PERFUME AND MOUNTAIN AIR
FLIRTING WITH NATURE IN SEMMERING
Wolfgang Kos on Yvonne Oswald's photography
“Barely two hours by train from Vienna, Semmering stands out in the unique romantic atmosphere of a world of green and gracious hills. Wherever the eye turns, the viewer is captivated by the incomparable images: bizarre mountain formations and dark, ranging pine forests; arching railway viaducts, boldly spanning wide chasms, demonstrate the massive victory of the human intellect over the rebelliousness of nature …”
This is the start of a brochure for the Grand Hotel Panhans, written around 1930. Semmering is described as the “jewel of the city” (another promotional text has “emerald of Vienna”) and there are all of the adjectives associated in the late nineteenth century with the eccentrically situated “mountain spa”: “fatigued” city dwellers can enjoy “wonderfully aromatic ozone-rich” air, the “delightful” loggias of their “elegant” hotels standing out against the “gracious” mountain silhouette, and sink in the evening into the “comfortable” armchairs in the “delightful and cozy” lounge.
The essential feature of a brand-name product is its distinctiveness. To achieve this, it is stylized and reduced to a repetitive litany of basic messages. Semmering was an elite brand in Austrian tourism with a charismatic attraction, particularly for visitors from eastern Central Europe. For the Vienna Ringstrasse society it was more than just a travel destination; it was a semiAlpine appendage, an urban enclave in the mountains. Today we would say that Semmering began as a marketing idea. Before the hotels and villas sprang up in the 1880s on the wooded mountain slopes, there were just a few simple farms. The Südbahngesellschaft built a “Semmering hotel” (which was later expanded to become the monumental Südbahnhotel) and the first vacation villas in a clearing on Wolfsbergkogel. It was intended to promote the railway line and to encourage the creation of a Swiss-style tourist settlement developed from the command center in Vienna. It was followed in 1888 by Hotel Panhans, later the Erzherzog Johann and Kurhaus, a typical hybrid mixture of high-class sanatorium and modern hotel machine. The town that stretched along the straight mountain road was artificial, but its name “Semmering,” originally referring only to the pass, was already well-known and popular in Vienna and eastern Central Europe following the building of the mountain railway.
In a series of contrasting promotional phrases, the stinking and unhealthy city was set against the nearby ozone paradise. Semmering was commonly referred to as Vienna’s “local doctor” or “green lung.” This was a direct reference to the omnipresent fear of tuberculosis. The “pure, light, cool Alpine air” was seen as the antidote to the “sad urban disease.”
A certain Dr. Fall, director of the Südbahnhotel, wrote in the Neue Freie Presse: “It is a true Alpine paradise, 1,000 meters above sea level and 112 km from the capital and imperial residence, a delightful two-hour train journey away, accessible without too much preparation, luggage, or travel stress.”
The mention of the two-hour journey was part of the standard repertoire, and was also found in the publicity for cog and cable railway outings to the Schneeberg and Rax. “Without luggage” was an indication of the ease with which visitors could travel to Semmering to relax in the safe surroundings of a familiar landscape, to pursue love affairs, discuss investments, cure coughs, or hear the latest Vienna gossip.
Sigmund Freud rented a villa “where I can easily travel to Vienna and back in a single day.” The two-hour train journey from Vienna made it close enough to be able to react to stock market movements and theater reviews. Arthur Schnitzler, Adolf Loos, and Hermann Bahr liked to go to Semmering because they didn’t have to abandon their normal way of life. They could continue their coffeehouse chat without interruption. Many trips to Semmering are noted in Schnitzler’s detailed diaries, but there is almost nothing about the natural surroundings. He writes mostly of discussions with actors, negotiations with his publisher, billiards with Jakob Wassermann, or poker with Felix Salten. Occasionally he mentions the “magnificent quiet” on Sonnwendstein or a “picturesque” winter’s day on the Panhans ski slope. Back in the hotel, he would meet and talk with the editor-in-chief of the Neue Freie Presse. This was a further advantage of Semmering as a place to regenerate: the natural beauty was so self-evident that it was not obtrusive.
