Posted by: Nazausgraben | January 11, 2010

Prosit Neu Jahr!

In a land where anything built after 1900 is considered contemporary, it is not unusual to visit a 19th century battlefield, a medieval castle or church , or Celtic burial mounds dating before the birth of Christ (like those along the Via Claudia in Pinswang). Many of these structures and historic sites have been lovingly preserved, maintained and protected. Others have fallen into disrepair or ruin; still others have been ‘stabilized’ to prevent further destruction. An example of the latter, the remains of an ancient stone tower, can be found in a town called Vils.

Vils sits but a few kilometers southwest from Pinswang. Like Pinswang, Vils is a border municipality through which one passes as a last stop before entering Pfronten, Germany.  Although small in size and population, Vils has the distinction of being one of Austria’s tiniest cities. It is a quiet place where one can see many lovely ancient homes built into the ascent up into the front range mountains of the Ausserfern.

The tower that I mentioned earlier was part of a larger structure, built in the 13th century by Heinrich und Berthold von Vilsegg (Vilseck). It was yet another fortification that, along with the Schloss im Loch in Pinswang, lined the fluid national boundaries in the region. It slowly fell into disrepair over the centuries, with the fortress already declared a ruin by the 18th century. However, matters worsened as the remaining tower suffered the loss of its eastern wall during an earthquake that shook this part of the Tirol in 1939. There was, not long ago,  discussion in Vils of tearing the remaining bits of the tower down; thus obliterating an important part of the areas history.

Happily, the tower and its surrounding lands were purchased by friends of ours, Reini and Silvia, who own a lovely farmhouse home and splendid antique shop  in Vils. Along with the historical museum society in that city, this remarkable pair have ensured that the remaining tower walls have been stabilized against any further decay. As a function of their time, dedicated efforts and at great personal expense,  Reini and Silvia have made it possible for visitors to Vils to experience so much of this region’s fascinating past.

So it is that on New Year’s Eve (Silvester) of 2009, Susi and I find ourselves wandering with our friends up the steep dirt path to their tower. We carry torches (fackeln) against the nights pitch, the flames bending with the winds creating a flurry of shadowy dancing forest spectres about us.

Now, one must keep in mind that this trek into the mountains is not our usual way of celebrating on 31 December. Typically, Susi and I spend the last evening of the calendar year in the enclosed warmth of our home in Pinswang.  After a meal that includes generous helpings of tender smoked salmon (traditional Silvester faire), we settle in and spenmd the next 20-minutes or so watching a televised black and white film of a short stage-play entitled “Dinner for One”. The premise of this simple story (performed in English by British actors) is that a rather aged yet ever-elegant widow, one Miss Sophie,  is having a multiple course birthday party dinner and has four of her dearest friends with her to celebrate. Her faithful butler James is in waiting and provides all guests with food and drink.

All appears in order, except that, save Miss Sophie, the remaining chairs at her table are empty…her dear friends having died of old age some years earlier. Still, whether due to sorrowful dementia or pure loneliness, Miss Sophie likes to believe that her colorful guests are indeed present, and James facilitates the fantasy, acting the parts of the departed.  James repeatedly asks of Miss Sophie if his activities should reflect ” the same procedure as last year?”. Miss Sophie likewise repeatedly replies, “The same procedure as every year, James”.

The evening is filled with food and drink, with each course of the meal prefaced by a toast. Poor James must drink the toast for all of the four absent guests. The result is that by the conclusion of the third course, James is slurring his words, staggering about, tripping over the head of a lion rug on the floor, and is barely able to act out his assigned parts. Finally, dinner over, Miss Sophie thanks James for a lovely evening and asks him to accompany her up the stairs as she is ready to retire.

 “Same procedure as last year?” James asks.

 “The same procedure as every year, James.” Miss Sophie replies.

“Well, I’ll try….” James winklingly smiles at the audience and guides Miss Sophie up the stairs to her private rooms.

Susi and I have seen this every year for almost the past decade and a half, and it still evokes laughs. It is hard to explain why…for we know what is coming, what will transpire.  It is the annual re-run that never ever changes. Yet, to watch poor James slip further and further into inebriation with all of its impacts…one can’t help but to laugh at the “funny drunk” as he exhibits all the behaviors that, had they been performed by a friend or family member in reality, would have resulted in grave disapproval and disdain. I suppose it is an odd form of Schadenfreude; the strange and admittedly distasteful part of our more primitive selves whereby we cast aside all social morays and take joy from another’s discomforts. Yet, we are ‘hard-wired’ to respond in this way; it is a reflex limited only by the knowledge that the debilitated in question hurt neither themselves or others.  It is the telling genesis of some comedy forms. So it is with between us the viewers on each Silvester night and the well-meaning James.

As midnight approaches, Susi or I usually ensure that we are watching or listening to the Austrian State broadcaster, the Oesterreichischer Rundfunk  (ORF). We open the doors to our third floor balcony and await the moment.

