Friday, 9 January 2015

Our Christmas Vacation Part Two – Austria

Sunrise from our hotel window in Munich.  Although we had planned an entire day in Munich, after our flight issues, that’s about the extent of what we saw of Munich at the beginning of our trip.  Besides this beautiful sunrise, all we really saw was the airport, hotel and train station, which is where we found ourselves bright and early Monday morning to catch our train to Salzburg.   We picked up some pastries from one of the many food shops in the station, and as we were standing in the middle of the train station getting ready to eat them, right where the lovely picture below was taken, Ellie announces she has the stomach flu.  Aye yai yai! 

I will spare you the gory details but will share that it is anything but easy to have this sprung on you in the middle of a large, bustling train station where everything is in German.  Imagine trying to locate a bathroom QUICKLY in this situation, and then, once said bathroom is located, an escalator ride downstairs of course, you need to fish through your purse for change in euros and then insert the change into the machine outside the bathroom before the gate will open to let you in - all this with a sick kid in tow.  For those of you who have not traveled in Europe before, believe it or not but you often have to pay to go, so make sure you ALWAYS have some spare change in your pocket, in the correct currency of course.    

We boarded the train anyway as we had no other option, quickly grabbing the seats closest to the onboard bathroom, crossed our fingers for the 1 hour and 40 minute train ride to Salzburg, and off we went.  Incidentally, we later realized that we had reserved seats and by some unexplainable quirk of fate, we happen to randomly choose the four exact seats assigned to us on a train carrying several hundred people.  How weird is that?   When we arrived in Salzburg, we jumped into the first taxi we saw and a short 10 minutes later we arrived at our hotel where they graciously allowed us to check into our room despite the fact that we had arrived a few hours before check in.  Thank you, thank you, thank you Hotel Via Roma! 

Ellie was like a drooping flower and it was quite apparent that we would not be venturing out of the hotel room that day as a family.  As it turned out, that was just fine.  First of all, I had booked a family room which ended up being a two bedroom suite with big rooms and a huge bathroom.  It felt more like a small apartment than a hotel room.  And, there were great views out the windows. 

Secondly, Eric and I could get a cappuccino right downstairs and enjoy it in our room, which is the first thing we did as we had missed our morning coffee given the whole incident in the train station back in Munich.  Third, Leah was happy as a clam to spend the entire day in the hotel room watching cartoons in German with her sick sister.  And finally, Eric and I were chomping at the bit to get out and see the city so we decided to take turns, and getting to stroll around the city by myself was a treat!  Traveling with four people can be challenging at times and affords very little alone time.  After Eric ran down the street to the grocery store to get some lunch for us, I put on my boots and winter jacket and out the door I went for a walk by myself.

That is when my love affair with Salzburg began.  It was early afternoon and the sun was shining so I decided to walk towards the edge of town, in the direction of the snowcapped mountain we could see from our hotel room to get a better view.  Salzburg isn’t a very big city.  It’s very, very walkable.  It only took me about 15 minutes to reach the outskirts of town where I not only had a better view of the mountain I had seen from our hotel room, but I could see more mountains in all directions.  There were walking and biking trails darting off every which way, and as I looked across the field at the edge of town, off in the distance I saw a large yellow gated house with a beautiful tree-lined road running right in front of it that looked suspiciously familiar.  A smile spread across my face.  Could it be?  As I walked closer and closer, the more sure I was that yes, that was the Von Trapp family home that I know so well from The Sound of Music.  As I walked towards it, I could almost see Julie Andrews bounding up the road swinging her suitcase and guitar and singing as she first approached the house.  I know this may all sound a bit corny to some of you, but I truly was excited that I had been in Salzburg for a mere two hours and had already stumbled upon The Sound of Music house!  It was actually smaller than I had expected and after walking around the back, I started to suspect that just the front of the house is featured in the movie.  Sure enough, when I got back to the hotel room and did a little research on the internet, I found out that was indeed the yellow house and tree lined boulevard used in the film, but a different home in Salzburg was used for the inside and backyard scenes. 

Look familiar?

As I headed back to the hotel, I passed a bakery with a table set up outside full of beautiful Christmas cookies and breads.  The man standing at the table stopped me and said something in German.  I shook my head and said, in English, “I don’t have any money” and I really didn’t because I had left my purse back at the hotel.  He easily switched to English and told me no worries, try some samples anyway.  By the time I made it back to the hotel, I had had my fill of Christmas cookies and was sipping a hot cup of the bakery’s special mulled wine.  Are you starting to see why I love Salzburg?

I waited until the sun went down before I ventured out of the hotel again.  I wanted to see the Old City in Salzburg lit up in all it’s Christmas glory because that is the area of Salzburg we had seen described over and over again as “magical” at Christmas time.  Before I tell you more about my trip out that evening, a little information about the Old City.  In Salzburg, the Old City refers to a complex of buildings that are squished between the Salzach River, which snakes right through the heart of the city, and the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the largest, fully-preserved fortress in Europe (dating back to 1077) that sits high on the bluff overlooking the city.  Much of the Old City is a pedestrian only zone and as it is relatively small, it is very walkable.  Salzburg has very strict preservation laws.  The narrow, winding streets within the Old City lead from square to square and past a plethora of architectural styles including some from the Middle Ages, Romanesque, Baroque, and Renaissance periods.  Squares all around Salzburg play host to Christmas markets during December, with the largest and probably most popular being located within the Old City.  Our hotel was a mere 10 minute walk to the Old City, so again, I put on my boots, winter jacket and hat and left to explore it on my own.

