Category Archives: Austria

The First Eurovision Song Contest

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 darkened the streets of London and killed approximately four thousand people in the short time of four days and a further eight thousand died from its effects in the following weeks and months.  In 1956 the Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.

Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past. It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during two centuries, had gradually blackened.

By all accounts the summer of 1956 was truly abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

European Union Flags

What was needed was something to cheer everyone up.  At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network.

The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19th October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland.

It was held on 24th May 1956. Seven countries participated, each submitting two songs, for a total of fourteen. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed as since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia.

The United Kingdom first participated at the Eurovision Song Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but, rather like trying to get into the Common Market, had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. It hasn’t made the same mistake again and the UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the Contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

Eurovision Greece and Spain

There have been sixty-two contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest.    The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who performed “What’s Another Year” in 1980 and “Hold Me Now” in 1987.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in out house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a predictable low scoring result.

Christmas Lights

It was Christmas market time again and by undertaking detailed research of the flight schedules and destination options there was an opportunity on December 13th 2007 to visit two neighbouring countries by flying to and staying in Ljubljana in Slovenia and taking a day trip to Klagenfurt over the border in Austria.

For a week or so before the holiday, as is our normal practice, we had been keeping an eye on the weather in Ljubljana and although it had been a complete mixed bag Micky was still reasonably optimistic and was forecasting snow and extreme cold and we all hoped that he was right.  You can imagine our disappointment therefore when we landed in a wet and soggy Slovenia with a sullen sky full of rain.

The airport is about twenty-five kilometres from Ljubljana, which was a bit too far for a taxi but we found the transfer bus with an obliging driver who drove us the forty minute journey into the city and then took a detour off of the scheduled route to deliver us directly to the front door of the City Hotel and in view of the rain we were grateful for that.

The hotel had been recently modernised and was clean and new with a slightly curious combination of Mexico and Salvidor Dali as a theme in the public areas.  After a bit of unnecessary confusion over room allocations Micky was disappointed to find that this hadn’t provided him with the opportunity that he had been hoping for and we all retired to our rooms for the quickest of freshen ups and then a return to the bar in the lobby for a quick beer to familiarise ourselves with the local brewing arrangements.

Ljubljana Christmas Lights

Outside the rain had got progressively heavier so we needed our umbrellas for sure as we set off on foot towards the city centre and the Christmas market.  It was about ten o’clock now and the bad weather had cleared the streets of people and the city was prematurely quiet and many of the market stalls closed already for the day.  Even in the dismal weather however the street lights and decorations looked spectacular with a theme of planets and other heavenly objects all based on a principal colour of bright royal blue.

We walked through the deserted main square and down the left bank of the river Ljubljanica before crossing Cobblers bridge to the right bank where a number of stalls selling mulled wine and gluvine were still open and dispensing drinks.  At one of these a group of boisterous young men were waiting under an umbrella that was swollen with rain and waiting for a passer-by to deposit the contents over.  As Micky walked by one of them sprung the trap and a torrent of water was despatched to the pavement missing him by a matter of inches.  Good job that it did because although this would have given him a good soaking these boys would have got a lot wetter swimming in the adjacent river if they had successfully hit their target!

It was all a bit wet and disappointing but I suppose if we had done our research properly then we shouldn’t have been surprised because Ljubljana has the dubious distinction of being the wettest capital city in Europe and at one thousand three hundred and fifty millimetres a year (fifty three inches) that would certainly take some beating.  Before I knew this I would probably have guessed that it would be Cardiff, in Wales, because that is fairly damp as well but the Welsh capital city is left way behind at only one thousand and seventy four millimetres.

Well, the good thing is of course that it doesn’t rain in bars and in the main square just over the Triple Bridge we found a pavement bar with a rigid roof and blazing patio heaters and we enjoyed a couple of final drinks in the comfort of the warmth and the dry while the rain beat out a steady rhythm on the plastic roof sections above.  It was about midnight by now and we were the last customers of the day and after a couple of drinks I think the barman was pleased to finally see us go as he hurriedly packed up behind us to make sure that we couldn’t change our minds.

Mozart’s Starling

These days it  is totally illegal to keep wild birds as pets as this is in contravention of the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 and what’s more, under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a potential fine of up to £5,000, and or six months imprisonment.

Until we realised that we had made a mess of the natural biodiversity of the world and started getting precious about birds and wildlife it wasn’t unusual at all to keep wild birds as caged pets and of the most famous pet birds of all was a starling that belonged to the composer Mozart who died on 5th December 1791.

