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Salzburg! In the Mirabell Gardens from the Sound of Music, with the Hohensalzburg fortress behind

Salzburg! In the Mirabell Gardens from the Sound of Music, with the Hohensalzburg fortress behind

It’s bedraggled and after two days already seems like the stiffness is going out of its joints. But for only 7€ to defend me from the nonstop downpour thar has been coming down in the beautiful Austrian city of Salzburg, it was worth it. The silhouette of Mozart emblazoned on the side is a cute touch.

Hala, Mai, and myself arrived in Salzburg on the first of June, after spending all night traveling and waiting in cold train terminals. Let’s be honest; they weren’t that cold, but considering all of us are used to the Jordanian temperatures in June, I was afraid the girls were going to freeze to death. I was ordered by Mai’s mother to take care of the two of them while we’re all in Salzburg together, and I’m a man of my word!

From Frankfurt, we said goodbye to the rest of the choir group as they busily attempted to distribute their overweighted baggage among each other (this is what happens when you load up on high quality European beer in glass bottles!) and easily found our train down to Munich, where we would transfer to Salzburg. Unfortunately, I misread the signs as to which station in the city we should get off at, and instead of disembarking in Munich’s main station with its transfer to the neighboring country, I haplessly herded everyone off into some podunk village at the edge of the city limits, and its meager, dreary station with one shack on the platform to defend against the wind.

I left the girls huddled in the room in the corner with our only other cohabitant, a bearded old man wrapped in blankets that looked like he had settled in for the long haul. I ventured out to try to find something to eat and drink, and rapidly discovered the predicament I had put us all into. I quickly attempted to figure out how to use the on-platform ticket dispensing machines, and only ended up paying for and printing off two extra ones for a total of five tickets. It was 2.4 euro per ticket, to go to the next station over.

When I got back to our lean-to, I found the girls giggling and laughing and dancing the Jordanian wedding dance, debka, in a circle around the concrete floor, perfectly coordinated and practiced despite their muffled appearance under layers of sweaters. The old man was no where to be seen, but as I took my spot in one of the hard benches, I saw him through the fogged up window, smoking a cigarette and staring into the room with a flabbergasted expression. I rightly figured that it was probably the first time this shack had seen two Jordanian girls dancing a wedding party dance. I caught the man’s eye and shrugged emphatically with a small smile. He nodded back appreciatively, eyebrows raised.

We finally caught our trains, first to the main station and then onwards to Salzburg. After checking in our bags at the Yoho Youth Hostel (although our room wasn’t ready yet because it was only 9 AM) we decided to get started with our sightseeing. The sky looked ominous, but I scoffed at it and when the girls asked me if I had brought an umbrella, I said – “of course not!”

It was a short and light-weighted meander back to the train station without our heavy luggage, but my goal was firmly set in my mind: pick up some of the “Salzburg Cards” that the hostel had touted as being a great bargain for tourists. And were they ever! We each bought 48 hour cards for 35 euro apiece, but besides granting 100% free admission to every museum and exhibit in the city, or free admission to the mountain trams, they also provided free bus service as well. I’m sure that over the course of the next few days, with all the things we visited, we would have ended up spending easily 3 times that to see the same amount.

Our first stops were the Untersberg mountain and Schloss Hellbrun, the former famous for its views and ice caves, and the latter for its mischievous hidden water cannons, oft unleashed on unsuspecting tourists. However, the former was bound to be disappointing because of the clouds; we were only about a third up the mountain before our cable car was utterly shrouded in mist and we could see nothing but blank whiteness in all directions. The girls enjoyed playing out in the snow briefly at the lodge on the top, and I looked forlornly at the sign that said “Ice Caves, 3 hour walk.” The tram operator told me with deadpan seriousness that to attempt the walk up the semi-frozen path, up the side of the mountain, in the whiteout, would be courting certain death.

Mai plots evil mischief that she can wrought with that snowball. I had to quickly put the camera away and arm myself in turn!

Mai plots evil mischief that she can wrought with that snowball. I had to quickly put the camera away and arm myself in turn!