View of the Old City during the day, with the Fortress sitting high above it.
First street I saw in the Old City.
 The first 10 minutes of my walk took me along a busy road, until I reached a tiny little park and veered towards the back of it where I found the alleyway that would lead into the Old City.  I followed the alley and as I emerged into the Old City it felt as if I had been transported to a different land.   The street I emerged on was quiet and peaceful.  There weren’t many people around.  A welcoming warm glow came from the shop windows that lined the side of the street.  Simple but beautiful yellow Christmas lights dangled overhead.  I could see a beautiful building straight ahead with a Christmas tree in front of it adorned simply in lights.  There was only one street to follow – the one straight ahead.  I wandered from street to street, around this corner and that and soon found myself deep within the Old City.   Eventually, I made it to the square where the Christmas market was bustling away.  Wooden chalets with counters full of merchandize, most of it with a Christmas theme, lined the square.  There were vendors selling a variety of Austrian food, drinks and treats.  People were milling around in small groups, shopping for last minute gifts or enjoying a warm cup of mulled wine.  Christmas trees were everywhere (later in the week, Leah counted how many Christmas trees we passed in one day and lost count at 100).  And at one end of the square, towering over the Christmas market, stands the magnificent Salzburg Cathedral.  Later that evening as I started to head back to the hotel, I would pass the Cathedral again and see five men singing The Little Drummer Boy a cappella and in German from the front steps of the Cathedral.  Beautiful!  Simply beautiful!

The beautiful building I saw straight ahead as I entered the Old City.
Before I had left the hotel, Eric had read that the Old City is Salzburg is home to one of the loveliest shopping streets in all the world called Getreidegasse.  I wandered through the market, down one beautiful street after the other, but when I rounded one particular corner, I knew immediately I had found Getreidegasse.  For several minutes I stood frozen on the corner, mesmerized by the street in front of me.   

Getreidegasse - indeed one of the loveliest shopping streets I have seen!
This street, with its simple strings of lights hanging over head, was stunning.  It’s lined with shops, cafes and restaurants, and lots of little arched alleyways leading to small, intimate open air courtyards filled with more cafes and shops.  

A beautiful Christmas tree and a little Christmas market in one of the smaller courtyards down an alley off the main shopping street.
If you looked up in any direction, high above the shop walls, you could see beautiful copper steeples now green with age, colorful clocks sitting high up in their towers, and bell towers that sing out at all times of the day and night.  And when you dress this beautiful street up with Christmas decorations – I don’t even have the words to describe it.

Notice the clock tower high above at the end of this street. Nearly every street you looked down had a view like this at the end.
As I walked down the entire length of the street, I felt as though I was in a trance.  I ducked into this alleyway and that, strolled slowly past the shop windows (and fell in love with a pair of boots that I am still kicking myself for not buying, grrrrrr), savored the delicious smells emanating from the cafes and restaurants, listened to the different languages coming from various groups of fellow tourists (we heard later in our trip that although Salzburg is a fairly small city, only 150,000 residents, 7 million tourists visit each year), and finally, reluctantly, turned back towards the hotel. 

Prayer candles inside the Cathedral.
On the way back, as I mentioned early, I was treated to The Little Drummer Boy, one of my favorite Christmas songs, being sung on the steps of the Cathedral and as I stood watching and listening, I noticed people entering and exiting the Cathedral doors.  I ducked in myself and immediately was struck speechless by the sheer size and magnificence of the Cathedral (that's good because I didn't have anyone to talk to anyway).  It was huge, beautiful and dark, with rows and rows of flickering votive candles on the sides which people had lit in prayer.  The balcony above the back of the church was entirely taken up by a massive organ, with four more organs located on smaller balconies below the ornately finished dome at the front of the church.  Eric would visit this church a couple days later when he attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve - but more on that in the next post.

Inside the Cathedral.  Notice the organs sitting in balconies on the column supporting the dome.  These are tiny compared to the one in the balcony in the back which, unfortunately, we could not get a good picture of because is was so dark up there.
 I headed back to the hotel where Eric had ordered a pizza and some salad for us to have for dinner.  Lucky for us, there was an Italian restaurant in the same building as our hotel.  This proved to be very convenient as going out for dinner with a sick kid was not an option.  We enjoyed the pizza with some wine and beer Eric has picked up at the grocery store earlier that day, and then it was his turn to head to the Old City, with his camera of course.  So I leave you today with some more photos of the beautiful Old City we discovered on that first night in Salzburg.  Tuesday, was spent in much the same fashion as Monday because, while Ellie woke up that morning chipper as a bird in the Spring and ready for some breakfast, Leah sadly did not.  She had come down with the stomach flu as well.  It would be another day of taking turns strolling through the city, although I had some company on my first trip out as Ellie and I strolled down to the Old City together to walk around the Christmas market and to pick up some lunch – delicious Austrian pretzels.  One was filled with cream cheese and raspberry filling, and the other was made into a pretzel cheese sandwich.  Mmmm!  They know how to do pretzels in Austria.

The pretzel stand.
The Fortress at night.
An alcove off the Christmas market.
Nutcrackers lined up for sale at a booth in the Christmas market.
And snow globes too.
Horse drawn carriage rides through the Old City.

To be continued…

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