The story goes that he had just been writing a new piano concerto and feeling rather pleased with himself he went out for as walk and was whistling the tune as he passed through the city of Vienna.  As he went by a pet shop he heard his new masterpiece being whistled back, which must have surprised him somewhat because it hadn’t yet been finished or published.   As he tried to find the source of the whistling he apparently looked up at a bird cage outside a pet shop and in it was a starling mimicking the composer perfectly and joining him in a duet rendition of his new work.

Now this does seem rather far-fetched and might be hard to believe but I have discovered an interesting fact. The starling is in fact a relation of the myna bird, which is well known for its ability to mimic.  The starling too is accomplished at copying other birds and other quite complex sounds, so perhaps it isn’t so unbelievable after all.  When I was at school I used to have a friend called Roderick Bull (really) who had a pet myna bird who lived in a cage in the hall of his house and who was trained to scream ’Bugger off’ (or something similar) whenever the doorbell rang.

Anyway, to go with the story, Mozart was so impressed that he immediately purchased the bird and went home with his new pet starling.  Apparently (and quite frankly this is a bit hard to believe) the bird assisted him in making some final improvements to the concerto and thereafter its party piece was to sing the beginning of the last movement of the piano concerto K453 in G major.

The bird and composer remained close friends for three years but eventually the bird died and the composer had to compose his own music again without avian assistance.  After the bird’s death, Mozart gave him a first-class funeral and wrote a poem as his eulogy.

More Starling Stories:

Eugene Schieffelin and starlings in the USA

A Murmuration of Starlings

Salzburg and the Hohensalzburg Fortress

On a visit to Salzburg in October 2006 the sun was shining and the pastel coloured facades of the riverside buildings looked outstandingly cheerful set against a backdrop of cobalt blue sky and hillsides radiant in autumnal yellow, russet and bronze.  After walking through the main town squares, the Alter Makt and Residenzplatz we made straight for the Hohensalzburg fortress that rose high above the city on an impregnable rocky bastion.  Looking up at it from below I knew how Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood must have felt in the film ‘Where Eagle’s Dare’.

At the top there were some outstanding views from the battlements.  To the south were lush green valleys and snow capped mountains all decorated with farmhouses and little huts and to the north was the city spread out below along the river valley.  Inside the fortress all admittance was free, which made me regret that I had paid the all-inclusive tickets to come up on the funicular but I suppose it had been quick and we had enjoyed it.

There was a room displaying marionettes, and another with a Lowry like display of an attacking stick insect army.  There was a museum about the fortress that included a lot of military uniforms and a room with some unpleasant implements of medieval torture including some curious chastity belts with design characteristics that certainly looked as though they might be effective in preventing unauthorized sexual activity but had some inherent faults that I suspect made maintaining personal hygiene a bit of a challenge!

It was here that we learnt some interesting facts including the story about painting an ox a different colour every day (brown on a Monday, black on a Tuesday etc.) during a siege in 1525 to try to fool the attackers into believing the castle was well supplied (when it wasn’t) and earning the citizens of Salzburg the nickname of ‘oxen washers’.  Also that the wealth of the city was based on salt mining which gave the city its name and that the fortress was never taken by an attacking army until Napoleon Bonaparte marched through the gates invited in 1801.  We finally got our monies worth when we enjoyed a guided tour around the fortress including a climb to the top of the castle.

The Sound of Music

On 2nd March 1965 the film ‘Sound of Music’ starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer was premiered and nearly fifty years later people are still watching it.  It was based in Salzburg in Austria and in 2008 I visited the city with a group of friends.

On the first morning we explored the streets and made our way to the central square.  Just around the corner was a travel agency selling Sound of Music tours and I thought that this might appeal to the girls. The film is one of the most successful ever and is based on the story of the Von Trapp family. The Captain was a very successful Austrian naval captain during the First World War but found himself promptly unemployed after 1918. 

Now this won’t come as a great surprise to anyone who examines a map of post Great War Europe because being on the losing side Austria was stripped of its extensive empire and reduced to a land locked central European state with no access to the sea and presumably therefore without a requirement for naval commanders, however successful they might have been. 

The Captain had to find an alternative career and discovering that his children possessed a talent for music exploited this to create the Von Trapp singers.  When one of the children fell ill with scarlet fever he employed the novice nun Maria to care for her and the rest is history. 

I have grown to like the film but it takes a few historical liberties; for example the family actually didn’t hike from Salzburg to Switzerland to escape the Nazi’s but in reality simply took the train to Italy and then to Switzerland.  Now that must have been a whole lot easier and besides, if they had climbed all of the mountains between Salzburg and Switzerland they would have had to go through Nazi Germany and would have been extremely lucky to arrive, not to say completely knackered by the time they got there! 

The film is shown every night at eight o’clock on Austrian TV and the British Government has a copy ready to broadcast in the event of a really bad national emergency such as a David Cameron second term in office for example.