Today I explored Salzburg, an ancient city that straddles the Salzach River and over- shadowed by tall cliffs. I woke early due to the light and street construction noise that burst into my room at 7 AM. Apparently the Salzburg city workers do not warn locals where they will be beginning their street work. I walked over to the old part of the city just as it was waking up. I enjoyed seeing the day’s activities just starting before the onslaught of tourists.
I decided not to wait for the funicular and instead walk up the 200-plus steps to the massive medieval fortress Hohensalzburg which as the name suggests looms over the city. A good morning workout. I had most of the place to myself as I enjoyed the amazing views of the city and on the other side, a spectacular view of the ranks of mountains to the south.
The fortress was a sprawling place with many buildings that house museums, restaurants and even a chamber concert hall. Classes of kids arrived behind me, most looking flushed from the stairmaster walk up.
The city below is filled with the spires of countless Catholic churches, garnering the name of Rome of the North. As the name Salzburg connotes, the town’s wealth and power came from salt which at one time was worth nearly as much as gold. Salt seems to pervade every aspect of life here, even the food–which though good– is very salty.
I enjoy the view and then head back down to the Mozartplatz where I have arranged to take a city tour. Soon after, a van picks me up and starts driving around the crowded streets. I join a Canadian family from the Toronto area and soon we are chatting away. Three generations of their family are taking a Euro tour which includes a visit to John’s –the patriarch – home town located in a once German-speaking part of Hungary. Once on our way, we find Salzburg filled with construction and essentially gridlocked. The driver is charming and patient, but it’s obvious that even he’s finding it impossible. While we wait in traffic, we learn about the Bishops who ruled the city for a millennium, building and indulging themselves. One palace we pass in town was built for the Bishop’s mistress who bore him 15 children. The Catholic church really looked the other way in those days. Like so many cities, Salzburg suffers from lack of land, being set between the river and the surrounding cliffs. One block of apartments were literally built into the soft local cliffs. Finally after being caught in the traffic we escape out through the city’s famous tunnel –one of the oldest street tunnels built in 18th century – that took us out into the country. Once there, we crossed a canal that was built centuries earlier to bring fresh water to the city. Also like so many other cities, it was established in a very unhealthy swampy place which had to be addressed later on.
We approach the beautiful Hellbrunn Schloss, a descriptive name (‘clear spring’) once again. This 18th-century summer palace was constructed by the jokester Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus von Hohenems . The summer residence is just a day house – meaning no bedrooms, but lots of salons and halls where the aristocrats could amuse themselves. Outside is a collection of grottoes and fountains called the Wasserspiele , so popular with the aristocracy, all established by the Renaissance Italians with a nod to the ancient Romans. I take the water fountain tour whereby the guide shows us all the Bishop’s tricks he used to play on his guests.
The children in the tour group are besides themselves with excitement and scream with delight as they get wet. Sprays of water appear from everywhere, from statues, deer antlers, sidewalks and even under benches. Thankfully the day is warm and the misting feels nice. The children in their enthusiasm get thoroughly soaked.
Afterwards, I enjoy a lunch with the Canadian family where we discuss the grandfather’s visit to his home village in Hungary. John, the patriarch, walks like a rancher, his hardened body revealing the years of hard work he did as gardener working in Canada where he emigrated. He discovered his village was essentially destroyed. Only the church remained where he met the mayor who was trying to rebuild it. Like so many German speakers, John and his family was evicted after the war and subsequent Communist takeover. Those who remained were allowed to buy their land back – if they had the money to pay the inflated price. He spoke sadly about the vineyard his father carved himself meter by meter in Hungary, only to have it neglected and destroyed after they left. Even two generations after the war, the scars remain.
We decide to return to Salzburg by bus and then track down the Mozart museums. Other than salt, this is the town’s greatest export. Mozart is everywhere and there are a number of museums dedicated to him. We tour two and find the first – the Wohnhaus – to have interesting items like the family’s jewelry, music, paintings and instruments, but the displays are very disjointed and provide no real narrative.
The second, the house he was born in, is better. It features more stories, including some interesting information about his wife and sister. Both seem to have been active individuals who actually helped disseminate Mozart’s music after his death. I particularly liked Mozart’s sister, Nannerl’s portrait which seemed to show spunky she was. The other main impressions I gather was that the composer had a hard life of constant touring, performances and fickle aristocratic employers. His success came only later with hard work, which by his frenetic letters, he had the energy to do. No wonder he died so young.
Finally everyone is worn out, the grandmother having bought a cane to help her sore knee. We indulge in an iced drink and then I say my goodbyes. I’ve really enjoyed all the people I’ve met along the way. I head off to eat at a local pub which epitomizes the typical Gemütlichkeit spirit of Austrians. The place is set in a cellar constructed with large heavy-hewn wooden beams. The woodwork is beautiful which makes me wonder where they source new wood. I order a Weinersnitzel which thankfully is not too salty, and a house red wine, then settle in to watch yet another World Cup game. The Germans are doing well, but they are worried about the upcoming match with the strong French team. It’s all about sudden death now in the matches, and everyone is emotional. Strange to see grown men weeping and praying openly on TV. Then it’s back to my hotel room where I drop into bed exhausted.