About a month ago a friend of mine approached me with a scheme. He said 'Hey, why don't we all go to Austria for Christmas?'
And I said 'Dude, I don't care about Christmas. I want to stay home and chill out. But if you're all going there won't be jack to do here anyway. Well, where in Austria? We're not just going to drive across the border and stand around are we? And what all of us are you talking about anyway? Not Michy I hope, that bitch is crazy.'
'No, not her. You're right, that bitch *is* crazy. Just us. The crew. To Salzburg, maybe, or Vienna. Or Kaprun. Or...'
'Sven, make up your effing mind.'
'Salzburg it is.'
'Good. Now we've got that settled. I don't know if I'm gonna go. Let me think about it.' And I promptly forgot all about it.
The crew, in case you are wondering, are a raggle-taggle group of miscreants, drunks, scalawags, and psychopaths. Well, not exactly. If you knew my friends, you would know those terms are flattering. We're way worse than that. Really, I need better friends. The crew does not include Michy, who is a crazy bitch. She's a German girl I've known for over three years, she really ought to be on medication and locked up but for some reason she's allowed to run around unsupervised ruining the lives of unsuspecting horny American guys. But that's another story...
I hemmed and hawed and thought about it for a couple of weeks, and then I decided I would go. Why not? It's not like I have anything better to do; these are the people with whom I usually spend my holidays anyway. So I told Sven to book me a room at the hotel, and off I went to Deutsche Bahn to book my train ticket. Yes, we went to Austria on the
train. Yes, we drank most of the way there. The ride took us about eight hours, and as I can't sleep on anything that moves, I had the opportunity to stay awake all night watching the boys behave like zoo animals.
We had a couple of compartments on the train, in all there were about eleven of us, three married couples and some assorted singles. Sven, being the anal retentive personality he is, had called the Salzburg tourist information office and arranged for us a walking tour of the city with a licenced guide. Lucky for us, it had snowed about two feet the morning of our arrival, and then proceeded to rain just enough to make nice, ice cold wet slush about eight inches deep. Perfect for a three hour walking tour of a city! It continued to rain, but fortunately it was a freezing rain, and didn't melt the slush. That would have been sad.
Our guide was named Pablo, a traditional Austrian name if you're Spanish, and he was excellent. He started off by explaining how Salzburg got its name. Salz, meaning salt, and burg, meaning castle or fortress. So, Salzburg= Salt fortress. Very apt, considering the wealth of the city came from its salt, and its ability (by means of the Salzach river) to ship that salt somewhere to sell or trade for other things: silk, spices, Russian mail order brides, et cetera. He explained to us that for a long period of time, Salzburg did not belong to a country but was a sovereign state in its own right, ruled by archbishops of the Roman Catholic church. Three of these - namely Wolf Dietrich, Markus Sittikus and Paris Lodron - left their mark on the city in the form of over a hundred palaces, castles and churches. Photograph 1
I enjoyed walking around the city, even in the slush, listening to Pablo talk. That kind of thing interests me, but my cohorts were casting ever-more-desperate looks at the many cafes Salzburg had to offer. So Pablo took us to the Mozart Geburtshaus (birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) where we were treated to a newly renovated exhibit which featured a really creepy white-wig-wearing glass-eyed baby doll in a cradle and many ribbon-tied samples of Mozart's hair. The Mozart Geburtshaus is located in the Getreidgasse, the main touristic shopping street of Salzburg. After our Dreaded-Lurgy-inducing tour of the house, we bade 'Auf Wiedersehen' to Pablo, and about half of us took off down the street to Salamander, a shoe store. The other half went up the street the other way to Denkstein, another shoe store. I ended up visiting both, Denkstein didn't have my size in the waterproof boots I wanted, but they did have a really cute black pair I had to have. So I got those, then squelched back down the street to Salamander and got me some waterproof boots. Happy feet. Now to attend to my tummy. My friends had taken themselves off somewhere, probably to a bar, so I was on my own again.
I went off in search of a cafe; I'd seen one during the tour that looked promising. It was in the Alte Markt and was called Cafe Tomaselli; it was mentioned in my guidebook as the oldest cafe in Salzburg and was said to serve excellent cakes. I went in and hung up my coat and tried to find a table inside; it was afternoon and the place was packed. A custom in Central Europe is to have cake and coffee in the afternoon, so everybody was in for their customary cake and
coffee. An elderly gentleman saw me casting around looking for a place to sit, and offered me a seat at the table with him and his wife. They spoke no english, nor any other language I could understand, but they were very nice. I had a slice of Sacher torte
and a hot chocolate with rum. The chocolate was delicious, thick and unsweetened just like I like it. The rum tasted like jet fuel, but I figured what the hell, and dumped it in my chocolate anyway. That dramatically improved the taste of the rum. Unfortunately it did not improve the functionality of my feet, but the chocolate cake helped to sober me up enough that I didn't stagger too much on my way out of the cafe.
