You Salz-y Burg, You

Cast your minds back, dear readers, to the heady days of yore, to the Gregorian year of two thousand and eighteen. From what I can recall, the sun was shining, birdsong was sweeter, and we could leave the house without mask wads. Ah, those were the days, were they not?

During 2 years of lockdowns, working from home, and all the associated tomfoolery, I’d assumed I’d find time to catch up on various projects and plans. You know the ones: plans that you swear you’ll tackle if only you’d have the time. Suffice to say, that did not happen. 

Here I am, 2 years later, looking at the potential tapering end of a pandemic with barely a blog post in sight. What better time to start catching up?!

Back when I’d first begun to see the world, a friend suggested that I keep a journal. At the time I thought it was a decent idea, but I also thought that I’d surely never forget details and anecdotes from travels abroad. As such, I lightly set her recommendation aside. However, she pressed the idea.

She’d spent several years travelling the world after school. In that time, she’d back-packed, hitch-hiked, and worked odd jobs on several continents. She’d had experiences good and bad, met tons of folks, and even wound up being an au-pere with several families. She found that keeping a journal was invaluable. Even several months later, while reminiscing with friends at the time, she’d be amazed at the number of details that one or the other of them had forgotten. So she started writing things down. 

On a personal level, she found it fun to be able to go back and relive some of those times through her past words. She also found that the journals made great travelogues. From time to time, when friends would visit, they would wind up taking a book off the shelf and skimming through one of her past vacations. 

For me, this sounded much more interesting than the usual methods of either burying old photos, or boring friends with post-travel slide shows. Who hasn’t had to sit through one of those, desperately anticipating an end and sweet, sweet freedom? I love the idea of putting together a well-curated travel memento. So, the idea finally stuck and I took her advice … hence this blog. 

While I love the idea of other folks stumbling across our travelogues and getting some enjoyment out of them, they mainly serve as personal records of travel and life events. If you happen to be one of those aforementioned strangers who is enjoying what I post, I appreciate your time and hope you come back again.

Without further ado, what follows is a pre-pandemic travelogue of an adventure to Salzburg.

What can I say about Salzburg? 

Austria was one of the first truly foreign places I’d visited after moving overseas. 

Moving to England came with its own culture shocks and surprises. However, England and Canada don’t stray too far from each other. People spout different gibberish and we have different childhood references, but we’re really not so different. While Our Lady Peace dominated airwaves in Canada through the 90s, their fame didn’t manage to drift across the Atlantic. Likewise, Barenaked Ladies were simply something that you’d spot on secluded beaches in Devon, before an asinine TV show introduced the world to Canada’s pop darlings.

In my first year away from Canada, the first trip I made to a country outside of my comfort zone was to Austria. Vienna, to be specific. And I loved it!

Austria had everything I’d been hoping to find in foreign parts. The locals were friendly. The streets were decidedly different from what I was used to. History lurked around every corner. There were mountains (ok, not IN Vienna, but I had a solid glimpse of the Alps on my way in) and trams, imperial buildings and European charm. Many of the locals did speak English, but often only after hearing my clearly non-local accent and guide-book butchering of their language. I’m still very sorry, Austria, and I appreciate your patience.

While in Vienna, however, folks raved about Salzburg. It was the holiday season and, while Vienna boasts some spectacular Christmas markets, Salzburg was reputed as THE place to be for markets, sights, and an old-world festive experience. I was sold.

2018 provided the perfect culmination of events. Flights were cheap. Kat and I had proven that we could live together in a small London flat. 2 years of listening to friends rave about the magic of Christmas in Salzburg was enough to inspire us to buy tickets to see what the fuss was all about.

There be mountains

I want to give a huge shout out to any pilots who regularly make the run into the Alps. While there surely are tougher routes to be found in the world, our landing in Salzburg proved that Austrian pilots are made of stern stuff.

Flying over the Alps, a seasonal fog had turned the landscape into a fantastical vista. Only the highest of peaks managed to rise out of the frothy mist. Whisps and tendrils clung to the sides of mountains, parting around peaks whilst snaking through valleys and lapping against the sides of earthen behemoths. Ranges that would be impressive on clear days instead appeared to be small islands in ghostly seas. It was extraordinary.

