Always nice to be listed: good luck to us all.
Always nice to be listed: good luck to us all.
In February 2020, it seemed to me a classic bustling ski resort, with extraordinary, high-level skiing, comprising 200km of pistes, half of them red runs. Admittedly, the languages you heard in the après-ski establishments tended more towards the Germanic than the frequent smatterings of English or French one might hear in Zermatt or Val d’Isère.
However, what really struck me was the look of the town. Built into the steep mountain slopes, its vertiginous streets are lined with exquisite fin de siècle houses from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even the train station – 90 minutes to Salzburg, 3 hours to Munich – is an Art Deco gem, opened by Emperor Franz Joseph himself in 1905, the first such station in the Eastern Alps.
For this was the Imperial resort. The Prussian Kaisers would come and meet their Habsburg Emperor cousins here to enjoy the waters and the walking, for both of which it had been famed since the 7th century. Of course, in those pre-skiing days, summer was the high season.
Indeed, in order to put itself back up among the first rank of such resorts, to outdo those who once outstripped Gastein like the younger but more glamorous – for now – Swiss resort of St Moritz and nearby Kitzbühel, they are even arranging the first ever Imperial Snow Polo Cup at Sport Gastein to open the winter season, with a host of royalty on the guest list; fixers from that world like Major Peter Hunter of Guards Polo Club from England and International Polo Events, and sponsorship being discussed between the incoming Hirmer Group’s Travel Charme Hotels, who are set to restore and reopen Gastein’s Bel Epoque Jewel in the Crown, the once world-famous Hotel Straubinger, and the Grande Dame of all Austrian hotels today, The Imperial in Vienna.
AIM-LISTED Fiske, which is one of the City’s few remaining independent stockbroking and investment managers, said its results for the six months to November 30 showed continued improvement after its operating loss narrowed to £21,000. Total revenues of £2.8 million were an 11% increase on a year earlier, with investment management fees up 14%. Chairman Clive Fiske Harrison said the company retained a “healthy degree of caution regarding the immediate outlook for markets“. Shares rose 5p to 70p.
Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic I have written in these pages about the European countries in which I have suffered their various countermeasures.
I witnessed Marines patrolling the streets in one of the hardest lockdowns in Europe, Spain, where I ran a half-marathon inside a small apartment in an attempt to stay sane and fit while they locked their physically vulnerable elderly and psychologically vulnerable children away from all sunlight and exercise, despite the measurable protection these two factors offer against the virus.
I returned to England when I was allowed, and was invited to bear witness to the catastrophic collapse of the hospitality industry, with hotels and restaurants desperately trying to outweigh the off-putting countermeasures of the odour of bleach, enforced hand-sanitisation, masks, and social-distancing, by practically begging customers – and travel writers like myself – to visit.
(Thank you to the lovely Gilbeys Restaurant & Townhouse in Eton, the splendid Old Parsonage Hotel & Grill in Oxford, the comforting The Winning Post pub in Windsor Great Park and the splendour of Mossiman’s at Guards Polo Club – I hope you all make it: you certainly deserve to.)
Seeing the second lockdown coming like a sailor watching the wind moving across the water, and in search of an escape, I spoke to friends in Paris where I used to live but they had had it harder than Spain. And, while the Swedish experiment looked to me like an extraordinarily brave idea which may well work in the long run, I have neither friends nor family there with whom to enjoy the liberty.
In Austria, on the other hand, I had both, and there, after a short ,sharp lockdown, they had stalled infections by some mysterious alchemy (probably called “summer”) and were one of the most open countries in Europe. What’s more, where they did impose measures, it was done in a calm, non-judgmental manner, with healthy debate on both sides allowed.
[Note: here my article, as published in The Telegraph, differs most noticeably from the below. This was a no doubt wise editorial choice, but here I go with my original, much more complex – and differently sourced – line of argument. The published version is available to Telegraph subscribers here – AFH.]
One of my first findings on my travels, was that it is very hard to actually gauge how the measures in these different countries feel unless you have lived under them, which, for obvious reasons, most people have not.
The best attempt at putting numerical values on each measure and then comparing them in a vaguely scientific manner is the Corona Government Response Tracker of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. However, even when limited to their estimation of the stringency of government response for the handful of countries mentioned above, the graph is hard to read.
However, if you unpick it, it goes from messy to odd: does anyone really believe France’s authoritarian reaction, where one had to print out certificates to open one’s front door, was even vaguely similar to that of Sweden’s, where life appeared unchanged? Yet observe how similar their graphs appear.
When you average them out the two countries practically merge.
However, perhaps there is something to the work of these social scientists, as on the most concrete of data sets, deaths per capita from COVID-19 – and even that has problems – France and Sweden stand adjacent to one another, ranked 22nd and 23rd respectively. Meanwhile, the UK stands at 5th, Spain at 16th and Austria at 35th.
Which brings one to the question of the effectiveness of these countermeasures, and the ethics and politics – and legality which is what bridges those two fields – of imposing them.
Also, let us not forget efficacy.
