Archive for the ‘Austria’ category

The Middle Ages unforgotten.

February 2, 2009

There aren’t many left that I know of, but you will find them, these patches of land torn from history and locations where time seems to have stood still before and since the time of knights and chivalry. Remote forests high up in the mountains where the moss grows thick across the ground and mist spreads outward with icy tendrils to ensnare you in this seemingly ancient forest alone and away from the comforts of the outside world. Houses and towns that still boast the strange styles of the past, and people who preserve those proud traditions.

I’m talking Austria in this case. Indeed, traveling into Austria from Switzerland via train you can see the sudden shift in borders as the lands go from the well tailored and gently curved green slopes to more rugged terrain with thick foliage the likes of which bring to mind tales of exploration and adventure.

Unfortunately the only location in Austria which I’ve gotten to wander proper is the city of Innsbruck, which I rather enjoyed. It’s a nice city really with some beautiful mountainous views and many streets boasting an eye catching front that just beg to be photographed. But beyond that nothing in particular stands out, it’s a pleasant city by all first impressions but not the sort of place I’d consider especially noteworthy. So why, you ask, are you writing about it right now and why the ambiguous title ‘middle ages unforgotten’? Easy. The city itself may not have much impressed, but the people certainly did. Allow me to continue.

Outside the train station is a predictably somewhat slummy area, but no worse than most train stations. And wandering aimlessly didn’t bring up anything spectacular that stood out. It was of all places the Hostel I stayed at which offered the first taste of just how memorable of a visit this stop would turn out to be. A nice little operation that was essentially a single large room in the apartment above a ground-level family owned bakery. Entire thing with only six beds, or was it eight? Either way, very small little operation but run with the sort of care that I wish more places would show. Comfortable, well decorated, clean, friendly staff. As good as hostels get! And to make it more intriguing the other people staying there at the time of my visit were an interesting group of fellow travelers from all around the world who my friend and I instantly took a liking to.

It was getting later into the evening when my friend and I returned to the hostel after a good stretch of time spent eating and doing the laundry at a local coin-operated place (What? Not all travel is glorious adventure.) when one of the other people staying at the Hostel suggested heading to one of the local cafe to enjoy a snack and a drink while talking.  Sure. Why not? And so we were enjoying ourselves when much to our surprise as we sat outside talking that a small procession of entertainers walked by, not limited to but including a pair of knights, a jester, band, a juggler and entertainers, and your usual assortment of medieval nobility. Unexpected to say the least. They paused just down the street and set up at a small stage I hadn’t even noticed earlier set beneath one of the cities landmark buildings, and so began the festivities.

The knights did battle, swords clashing one against the other and the crowd ooohing and aaahing at the appropriate moments, not the best choreography I’ve seen but done with an enthusiastic vigor that more than made up for a lack of dramatic skill and entertaining beyond any doubt. Shortly thereafter various speech made in the local tongue which I didn’t understand, music from the era-appropriate band, Jester tomfoolery, juggling, dancing, and even an entertaining session of fire dancing (Juggling and acrobatics done with flaming items, posing, some athletic dancing. All very moody considering it was dark at the time and had been raining earlier, leaving the ground a dramatic reflective black and the crowd thin.). And then, performance done, the group left in a procession just as they’d come, a team of mystical set-people appearing seemingly from thin air to dissamble the stage and clean up any mess as though nothing had happened. Needless to say I returned to my bed for the night extremely satisfied considering what had started a tame slow visit had turned into a meeting with interesting people and a free spectacle to observe, oh, and the cake I had for a snack had also been delicious.

Looking it up now via google it seems the whole affair is a local touristy event done every Thursday during summer. An event the locals tolerate it but little else. Hah! As a tourist, I can verify that it was indeed fun to watch and if more cities did such things in the name of netting a few travelers many places would be a helluva lot more memorable than they were. As it is what you usually get are an assortment of chalk artists (To be fair a few I’ve seen were extremely talented!), living statues (With at least one down-on-his-luck sort sort wearing an ill-sized costume trying to earn a few coins among em!), and maybe a photo-shoot setup with a guy in appropriate costume (Romans outside the colliseum for example.). That’s it! So be proud, that little display Innsbruck, which I keep almost spelling as Innsmouth thankyouverymuchLovecraft, is among the best touristy performance I’ve seen. It also set the mood for what was to follow the next day.

Leaving that Hostel was a bit of a bittersweet thing. Unusual as Hostels are generally not the sort of places you’d want to linger at, but the people who’d also been there had been friendly enough and the room comfortable enough that it was half-tempting to spend another night. But no, onto the train and northbound into Germany was the plan.

That train ride however was one of the more memorable ones. Twisting up and around these jagged slopes, the mornings mist the sort you see in movies and read of it books as it twisted and flowed through mossy forest trees torn themselves from countless images of medieval forests of old. It was impossible to not see that classical image, especially after the events of the night before; the thick pounding of heavy hooves and the glimmering armor of the knight as he emerges from the dense mist, weapons held low as he charges forward to meet fate, cloth banners billowing in his wake. A ‘romantic’ and undoubtedly non-factual image formed from too many movies and books, but one which stayed with me till forest and rugged mountain made way for the hilly green slopes of Southern Germany. The train car deserted but for myself and my friend, so the entire time was spent loudly talking about history and fantasy when I wasn’t staring out the windows and simply enjoying the view.

It’s also worth noting that in Southern Germany during this trip a pair of burly biker-esq men came into the train car holding out police badges and asking to see our passports, which they most certainly got to see considering even if they hadn’t been boasting the badges the two were easily bigger than me, and I’m a decent size, and certainly tougher looking. While trapped in a moving vehicle is not the best time to debate right and wrong with people who look like they could lift you like a twig and likely snap you in half just as easily! Nothing else to tell really, they saw the passports, nodded, and moved on. It’s just remarkable in that it was the only time I’ve been checked while crossing borders in western Europe. Plus the two guys looked like stereotypical German *cough* movie stars of a certain type, complete with handlebar moustache and leather hat. A sight which while intimidating also made for a good laugh later and an odd aside note now.

My experiences in Austria were unfortunately limited, but memorable and pleasant enough that I’m sure to make a more thorough visit in the future when I’m not poor and have monies to spend on travel again. I know little has been said about what exactely I saw and did there, but in the end that’s not really the stuff that stands out to me now, but the vague impressions left upon me by the whole experience, and so that’s what I try to convey through typing. In this case that of the middle ages, unforgotten.