Salzburg, Sweat, & the Sound of Music

xingfu n. (Chinese) A sort of happiness felt through having everything you want in life and not having any looming worries.

To no one’s surprise, my train journey to Salzburg was not pleasant, though not as bad as it could have been, but maybe that’s just me finally adjusting to the constant shit state of these journeys.  Aside from having to sit on the floor for the entirety of the second ride (all in all not too bad) and one instance of waving at an automatic door unable to get it open only to have an elderly man come up and pull it open with ease (honestly, if I had $1 for every time I’ve made an idiot out of myself on these travels, I could have practically funded the entire trip) it wasn’t that bad.  And the train ride through the Austrian alps was nothing if not beautiful.  Both sides of the train track were lined with fields of green that ended abruptly at the bases of massive rock peaks that shadowed the train and the tiny towns laying at their bases.  Austrian scenery was everything I had imagined it to be and more.

I was also incredibly lucky at how close my couchsurfing host’s flat was to the train station and after about ten minutes of walking, I was already from one to the other.  Couchsurfing is something I’m still getting use to, especially the nerve-racking moments right before you actually meet your host.  You never really know what you’re walking into and a thousand questions race through your head all at once: Is this person going to be majorly weird?  Will they speak English very well? Will they like me?  I hit the buzzer outside the door and stood there waiting to see who was going to open the door.  A few seconds later, the white door swung open and a young lanky guy stood in the doorway.  I’m not sure why but I didn’t expect Christian to be so tall.  He warmly welcomed me and ushered me into his studio flat, a single bedroom with his bed, a desk, a pullout couch bed all made up for me, and a small kitchen.  It was tiny and modern but still incredibly nice and in a nice, quiet area of the city shadowed by the large Kapuzinerberg hill that literally rose in the form of a giant rock wall about three blocks from the flat.

I settled me stuff in a bit as Christian and I chatted a bit about the usual things: ourselves, traveling, his job, my studies, etc. Talking about myself had become so mechanical and rehearsed at this point because I am constantly repeating many of the same things every time I meet somebody new. A little while later, a few of his friends stopped by to hang out for a bit and while we chatted small bits, for the most part, I just sat on my computer working on my blog while they chatted away in Austrian German.  By the time his friends left, darkness had fallen and I was starving.  I made a quick dinner for myself using my bag of emergency pasta and some pasta sauce Christian kindly let me have.  I had almost forgotten what pasta tasted like with something other than just butter and salt on it.

Knowing I like hiking, Christian proposed we take a late night hike up Kapuzinerberg to the Trumpeter Schlössl, a medieval fortress located over 500 steps up the hill.  It was nearly pitch black outside as we wound our way blindly up the path, occasionally stumbling over stairs our unadjusted eyes failed to point out to us.  In this veil of darkness, we even saw the occasional firefly!  “There’s usually a lot more out here,” Christian told me.  “These ones aren’t very exciting.”  Meanwhile, I was staring at them in absolute awe, having somehow never seen a firefly before.  To me, it was the most exciting thing since the giant snail the size of my palm I had found in Bled.  At the top of the fortress, we sat on the stone wall overlooking the orange glow of Salzburg for a little while before finally heading back down the opposite side of the fortress, the side with the 500 stairs.  Thankfully, the city lights were bright enough on this side of the hill that we didn’t have to fumble our way down these steps, which, knowing me, would have probably ended in disaster.

Christian left for work the next morning while I was still asleep and would not be back until the next evening, due to the fact that he planned on going to see a friend that evening.  That meant I had the flat to myself for the next couple days, which I was honestly kind of excited about.  It was nothing against Christian at all but the prospect of being able to just sit in bed without anyone around was something I hadn’t really had since Oxford.  I desperately needed a lie in day and thus for the majority of the morning, aside form a quick trip to the grocery store to buy myself some food to last for the next week or so, I laid about the apartment, watching my newest TV show binge, Parks and Recreation, and editing photos from Bled. 

