Monday, 12 January 2015

Our Christmas Vacation Part Three – Christmas Eve in Salzburg

On Christmas Eve, Salzburg shuts down by midafternoon.  The vendors close up their stalls at the Christmas market, shops and grocery stores lock their doors and shut off their lights, and most of the restaurants and cafes send their employees home for the night to spend Christmas Eve with their families.  Christmas Eve is traditionally when Austrians have their Christmas celebrations.  We decided to do the same in our cozy little hotel room which meant we needed to stock up on some Christmas goodies before all the stores closed up for the day.  But first, some breakfast. 

Hmmmm - what to have, what to have.  Besides deciding if it was wise or not to get on a train with a kid that has the stomach flu, what to have for breakfast was the toughest decision I had to make during this vacation.
 Everyone woke up Christmas Eve morning healthy and hungry – finally!  Both Ellie and Leah were ravenous so we headed down to breakfast at our hotel for the first time all together as a family.  Let me share a little something about typical hotel breakfasts in Austria – they are AMAZING!  Eric has traveled a couple of times to Austria for work and he always comes back raving about how fantastic the breakfasts were at the hotels he stayed at.  After listening to this a few times, I had high expectations and the breakfast at Hotel Via Roma did not disappoint.  Let me see if I can remember all there was for us to enjoy: 
·       The usual scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages, and also a big pot of boiling water with a bowl of eggs next to it so you could prepare your own fresh hard boiled egg for breakfast. 
·       All different types of delicious rolls and breads, bundt cakes, pastries and croissants.
·       Platters of meats and cheeses, including the most amazing cream cheese I have ever had with herbs swirled into it and then rolled in chives, as well as various other types of soft spreadable cheeses.  They even had a plate of smoked salmon which Leah enjoyed every morning as that is one of her most favorite foods. 
·       Freshly sliced melon, and trays filled with oranges, bananas and plums. 
·       Bowls full of jams and packets of other spreads for toast.  The only packet I recognized was Nutella.  Not sure what the others were and there was so much food to choose from for breakfast, we never had the chance to find out. 
·       Yogurts and granola and bowls full of different types of dried fruits and nuts for topping. 
·       And for drinks, four different kinds of fruit juices, and of course, coffee which you could get any way you wanted – plain, cappuccino, espresso, Americano style, and even just plain steamed milk you could add a packet of hot chocolate to which is what Ellie enjoyed a few mornings. 
Now I fully understand why Eric speaks so highly of the breakfasts in Austria.

 Our bellies full, we headed out to find the tiny little grocery store just inside the Old City that I had passed several times to get some good food and drinks for our quiet Christmas Eve celebration in our hotel room.  Now, this was no ordinary little convenience store which is what you might have expected from the small size of it.  Each time I had walked past the windows, I couldn’t help but gaze inside at the baskets full of fresh breads and rolls, the display cases that held various types of cheeses and meats they would slice for you, and the wall full of fruits and vegetables. 

Outside our favorite little grocery store in Salzburg.
The woman behind the counter, quickly realizing we weren’t native Austrians, helped us pick out a few different kinds of good Austria cheeses, including the same herbed cream cheese from the hotel breakfast – score!  She recommended some of the house salami so into our basket it went, along with an assortment of fresh rolls.  We picked up some juicy grapes, a package of crackers, and last but not least, some drinks.  For the girls, a couple of cans of their new favorite here in Europe – Orange San Pellegrino from Italy.  For Eric, a couple bottles of Austrian beer.  And for me, a bottle of Austrian wine of course.  We then took a quick walk down to the Christmas market where we picked up a meringue pretzel which would be dessert along with some Christmas cookies Eric had gotten from a bakery the day before.  

It was a beautiful day and Eric and I had already spent a couple of days exploring the city, so we decided to take a nice walk instead out of town towards the mountains to a place called Hellbrunn Palace.  We didn’t know anything about Hellbrunn Palace, but it was highly recommended that we visit it and the surrounding grounds, so after dropping our Christmas Eve feast off at the hotel, we headed towards the outskirts of town to the path that led to Hellbrunn.  I knew exactly where this path was – right in front of the yellow von Trapp family home I had stumbled upon my first afternoon in Salzburg.  The lane that leads to Hellbrunn is the same beautiful tree-lined lane with snow covered mountains in the background you see in The Sound of Music. 

Fun fact - or maybe not so fun:  What you see hanging from the tree in the photo below is mistletoe, and yes, when we figured this out, Eric kissed me under some and the girls thought it was hilarious.  It was everywhere in Salzburg, including in most of the trees hanging along the lane that leads to Hellbrunn Palace.  The clumps of bright green mistletoe with their smooth, shiny leaves were beautiful hanging from the bare trees.  BUT – mistletoe actually penetrates the branches of their host trees, sucking nutrients and moisture away from the tree, often killing the branches and sometimes, the entire tree.  Kind of sad.

Hellbrunn Palace and the surrounding grounds was built as an Italian style country residence at the foot of Hellbrunn Mountain back in the early 1600s by Salzburg’s Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus von Hohenems.  Hellbrunn ended up rarely serving as an actual residence though.  Because of its grandeur, the palace was primarily used for lavish celebrations and hosted spectacular events.  Today, the palace itself is home to a folklore museum while you can wander the vast grounds as your leisure, enjoying the sculptures, ponds, landscaping, a beautiful playground for children, and a couple other surprises we’ll get to in a moment.

As I mentioned above, we didn’t really know what Hellbrunn was as we headed there that day, except that many people said the small Christmas market held within the walls of the estate is one of the most beautiful settings they had seen for a Christmas market.  They weren’t kidding because this is what we saw when we entered the palace grounds.  

