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Beware! The Hills really are alive, with the Sound of Music, in Austria!

By Diana McLeod

      Those darned song lyrics from that unavoidable iconic movie kept popping into my head all day long. I couldn’t help it! The splendid Alpine views made me want to run through meadows with outstretched arms, singing at the top of my lungs. The little churches, nestled in village dreamscapes beneath snowy peaks, brought me back images of kindly old nuns singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I loved Austria, but these movie flashbacks were a few of my least favorite things…

      The trouble was; it was all true! I had come to Austria fully expecting the days of Heidi to be long gone. (Heidi is a beloved classic childhood story, set in the Austrian Alps) I was convinced that most of the traditional chalets would be largely replaced by modern stock housing, and I was prepared to accept the fact that the magical Austria of my imagination could not possibly exist in real life.

      I was wrong. Oh yes, the villages had gas stations, and convenience stores, and occasional industry, but the core of the romantic village was still there, in the small towns, once we left the main highway. The little chalets were exquisitely decorated with gingerbread woodwork and balconies. Flowers gushed like waterfalls from windowboxes. New houses were, for the most part, built just like the old ones, so they blended right in. Gardens and yards were absolutely immaculate. People took great care and pride with their homesteads. Every village seemed to have a bike path, or a little walking trail, that ran right through the town.

      There were charming architectural details to delight the eye. Some of the houses had tiny, ornate bell steeples. Many had decorative murals painted on the sides of the houses. Even the barns had lovely little balconies and gingerbread shutters. I even saw a series of brand new apartment blocks, in one town, some of which were still under construction. The finished buildings were rife with traditional architectural details, and each building was lovingly hand painted with murals and folk decorations, all done in the local style.

      The villages were made even more beautiful by the surrounding fields and farms. The fields were perfectly manicured by small tractors, so that they all looked like brilliant green lawns. Idyllic little family dairy farms dotted each valley. Looking at the magnificent Alps, while walking through flower-filled fields, all the time listening to the gentle jangle of cowbells, made me feel like I was in the middle of a sentimental pastoral dream.

      Amusingly, our perception was often clouded by another set of memories. Dave brought it up, while we were driving. He said, “I keep looking at all these chalets, and I think they are the same tacky fake ones I grew up with. I have to constantly remind myself that, no, these are the real deal.”

      He was right. We both grew up in the era when the “Swiss Chalet” style came into fashion in the Northeastern U.S. It was all the fault of that same darned movie!!! Everybody went crazy for fake chalets, especially in ski country. Dave’s family skied all the time, and his parents, and all their friends all stayed in chalet-style places when he was a kid. Hotels in ski towns all took on names like “The Matterhorn” and “Eidelweiss” and “Sitzmark.” It really got to be too much! Luckily, I was not as exposed to American ski culture as Dave was, so I didn’t have to fight quite as hard to blot out those unfortunate comparisons.

      Still, both of us fell in love with the little mountain villages. For once, humans had actually contributed to the scenery, rather than being a blight on the landscape. We need to do more of that in our country! We forget, in our quest for value in construction, that aesthetics do matter. We need to remind ourselves that ugly utilitarian concrete and glass cities and cookie-cutter suburbs can be a terrible drag on the human soul.

      Vermont, luckily, is one place that we can still find a bit of the village aesthetic. After all, it is important to remember the end of the movie. Maria Von Trapp (the real one) escaped Nazi Europe during the war. She and her family fled to America, where she searched for a location which reminded her of her native Austria. The family settled in Stowe Vermont, where they lived when they were not touring as the Trapp Family Choir. In the 1960's, the family opened a hotel there. Maria lived in Stowe until her death in 1987.

      For that ultimate compliment to Vermont, I will forgive her for all those pesky songs in my head.

      Thanks for reading! Diana

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