Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The hills are alive ...

Trav'ling through the country is so thrilling ... belts Annie Oakley in the gun-getting musical. I'm not so sure about thrilling but I am enjoying the comfort of Deutsche Bahn's air-conditioned first class as the Fatherland speeds by from Frankfurt Airport to Bavaria.

Every country turns its backside to its railways, and so despite the fact we are coursing along the 'Romantische Strasse' and there are occasional glimpses of half-timbered houses or baroque churches in the middle distance, mostly it's inactive factories, dumb fields of wheat, empty superstore car parks and DHL transit depots full of idle vans. I know it's Monday afternoon, but Germany appears to be shut.

After a stop for coffee, and a breather, and a light drenching at Munich-Pasing station, for some reason chosen by my computerised itinerary as an alternative to the more ceremonially majestic and waterproof Hauptbahnhof, it's on to the breezy local train as we make for the mountains. Garmisch, from what I can see, is a bit of a disappointment - the high street looks like Hounslow's and the American army base seems as deserted as the Rheinpfalz on the way down, although I do spot a couple of crew-cuts and a sign for a lap dancing club on a building which looks inappropriately rustic.

However as we approach the final destination of Grainau, the scenery becomes authentically Alpine, the houses ever more cuckoo-clock, and the streamlets flow milky green grey from the limestone rock fortresses above. The Hotel Waxenstein is everything TripAdvisor has promised other than '2 km from the station' which turns out to be half an hour on a bus or 16 Euros in a cab ...

It's a rustic but very comfortable chalet in full and uninterrupted view of the Zugspitze, with staff who all seem to know my name from the outset. Smiling waitresses sport those I'm-wearing-a-long-skirt-and-apron-but-look-my-tits-are-on-a-shelf falsely modest Heidi outfits and, luckily for me as a single traveller, I'm given a great room and a nice table in the restaurant both with the aforementioned view.

I later discover this is because there are only 6 rooms occupied. How can mid-to-late July be 'low' season?

The other occupants of the dining room are middle-class German herr-und-hausfraus, one with a very well behaved but presumably bored shitless small boy, plus an English odd couple comprising a limp fiftyish further education lecturer from Sheffield and his mother who, I charitably assume, has recently had a stroke. Possibly on the way downstairs. Either that, or she has the original countenance for which the phrase 'po-faced' was invented. She doesn't speak to me all week, although I hear their urgent whispered conversations over dinner including 'I bet he's something in the theatre'.

All the Germans manage a bit of nodding and smiling, and by Wednesday the father of the small bored boy eventually summons up enough courage and English to ask if I am the famous author Ken Follett. After looking him up on the internet, I am not hugely flattered, but gratefully add it to the collection of persons for whom I have been mistaken including Rick Stein, Ian Holm and Anthony Hopkins (admittedly this last was by a cab driver on Long Island who clearly didn't get to the movies much).

The food is surprisingly inventive, and the chef has an especially fortuitous way with fish: in four successive days we have delicious fresh halibut, sea trout, salmon and some superb giant prawns none of which swam anywhere near Bavaria. Since four courses include compulsory salad, I'm feeling almost virtuous.

I also sleep nine hours a night and wonder why I can't at home.

There are few diversions during the week, as the rain is more or less relentless until about Thursday when it's fine enough to explore the surroundings by bus, train and anything available on my 10 Euro day ticket (14 if you go over the border into Austria which I don't because I've forgotten my passport) - so I race round Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein - two of the castles built for 'mad' King Ludwig II - have a quick saunter through Oberammergau, and back in time for tea.

This causes me to ponder the purpose of tourism - viewed from the restaurant and toilet complex at Neuschwanstein it appears to be to process as many Japanese as possible through wholly unenjoyable soup, schnitzel and strudel and back on to their buses ... and the experience of visiting the inside of the castle with so many dripping kagouls seems too dispiriting to contemplate.

My one evening outing is to the local Kurhaus - a splendid community centre with three enormous swimming pools, a dirt cheap massage practice, a cafe, and a small entertainment hall in which tonight is presented the local choir in tandem with a 'Children's Choir' from Florida which turns out to be all that is dreadful in singing, showmanship, children and America.

The vocal group from Grainau sing movingly and accurately, a capella, a short series of folk and patriotic songs. They look magnificent, all in carefully ironed traditional costumes, and I'd seen at least four of them coming out of the hairdressers in the afternoon.

Then comes the 'Gainesville Youth Chorus, Inc.'

Strategically limited to 'a busload' I'd guess there are about 45 of them, and as 43 are girls in varying stages of development from ten to eighteen, the two boys look understandably exhausted like Alpine calves subjected to forced milking.

They sing a selection of mountingly banal lyrics about music being the key to world peace and understanding but, on the last night of their European tour the kids are openly bored, the conductress is a moose with more product in her hair than L'Oreal turn out in a factory shift, and the choir is dressed uniformly in royal blue polyester satin which threatens to ignite with static. The girls also all have the pancake makeup and scraped back chignon beloved of Elizabeth Taylor in the early 70's which seems hugely inappropriate for pubescents. I am reminded of pageant moppet Jon-Benet Ramsay, only unfortunately these kids are still alive.

Two disgracefully fat teens emerge to render - I think that's the right word, in its 'melt down' sense - the solo parts of 'Pie Jesu' for some reason eliding the words without the intermediate 'y' sound which is bizarre but for a moment they are the least worst thing in it. They are, however, replaced by two even larger heifers who murder the next piece so cruelly that even the enduringly polite local audience begins to cough and fiddle with its dirndls.

I escape at the interval, watched enviously by the director of tourism having a crafty fag outside and who clearly wishes she didn't have to sit through the second half.

And so ends the first lesson. Austria tomorrow..

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