Among Friends in Austria. May 2013 With St Matthias Church, Brighton.
It’s been a very busy couple of weeks, as I am not long returned from a week in Austria with a backto-back Paris and the Courson Garden Event before that. Two lovely tours in two excellent destinations with two lovely groups, but more of the Paris trip elsewhere. The tour to Austria had been long in the planning, with much hard work by Maggie and Dave, European Connoisseurs Travel and me. After a very successful trip to the Oberammergau Passion Play in 2010 (admittedly in Germany but we also stayed in Austria), the destination had long been decided – it was just a question of when. I am the regular tour-guide for St Matthias Church trips from Brighton, and over the years its social organisers, Maggie and Dave and I have become close friends, so after a leisurely rest and dinner at their house, we went to join the eager early risers to meet our coach. It must be quite a sight, 25 or so huddled in the bus shelter from the chill dawn wind, the dawn chorus announcing the day just as much as our excited, over-loud chatter. Seaview Coaches of Poole were on their way, and we had a ‘feeder’ driver to take us through to Maidstone Services where we would pick up out week-long driver and good friend Hugh. There were already 12 passengers on board having been picked up at Eastleigh and Cote Street, most old friends but also some new faces to me, so from the outset it was a happy coach of excitement and holiday anticipation. Hugh ever the professional; ever smartly dressed and never a hair out of place was at the coach stand to greet us. After a short break to bring his maximum driving hours up to speed, and a change- over of taco graphs, it was Austria ‘here we come!’
There is no disguising the fact that it was a long journey to our over-night stop at Baden-Baden, but in reality with a few snoozes, a quiz, some ‘hostessing’ of refreshments and two comfort stops it flew by, and once in the delightful Leonardo Hotel, Baden-Baden, the journey was forgotten. This ex-Best Western hotel just gets better and better - the rooms are very well furnished, it stands in a delightful leafy suburb of the town where 19th C. villas have housed the well-off in considerable opulence, and the food is fantastic! The welcome meal we enjoyed was every bit as good as the Hilton in Bonn, another favourite with this group, with a buffet breakfast of smoked salmon and sparkling wine, freshly squeezed ( so fresh you did it yourself ) orange juice and the usual buffet-styled servings. I can’t wait to go back. I understand that Baden-Baden has a very good Christmas market, so this is likely to be sooner rather than later! After breakfast we were away at 09.00 for the next leg. As a surprise, Hugh and I had worked our route to take us via Oberammergau as the main refreshment break and comfort stop. On the way for a bit of fun, I passed down the coach ensuring that everyone knew the tune to the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz, so as we crossed its lazy and dark waters north-east of Ulm we la-di-la’d it, completely out of tune, but great fun, and in fact, ever so slightly insane! Sadly, it must have been inter-season motorway repair time, as we encountered many miles of lane closures and very slow traffic which reduced our time at Oberammergau down to only an hour and three quarters, but all in all, that was probably time enough. We had the town of beautifully painted buildings more-or-less to ourselves, and it was so nice to see it all devoid of people, being the exact opposite to the Passion Play Festival season, when you can’t see the buildings for people, and as Oscar Wilde may have put it, the people for buildings!
The town stands on the German side of the Alps, somewhat in their foothills, compared with the great drama of the mountains yet to come, and the sun-lit peaks above the passes drew us on and over them, down hair-pin bends to Garmish-Partenkirchen and through the Austro-German boarder to Innsbruck. The steep hill into Austria is like the descent on a white -knuckle ride, but the panorama is absolutely breathtaking, with the buzz on the coach all excited and a-camera-clicking frenzy. Once down on the flat of the Inn Valley, with Innsbruck’s sprawl flying by on our left, it was just another 30 minutes to our accommodation for the next few days, the Hotel Plankenhof, Pill.
Parking is so easy at this hotel and it’s just moments to the reception door and a lovely welcome from Michael, our host. But before you get even that far, there were moments to spare and take in the view; the pretty shutter-painted windowed hotel against a mountainous backdrop of cloud capped peaks and a descending snow line into the dark-to-black high, pine forests; a most welcome and glorious vista to travel-weary passengers; a wonder to those who hadn’t been to Austria before, and a kind of ‘welcome back’ to those who had seen it in 2010. Magic!
