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”
Je ne suis pas Cecil… and neither was the lion (and that’s not his brother either)
I was originally asked to write this piece by The Spectator, but apparently I was a bit too late filing my copy – zoology professors and professional hunters are hard to round up at short notice – so here it is, unexpurgated and unimproved.
Je ne suis pas Cecil… and neither was he
I never cease to be surprised either by the posturing courage or the sheer inhumanity of the expressions of ‘moral’ outrage on social media, but this recent furore over the death of the ageing Zimbabwean lion everyone knows as Cecil really has been quite special.
The complicity of the press is particularly grotesque. CNN went as far as to run a photo of the big cat with the caption, “Cecil the lion probably never knew how beloved he was,” surely winning some sort of prize for most redundant use of the modifier ‘probably’ in journalism.
He also certainly didn’t know he was called Cecil, a hilarious piece of nominal colonialism by British conservationists working in the country bloodily carved out of the Dark Continent by Cecil Rhodes and for almost a century called Southern Rhodesia in his questionable honour. (Rhodes is a distant relation of mine.)
I myself fell under the aesthetic spell of lions aged nine –thirty years ago – in London and Colchester Zoos, joined and raised funds for the WWF from that point on, went up to Oxford to study Zoology under renowned Africa ecologist Dr. Malcolm Coe, and myself visited the Hwange Reserve almost twenty years ago where I followed the pride made up of the grandparents, and probably parents, of that lion, whom I photographed at the time.
Continue reading “Je ne suis pas Cecil… and neither was the lion (and that’s not his brother either)”
King Richard III: A savage blank canvas…
As I was on holiday in France this piece was filed too late for publication in The Spectator, so I’ve posted it here – AFH
The only remarkable thing about Richard III is how unremarkable he was…
Watching the reburial of King Richard III, this writer was struck by how the unearthing of his bones was being sold to those who would buy it as the unearthing of the ‘truth’ about a much maligned monarch. Conversely, Shakespeare’s play of the same name was being touted as the very zenith of propaganda and the Bard of Avon himself as a sort of Goebbels with the tongue of Goethe; history’s most gifted author prostituting his talents to defame the last and most discrete of its true kings, the Plantagenets, to justify the brash and barbaric usurpers who followed, the Tudors.
I myself, attempting to judge events in the context of the time, take the view that the Duke of Gloucester – the name by which he was most commonly known, having held the title from age 9 – was nothing more than a minor product of those crude times whose only notability lay in providing inspiration for one of our greatest artist’s first decent works and through that stabilising a nation that had suffered two generations of civil war. In death and dramatic ignominy Gloucester achieved more for his country than his rather prosaic savagery did in life.
The first point to be made is that there isn’t a historian worth the name who doesn’t hold Gloucester responsible for the death of his nephews – the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, 4th Duke of York – the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
On the death of Gloucester’s eldest brother, King Edward IV, Gloucester became Lord Protector and had the princes sent to the Tower of London “for their own safety”. He then announced that young Edward V’s coronation would be delayed, and not long afterwards the children were proclaimed illegitimate due to their father’s alleged bigamy. Two weeks later – 6th July 1483 – Gloucester was crowned King of England and France (and Lord of Ireland.) The princes were neither seen nor heard from again. Continue reading “King Richard III: A savage blank canvas…”
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.