Visitors traveled from Vienna to be with their own kind in the city’s Alpine appendage. The visitors were the aspiring liberal, (nouveau) rich, cultured Jewish, attention-seeking bourgeoisie, the “second society” that had arisen since the 1860s. Carl E. Schorske spoke of the leading class in business, newspapers, and culture, “which ruled but did not govern.” For the Jewish bourgeoisie, Semmering was attractive because it was a place implanted artificially in the landscape that could be taken over exclusively – be it as a hotel guest or property buyer. Unlike the Salzkammergut or Reichenau, where Viennese bankers, attorneys, or star doctors had implanted their country homes built according to the latest architectural fashions in already occupied terrain with an established order, there was no danger among the uniform clientele in Semmering of prestige conflicts with old the court, aristocratic, or Catholic upper class. The lifestyle was easier and more modern, not least after 1900 with the extended winter season, as Vienna’s fashionable jeunesse dorée cultivated new sports like skiing and tobogganing.
Whereas summer vacationers “down” in Reichenau could at least occasionally interrupt their musing with an “invigorating” excursion to the Rax, visitors to Semmering passed the time between meals with walks. As they were already in the mountains, there were no challenging ascents. The gradients were gentle and short and the landscape park-like, as visitors strolled or promenaded on the city-style road that had been built from the hotels to the main highway. They could admire the sights from vantage points, almost as if they were on a shopping expedition. In a setting in which the force of habit played such a major role, distraction and variety were the main consumer goods. A rewarding view was the measure of diversion.
“The scenery – be it for railway travelers, automobile drivers, or modest walkers – changes constantly. The characteristic mixture of light-colored limestone rock and forest gives the landscape a friendly and luminous quality, and the simple railway engineering structures lend the area a distinctive feel comparable with a large park.”
Paul Busson’s paeon Der Semmering und seine Berge written in 1912 had all of the contrasting couplets: comfort – distraction, nature – art, wild countryside – friendly park.
From the observer’s point of view, this border land between Lower Austria and Styria was under control: first from the train window and then, with a walking stick and fashionable costume, on well-marked routes from the Panhans and Südbahnhotel to the pass. Visitors were used to keeping a safe distance from the attractions of Semmering, “flirting with nature,” so to speak. From Semmering there was no shortage of panoramic and plunging views or distant vistas, with the 2,000 meter Schneeberg and the craggy rock faces of the Rax in view, while remaining safely at half their altitude. The publicity mentioned the absence of extreme conditions as being particularly beneficial to unsettled souls: “When away for a long time nervous persons suffer from an anxious feeling of being enclosed, which has an unpleasant and oppressive effect on their mood and ultimately on their health. […] The open spaces of the pre-Alpine Semmering, by contrast, evoke a cheerful and contented feeling.”
Hotels played a decisive role in guaranteeing this good feeling amid the grandiose but non-threatening mountain landscape. The new type of Alpine grand hotel that arose in the nineteenth century – parallel to the Riviera hotel – allowed communing with the magnificence of nature in an intimate and familiar atmosphere – this indecisive mixture of outdoors and indoors, public spaces like café terraces, and the private sphere, busy activity and discretion.
In this transitional area between the brightly lit interior and the magnificent outdoor scenery, luxury hotels set effectively in the landscape were particularly seductive. With a glass of wine in their hands, guests at the Panhans or Südbahnhotel could confront nature in comfort, as a society reporter for the Neue Freie Presse wrote poetically in 1912: “Here perfume to charm the senses, there the clear healthy mountain air, here the swirling of evening gowns, there the mysterious rustling of spruce and pine.”
Like on an ocean liner, guests felt as if they were surrounded by indefinable space. The fact that there was no church, village inn, or cemetery in Semmering intensified the feeling of being isolated and exposed. At the same time, guests felt sheltered from down-to-earth problems, the crowds in the city, or the factory chimneys in the Vienna Basin, whose grimy smoke could be seen on fine days while strolling in the Semmering countryside.
The stark contrast between “down there” and “up here” was a favorite characteristic of many definitions of Semmering. Kienreichs Führer durch das Semmeringgebiet, published in 1914, states: “Like a steep coastal cliff facing the sea, the Semmering region descends in short mountain steps against the delicate fragrance of a green sea-like plain sloping towards Vienna.”
