Into Fresh Air
Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
High in the Alps, the tiny lakeside town of Altaussee is where the Austrian nobility has summered for centuries
WHO STOLE FRANZI FRISCHMUTH'S PANTS?
The question hangs darkly over Altaussee, mingling with the Alpine air and the shrieks of children playing by the town's pristine mile-and-a-half-long lake.
Oh, sure, it's not a big deal—a pair of pants. But they were a century-old pair of lederhosen, an Austrian man's most prized possession, that had been handed down for generations.
The theft is a big crime for Altaussee. A village of just 2,000 people, bordered on three sides by imposing rock walls, it is an Alpine Brigadoon, seemingly unchanged for centuries. Tidy gingerbread houses huddle along narrow streets, each as flawless as a miniature in a toy train set, snug with putting-green lawns, fruit trees, and yellow oxeyes.
Franzi sits on the terrace of his family's hotel, the Hotel am See, and looks glumly out over the still waters to the great rock wall of the Trisselwand massif. It was a simple crime, really. One night he hung the lederhosen outdoors for "air washing"—the short leather pants are never washed in water or dry-cleaned, not once in a hundred years—and the next morning they were gone.
"Lederhosen are always appropriate," he says, philosophically. "You can go to a wedding or a funeral, you can dig a hole, you can paint your wall." So now he's wearing jeans—hardly uncommon in a town that draws thousands of vacationing Austrians each summer, but unbefitting for the scion of a family that can trace its roots in the village back 750 years.
I'm beginning to suspect that the crime will never be solved. Altaussee is rife with arcane symbols, hidden codes, long-kept secrets. The most ancient of them is the concealed wealth of the mountains: great veins of pure salt run through the limestone spires. For thousands of years people burrowed into the rock to retrieve the bounty—first the Celts, then the Slavs, then the Germans. During the days of the Hapsburgs the salt was so valuable that Altausseers were forbidden to leave, and outsiders forbidden to enter, without a special passport. Marriage with outsiders was taboo, even with people from Bad Aussee, three miles away.
Locked up in their little world, the villagers' vision narrowed. Grudges were nurtured for generations. The town of Grundlsee, on the next lake over, has been the object of Altaussee's animosity for as long as anyone can remember. "People in Grundlsee say that we have big mouths," says Franzi, his doleful blue eyes narrowing. "We say that Grundlseers have big ears."
Franzi's cell phone rings; he has to dash off. I stroll to the water's edge and begin to follow the winding gravel trail that circles the lake (which is called Altausseer See). Apart from the 300 yards of shoreline where a handful of hotels and boathouses nudge out over the water, the entire lake is undeveloped. Austrians carrying beach towels and coolers march past. The consistency of the lake's thin beach varies from chunky cobblestones to a fine gravel, but the Austrians treat it as though it were Malibu, stretching out towels and lolling in their tiny Euro bathing suits, which do so much to deflate their stolid Germanic dignity.
The lake is pretty, but I can't take my eyes off the spectacular rocky peaks: the sheer mile-high wall of Trisselwand, the forested mass of Loser, like a ruined fortress with its cylindrical rock crown. In America I associate this kind of rugged grandeur with the rough-and-ready pioneer spirit of the West, where the vastness of nature negates pretense and formality. Austrians seem to have been inspired in the other direction, to close themselves behind a laconic façade of order. Even the woodpiles stacked outside each house are perfectly aligned. Someone told me it's a compliment here to say that a woman has a nice woodpile; it means that she's "substantial." I like that: Austrians so respect orderliness that they see it as a prime virtue of femininity.
WALLED IN BY MOUNTAINS, ALTAUSSEE MIGHT HAVE REMAINED A SLEEPY VILLAGE FOR ETERNITY. But in the 19th century a new concept swept the German-speaking world: Sommerfrische (literally, "summer fresh")—the idea of spending time outdoors to restore one's spirits. Aristocrats began exploring the cool Alpine lakes of central Austria; among the pioneers were Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst of Germany and his wife, Princess Marie, who first ventured into these mountains in the 1860's. The family has been here ever since.
Today their hunting lodge operates as a hotel, the Hubertushof, presided over by the clan's present matriarch, the formidable Countess Rose-Marie Strasoldo. I arrange an invitation to meet her through Peter Beuchel, a 28-year-old skier, mountain climber, and hang glider whose family is every bit as much a fixture of Altaussee as the Frischmuths.
