Monday, April 7, 2014

One of Europe's top-10 to visit: Salzburg

Panoramic shot of Salzburg
That's an ambitious title, I know. But after spending an absolutely delightful long weekend in the city of Mozart I think I need to spread the word about this charming place. It ranks right up there with the likes of Paris, Prague, and Budapest and should not be missed if you happen to be in central Europe.
On the Autobahn, heading from München to Salzburg
Driving east on the A8, parallel with the Alps, must be one of the most spectacular autobahn drives in Germany
How 'bout it?
Salzburg is notorious for bad weather. This part of Austria (as well as the immediate German region around Bad Reichenhall and Berchtesgaden) is called the Salzkammergut for its longtime production of salt. And, let's face it, everybody knows that it always rains in the Salzkammergut. So it was a special treat to visit Salzburg (literally, Saltcastle) in pure sunshine with spring-like temperatures. But, as they say: YMMV when you visit and it rains and the lustre is a bit less vivid.
One of old town's shopping streets
Lines were long at the local Bosna place, a Balkan-inspired sausage stand
Bosna: A grilled dual-sausage with all kinds of delectables wrapped in a bun
Long before Sabine and I had decided to change our relationship we had decided on this visit and had booked an apartment (and I had made all my flight arrangements to go to Europe). Life's too short to let amour interfere with travel. So, after arriving in Munich last week we took the Skoda on the less-than-two-hour trip on the autobahn to the very south-eastern corner of Germany. What a drive along the northern edge of the Alps! The visibility was fantastic, and I was gushing about how green everything was. Coming from Lubbock that's not too difficult, but even Sabine mentioned that it was unusually green for this time of the year. The main reason is that there's been hardly any snow to suffocate the grass, yet there's been enough moisture to green up everything. Simply put, it's gorgeous and lifts the spirit after the depressing wind and dirt in West Texas.
Mozart is everywhere!
Should have gotten some of that to take care of back pain, impotence, and rotting teeth
Nice way to end the day, eh? The fortification is on the right, in the background.
Salzburg lies in a fairly flat area, built up by two small rivers, the Saalach and the Salzach, with the latter coming straight from the mountains and having the tell-tale greenish-milky tint of a mountain stream. What is now the middle of town, immediately off the old medieval center, is an interesting rock formation that was simply screaming to be fortified by some adventurous duke. At the highest point, the fortification, Festung Hohensalzburg, reigns supreme over the city. Our apartment was the entire top floor of a house attached to this sheer rock, with the back wall being unfinished rock and the bathroom hewn into the mountain and simply finished off nicely (actually, very nicely—we had splurged thanks to a 50% off offer from AirBnB). Let me go on the record: This was the most unusual apartment I have ever stayed in!
The bathroom: built into the rock wall
Our apartment was the top six windows of the dark-brownish building
Our apartment was located mere steps away from Salzburg's old city center. We parked the car and never touched it again until we had to head back to Munich. If you go to Salzburg, get accommodations close to old town and walk everywhere. And while you're planning, consider—nah, it's a no-brainer—buying a Salzburg Card, which gives you free entry to most must-sees as well as free public transport (not that you will need it if you're close to the city center). The card costs 31 euro per person for 48 hours, and the time starts ticking when you first use it. (One caveat: Everything that is "free" with the card is free only once, so you can't take the castle tram up and down on two consecutive days. The fine print doesn't exactly explain this.)
Spring-like weather only added to the charm
Festung Hohensalzburg in its nighttime attire ...
... and in daytime glory with Old Town in front
Sights there are many. We didn't get to see everything that the card offered, but at the same time, we got the feeling that we sampled a good cross-section of attractions. On top of the list, of course, must be all the Mozart stuff. After all, the economic impact of the name "Mozart" is estimated at several billion euro a year. There is the house in which Amadé (yes, that was Amadeus' actual name) was born, and there’s the quite stately mansion where his family moved when he was still a child prodigy. But it is probably more impressive to visit the elaborate Konferenz Saal of the Residenz where the six-year-old performed for the then-ruler of the region, the Prinz Erzbischoff. Among all the gold and brocade and wooden flooring you can almost hear the boy wonder play the fiddle, as they would call it in Texas. So it was a violin, and he didn’t play the two-step, but that’s about it for differences, n’est ce pas? Of course, most young fiddle players don’t go on to compose their first opera and symphony before puberty hits in earnest.
Young Amadé played here as a 6-year-old
Just around the corner from the location of Mozart’s formative years is the Schloss Mirabelle, where I saw my first Heckentheater. I had been familiar with the term but never seen one: It’s a tiny stage, located in the gardens of a chateau, where actors enter the stage from a dozen or so small walk-ways that have been cut into the hedges (Hecke) that form the backdrop of the stage. Sabine made a dramatic entry to show how actors would seemingly appear from nowhere, to only disappear into nothingness. The grounds of the Mirabelle were at their spring-like best, and lots of couples took the opportunity to profess their wedding vows.
Sabine making her Thespian debut in the Heckentheater
Magnolias in full bloom, just outside the Mozart residence
Schloss Mirabelle may not be as grand as Versailles or Sanssousi....
... but it is intimate and quite exquisite
An old cemetery, which supposedly features the family grave of the Mozarts but which certainly is not marked or even on the tour-circuit radar, provided beautiful gems for those who speak and read German. One inscription offered as its eulogy, “ He lived only to save for his children.” Another one emphasized that such-and-such was the recipient of this-and-that plaque, with its accompanying chain! Lots of gems like that.

