To while away the time at airports, I like to spot celebrities. But pickings have been slim. Where is everyone? On Saturday morning the only face I see is ex-Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, guiltily bolting a free bacon roll in the BA executive lounge at Heathrow. Check your privilege, Jim! To be fair, he was wearing a tracksuit, so I guess that’s OK.
Part of the pain of being a newspaper feature writer is the constant demand to have your photograph taken. It’s hideous in every way. I don’t think I would have agreed to write about the Viva Mayr spa clinic in Austria if I’d known a snapper would be coming along to capture my every purging triumph. The good news? Mark is a really nice guy. The bad news? He had previously photographed David Aaronovitch of the Times in the same place. As Mark details his shoot list, I listen carefully, because writers must balance the need to be a helpful colleague with being a right diva. It’s the law. We clash over the spa’s ravishing swimming pool, in which I am supposed to caper while he snaps away. ‘I want you to get in the pool,’ he says. I am not getting in the pool. ‘Aaronovitch got in the pool.’ He’s got nicer breasts than me. We argue about this for hours until eventually I get into the pool in a groaning cozzie. I plan to outfox the lens by walking around the shallow end with knees bent like Groucho Marx, while looking insouciant yet sexy, like Anita Ekberg in the Trevi fountain. The very look that Aaronovitch himself has perfected. I’m in there for an age, knee bending away, until my skin wrinkles like a deflating balloon. After all this the pool pictures do not get used. Obviously.
The spa is in the village of Altaussee in the Salzkammergut region. You would gasp at the shimmering lake, the snowy mountains, the neat little streets lined with chocolate-box chalets and shops selling complicated loden capes and handsome tweed jackets. No wonder the Nazis loved it here! Joseph Goebbels spent his holidays in a villa nearby. After the collapse of the Third Reich, Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl tried to hide out right here in the middle of town. The local salt mine, which provides the salts for the clinic, was where the Nazis hid nearly 5,000 works of art. When everything went to pot, Hitler wanted them blown up but the heroic local salt-miners removed the bombs. It was they, not George Clooney and the American army as portrayed in the film The Monuments Men, who saved the priceless treasures.
You can still visit the salt mine, even if those who comment on TripAdvisor are unimpressed. ‘A nice thing to do on a rainy day,’ is the underwhelmed consensus. For these travellers, their senses dulled by Disneyland and Versailles, the glittering salt-crystal walls, the claustrophobic tunnels that once rang with jackboots and the place where Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges lay hidden for years is not enough in itself. If you want good reviews, my liebling, get Mickey Mouse in there with a Wehrmacht uniform, singing and selling hot dogs. That would be a start.
One night Mark stops to photograph something charming in a shop window and absentmindedly leaves his briefcase behind. It contains his passport, house keys, credit cards and €300. The next morning he is distraught. He cannot remember where he left it! He makes calls but cannot track it down. He goes to the clinic reception, spooling through the mayhem this will cause in his life. But a miracle awaits. A kindly local had found the case, looked inside, saw it belonged to someone at the clinic and drove down to hand it in, anonymously. Isn’t that marvellous? It reinforces my theory that you can’t go wrong in a place where people wear tweed.
Speaking of which: York. The Barbican Centre here is hosting the Lib Dem conference this weekend, but hopes are high that it will survive this freakish ordeal. The venue has a splendid café that sells home-cooked foods, including a buffet range called ‘Yapas’. What is that, I wonder? ‘Yorkshire tapas,’ says the lady on the till. Which is a pretty fancy name for a quartered pork pie. I was there to see TV chef James Martin on his cooking tour — everything is a gig these days. This mission also involved finding out why so many women adore James, born nearby in Malton. It is a cold and sleety night, but everyone is happy to chat. Make that almost everyone. An imposing woman in a moss-green cape gives me a beady look when I chirp: ‘What do you think is the secret of James Martin’s sex appeal?’ Rather embarrassingly, she turns out to be his mum. ‘Excuse me, I have to meet someone,’ she booms, sailing past with the certitude of a Yorkshire mother who, her son later informs us, tells anyone who will listen that she makes ‘proper gravy, none of that jus rubbish.’ God knows what she would make of the Yapas.