The countess, a woman whose bearing and physique recall Queen Victoria, receives us in her drawing room. A brass chandelier hangs beneath dark beams of polished wood; in the corner stands a massive antique cabinet carved with the double-headed imperial eagle.
"My great-grandfather and -grandmother first came to Altaussee for a royal hunting party," she tells us. "My great-grandmother was passionate about the sport." She gestures at a sepia photograph of a woman holding a rifle and standing over a bear. "After that first trip, she said, 'Here's where we will stay.' "
Graced by the glamour of high nobility, Altaussee drew other landed gentry, then the upper bourgeoisie and fin de siècle Viennese intelligentsia. Novelist Jakob Wassermann worked and died here; poet Friedrich Torberg immortalized the lake in verse; Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss all drew from the scenery. "It gives you inspiration," the countess observes. "One poet said, 'The lake is an inkpot for literature.' "
The countess rises to lead us on a brief tour. Animal skulls are mounted on virtually every square inch of wall. Who, I ask, did in such a huge number of creatures?
"My mother!" the countess declares, eyes ablaze. Clearly, this is a family of formidable women. The countess's daughter lives in Jakarta—a hair-raising prospect, I say. The countess nods in admiration. "She is very—what's the word in English? Diligent. No. Resourceful?"
Perhaps, I suggest, she has a nice stack of wood—
"Just forget it!" Peter barks.
A woman with a nice stack of wood, it turns out, isn't psychologically well endowed, but physically. I was about to tell the countess that her daughter must have big breasts.
LIKE MANY OF THE AUSTRIANS WHO COME FOR SOMMERFRISCHE, Susi Klozenbücher has the bug bad. An animated woman with a mane of blond hair, she first visited as a teenager, and later married a local. Although she works in Salzburg and her sons are grown and dispersed across two continents, she calls the family back each summer to their 300-year-old house.
We sit out on the front lawn, looking down over the valley. Even at the height of summer the air carries an Alpine tang, a reminder that winter is never far away.
Susi's husband, Hartmut, appears carrying a hand-labeled bottle of schnapps. It's illegal to home-brew liquor in Austria without a license, but certain farmers are granted special dispensation, and Susi and Hartmut have good connections. We throw it back: dry and fiery, accented with a distinct flavor of pine cones, it's more like a fine grappa than the insipid syrup I knew in my college days.
Over the doorway is a chalk inscription that I've noticed elsewhere in the village. Crudely scrawled, it reads, 19 C+M+B 98. Susi and Hartmut let me in on the secret: Every January 6, in a Christian ceremony, young children dress as the three wise men and go from house to house, singing carols and collecting charitable donations. In the message, the numbers signify the year, and the initials represent the three wise men of Christmas lore, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The inscription indicates that the house has been blessed for the year.
Even though she has visited Altaussee for most of her lifetime, Susi still isn't privy to all the place's secrets. "People here have their own culture, their own words," she says. Not even marrying a local grants her full status. "You have to be here for generations to really be one of them."
We move into the kitchen just as rain begins to fall. Hartmut puts a foot up on the bench and shows me his green kneesocks, an essential accessory to a pair of lederhosen. The patterns all have meaning. He traces a finger over the ribs: "Tulips, burning love, single dancing rabbit, double dancing rabbit . . ."
What do dancing rabbits mean, I ask?
"Well, you know what rabbits do!" They both laugh.
I admire Hartmut's lederhosen, which look positively prehistoric. "Of course, they're more than a hundred years old," he says, adding, only half-jokingly: "Anyone wearing lederhosen newer than that is obviously an outsider."
EVERYONE WANTS TO BE AN INSIDER. Everyone wants to feel more deeply rooted to this ancient place. Steep yourself in the mountains for a few centuries, the notion runs, and then you, too, will belong.
Hopeless cases like me, in town for a week, have only the surface. But it's enough. There is swimming and boating, paragliding, trout fishing, long hikes through the mountains, bicycling from one village to the next. So much to do that, sure enough, the Austrians have a word for it: Freizeitstress—leisure stress.
