New Year’s Day 2014 was one of the most varied and interesting I have ever experienced. It began with breakfast in Bad Reichenhall, a small Bavarian town that nestles among the mountains on the Austrian border, on a cold but sunlit morning. My friends and I then drove to Schönau am Königsee, a traditional Alpine town just south of Berchtesgaden that has become a winter sports resort, and took a small circular walk around part of the Königssee, a lake etched so deep into the landscape that it looks like a Norwegian fjord; it’s Germany’s third deepest and well known for the echo created by its rocky walls. There is a church on the other side of this lake, but the sun was shining so brightly, with its light reflected so brilliantly on the surface of the water, that it was impossible to see through the glare.
Towards the end of the circular walk is a ski slope which is in constant use, thanks to snow machines. (Somewhat bizarrely, there is a hen-run to one side of it, complete with a wooden chicken coop on wheels and several brightly-plumaged hens.) Unable to ski myself, I marvelled at the grace and speed with which the skiers descended. There were some snowboarders, too: mostly children, who were tackling the challenge of the swift descent with extraordinary confidence and fluidity of movement.
The town itself is a bit of a tourist trap (I’m not sure what kind of Alpine souvenir a fluffy pink teddy bear represents), complete with live ever-so-genuine-Bavarian volksmusic, but by climbing beyond the car park and the town we swiftly reached the Olympic-standard permanent sled run.
The World Cup 2013-14 season for both skeleton and bobsleigh ends here on January 26th 2014, and by chance and great good fortune we were able to watch several of the national teams practising solo skeleton, which is an even hairier version of bobsleighing: the competitor lies face up, feet first, on a small sledge as it zooms down the ice track. His entire journey takes less than a minute.
One rider came to grief as he passed us and skithered on his side to the final bend, where he came to an ignominious halt and clambered in ungainly fashion over the barrier, clutching his sledge. He was embarrassed and annoyed, but otherwise unharmed.
By this time, it was getting dark, but we were keen to complete our excursion by making a short detour to the site of the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine home and headquarters. Beyond this lies the Eagle’s Nest, the bolt-hole to which he planned to withdraw in the event of a defeat while he was in residence at the Berghof. Of course, he was in his Berlin bunker when the Allies finally closed in on him, but I was interested to be informed that, although the Berghof was first bombed by the RAF and then torched by the SS troops just before their departure, the Allies decided to leave the Eagle’s Nest itself intact. It still stands to this day, as a café-restaurant, though cannot be reached in the winter.
The Berghof itself has been reinvented as a ‘documentation centre’. It is also now a small tourist attraction, with some access to the bunker system, together with a car park, a restaurant and a shop. The ascent to it from Berchtesgaden is steep, and the road precarious: there is no barrier for much of the way and the drops below the bends are lethal. I imagined the people of Berchtesgaden and the Obersalzberg area going about their business over seventy years ago, prevented by a closely-patrolled security cordon from their earlier nineteen-thirties jaunts up the mountain to catch sight of Hitler, only vaguely aware that something ‘important’ was going on above them when Hitler’s soldier aides descended upon the town to buy supplies.
Unfortunately, the document centre was closed on New Year’s Day, so we were unable to view the grim records of the Third Reich that it houses. It may have been because of this, or perhaps owing to the beauty and almost sacred tranquillity of the place – which, save for that one short period of depraved activity, has obtained almost since the dawn of mankind – that I could gather no real sense of the evil that once lurked there. It is true that there are clues for those who care to look for them: for example, the distinctive archways that now form the windows of the shop were once part of Hitler’s garage complex, as the footage from old films, shown on a constant ‘newsreel’ in one of those windows, illustrates, but I experienced none of the deathly despair and outrage that visits to other wartime sites have prompted in me. I suppose that that in itself is a triumph: a sign that the bedrock of primeval goodness in this place has triumphed over the temporary evil that it once harboured and then cast out.
Happy New Year, everyone!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
Salzburg is a breathtakingly beautiful city that seems to exist mainly to ensure the immortality of one man: the child prodigy composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are Mozart cafés, Mozart restaurants and Mozart museums – and even tourist gift shops where you can buy Mozart rubber ducks and flying birds with Mozart’s face, all wearing powdered wigs. There is a spectacular concert hall where the programme includes the work of many composers, foremost among whom is – Mozart. There are Mozart chocolates, made by two rival companies: the original chocolatiers, whose business is very small and still confined mainly to the Salzburg region, and a younger, upstart firm whose aggressive marketing has been so successful that its distinctive round, filled chocolates, individually-wrapped in red foil, can now be purchased in many countries besides Austria. This company has created a Mozart grotto next to its main shop over the border in Bad Reichenhall, which features a statue of the composer, a fountain and bushes hung with winking red lights and huge baubles in its trademark silvery red.
Today, the city’s prosperity depends very much on Mozart tourism, but it was a wealthy place long before the composer’s birth. As its name suggests, its fortune was built on salt. This, of course, resonates with me, because Salt, good fortune and creativity are very much linked in my mental map. There is a famous salt mine close by the city which offers tours to visitors. We decided not to visit, as we have recently been to a similar attraction in Kraków. The Austrian one, apparently, makes a particular attempt to please family parties: its offers include enabling children to dress up as eighteenth-century peasant salt-workers.
The river that runs through the city also takes its name from salt: tolls on the salt-carrying barges created some of its wealth. Walking along the boulder-strewn riverside is a pleasing experience and there are several picturesque bridges, one of which is hung all the way along with lovers’ padlocks.
The Salzburg area has been unseasonably warm between Christmas and the New Year. There is snow here, but only high in the mountains. The local people are amazed at how mild the weather has been. Nevertheless, the people in the streets all wear hats, scarves, boots and quilted jackets or loden coats. Babies in buggies are muffled to the eyebrows. It is possible to stand in the sun and feel real warmth on your face, but as soon as you step into one of the many alleyways or just enter the shadows of the tall terraced buildings, the cold bites. There may be no snow at the moment, but you feel that it is only biding its time. February is the coldest month here: the Austrian mountain winter has really only just begun.
What does Salzburg have to offer in the way of inspiration for a crime fiction writer? On the face of it, this bright, industrious city, peopled with serene residents and laughing holidaymakers, does not seem a promising setting for dark deeds. However, in the alleyway marked ‘Juden Gasse’, with its stolpersteine or brass commemorative cobblestones, we stumble upon some of the darkest deeds that man has ever perpetrated upon man; and, not many kilometres away, lurks the Eagle’s Nest, mountain retreat of one of the world’s most sinister fantasists and almost the most prolific murderer of all time.