Marco, via
AirBnB, is faced by the formidable 6,000-feet of the Untersberg massif, a terrifying wall of mountain that make appearances at my study window, and then disappear just as quickly, whatever the weather.
The mythology of the mountains still runs deep here, with Europe’s ancestral king, and the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne being said to lie sleeping buried underneath, waiting for his summons to the last battle between good and evil.
Salzburg (Photo by Alexander Fiske-Harrison)
My own fiancée, Klarina, is one of the very few to have spent some considerable time living on her own on that bewitched and bewitching rock, where they say time runs differently, witches still hold sway, and the unmapped and immeasurable tunnels yield entrance to other realms.
As a scholar of both the empirical sciences and analytic philosophy, I cannot deny my reflexive, Oxford-armchair doubts. And yet… if the readers could hear her stories of weeping figures appearing on stone walls in the dead of night miles from the nearest light, let alone nearest living… I still look at the Untersberg with a chill in my bones.
However, the town beneath this origin of the Wild Hunt, and so many other legends, continues in its charming and prettified manner.
Smart, stuccoed houses in tasteful but bright colours line the river, and, despite government intervention – in fact, because of it – the sunny side of the Salzach is lined with cyclists, joggers, walkers and sun-bathers. Fresh air and sunshine, regular exercise and a diet of moderation are all we have until the vaccine comes, and, in 99.75 per cent of cases, this is enough.