Maybe it's the jet lag, or maybe it's just the fact that I'm not Austrian, but all this mountain air is having the opposite effect on me. I seem to be moving in slow motion, and liking it fine. The day after my visit with the Klozenbüchers, Peter invites me on a 6 a.m. hike up a trail that, he assures me, will take only a few hours. I decline, and instead wake up at 10. Then I roll over, and wake up again at 11.
I take a taxi to Bad Aussee for coffee at Lewandofsky, a patisserie in the town center. The coffee is espresso, served Austrian-style, alongside a glass of mineral water. The villagers sit under the spreading branches of an enormous chestnut tree and let the town buzz around them.
Fortified, I float along the cobblestoned streets. The pastel buildings, lined with wrought-iron balconies and topped with pitched slate roofs, seem frozen in time. But here, I find, the past has a distinctly hip edge. In a pink three-story building whose plaque bears the date 1311, I find the wood-block print shop of Marcus Wach. After studying fashion in Paris, Wach moved to Australia, then returned to take over his mother's shop in 1993. "Some of the patterns are three hundred years old," he says. "But nowadays, the colors are a little different, brighter." He soaks a swath of felt in watercolor paints and presses the woodblocks into it, transferring the patterns—collected from around the world—onto silk or cotton to make scarves, neckties, bolts of cloth, lederhosen suspenders.
Down the street I come across an unobtrusive little white building with a sign announcing Leithner Hüte—the oldest hatmaker in Europe. Founded in 1532, the store is now run by 30-year-old Alexander Reiter. Hats in hundreds of sizes and shapes, all made of green or black sheep wool, crowd the walls; in the back, a workshop with an ancient wooden floor seems unchanged from the 16th century (except for Madonna's "Material Girl" playing on the radio).
The town unfolds into a maze of back streets, beckoning the shopper ever onward. By the end of day, as I return to the hotel footsore and bone-weary, I realize that a quick mountain-climbing expedition would have been much easier.
A FEW EVENINGS LATER I DRIVE WITH PETER up the winding road to the lofty shoulder of the Loser, where the Loser Bergrestaurant sits high and lonely on the mountain, above the cloven valley. A hundred yards away is a hang-gliding takeoff ramp, and it feels as though we, too, are about to soar away. In the far distance, over the pale streak of the Dachstein mountain range, a solitary thunderhead flickers with lightning.
We join a group of Peter's friends at a picnic table, admiring the spectacle and eating heaps of food. Dining in Altaussee is about continuity, not creativity, and there are few surprises: Knödel (bread dumplings) in gravy, doughy Nockerl bits fried with onions and cheese, pan-fried trout. Everything is perfect, refined through countless generations of mothers' kitchens. For dessert there is an iron skillet of Nockerl smothered in a dense blueberry sauce that soon disappears in a flurry of spoons.
As we relax over schnapps, the conversation turns once more to Franzi and his purloined pants. Peter pulls a photograph from his pocket. It shows him sitting on the floor of his apartment surrounded by his 27 pairs of lederhosen. Some look ancient, others relatively fresh; the smallest, from his toddlerhood, are just a few inches across. "This is the usual number of lederhosen, I think," he says.
I recount my visit of earlier that day to the shop of Christian Raich, one of just 10 lederhosen makers in Austria and the only one making the pants in the traditional style of Altaussee: black, with green embroidery. Raich showed me how he traces a pattern on a piece of dyed chamois suede, then cuts and laboriously stitches it together. A single pair takes a year to finish and costs at least $700.
"That's nothing," says one of Peter's friends. "A really good pair can cost four thousand dollars. I think that a pair of lederhosen is the only thing you would ever have to worry about getting stolen in Altaussee."
Peter shakes his head and laughs. "It's crazy to steal them," he says. "I know all my friends' lederhosen by heart. If you stole a pair you'd only be able to wear them at home."
I GIVE UP. I WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND why someone would want to steal a pair of never-washed pants, let alone figure out who has actually done such a thing.
I return to the Hotel am See and find Franzi by the shore, tinkering with the electric motor on one of his Plätten. The spirit of environmentalism runs nearly as deep in Altaussee as the love of cultural conservation, and the lake has banned gasoline motors since the 1950's. But the old-fashioned one-oar rowing style is an uncommonly taxing way to move a boat, so electric motors have become the norm. Franzi, recovering well from his loss, cheerfully offers to let me take a boat out for a spin.
