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Vacation Memories : Austrian Train Ride Takes Visitor by Surprise

This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel section.

February 02, 1986|RON DITMARS | Ditmars is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Englishtown, N.J. and

The youth hostel in Salzburg, Austria, had been locked up for hours when I rode my small moped into town that stormy midnight. I knocked on one pension door after another, but had no luck. The only shelter I could find was the railroad station.

Chaining my bike outside, I walked into the open-air station and stretched out on a slatted wooden bench. Too hard and cold. I sat up and saw a solitary passenger coach posing quietly on a nearby siding. I stepped aboard, slid open a compartment door, tossed in my backpack, drew the curtains and crashed.

Minutes later I was jolted out of sleep as the train began to move--slowly, then gradually accelerating. Should I jump out? Make a run for it? Or just lie back and let it take me where it might? The train screeched to a halt, backed up, apparently coupled with other cars, then sped off into the darkness.

The morning's warmth streaming through the window awakened me. I figured that I was about five hours away from Salzburg. But where? Not south--no soft and salty Mediterranean breezes. Not west--no Alpine profiles. Not north--no Eastern Bloc customs officer had boarded. I saw that we were rattling toward the sunrise--east.

The train slowed in a switching operation, and I hopped off. I ran across the tracks and into a town just arousing itself: street cleaners pushing bright orange carts, men hurrying along the sidewalks, women leaning out of second-story windows and a war victim propelling himself in a wheelchair. I bought a bottle of yogurt and a warm roll and asked the baker which country I was in.

"Sankt Polten, Osterreich, " he said. "Sixty kilometers westlich von Wien."

It wasn't even on my mind to visit Vienna. But there I was, just outside the capital of Austria. Opera, museums, beer, trams, even green space for sleeping under the stars.

Schubert's Piano

After four brimming days--the high point was touching the keys of Schubert's and Schumann's pianos in the Kunsthistorisches Museum--I was facing southwest, thumb out, to take the southern route back to Salzburg. Just beyond Semmering Pass the driver of a black Renault stopped to give me a lift.

"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" I inquired.

"Yes," he replied.

"Are you American?"

He nodded. There were leaves of sheet music on the back seat.

"Oh, are you interested in music?" I asked.


He told me that he was also from California. I asked what he did there.

"I am the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

I'd not have had any trouble placing the face in 1986, but this was August, 1966. Zubin Mehta was on his way to conduct a concert at Salzburg. Only a few days before, he'd been swimming in the Red Sea after directing the Israeli Philharmonic. Later that week he'd be raising his baton in Sydney, Australia.

Bike in Salzburg

After an hour's drive he dropped me off. I would return to Salzburg to recover my bike at the railroad station; he would arrive the following day to conduct the music festival.

"Come backstage sometime when you're in Los Angeles and say hello." I waved back, fully expecting to do just that.

But here it is 20 years later, and the maestro has moved to New York. Perhaps I'll take him up on that invitation yet. Lincoln Center is only an hour's train ride from my church in Englishtown.

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