The Hellbrun schloss (which means castle, in German) was much more inviting, however. The three of us were part of a small contingent of English-speaking tourists, and at first I’ll admit I grumbled mutinously when the guide shoved a loud and rambunctious gang of German middle school students in with us. “There goes my peaceful enjoyment of the park,” I muttered. However, the children turned out to be an amusing boon to our visit because our guide through the Trick Fountains clearly had an ulterior motive. He would shout out instructions to their group in German first, instructing them where to stand or sit or walk, then switch off his microphone and murmur to us in English where we should stand to watch the fun unfold safely. As most of us older people were carrying cameras of varying expensiveness, we appreciated his candor. For the half an hour tour, we watched the kids get blasted by hidden jets as they shrieked with surprise, and then mirth. There were tricks like hidden jets hidden in their chairs, hidden in the tips of a deer statue’s antlers, hidden in fishes’ mouths, and in every archway and pathway we came through. Other nifty tricks involved a “birdsong” room that was entirely created by water pressure moving through an old-fashioned tooth/wheel music box. That was the really incredible thing though – of course, electricity didn’t exist when the palace was built, so every fountain and water trick was powered entirely by pressure and valves. I left feeling very impressed by the engineering behind the place!

Feel pretty safe and confident there, eh kids?

Feel pretty safe and confident there, eh kids?

At least, until the jets of water shoot out of the seats into your rump

At least, until the jets of water shoot out of the seats into your rump

By the time we returned to Salzburg itself from the country castle, it was starting to drizzle, and then as we wandered through the famous Mirabell Gardens, it was coming down hard enough that I was worried about taking my camera out from its pouch. After posing in several Sound of Music-esque positions, I grudgingly admitted to my companions that they had been right, and that I definitely would need to get an umbrella just to be on the safe side. We were only a block away from Mozart’s living quarters, so it seemed fitting that his profile should adorn the black umbrella I purchased.

The well-worn head of this dwarf in the Mirabell Gardens is the one the Von Trapp kids marched past in the "Do Re Mi" song, patting him on the head

The well-worn head of this dwarf in the Mirabell Gardens is the one the Von Trapp kids marched past in the "Do Re Mi" song, patting him on the head

After we returned to the hostel and finally checked in officially, Hala wanted to nap but Mai and myself were still interested in doing more hiking. The brooding dark green mountain of Capuchinberg was right outside our hostel window, so we decided just to walk up that and see how far we could go before nightfall at nine. It made for a wonderful climb, starting from the lower hills covered in strange Catholic dioramas depicted the various stages of the crucifixion of Christ. Each one of these diorama boxes had a crumbling, faded-paint statue or two within, and in the fading evening light, was downright eerie. The shadowy forms of three crosses with slumped figures on them, when we came across them suddenly, was a little too much!

We spent the last hours before darkness scaling the mountain, searching for the best lookout points over the city, with the imposing white shape of the Hohensalzburg (high salt castle, literally) visible over the river, almost at eye level with us because of our height. Amusingly, the highlight for Mai was coming across a chamois goat reserve, which she got so excited about that she seriously debated climbing the fence and trying to go over and pet them. “I’ve never been this close to a wild animal before!” she exclaimed. Luckily she was too short to make it over! At the top of the mountain, we had a few minutes to absorb the beautiful view over the city, finally unimpeded by trees over our heads, and with the Frankinburg castle behind us. I sheepishly admit that I had forgotten my new umbrella back in the room, and when the skies suddenly opened up again, Mai scolded me good-naturedly and gave me her hat for protection, “or you’ll catch a cold I’m sure!” We scurried down the mountain in the dwindling daylight, past huge slugs and orange-and-black salamanders that sloughed wetly across the asphalt paths. Mai and I stopped to stare at them with equal fascination; creatures that require that much moisture to survive just aren’t common in Jordan! We made it off of the mountain with 3 minutes to spare before the sun went down and shrouded the city in gray, impenetrable mist.

That night, back at the hostel, I chatted with a few other American guys who were enjoying the 2 euro half liter beer specials, but then suddenly a woman screamed and pounded me on the arm. She was pointing at my shirt. “Are you from Wisconsin? Is that shirt for real? Because I’M from Wisconsin!” Thus began two hours of drinking and reminiscing about our home state. The woman, Katie, was studying in Austria and spoke German fluently, and she taught me a few phrases. I admitted that despite the German last name, the only second language I spoke with any fluency was Arabic, and returned the favor with a few useful terms in my own second language. Mai and Hala made brief appearances, but reminded me that we needed to be up early the next morning to see the Mozart residency and childhood home.