One of the several highlights was a guided tour of the Festspielhaus, the site of the annual plays that are a huge part of Salzburg’s international draw. As a matter of fact, the city features not only one major theater but something like four or five, or maybe even more—I couldn’t keep up with all the different names of the various venues. We got to look behind the curtain, and our thoroughly entertaining guide connected one anecdote with the next. One of the stages, a former riding school, was built into the same rock wall that our apartment shared. Initially an open-air venue, it had been furnished with a retractable roof only recently.
The 1 1/2-hour tour of the various stages of the Festspiel area was super-informative
Of course, the central visual focal point of Salzburg has to be the castle that towers over the city. It’s one of the largest such fortifications in Europe, and it was never taken under serious siege or, heaven forbid, conquered. Gees, had I been a marauding duke and had seen the place, I would have looked at the sky, started to whistle, and opined, "Oh, lets; not bother about this one—I know a really lovely place down the road that we can conquer”—and would have made a 180-degree turn. In 1800, the locals, for whatever reason, simply handed the Festung Hohensalzburg to Monsieur Napoleon, without a fight or anything in return—they probably felt magnanimous or something.
Inside Festung Hohensalzburg
Panoramic view to the south
Nothing like one of those comfy, 24-hour-a-day chastity belts!
The Festung was never seriously besieged or, worse, captured
The castle, with its first iterations going back to the 14th century, is simply formidable: Its white, impenetrable walls and its location on top of a steeply rising hillock make it appear larger than it is. It simply dominates the countryside, and any fool trying to take it would have been a big fool indeed. Nowadays it’s just hordes of tourists that conquer the place, either walking up the steep ramparts or taking the 100+ year-old little funicular that was built to supply the barracks of the Austrian army (to which the castle had degenerated) with staples. The view from the top is spectacular—toward the south and southwest stretch the high Alps with lots and lots of snow, while toward the north and west the land softens up and continues in wide vistas of fertile plains. Heaven indeed, especially with the weather we had.
Not-so-unsuspecting tourists sitting in as the archbishop's drinking buddies
Ach, to be der Herr Erzbischoff....
Our last tourist destination was Schloss Hellbrunn, where one of the early archbishops (those guys were much more secular than they are now, or at least openly so!) decided to build a little play-pen for himself and his cronies. Hellbrunn is known for its trick fountains, with which his highness entertained his guests and himself. Take for example the "Roman table," where Markus Sittikus enjoyed gathering his buddies and making them drunk. Then, when the time was ripe, he'd give the signal to turn on the out-of-the-seats jacuzzi jets, and the poor dolts would have their skivvies all wet yet weren't allowed to get up until his archbishopness decided that the fun was over. Our (Mexican!!! in Austria!!!) tour guide had just as much fun spraying us unsuspecting tourists via hidden valves and jets as his highness did a few centuries ago, and everybody giggled and laughed, just as the nobility had done way back then. Some things never change.
It is a bit naughty, isn't it?
Hellbrunn's Prunksaal
Markus Sittikus, who probably played more than he prayed during the 1612 to 1619 period of his reign as archbishop
So, that was Salzburg. Meanwhile I have been to Berlin to see my dad for a few days and then back to Freising where I have been riding the bike on daily excursions. To sum things up: Salzburg is definitely worth a visit when you're in the neighborhood, and it's worth a visit, I think, even if you're outside of the 'hood and need to detour by a few hundred miles. Don't miss this one!


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