Some weeks ago, I spent a Friday afternoon strolling the streets of the Altstadt. It was a week or two after the opening of the Salzburg Festival, so the city was more than usually crowded with tourists, buskers and ordinary people going about their lives. Tiers of seats had been erected in the Domplatz for the performances of Jederman – Everyman – that, as is tradition, opened the Festival. The Universitätsplatz in front of the Collegiate Church was jammed with stalls under striped awnings displaying meat and fish, vegetables, fruits and flowers, honey and salts, carved wood and straw ornaments. Having bought vegetables for dinner and treated myself to spicy wurstl, I wandered aimlessly, stopping not so much to look at shop windows but in front of posters, trying to make out what they said. My German is coming along, but it still is halting and full of holes. Slowly I made out the news of upcoming concerts, many of them in churches. Mozart’s Requiem Mass was to be performed at 10 a.m. mass in the Dom the following day. A series of organ concerts at the Franciscan church began that evening.
A huge screen had been erected in the sprawling Kapitelplatz beside the Dom. Rows of folding chairs faced it and a tented café set with small tables stood behind the seats. For the first month of the Festival, there were screenings of past performances every evening, free for all of us too unfortunate, too poor, or perhaps too lazy to have got tickets for this year’s Festival.
Pushing beyond my comfort zone, I ventured where I’ve not been before. I passed the Neptune foundation in the far back corner of the platz and, coming upon a pair of narrow lanes winding around in the direction of the Festung, turned left. I found myself in a narrow cobbled alley that rose and curved slightly as it led away from the platz.
One of a welter of nearly hidden lanes that weave around the base of Mönchberg just under the Festung, it was nearly deserted. I passed only another man and woman as I moved up the slight incline. The buildings looked neglected, even desolate. At the corner, several windows of an deserted hostel had been smashed. Entrances were padlocked and paint faded and peeling. Warped wooden doors, varnish worn away, faced a blank wall lined with rubbish bins. A small grimy workman’s van stood beside them. Over one doorway hung a sign for a stub’n, ‘1 stock’, the sign said – one floor up. On this dark afternoon, the pub didn’t seem welcoming; I couldn’t tell if it were closed for the afternoon or abandoned. Above me, though, sounds of carpentry came from an open window.
The cobbled lane rounded slightly, like the curve on an archer’s bow. Pale green walls of a building rose from thick, sloping stone walls. Across its windows, darker grey-green shutters lay closed like eyelids. Overhead an iron sign dangled, like the medieval signs of old that advertised shops through images rather than words. This one was the silhouette of an elegantly turned out woman, small-waisted in billowing skirts, a boa flowing from around her neck. There was a date: 1501
Illuminated red lamps hung from under the eaves; deep pink lights glowed in its windows. A hand-lettered sign taped the door said the door was kept unlocked and that one could enter between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight. Pinned next to it was an array of photographs of women wearing thongs and bustiers, suspenders and stockings. Passing on, I made careful note of the sign on end of the building, ‘Altstadt Laufhaus’.
While on that afternoon last month some idea stirred in the back of my brain, naïve as I can be, I hadn’t given much thought to prostitution in Austria. As it happens, however, Himself and I had encountered street walkers on our first visit to Vienna. Our hotel was far from the city centre, and, on our search for a place to eat that night, we were surprised to find ourselves passing street walkers as they stood along the kerb, waving broadly at the passing cars. It was early in April, a chilly evening, but the women wore short skirts or tight shorts, their legs covered only in fishnet tights. To a one, they wore knee-length silver boots with inch-high clear Lucite soles that made them appear to float woozily just above the pavement. Eyes dark, they stared through us as we passed along the sidewalk. I, on the other hand, had trouble resisting the urge to study their dress and their posture, their behaviour and expressions.
Himself said he’d never seen working girls before, which seemed surprising, given our time in Los Angeles. Myself, I remembered one bleak afternoon on Christmas Day, many years ago, seeing a girl work a corner along Hollywood Blvd. But I’d never seen the boldness of these women as they nonchalantly ignored the Austria’s prohibition against street solicitation.
Prostitution is generally legal but highly regulated in Austria. And, it turns out, a laufhaus is a kind of brothel where prostitutes rent rooms, leaving their doors open when they are available. Lauf means ‘walk’; in a laufhaus, clients walk through the house to choose a woman of their liking or not, depending on their inclinations.
In fact, the Altstadt Laufhaus I stumbled upon may be the country’s oldest brothel. It’s located on Herrengasse, ‘gentlemen’s lane’, just at the edge of the university and cathedral precinct, which makes perfect sense to me.
I’ve been back to Herrengasse since, most recently on a bright afternoon when the afternoon sun illuminated the domes of Salzburg against a clear blue sky. Tourists clogged the platzes, snapping pictures and lapping ice cream. The narrow lane was, again, nearly deserted. Wisteria tumbled over a wall, leaves lit translucent green. Someone out of sight, in a room just over my head, stood by an open window practicing the violin, and notes and chords filled the lane like sunlight. On this afternoon, the entrance to the stub’n, one flight up, was inviting, its menu board boasting of the day’s specials. I realised it was St. Paul’s Stub’n, a well-known gasthaus, popular, I’m told, with students and locals. Voices floated down from the restaurant’s balcony, which was strung with bright coloured lights. What had seemed drab and grey weeks ago swelled with colour and life.
I pushed my bike along, stopping every so often to take it in. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw, several metres away, a tall woman in blue jeans slip quickly through the door of a house, a pale green house with grey-green shutters.
Above me, through an open window, someone laughed. From which window it came, I could not say.