The joys of taking a holiday within a holiday

The most tiring aspect of the journey was all those three-course dinners they gave you en route
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The Independent Online

This is decadence, a holiday within a holiday, like leaving a play at the interval to go to the opera. If only... Officially we're in Scotland for six weeks in the house we've been building, and indeed are still building, on an island off the Argyll coast, but since Sunday we've been staying with friends in the Austrian lake district, half an hour from Salzburg. Our hostess is my oldest friend, one of five Irish sisters, whose wedding was more like a wake because it meant she was leaving Ireland for ever.

This is decadence, a holiday within a holiday, like leaving a play at the interval to go to the opera. If only... Officially we're in Scotland for six weeks in the house we've been building, and indeed are still building, on an island off the Argyll coast, but since Sunday we've been staying with friends in the Austrian lake district, half an hour from Salzburg. Our hostess is my oldest friend, one of five Irish sisters, whose wedding was more like a wake because it meant she was leaving Ireland for ever.

That sounds a bit melodramatic these days when you can buy a charter flight from Salzburg to Dublin for 10 quid, but this was twentysomething years ago, when air travel was more expensive and less adjacent. Shankill to Mondsee then meant Aer Lingus to London, British European Airways to Zurich and finally Swiss Air to Salzburg. The most tiring aspect of the journey being all those three-course dinners they gave you en route. My definition of an old person used to be someone who remembered ration books. Now it's someone who remembers flying BEA economy class and eating off china plates.

Whenever I come to Austria, I bring Frau P, my Irish friend, sausages. They have delicious salami here, but she prefers old-fashioned bangers and will go to astonishing lengths to get them. When they resuscitated the famous Orient Express train, or at least the Paris-to-Venice section, I was offered a free trip. One of the stations it stopped at is St Anton, where Frau P and her family spend the winter. "Bring me some sausages. I'll meet you at the station," she said. It was February. There had been heavy snowfall and avalanches in the Alps and there was talk that the tunnel at St Anton had been blocked. Ours was, in fact, the last train to get through for five days, during which time St Anton was effectively cut off. We stopped briefly at the station, which you could hardly see through the snowstorm. "We won't be picking any passengers up here," said the guard. "There are 30ft drifts on the roads."

We were in the middle of dinner and I'd brought the sausages to the dining car just in case, though I fully expected to still have them with me in Venice. The waiter was leaning over the table, silver serving dish of partridge stuffed with foie gras reflected in Lalique lamp and marquetry wall panels, when suddenly there was a frantic banging at the window. Outside on the platform, swathed in hood, face mask and goggles, stood a figure on skis. "Whatever you gave her must have been mighty important," observed the Americans beside us as the train pulled away.

My one regret this year is that we had not been able to get tickets to the new production of Don Giovanni that everyone agrees is the highlight of this year's Salzburg Festival. All the critics say that it is the most brilliant and most profound interpretation of the opera that Salzburg has ever seen. Frau P saw the dress rehearsal, the woman who designed the costumes is renting their flat in the Goldgasse and managed to get them in. You don't pay for dress rehearsal tickets, but Frau P said it's had so much publicity that if she'd wanted to sell her pass to the queues of hopefuls waiting outside she could have got €100 for it.

The curtain opens on a huge blow-up of a Palmer's Unterwasche poster for sexy underwear as familiar to Austrians as the Gossard Wonderbra is to us. This one is for hold-up stockings and the five girls modelling them aren't wearing pants. All you see is five enormous, albeit perfectly proportioned backsides. Real girls in skimpy lingerie feature throughout the production except at the end when – but I won't give it away. Besides, I haven't seen it, I've just heard about it from my friend's husband Hansel, who has talked of little else.

All this has put Austrians in a new light for me. I can think of many more liberated places. They are still very formal here – the men still click their heels and kiss your hand. When Frau P was a Rudolf Steiner teacher in Salzburg, she got into fearful trouble for reading Peter Rabbit to the younger children. Mr McGregor chasing Peter away from his lettuces was far too shocking, the parents declared. And Mozart without Unterhose? Well, that's art, isn't it?

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