Imagine ‘Salzburg, Austria, in the last golden days of the thirties’ we are told in the open scenes of The Sound of Music, just after the bit where Julie Andrews is warbling and frolicking in the mountains. To me Salzburg looked a lot like a place which had started life in a fairytale and somehow hatched into a real town. An improbably picturesque town nestled in the Alps, birthplace to Mozart and home to some wedding cake worthy iced baroque and renaissance buildings, Salzburg was a sweet little stop on my journey.
On my first short walk (Salzburg is quite small) around town I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Every single street I wandered down, square I turned into, alleyway I cut through was the most charming, attractive, fairytale-esq thing I’d ever seen. If there was a place I could stand in the historic centre and not take a beautiful photograph, then I didn’t find it – everything here was gorgeous. I think something that might prove my point best would be this photograph of a Mc Donald’s sign:
This photograph was taken on the historic shopping street Getreidegasse where each shop was obviously under strict orders to comply with rules about appearance to keep it looking like a dream. On a whim I sent this photograph to my friend who promptly informed me that Salzburg has a high suicide rate; it’s so beautiful in comparison to the mundane drudgery of everyday life that it makes people want to kill themselves, apparently*.
While I was wandering around it occurred to me that historic Salzburg can’t look that different to how it did in the 1930s, from the horse drawn carriages and the ornate signs to the well heeled bourgeois tourists planning to go to evening Mozart concerts, Salzburg is a perfectly preserved pearl. If you want to maintain the illusion make sure you don’t go anywhere near the train station a.k.a the ‘real’ part of town which I arrived into. I kind of already knew this anyway, but my rail travels in Europe have confirmed the fact, that train stations are almost always in seedy parts of town (and this is an absolute guarantee if you are arriving after dark, alone, or in a place you have never been to before). Salzburg was no exception with it’s ugly modern blocks of flats and train station drunks, but that’s ok, because these things are what make a place real – not just some sickly sweet illusion of a town.
I was only compelled to photograph the good stuff on this occasion though, so here we go:
I have to give a shout out to my hostel here for playing The Sound of Music every single night at 7pm, every single time to a rapt audience in a packed room. I don’t know if there was something rewarding about spotting the sights we had been rambling around during the day on a big screen, or if it was the tunes, the universality of the (historically inaccurate) story amongst an international crowd . . . but it was thoroughly enjoyed by all present, and not in the least an amusing prelude to schnapps in bar.
*I’ve just done a little googling on this subject out of curiosity and I came up with this excerpt from ‘The Voice Imitator’ by Thomas Bernhard which suggests that, ‘As is well known, Salzburg has the highest suicide rate among schoolchildren in the world. The more highly thought-of the beauty of a city is . . . the higher the suicide rate, and not, as previously assumed, the reverse.’ Beauty comes from within, it seems.
Getting to Vienna was a rather calamitous affair, both emotionally and physically – so it’s hardly surprising that I was in search of a glass of wine when I arrived. I do like the vino, and I was fairly surprised to find the good stuff in Austria of all places; Vienna not ranking on my list of wine producing hotspots. Ah, but how wrong I was.
Part I – Rail travel is not romantic
Still second guessing my decision to leave Berlin, it was with a heavy heart that I boarded a twelve hour overnight train from the monumentally labyrinthine Hauptbahnhof. Having established that I was not accidentally on a train to St.Petersburg or Paris I began to consider my surroundings. Now, I had never been on an overnight train before, so my expectations were fairly limited. I’m just going to say that whatever Orient Express romantic notions of long haul rail travel I had when I booked the train ticket, I’ve certainly lost them all now. The compartment was small, dated, cramped and on leaving Berlin housed only me and my modest amount of luggage (despite being alone there still didn’t quite seem to be adequate room for my case either under the seats or in a luggage rack outside – as there didn’t seem to be one). At the next stop a few more people got on, then a few more, then it was time to make up the beds.
