Not one of Salzburg's favourite things
22.10.2013 - 27.10.2013 16 °C
Having read about a cat café in Vienna several months ago, and then uncovered a train ticket that would get me from London to Salzburg for £100 return, it was inevitable that this year's holiday was going to be to Austria. The country might not traditionally have been able to rely on the combination of food and felines to attract visitors, but in my case that was enough - the landscapes, architecture, and music would all be gravy. It would also give me the opportunity to resurrect my command of the German language which when last heard in 1987 was gaining me an O-Level. Would a quarter-century of non-use have left me merely rusty or completely unable to utter a coherent sentence?
Salzburg is in something of an Indian summer when I arrive, with the temperature a good ten degrees higher than normal for this time of year. This is not a state of affairs that pleases me, as I am very much a cold-weather person, but it's not something within my power to change. Fortunately I am a very slow sightseer at the best of times so I'm never reduced to a sweaty mess. Unfortunately I need to leave my room window open in order to keep the temperature at a decent level, which admits one or more mosquitos that enjoy snacking on English flesh at night. I must say that insect bites weren't an annoyance I was expecting in an alpine country at the tail-end of October.
The city is set in appealing surroundings on the banks of the river Salzach. Though the Alps proper start a dozen miles or so to the south, there are several small mountains within the city itself, providing viewpoints across Salzburg and the countryside nearby. On one of these mountains sits Festung Hohensalzburg, the hulking fortress which has been watching over the city for the best part of a thousand years. Autumn foliage covers the trees, providing a colourful background in the crisp, sunny air.
Though the fourth largest city in Austria, Salzburg is by no means a bustling metropolis, with barely 150,000 people calling it home. The old town is a magnet for both tourists and locals, a profusion of closely packed buildings with period charm. Its most famous street, Getreidegasse, is lined with shops whose wrought-iron signs contain objects indicating the type of merchandise being sold within - umbrellas, hats, traditional clothing. Even the McDonald's sign is of a piece with the rest of Getreidegasse, apparently after protests by locals at the usual golden arches. There's no shortage of churches, their steeples spiking up from the narrow streets below. The cathedral (or Dom), built in the early 17th Century, was designed to accommodate 10,000 people, which was more than the city's population at the time, but it's the funky ceiling in the smaller Franciscan church that most impresses me.
The Austrian Tourist Board claims that, for 70% of overseas visitors, "The Sound of Music" is their primary reason for coming to Salzburg. Though I could probably take a stab at singing most of the songs from the film (due to learning them for piano lessons in my youth), tracks like "Do-Re-Mi" and "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" are perfect examples of why musicals in general set my teeth on edge, and having seen the film once about 30 years ago I have no wish to ever see it again. Thus it is strange to me that the film has attracted such devotion from fans around the world and, prior to arrival, I am half-fearing that the city will be awash with Julie Andrews lookalikes trilling about the hills being alive.
But Salzburg does not seem to be exactly busting a gut to promote its connection with "The Sound of Music". Apart from a few posters advertising tours that visit locations seen in the film, I see - and hear - little else suggesting a link with the city. Not even the busking guitarist outside the Dom delves into the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, and he must surely be aiming for tourist custom. It's almost as though Salzburg wants to distance itself from the one thing that purportedly attracts the majority of its foreign visitors.
On the other hand, it could just be that the city would rather concentrate on its connection with one of music's giants (no offence to Rodgers and Hammerstein). As the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg has not stinted on ways of keeping his name alive, over 200 years after his death. A statue of Mozart stands in Mozartplatz, there is a university called the Mozarteum, and the famous nougat/pistachio marzipan/chocolate concoctions known as Mozartkugeln are named after him. A Mozart Week is held every year around his birthday in January, featuring soloists and orchestras from around the world, and there is usually a good dollop of Mozart in the annual Salzburg Festival which runs for five weeks in the summer - the original festival hall has now been renamed the House for Mozart. Festivals aside, Mozart concerts can be attended most weeks - if not days - of the year at various venues around the city. A museum has been created in the house where Mozart was born, and a separate house where he lived later in life contains an exhibit about the man and his family. There's even a Mozart Cycle Path that takes in a loop beginning and ending in Salzburg, though I would imagine that more people arrive in the city at the airport that bears his name. And if none of that appeals, then how about a souvenir rubber duck wearing a Mozart wig?
Interestingly, it appears that Mozart himself was not that fond of Salzburg, disliking his employer, his wages, and the conservative attitude of its citizens - he much preferred Vienna. But while Salzburg's embrace of Mozart long after his death may have been with half an eye to commercialism, it is certainly not the only surprising aspect of his life - anyone reading the letters that he sent to members of his family may raise an eyebrow or two that the man often called a musical genius could have such a scatological obsession.
I'm not particularly interested in classical music so my own wanderings around the city are dictated little by Mozart's legacy, and instead it's the architecture that I focus on. It's a steep walk up to Festung Hohensalzburg but the views from the top in all directions are panoramic, even if the fortress interior doesn't require much time. One the way down, I pass a tour group on Segways. At the bottom of the same hill is St Peter's Cemetery, a small graveyard filled with well maintained plots that are available only on rental - if your descendants stop paying, then you'll be disinterred and dumped elsewhere. St Stefan's Cemetery on the other side of the river contains some grand tombs, though the graves of Mozart's father and wife are quite plain by comparison. I pass through Mirabell Gardens, containing the fountain at which "Do-Re-Mi" was sung in "The Sound of Music". The gardens consist of neatly manicured lawns and flower beds, with walkways dotted with statues, but at this time of year little is in bloom.
