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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Singing Through Salzburg

Originally written July 24th

Our first day in Salzburg was...eventful, I guess you could say. After breakfast, we set out into the cloudy grey morning to do RFS' self-guided tour through the Old Town. We poked our heads into churches (the cathedral, although plain on the outside, is really spectacular within), wandered down alleyways, ate bread at a monastery bakery and marveled at the beauty of the St. Peter's cemetery. This cemetery, tucked up against the foot of the cliff, is a quiet and peaceful place, and each grave is a lovingly tended flowerbed crowned by an ornate iron cross.

As we were making our way down Getreidegasse, where Mozart's birthplace is (wowee!), it really began to pour. Luckily, we'd thought ahead to bring our rain jackets along. Seeing as how it didn't show any sign of stopping, we left the masses huddling in doorways and squelched our way across the river to the New Town side. There we found the beautiful Mirabell Palace and the adorable gardens used in The Sound of Music. Of course we had to take many pictures, but by then, despite having raincoats, we were still getting cold and rather wet, so we headed to Mozart's Residenz. I tell you, everything in this city revolves around either The Sound of Music or Mozart; there's no escaping either one. We toured through Mozart's house and learned a bit more about him than I'd actually wanted to know...then we had to face the rain again. Tired and wet, we decided to head back up to our hostel for dinner, but unbeknownst to us (because RFS hadn't mentioned it) the entire restaurant seems to regularly rent itself out for parties or whatnot, so they refused to sell us any food, no matter how pathetically we asked. This meant that we ended up in our tiny room, eating stale bread and warm yoghurt left over from Prague, and having a good laugh about the whole thing before finally going to bed.

Now, something to consider: you'd think, if the hills in Austria really were alive with the sound of music, that they'd be singing in, er, German. Not Britainglish. Just sayin'.

I'm squished into a seat on a huge and gaudily painted tour bus--a space altogether too small for a person to whom God has graciously given both elbows and knees. Outside the countryside of Austria rolls by, soaking in grey rain, the mountaintops wreathed in clouds, vanishing into the misty distance. Even through the drizzle, the hills are a lovely, verdant green, moving aside like emerald curtains to reveal dramatic, pale blue lakes guarded by tall dark pines.

All this lyrically beautiful scenery, punctuated by the occasional cow nonplussed by the rain or a cluster of brightly painted houses with red-tiled rooves, is somewhat ruined by the music pouring out of the speakers directly above my head. Yes, this lovely drive through the countryside is in a bus emblazoned with the likeness of Maria and the von Trapp children and the cheerful words, "The Original Sound of Music Tour!" Our guide, who reminds me of a taller, American version of the guy who played Wormtail in Harry Potter, somehow manages to sound enthusiastic and bored at the same time, announcing each detail in an oddly breathy voice: "Now, remember that scene where Maria and the children sing? Again? That was filmed on the mountain that you would be able to see on the right side if it wasn't hidden behind a skyful of rainclouds!" This tour is definitely for the fanatics and obsessives, e.g. my mother.

Our guide also has been building up a mythology around our bus driver not unlike the mysteries surrounding the Stig. Maybe it has something to do with being a professional driver of something? I have no doubt that during the course of the tour, Roland the Bus Driver will gain more and more superpowers and random objects. So far he's lived under a bridge in the middle of Salzburg, painted his house gold like the palaces of Austria (he says it keeps away mosquitoes), regularly run into trees (but it's okay--he doesn't own the bus or the trees. Toyota Hilux, anyone?) and gone freeclimbing up a cliff with one hand, because in the other hand, he has a beer. Our guide even told us that "there was almost a fistfight on the bus a couple weeks ago. Roland had to break it yodeling."

By the far the most distracting and headache-inducing thing, though, is the music. Of course on the Sound of Music tour you have to listen to the music, but my heavens, is it annoying! I'm trying to write and admire the countryside, and Maria is howling at the top of her lungs about confidence and that jerk Rolf is trying to seduce poor Liesl. I vaguely remember this movie but certainly not enough to really appreciate all of the minuscule details.