By ‘beds’ I mean triple bunks made from folding the seats, which are then made up with sheets with holes repaired by iron on patches and supplemented with thick, scratchy brown blankets. It was fairly early and I wasn’t ready to sleep yet, but I was pretty hungry. Having heard mythical things about train dining cars I went off to check it out. But. Oh no. The train didn’t have a dining car, which was bad news for me because I had no picnic (unlike my experienced train traveller compartment companions) and I was starving, in the sort of way that was definitely going to disturb what already promised to be a bad nights sleep. ‘Luckily’ it did have a small shop tended by a creepy man which sold crisps and beer with prices listed in three currencies. I sipped my beer in the corridor while walking past the first class bunks – which looked a lot more like what I had been expecting, and also a lot more like something that belonged to the 21st century, and made my way back to refugee class. I climbed over the by now ridiculous amount of luggage in the compartment and crawled into my coffin sized bunk. After fits and starts and being woken up by newcomers in Prague and the air conditioning freezing my toes off I finally arrived in Vienna in the dark at 6am, cold, tired and hungry.
Part II – Prater and the Palaces
I arrived at the Prater amusement park in Vienna’s Leopolstadt on a glorious autumn morning. First stop was a meander into ‘Wiesn-fest’, the Prater’s own mini version of Oktoberfest. I had made a conscious decision not to head to Oktoberfest in Munich but I was delighted with this charming scaled down version, even if it was a bit sleepy so early in the morning.
Following that I made my way immediately to the ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ – the Prater’s famous ferris wheel, which I know best from the film ‘Before Sunrise’ although it is also featured in the 1949 film noir ‘The Third Man’ (which I later saw in a tiny cinema next to the Hofburg).
Next on the list was Vienna’s myriad collection of palaces.
The Belvedere is now a gallery which contains works by Austrian artists most notably including Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The main draw here for tourists – apart from the beautiful house and grounds- is the blockbuster painting ‘The Kiss’ by Klimt, in front of which you will find a predictable crowd of zombies taking photos with their ipads before moving on to the next room without taking a proper look at the painting.
Former summer residence of the Hapsburg family, Wikipedia informs me that in 2010 the Schönbrunn saw over two and a half million visitors in that year alone. And I can say that I don’t doubt that one bit, because I was absolutely staggered by the amount of people there in what I considered to be an out of season time. But, well, these guys are onto something because the palace and grounds are astonishingly beautiful, a stunning example of Baroque design. In a guilty comparison to Versailles (I end up comparing all palaces and grand houses I see to Versailles) I’m still struggling to work out which palace I like best, but I think Schönbrunn is definitely one I would like to revisit.
Trivia tidbit: A six year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played here for the Empress Maria Theresa in 1772 in the ‘hall of mirrors’, which is open to the public.
This wasn’t my first brush with a Hofburg, I visited the Hofburg Imeperial Court in Innsbruck last year, which you can read about here. I have to say that although this view of the Hofburg from Michaelerplatz is looking fairly flash, the view from the other side (which I encountered first) is looking decidedly more shabby. I found the Hofburg to be fairly confusing as it is more a complex of separate entities such as the national library, the Sisi museum and the Spanish riding school rather than a single unit. One thing for certain is that the Hofburg is vast, so you might need a spare week or so to start wading through the untold Hapsburg treasures within if you want to do them justice (and I mean this literally as the Imperial treasury is located here).
Part III – So tell me about the wine already!
Grinzing is a picturesque little town north west of Vienna, that would be worth a visit for its photogenic qualities alone before you even get to its ‘Heurigen’ or wine taverns. Just a short stumble from the vineyards which are attached to each individual Heurigen, this is a perfect late afternoon or evening drinking spot (a little research suggests that music is to be found here too, but I was there a bit early in the day for that). While enjoying a delicious glass Blauer Zweigelt I decided that this was the optimum time to sample the famous Wiener schnitzel; a thin slice of breaded veal – Austria’s national dish. The verdict is still out on the schnitzel as one has a tendency to steer away from breaded and deep fried food stuffs, but it was a perfect meal for the moment and I left Grinzing happy and content (if slightly drunk after several more glasses of wine).
