The Innsbruck Connection

“There was nothing much to see there,” my wife said bluntly. “Just a big ski jump I recall, and that’s pretty much it—made it to their postage stamp,” she added as her singular takeaway from visiting Innsbruck, many years before, when she was a young backpacking Eurail explorer. Not that strange really, I thought: a city famous for a ski jump. Today, a single image or logo can characterize a city or country, even a continent. Fridge magnets epitomize our highly competitive sightseeing world. I can’t imagine visiting a place that doesn’t have its own fridge magnet.

As we chatted, our train pressed on smoothly at speeds over 150 kmph. It was clean, comfortable, fast and eerily empty. We were, apparently, the only folks sitting up in the stylish leather-seated first class carriage as most of the other travelers had gotten off at Linz, on this Budapest to Munich OBB Railjet train. OBB, the Austrian intercity train service, is delightfully pronounced “ooh baabaay,” eliciting little smiles every time there is an announcement in any language. Certainly we laughed audibly every time. Probably gets old for the Austrians I guess.

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I’ve always loved trains, with the notable exception of required daily commuting into London many years ago, when I was subjected to the comical vagaries and inconveniences of British Rail. Apart from that, rail travel throughout Europe is, for the most part, highly enjoyable for me. Even with the crowded Austrian and Hungarian stations this fall, with floors and aisles crammed with helpless migrants fleeing Syria, train travel easily bests air travel throughout Europe in terms of convenience.

I do feel intense sorrow and utter helplessness regarding the plight of the migrants. Yes I give to various charities to help, and I dutifully handed small amounts of cash to migrants in various train stations as they begged for food or to buy rail tickets. Nonetheless I feel dwarfed and ultimately powerless at the sheer scale of this humanitarian problem. My feeling of helplessness is almost like waiting passively for a huge storm to make landfall or watching a volcano erupt, although it really shouldn’t be. In German and Austrian cities I would confuse the homeless with the refugees, although they all genuinely need our help. In Vienna, I saw a man wake up two days in a row in a bus shelter, fold his meager belongings into a scruffy backpack and then walk off towards a nearby park. When I talked with him and gave him money for a few meals, turns out he was a homeless Austrian. A similar situation occurred in Salzburg. Strangely, the migrant situation seemed to heighten my general awareness of those less fortunate lurking in the shadows and doorways.

After her Innsbruck ruminations, my wife went on to tell to me about an article she had read in the Washington Post just the previous day. It had said, according to my fact-absorbing companion, that Germany had cancelled all direct intercity trains from Salzburg to Munich because of the refugee problem. According to some guy in a Washington DC basement, Bona fide travelers had to take 300-euro taxi rides between nearby Austrian and German cities. “I don’t believe it,” I retorted, because I thought the Post intern was maybe recounting and parlaying some isolated incident into a thematic storyline. “They couldn’t do something so interruptive to European commerce,” I reasoned.

However, some time after leaving Linz, we noticed the electronic signage in the railway carriage no longer indicated that the train was going all the way to Munich, but was apparently terminating earlier at Salzburg. Strange, we thought, and my wife again brought up the Post article with rational fact-finding demeanor. We were on our way to Salzburg, but would be continuing on to Munich in two days time, so the overall continuity of rail service had relevance.

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Then the Austrian Ooh Baby conductor cut our musings short. “Tickets please,” I assume he called out in German as he walked slowly and deliberatively up the aisle of the empty carriage. “Does this train go to Munich?” I inquired while showing my tickets. “No, you must get off in Salzburg,” he replied mechanically. “You are going to Munich?” he then probed with robot-like surprise. “Yes, but not today. Today we are going to Innsbruck,” I answered matter-of-factly only to be promptly corrected by my wife. While Ooh Baby was trying to explain that this train was not going to Innsbruck my wife, still correcting me, said that we were getting off at Salzburg. “Oh yes, we are going to Salzburg, not Innsbruck and not Munich” I said to him. Even though we were first class foreigners and the only passengers on the train this little melee was apparently mucho agitato for Ooh Baby. He threw up his hands muttering something in German and disappeared into some little hidden conductor compartment in the next carriage along. About ten minutes later he proceeded to inform the train via the public address system that we were soon arriving in Salzburg and everyone should get off the train here, and he continued to provide detailed instructions for anyone wishing to navigate onward to Innsbruck by train.

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Jimmy Carter and the Crooked Cross

“He wouldn’t like it,” she said assuredly. “Wouldn’t like it? Why?” I exclaimed. “It’s not his thing,” she continued with complete conviction. “Why?” I persisted monotonically. “Don’t know,” she conceded instantly. I found it hard to fathom any measure of indifference one could retain when faced with such lavishness and magnificence. There was gold leaf by the kilogram gilding the relief moldings of every column cap and pedestal. Entire walls were constructed of pink and blue marble throughout the massive domed structure. Inaugurated during the illustrious but fleeting reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (an early 1900’s world power), Hungary’s parliament majestically overlooks the River Danube. Well-organized tours are offered throughout the complex, in a variety of languages, including sneak peaks into the working parliamentary rooms. The jewel in the crown of the tour, quite literally, is the medieval gold crown of Saint Stephen, which is on display but guarded 24/7 under the dome of the colossal gothic legislative edifice.

Nevertheless, my wife contends that this is of no interest to my brother-in-law. A few weeks before we arrived in Budapest my American kin traveled thousands of miles to join a cruise where he apparently declined to visit all the main attractions, including the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Parliament, the palace, and countless other wonders of Austro-Hungaro historical significance. I wait eagerly to read the detailed review of his room.

