Vienna oozes decadence.
This grand, imperial city, located on the mighty Danube, is chock-a-block with wonders that rival Paris and Rome. It’s virtually over-run with monuments and stuffed with imperial buildings. It hosts an endless variety of world-class, gotta-see attractions.
It’s the hometown of music’s immortals … Mozart, Schubert and the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss II. And it’s the city of pastries so ingeniously imagined and artistically crafted, so delicate-chocolately-buttery-tasty-yet-light that each of them deserves its own Michelin star!
But something’s missing … and that something’s called an empire. Vienna, a city of a million and a half people, governs 5 million others in a country one-third the size of Colorado. Of course at one time it did rule a vast empire in Central Europe. But that was then, and … well, it’s all in history’s rear-view mirror now.
But because of that … because of Austria’s past ambitions, adventures, riches, empire, alliances, betrayals and rivers of blood spilling from young men slaughtered on battlefields in endless cycles of war … they developed an attitude of people who’d had their fill of power and glory, who’d hung on to just enough of it to spend their days comfortably, with time for little pleasures … aka as life, which is, after all, what you do with your days, dealt to you like cards, one by one, till you’ve played them all out.
Work? Work hard? Sure! But don’t sacrifice leisure, hobbies, family and friends because sooner or later you’ll realize that power and glory are temporary. And tomorrow? Who knows!
Relax. Don’t take everything so seriously. Enjoy your life today, it’s all you’ve really got.
I guess that’s why I say I found Vienna decadent … decadent because it’s in decline and no longer plays on the world stage; because it abandoned its imperial dreams; because it rejected the rot that comes along with policing vast areas of the globe; because it’s the kind of place where you can take time-out for a morning coffee with a Kaiserschmarr’n, and an afternoon nap without feeling guilty in the least!
I felt comfortable there. I liked it, but after driving for some fifteen hundred miles along the Iron Curtain (a metaphorical border that hung along the Soviet Union’s “Eastern Block” which is what we called its western border) I felt like partying … and Vienna wasn’t where that was happening!
Nor was my VW welcome there.
Somewhere deep in the city I found a laundromat, where, as I washed my clothes, a police officer came in and asked me, “Ist met dot car mit International license you out there?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering what was up?
“Vell, you can not in it drive,” came the abrupt reply.
“What? Why not?” I asked, totally surprised.
“The tires, they haf not rubber. Come mit please,” he said walking towards the door.
When we reached my bug he continued, “See … see dot rubber is gone far and you drive now not on rubber but with white cords instead.”
Thinking too fast for my own good, I responded, “Oh, that! I was going to go buy some tires right after my laundry’s done! But I’ll have to be able to drive it to the tire store,” I lied.
“Ja, okay that, but to do be sure. It’s not so good so!”
“Yes, certainly, I’m on my way,” I said, and then immediately hit the road for Salzburg, the scenic city of “The Sound of Music” in the year that box office wonder hit the big screen.
I drove there on those bald tires without incident … in fact I totally forgot about them, though I was to be reminded of their fragility later!
Salzburg lies at the foot of the snow-capped Alps. Among the innumerable charms I discovered there were two blondes from Australia I met in an Alpine campground with a scenic view of the city.
We got along, in fact we got along so well we decided to spend the next day together exploring the town.
The city looked like the movie (which they’d just finished shooting a few months earlier). But better than that, these gals were ready to party! With exotic fantasies dancing through the deepest caverns of my cerebrum, we found a brewery on the outskirts of town, where, while enjoying deliciously refreshing beer, a fellow wearing gray woolen trousers, a dark green sports coat with leather lapels and a matching Tyrolean Fedora leaned over from his adjoining table and introduced himself.
“Hello. I hope you’re enjoying your visit here in Salzburg. Allow me to introduce myself … Romeo, at your service!” he informed us with a deep bow. “May I buy you another round?”
“Why, yes, of course! Certainly! Danke!” I replied without thinking much about it.
It didn’t take long for Romeo to take a seat with us … a maneuver we certainly welcomed! He not only bought us more beer, but a veritable feast of Weiner schnitzel, beer, sauerkraut, beer, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and beer. He plied the girls with gallons of the foamy elixir from the brewery’s giant kettles.
Partying had officially begun!
But I think Romeo mis-calculated when judging the physical prowess of Aussie women, especially when it comes to consuming their national beverage … beer. It’s like mother’s milk to them. And they take it seriously because they know they have an international reputation to uphold. Consequently they work hard at it! They endure numerous, grueling, rigorous beerathons from an early age so that by the time they reach their twenties even the most innocent looking Aussie can drink even an experienced Irishman under the table!
Like a fox sensing a wolf, I figured I could see what Herr Romeo was up to. Of course considering our parallel motives I couldn’t really blame him! However I did feel a personal obligation to look out for the girls. After all, I’d brought them and felt a kind of male obligation to protect them from this Alpine Romeo … which is why I insisted that they ride to his place with me in spite of his expensive, exotic sports car. Why he could be a raging psychopath for all I knew!
I found it a bit puzzling when he pulled up to some covered parking stalls facing a cliff. No dwellings, just a sheer granite cliff. The elevator doors gave it all away soon enough however. Several stories above me I could see large decks cantilevered over the cliff.
“Wow! What a setting!” I thought craning my neck.
Romeo’s pad had spectacular, sweeping views of Salzburg which was all lit up for the night. From his deck the entire city lay at our feet like a carpet woven out of iridescent strands of light. It was a scene of surpassing beauty.
His place itself was large, quite large and featured a bar about twenty feet long. Behind it hung a large map of the world carved in wood … a magnificent work of craftsmanship!
While the girls stood on the deck admiring the view, Romeo motioned me to pull up a bar stool.
“Where plan you to go after Salzburg?” he asked.
“Switzerland I guess.”
“Aha” he said, pointing at the map, “that would be kirsch! And then to where?”
“Greece more than likely.”
“Ouzo! And after that?”
“Up through Yugoslavia!”
“Aha, that would be slivovitz!” he exclaimed, at which point he pressed a button and, like magic, the entire map slide into the wall revealing a collection of booze that shone like the huge stained glass window in an ancient cathedral!
“Okay! Let’s start your grand tour!” he said as he grabbed a bottle of the finest from each of the countries I’d mentioned!
The gals had come in from the deck and as Aussies were trained in the finer arts of drinking, they abstained from my grand booze tour. This proved to be both sensible and remarkably prescience for, in an ironic twist of fate, it turned out that Romeo didn’t have his lecherous eye on them but on yours truly, who, after consuming copious amounts of Greek ouzo, lost touch with reality, but not with forward motion, and I continued marching with the old buzzard all the way through Yugoslavia when the gals rescued me, poured me into my VW and drove back to camp.
I spent the next day nursing a particularly debilitating hangover, regretting my foolhardy tour, vowing to never, ever drink to excess again … or at least until my head stopped banging and clanging with the mournful sounds of misery!
My only condolences were my two, attractive, amiable, Aussie nurses … proving it’s an ill wind that blows no one good!
Coming next! Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 10 … MY ANTI-TENT RANT IN AN ALPINE PARADISE
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