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Into Fresh Air

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.

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