Free-associating Salzburg, one might think of music, Mozart, Alps, von Trapps, or beer. Your immediate response would be spot-on but terribly narrow.
Arriving from Slovenia, Katie and I debarked our train to find Salzburg absolutely baking. An unseasonably warm June day made my thoughts go immediately to the end of the aforementioned list, making me glad that we were in the land of great, cold beer.
But before a beer could be acquired we had to deal with practical things like actually stepping off the train, locating directions to our hostel, locating said hostel (Yoho International Youth Hostel – booked entirely because of its name), and depositing luggage in the unairconditioned hostel room. By then desire had become necessity and we set out with a map for Old Town Salzburg.
Salzburg is the fourth largest city in Austria with a population of 146,000 people. It sits amid Alps on the Salz River and literally means “Salt Fortress.” The river is not named for its sodium content, rather, for the amount of salt that once floated down its length. Also to note, Salzburg is pronounced SALTZBOURGH, with the “tz” sound like in ‘Mozart.’
We cross one of the numerous bridges to Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its baroque architecture and numerous platz or squares. We succumb to the heat and find a place near what we will later identify as Domplatz. An Edelweiss beer revives me, and we begin a Rick Steves walking tour of Old Town that leads us through Mozartplatz, Residenzplatz, Domplatz (visit my man Igor, selling his street art), Kapitelplatz, and down Getreidegasse street.
From this preliminary stroll we pick up a few things: Salzburg is extremely proud (now) of its native son, famous composer Wolfgang Mozart. And extremely eager to capitalize on his fame. Besides from a statue and square named after the genius, a candy called Mozartkugeln or “Mozart ball” appears in every souvenir and food shop. These pistachio-paste-filled chocolate Mozart balls are everywhere. Everywhere. Sidenote: Why a ball? Why pistachio? We’ll never know. The Old Town also reveals Salzburg’s impressive use of space. The platz stack upon each other creating square after square of open space appropriate to the scale of the surrounding, impressive, baroque buildings. The white stone buildings and amount of air give a lightness and openness to this city surrounded by hills.
Getreidegasse, the main shopping street in Old Town, retains an antique feel with hanging iron caste signs outside of each shop. Even modern additions like Starbucks and Zara adhere to tradition. A stroll down the street isn’t complete without a duck into Sporer, a family owned liquor store dating from 1908. It sells schnapps and housemade liquor. Try Marillen (apricot) from the sweet barmaid.
We dine at Paul Stubn beer garden, a favorite among locals, with a surprisingly airy upper deck garden, serving surprisingly light beer garden fare. I ignore this and order the local dish kasnock’n, an Austrian gnocchi resembling backed mac ‘n cheese. Rich and delicious. To digest, a sunset stroll along the Salz and back to Yoho.
The next day I oblige my companion Katie’s one condition for visiting Salzburg: a Sound of Music bike tour. The Sound of Music film based on the life of the Salzburg family von Trapp was filmed in the city during the 1960s. Today, you can bike in and around the city with a guide to see the important historical and movie sites while singing songs from the film. This we do. And, I’m convinced, it’s one of the best things to do while visiting, SoM-lover or not.
The best part of the 3.5 hour tour is the portion surrounding Salzburg, riding along flower, grass, and tree-lined paths toward hills still alive with the sound of music, significant palaces on lakes, and picturesque gardens. The park-like surrounding is accessible only minutes from the city center. You feel the calm rush over you with the wind. The view back toward the Salz Fortress gives an entirely new context to the Old and new towns.
Singing “These are a Few of My Favorite Things,” I collect an experience to add to the list.
We arrive back at our departure point, Mirabell Palace, hot, hungry, yet elated. We lunch in Alter Market, sip a cool beer, and plot our next, hopefully air-conditioned, move. If you plan to engage in heavy sight-seeing in Salzburg, the City Card is your economic best bet. Card in hand, we proceed to Mozart’s Residence – Mozart’s place of residence for around 10 years, now turned museum. Ironically, Salzburg once didn’t love their now-favorite Salzburger quite so much, and he spent much of his life in Vienna. Later in life, needing money, Mozart returned to Salzburg to take a job playing the organ at the cathedral.
From here we amble back across the river to board a river cruise. The special glass domed river boat is water-powered and actually hovers on the surface of the river, since the water is surprisingly and dangerously shallow in some places. The incredibly strong current of the river fights against the boat as we go upstream and then pushes us back as we float backward to dock. Before docking though, the captain tells us to prepare to “waltz” and cranks the wheel to the right before letting go, letting the current spin our ferry in circles to Falco’s rock ballad Amadeus, sung in German. It’s silly.
We take the lift up to the Modern Art Museum, which provides a fantastic view of the fortress and city, rest inside of a James Turrell skyscape installation, look at some exhibits, and descend.
We have dinner al fresco on the newer side of Salzburg, and then stroll to Mirabell gardens. During the summer the gardens host free outdoor classical concerts on Wednesdays. When in Mozart’s city, one must take in some music. So, timed to the most beautiful pink sunset, the music fills our heads as we sit on a green bench between green trees.
The next day we have pastries with Mozart, or rather his bronzed form, in Mozartplatz and load onto the Funicular to finally lay siege to the impressive fortress that has been watching us for the preceding few days. The Hohensalzburg Fortress dates to 1077 and is the largest, fully-preserved fortress in central Europe. Ironically, it has never been attacked, giving it the impressive title of never-conquered; however, it did once surrender itself to Napoleon.
Strangely, the fortress, now partially a museum of Austrian history, never mentions World War II. History major Katie could not comprehend this.
Descending from the fortress, we then visit Salzburg Panorama and the Royal Residence. They are both worth visits. The panorama for its better-than-iPhone-quality panoramic painting that dates to 1829. The residence for its most likely better-than-your-residence décor.
With nigh exhausted City Cards, we head to Augstiner Brewery for lunch and pints in ceramic steins in a huge, huge beer garden. Responsible traveling should be equal parts sights and hydration.
Just as with this final garden, Salzburg exists with an impeccable sense of scale, context, and backdrop. Within this space one can move with more grace. The baby angels on the façade of the Dom hold a halo that, if viewed from a certain point, crowns the statue of Mary on the fountain in the square below. The river current spins its barge in slow perfect circles. Maria and Von Trapps twirled on the lawn in the shadows of the Alps. The Salzburg Bull, the organ in the fortress, once played a tune each morning composed by Mozart to wake up the citizens of the town below.
Can you imagine? Salzburg is a place to wake up waltzing.