Midnight, and the bells of the Ulrichskirche start to ring…along with the bells of almost every other church and cathedral in Austria and Bavaria. The ORF broadcasts the ringing of the ‘Pummerin’; the huge ancient bell of the Cathedral of St. Steven (Stephansdom) in Vienna. After some minutes, the picture fades to a scene of impeccably attired dancers at a formal ball. The Blue Danube waltz is played, the dancers whirl about…one-two-three-one-two-three…fireworks make alight the deep night sky illuminating the mountains across the valley.  This lasts for about 10-minutes. The new year arrives; it all starts again.

I am reminded of yet another New Years Eve not long ago. Susi and I were living in Rocky Mountain country, on the high plains but a mile or two from the base of the Colorado Springs front range mountains. We had learned that there was a group of folks calling themselves the ADDAMAN club (so-called because each year they added another man to their team) who, every New Years Eve, would climb up to the 14,000 foot top of Pike’s Peak…the highest mountain dominating this area. Once at the top, this small group would, at midnight, launch a few sets of large expensive fireworks that would illuminate the entire mountain. How or when they would descend off the peak remains a mystery.  This was not to be missed; I convinced a hesitant Susi that it would be worth seeing.

Thus, half-asleep and wrapped in multiple layers of cotton, wool and assorted chemicals shaped into winter clothes, my wife and I ventured out that one icy New Years Eve from the glowing warmth of our home in The Springs to view the midnight spectacle. As we stood on a frozen field awaiting the bombarde, I thought about the many hundreds of ADDAMAN kindred spirits, hiking up the frozen Alps to their small huts from which they, too, would emblazon the heavens with the firey glitter imported from China. Emboldened with sufficient schnapps and bravado, they would provide quite a sight for the Austrian change of year revelers.

The Colorado midnight finally struck, and my wife and I, shivering and teeth a’ chattering, prepared for the artillery to commence firing atop the great mountain.

Suddenly, there it was…one…two…then three fleur di lis washing the night skies above 14,000 feet in rainbow sparkles. Then….nothing…silence…we waited expecting more….surely after such a hike in the miserable winds and deep snows, those intrepid folks atop the Peak would give the many waiting below at 5,000 ft. more. We waited in the freezing New Years night in vain. The entire thing lasted less than a minute.

All I could come up with to explain the disappointment was that quality schnapps was in short supply this year, due to it being used as an additive in high-octane gasoline. Susi did not find this at all funny and muttered something about sleeping through the next New Years Eve. I thought it best not to say any more. After about 5 more minutes of cognitive dissonance, we turned and headed back to our fireplace just up the road. It was our last New Years Eve prior to our moving permanently to our home in Austria…..a most memorable anticlimax indeed.

These now are but pictures of the past in our minds eyes. The reality is that for Susi and me, New Years Eve has never been a particularly celebratory time. Unlike others who see the passage from one year to the next as a moment for general catharsis, the moment for expunging a year of sins and the onset of general renewal….promised penance declared in the open-air confessional…Susi and I have always kept the holiday in relatively quiet (some might say, incredibly boring) form. Invariably one or the other of us is either already asleep or sick each Silvester, having succumbed to the blistery chill at the Gluehwein stand or running out to gather wood sans down coat. This year, however, is one to truly celebrate , as both Susi and I are fit and awake.

We reach the top of  the mountain upon which the tower sits. The foundations of the rest of the structure still stand and we make our way round the lower now flattened stone battlements.

Susi and I ascend abit further up to the still imposing tower walls. Walking within the structure and looking up through the cavernous center of the tower, one can see where the stone stairways from ground to tower top once lined the inner perimeter. The stone border that was added to help stabilize the structures open eastern side appears lighter than the original medieval blocks used to build the Burg.

Touching the ancient crumbling walls, I cannot help but wonder at the Festung (fortress) mentality of the time.  The need to defend and protect was of the highest priority, for there were almost daily threats from without; marauders, thieves, plunderers and troops from across the border. The line of fortifications here in Vils and through this entire border region proclaimed not only wealth and nobility, but authority and security. Now, gazing up from the center of the ruin, with fog encroaching our eagles nest overlooking the expansive horizon encompassing Vils and environs, I touch the walls of the medieval world one last time, and descend to where our companions await with sausages cooking over an open fire, glasses of sekt (sparkling wine), bite-sized smoked salmon sandwiches and stories about the long dead stalking the surrounding woods.

Midnight. The air is unseasonably warm for mid-Winter. We are blanketed in fog. Suddenly, the entire valley below appears to erupt in shooting stars which ignite aloft in cotton candy dense clouds. Church bells from Bavaria to Pinswang and nearby Fuessen echo throughout, colliding with each other as they pass through. Plastic wine glasses click together, kisses and embraces are exchanged along with best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010. Prosit Neu Jahr!!

After some minutes, the cacophony of bells dwindles to single faint utterances. Then they are silent. An occasional sniper-like firework disturbs the otherwise floating silence. The pungent new year air aloft reeks of ignition as the last airborne rainbow plumes finally fade.

We pack together our gear and after a quick glance back at the forlorn tower, now even deeper black shadow against the night sky, we slip and slide our way slowly back down the icy trail to our waiting vehicles far below.


  1. Dear Andy
    Your blog is such a vivid and enchanting one, that one keeps coming back to it again and again.
    Your words truly recreate the images and the happenings, of past and present, making the reader, feel the emotions flowing deep within the writer, you.
    best regards

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