Eventually, however, I did start to feel a bit guilty for wasting my time in tis beautiful city by just sitting in my apartment, especially since I had already cut one day off my stay here by remaining in Bled an extra night.  That’s why travel is so exhausting; Because you convince yourself that you have to making the most of every single moment when really, you enjoy things so much more if you just have time to step back from the rush every so often.  Nevertheless, I set off into city.  Salzburg is nice because it is much smaller than Vienna, and much more manageable to see on foot.  In fact, it is easy to see the majority of Salzburg in just a few hours, which is exactly what I did.  In just ten minutes, I had already made it from Christian’s flat to the main area of town. 

As I was perusing down the main shopping street that would take me to the Salzach River, where I would cross into the Old Town section of the city, I was suddenly pounced upon by a salesman who was immediately chatting away about Dead Sea mineral something of other.  Before I knew it, I was standing inside this little shop with lotions being shoved in my face.  Alright pal, first off, you should know that I despise the feel of lotion on my hands.  It’s greasy and gross and impossible to do anything productive with.  Second, I was reading a book while walking down the street.  It’s not even like I was looking remotely interested at your products so why me? And third, you should know that I am both poor and a backpacker so I have neither the money nor the space to buy anything.  Sorry mate.  But that wasn’t enough to deter him.  He had some weird salt scrub on my hands in seconds pointing out the dirty water from all the bacteria the salt was sucking out of my skin because it opens up the pores or some shit like that. “And this scrub is only 60€!” Oh, only 60€, well if that’s the case, sign me up.  Not!  I politely thanked him but declined, telling him I was backpacking and thus unable to carry anything.  “Well, I’ll make you a special offer.  I’ll give you both the slat scrub and the lotion for 50€.”  Did you not hear me?  I said I didn’t have space so you double the amount of stuff you want to give me? I explained again, a little less politely this time, that I wasn’t interested and I didn’t have the space.  “Okay, okay, I’ll make you a really special deal since you are alone and won’t tell anybody.  I’ll give you just the salt scrub for 25€.” So suddenly the price had gone from 60€ to less than half that?  For a miracle skin cleaner, he was sure anxious to drop its value. I had been polite up to this point, but he clearly wasn’t getting it. “Look, I don’t think you understand that I literally have no room to carry anything.  I’m not interested.” And I left. Salespeople are terrible no matter what country you are in.

I spent the next couple hours wandering around in the hellish heat of the day, sweating bullets and looking at all the pretty buildings and odd shops of Salzburg.  Salzburg can be summarized with two main concepts: 1) Music- Between The Sound of Music and Mozart, it is everywhere, though I must say that walking by Mozart’s house was pretty cool. 2) Doughy food such as apfelstrudel and pretzels- I myself broke down and bought a giant pizza pretzel that was as big as my head.  In some instances, the two concepts were combined, as I discovered when I passed a shop with pretzels knotted in the shape of treble clefs hanging in the window.

One of my favorite places in the city, however, was a little church yard covered in old family tombs, graves, and underground catacombs.  As I’ve mentioned before, I find graves morbidly beautiful and Romantic in concept.  Here, there rows upon rows of old tombstones and statues, covered lush ivy and bright colored flowers.  The little church itself was lined with rose colored marble plaques bearing German and Latin phrases I couldn’t understand. Inside the tiny church, decorated only by the bright stained glass windows above the alter, they actually had a temporary art exhibition on display titled, “Human Kind”.  Though small, the cases bearing wooden statues carved into eerily elongated human forms morphed together and split apart to signify human existence were beautiful and fascinating.  Finally, I decided to climb up above the city to a giant fortress that sat on top of a different hill, because who doesn’t like climbing up to fortresses in near 40° weather? I went to the top only to find, not at all to my surprise, that it cost money to get in, so I turned around and left, not really knowing why I had even bothered in the first place.

