Monday, October 20, 2008

Salzburg - The True Eternal City

Nestled on the northern frontier of the Alps, Salzburg is one of the places I could visit a hundred times and still look forward to another trip. Formerly a Roman city called Juvavum, Salzburg is today one of the most visited cities in Europe, and with good reason.

Some of the places I have been are only worth mentioning because I had a good time or something funny happened to me in them. My mind is definitely full of fond memories of Salzburg, but they barely contribute to the allure the city has for me.

My first impression of Salzburg was that the fortress dominating its highest point was imposing. Originally built in the late 11th century, it is so impressive that no one ever dared attack its walls. It took a moment for my focus to move to something else, but when it did, I was amazed at how quaint the old town was.

Having just come from Vienna, which has its charm but shows signs of later centuries' ill-guided architecture, Salzburg's Baroque architecture was a sight right out of a fairy tale.

I could have spent several hours soaking up the sunlight and ambling through small streets time has forgotten, but, unfortunately, time never seems to forget me and always moves too fast.

The first order of business was checking into the Hotel Weiss Taube, located right in the center of town. Two peculiarities detracted from the timeless ambiance in front of the cathedral – the massive screen showing World Cup Soccer with its accompanying grandstands, and the helicopter, which sat upside-down on its rotors as part of an art exhibit aiming to demonstrate life's dramatic highs and lows.

Being on one of life's highs, I didn't take any time to ponder the art. With my family, I set about exploring the old city.

Wandering through the streets, we made frequent stops at shops – both artisanal and mainstream. My mom and sister enjoyed the Swarovski crystal shops, filled with hundreds of pieces of fine crystal jewelry and figurines.

After sweating under the halogen lights the crystal merchants use to showcase their wares, I decided it was time to trek across one of the bridges and up a cobbled pathway. I simply can't resist a cobbled pathway weaving through walls of foliage to a mysterious destination, and this one was no exception.

As it turned out, the destination wasn't very exciting, but it is usually more about the journey anyway, and that held true this time. The pathway I'd inadvertently stumbled upon had some of the best views of the city I have seen, showing the Baroque buildings, the Salzach river and the snow-capped mountains in the background, separated by improbably flat green plains.

Back in the Old Town, it was time to pay homage to one of Salzburg's greats. OK, probably Salzburg's greatest – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

I'm not a purveyor of classical music, and I doubt I could even pick out one of his compositions if I heard it, but I appreciate the fact that the man was a genius – and so do the Salzburgers.

Men and women dressed in period clothing roam the streets and tourist destinations, handing out advertisements for concerts. I, however, was interested in something more tangible, and that came in the form of his house.

Largely preserved to showcase the way the young musician lived, his house is not only a window into his past, but a glimpse of Austria's rich history as well. Original and reproduction furniture graced the old floorboards, and informative audio guides explained everything, accompanied by samples of his music.

After eating an unremarkable lunch in the entrance to the Mirabell Gardens, we walked around the immaculate grounds. They are similar to the palace gardens throughout Western Europe, but they have some cinematic history as well.

The statue of Pegasus was a featured in the film, The Sound of Music, as were many of Salzburg's famous sights. On a raised terrace, several statues of dwarves brought back images of the fairy tales I read as a child.

As darkness fell, Salzburg's lights took over. We joined several hundred others in watching a World Cup game, but it lacked the excitement of being in Munich when the Germans won. Nevertheless, it was fun, and I often find myself wishing Americans got into soccer like the Europeans do.

The next day was a fast-paced tour of the fortress followed by the Sound of Music tour. I wasn't for taking the tour, but got outvoted, and was surprised at the depth to which the guide went, and the fantastic sights I would have missed had we opted to skip it. After all, the tour included luge racing and sampling some apple strudel.

Upon returning from the tour, our next stop was the city's famous shopping street, the Getreidgasse. A narrow medieval alleyway maybe wide enough for two cars, the winding street is adorned with fancy iron signs – reminders of a time when the populace was illiterate and a shop's specialty was advertised by pictures formed in metal. Even the McDonald's followed tradition, with the golden arches in a unique frame.

Sadly, we were back so late that the shops were closing, and we missed out on some of the traditional Austrian souvenirs and collectibles. Oddly enough, it is the street that Mozart's house is on, and we'd missed the main drag during our visit there.

Leaving Salzburg was not what I wanted to do, but the blow was softened by the fact that our next destination was Paris, which happens to be my favorite city in the world. I know I will return to Salzburg, and the first thing on my list is to hike the Salzkammergut, a trail that wends its way through some of the astonishing beauty the Austrians live in every day.

Some of the cities I have been to (like New Delhi and Brussels) hold nothing special for me. They were notches in my belt, so to speak, and I don't feel particularly compelled to return. Salzburg, on the other hand, is one of those rare destinations that just feels...right. The people are extremely friendly, it seems to lack some of the tourist traps dotting other cities like black holes and left me with the impression that I could live there. Surrounded by history and beauty, both natural and architectural, Salzburg remains a place not quite like anything I've ever seen before or since. It's so charming that it almost hurts – in a good way.

1 comment:

a smiley face said...

I've seen much of this beautiful country but alas, never made it to Salzburg. After reading this post it makes me want to make the trip.
Comforting to know I'm not the only one who loves cobblestone pathways :)