The Plankenhof Hotel
Michael was at reception to greet us – envy – he hasn’t changed a bit! This isn’t just his hotel - it is, as he puts it, ‘his house’, which means his home as well as ours for the next few nights. There’s nothing corporate or flashy, it is just under-stated supreme efficiency, charm, and a traditional homeliness that wraps around you with an elegance of middle European grandeur, all condensed into a sumptuous, not over-done, haven away from it all. The reception hall to the bar ahead is strictly also the lounge area, and nothing has been spared on the quality of furniture, all beautifully carved, turned and upholstered. Tall stools line the bar under glass-bell lamp-shades, a softly inviting glow of chic. There’s a small lift to all floors, and from each floor, the landings of which are of baronial size and decorated equally, the grand stairway sweeps back down. The rooms are perfect, again, nothing corporate but all fitted with a well finished en-suite and tastefully suited furniture. The beds are so comfortable and are ... well, obviously expensive! It would be rude not to spend some time at the bar, and Michael is there with Hungarian-born barman and waiter, Gary, whilst Michael’s son George helps porter in the remaining luggage, and there is a great kindness in that alone in a hotel these days. It’s either one of those things you pay for or you don’t, but here it was part of the service, althouh I can’t guarantee that could be said for all arrivals. Who knows? So that’s all the men sorted out, and it means that Michael’s wife Maria can only be in the kitchen, producing with her team the most excellent food. We are there on a halfboard basis, and not only does she and the kitchen serve the most delicious homelike meals of an easy sophistication, but they managed to cater for the separate foibles, diets and tastes of all my 38 passengers with such ease. After a warm welcome speech by Michael, and the raising of a complimentary glass of his house special, a delicious mix of white Austrian wine with elderflower cordial, everyone received their meals timely, table by table, with Gary even managing to take drink orders in between – an oiled system of competence which spoke of great care to detail. If there is one extra thing I can say about the excellent food we enjoyed, they even served seconds! Where else but at home does that happen, and in its turn, again, how homely!
This is a very historic building and rooms go off everywhere, from oak-panelled and dark, cosy dining rooms to large windowed, modern, beamed-ceilinged rooms that can easily cater for 50 and then by drawing back a wall curtain, seating for a further 100 at least! There is a schnapps bar in the cellar, which seems to be run on a franchise basis perhaps, and a schnapps museum around which our host offers schnapps tasting tours, as it is all made and sold in situ. In my 10 years of tour-guiding, I have never experienced anything as funny and ‘off-the-wall mad-cap’ enjoyment as our schnapps tour. Our host was clearly on form this evening, as the tour for 21 passengers lasted an hour and three quarters! I doubt I will ever encounter the likes again. He was happy, we were more than happy, and well, ‘cheerio!’ but you needed to have been there to understand that. Again, if Michael’s house and home was our house and home, for the next few days, well, he was such a good friend to have there. His rules really are relax, be happy! Breakfast was a buffet: hot and cold, of bacon, scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, meats and cheeses, nice breads and rolls with packs of Alpine butter - simple, good food, beautifully presented - coffee in pots on all tables, a boiling hot water urn steaming away, and seamless service. Then we’re away, an 08.45 start, and it’s about 20 minutes to our first stop of the day – the smallest town in Austria, and oh so pretty, Rattenburg, sweeping around a bend on the turquoise-white river Inn. I have never seen glass blowing before, but, from a hot tip by a colleague of mine, we went to the crystal-glass house and shop of Kisslinger Kristall Glas, where we had an introduction whilst watching a demonstration by glass-blowers who were, co-incidentally, making items of stock for their cavernous show rooms. A great start to the day, fascinating, informative and all very pretty. After time for coffee and sightseeing, there’s no time to lose and we’re off to Kitzbuhel for lunch. It only took an hour or so, and then dropping off outside the station Hugh and I took the coach off to park, and met up with some of the group in town. Backed by scenic mountains, Kitzbuhel is a place for serious money-spending, chic shops and a good selection of alpine restaurants. The church is exquisite and the old-town, polished late medieval. All very nice! The road afterwards, was a test not only of the coach’s endurance but also our nerves as we climbed high and descended into the gorgeous valley of Mittersill, and then on to the Krimml falls at the heart of the Austrian National Park - and this was every bit the Austria we had all come to see! The weather was a little against us, but the stop at the falls themselves was spectacular, and the climb out over the mountain to the strain of the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal, conjured up the stuff and excitement of dreams. At 5200 feet, the road levelled out and then very quickly our long, slow, winding, precipice-close road lead down to the Ziller Valley began. We had the right man in our driver Hugh, who dealt with it all so calmly and easily. Such
professionalism! I had hoped to get to Mayrhofen but we ran out of time. Nonetheless, we were so exhilarated by a day well spent in the drama of peaks and clouds no one noticed. After a short freshen-up break, a Weiss beer or two, it was time for another treat from Maria’s kitchen – then more beer and bed!