And by extraordinary I mean terrifying as fuck! I’m an uneasy flyer, at the best of times. Throw in a little turbulence and I crumble like cheap feta. I’m not proud. 

As we began our descent, I scanned the horizon to find any sign of a town or settlement. Other than a few scattered peaks, everything was hidden below a blanket of clouds. Worse still was the realisation that we’d be entering that blanket, while half-shrouded ranges encroached on us from all sides. Thoughts of icebergs crossed my mind as I considered the sheer amount of mountain that existed below. I mean, I know that pilots rely on experience and instruments to land. They know where runways are and how far away the ground is, even if they can’t always see it. 

Still, that doesn’t help when your lizard brain is shouting what-ifs and horror stories as the view is reduced to thick white and reflections from wing lights. 

Low-lying the cloud cover may have been, we did emerge from the underside with, reassuringly, plenty of height to go before touching down. I thought it went rather smoothly, although, judging by the round of applause that followed, I suspect that I wasn’t the only person whose resolve had wavered on the way in.

Old world charm for days

If I’d thought Vienna was an imperial marvel, I wasn’t ready for Salzburg. Everything I thought of when I pictured European cities was on display around us. Winding alleys, cobbled streets, white-washed buildings trimmed in bold colours, narrow passages, horse-drawn carriages. Salzburg had old world charm for days!

I could picture Franz Josef himself travelling the streets of the old town, his entourage in tow, while local wares and sounds drifted from streetside shops. 

Setting out to find our BnB, we were taken in by the grandeur of it all. Once the mist had burned away, mountains loomed in the distance. Closer to town, several hills framed Salzburg, itself dug in along sheer cliffs while winding along a river valley. 

It was into one of these sheer cliffs that our BnB was carved. Set below the museum of modern art, in a portion of the old town, a row of shops and homes have been built directly into the imposing cliff face. It’s impressive, if not a little awe-inspiring, seeing these Austrian walk-ups merge into, and become dwarfed by, the very cliffs that make up their foundations.

Our flat was on the upper floors of one such row house. While one side overlooked the busy street and shops, the other backed directly into the cliff, with bare rock making up the back wall of our bathroom. Walking the winding staircase, we were treated with murals painted by the building’s original decorator. Some of them over 100 years old, having been carefully painted around by dozens of subsequent renovations. It was quite stunning and beat the hell out of any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. 

Down on the street, we were treated to perhaps the epitome of old town Salzburg. Bars, shops, and homes, a narrow strip of pavement, all cut through with cobbles and fixtures put in before the automobile was a twinkle in an inventor’s eye. Perfect. 

Just down the road was the iconic Gstättentor, a remnant of the oldest city walls, dating to around the 13th century. Not a bad bit of history to pass through every day, I reckon.

The one unfortunate thing

With every unfortunate thing, there is a silver lining. In this case, we’d picked an early weekend in December for our visit. The downside was that many of the city’s attractions used the brief window before the holidays to make renovations, set up, and otherwise prepare for crowds. As such, places like the Castle – which houses one of the larger markets – the Eagle’s Nest with its chairlift access, as well as a few of the tours, were out of commission.

On the plus side, this would be the opening weekend for 80% of the markets in the city. We’d also arrived a day early which afforded us an entire day before most of the crowds arrived. This meant that many of the tourists were currently locals and we’d be able to enjoy some of the markets’ opening ceremonies. 

Looking up

We had a crucial choice to make. There is a lot to see in Salzburg. Any city break, really, affords too much opportunity and too little time. While we did want to enjoy time wandering the streets, Kat and I also wanted to be sure to not miss some of the sights that Salzburg is known for. Since the nearby mountain was out of action, this left us with the castle. 

But then, does one enter the castle, itself, or opt for the prime views of said castle? Views. The views won out. 