Mozart? Oh right, I guess there was something else famous that came out of Salzburg besides the Sound of Music. Heh heh. I won’t go into too much detail on the museums because I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything anyway and most people know all they care to know about the man, but they were good museums, enjoyable, and thanks to the Salzburg card, free. One thing I’ve noticed about Austria thus far is how good they are at automating the touristic process. Every ticket is an electronic card that just needs swiping, all of the museums have audio guides in any language you could want (“as long as it’s not Arabic”), and several of the audio guide devices even can wirelessly determine what room you’re in an automatically start playing the audio for a video in that room. Snazzy stuff. I wonder if this is what American museums are like these days; it’s literally been years since I’ve been in one.

Since we were already on the correct side of the Salzach River that bisects the city, we figured that we’d brave the still-pouring rain and use our Salzburg cards to take the funicular tram up the side of the mountain to the fortress that had been hanging over our heads all day, visible from almost everywhere in the city except downtown’s maze of modern buildings. Our Salzburg cards were valid here too, so we shook the rain off of our battered umbrellas and squeezed into the modern tram cars. Before I left Jordan, my mother told me that when my parents were on their honeymoon, they had a one-day stopover in Salzburg and the funicular to the fortress was one of the things that they had done. I imagine it was the previous version, though; this one had only been built in 1991. It was exciting to finally see the sites I’d heard them mention for years!

The fortress itself was huge and because of the weather, relatively unattended. Our tiny maps provided to us by the funicular service people were quickly smudged with water and much of our stay at the top of the mountain was carried out like an Easter egg hunt; trying to find all of the nooks and crannies and offerings within the fortress walls. Besides the great views we’d come to expect after last night on Capuchin, we first found a marionette museum, with clattering wooden puppets walking eerily about near the walls with strings being manipulated by unseen robotic limbs above. Personally, I couldn’t imagine bringing children into this place, especially after a glowing light near my feet alerted me to the fact that they had put a life-sized animatronic man model in the floor who was feebly reaching towards the shoes above, surrounded by piles of coins flung down through the grates over the years. Seriously! Don’t bring your children here if you value their mental stability! Pro: I got to play with a marionette model. However, I’m old enough that my mental stability is assured.

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The Hohensalzburg has the honor of being the largest surviving fortress from the Middle Ages left in all of Europe. Well-organized and labeled paintings and photographs throughout the museum depicted how it had expanded over the years, transforming from a religious sanctuary of the local Bishop as defense against the Emperor to a garrison to finally a royal palace. The three of us especially enjoyed the section on musical instruments and medieval weaponry on the top floor, in large spacious rooms with large windows looking out over the city in all directions. As we’d been doing in the Mozart museums, the three of us joked about the lack of Arabic language translations in any of the audio guides or souvenir guidebooks in the shops.

Dozens of eerie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks-esque weapon-toting statues

Dozens of eerie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks-esque weapon-toting statues

That evening, we took the advice of one of the hostel’s employees to go and get an authentic “Austrian dinner.” Mai had been quite insistent about having one while we were here! So we were directed to the “Die Weisser” pub a few blocks away from our building, which was filled with raucous, semi-intoxicated young Austrians in their late twenties/early thirties and some other somewhat nervous-looking tourists quietly sitting around the edges. The schnitzel was delicious and served with lingonberry sauce, which like any Wisconsinite, I at first assumed was cranberries. Two Austrian businessmen at the table over from ours explained the difference between the two when they saw my confusion, and asked Mai and Hala questions about Jordan.

For our last day together, we started out the following morning with a visit to the Royal Apartments of Salzburg, the idea of which I’m starting to realize is in every town or city in Austria. The Imperial family and their entourage loved to travel, and so over the centuries of the Hapsburg rule palaces or richly-furnished apartments were built in all of their possible stops throughout the Empire, but especially in the Austrian homeland. After the comparatively spartan decoration of yesterday’s Hohensalzburg tour, the opulence that had been frozen in time in the Royal Apartments was astounding. Wall tapestries, massive chandeliers, huge ornate kachelofens for heating purposes competing with each other for decorations…it was all more than the eye could take in at one sitting. In the last room, the Hall of Emperors, larger-than-life paintings of every Holy Roman Emperor hung solemnly, pompously clutching their crosses or the globus cruciger orb of authority.