Nights are often too short for me, but a slightly later start had us breakfasted and away to Vipiteno, Italy, beyond the Brenner Pass – and how the sun shone for us! A hotly contested historic town abridge the lowest alpine pass, Vipiteno was the perfect short excursion away from Pill and the Hotel Plankenhof, and quite by chance we found an on-street parking coach bay just short of the historic old-town. Expensive shops suggested some considerable wealth locally and the town’s no holding back desire to satisfy ladies handbag shopping cravings. So few shops – so many handbags! A fortified arch-gated tower separated the old town from the new, where an exquisite church decorated with early naive biblical scenes stood at the edge of the town’s square, all-a-bustle with coffee shops and outside catering. How the sun beat down on us sipping our coffee or refreshing morning beer ( did I really say that? ) but failed to thaw the snow on even the nearest and lowest of the surrounding peaks, all brilliant and white.
This was the first time ever for some of our party to visit Italy, and of course it was always going to be too short, but two hours was all we could give it, and again, that was really enough, then we retraced our steps over the magnificent elevated Brenner Pass motorway, down and through east Innsbruck to the Hofgarten coach park, within very easy walking distance to the city’s old town.
Innsbruck took a number of the group by surprise - the way it is pushed and nestled against the river Inn beneath the very high and very close mountains. As back-drops go, any vista through the oldtowns streets will present a grey-wall mass of mountain-rock in the distance. At the end of the Hofgarten Palace, two arches open at a junction that lead into and around the old-town – a tourist and souvenir maze of Tyrolean knick-knackery and associated nonsense. But that is to deride the area over-much for it is not without charm, and as the lanes lead down towards the centre of town and its prize, the Golden Roof, there is a buzz in the area; conversing of shoppers, sight seers, tourgroups with Tyrolean-clad guides; out-side eateries, arcaded shops and an air of holiday! As a city centre it is nicely compact not only in its sights, but in that, how it also manages to contain its atmosphere. There are a few ‘out-of-town’ sights, but as the crowds and numbers on the streets become fewer, that certain ‘air’ is left behind to become just another European, somewhere city! Four and a half hours will have been too long for sure in some instances, but my philosophy has always been to max our time out. Timing is a difficult thing to judge because of the different and disparate interests in any group. There is more to Innsbruck than just shopping; the vernacular railway half way up the mountain side is one diversion, if not visiting the beautiful palace or ski jump, and I must confess that lunching with a wine or two in a sunny corner takes up a lot of my time! At 17.30 we were all back on the coach, and within half an hour we were parked up at the Plankenhof Hotel and showering off the dust of the city, preparing for another good home-cooked dinner courtesy of the more-than-very-lovely Maria. Early to bed, early to rise!
The Golden Roof, Innsbruck
The following day, our last in the Inn valley was Hugh’s day off ( Hugh being our Seaview driver just in case you had forgotten ). Some would say perhaps that it would have been an ideal opportunity to stay at the hotel and polish the coach of all those wind-flattened, Austrian, windscreen-killed mosquitoes, but my ethos is whenever a driver has a day off when we are away on tour, he should
had a total down-day away from the coach and relax completely, he is after all the most important technician on the trip (I’ll give him that much!). ECT had supplied a local coach, a rather lovely, somewhat dated looking - but smooth and comfortable, extra long bus with the local born and very Marco at the wheel - really, what a great guy. Our first stop was at Swarovski Kristallwelten, in nearby Wattens. What an unusual place. A ‘theme park’ if you will, it is sited next to one of two Swarovski factories in the Inn valley, the other being to the north on the lower slopes of the mountains. This one, an employer of some 2000 workers, is a factory of secrets with showroom/outlet and subterranean fantasy caverns attached. The secrets? We didn’t learn anything about the production of the crystals! No one had been here previously so we only had the images on the internet to go by, and out of context they weren’t of much use until the experience began. I should say at the outset that this is a very unusual place, and if you ‘didn’t get it’ nothing could save you. So, some didn’t ‘get it’, others didn’t like it, some thought it diverting and interesting, others thought it ‘WOW’ and remarked on their feedback sheets that it was the highlight of the week!
