Thursday, July 22, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 6: Salzburg (July 13)

Part 6 of our Central European odyssey nearly turns into a scene from Leonard, Part 6 before normalcy is restored. After arising at 5 a.m., securing a "to-go" breakfast, and drinking some coffee in the humid, mosquito-infested Hilton lobby -- thank some standing water in a nearby fountain for the latter annoyance -- we wait past the appointed hour for the bus to Salzburg to pick us up. Since other participants are supposed to board at the nearby Hotel de France, Mom goes there to see what the problem is and learns that the bus driver did indeed admit the HDF guests but forgot to stop at the Hilton. The phone number provided by the tour agency handling the trip turns out to be for a cell phone and isn't answered. Luckily, the bus has a couple more scheduled pickup stops to make -- one at the Opera House -- and the Hilton desk clerk calls a taxi for us. We get to Opernring with time to spare, thank goodness. (We also get a thoughtful letter of apology from the agency later in the day.)

Our group includes American, Italian, and Japanese tourists, providing our on-board guide -- a native Austrian named Hans -- with something of a challenge. The Japanese do speak English, so Hans gives his spiels in both English and Italian and does a pretty efficient job of it. (His lauding of the "green," animal-friendly aspects of his country is spread on just a bit thick, IMHO, but its sincerity certainly can't be questioned.) After crawling through a dozen or so suburban Vienna streets, we finally pick up speed as we hit the A1 Autobahn and head into the Vienna Woods on a westerly course for Salzburg. We have a 3 1/2-hour drive ahead of us all told, including a 30-minute rest stop at a Landzeit, one link in a national chain of rest stations and motels. To our surprise and amazement, the Landzeit looks more like a Whole Foods than any roadside nosh-pit we could name. All manner of food and drink is available for our delectation, including self-service wine (!), and there's even a gift shop with yet another rack stuffed to the gills with Disney comics. To top it all off, the view of the Alpine foothills from the back of the establishment is beautiful. The New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that we passed on the way up to JFK simply can't compete.

Nicky and I at Landzeit

Notable sights on the way to Salzburg include several massive wind farms and the 900-plus-year-old Benedictine monastery at Melk. Once we get off the A1 at Mondzee, we also get a leisurely glimpse of various small towns in the Salzkammergut lakes region. Nicky and I immediately start thinking about a return visit to this lovely area, to which a whirlwind drive-by can't really do justice. We finally pull into Salzburg at about noon and are dropped off at the Mirabell Gardens, prominently featured in The Sound of Music... as the available tourist propaganda is quick to remind us. And therein lies one of the major problems with the much-loved "Home of Mozart": a decided uptick in the "tackiness index" that was noteworthy by its absence in both Budapest and Vienna.

At the Mirabell: a familiar setting for "Sound of Music" fans

Due to the large number of people in our party, we join a different guide for our walk through the Mirabell and into the "Old Town" district, nestled beneath the looming Hohensalzburg Castle. The guide has to pull triple duty, giving information in English, French, and Spanish. The resulting awkwardness (combined with the guide's noticeable b.o.) finally convince us to break off and do our own exploring. The charming narrow streets of "Old Town" are filled with the expected high-end stores, each with its own unique descriptive street sign. Even the local McDonald's has its own "personalized" marker (though, apparently, it took some arm-twisting by the city to convince Mickey D's to cooperate). A water fountain consisting of a stream of water from one of the oldest surviving Roman aqueducts serves as a trickling token of the immense age of the city. Unfortunately, side by side with these historical delights are such sobering sights as an ice-cream parlor (complete with giant plastic cone) on the ground floor of Mozart's birth house, cardboard cutouts (but, thank God, no bobbleheads) of "Moze" being used to sell a certain brand of candy, and a kiosk with refrigerator magnets meant to represent... oh, the pain... big hunks of Wiener Schnitzel. The effect of the latter is not unlike that of those rubber pools of fake vomit that used to be sold in novelty stores and comic-book ads. For a city regarded as a cultural touchstone, these features are disconcerting, to say the least. I wonder how much of the "tourist-ification" of Salzburg post-dates The Sound of Music, which must have motivated a much wider assortment of visitors to come to the city. We'd certainly like to visit more historically congenial sights, such as the Hohensalzburg and some of the local churches, but we simply don't have the time to do so.

The weather, though a bit cooler, remains warm, so we spend a lengthy lunch period at the Sternhaus, an open-air, but blessedly shaded, beer garden that dates back to the 16th century. (One of the charms of "Old Town" is that virtually all of the buildings, no matter how mundane their present use, date back anywhere from 200 to 600 years.) Here, we finally "do our wurst" and get some authentic sausage (no offense intended to the good-in-a-pinch stuff we had during the Railjet trip), potatoes, and sauerkraut. For dessert, Nicky finally gets to enjoy her much-prized apple strudel. I take a slightly more practical approach and have some ice cream in an attempt to cool down.

Into the shadow of "tack" rode... er, walked... the six hundred... er, three...

All too soon, following one final stroll through the Mirabell (and not a single singing or dancing nun in sight), we're back on the road and headed for Vienna. On the way, we make another rest stop, this one at a branch of Rosenberger, yet another travel-trade chain (this one, a combination of a buffet and a sit-down place, rather like a Shoney's) that turns out to have much more going for it than expected. My dish of goulash has far more kick to it than the Dinty Moore-esque "edible and no more" stuff to which I had been resigned. As for the service, imagine a Friendly's where the waitstaff really is friendly!

Back at the hotel by 8:45 pm, Nicky and I have just enough time for a relaxing dip in the hotel whirlpool before retiring. Now the question before the house is: Will the bus snafu be repeated tomorrow, our day of departure?

Up next: We have our own "Titanic" experience aboard Austrian Airlines... and no, that doesn't mean our plane hits an iceberg.

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