There are a number of ways to reach the castle. Winding streets. A short drive. A stately funicular. We were fresh, antsy from hours on a plane, and keen for a walk. 

It’s a lovely stroll and worth doing at least once. Definitely try the funicular, but save that for the way down, or later trips to the castle. Walking is the way to go for your first trip. The path affords great views over the city while avoiding queues and crowds. 

Rounding one bend revealed a long, roughly-laid, stone wall, which was being tackled by several boulderers. As is customary, this amounted to one climber on the wall, another below with arms outstretched, and a peanut gallery rife with commentary and suggestions. As climbers, ourselves, we chuckled when we realised that those suggestions were received about the same, regardless of language, if you’re the one doing the climbing. 

Another rise dumped us out into a small park with low stone walls and several playgrounds. While the playgrounds were full of new parents, the stone walls were the territory of local teens. Many sat dangling their feet while music blasted from a portable speaker. Apparently, the stereotypical Euro-goth still exists, if you know where to look for it.

Well worth the price of admission

Our legs limbered, we crested the hill and were greeted with stunning panoramic views of Salzburg and its surroundings. We’d made the correct choice. The castle jutted impressively out of the nearby hills while low clouds and mists hid and revealed the distant mountains. It was like something out of a dream. An industrious person with a heated cart could’ve made a fortune selling mulled wine and hot chocolate at the top of the hill. I’d have paid a premium to be able to warm up while enjoying the view.

As it was, the dogs were barking, the air was chilly, and we’d heard tell of food in them streets below!

Birthplace of Mozart

When we were surrounded, once again, by the old town, it became clear that there are a few things that Salzburg is known for, at least in the tourist psyche. One of those would be The Sound of Music – of which neither of us count ourselves as fans – and the other would be Mozart. There are signs of him everywhere. Museums. Concert halls. Tours. Every sight ever graced by the man is lovingly marked and recorded and, should you be so inclined, you could easily spend a day drinking in anything and everything Mozart.

We didn’t, but we did enjoy one particularly divisive statue of the man, just across the road from our BnB. I can imagine the conversations it likely set off at the local town hall. Good times, I’m sure.

Best of the wurst

Deformed musicians enjoyed, the remainder of the day was filled with street strolling and the search for food. While there are any number of decent choices to be had – from beer halls to finer restaurants and bars – I’d recommend trying some of the smaller cafes and ma’n’pa joints. We found a closet of a cafe, situated in the midst of the winding streets of the old town. I can’t recall the name of the place, nor do I know if it still exists, but it was definitely worth searching for. The menu consisted of smaller portions of soups, wurst, and sharing items, with a distinctly home-cooked feel. It was a perfect bit of fuel for the day, and thankfully not-too-filling considering how our night would end.

Beer halls all the way down!

You can’t go to Austria and not visit a beer hall. It’s just not done. Borderline sacrilege! This is the part of the world where steins and clean beer laws were born. Even if you aren’t a fan of Austrian beer, I suggest trying it fresh from the cask. It makes a world of difference and is an almost transcendent experience. Even without the beer, beer halls are magical places, full of massive portions of food, chatter, music, and raucous entertainment. 

While there are boatloads of options in Salzburg, our favourite, by far, was the Augustinerbräu brewery. 

Built in the 17th century, this thing is an absolute monster!

There are several entrances, for starters. The main one will deposit patrons into the main hall, from which they’ll find a ginormous vaulted beer hall, adjoined by narrower side halls which offer mountains of meats, potatoes, spaetzle, schnitzel, pickles, and any number of bräu-absorbing delicacies. These side halls also hide racks of clay steins, stacks of barrels and rows of freshly tapped casks pouring the finest of Austrian brew. It’s … it’s absolutely breath-taking. From the perspective of a post-covid world, it feels like a rose-tinted fantasy.

Of course, things look a little different when you enter from the back. Kat and I managed to wind our way through several floors of halls, events spaces, more than one empty beer hall, all the while fervently following the waxing and waning sounds of raucous chanting, sizzling meats, and clacking steins. It was maddening.

