Travel after the pandemic #18: Salzburg, Austria
A timeless weekend away with the main man and more
Before him, the city’s equally distinguishable Baroque architecture, which also receives much high attention, came to the surface with Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau (1559-1617). He was Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg from 1587 to 1612 and clearly paved the way to laying the first foundations and re-developing the area.
This was after a part of Salzburg Cathedral caught fire in 1598 alongside some nearby houses, allowing the re-designing of what was a medieval locale into the Old Town’s cityscape as seen today, an honourable Baroque showpiece. This was the attraction for my wife Eszter and I over a long weekend there this August.
This UNESCO World Heritage site, enhanced even more by views of the nearby Eastern Alps, presents a splendid array of differing architectural styles on both sides of the River Salzach. Within the Altstadt, or Old Town, sphere, on the western side, are mainly the more familiar Baroque sights. On the opposite side of the river is an equally impressive array of imperialistic 19th –century structures that prevail in the New Town, with luxury hotels and so forth.
Both parts uphold and preserve historic and traditional grandeur and refinery over this immediate area, as well as blend in with the modern day in a fine, proportionate way. The city centre is not so over-developed, and assuringly so when compared to some tourist destinations elsewhere. Central and pedestrian-friendly Salzburg itself remains relatively small and much is found within comfortable walking distances from one locale to the other.
Clearly the young Mozart wandered through these same streets, and heard the many and perhaps the same atmospheric church bells chime over this neighbourhood, as they do today. All of which must have created an inner vibe, as both attributes did with us, which must have contributed to his outstanding musical repertoire and career. This finally consisted of more than 350 compositions, though even so he died when only 35 years old, in Vienna.
Needless to say, his accomplishments such as the universally popular “The Magic Flute” hardly need an introduction here. But even if you have heard this many times before, to hear it play out when there makes a visit to Salzburg more magical. The best way to walk in Mozart’s footsteps is either to join one of the “City Walks Mozart” tours or get a map and visit the relevant landmarks at your own pace. Satisfaction is guaranteed.
In 1920, Max Reinhardt, founder of the Salzburg Festival, alongside Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and some local artists and intellectuals, realised a potential to turn this city into an elaborate stage set. One hundred-plus years later, the internationally acclaimed Salzburg Festival continues to run annually in July and August, and is the event of the year.
Alongside Mozart, this festival has also defined the city on an international scale. Every summer (that is until the coronavirus crisis), the Old Town is transformed into a theatre where opera, classical music, drama and concerts take place. See www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/ for further information.
Each January, the musical extravaganzas begin with “Mozart Week”, offering a high-calibre repertoire from the main man. This is followed with Easter and Whitsun festivals but it is the main summer festival that ranks among the best. It’s an ambition for many to attend a show at the main open-air Everyman Stage on Cathedral Square, although there are other venues close by.
This is followed by a “Jazz in the City” festival in autumn and the year rounds off with the Salzburg Advent Singing and Winterfest season. To see Salzburg in the snow would epitomise a real winter wonderland, for sure.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the world-famous Christmas carol “Silent Night” was written by Salzburg citizen Joseph Mohr in 1818. It would be most fitting to say that this highly atmospheric song could have only come from there. Where else could it have come from?
Let’s turn to “The Sound of Music”, of which much continues to be said about this mellow 1965 film. Adoring fans turn up by the busload and planeload to re-trace the footsteps of legendary Julie Andrews and her celebrated fellow cast, and visit the various landmarks. This evergreen perennial is Hollywood’s biggest musical, and what could be better than to get away from the computer and join a Sound of Music tour?
Take a tour bus, hire a bike or walk around and do this your way as various itineraries lead to where Frauline Maria and company sang and danced in this immediate area. The original home of the von Trapp family is now a bed-and breakfast outside the city. Regardless of what you may think of this film, the story plays out in idyllic surroundings and somehow it overcomes critics. This escapist venture will take you over the hills and far, far away too.
When it comes to sightseeing, the best way to get by is with a Salzburg Card. These can be bought at information centres for 24, 48 or 72 hours and allow all-in-one free access to museums and unlimited use of public transport. There are some occasional discounts for concerts and theatre tickets, as well as some nearby excursions.
For a two-day itinerary such as ours, I recommend starting off at the easy-to-find Hohensalzburg Castle and Fortress museum, which dates back to the 11th century. Either walk up the hill or take to the cable car. This medieval site delivers a splendid bird’s-eye view of not only the rooftops but also into nearby Germany.
From there, make your way down the hill to the all-important Mozartplatz where, as expected, stands the official Mozart statue. Close to this orientation point is tourist information and the Salzburg Museum, which is a large premises dedicated to old-style and modern-day artworks and antiquities. At the time of writing there was also an insightful Great World Theatre exhibition celebrating the Salzburg Festival centenary, which presents remarkable theatre archives that give glimpses into past and present festivals, and makes a great introduction to the life and soul of performing-arts Salzburg.