One enters the caverns to the right of a grass-banked, grass-covered, friendly, giant’s face, pouring water from its mouth as a waterfall. This leads into a chamber where centrally hangs a massive crystal lampshade (not chandelier) above a glass-boxed, cut crystal of great size and perfect clarity – and why not, it is after all glass. The group were given an introduction in English, having waited some time for a French version to finish, then on we went through a number of chambers connected by walkways, corridors and other contrivances, passing exhibits that can be best called ‘contemporary art’. One might have expected lashings of crystals, and yes, they were here, but not in so great a number as you would imagine, as other glass and mirror trickery took over, some which ‘worked’, others which ... er ... didn’t. The whole idea methinks is that it was said giant’s home – he of the gushing mouth at the entrance. One could even say we popped into his sitting room with his telly on, as mid route, we came to a darkened room with seating, and an whooping HD screen showing Jessye Norman in sparkly, Swarovski frock singing her socks off. It was great but ... why? Actually, I don’t care why, it was just great!
Many a cavern and clever illumination later we came to ... the shop! I had allowed two hours for the experience with time for a coffee break at the end which combined with shopping time was just about right. It is sad to say the Austrian experience of kindness itself at every turn, was betrayed by the disappointingly poor, begrudging, indolence of the cafeteria staff. I wonâ€™t go into it, but a black mark here Swarovski! However, hats off also to them as I found a special room and area reserved for tour-guides with free internet computers, sublime coffee and an open air seating area atop aforementioned giantâ€™s head, which I enjoyed alone. Sorry folks!
Getting ahead, Hall in Tyrol.
A light drizzle had set in as we made our way out to the coach and our beaming, happy-faced Marco, and an interesting moment as we chewed over the unusual experience that is Swarovski Kristallwelen. I really think it is a ‘must do’ if you are in the area, but once in a lifetime is probably about right. Next we made our way to ‘Hall-in-Tyrol’, and if you hadn’t enjoyed Swarovski’s caverns then this wasn’t a good day. We parked in the town’s coach park, just a short walk from the ‘best preserved old-town in western Austria’. We were here for two hours, and as we made it away from the coach into the lower streets we arrived for lunch closing time. It is now 12.30 the shops will open again at 14.00. It is a ghost town! The restaurants are open for lunch, but otherwise there is ne’ry a soul to be seen. But that’s good with me - I don’t want strangers cluttering up my photographs. Hugh and I took an absolutely excellent lunch in a grand hotel dating from 1580, it was so inexpensive and the service, charming beyond words ( Swarovski please note ). Almost to enhance the ghost-town feel, a visit to the church turned up a most gruesome sight which was quite unexplained. It seems as if all the local medieval socialites had their heads removed at death (just as well not earlier really) and had them embalmed perhaps, and clothed in a grey veil of tissue. They were then arranged with tiaras and crowns and placed on the shelves of a side chapel behind glass doors somewhat like a library. Elsewhere, in another case were the mortal remains of Saint Catherine, sliding off her divan and almost slumped against the glass. She wasn’t alone, as the charnel bits and bobs of two other saints were either side of her. It was a shame for the group to find the town so desolate, as I am sure it has much to offer, but it was just one of those things. We made our way back to the coach as things began to liven up a bit – too late for those in the glass cases, but hey ho! Back in the coach park I had arranged a little party. I had bought some bottles of bubbly – six in all whilst in France to celebrate ‘our’ being away with a few drinks. I had also bought non-alcoholic refreshment for the tea-totallers, and this really is my chance of buying everyone a drink which would be impossible to do in the hotel. Possible yes - cost impossible! Marco kindly helped serve and toasted with us with said soft drink, and was amazed by the whole notion. He had never come across a tour-guide that wants to ply drinks in such a way. It is true that nearly all German coaches carry beers and small bottles of wine, often having a table from which to serve and occasionally offering an open sandwich to go with it, but this is always chargeable, if not built into the tour costs, but a tour guide offering drinks out of his own pocket? Whatever next? We took the old road back to the hotel arriving about 15.30, as at 16.00, as is our practice on St Matthias tours, we have our church service, our good vicar and shepherd always travelling with us. Michael our host, had arranged this to happen in a rather beautiful and ancient part of his hotel. Originally the stable, this hall was now laid out for functions; red