My next adventure was to be the Hohensalzburg fortress, which can be reached by a steep climb up the side of a mountain, or a 60-second ride on a cable train. I, being monumentally lazy, took the cable train. Building on the fortress was begun in 1077 by Archbishop Gebhard and enlarged and fortified over the centuries until it has become the largest and best-preserved fortress in Central Europe. I walked around the towers and the buildings, looked out over the battlements, took pictures of the city and the Salzach river. Even had one taken of me up there. Photograph 2
Across the river I could see the remains of walls, but I never did find out what they were for. It was late afternoon by this time, and starting to get dark. My favorite! I love cities after dark; the whole character of places changes completely. I went into the fortress museum, took my audioguide and went through the exhibits. The audioguide tour ends by taking you out on a tower lookout, where there is an even more commanding view of the city than I'd found before. It was full dark now, and still snowing a bit, and the city was all lit up down below. Photograph 3
I descended by way of the cable railway again, and although my last set of batteries was about to die, I managed to coax one more picture out of them before they crapped out for good: That of the fortress up on the mountain, all lit up. Photograph 4
Enough sightseeing for one night, time to eat! I'd researched some of the culinary possibilities on the internet before the trip and I knew there was an Indian restaurant in the city. A tradition of mine is to eat Indian at least once in every new city I visit, if possible. Only problem, I didn't know where it was exactly. I mean, I knew the address, but I couldn't find it on my map. And I didn't really feel like walking, so I broke down and did what I almost never do. I went to a taxi stand and got a cab. It dropped me off at this dingy little street corner and sped off; no changing my mind now. So I went inside the place, and instantly all my fears were laid to rest. It was beautiful inside, with murals painted on the walls and interspersed with brass plates in peacock motifs. It had the nicest decor of pretty much any Indian restaurant I've ever seen. And the smells coming from the back of the place were enough to make my knees buckle. I sat down and ordered samosas and a muttar paneer (a curry of peas and homemade white cheese) because I was so hungry and there was so much to choose from that I just couldn't think, so I went with my old favorites.
I sat back in my booth and sipped on a bottle of water waiting for my food to arrive. Just after I'd gotten my papadum and pickle, two young men walked in. I could tell by the look of them that they were Indian, but their clothes looked American. They sat down just across from me, and I could overhear their conversation. Yep, they're American all right. They ordered in Hindi, so I didn't know what they'd gotten, but I desperately wished to know. I also desperately wished for any reason I could find to talk to them, because they were both extremely hot, and I have a weak spot for Indian men. My food arrived, and I started to eat, and then I saw the waitress bring their food. They had ordered thali of one kind or another. Thali is the word for the tray the food is served on; it's a small assortment of little dishes with small bits of different things. I continued to eat my food and eavesdrop on their conversation trying not to look like I was eavesdropping. After I finished my meal, I ordered a pot of chai with milk and gulab jamun, a dessert of fried balls of dough in a rose scented syrup. The two men finished their meals and ordered tea as well, so I took that as my opportunity to go over and say hello, and to ask them what they'd ordered. Just out of friendly curiosity, you understand. So, I asked them and they told me, and I said thank you and turned around to go sit back down at my booth, when one of them (the hotter but less interesting Prashant) asked me if I was an American too, and I said yes, and he asked if I was on vacation in Europe. When I said that I live here, the less hot but more interesting Saurab asked me to sit down at their table with them and chat for a while so I brought my tea and dessert over and we sat a while. I explained a little bit about my work, and how I was in Salzburg, and they talked about what they did and were doing. They both seemed pretty impressed when I told them I'd learned how to cook Indian food. We went through two more pots of tea during the evening, and I ended up sitting and talking with them for well over an hour and a half. A recurring them in all of my travel stories is that you meet the most interesting people when you're travelling by yourself, and it's really true.
I had figured out by that time where I was in the city, and I knew that I could walk down to the end of the road I was on and catch a bus that went near my hotel, so Saurab and Prashant walked with me and stood around while we waited for my bus. I got their email addresses, and I fully plan on sending them emails. The two of them were headed for Prague the next morning on an early train; I had assured them they would love it. I really should email and find out how they got on. When I got back to the hotel I walked by and saw about half of my crew sitting in the hotel bar (really, where else _would_ they be?); they hollered for me to come in and sit with them. I told them in a minute, and went up to the room to change into my pajamas and fuzzy Godzilla slippers. We were the only people in the hotel, and it was more of a family-run gasthaus than a hotel anyway, so I felt OK with that. The barkeep didn't even blink an eye at my slippers; my friends however had a field day, and I was roundly mocked. I need better friends.
The next day was Christmas Eve, I saw a bit more of the city and did a little bit of shopping before the shops all closed down. I went into Konditorei Fürst and had cake and coffee for lunch, and then bought a box of Salzburger Mozartkugeln (they were invented in this cafe by Paul Fürst); chocolates with nougat and marzipan inside. I'm not a marzipan fan, myself, but I bought them to share around the building when I got back to work. I did end up having one, they're not bad. Since it was Christmas eve and everything was closed, I just walked around and looked at things and made frequent stops for coffee or schnaps. I was due to join up with my friends in the evening to go to a restaurant together which Sven had booked for a 'traditional Austrian Christmas dinner', which I knew meant some kind of wild game, organ meat, fish or some combination thereof, so I made sure to eat plenty during the afternoon. I wasn't disappointed; or I was, as the case may be. The dinner was, indeed, organ meat, wild game, and fish. Paté, roasted wild
boar, and carp to be precise. Mmm. Yummy. I ate my green beans and potatoes, and drank a lot of wine, and felt glad I'd eaten so much during the afternoon.
On Christmas day, we departed Salzburg in the morning and made our way to Königssee on the train, where we walked around the lake a little bit throwing snow at each other and trying to get the ducks in the water to catch the bread we tossed. Then we took a cruise out to the pilgrimage church of St. Bartholomä
which was small and cold and smelled like mildew. The cruise was neat though, the clouds were hanging very low over the mountain and halfway to the church the captain stopped the boat and took a trumpet out, opened the window and played tunes which we heard echoing back at us. Photograph 5
A nice trip, in all, and even though I went with a group of people I was mostly alone. Which is fine, I'm good enough company on my own.