We drove today from Maria Alm back over to Bischofshofen and up past Salzburg—we had a couple of excellent views of Festung Hohensalzburg (the landmark castle that looms over the city) in the distance, but that’s as close as we came—to Gmunden, at the northern end of the Traunsee.
At the end of the Second World War, Gmunden’s city hall became the headquarters of the Eleventh Armored Division of General George C. Patton’s Third Army. Attached to the Eleventh Armored, my father spent a brief time in Gmunden following the horror of the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Eventually, he headed off to Le Vésinet, a suburb of Paris, where, after a long wait, he was finally demobilized.
Gmunden was a brief stop for him, but it’s important for me. During his time in the town, he had his portrait painted. He told me, as I recall, that he paid for it with a pack of Army-issue cigarettes. The painter was an Austrian artist named Theo (or Theodor) Detter, who can be found online and who has at least one painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. My father’s portrait was done on a sheet of wood.
My Norwegian-born grandmother gave it to me on my fifth birthday, in January 1958, writing on the back of it—near a penciled German inscription from Theo Detter himself—that it was one of her most prized possessions. (She died just a few months later.) And, at this point, it’s long been one of mine.
We returned from Gmunden along the Traunsee and then via Bad Ischl, the resort town where the operetta composer Franz Lehár lived for thirty years, died, and is buried. (I found myself humming tunes, off and on, from Die Lustige Witwe, “The Merry Widow,” for several kilometers.) Johann Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and Johannes Brahms also had homes in Bad Ischl, which means that the little village contained, at various times, a sizeable proportion of the greatest musical talent that has ever graced Western civilization.
One of the questions that has always interested me is why certain places—classical Athens, say, and Renaissance Florence, and Elizabethan London, and even little Bad Ischl—suddenly erupt with world-altering talent. Göttingen, in northern Germany, offers a brief instance in the history of modern physics; Vienna, for music, kept the flame burning brightly for decades, and then provided us with the “Vienna School” in philosophy and the “Austrian School” in economics and Wittgenstein and Popper and Freud and . . . well, you get the idea. Yet other places, as big or bigger, as rich or richer, have failed to produce much of lasting value at all.
It was good, though, to return to Maria Alm. It’s as pretty a place as we’ve seen along these roads.
Maria Alm, Austria.