This particular "kachelofen" is the oldest known (and relatively unornamented) example in Austria, seated in the Hall of Emperors

This particular "kachelofen" is the oldest known (and relatively unornamented) example in Austria, seated in the Hall of Emperors

The majority festivities of the afternoon were joining the famous “Sound of Music Tour” group with Salzburg’s PanoramaTours. We got a three-euro discount per person thanks to some good relations with our hostel, and the bus picked us up directly from the door. Our guide, Peter, was a jovial, smooth-talking Austrian who had obviously spent a good deal of time in the USA, as he had not even a trace of an accent. He bantered playfully with us as the bus took us out of town, re-enacting scenes from the movie (complete with voices) and using the bus driver, Lazlo, as the Straight Man in his jokes. Although it’s impossible for regular tourists to go into the two buildings that were used as the models for the Von Trapp family home, he showed us both of them from the exterior as well as the gazebo from the two love songs in the movie. As some of the tourists (Mai included) poked sadly at the large lock holding the doors to the gazebo closed, Peter informed us that until a few years ago the doors were left open, but after a 60 year old woman broke her ankle attempting to re-enact the bench-dancing scene, the authorities wisely decided to protect over-enthusiastic tourists from themselves.

Besides the movie landmarks close to home, Peter and Lazlo took us out into the beautiful Lake District, which unfortunately due to yesterday’s heavy rains were still clouded with mist with poor visibility. It didn’t stop us from imagining, though; and besides, we’d all seen it in full sunny glory in the movie. As we drove past in the bus, Peter pointed out the head offices of the Red Bull corporation, designed with blue metal complementing the green forest all around it. “The man who came up with Red Bull is the richest Austrian…and I’m the poorest!” and then the castle of a banking magnate up the side of a mountain: “Ladies, he’s single and looking! He’s the most eligible 76-year-old you’ll ever meet!”

The last stop was the Mondsee church, site of the wedding scene. The sleepy village around it appears to have come to terms with the massive daily influxes of tourists that flock to see its church, although like most Austrians they have probably not seen The Sound of Music and have no interest in seeing it either. In their mind, it’s merely American Hollywood making up a fictional money-making story based on the famous story that they’d already seen in 1956 with the German-made Die Trapp-Familie. Note the difference in size between the German and English versions of that page! The caretakers (and giftshop) of the Mondsee church were more than happy to have us wander around, and after the 60 tourists in our bus had been taking pictures in the dim gloom of the lacquered glass windows for 10 minutes I found a small button on the wall that said, Licht which I correctly deduced meant “light.” Just being my helpful self!

Hala and I at the famous Mondsee Church

Hala and I at the famous Mondsee Church

On the way back home, Peter asked us how we’d liked the trip, to which an enthusiastic round of applause gave him his answer. He beamed at us and described some of his most memorable guiding experiences, like the hate mail he’d received from people who told him, “You’ve ruined my life,” by correctly revealing that the movie isn’t at all accurate to what actually happened, and a few years ago how one teenage girl in the back of the bus who sobbed uncontrollably throughout the tour, revealing to Peter that she had watched the movie every day, twice a day, for ten years and she just couldn’t believe she was actually HERE in Austria, and it wasn’t anything like she had thought. I guess when a movie is as famous in America as The Sound of Music is, you’re bound to pick up a few crazies.

That evening, we decided to continue with our Sound of Music themed day by going to get a dinner and a show at the Sternbrau theatre. It was a campy but fun show, and the food was great although a little overpriced. The three of us had debated the day before about whether to attend this show, or an 5-piece orchestral concert called the “Mozart’s Dinner” for which formal dress was mandatory. We already had the formal dress thanks to our concerts in Germany, so it was a close one before deciding on the former. The singers and pianist were all talented, and I enjoyed singing along with the well-known songs, but all three of us agreed later on that it was a little silly and perhaps geared towards either a younger or much older audience. We walked back home under the finally cleared-sky, and I sheathed my bedraggled umbrella for what is hopefully the last time!

Shy, elderly Asians cavort beside plump Westerners as the Sound of Music Singers teach some of the dinnergoers how to dance the Lendler folk dance

Shy, elderly Asians cavort beside plump Westerners as the Sound of Music Singers teach some of the tourists the Lendler folk dance

Early the next morning, Mai and Hala departed about about 5:30 from the hostel to catch their train onto Vienna. They’ll be staying there for a night and then returning to Amman, while I continue my journey through Austria, first to Innsbruck in a few hours, and then to Vienna myself. The journey’s just beginning and hopefully I can stay energetic. Between the choir festival and this Austria detour, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a vacation this long before!

We had wanted to use our Salzburg cards to get this free boat tour...but until the last hours of the last day, the river was closed for safety reasons! Darn it.

We had wanted to use our Salzburg cards to get this free boat tour...but until the last hours of the last day, the river was closed for safety reasons! Darn it.