seated, pillared and arched, never had we had so magical an ambience for our services on tour. Now, here’s an odd spin on this, for as soon as the service was over we went away to enjoy the bar, a cup of tea and outside views, only to find ourselves back in the exact same location for the start of our schnapps tasting and tour! A demonstration if ever, that ‘church’ isn’t about the building, but the congregation! I don’t want to over-egg the story but in 10 years of tour-guiding, I have never enjoyed myself as much as this presentation by Michael. It may have helped that only half an hour before he had finished the same kind of event to a passing French group, but well-oiled, it was his time with us, and boy, was he on form! He spoke to us kindly and on a very personal level, we had after all been guests
in his house for a number of nights now, and had formed, each of us, our own friendships with him, some to a greater or lesser degree. But right now, we were the closest of friends, and for our 8 Euros per head, we enjoyed his great munificence! Stashed within his apron breast were any number of schnapps bottles, each to be pulled out with relish and aplomb for our enjoyment. Some were pulled out, and then returned, as if the moment for that taste, that history or indeed that ‘moment of pleasure’ wasn’t quite ripe. After a while and a number of tastings, his apron breast bulging, we left the hotel, headed off down the street to the corner, laughing wildly, and then right and right again into his distillery. We were privileged to see it, as under the hotel and technically next door is his schnapps museum proper, here was his stainless steel ‘baby’, his German made, still. As well as the bottles he brought around with him of course there were others there, and how he shared, not only his home-made schnapps but also himself and with every anecdote and every glass-filled tasting was a toast of ‘Cheerio!’
Reception, Plankenhof Hotel.
So now it was out of the still and into the hotel via a back door, and into his schnapps museum and shop. He didn’t spend any time on the vintage stills but set about immediately filling our glasses afresh, and several ‘Cheerios’ later he left us to enjoy the shop. I have always felt it a bit cheesy to get a tour anywhere only to end up in a hard-sell shop ( Swarovski are you reading this? ), but this wasn’t like that, and we would all have felt disappointed if we hadn’t! I will relish my private, small schnapps reserve, and will relish it secretly or only with the closest of friends! As I said earlier, this was our last day in the Inn valley, and Michael’s wife Maria, pulled out the stops for her last dinner. There’s too much writing and reading to go into it, but it was sublime, and many an ooh and an aah passed from table to table as it was served. Thank you Maria, for another great moment in your hotel, and in my career tour-guiding. During dinner, I went to the kitchen to speak with her and Michael to ask if they and their staff would come to the dining room for us to show our appreciation. The moment the door open they all received the most rapturous applause and thank you, then with a speech from Michael, Dave and myself it was all so warmly done and complete. Dinner over, some stayed in the bar, others to bed and some out to enjoy a starlit evening and
smoke - and it was this last thing that rounded off the night, day and stay so nicely. Michael, perhaps a little schnapps warmed came out to join us for a cigar, and returning to reception he thanked Maggie, Dave and me in a joint hug, in which we thanked him. It was a marvellous meeting of kindred spirits and one that glistened so beautifully in that moment, and one that sealed not only our time in the Tyrol, but also endorsed why we had returned at all! Thank you, Michael! Breakfast over, our cases loaded, we were ready for the homeward bound journey. The sky was clear, the mountains sharp, as Michael boarded the coach to say goodbye. This had been a great week – a stay among the best of family run hotels – a host generous in his welcome, our stay and his good bye, as he waited on the doorstep waving until we had turned the corner and headed towards Pill, the motorway and Innsbruck, up the long, steep, climb into the mountains, following our arrival route back towards Oberammergau and the now frosty, snow-dusted line of the alpine peaks.
Our driver, Hugh.
But we are not yet done. Back in the mountains, we turn left just short of Oberammergau and take a narrow road hardly made for coaches, and then right again into the coach park of the amazing Linderhof Palace, one of Ludwig of Bavaria’s uber-gilded confections. A miniature Versailles, a ‘Versailles of the Mountains’, how could it be called less as Ludwig took his influence from Louis XIV, The Sun King – and it showed! After buying the tickets, the group made their way individually and severally up the winding path towards the palace beside meadows of spring flowers left to seed. Even at this altitude and cold, the fields were ripe with buttercups, ox-eyed daisies and wild orchids.