I have a vague notion of crossing the lake, but the farther out I get the more insignificant my motion seems to become. The reflection of the Trisselwand shimmers before me, swaying under the serene ranks of pines. High above the Loser a single orange paraglider hangs in the sky. I turn off the engine and the boat coasts to a stop.
Everything is still and quiet. Just as it always has been, and just as it always will be.
The easiest way to reach Altaussee is by car—the drive is about 90 minutes from Salzburg, three hours from Vienna. The weather is rarely sweltering, even at the height of summer. It can become quite cool at night, particularly when it rains, so pack a light jacket or sweater and something to keep out the wet. Credit cards are infrequently honored, especially in restaurants, but it's easy to find ATM's accepting Cirrus-linked cards. Altaussee is much in demand during July and August; if possible, book at least a year in advance.
Hackerhaus Altaussee; phone and fax 43-3622/71249; houses $85 per night. The Beuchels, one of Altaussee's most prominent families, rent a collection of charming restored farmhouses and lakeside vacation homes.
Hotel am See 2 Fischerndorf, Altaussee; 43-3622/71361, fax 43-3622/713-4613; doubles from $60. Altaussee's oldest, grandest hotel doubles as the town's nerve center. Actor Klaus Maria Brandauer can often be spotted taking an afternoon cordial on the lakeside terrace.
Hubertushof 86 Puchen, Altaussee; 43-3622/71280, fax 43-3622/712-8080; doubles $60, including breakfast. The redoubtable Countess Strasoldo welcomes guests to her family's 101-year-old, eight-room former hunting lodge.
Seevilla 60 Fischerndorf, Altaussee; 43-3622/71302, fax 43-3622/713-028; doubles from $100, including breakfast. On the site of the villa where Johannes Brahms first presented his Clavier Trio op. 87 and Quintet op. 88, Seevilla offers inspiring lake views as well as a few more modern amenities, including an indoor pool and steam room.
Lewandofsky 144 Kurhausplatz, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/53205. Locals stop by this patisserie to while away the hours drinking espresso in the brick courtyard. Visitors will find the perfect souvenir: boxes of marzipan-topped gingerbread wrapped in bright cotton.
Loser Bergrestaurant Altaussee; 43-3622/71315; dinner for two $40. This chalet-style restaurant offers the best Austrian food around, along with a stunning view of the mountains and the town of Altaussee, 2,000 feet below.
Gasthof Ladner 1 Gössl, Grundlsee; 43-3622/82110; dinner for two $80. The timbers of this heartily traditional restaurant overlooking the waters of Grundlsee once reverberated with scandal: it was here that the archduke Johann met commoner Anna Plochl, whom he wed in 1829, much to the horror of his royal Hapsburg family.
Strandcafé Altaussee; 43-3622/71214; lunch for two $35. A 15-minute walk along a rustic path leads to this relaxed and casual waterfront café. Be sure to try the delicious pan-fried Saibling, a salmon indigenous to the lake.
Beim Rastl 2 Meranplatz, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/53278. Helga Rastl's shop seems to have every conceivable variety of dirndl. Just as big an attraction is Rastl herself, a seemingly bottomless reservoir of lore.
Christian Raich 59 Altausseerstrasse, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/52260. Behind Raich's lederhosen studio is his mother's dirndl shop, where authentic traditional dresses are made to order.
Der Instrumenten Bauer 28 Kirchengasse, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/50921. Proprietors Andreas and Kathrin Mayer carry on the ancient tradition of the musical instrument maker, with tools and techniques handed down through generations.
Leithner Hüte 129 Bahnhofstrasse, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/52818. Founded in 1532, Europe's oldest hatmaker sells a wide array of black and green wool hats. But 30-year-old craftsman Alexander Reiter isn't all tradition: the first person to paraglide from a balloon, he is now in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Stoffdrucke Elfriede Sekyra 153 Parkgasse, Bad Aussee; 43-3622/52688, fax 43-3622/55219. Marcus Wach uses print patterns that date back hundreds of years to decorate scarves, dresses, ties, and lederhosen suspenders.
A tub of soothing peppermint-scented foot cream from Hütter Kosmetik & Emballagen (251 Puchen, Altaussee; 43-3622/71143).