Part IV – A hangover and a conclusion
Vienna was a sunburst of activity where I packed my days to the brim, and after 5 nights there I knew that I could easily have filled another week if the road was not beckoning me onwards. There are a multitude of other things I did that haven’t been mentioned here including Sacher Torte, a trip to the Wachau Valley, €3 standing tickets to the opera etc. etc. Vienna is a town that suits me apparently, and certainly one that I recommend.
Nestled in a valley in the Alps, a mere 30km from the Brenner Pass, Innsbruck is a magical Christmas-time destination. I arrived there by train from St. Anton, a train journey that is worth taking for its own sake. The scenery here is breathtaking of course – this is the Alps – so it was a pleasure to take a train that followed a winding path through the mountains. It was snowing heavily when I left St. Anton and the landscape that unfolded from the train tracks was harsh and desolate, but utterly beautiful in the fading daylight.
I don’t know what sort of landscape you grew up in, but this was all completely alien to me and it felt like I had stepped into a different world. Everything was completely white, the mountains, the snow covered trees and even the heavily leaden sky. Everything, that was, apart from the river, which was the most fantastic melt water turquoise. The colour of the water, which was the same in Innsbruck, was absolutely fascinating. For some reason I always expected that alpine water would be crystal clear, so the turquoise took me by surprise. No doubt the river is absolutely lethal if you fall into it this time of year, much better to watch it through my own reflection from the cosy train compartment.
My trip to Innsbruck was impromptu to say the least, but as far as touristy delights are concerned I really landed on my feet. The Christmas markets were in full swing and occupied a large part of the ‘Altstadt’ (Old Town). The Christmas markets kept me well fed and topped up with Gluhwein, but also provided a fair bit of entertainment in the form of the Krampus.
Don’t know what Krampus are? Neither did I, and I have to say it was a pretty terrifying introduction. The Krampus are devilish creatures from alpine folklore; the legendary helpers of St. Nicholas. They appear around the 5th of December (the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas) and roam the streets terrifying children and unsuspecting tourists, beating bad spirits out of people with sticks. Krampus are hairy, devil like creatures with bells around their waists so you hear them causing havoc before you see them. They wear horned masks contorted into terrifying expressions, and these days might also be adorned with glowing red eyes. Costumes are passed down from generation to generation, and in rural places are stored in barns during the rest of the year, so they can smell pretty bad. Children are warned that if they do not behave then they will be kidnapped by Krampus and carried off into the mountains. If I was a child I would be absolutely terrified of these things, this really is scary old world fairytale come to life in true Brother’s Grimm style.
I also visited the Hofburg Imperial Court (not to be confused with the Hofburg Palace in Vienna). My knowledge of the Hapsburgs is fairly hazy and this was an enlightening visit. The court in Innsbruck really screams of only one royal: Marie Therese, Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and only female Hapsburg ruler. But you’ll probably know her best as the domineering mother of Marie Antoinette, keen on moving her children around like political pawns. Marie Therese is a fascinating character for the amount of power and influence she held, pulling the strings on Europe for a certain amount of time and trying her hardest to keep the whole show running. The imperial court in Innsbruck is her private retreat; a chapel designed to commemorate her husband, Francis I, a room filled with the portraits of her children (the Giant Hall), the next generation of rulers.
Hapsburg history seems to be a little bit stuffy and unfashionable and I struggled finding anything in Waterstones to further my quest for knowledge when I got home. However, I have managed to dredge up a weighty tome on Marie Therese from somewhere which will do for now.
Hopefully I’ll get to visit Austria again in the new year (maybe Vienna?) and practice my German on some unfortunate locals. It wasn’t a planned trip but I still had a pretty great time, and I really enjoyed exploring alone. Independent travel is a recently discovered pleasure of mine and gives me the chance to discover a place on my own terms without the experience being mediated by someone else. So, go forth and make your own adventures!