Monday, July 19, 2010

Dress Parade

The night I first arrived in Salzburg, I was stuck by all the dirndls and lederhosen, short jackets and feather-trimmed felt hats, displayed in shop windows. Being in the Altstadt, tourist central, I assumed this traditional clothing was for the benefit of visitors longing to recreate the Sound of Music look at home. Later, as I continued to see similar clothes in shop windows away from the heart of town, in modern shopping malls patronised by ordinary Austrians – and as I saw people on city streets and in offices wearing it – I began to realise that traditional dress, called tracht, continues to play a part in life here.

When and where is it worn? On Sundays and holidays. At weddings and festivals. As ordinary street wear. On casual outings. Everywhere.

It was yesterday, though, I saw the tradition in a new light. On our way to Berchtesgaden, just over the border in Germany, we passed through Marktschellenberg. A pretty town, seemingly lost in an earlier time, it sits on the banks of the river Wimbach in the valley of the same name, tucked into the base of green forested mountains. It looks like a lot of German and Austrian towns, with stout timber and stucco buildings, with wide balconies and overhanging eaves, painted soft colours and frequently decorated with painted figures and ornamental designs.

It was a soft day, overcast with the possibility of rain coming at any minute, but warm all the same. As we approached the church, we saw a brass band, dressed in tracht, instruments at the ready, standing with others also in traditional dress. We pulled over and were just in time to catch the start of a procession.

The band, led by a drum major with a tall baton, started a military march and stepped off, men in dark short trousers, women wearing dark long skirts with bright orange aprons. Suddenly a thunderous BOOM split the air, then, a few seconds later, another. High on the side of the mountain above, a cannon was being fired. Two cannons, in fact, fired alternately throughout the 10-minute procession – Boom! Boom!  Boom! from the green mountain meadow as a trail of blue-grey smoke shimmered toward the sky.

The band was followed by a long procession of marchers, also marching four abreast, apparently in groups representing different clubs and associations. One group of men wore suits of fitted, lapel-less jackets and trousers. Bristling brushes sprang from their felt hats. Another group were in dark, vaguely military uniforms, their hats decorated with sprig of bright flowers – geraniums or red roses. Others wore lederhosen with clusters of oak leaves fastened to their hats. Women passed in white blouses and pastel dirndls over which flowered aprons fluttered. Behind them came children, the boys in lederhosen and, save for knitted bands worn just under the knees, bare legs. Little girls were dressed in pink dirndls and aprons. They held hands as they walked, encouraged by a woman with them who pulled a wooden wagon with two babies sitting placidly in it.

There were men wearing climbing costumes, too, and men in short grey lederhosen. A group of women were dressed in another kind of traditional costume, black dresses with corseted tops over which peeped snow-white blouses. They wore old-fashioned round black hats like flat donuts, so the crowns of their heads were exposed. Each had an identical silver hair ornament pushed into hair coiled on her head; each carried a woven straw bag featuring a straw-coloured and black pattern.

In the middle of the possession, two light bay horses with large harnesses drew an open carriage carrying apparent dignitaries, including the priest. Behind them came more marchers, still in ranks of four across. A white banner was held aloft, deep blue feathers cascading off it. Some marchers carried batons held erect. Anticipating the weather, many others had umbrellas at their sides.

There must have been 300 or 400 marchers in all. Considering the few people watching, it seemed the whole village was part of the procession, save one elderly man. He stood near us, dressed in uniform, limping when he moved. As the marchers came past, they nodded to him.

‘He would have been marching, if only he could march,’ remarked my husband.

By now the procession had marched up a short diagonal street, rounded a corner and wound back past us, then turned down the path where we stood watching, and passed us a third time, this time feet away. It moved toward a marquee – probably erected for bier and wurstl to be enjoyed later – and halted. It was exactly noon by the clock on the church tower, and the bells began to peal. They continued tolling for many minutes, calling out while the marchers assembled themselves on a small platz in front of the marquee. When the bells fell silent, some of the uniformed men stepped forward in a kind of honour guard, holding rifles. Then, commanded by a man wielding a long silver sword, they fired several volleys of shots into the air.

We stood near the river’s edge, its pale blue-green alpine water flowing past under thick green trees, watching the good-natured celebration. It seemed relaxed, natural, simply a part of life. It’s a ritual we assume has been repeated year after year, down through how many centuries. And, in fact, Himself observed that similar festivals and processions occur all over Germany and Austria, each town and village following its own traditions, honouring its own saints, memorialising its own heroes.

And why not? If one village has a procession and festival, others will follow. Maybe, we conjectured, the tradition arose from a kind of tribal keeping up with the Jones. But whatever its roots, it was a joy to watch it, another in a series serendipitous pleasures I feel lucky to have stumbled on.


  1. Your description of the parade in Bavaria brings up childhood memories. I grew up in a village outside of Innsbruck (Tyrol). On Corpus Christi day everyone would be out on the streets for the annual procession. The priest and the altar servers in their long gowns walked up front, men carried exquisitely dressed statues of Mary and other saints on their shoulders. The village band played holy tunes, the faithful recited their prayers.

    The men with rifles scared me. I could not understand why one man - the commander - was always yelling, and the bang of the salutes, fired into the air every hundred meters or so, hurt my ears. I remember standing at the road side crying, confused.

  2. Thanks for the poignant recollection, Christina. It would be frightening for a child.