My latest article in The Telegraph: Once the ‘Monaco of the Alps’, this forgotten spa town is poised for a comeback
Once the ‘Monaco of the Alps’, this forgotten spa town is poised for a comeback
Bad Gastein, now eerily quiet, was a magnet for high society during the Austro-Hungarian Empire
The original article at full length can be found for subscribers at The Telegraph online here.
When I first came to Bad Gastein, a year ago, I could not believe that I had not only never been here before, but had never even heard of it. The vagaries of its notability in history are almost as cyclical as the rise and fall of stock markets.
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.
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. Continue reading “My latest article in The Telegraph: Once the ‘Monaco of the Alps’, this forgotten spa town is poised for a comeback”
Austria wants to restore rail’s golden age – my sleeper train to Salzburg suggests it try harder
The golden age of the sleeper-car railways began 140 years ago. That summer, the quintessence of luxury trains set forth on its maiden voyage from Paris to Vienna. The Orient-Express was the pinnacle of design and hospitality in travel.
In those days, the train was the fastest thing their was: twice as fast as a galloping horse. Only a cheetah could beat it by a nose, and then only over two furlongs. It was fifty years before the automobile or aeroplane could compete for speed.
In fact, trains were so unnaturally fast that the medical community railed against them, suggesting they could cause hysteria in women, mania in men, and death through vibrational organ failure in both. Despite this, the locomotive was and remains the safest method of fast transport available. Horses bolt – taking any carriages they might be drawing with them – and automobile and even aeroplane crashes remain far more probable and lethal than derailments. There are also the environmental arguments.
The Orient Express last ran in 2009. The hotel on rails which took its name – and its 1920s-issue carriages – is an unrelated venture. It is a travel experience, not a form of transport eastward.
However, when the delusional global blanket of COVID-19 restrictions was lifted, ÖBB, Österreichische Bundesbahnen ‘Austrian Federal Railways’, opened the Nightjet, a sleeper service on the same route Paris-Vienna line as the original OE.
There is something about the idea of trains which has always fuelled the literary and cinematic imagination. The railways are places of romance – Brief Encounter – and revenge – Murder On The Orient Express – of psychopathic killers – Strangers On A Train – and secret agents – From Russia With Love.
My theory is that when fiction writers, who live by imagination and pursue a solitary profession, are put on trains, they are forced into proximity with people about whom they know nothing. After a few hours fantastical thoughts naturally begin to form. As Graham Greene put it, one is “compulsorily at rest; useless between the walls of glass to feel emotion, useless to try to follow any activity except of the mind; and that activity could be followed without fear of interruption.”
So, invited to view the restoration of the 19th century holiday home of Emperors, the Grand Hotel Straubinger in Bad Gastein outside Salzburg (read more on this project and the Imperial Snow Polo Cup in my article in The Telegraph, outside the subscription paywall online here), I opted to travel all the way from London by rail.
The rest of this article is available to subscribers of The Telegraph online here.