Once we’d found the hall where the action was, we settled in for several steins of deliciously fresh beer and veritable mountains of roast and mash. I have dreams of Augustinerbräu brewery, to this day. 

It’s not like I’ve never had German, Austrian, or Bavarian beers in the past. A fair number make their way to Canadian and UK shores. Often in bottles, there’s really no shortage of options to be found even in the most rural of pubs. However, I’ve never been impressed. They haven’t been unpalatable. I’ve just found that there was nothing special about them, even in draught form. Turns out the element I’d been missing was freshness.

German and, by extension, Austrian beers are brewed to rigorous standards. These ensure not only the purity and cleanliness of ingredients, but optimal temperature for storage, shelf-life, even serving suggestions. It turns out that those things all combine to create a vastly different experience when served fresh. 

We sampled 3 styles of Augustinerbräu; a standard pilsner, their flagship brew, as well as a spiced and malty seasonal bock. I’ve rarely tasted any beer so delicious. What they do is truly masterful, to say the least.

Budding alcoholism aside

We had a fantastic evening at the brewery, drinking in an atmosphere that was comprised of locals who were themselves enjoying the relative lull before the holiday crowds arrived. 

It never fails to amaze me just how easy it is to get by in foreign lands with simple gestures, a smile, and a bit of cash. I’d love to go back in time and tell past me to get over himself and explore the world earlier. Or maybe it’s just that Austrians are awesome people. Perhaps a little bit of both?

The next day ushered in the true start to the Christmas market season in Salzburg. The main markets in town threw open their doors and were in full swing by mid-day. 

It was pretty amazing. North America has only recently caught on to the magic of Christmas markets in the past decade or so. Toronto has a fairly impressive one, but it’s just one. Europe has absolutely ruined me for the things. Even London boasts several that can hold a candle to their continental brethren. Folks do complain about the growing commercialisation of said markets, in both the UK and EU but, really, these things seem to move in waves. 

While we were in Salzburg, one local informed us that we shouldn’t bother with the main market this year. It was too full of tourist kitsch. Instead, he directed us towards several side markets along smaller streets. 

Sure enough, the smaller markets tended to focus on local arts, crafts, and tastier treats. A few folks at those ones, though, remarked that such things fluctuate wildly. Years prior, the cheaper tat was spread across all markets. While this year, it seemed to have moved to the main square.

A surprising amount of market backstory and drama aside, we had a great time. Our meals for the day were comprised of market snacks, gluhwein – more than a little of it spiked with extra je ne sais quois, to make up for the alcohol that boils off – and street foods. It was glorious!

In the midst of it all, we managed to sneak in a self-guided tour of a monastery that had been carved out of the rock face below the castle. There’s not much I can say other than it was a fantastic way to spend an hour or so in the city. Not only was it a great glimpse into some of the city’s history, but the trek through the hewn tunnels offered breath-taking views over the old town and towards Kapuzinerberg – a stunning hill and forested area that looms over the city from the far side of the River Salzach. We were able to peek into courtyards and across pinnacled rooftops. At times it felt like a window into the past, a glimpse of a city prior to the introduction of motorised travel and modern life.

Carbo-loading for adventure

Packed full of meats, carbs, and jacked-up on sugar, what was there left for 2 energised travellers to do? The local mountain may have been closed. The Eagle’s Nest was shut for renovations. That left us with Kapuzinerberg.

It’d been taunting us ever since we’d arrived. Sitting across the river from our BnB, the hill is flanked by a dense forest, at points broken by impressive buildings, a monastery, and hemmed in by a winding wall that wends its way across the landscape. It didn’t take much prompting for us to set out for its slopes.

The walk was exactly what we needed. It gave us a chance to escape the bustle of the city and stroll under a canopy of deciduous trees, many still with much of their autumn colours.

There are 2 things we like to aim for with a walk. The first is the setting, which is pretty damn important. The 2nd, and nearly as important, is the goal of not doubling back. Whenever possible, we try to plan so that we take a different path home. Circular hikes are absolute gems! In this case, we nearly paid the price for that.