But I'm just being pessimistic, possibly brought on by the fact that my feet are pickling in rainwater and Julie Andrews is doing her level best to liquefy my brains. Sigh. But Austria is really gorgeous; I've only been to Vienna before, and that was in the winter. There's something about this area that, though a bit touristy, is for the most part laid-back, quiet, and inviting.

This tour is most of what we've done today. Because of the cold and the rain, we were reluctant to leave our hostel this morning, so it was near noon when we finally made it down to the New City. We wandered along the river to look at a long line of pavilions selling food, decorations and jewelery before we got on our four-hour bus tour through the countryside. The rain is kind of a shame, because although I'd rather be cold than hot, the mist and clouds mean that we can't get the full effect of the towering peaks hiding their faces in the whiteness.


Somehow, I managed to make it through the entire tour without my head exploding. We saw the lane where the children hung out of the trees in their playclothes, the lake where they fell out of the boat, the gazebo, and the church where Maria and the Captain/Baron dude were married (Holy tourist trap, Batman!) among other places. I know I sound very negative; I just find it a little sad that this beautiful city, with loads of gorgeous churches and cute alleys and wonderful personality, depends for its touristic income almost entirely on two things: (1) Mozart (who apparently didn't like it anyway) and (2) the Sound of Music film, which was, according to our tour guide, something of a ripoff of a smaller, more accurate German film, so the Salzburgers, who have seen the original, have no great love for the Hollywood version, being very aware of all the artistic, factual, and geographical inaccuracies/shortcuts/handwaving.

But enough of that. Since it was still raining with a somewhat spiteful vehemence, we headed to a lovely cafe (a little posh for us, in capris, sandals, and t-shirts) for some wonderful cappuccino, then, following the recommendation of our guiding light, RFS, headed to a Gasthaus for dinner. For the first time on perhaps the entire trip, we were greeted at the door by someone who actually seemed to pleased to welcome us inside. Towering over us and guiding us to a table, the delightfully friendly man was stunned that we said no to beers, but managed to talk Mom into some wine anyway. We were sitting alone at our table in a brightly lit, antler-adorned hall for only a few minutes before we were joined by three more Americans (all brought there by RFS, of course): a RN who had been working on a new German Bible in London, and two professional musicians playing for three weeks with a symphony in Graz. We passed an entertaining evening eating hearty Austrian food and swapping stories; it was getting late when we finally trudged back to our perch on the cliff.

I was distracted for a while from bed, though, by the spectacular view of the city at night from the top of an old wall beside our hostel. From the cliff looking down, the alleyways and roads looked like streams of light, flowing with cars and umbrella'd pedestrians, between the dark banks of the black rooftops, to the Salzach river, which caught and reflected the light from the lamps. Above the estuary of interconnected rivulets sat the Hohensalzburg fortress, cloaked in clouds on the hilltop. I couldn't help but think that it looked like Hamlet's Elsinore would in my imagination: distant and regal, presiding with detachment over the light and life below, wreathed in mist and illuminated with an eerie, deathly green glow.

There were many things I liked about Salzburg. I'd love to come back here when the weather's better to explore the little towns by the lakes and hike some of those spectacular mountains. I like the more refined dignity of the city; Salzburg, with its pale, dark-capped buildings, many church spires, and dignified fortress, all framed by distant blue mountains, feels like a table in a garden on a beautiful summer day set for tea with the Queen, with shapely cups and posh little sandwiches and cakes and a teapot in a lace cozy. By contrast, Prague feels like a birthday party: a riot of colors and lights, a willful and joyous refusal to submit to order and straight lines, with the triumphant beauty of St. Vitus' Cathedral and the Palace as the showy and flowery cake.

Now I'm hungry.

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