I discovered many of my favorite “back doors” thirty years ago. Back in the 1970s, places like Hallstatt (south of Salzburg, the gem town on the gem lake in a region of Austria where lakes and Alps are shuffled together like a game of 52 card pick up) were truly “Back Doors” – untouristed. Today, many have become not only touristy…but economically addicted to tourism. I’ve noticed, more than ever, they appreciate the business my guidebooks generate. In Paris, the mayor of my favorite Rue Cler neighborhood threw me a party in the local palace – all the hoteliers, restaurateurs, and shop keepers were there…best macaroons ever. In the Cinque Terre this spring, I was hanging out on the Vernazza harbor-front listening to the town troubadour sing a folk song – not knowing I was in the lyrics. When my name came around he turned to me and cranked up the volume. In Reutte, just over the border from Bavaria’s fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein, I was recently invited into the local knighthood. (You must be present to be knighted…so it’ll have to wait.) And yesterday, here in little Hallstatt, another of my headliner “discoveries,” my friend who runs a restaurant there welcomed me with Hallstatt’s standard “let me cook you a fish” greeting.
I sat under his wall full of big fish heads mounted like deer – gills spread like antlers. I stared at a tour group from Yokohama which filled a restaurant that once fed only locals. As the group headed out (they’ll be in Vienna in 4 hours), the waiter – in his ancient lederhosen – (which always remind me of a permanent wedgie) said “Japanese groups are very big this year.”
My challenge these days, along with finding untouristed places, is to find vivid cultural traditions that survive in places now well-discovered…like Hallstatt.
The next morning, as the sun rose late over the Alps towering above Hallstatt, the guy in the nearly rotten leather shorts took me for a spin in his classic boat. It was a ‘fuhr,’ a centuries-old boat design – made wide and flat for shipping heavy bushels of salt mined here across shallow waters. As he lunged rhythmically on the single oar, he said “an hour on the lake is like a day of vacation.” I asked about the oar lock, which looked like a skinny dog chew doughnut. He said “it’s made of the gut of a bull…not of cow…but a bull.”
Returning to the weathered timber boat house, we passed a teenage boy rhythmically grabbing trout from the fishermen’s pen and killing them one by one with a stern whack to the noggin. Another guy carried them to the tiny fishery where they were gutted by a guy who, forty years ago, did the stern whacking. A cat waits outside the door, confident his breakfast will be a good one. And restaurateurs and home-makers alike – whose dining rooms are decorated with trophies of big ones that didn’t get away – line up to buy fresh trout to feed the hungry tourists, and a good fish to cook for a special friend.