Austria Please, with a Side of Lingonberries

Lingonberry? What’s a lingonberry? Call it a mountain cranberry; mostly tart, slightly sweet. It’s small and red and sounds like a euphemism, though not one so coarse as dingleberry. Maybe it’s that bead of sweat that lingers at the end of your nose; the one you fail to blow off with your bottom lip curled to direct the air upward while your hands are occupied with lifting weights, or pounding nails, or doing some task too meaningful to interrupt by swiping a cloth across your face. That sweet sweat of accomplishment. Maybe it’s the lingering smell of a loved one’s body odor in a forgotten garment. Or a touch of levity in a dark situation. A bit of sweetness in the sour. It’s a word I laughed over with a close friend for its phonetics once upon a time as we hopped into a too hot vehicle. “Man, you could roast some serious lingonberries in here!”

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.

Covid-19 happened. I went to Austria. I had long desired to see the Alps, had an extended weekend, and flights were wide open. It was a pair of weeks before the world shut down and “social distancing” hadn’t quite made it into the daily household lexicon.

I landed in Munich and rode a train to Salzburg. Across the window glass, fresh green fields and leafless forest trundled by in silence, mottled with the farms and villages of Bavaria. Smoke wisped from olden chimneys. Steeples poked the air. Above and beyond it all marched the stone-roofed Alps. They were dangling from the hem of winter with toes dipped preemptively in springtime, like a queen stepping into a clear bath, arms raised while her undressers struggled to lift the white shift over her head. I got a crick for staring.

From the Salzburg depot I caught a bus to a little town nestled in the roots of a mountain. My preference would have been to find my way to the mountaintop by foot, wrapped in the smells of a pine forest and absorbing the music of alpine meadows. Time would not allow. Instead I boarded a cable car with a handful of other foreigners. It lifted us up a high, sharp slope to the summit’s cloud and snow. The view would have been magnificent if not for the veil of cold mountain mist rolling ever by.

I returned to Salzburg and spent the remains of daylight in a circumambulation of Old Town; a stroll along the riverside pathway under arches of dormant chestnut trees; a brisk ascent of the ridge that seemed to jostle and press medieval squares and cathedrals toward the river; a zig-zag tour of viewpoints that, on one side, overlooked tile-slated roofs, gothic spires, and baroque domes of greenish copper, and opened to panoramas of picture perfect mountainscapes on the other.

As dusk settled into the wide north Austrian vale I trickled down a cascade of steps into Old Salzburg’s angular huddle of plastered walls and spidery cobbled lanes. Hohensalzburg Fortress loomed vast and stalwart over my shoulder. Hints of history and culture peppered these quarters with their stories, wanting more investigation than I could give.

I crossed the sliding water of the Salzach River by footbridge. Church bells sang. Night arrived. A bus took me to my sleeping place; a room in a home as old as 1903.

In the morning I returned to wander the maze-like alleys of Old Town in search of breakfast. It was 8:00am. Open restaurants and early risers were scarce. I turned from a sidewalk into an arched passageway that led through a nondescript building to a tiny courtyard where a sign pointed to a cafe that was down another hall, up a cornering flight of stairs, and across a landing. It was Cafe Mozart, named after the city’s most famous son.

With buttered rolls and honey in my belly, a pot of tea in my veins, and the scent of smoked salmon dawdling on my breath, I was fortified for my one full day of exploration. I began at the most prominent landmark of the city; the white-walled hilltop fortress of Hohensalzburg, one of Europe’s largest and best preserved.

The first funicular of the morning took me to the top of one of the outer bastions. From there I climbed a tall stair to the inner courtyard and puttered around the grounds waiting for the museums, state rooms, and audio tour to open. Occasionally I would see another visitor or two chatting at the far end of a rampart or snapping a selfie or disappearing around a corner, but mostly the castle felt empty and asleep, waiting for some curse to be lifted and bring it back to life. That was fine with me. It left me to envision the setting as I wished.

I don’t know why old buildings fascinate me so. Maybe it’s the multitude of untold tales they’ve lived through; the wars and famines and outbreaks they’ve survived; the restructuring of society they’ve endured as we try and try again to get it right. They are monuments to other times and other ways; epochs we romanticize without having to experience. Somehow they stand, worn and crumbling, but here still.

The various attractions in the fortress opened their doors. More tourists trickled in. I toured great halls, towers, storerooms, passageways, armories, kitchens, a dungeon, a smithy, and all the nooks and crannies I could poke my head in, and learned a few of the tales Hohensalzburg had hosted. What impressed me most was the view. (I was there to see the Alps after all.)

The crown of the Reckturm Tower commanded a sweeping vantage of the countryside. In the foreground a patchwork of forest and field and clustered rooftops colored the scene in greys and browns and vibrant greens. Beyond, blue misty mountains rose in glorious, rugged slants and broken vales, thrusting into turbulent clouds and tumbling away to the brink of sight. A fresh, white dusting of snow powdered their rocky shoulders and sent a cold wind blustering over the tower. I descended to the shelter of mortar and stone.

The time had come to journey deeper into the Alps. At noon I joined a 5.5 hour sightseeing tour that would take me by bus across the Lake District, through scenic villages, along mountain lakes spreading like puddles of sky in earthen hollows, into close, pine valleys and over passes where engorged snowflakes painted the ground like Christmas. The highlight was a stopover in an historic village. It was built on a steep, woody shore where mountains soaked their ankles in a deep, narrow mere of snowmelt. High above the village, in a bygone age, man first mined salt.

Up there waited a skywalk with a World Heritage view, accessed by funicular for most. I opted to forego the additional cost and hike. If felt right and fresh to sweat in the light, spring rain, to listen to the splash of falling mountain streams and drink the forest air.

Many a switchback and nary a follower in, I reached an elevation where the mist turned to sleet to snow. In a classic case of “the journey is the destination” I made the viewpoint, admired the sights, and quickly resumed my walk down the mountainside. This is what I really wanted all along, the fairy tale I was after; a simple stroll in the legendary Alps.

As I threaded a tumble-down path between lodgings that grappled the mountainside like an alpine Hogsmeade, the outside world kept rolling onward to the dark side of tomorrow. Global fear was spreading faster than the plague. The dead increased and the living braked their living. Some feared loss of life, others feared loss of freedom; both losses dark and real.

But here the sun was shining. It had broken free of rainclouds to cast a warm glow on this lakeside/hillside pocket of nostalgia, this quaint little town of 700 that had charmed the world and brought 10,000 visitors daily to its doorsteps. At least it used to. It was one consequence of the virus I appreciated; that the usual Disneylandish crowds weren’t here to ruin the magic.

In the trailing edge of afternoon, before the tour bus returned to whisk me away, I tucked into a quiet cafe. I was in Austria; of course I ordered schnitzel. To my delight it arrived with a side of lingonberries.

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