Thursday, March 4, 2010


The flat by the wood had infected the imagination of each of us, though we were concerned by its distance from the city centre and what we felt was a down-at-the-heels aspect to the neighbourhood. It seemed somehow scruffy as well as remote. But Salzburg is not a large city, and the buses are said to be excellent. I certainly had no trouble getting from the hotel into the Altstadt. Every 5 minutes, one of two buses passes, each one going the quick 10 minutes into the city centre. I decided to see how long it would take from there to the flat.

Judging by a street map and the bus plan, it seemed two bus lines went near the flat, but which of the two was the one we had seen pulling away from a bus stop not far from it? I chose one of the two and boarded it at the stop by the river, just up from the Rathhaus in the Altstadt. It dropped me on an unfamiliar bypass far from winding medieval passages, cars whizzing by, near a sharp short path that crossed a narrow canal. It had taken 21 minutes, not too bad, I thought.

I waited as our sat nav, already programmed with the flat’s address and just switched on, located a satellite. Then I started walking, passing at first a series of small houses and apartment buildings along a narrow, poorly paved road. At last the street wound round a curve and opened out across a large empty field pocked with thousands of mole holes, ubiquitous around Salzburg. Across the field -– away in the distance -– I could see more low buildings. I walked and walked under a pale sun, comfortable enough on this spring-like day, but wondering how it would be in summer’s notorious rain or winter’s snow. By the time I came to the end of the narrow street where the flat lay and stood looking up at its dark windows, 18 minutes had passed. Too long to walk from a bus stop with a backpack full of groceries. Not doable in heels after a night out.

The street still seemed seedy. The house, shabby, its angular façade uninviting. The wood with its thin stand of conifers, unimpressive, monotonous. On the dark porch of the downstairs flat stood a toy JCB, the kind a toddler can peddle, and an infant’s push chair. They’d be noisy, wouldn’t they?

It was time to give up on the flat, despite the prickling sense that the woodcarver wanted someone who would care about –- care for –- his craftsmanship. Having seen it, I felt a responsibility toward him. Or, more particularly, his ghost. But the street, and the 40-minute journey from the town centre, was unwelcome.

I faced an 18-minute walk and a dash through traffic to the bus stop. But before I moved away, I turned toward the wood, thinking to explore what lay beyond the end of the house opposite the flat. There was a faint path, just a trace of previous footsteps, in the rough grass at the end of the low wall that surrounded a small garden. After a few metres, the ground dropped steeply to a path that circled a pond. Then I saw the swans.

There were a pair of them, necks rising elegantly over pure white bodies, gliding through the waters on the far side of pond, where the ice had melted. Nearer me, in the shadows, the ice had not yet dissolved, putting me in mind of winter’s afternoons spent skating. I followed the path, about the length of a quarter-mile track, the pond the size of football field of an American high school. Mallard ducks swam in the inlet of a tiny island near the shore; with them were the funny black-and-white fowl I think are called coots. Above my head, in the stillness of the morning, I could hear the high shrill call of a bird I didn’t recognise. Rounding the curve on the narrow end of the pond, I could see a pair of horses in a field just beyond the pond. A man walking his dog greeted another, pipe in his mouth; a third man strolled along drinking something from a bottle.

Sitting down on one of the benches that lined the path, I searched my map. I remembered the other bus stop, one much closer to the house, which we had seen as we drove away the day before. Maybe, by programming the sat nav with a street name taken from the map, I could find the other bus line, the one I didn’t take.

I started walking again and passed, not far along, what seemed like a small administration building. This was apparently part of a recreational area. There were other ponds, a lake for swimming, paths leading off toward another wood. And now, about two hundred metres along, I saw a bus pulling away. All within a couple of short blocks from the flat.

Maybe this can be done after all.

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