Over a small rise, and there it was before us. The palace sat at right angles to the path where we met the setting on a slip leading to the terrace; to the left the building itself; to the right a sumptuous pool of gilded statuary, Neptune at its heart, leading up via stepped rivers of waterfalls, rills and cascades to a stately, pagoda-style music pavilion. Majestic! If the authorities claim that Ludwig was mad, how could I possibly argue knowing that this great golden, gateau of a fantasy is matched by two others of its like, and indeed, one yet more fabulous!
Turn-styles greet us at the palace, also somewhat reminiscent of Versailles in the way crowds are controlled, but in peak season this must be a necessity. Our English speaking guide met us beyond, all perfectly timed, and in we went. To start, I must say our guide was a poppet! No taller than Ludwig’s ivory candelabra, she lead us through in a simple unfussy style, introducing us to the marvels of the place with some small haste as the following tour was hard on our heels. Into one room, the doors closed behind us, then on again only when the room ahead was clear of a forward group. The walls dripped mirrors, the mirrors dripped gold – our guide dripped perfect English in a foreign style that went down and petered out at the end of her sentences. She was a bit of a treat, just as much as the building was, and really, the building was in its way, just as small as she was! In no time, after the senses were saturated by so much gold and all that fantasy, we were guided through unexpected side doors out onto the pool terrace, and then a climb, a difficult one for some, up to Ludwig’s Grotto, the Venusberg of Wagner’s opera, Tannhauser.
Ludwig's Grotto, The Venusberg.
Itâ€™s true that some of our number turned back at the start, and others peeled away as the climb progressed, steeper and steeper with magnificent views back over the estate and the valley in full. The gates to the grotto were closed as a tour was already ahead, so a wait fortified the exhausted, and as the crowd grew in number with us (how only the English know about queuing! ) it was almost each man for himself when the tour of the man-made cavern began. I must confess to some disappointment as I saw the rather makeshift repair work - over-generous spills of new concrete on wire mesh, and wished for more romance, but suddenly a music system kicked off and we were into the opening prelude to act one of Tannhauser. I now had goose-pimples on my goose-pimples and more romance than I could deal with. Gulp! The pool of the grotto was considerably wide and deep, the colours from hidden lighting sublime and magical; Ludwigâ€™s boat moored just off shore; a far stage, a part of the Venusberg setting, and small orchestra chamber to the side. I was in another place! As a Wagnerian, for me it was great, for others the spell failed to grasp and it was a quick exit through more concrete grotto tunnelling to a side door and back out onto the steady downhill progress to the coach. Of those who turned back there was plenty to eat and buy at the outlets near to the coach park, but en-route we were in time to see the fountain in front of the palace erupt â€“ all 24 meters of it. A magnificent sight and a worthy finish to a lovely visit!
The Neptune Fountain, Linderhof Palace.
Now began our long journey back to Baden-Baden, but I had chosen a route to take us through the last of the Alps, along the aforementioned road hardly fit for coaches, and my heart was in my mouth! I knew we wouldn’t encounter any low bridges or the like, but if we met another coach coming towards us, who would back down and back out first. It was a beautiful road, 16 miles long beside a dry river bed of tumbled ice-melt boulders to a lake of aqua-marine, a mirror to reflect the far mountains – but not one place to stop and photograph any of it! Coaches shouldn’t come this way! Eventually, we’re out onto the motorway, heading north, and only the far-sighted and those who could crane their necks sufficiently, saw afar, the white Neuschwanstein castle of Ludwig, ghostlike on its rocky promontory. It’s the best part of 4 hours back to Baden-Baden but what a joy knowing ahead of us lay such a friendly, inviting and welcoming hotel. Tonight we will all do our own thing. It’s a beautiful evening and the short walk through the park to the town centre is a tonic after a long afternoon on the coach. Baden-Baden is a handsome town. Historically, it is a spa town attracting the rich and famous either as visitors or to live, and the beautiful buildings that line the river bank, dress the town centre and enrich its environs are testimony to that. The wealth is more than apparent, but the tranquillity is perfect – heron fish the foaming-fast river, while florists are comfortable enough to leave their entire stock out on their doorstep and surroundings without the fear of robbery or vandalism. Restaurants ply in the pedestrianised town centre, beside designer label shops and chic boutiques in the shadow of two former castles, the casino and theatre. But I am somewhat ahead of myself here and my mind is back on the coach, for technically we haven’t arrived until you’ve heard this.
