Travel writers are often asked for the secret places within their areas of expertise. We have a stock of them, usually snapshots and moments that led on to other stories. In Austria, I think of learning the hidden cultural heritage of Salzburg from the Unesco professorial chair of the subject Kurt Luger or being introduced to what is now my favourite drink, Most, a dry still apple wine, by former champion skier Rupert Pichler on the slopes of Sport Gastein where they host the Imperial Snow Polo Cup.
However, there is one area of Austria that is not so much secret, as filled with secrets.
The Salzkammergut, the ‘salt domain’, is a stunning district of lakes and mountains sprawling out to the east of Salzburg.
The original article at full length can be found for subscribers at The Telegraph online here.
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.
The original article at full length can be found for subscribers at The Telegraph online here, or outside their paywall at MSN online here. I enclose the important final paragraph below.
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.
The hidden secrets of England’s most underrated county
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.
“I’d much rather be a Spanish fighting bull than a farm cow”
I left the site of my last Andalusian postcard with a heavy heart and burning ears: apparently some locals had taken offence to the “elitist” connotations of my comparison of their town to Notting Hill. People take things the wrong way with a vengeance nowadays: as with Montparnasse in Paris, the artists that first made Notting Hill famous were followed by richer creative-types and the resulting economic gear-change had both upsides and downsides.
Notably, though, these complaints were British ex-pats. The Spanish were delighted, with the Mayor of the town, a socialist, writing to say how much he looked forward to hosting Telegraph readers.
After Gaucín, for the first time in a decade I did not know where to go in Spain mid-July. Normally, I would head north to Pamplona for the Feria of San Fermín, known here simply as Fiesta.
Some people think running with bulls, a pastime for which that city is most famous, is dangerous and anachronistic, and the end place of that run, the bull-ring, is a place of torture and death. And indeed, all Spain’s bull rings are registered abattoirs – they have to be, because the carcass of every bull ends up in the food chain. The only difference, in terms of the bull’s welfare, is the manner and duration of their life and the manner and duration of their death, but perhaps not in the way readers think.
Europe’s most sensuous city in a time of social distancing
16th June 2020
Six weeks ago I wrote about a dream of wandering the streets of Seville, far away from my prison quarantine in Jimena de la Frontera in the forested wilds of central Andalusia.
But no imagining could have been quite as dreamlike as finally stepping off the bus at the Prado de San Sebastián, where they once burned heretics, but now welcome tourists.
The Sevillian sunlight in late June has that perfect golden slant, between the chilling white of winter and the lazy burnt yellow of true summer which comes at the end of July. The temperature here is already mid-30s in the shade and a coronavirus-cleansing 40 degrees in the sun.
I am met by my old friend, Nicolás Haro, a native of the city, who I have not seen since the pandemic began.
“It has been strange, mi amigo, to be locked away because the government lacked the hospitals and personal protective equipment to allow us to be together. After all, we will all catch this virus.”
I agree with his fatalism, but, for the moment at least, Seville is one of the clearest places on Earth, with a mere seven Covid-19 hospital patients in a city of over a million, and just two in intensive care.
After two months of draconian Spanish lockdown, with fines for ‘bad attitudes’, I’m dreaming of the feria
1st May 2020
After six weeks of house arrest without even the opportunity to go to the village shop like their parents, or to go to the park like their pets, Spain has finally released its children – those aged 14 and under, with supervision, within a kilometre of home, and for no more than one hour a day.
Given that the average size of an apartment in Seville, our regional capital, is less than 600 square feet, one can only marvel that domestic violence has not been a bigger problem.
Of course, with three quarters of a million fines being issued by police and the Guardia Civil during that period, perhaps people did what they naturally do and simply found a way around an impossible set of laws. One could hardly blame them. The social contract is wearing thin.
It doesn’t feel like lockdown has been eased here in Spain when armed police still stop you at every turn
16th April 2020
We wake today in our village of Jimena de la Frontera – a full month into lockdown – to the news that the social democrat Prime Minister is planning to extend confinement by another month, while his hard socialist deputy has called for nationalisation of everything up to the coronavirus itself. We live, as the Chinese like to curse, in interesting times.
That same deputy’s criticisms of the Spanish Head of State, King Philip VI, for wearing military uniform in his rather dignified public appearances as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces were ill-advised, though, with even left-wing allies pointing out that their own communist heroes – Che Guavara, Castro, Chavez and Maduro – were wont to adopt the same fashion, although normally to a far darker purpose than Spain’s constitutional monarch.
Will the Spanish summer be too hot for coronavirus?
8th April 2020
Predictably, the left-wing coalition that governs Spain has extended our confinement to quarters. This is done in a singularly Spanish manner: no outdoor exercise, with police or armed forces personnel checking your grocery receipt to ensure you did not dawdle on your way home. With 50,000 fines for breaching the rules in Madrid alone, the government seems to have found a way to raise some of the money they lost putting our economy into what they call “hibernation.”
This is, of course, the same government that defied all medical advice and allowed a third of a million people to march arm-in-arm through the streets of Madrid on International Women’s Day last month. Inevitably, hospitalisations in the capital quadrupled within five days, and the course was set for the present contagion.