One reason Austria feels like lockdown-lite is that they employ around one third of the police per capita that Spain does, and that’s even before they called in the Armed Forces.
Recently leaked emails from within the Swedish government’s epidemiology department show that much of their decision to seek – or, as they might rather phrase it, “not seek to avoid” – herd immunity was as much as anything the combination of lack of constitutional authority, lack of enforcement capability, and lack of belief people would accept the measures, i.e. efficacy.
With the snow piling thick on the ground in Salzburg, I am amazed at two things in Austria which I do not think are unrelated.
The first is that neither temperature nor lockdown has in any way affected the average citizens’ visibility in the streets.
When I walk out of my front door on the Nonnberg, adjacent to the ancient convent where Julie Andrew’s portrayed a novitiate in The Sound Of Music, there are invariably locals tramping up and down the stairs and slopes, wading through drifts and sliding across ice, to stare at alpine mountain ranges in the middle distance.
As they say here, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
The second striking fact about living in Austria is that during this ‘lockdown’ – their third – in which you may leave your house at any time of day or night for any reason, psychological or physical, they have reduced the contagion of this novel coronavirus by 90% since mid-November.
Yes, it is true that bars, restaurants and hotels are all closed, and only one person from a household may visit “close family members” or “important contacts with whom contact is maintained several times a week” in another household.
It was at a lunch with several grandees of old Vienna where I was forcibly reminded that it was in this city that the longest European peace since the original ‘Pax Romana’ – from the fall of Napoleon to the rise of the Kaiser – was negotiated between a British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and Prince Metternich, the chief negotiator of the European Unionists of that epoch, the Habsburg Monarchy, who had only just renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
The 1815 Congress of Vienna was soon followed, in 1820, by Britain’s official and complete withdrawal from European affairs into “splendid isolation”. The effects of this, the original Brexit, were so positive that one US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would later publish his Harvard PhD thesis on the period under the title ‘A World Restored’.
Personally, there is no denying that as a British citizen living in Mitteleuropa, and who spent the first lockdown as a resident in Spain, I have encountered a great deal of incomprehension among my Continental friends as to why Britain would want to leave this benevolent, if quasi-Imperial, set up.
And, as an Englishman with an Austrian fiancée, a Belgian shepherd dog and a breeding herd of horses all descendant from an Irish thoroughbred (El Star, first cousin to the legendary Frankel no less), I truly do see myself as, in Metternich’s own phrase, “a Citizen of Europe”. Continue reading “My article in The Telegraph: As an expat in Vienna, I love everything about Europe (except the EU)”
Having just written a postcard in these pages praising Vienna as the best travel destination I have visited in some time, I did not expect to be writing again so soon, and under such different circumstances.
Last night at 8pm an unknown number of armed men fanned out into the streets of the first district where I am staying and opened fire at random, in a manner all-too familiar these days, while invoking the greatness of God in his Qur’anic name.
Reports have the shooters moving down from the city’s main Synagogue to the seat of its Archbishop, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, although this is more likely a ‘happy’ coincidence for the terrorists involved. This is the main pedestrianised bar area in Vienna’s old city, and they struck, with neither provocation nor warning, on the night before the city returns to lockdown due to a surge in hospitalisations for Covid-19.
The police response was rapid. One terrorist was shot on the spot, later identified as a 20-year-old Albanian, with dual Austrian and North Macedonian nationality, who had been sent to jail for attempting to join Islamic State in Syria, but released a year early from his 22-month sentence in December. Continue reading “My dispatch in The Telegraph: From Vienna, ‘I woke from my Covid sickbed to the sound of gunfire’”
Vienna is at, indeed perhaps just is, the very heart of Europe. It was capital of the Holy Roman Empire for the majority of its thousand-year existence – until it confronted Napoleon at the Battle of the Three Emperors at Austerlitz. It was the “city of music” that made Mozart; it was the “city of dreams” that bred Freud. In 1938 the French author Albert Camus wrote, “Vienna stands at the cross-roads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing.”
And yet, less than a decade later, Graham Greene would write, “I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins.”
There was dark romanticism even in the ruins, as Greene knew, hence he made the city the third character in his and Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (although the great Orson Welles added a few lines of his own, including the famous one about the Borgias and cuckoo clocks.)
That said, the need for the tourism, both national and international, is vital to the economy in both countries, so I thought I would continue my travel journalism locally, beginning with my own home county.
The recent reputation of Essex seems to be a construct of the media, most recently reality television, based on a parody of a small southern strip of the county. That strip, from Dagenham through Basildon to Southend, was formed far more by its proximity to London, especially the East End, than with rural East Anglia. This was especially true after whole new towns were built to house those Londoners rendered homeless by the Blitz.
However, before London even existed, Essex was the centre of Britain. Before Christ was born, the dominant Celtic tribe, the Trinovantes, had built their capital Camulodonum there, and after the Roman conquest there it remained. Continue reading “My article in The Telegraph: Essex – The hidden secrets of England’s most underrated county”