But most of my time is spent simply walking randomly around the city, observing and enjoying its compactness. Such idle pottering finds an ideal companion in Austrian café society, where sitting around for hours reading the paper is deemed perfectly acceptable. Salzburg has a selection of cafés all serving a variety of different coffees and confectioneries, and over the course of my stay I take the opportunity to sample a few slices of the famous Sachertorte whilst people-watching in Café Tomaselli. There's never any pressure from the waiters to drink up and go, regardless of how busy the place may be.
The act of simply walking around has a couple of unexpected quirks. There are cycle paths all over the city, some shared with pedestrians, and I have to condition myself to not make abrupt changes of direction whilst walking, for fear of getting a speeding front wheel somewhere painful. It also appears that jaywalking is either illegal or unpopular or both, as I encounter numerous situations where the red man is showing on the lights, there is no traffic within hundreds of metres, and yet no-one will cross.
There are Americans here in unexpectedly large quantities. I had thought it was an anomaly that there were two American school groups on my train from Frankfurt, however Salzburg itself contains many Americans, both tourist and resident. Of course it's possible that they stand out simply because they are speaking a language I understand, but even taking that into account there seem to be more of them than I would have predicted - and certainly there are more Americans than English people. On the language front, though I do bust out the occasional sentence in German (and then fail to understand the reply, unless it's a yes or no answer), in general my interactions take place in English, and I meet no-one whose English is worse than my German.
There are several other places from which to gain an aerial view of the city, apart from the fortress. On the way to Winkler Terrace, I pass the Felsenreitschule, a theatre carved out of the hillside in the place where the stone for the cathedral was originally quarried. It's not too stiff a climb to the terrace, which is clearly a popular spot for enjoying the cityscape presented by the old town to the east. Kapuzinerberg on the north side of the river offers a different aspect - I go there for sunset, though the atmosphere is not entirely peaceful due to the chanting that can be heard from below, football fans beering up in advance of a Red Bull Salzburg Europa League game.
My one excursion outside of the city is to Hallstatt, a small lakeside town that is the pride of the Salzkammergut region. It's a bus/train/ferry journey to get there, during which we pass picturesque alpine buildings set amongst lakes and mountains, as well as rivers flowing with beautifully clear water.
Hallstatt sits on a strip of land between the Hallstatter See and the Dachstein mountains. The hillsides surrounding the lake are covered in forests showing their autumn colours, and a steady sun streams out of the thinly clouded sky. The natural beauty of the setting combines with the quaintness of the wood-framed alpine houses to produce a chocolate-box scene. It doesn't take long to traverse the town, but there's plenty to enjoy on its streets, with a couple of striking churches and numerous appealing details - window-boxes packed with flowers, pikes' heads mounted on a wall, a mosaic of the town's coat of arms, cats of varying levels of friendliness.
Hallstatt's population is roughly a thousand people and it appears that most of its businesses are tourism-related. It's currently off-season and many of these businesses are closed, but there are still tourists aplenty. The vast majority are Chinese, visiting in tour groups consisting of dozens of people. I hate tour groups, wherever they're from, as they have a tendency to clog a place up, lacking the nimbleness and flexibility of people travelling in ones and twos. Such is the situation here. However it's more amusing than inconvenient that the only food-serving establishment in the town that attracts any attention from these tour groups is the small kebab stall near the ferry dock, at which there's a queue every time I walk by. The stall's owners no doubt can't believe their luck.
It's possible to take a funicular to the top of the mountain above the town, where I'm sure the views must be tremendous. There's also the entrance to a salt mine up there - this industry has been present in the region for thousands of years and is the reason for the "Salz" (German for salt) in the names of both Salzkammergut and Salzburg itself. Though I decide not to take the funicular, I content myself with walking up to the highest road in the town, from where I can look down onto the roofs and streets below.
After Salzburg, I spend a week in Vienna (blogged separately) before returning for a night. I stay in a hotel close to the station, convenient for an early train the next day, the first leg of my trip back to London. Though my hotel is the nicest that I've stayed in in Austria, both inside and out, it's in a neighbourhood that could hardly be more different from the parts of Salzburg that I've seen until now - there are a number of betting shops and a couple of sex shops nearby, and even more bizarrely it seems to be a ghetto for non-Europeans. Over in the old town, preparations are under way for the Christmas markets and a skating rink is being constructed in Mozartplatz. The winter season will soon begin.
One other thing about the hotel for my final night in Austria is that my bathroom contains an Austrian loo. I had read a great deal about these toilets in advance of the trip and had been hoping/dreading that I'd encounter one along the way. The defining feature of an Austrian loo is the shallow shelf that occupies the majority of the bowl, supposedly to allow easy inspection of one's doings - perhaps a habit worth getting into in a country where the cuisine is heavily based on meat, and hence has the possibility of ingesting parasites. I can't say I would particularly want to use one of these all the time (it's not too difficult to think of the reasons why).
This last night in Salzburg brings to a close my two weeks in Austria, my first visit to the country and in fact my first visit to any German-speaking nation (I'm not counting Namibia). It's been a similar experience in some ways to my other European trips - lots to see, the excitement of somewhere new, and an ease of travel not much different to my own country. But like those other European trips, it has also lacked the sense of adventure that accompanies roaming around somewhere like China, where there's an element of mystery to ostensibly mundane activities such as a bus journey or ordering food in a restaurant. It's been four years since I was last outside of Europe, and though the urge to return to Asia is not yet a full-blown ache, it's definitely giving me the occasional pang.
[I have some logistical information about visiting Salzburg (and Vienna) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]