Sometime back in the 1600’s, the treasured crown was locked away in a box in a bad way, bending its cross. At the onset of World War II it was stored at Fort Knox and only by controversial presidential decree was it returned to its rightful place of origin. Jimmy Carter is a rock star in these parts.

Sometime back in the 1600’s, the treasured crown was locked away in a box in a bad way, bending its cross. At the onset of World War II it was stored at Fort Knox and only by controversial presidential decree was it returned to its rightful place of origin. Jimmy Carter is a rock star in these parts.

One of many golden chambers within the opulent seat of government.

One of many golden chambers within the opulent seat of government.

The nearby magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a marvel of marble and mosaic artistry. It was refurbished recently due to damage from wars, weather and an earthquake or two. Inside and out are gilded mosaics depicting celestial angels and astrology signs. The marbled altarpiece depicts a gleaming white statue of Christ surrounded by a balustrade of columns and cherubs. We had ample time to study its intricacy during one of those oversold church concerts.

The nearby magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a marvel of marble and mosaic artistry. It was recently refurbished due to damage from wars, weather and an earthquake or two. Inside and out are gilded mosaics depicting celestial angels and astrology signs. The over-the-top altarpiece showcases a gleaming white statue of Christ surrounded by an awkward columned balustrade. We had ample time to study its intricacy during one of those ubiquitous church concerts.

Kolos Kovats serenaded the audience in baritone splendor bringing life to Ave Maria and a few other songs that we had unfortunately never heard before. You think you know the classics and then you realize you really don’t when you’re sitting in a big cold church in Budapest with at least an hour to go, and no bathroom in sight.

The renowned Kolos Kovats serenaded the audience in baritone splendor bringing life to Ave Maria and a few other songs that we had unfortunately never heard before. You think you know the classics and then you realize you really don’t when you’re sitting in a big cold church in Budapest with at least an hour to go, and no bathroom in sight.

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St Nicholas’ Museum of Torture

Small disparate groups of us filed in haphazardly towards stark rows of neatly arranged church pews. There was a slow-moving old man with tightly closed eyes shepherded caringly by a gaggle of family members, followed by an odd assortment of tired-looking middle-aged couples attired uniformly in anoraks and synthetic-soled footwear. With fifteen minutes remaining before curtain up, the short, hard, wooden benches were mostly occupied.   The backdrop to this illusory casting call for Walking Dead extras is the impressive St Nicholas baroque church in Prague’s old town square. Tonight we are most fortunate to receive a concert of Handel, Beethoven, Mozart and Corelli, performed on the 4,000-pipe organ that Amadeus himself played a quarter century ago.

Certainly this form of entertainment is highly popular in Prague, with anything remotely resembling a church offering classical recitals to the post iron curtain bustling hordes. Church concerts and specialized museums are cultural fare in the heart of central Europe. Visitors can treat themselves to Czech beer and pretzels then onto the Museum of Czech Beer, Museum of Sex Machines, and the Museum of Communism.

Wife finds something that'll work in her den project.

Wife finds something that’ll work in her den project.

At two minutes before showtime a dreary itinerant-looking man appears and clunks the big church doors closed. Subsequent echoing clonks and clicks signify the employment of large medieval-like door locking mechanisms. Then, with slightly more ceremony, the drab gray drifter pulls a large crimson velvet curtain across the church’s double doors and switches off the main lights. The lights don’t dim like they do in the theater; they just click off like they do in the bathroom. Instantly and collectively, as though we were all just buckled into a Universal Studio theme ride, we recognize that we had reached the point of no return. We have committed.

Waiting for some sign from above our motley congregation sits in fidgety silence, save for the rustling of anoraks, staring ahead at the ornate church pulpit and the beige and pink fresco-adorned walls of the 18th century parish. As a child, my parents compelled me to go to church but it was never this significant or historic, and I would not have been thinking about Mozart as I sat there endlessly counting light fixtures while the Minister rambled on about the prodigal son.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Small number of light fixtures from my view point.

Eventually we hear the lustrous and metallic fade in of a violin’s lower range as we understand we are being treated to one of Handel’s lesser-known Sonatas for violin and organ. But where is it coming from? A collection of uncoordinated anoraks swivel around searchingly. Aaaah, up on the next floor directly behind us, next to Mozart’s pipes.   So this is the experience: you sit there in your windbreaker looking ahead at the wall while two unseen guys, probably wearing jeans, ramble through obscure masterworks behind you for what seems like an eternity. For what it’s worth, the acoustics were good, but would likely be similar in an empty warehouse.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

The back of the church where the musicians hide.

After thinking initially that I wished I were elsewhere I then started to wonder how I could palm this off as a windswept and interesting world-class experience, doing unto others as had been done unto me. But after another mysterious sonata and a fugue I realized my arse was getting numb on the 18th century hardwood bench. There were not many positions one could adopt on that cold hard lumber and I started to alternate between classic praying and sleeping on the train. My watch told me I had at least three quarters of an hour remaining, but luckily I remembered I had just downloaded onto to my iPhone 6 plus, Frederick Taylor’s latest book on the allied carpet bombing of Dresden. So I figured I was set for the next hour or so as long as I could maintain reasonable blood circulation in my lower body. My wife leaned over and whispered solemnly, “I wish I’d gone to the Museum of Torture. That would’ve been more fun.”

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