At Salzburg

We met friends in every country we visited in Europe, but one particular companion stayed with us throughout our journey – the rain. As I look back at our two-week vacation, I’m not sure why we were surprised when the sun disappeared and the skies burst open on our train ride from Munich to Salzburg, blotting out the gentle Bavarian landscape. We couldn’t let that affect our spirits, though. When you’re travelling to places you may never see again, you don’t complain or rue what could have been. So we picked up a map at the station and decided to walk around Salzburg in the rain, for what fun is it to get on a bus when the streets have pavements that you can walk on without fear of being hit by two-wheelers?

Our first stop was at the Mirabellgarten, where we ran into a wall of tourists presumably on a Sound of Music tour. A group of baby-boomers sang Do-Re-Mi as they picked their way down the wet paths, while others crouched under umbrellas to have their pictures taken. We wandered into the Mirabell Palace and stumbled upon the Marble Hall, where Mozart once played to gorgeously-gowned ladies and staid gentlemen who swept up the wide staircases past classical statues that are now shrouded in netting. Unfortunately, the hall was cordoned off and we had to content ourselves with a peep at the decorations from the doorway. We returned to the parterre (I never thought I’d have a chance to use this Jane Austen-ish word!), admiring the neatly laid out flowers, and passed the obstacle course of tourists to get to the river.

Salzburg, cut by the Salzach and ringed by low hills, was almost exactly as I had pictured it. My extremely limited knowledge of the town came from one of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, where she described it with admirable accuracy and created an image that now revealed itself to me in all its living glory. My first glimpse of the river was magnificent: grey-green, it flowed towards distant hills veiled by light rain clouds, reminding me of the landscape of my childhood home in Vizag. On the other side from where we stood was the Old City (Aldstadt) with its domes and spires, and above it sat the Hohensalzburg Castle on the Festungsberg. We walked across the bridge, prepared to lose ourselves in a fairytale.

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The Salzach

We had about an hour and a half before we met our guide, P., and took the time to wander through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. We passed Mozart’s birthplace, a yellow structure in a row of tightly-packed buildings, and went on to the Baroque-style Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), dedicated to St. Rupert, patron saint of Salzburg. The hymns of an English choir echoed through the church, undisturbed by the shuffling of a steady stream of visitors seeking shelter from the rain. After the riveting drama of the Gothic churches in Münster, the interiors and the churchyards of Salzburg appeared more gently melancholy, their pale-coloured vaults and vivid flowers far removed from the acrimony of the religious wars.

As we wandered into the richly decorated St. Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a short walk away, we were transported to a different world altogether. With the few tourists who had been sitting in the pews drifting out, we had the lavishly appointed hall all to ourselves. The marble altar, the frescoes and paintings, the Rococo work, and the dark pews and floor were immediately evocative of the grandeur that must once have been the way of life of European royalty. It was very different from my vision of a monastery, where monks wore simple robes and lived a life of penury. However, having been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Salzburg probably had access to the coffers of the Catholic church, and used them to keep the faith alive in the face of increasing resistance elsewhere in Europe.

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St. Peter’s Abbey (Photo by G.)

We met P. at the Café Tomaselli. Hungry and in search of a vegetarian lunch, we found some delicious, buttery Spinatknödel at a cosy restaurant, P. serving as guide and translator. The rains putting paid to the picnic on the Alm that P. had in mind, we headed off for the catacombs in the cemetery of St. Peter’s after the meal. The walls of the Mönchsberg into which the catacombs are cut provided some splendid views of the churchyard and the skyline. The grey sky with its floating clouds set off the dark green of the hills and the domes to perfection, etching a picture of Salzburg permanently in my memory. Within, the catacombs house the remains of some of the city’s prominent people and bring the past to life, juxtaposing a not-too-distant epoch of music and literature against sober monastic pursuits. We tried to decipher the inscriptions and the faded murals to understand this world better, but with little success.

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An inscription in the catacombs

To end the afternoon, we returned to the Café Tomaselli, where we indulged in the traditional Austrian pastime of coffee and conversation. The waitress brought us a tray with a variety of cakes to choose from, and I cannot begin to describe my bewilderment at the variety here. This was something I had read of in Brent-Dyer (I know I should be reading better things), and if you’re a kindred spirit, you know what it is to read about distant lands and the ways of their people, and to see them come to life in flesh and blood. As we feasted, we spoke of a number of things, including the American Presidential elections. This was in October and there was still some hope that we would escape a rampant display of misogyny and xenophobia.

As the clock struck six, P. had to return home, while G. and I walked back through the rain to the train station. G. and I were delighted to have had an opportunity to do as the Austrians did – what a blessing it is to be accompanied by a local on your travels, even if said local would rather be hiking in the mountains than ambling on cobbled streets. Salzburg isn’t one of your regular cities, though. It is a tantalising mix of the medieval and the modern: two different worlds on either side of a river. It has done enough to stoke my curiosity, and I hope to take my travels forward to Vienna some day, to linger in Viennese coffee houses and worship at Zweig’s altar. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn German and read Mann in his language. Salzburg, if you can manage to do all of this, you can share credit with Munich for a modern miracle.