Reaching the top of the trail and finding nothing but a shuttered beer hall – with dusk approaching – we made the call to start making our way back to the town centre. While we could’ve simply taken the same path home, we’d noticed several folks set off along the wall we’d spotted from below. It looked as though a path carved its way along the wall, which would ‘probably’ lead us back to the start of the path that we initially followed. 

With light fading, what could go wrong?

The answer: oh, so much! In all honesty, we didn’t regret our decision for terribly long. 

The path started out well enough – boulders and stone laid along the wall. Fitted with a railing in most places, it wasn’t difficult to follow or find footing, even in the fading light. 

Before long, it became clear that the route was much more circuitous than we’d anticipated. Moreover, the path let us down. Physically. The railing quickly vanished. Lighting was non-existent. The pathway itself became more and more patched, steep, slick and, at times, non-existent.

We should’ve been worried. We should’ve been concerned that we’d be left wandering the woods until the wee hours … 

… but we were completely taken in by the views. Stretching through the valley beyond the wall, Salzburg’s lights spread, glittering, into the distance. With looming mountains and dramatic, low-lying clouds, it created a magical setting. Each new bend revealed more of the city, with the final curve bringing the castle, itself, into view. 

By the time we’d made it back to the main path, night had fully set in and gentle snow had begun to fall. 

There’s a type of snow that isn’t quite light and fluffy, isn’t sleet nor is it verging on rain or hail. It’s something else. Somewhat solid, but still light enough to settle rather than plummet. When this snow is combined with a layer of leaves it creates something almost meditative.

The sound is akin to an auditory shimmer … a light patter which seemed to infuse the entire forest. 

That is, until the ghostly singing began.

Starting as a gentle whisper, a barely-discernible hymn on the wind, Kat and I were genuinely unnerved. This is how horror movies start. Alone in a foreign land. No idea where you are. Steeped in dark forest. A spooky song drifting faintly through the trees. 

Thankfully, the music became more clear as we neared the bottom of the hill. It turned out to be a choir performing in a small abbey nearby, which sounded quite beautiful once our imaginations had been reigned-in. 

The day rounded out with another trip through Christmas markets towards our neighbourhood. Being the first official day, many of the markets hosted opening ceremonies. While enjoying more gluhwein, we took our time soaking in a bevvy of live music. In one market, this music was borne from bands playing from the rooftops, no less! 

The song slowly escalated from a small stage on the ground. Before long, it grew into a call and response number, each new verse revealing a new band atop a different roof, tower, or terrace. 

No matter where you go in the world you’ll find an Irish pub

This is true of nearly every city I’ve stepped foot in. Lagos, Nigeria, even boasts its own Guinness brewery!

In Salzburg, there are likely a few, but the one we found ourselves in was Murphy’s Law. Conveniently sat just below our BnB, we kicked back and enjoyed a few pints, along with the banter of the barman. Himself an actual Irishman, he flipped between German and heavily-tinted English without batting an eye.

I have a habit of putting on a mild – let’s call it “Irish” – lilt whenever I hear North American tourists. It’s a curse. However, it’s proven to be a fairly passable curse! A number of occasions have found me mistaken for an Irishman by actual Irish people. In their defence, my ginger beard and flatcap likely does more for the illusion than anything that comes out of my mouth. 

In this case, I found myself mistaken for a native of Meath by none other than the barman. A smoother fellow than I would’ve simply rolled with it and had a laugh.

Instead … I took the awkward route … and watched the interest in his eyes exchange for regret as I tried to joke my way through a tragic case of TMI. 

But hey, an Irishman thought I was Irish! That’s a win! And I didn’t have to embarrass Kat in the process, which I’m sure she appreciated.

Long story already too long, Murphy’s Law is a great little pub, with an awesomely friendly proprietor and you’d do yourself a disservice if you skip it while visiting Salzburg.

As always, time was short

As city breaks are want to do, we didn’t have enough time in Salzburg. It was a lovely city and we enjoyed every moment we were there. When we return, we definitely intend to do it when more of the city is open as there is so much more to see.