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Into Fresh Air

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.' "

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