Monday, June 7, 2010

Luck on the Day

The bus was just about to pull away from the Bärenwirt stop when the driver made an announcement, auf Deutsch, of course.

‘He said he’s only going as far as Hanuschplatz.’ My husband, whose understanding of German is growing faster than my own, translated. ‘Something about an event today. I guess they have the streets closed.’

It was the Feast of Corpus Christi and, like all Austrian holidays, it was observed on its calendar date, a Thursday in this case. In Austria, you take your holidays when they fall, not on the closest Monday or Friday. We were on our way to the Salzburg museum. It was too cloudy and too wet to drive to Tirol or ride the cable car up the Untersberg, either of which we’d planned to do on our next free day.

Hanuschplatz would do fine. It was only one stop from Mozartsteg, the closest to the museum. A walk through the Altstadt is never uninteresting.

But as the bus turned up through a narrow passage toward the next stop, we saw coming towards us three open-topped vintage cars. Himself nudged me. ‘Remember the cars we saw yesterday? There must be something on.’

Did I ever mention that Himself has been in love with cars since he was old enough to sit up and, holding a saucepan lid in two pudgy paws, pretend to drive? That he could name – with accuracy – every car on Ireland’s roads by the time he was four? That he can recite the registration number of a car he owned over thirty years ago, when he was in his late teens?

When we got off the bus at the river’s edge, we could see the crowds lining the sidewalks along the street and over the Stadtbrücke about four hundred metres ahead. From the bus stop, the street rises slightly from the bus stop, so we were looking up toward the bridge and could see in the spaces between the standing figures the blur of cars whizzing past.

‘There are cars racing over there,’ he said, with the pretence of petulance, ‘and I can’t see them.’

‘Well, we’ll walk faster then,’ I said and lengthened my steps. We reached the bridge soon and nudged ourselves into an open space at corner of the bridge and sidewalk.

Fifties rock and roll blared from speakers as engines thundered. Over the music a pleasant voice announced the cars as they approached. I turned my  head to see each one as it emerged from behind a lamppost partially blocking my view. A bright-green Porsche 911. A BMW roadster. Several Ferraris. An MG roadster. They flashed by quickly in the narrow space between the lamp post and the woman in front of me who leaned out over the railing that contained us.

I tried to make out the German words: Neunzehnhundert dreiundsechzig. It was a lot of work, but, yes, I worked it out. In fact, I could see that most of the cars were Sixties vintage, with a few, perhaps, reaching back into the Fifties. I could make out the year here and there, occasionally the make. I didn’t understand the German pronunciation of Jaguar, but I did understand ‘E-Type’. A small black Austin passed, similar to the one my parents owned when I was about five. But – wait a minute – did he say fünfunddreißig? Did my eyes or my shaky grasp of German fail me? Or was it my also-shaky knowledge of vintage cars? (I discovered, on researching it, that it was a 1956 Austin A35, a few years newer than the one my parents owned.)

The cars continued their circuit, speeding across the bridge from the Neuestadt, turning left in front of us, then roaring away toward the bridge several hundred metres southward, where they turned left over the river, then left again and northward to re-cross the Stadtbrücke.

I at last spotted the announcer standing behind a barricade of stacked tyres just metres from us. A greying man in his forties, he wore a bright red polo shirt, and his face reflected the calm humour with which he announced the cars and their drivers. Listening, I struggled to make out distinct words, trying to follow at least the car makes and years. But though he spoke distinctly, individual words dissolved into a blur of sound that streamed over me, largely indecipherable.

Still the cars zoomed past, a parade of colour on the dull day. We heard the rumble of the engine and then, briefly, each car would stream into view before listing deeply on the sharp left turn and rocketing away. A cream-coloured 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Roadster. A pewter-coloured Aston-Martin. A 1966 Maserati Mistral. A fire-engine red 1969 Corvette.  A 1962 Sunbeam. Porsche 911s, Porsche 356s, Alfa Romeos, and Mini Coopers.

I let my focus wander from the cars to look around me. To our backs, the Salzach swept rapidly northward, its waters high with the previous day’s heavy rain, so high they came within a metre or two of the pedestrian and bike paths suspended under the bridge. On its opposite bank, pastel-coloured Belle Époque buildings rose against the green, tree-covered Kapuzinerberg. Nearer us, just above the course, people looked out of first and second floor curved windows of the Baroque-era buildings. Rocking side to side, a woman danced to the beat of Splish-Splash playing from the speakers below.

The beat of the music infected the woman next to me, too, as she turned and smiled, as if to invite me to share her excitement. Behind us, people of all ages jostled to find a spot to watch. A young couple angled a baby stroller in and peered over our shoulders. I envied the three men in cloth caps their height as they towered over me. In front of me, a boy of about 11 leaned over the railings and tugged on his mother’s sleeve. The music changed again, and the announcer intoned, in English and with deadpan irony, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr Elvis Presley.'

Ah yes. No wooden hearts here.

Across from us, on the opposite side of the bridge, I could see railings where only a few people stood. We slipped down some steps and, with the strains of Fun, Fun, Fun echoing off the walls of the subterranean passageway, crossed to that corner. From there, standing opposite the red-shirted announcer, instead of seeing brake lights as cars rounded the turn, we saw their grilles as the approach to it. They veered towards us, rachetting up the tension as they came close to clipping the kerb near where we stood.

By now the rally class had changed to a thrilling parade of race cars, many of them over 50 years old, and a large portion of them open. Low-slung boat-shaped Morgans, a 1931 and a 1926 Buggatti. A white 1969 Porsche that I thought the announcer said had been driven by Steve McQueen. A streamlined silver 1955 Mercedes and a bulky 1932 Chrysler Gold Seal. A 1969 Shelby Cobra, massive engine throbbing. The drivers in their leather jackets, helmets and goggles, smiled back at the applause and thumbs-ups from the exhilarated crowd. As they sped away down the narrow road, the faster of the cars swerved left and right as they tried to overtake those in front of them, with others approaching close behind.

It was, in fact, a rally, we learned later, part of the Gaisbergrennen race for historic cars sponsored by the Salzburg Rallye Club. But from our perspective, standing on the corner waving at the drivers as they passed, one after another, the atmosphere was festive, celebratory, rather than competitive. Our stumbling onto it on the way to the museum – a visit now  postponed – was happy chance, one of the pleasures of living in Salzburg.

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