Singing for Salzburg

Salzburg – “The hills are alive…”

(For more pictures from Salzburg, scroll through the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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It’s official. I love being up high. You get the best pictures, and it’s the best place to make the rest of the world fall away. So when I got to Salzburg, an old Austrian city at the base of the alps, I headed for the hills.

Most people know Salzburg as Mozart’s birthplace, and as the backdrop for The Sound of Music, but the city’s history is actually based in salt mining. Salzburg translates to “salt castle.” Salt was shipped down the Salzach River on barges as early as the eighth century.

I confess I didn’t pay as much attention to the city’s history as I normally do. I did tour the iconic Hohensalzburg Fortress with an audio guide, but I was too pre-occupied with the view to take in anything else. Not only could you see the city and the river stretched across the rolling green hills of Austria’s country-side, but from the back of the fortress you could see the snow-capped alps. It was morning, and the tip of one mountain was still hidden behind a fluffy white cloud. That was all it took for me to want to run singing across the mountainside channeling Fraulein Maria.

So after forcing myself down the hill to visit Mozart’s birthplace and Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s famous shopping lane, I hiked back up just to gaze longingly at the alps. There are walking paths all over Salzburg. I hiked to a lookout area, sat on a bench and soaked in the scene.

What really got to me was the air. It was the most fresh, crisp fall air I have ever inhaled. I felt like an oxygen pump had been attached to my lungs. I just wanted to stay up there forever and breathe.

The art of the self-guided tour

The hostel I stayed at played The Sound of Music every night at 7PM. I may have watched it two nights in a row. And I was all set to board the tacky Sound of Music bus for the guided tour, until I read the brochure and realized I had already visited half the sites while walking around the city. For 40 euros, I figured I might as well visit something I hadn’t seen.

The problem is I’m a horrible decision maker. Should I visit the famous salt mines, the picturesque lake district, or Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest? I wanted to see everything, but the combination tours were 75 euros. Way out of my price range.

So I started researching, and through the holy grail that is Trip Advisor, I learned I could use public transit to get to the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. From there, I could visit the salt mines and catch a bus to the Eagle’s Nest for half the price of a guided tour. Backpacking win.

Posing with the Eagle's Nest

Posing with the Eagle’s Nest

So that’s what I did. The salt mine was so-so. I was accidentally given a German audio guide and spent the first half of the tour completely clueless until they were able to switch it. But the Eagle’s Nest is a must-see because of the view. Hitler’s old headquarters (now a restaurant) is 1,834 metres above sea level. The bus ride up is a nail-biting, “oh-my-goodness-the-bus-is-about-to-roll-off-the-side-of-this-mountain-and-we’re-all-going-to-die” kind of ride. But it’s worth the panic attack once you’re at the top. There’s something about being up that high. It’s impossible to worry or stress about anything. It’s just you, the snow-capped mountain and the view.

Normally I try to include a range of photos in my blog posts, including pictures of buildings, city landmarks, food, etc. But in Salzburg that didn’t happen because all I did was climb mountains. So I apologize in advance for the landscape spam.

Salzburg Favourites:

THE HILLS: The city is great, but the real appeal of Salzburg lies in its stunning views. Pick a walking path and start climbing!

THE EAGLE’S NEST: No need for a guided tour, you can get there using public transit. But read about the history before you go, Hitler’s headquarters is now a restaurant catering to tourists, not a museum.

***Indicates landmark from The Sound of Music

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NEXT STOP: Munich, Germany

Classy Vienna

Vienna – Opera and vineyards

(For more photos from Vienna, scroll through the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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I can’t believe I almost didn’t go to Vienna. When I planned my trip, I was originally going to visit Salzburg and then continue on to Munich. When I realized I had an extra travel day on my rail pass, I added it to the itinerary. I’m so, so glad I did.

I didn’t think Vienna would be able to wow me after Prague, but I went for a walk on my first night in the city and was mesmerized by the way the buildings looked lit up. The architecture almost has a Grecian style to it. Buildings like the Hofburg Palace and the State Opera emanate a sense of wealth and prestige. It made me feel like I was in a different era.

I actually explored much of Vienna with a friend. I met a girl from Chicago back in Brussels whose been travelling Europe on a very similar schedule. We also met up in Amsterdam and Prague, but in Vienna we were actually staying in the same hostel. There’s no free walking tour in Vienna, so we set off on our own with a self guided map to take in some of the major sites, including Hofburg Palace, Parliament, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and the Sigmund Freud Museum.

The rain finally caught up with me in Vienna, but I can’t complain after all the sun I’ve had. I toured Schonbrunn Palace, the Habsburg’s summer residence, on a gray, drizzly morning. I still found the royal gardens to be charming because of the fall colours. I actually liked them better than the gardens at Versailles in Paris.

Normally, I leave a city in the morning because I hate arriving in a new place after dark, but I knew the sun was going to come out on my scheduled travel day from Vienna to Salzburg. There was a vineyard I had read about just outside the city, so I decided to store my mammoth backpack at the hostel after checking out and caught a tram to the old Viennese wine village of Nussdorf.

Nussdorf, Vienna

Nussdorf, Vienna

I had no idea what I would find when I got off the tram. The guide had said to get off at the last stop and walk up the hill. I didn’t have a map for this part of Vienna, so that’s what I did. At first I was just in a very pretty residential area, but then this massive hillside popped up and I knew I had to get to the top.

It was a landscape straight out of a movie: Row after row of grape vines, little farm houses scattered across the hillside, the autumn leaves changing colour, and stretching below it all, the Danube river and the city of Vienna. I stayed up there for hours just wandering around. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments you get when you realize you’re getting to see something truly amazing.

A night at the Opera

I had a second ‘pinch me’ moment in Vienna. I was totally shocked when I arrived at my hostel and saw a sign explaining you could get standing room tickets to the Vienna State Opera for…brace yourself… four euros. FOUR EUROS. You can’t even buy sachertorte in Vienna for four euros!

I couldn’t have been more excited, which is surprising, as I had never even seen an opera from start to finish. But stepping into the Vienna State Opera for a Friday night performance of La Fanciulla Del West (The Girl of the West) was an experience in itself. Women wore glittering, floor length gowns with choker necklaces that sparkled from across the room. Men bought bottles of wine from the bar and dined on fancy, finger-sized sandwiches.

And what’s even more amazing is how good our spots were. My friend and I got dressed up in our backpacking best and stood in line two hours before the start of the show. We snagged tickets for the lower standing area, which is dead centre, at stage level. We were a little squished and sweaty for the first act, but some people left at intermission, giving us more elbow room.

And there are even little screens that provide subtitles! I had read the Wikipedia synopsis for La Fanciulla Del West before the show, but having the subtitles made it so much easier to follow the plot.

I know nothing about Opera, but we were told multiple times that the three leads, Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme and Tomasz Konieczny, are among the best in their field. After watching them perform, I can believe it.

The entire opera is done without microphones, but you can hear every lyric no matter where you are in the theatre. And then there are those notes that shouldn’t even be possible for a human to hit. The fact that I was able to see a show of that calibre, in one of the world’s most renowned opera houses was definitely a trip highlight for me.

Vienna Favourites:

THE VIENNA STATE OPERA: Arrive at the side entrance at least 90 minutes before the start of the show to purchase standing room tickets for that night’s performance. Bring a scarf to mark your spot once you get in, then explore the prestige of this stunning building.

NUSSDORF: Viennese suburb featuring half a dozen vineyards. Take Tram D all the way to the end (stop name Beethovengang). Then climb up and up!

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 NEXT STOP: Salzburg, Austria