Today is our final day in Vienna but since it’s 21 degrees outside under a snowy cloudy sky, with the wind chill making it feel more like 6 degrees, we’ve decided to sit this one out! We’ll watch the wind swirl the snowflakes across the rooftops and pity the pigeons as they flash by getting tossed by the wind. Have I mentioned it’s COLD in Vienna? So, instead of wandering this beautiful historic city, today we’ll reminisce and relate, savor and narrate, and of course, we’ll blog!
Austria is so full of beauty and history and adventures that we’ve barely scratched the surface, but what we have seen and enjoyed has been awesome. We crossed into Austria from Schwangau, Germany on one of the many excellent trains that we’ve ridden. Every train has been exactly on time, the connections easy, the trains and stations clean and comfortable, and the staff friendly and helpful. Trains are really the only way to travel in Europe and they add so much to the total experience of the trip.
During our first week in Austria we stayed in a cozy apartment in Salzburg and it was perfect! Our apartment was a block from the river, with a great view of the old city, the fortress, and the Alps. It was a great way to start and end each day, looking out to the skyline and walking along the river Salzach as we went to and from the city.
Since it was Christmas, Salzburg was dressed in it’s finest with real fir Christmas trees everywhere. Huge 40 and 50-foot tall trees in the plazas and smaller trees all over town, all with white lights and simple red ornaments, stars made of straw, or tinsel and bows. I just love the understated simplicity of the decorations and greenery that surround every door and fill every window box. Even the many Advent Markets were beautifully decorated, with ingenious wooden kiosks that are all painted green, lined up under strings of white lights, and surrounded by Christmas trees. There are many places to stand at small tables while enjoying a glühwein (sweet, warm mulled wine), a hot bowl of goulash, or a tasty pastry.
It was fun to wander through all the stands perusing the crafts and sample some of the foods. The crowds were large, but it was easy to navigate and everyone was in a happy mood, making smiles and “Grüss Gott” the standard form of greeting as we made our way through tight spots in the horde. I was impressed that there were very few vendors selling what I’d call “tourist crap”, as most of them were selling traditional Christmas ornaments, wonderful homemade sausages, sauerkraut served out of huge barrels, bakery treats, or Austrian crafts such as leather goods and wooden carvings. It was hard not to buy anything, but as Marty likes to remind me…we live on a sailboat!
An interesting Christmas custom that we learned along the way was the traditional house blessing that we saw on many of the doors in Austria and Germany. Epiphany is the date when people finish carrying out the traditional “C+M+B” house-blessing ceremony, with an inscription on or above the door. Traditionally, the three letters in the inscription stand for the names of the three Wise Men (Magi): Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (German spelling). Another possible explanation is that “C+M+B” stands for the Latin phrase: Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates into “Christ bless this house.” The inscription is usually made with chalk that has been blessed by a local Catholic priest and includes the year: 20* C+M+B -15.
While in Salzburg we walked and walked around the old city, but we also added in a few escapades out of town. One day we went to the Salt Mine Berchtesgaden and enjoyed a tour of the underground mining tunnels, learned more than we ever thought we’d know about salt, warmed our butts (and scared the bejesus out of me) on the wooden slides, and oohed and aahed our way across Mirror Lake. It was pretty cool! It turns out that the entire continent was under water at one time (back when Marty was young), and when the salt waters receded the earth closed over some of the puddles and left huge underground salt deposits. They fill them with water, suck out the brine, and make salt (simple, eh?) Mirror Lake was one of these caverns that had been left half full of water, very, very salty water.
From below the earth to the top of the mountains, one day we took the tram up Untersberg Mountain. From the top we could see all the Salzburg Lake District, as well as the Hohen Tauern mountains. We walked around a bit, took a few selfies, put our feet in snow, and of course savored an Austrian beer and goulash suppe (my favorite) while enjoying the view. The locals like to hike up and tram down or vice versa, and there are plenty of hardy looking souls doing it – not for me thanks! The tram ride was exciting enough as it drops straight down along the cliffs!
We took in some culture while in Salzburg too. One night we went to a concert in the Hohensalzburg Fortress, high on the hill, built in 1077 by Archbishop Gebhard. It’s the largest, fully preserved fortress in central Europe. The room where we saw the concert was small and full of arches, and the acoustics were perfect for a string quintet. Hearing classical music played in these authentic historic buildings is like being transported back in time.
Our biggest event though, was our Christmas dinner concert at the oldest restaurant in Europe, the St Peter Stiftskeller. This was something we’d planned from the start of our decision to visit Austria and it didn’t disappoint! The evening’s entertainment was in the style of 1790 with candlelight, a menu based on historical recipes, period costume and instruments, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s exquisite music. The musicians were all young graduates of the Mozarteum University Salzburg, and they made the music come alive. We were fortunate to sit right in front where we could see their fingers fly over the strings, watch their expressions, and feel the wooden floors reverberate from their voices. In a word, brilliant!
We loved Salzburg, and spent many hours just walking around town taking in the sights, sounds and smells. There is so much history that we soon lost track of it all, but still craned our necks looking up at church spires and historic buildings. We walked along the hilltops, looked down at the crazy alignment of the streets, and peeked into the hidden courtyards. We drank glühwein and yummy Austrian bier, ate sausage and schnitzel, knödel and spätzle, pastry snowballs and our all time favorite, apfelstrudel mit vanillesauce!
Speaking of food, trying new tastes is one of the fun things about traveling to new places. One night while out wandering we stopped into the St. Augustine Brewery, Austria’s biggest beer tavern, at the foot of the Mönchsberg, where beer has been brewed since 1621. When you arrive you grab a stone stein from the rack, either large (1 liter) or small, pay for your mug size at the cashier, then belly up to the vats. The beer is drawn from wooden barrels and you can either cool your mug in the cold-water fountain first, or leave it warm to get more taste from your beer. There are rows of food stands in the “Schmankerlgang” (Delicatessen arcade), which looks like a traditional market and serves up just about any local taste you can imagine. You just go to each one and pick and choose what you want, then find a spot at the family style tables with benches. We had cheese dumplings and smoked pork ribs – yum!
Salzburg is a place that we highly recommend and one that demands plenty of time to savor. It’s a big city with a small city feel, lots of cozy places to hide from the crowds or plenty of opportunity to mingle with the masses. It’s beautiful!