I was watching two very old men slowly approaching the open doors of the Pilatus airplane I was leaning against when it dawned on me that they were the two pilots who were about to fly me to my daughter’s wedding. The one called Willy extended his hand, as did Alex, a short guy who looked as though he was in his nineties. ‘Ah, Herr Tennisman,’ he said, referring to a match I had won more than 50 years earlier when I was on the tennis circuit, ‘wie geht es?’ Willy then told me that Alex had retired from flying airbuses 30 years before, and now flew as insurance in case the pilot dropped dead en route. That was fine by me. The Pilatus is my favourite airplane, with six wide seats and one just behind the two pilots. It has a 1,700 horsepower Pratt-Whitney engine, cruises silently at 250 knots and can fly without refuelling for close to 2,000 klicks. It can land on a postage stamp, and there are 1,500 of them buzzing around the globe.
We left Saanen, a private airport near Gstaad, and arrived in Salzburg one hour and 15 minutes later. Alexandra (the mother of my children) had brought all sorts of goodies along, but so had the two pilots, so by the time we landed, the champagne was starting to take effect. My beautiful daughter, the future Gräfin Saint-Julien, was waiting for us on her last day as plain Miss Taki.
My first thought on seeing the 1,000-year-old white castle that will be her home from now on was a simple one: at least she won’t be mugged by some thug called Mohammed as she was in London, in SW10, where her then local MP, one Greg Hands, showed as much interest in her case as I do when local Burundi elections crop up in conversation. (The fuzz were polite but understaffed and there was nothing they could do; the area continues to be terrorised by council estate tenants.) So, this huge white castle on a hill, surrounded by thick woods and overlooking a hamlet of the same name, makes Badminton House look like a semi-detached near Reading. (More about Badminton in two weeks, if I survive the upcoming party.)
My son-in-law, Count Saint-Julien-Wallsee, is an Austrian nobleman whose family and title go back some 900 years. (Louis VII rewarded the family after the Second Crusade.) He, his family and I get along like a house on fire, and the night of the wedding we stayed up far too late and got stinko. Edo is the head of the household, and I met all his close friends that first night at the schloss. Although I hate to sound corny, I have never met such truly old-fashioned gentlemen in all my years of travelling the globe. They were young and titled, with beautiful wives and beautiful blond children. And they all had beautiful manners. In fact, the setting and the place were straight out of the Sound of Music, without the vulgarity of the Von Trapps.
The pomp and pageantry of a long-ago Austrian empire was evoked in the castle’s chapel as Pastor Himmelbauer (heaven builder) presided over my girl’s marriage to Edo, a large and immaculately dressed oompah band playing their hearts out afterwards in the courtyard. (Incidentally, the village church the next day, which my wife and daughter attended as the bridegroom and I were far too hung over, was packed, people dressed to the nines in traditional costumes, the chorus singing heavenly and the 20-man oompah band marching in step outside. There were even plumed helmets worn by old officers. The Strauss Radetzky March was the only thing missing, apart, that is, from the thing I miss the most — the swagger that went with being an imperial officer of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In one of the numerous salons, I noticed two portraits of good-looking young officers in their cavalry uniforms — Edo’s great- uncles. They were both killed in 1918, aged 23 and 21, in Bessarabia. Their nieces, now aged but wonderfully friendly and funny, came for the wedding.
The castle, about 35 miles east of Salzburg, is surrounded by forests of tall fir, pine and spruce trees, the Upper Austrian Voralpenland mountains in the distance. It felt a bit like Lampedusa land, a time warp of elegance, good manners and the dress of long ago. Human waves of African and Middle Eastern immigrants wash ashore daily, but this part of Austria is still resisting, just. But in Wolfie’s birthplace, the baroque architecture still the best preserved anywhere, I noticed lots of refugees looking glum and Salieri-like. Worse, however, are the tourists, the bane of our time, eating and drinking and clogging up those beautiful streets. God, how I loathe the modern world and its non-manners, the lack of style, the horrors of modern music and modern mores. I might just move here for good.
At last we’ve come full circle. My paternal ancestors came from these parts, I married a German whose family went to Austria in the 18th century, and now my daughter is married to an Austrian. I couldn’t be happier. Auf Wiedersehen, meine Lieben.