With only one stop, we were on the outskirts of the Black Forest by five o’clock and pulling into the hotel at six, but a delightful diversion, so to speak, en-route, lifted our hearts again. One of our passengers, George, had penned an ‘Ode to the Road’ telling one of the exploits of our holiday. After filling up with diesel, the coach developed what I called at the time a ‘Delhi Belly’, and within a short time, it started losing power and emitted black smoke from the exhaust. Our driver, Hugh, knew that it wasn’t a crisis as the on-board computer didn’t register any faults, and a phone call through to the yard confirmed this. He and they, at the time put it down to ‘dirty’ fuel, this being quite easy to believe and understand. Nonetheless, as is always best, the coach company arranged for an engineer
to come out to the hotel while the group enjoyed their evening dinner and run his own diagnostics which proved, eventually, and well into the night, that there was an air leak into, and after the air filter, if that make sense, and the engine was at times burning pure fuel rather than a fuel and air mix. The engineer, an Austrian, blond and of generous build, was called Herr Wanker ( I jest not ) and pleasant enough he was too. Occasionally given to the slamming down of tools in a difficult and ‘testy’ manner, he was nonetheless a steadfast fellow, who conquered the job at last with the sustenance of many cigarettes and Plankenhof colas. My German being at full stretch was supplemented and ultimately rescued by George, Michael’s son, who translated the technical bits and pieces which are known only to mechanics and people of that ilk or interest, whom I believe, are universally quite few! I digress, George had put this tale to a tune for us all to share on the coach, in a ‘let’s-speed-themiles-along-sing-along’. Taking the mike, he led us through the verse, while we rejoined with the chorus and much, much laughter. What fun! Here it is:
ODE TO THE ROAD
A Song of Memories of St Matthias Church Tour to Pill, Austria, 20-26 May 2013 By George Lisle (To be sung to the tune of the Irish Folk Song: “The Mountains of Morn”)
O, travellers this coach is a wonderful sight It just keeps on rolling by day and by night Thirty-eight passengers, Tour Guide and Crew Whimsical Graham and stoical Hugh Chorus: Tour-a-lay, tour-a-loo We all go a ridin’ with Graham and Hugh
Hugh drives us smoothly along every road Despite lots of banter and a right heavy load Across lots of countries, sailing happily along When, “Help, we are smoking – Is there something wrong?” Chorus... Hugh’s looking worried and Graham’s face fell Fearing a nightmare scenario from hell Drove very slowly, and spluttered up hill But managed to get to our hotel in Pill Chorus... An Austrian Mechanic came out dead of night Working with Hugh, while Graham held the light “Air in the diesel, we don’t need to crank her” Let’s give three cheers, for the clever Herr Wanker* Chorus... Time’s running out and we’re heading home Lots of good comments and hardly a moan Our thanks go to Maggie, Graham, Hugh and Dave A wonderful holiday, about which we’ll rave Chorus... and end. NB* Wanker - a German/Austrian name pronounced Vanker
Not only was it a great kindness to come up with the song, but it speaks to me of a happiness to be shared, both in his happiness per se, and that for the week spent away. Thank you George! The restaurants are closed – the travel weary abed, for tomorrow is a very early start for the long haul back to Calais, the Euro Tunnel and home. As expected the breakfast was superb, the Leonardo Hotel served us well again - smoked salmon and sparkling wine, and a buffet of so many other delicacies and even a lunch pack for Hugh and me. The coach was a squeeze to get in and out from its bay beside the hotel, but we were away more or less on time. It was a long road to Calais, and
whilst I supplied teas and coffees en-route to reduce our stopping times, we made it well enough with only one stop, and there was just, just enough time for one or two to slip into the Duty Free. So there you have it. Thank you to all for such a lovely week of friendship and fun. Thank you to Maggie and Dave for pulling it all together; European Connoisseurs Travel for putting it together; for Hugh’s skilled driving and friendly company; and to all for being so gorgeous! And I didn’t even mention Hugh over-sleeping, but that would be to tell tales. As one dear friend will have put it, ‘Weren’t we lucky!’ ... Graham