We had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and, being Christmas Eve, many of the vendors were already closing up their stalls.  We didn’t mind.  It was beautiful just wandering around and enjoying the Christmas scene.  The palace itself was made up into a gigantic Advent calendar, as you can see in the photo above.  We grabbed a bag of warm roasted almonds to munch on as we strolled.  We ducked through a small archway and stumbled upon a magnificent series of fountains, statues and stonework.  Later, we discovered these were no ordinary fountains.  This was a Wasserspiele, or trick fountains.  During the warmer months when the fountains are turned on, be careful walking through the Wasserspiele because you never know when or where water might suddenly shoot out.  


We wandered through another archway and, to the delight of the girls, found a petting zoo.   

Not sure how these three fit in to a petting zoo, but they were funny!
After enjoying the animals and quickly figuring out which signs said “May Bite” in German, we strolled out towards the vast park making up the rest of the palace grounds.  The ponds were filled with colorful ducks.   

There were beautiful tree lined pathways that just begged to be followed.   

And one of the best playgrounds we have ever seen – the fun kind filled with equipment your kids could get hurt on but probably won’t.  It was cold but we couldn’t resist stopping to let the kids play for awhile.  And we joined in on the fun too, enjoying a ride on the long zipline like swing thing they had – never seen anything like it on a playground before, but it was fuuuuun!

  Funny little story from the playground:  As I was sitting watching the girls play, this adorable little girl who couldn’t have been more than three years old walks up to me and starts talking away to me – in German.  She was looking so intently at me, waiting for my reply.  I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do and obviously didn’t know what to say.  Knowing full well she wouldn't understand, I simply smiled at her, shook my head and said, “I’m sorry sweetie, but I don’t speak German.  I only speak English.”  As she turned to go, she looked back at me and replied, “That’s alright” and wandered away.  You can imagine the look of surprise that crossed my face to hear her say that so clearly in English, and to have understood what I had said to her – and she was only three!  Still makes me laugh when I think about it. 

Sorry I'm sharing so many playground photos with you, but these are AWESOME!  I cannot believe what a great job Eric did photographing the girls as they played.
The zipline swing thinging - oh this was fun!

The sun was starting to slip behind the mountains, so we decided it was time to head back towards our hotel, but before we left, there was one more thing we would stumble upon – a gazebo.  Now this wasn’t just any gazebo – it is maybe the most famous gazebo in all the world and the moment I saw it, I knew.  “I am sixteen, going on seventeen…”  I think you know where I am going with this.  Yes, it was the Sound of Music gazebo.  We stopped to take pictures of course, and good timing for us because as we were leaving, we passed an entire busload of tourists heading in with their cameras to get some pictures of the gazebo themselves.  

  Recognize the gazebo but not the setting?  That’s because the gazebo has been moved.  It’s original setting on the grounds of Leopoldskron is where the famous gazebo movie scenes were shot, but the gazebo received a little too much attention in that location, so it was moved to the grounds of Hellbrunn Palace where it could be better protected.

Beautiful scenery on our walk back to the hotel from Hellbrunn Palace as the sun sets.
We made it back to the hotel by late afternoon, cold but refreshed from our long afternoon spent outside wandering Hellbrunn Palace.  After a warm cup of cappuccino and hot chocolate, we headed up to our hotel room to settle in for the night and enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve together as a family with the good food and drinks we had picked up earlier in the day.  We watched Mary Poppins and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in German, and a good thing it was in German too because they don’t bleep out the bad words here in Europe. 

There was one last thing planned for the evening – midnight mass at the beautiful Salzburg cathedral.  Eric really wanted to go.  So did I, but the thought of standing outside in the cold at 10:00 in the evening for two hours waiting in line to get into the service with a 7 and a 9 year old who had just gotten over the stomach flu was less than appealing.  The girls didn’t want to go.  They really didn’t want to go.  So I stayed back in the hotel with the girls while Eric went by himself.   Before he left for mass, we sat out some Peanut M&Ms and water for Santa just in case he found the girls in their hotel room in Salzburg (not very traditional I know, but that was all we had left in the room and we weren't raiding the extremely overpriced minibar, not even for Santa). 

What was the midnight mass like?  Eric said it was amazing -  poignant and beautiful, even though he couldn't understand a word of it.  He did, however, recognize the song that was sung at the end of the service even though it was in German - Silent Night.  While it may not surprise any of you who have attended candle light services on Christmas Eve night that the mass ended with this familiar Christmas song, Silent Night has a very special meaning in Salzburg and Austria in general.  It was written by a man named Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest and writer.  He was born in Salzburg and at an early age encouraged to pursue music and provided an education by a vicar and music leader right there at the Salzburg Cathedral.  It was in 1816, while he was serving as an assistant priest in a little village in the Austrian Alps called Mariapfarr that Joseph Mohr wrote the words to Silent Night.

To end today, here is Eric's description of that last song sung at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the Salzburg Cathedral:

Silent Night was sung at the end of the mass in German (Stille Nacht).  All the lights were turned off and the cathedral was lit only with candles.  It had a single guitar for accompaniment and the verses were traded between two woman singers, two men, and the choir.  I could only see the two woman who were up on a small balcony opposite where I was sitting.  The balcony was only big enough for a few people and the women were lit from a candle in front of them.  I couldn’t see the men (who were likely in the balcony directly above me) or the choir.  I think the song only has three verses but they must have repeated the entire song because I remember them singing six verses.  They were very highly trained or even professional singers.  Midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the Salzburg Cathedral was definitely a sight to behold and hear.

 To be continued.... And stay tuned because the next post - a horse drawn sleigh ride through the Austrian Alps!


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