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For the first part of the pandemic, for example, Hungary reversed the pre-1990 communist rule that departure was always more difficult than arrival. Residents became prisoners not because they were forbidden to leave but because re-entry suddenly became a bureaucratic nightmare. The decline in the first wave of infections led to relaxations, happily, just as summer arrived. I received police permission to re-enter Hungary on return from visiting the Australian embassy in Vienna to lodge an application for a new passport. Budapest with its many charms and minimal pandemic restrictions (aside from on borders) has been one of the best places in the world to sit out the pandemic. And yet, after five months of lockdown, the excitement of again crossing an international border felt like the end of communism all over again.
Thrillingly there was soon further relaxation as most EU countries re-established unrestricted travel to and from their neighbours within the Schengen theoretically border controls-free zone. But some rules remained opaque. British citizens weren’t allowed to fly directly from Britain to Hungary or Austria. But land travel across both countries’ Schengen borders was unrestricted. So it was within the rules for someone with a UK passport to fly to Germany – which allowed British visitors – and then to cross the land borders by car into Austria and then Hungary.
So it was that one of my UK-based daughters enjoyed some summer covid continental escapism. Collecting her from an eerily-empty Munich airport, we drove across the open border into Austria and to Salzburg. I’d forgotten what a ravishingly beautiful place it is. Its Baroque centre sparkled in the summer sunshine under its dramatic hilltop Hohensalzburg fortress looming above, with the spectacular Alps beyond.
The city was remarkably untouched by pandemic hysteria, including at its marvellous eating and drinking establishments. There are two particular highlights, which readers should visit when travel to Europe again becomes possible. One is Austria’s biggest beer garden, the antique chestnut-shaded Augustiner. The other is the Café Bazar, whose riverside terrace overlooks the old town and is pretty much unchanged since it was a haunt of pre-war Brits.
At these and other establishments, the only facemasks in evidence were worn by the occasional waiter. The Salzburgers showed general resistance to letting the coronavirus destroy their city’s way of life and traditions. The 100th Salzburg Festival went ahead, complete with free film showings on a massive screen in one of the city’s central squares of operas performed at previous festivals, overlooked by an agreeable bar. We greatly enjoyed both that and a facemasks-not-needed Mozart Requiem, performed by full orchestra and choir in the city’s Baroque cathedral. Unhysterical nods to social distancing were made by leaving every second row of pews empty and a bit more space than normal between choir members. While Austria has since seen, like much of Europe, a second spike in covid cases, the virus doesn’t seem to have singled out Salzburg more than other places for punishment for its recent efforts to return to a more or less normal life.
Other than being Mozart’s birthplace, it was the 1965 film The Sound of Music that propelled Salzburg to global celebrity status. Cultural sophisticates smile at its mention. Yes, in bits it’s schmaltzy yet it’s also a pretty accurate account of Austria at the time of the Anschluss. Moreover Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote the songs, were both of German Jewish origin and much of the music and many cultural references show a deep attunement to and affection for Mitteleuropa.
The Salzburg tourist authorities could never have done a better job than the movie of promoting the great charms of the city and surrounding countryside. And there’s no more agreeable way to spend a few hours in the city than as part of one of Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tours, which takes in all the movie’s main sights, accompanied of course by the music (singing along encouraged). The tour starts at the same time everyday, and locals in one village outside the city are able to set their watches to midday when they hear the approaching bicycle convoy and the opening bars of The Lonely Goatherd.
Our genial American guide reminded me that one of the film’s less-recognised achievements is that it strengthened Ronald Reagan’s reputation. On the evening before the 1983 G7 summit, Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker left him a huge brief. Finding it the following morning untouched, Reagan explained ‘Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night‘. Reagan nevertheless displayed mastery of detail at the meeting, with Margaret Thatcher describing him as being ‘in radiant form‘.
Sadly Europe’s facemask-free summer of freedom now seems a long time ago. How do we meet up with our UK-based daughters for Christmas with the new tougher rules? They can’t enter Hungary. UK passport-holders can enter neighbouring Austria but can’t return without quarantine. The reverse applies to Germany. We could go to Britain but that would mean quarantine. Britain excitedly announces that Spain’s Canary Islands are now among the places UK citizens can visit without quaranting on return. But you have to wear face-masks all the time outdoors. Sigh.