A little further on is the very fanciful Residence Fountain which leads to Salzburg Cathedral and the DomQuartier museum, gallery and exhibition halls. The monumental DomQuartier alongside with the Residenzgalerie is a renowned palace-turned-museum where State Rooms are filled with illustrious 16th- to 19th-century works of art by European artists, such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Bruegel.
The state rooms in the Residenz zu Salzburg are a mutualism of unique architecture and lavishly furnished rooms that make the former palace complex one of the most compelling in Austria. This expansive Baroque structure also offers exclusive art and history tours.
Next door as well as forming part of the DomQuartier is the prominent Salzburg Cathedral with its elegant twin towers and a central 70-metre-high dome. The elegant Baroque-style 17th-century masterpiece and its museum display an abundance of sacred and monumental treasures. The permanent exhibition shows treasures from the cathedral treasury as well as art from the 8th to the 18th centuries from churches and monasteries relating to the Archdiocese of Salzburg.
A little further on is the enchanting Kollegien church, designed by Baroque architect Johann Fischer von Erlach and known for its pristine white décor. In front are various food stalls offering local produce and wholesome snacks. After we had ours, attention then had to resume towards the main phenomenon, which is Mozart.
Our sortie took us a few steps further along to an elegant shopping promenade that finally led us to 9 Getreidegasse, his place of birth. The Mozart family lived there from 1747 to 1773 and he was born on January 27, 1756. Clearly this main feature is also a museum, and it goes into depth on all the family, with the many exhibits including his childhood violin. Half a kilometre further on and over the river at 8 Makartplatz is Mozart’s residential home, another museum with further artefacts.
Then there is the luxurious “Mozart” sweet, which is found everywhere. In 1890, Salzburg chocolatier Paul Fürst created this symbolic extravaganza, a fine, exquisite work of art consisting of marzipan with pistachios, wrapped in nougat and dark chocolate. Find out more in the elegant shop and tea room named after him at 13 Brodgasse and start indulging there.
After so much exploring, pleasant strolls around the Mirabell Garden rounded off both our sightseeing days. High-precision landscaping and flush floral displays front the Mirabell Palace (another “Sound of Music” landmark), which we followed with much-needed supper at the excelling Sternbrau restaurant. This popular and lively wood-panelled venue draped with obvious Austrian décor provided excellent local fayre and made the perfect finale to what was a memorable weekend. See for yourself at 23 Griesgasse.
It was also important for us to have a short break from the city. To achieve this we travelled by bus to the nearby Hellbrunn Palace Park. This 17th-century Renaissance palace with its immaculate gardens comes with various mythological sculptures and novelty fountains. But be aware, this is no ordinary house-and-garden affair, for this exceptional place comes with a surreal twist.
Water-vending machines, grottoes and unexpected spray fountains appear before you know it, and have been causing mischief to all guests and visitors for the past 400 years. Explore Hellbrunn and embark on an enlightening journey back in time to Prince-Archbishop Markus Sittikus, who designed Hellbrunn as a place of amusement as well as a place of importance. His estate is kept in pristine condition and also comes highly recommended. Furthermore, if you do not accomplish the “Sound of Music” tour, then a bonus while at Hellbrunn is the original gazebo that was part of the film set and was given to the city by Hollywood as a gift.
The last thing we achieved was to walk up a long flight of stairs to the Kapuzinerberg peak with its Capuchin Monastery. This sortie takes one past the former residence of novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), who wrote the classic “World of Yesterday” and various others. Atop Kapuzinerberg, it was our last chance to take in the scenery before our eventual departure.
Salzburg and the people are very welcoming. We really enjoyed our time there and want to return. It is appropriate that Salzburg is a twin city with Vilnius, Lithuania, which is another splendid place, filled with high scenery, and another story.
Let me conclude with a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1831: “A phenomenon such as Mozart always remains a miracle that cannot be explained further” I say much the same about Salzburg and Vilnius too.
The only trouble was that time was too short. With a heavy heart we had to leave behind what we missed out on, but this will give us something to look forward when it comes to next time.
As for coronavirus concerns, the Austrian authorities were stricter than most on our recent travels. At the time of writing, visitors should bring all official coronavirus documents. immunity papers, cards, masks, apps and anything else you have. Proof of vaccination was required wherever we went. Fortunately, ours were in order and we passed all inspections, including at the hotel. If we had arrived with nothing, the weekend would have been very unfortunate.
From Budapest, drive relatively straight westwards 530 kilometres along the M1 and E60 motorways past Vienna, or do as we did and take the train for five hours and 20 minutes. This latter is probably the more desirable option.
The European Council has the latest coronavirus advice at consilium.europa.eu