The fact that the cliff could be climbed so easily at high speed by rail, step by step, curve by curve, marvelous view by marvelous view, made the image of a steep stairway accessible to everyone. This metaphorical approach to the landscape increased its impact. Peter Altenberg spoke once of “decorated mountain worlds,” meaning the minutiae of the Semmering landscape, which like a box of tricks came up repeatedly with new thrills: the imposing mountain world and the decorations sprinkled on it.
One regular in 1924 wrote in the Semmering newspaper: “I dote on Semmering in its majesty and sweetness.”
In this “and” lies the essence of Semmering’s attraction – and perhaps a residue of yearning for childhood. Again and again, the view from the Doppelreiterwarte or hotel window is described as a toy-like landscape, a miniature version of the whole world, through which the trains meander so picturesquely. In drawings, the elements of this landscape – rocks, bridges, “green hillocks,” and the hotels lording it over the scenery like castles or palaces – are turned into unreal fantasies. It was as if the entire landscape between the Südbahnhotel and the Rax could be packed in a box. Manageability and miniaturization – alongside the early sentimentalization –were the essential elements of this holiday region.
Even as a depressive and alcoholic old man, the poet Peter Altenberg, whose parents had already been regulars at the Thalhof in Reichenau, conjured up earlier feelings of happiness: “It was like miracle journey back to the fairy-tale land of my childhood.”
No metaphor describes the Semmering scenery and scenography better than the theater. The “real” Alps served as a backcloth and the picturesque relief around the Kreuzberg center stage. In the foreground the genre scenes of Viennese society were played out, with the witty dialog by the guests and villa regulars like Bahr and Schnitzler – a huge comedy with tragic undertones and nature as a mood-setter.
Josef Kainz, the most famous Burg actor around 1900, a regular at Kurhaus der Natur (where the playwrights and theater critics are said to have had snowball fights), is once supposed to have said: “If I had the money, I would build a festival theater here, and no one could bring me back down to the “orchestra stalls” of the city.”
When he was dying, Kainz insisted on being taken up to Semmering one last time. The Südbahn made available a private rail car, and there was a constant coming and going of Viennese theater celebrities.
The villas and hotel glued to the slopes were the boxes in the Semmering theater landscape; for the general public – as important to the Semmering economy as the rich – there were terraces for up to a thousand excursionists. In one of his Semmering sketches, Peter Altenberg suggested that “hotel directors” be appointed. For all his loving descriptions of the jewelry and evening gowns of the women at the New Year’s Eve soirée, his precise eye was also sensitive fine and less fine cracks and the falseness of the hotel guests: he noted their “fake amiability” towards the staff and the pretentious “pseudo-celebrities” or families running around the hotels “like outsiders at a picnic”
One Semmering hotel supporting actor even enjoyed real theater fame. Arthur Schnitzler immortalized a hotel porter in the character Rosenstock in Undiscovered Country. He makes the announcement that defines the organization of the guests at the hotel: “The lobby is for everyone.” Afterwards begins the social segregation. The occasional staid guest was put in his place in this way. One such guest, and a Prussian into the bargain, complains to the amusement of the audience of his social downgrading: “You would be well advised to put a notice over the entrance: some hope, all ye who enter here, unless you are a baron, bank director, or American […] this Eldorado of snobs, swindlers, and stock exchange Jews.
By the late 1920s, the well-heeled homogeneous Semmering society was coming under economic and ideological pressure. The gap between the down-to-earth and the cosmopolitan Austria – evening gown versus mountain boots – was also felt in the Semmering social topos. The hotels, still glamorous after the years of crisis, where people danced to jazz bands and played roulette in the “Alpine casino,” were now being attacked as “dens of iniquity.” In Der Semmering, the mouthpiece of small hotel and pension operators, the German Nationalist author Oskar Janetschek railed against the “phony parasitic life” of those “who act even today as if they were the gods of Semmering and imagine that the most beautiful place on earth is a playground for their whims and worse characteristics.” The anti-Semitic resentment became even stronger, culminating in the triumphant announcement on posters: “Semmering is free of Jews.” Everything that followed is a shattered memory.