At that point, I had honestly seen a great majority of the city and it was simply too outside to wander any farther so was able to go back to Christian’s flat feeling less guilty.  Once there, I was seized by the impulse of recording a cover and quickly did that, trying no to feel too stupid holding my purple ukulele and singing into a camera as I sat in abandoned lot next to the apartment building.  I feel like I mention me playing music a lot on this blog without you guys actually knowing what I sound like, so I’ve decided to provide a link to the cover I did.  I’m not great, I’m not even really that good.  My instrumental ability is just barely passable enough to accompany my singing, which is the bit I really love to do.  I also don’t pretend to be the best singer in the world, but I like to think that my voice is at least pleasant, especially for country and folk music, to which it is suited for very nicely.  But anyway, I feel as though you guys deserve to at least be able to have some auditory concept of what I sound like since I talk about music so much so there you go.

As I stretched out on my bed that night, not wearing pants (trousers for any of you Brits out there) and not feeling guilty about it because it was so hot and I was alone, I cracked open a tub of chocolate ice cream.  I deserved a bit of luxury.

The following day, I again had a leisurely morning, having an entire free day with nothing really planned.  My only plans were for the next day and so that still left the question as to what I should do on this day.  I eventually decided first to walk out to the nearby Mirabell Palace, with its lovely expanse of gardens and fountains.  From there, I headed a fairly considerable distance away from center Salzburg, about 6km to Hellbrunn Shloss most famous for its fountains, which you had to pay to go see, and of course, the gazebo used in the filming of The Sound of Music.  I naturally took a photo in front of the music which I later captioned with a very cliché “I am 16 going on 17.”  You can take the kind of musical theatre but you can’t take musical theatre out of the kid. 

By the time I returned, with a considerable blister on my feet from sweating in my sandals. Christian had returned and we decided to take a drive outside of Salzburg to the nearby village and lake, Fuschl am See, to do some swimming to take the heat off the day.  The lake itself was incredibly crowded and we could barely find a spot to lay out our towels (or hammock in Christian’s case) but the pale milky blue was lovely and refreshing.  I must admit that I was not a fan of its shallow depth as it meant I had to keep my legs tucked slightly up against my body to avoid putting my feet down in piles of mud and seaweed (no thank you).  Once we had cooled off, we stretched out the towels and while Christian dozed off to sleep, I read for a few hours, finally finishing the final Game of Thrones book and starting on the equally as long and ambitious Lonesome Dove novels.  Reading for my thesis?  What’s that?  We returned back to the flat with the intention of rock climbing up the nearest face of Kapuzinerberg, but just as we reached the base of the wall, the sky had darkened ominously and thunder boomed across the land.  A few minutes later, the rain began and we knew we would be stupid to climb wall in the dark, rain, and lightning, so we set off for home.

The next morning, I awoke early and slipped out of the flat before Christian was even up and moving.  On that particular day, I was going on a trip out to a village called Hallstatt, which would take me a good three hours to get to, but I didn’t care. Hallstatt was a must see, one of the few non-negotiable plans I had when coming to Europe.  Story time: Once upon a time, and by that I mean sometime around my freshman year of high school, my good friend Halisia and I were eating pizza in a little local pizza place.  The television above our table was turned to the Travel Channel, and on the screen, we saw a special on the most beautiful little town, positioned right on the shores of a dark blue lake on one side, with sharp mountain cliffs rising on the other.  It hardly seemed real and for some reason, we were captivated with this place called Hallstatt.  One day, we said we would go there, and ever since that fateful day, I’ve always had Hallstatt in the crosshairs of my travel destinations.  I was saying earlier how I don’t get swept up in the obsessions with certain places, with two exceptions.  This was one of them.  I was finally realizing my dream. 

I first took a bus from Salzburg to the small town of Bad Ischl, where I would jump on another bus to Hallstatt itself.  My tickets in all, there and back, ended up costing me around 30€, which is a bit expensive for a day trip but no one ever said dreams were free.  The final ride from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt was a short one, essentially going straight through the mountains via tunnels drilled straight through the mountains.  Interestingly enough, Hallstatt was once reachable only by boat until the Seestraβe, or “Lake Road”, was built in 1890.  However, no buses could originally fit on this road, which was a huge hindrance of tourism in the town. But locals were (understandably) okay with this and 58% of residents actually voted against widening the road.  It eventually passed and upon got off the bus, I could immediately see why they didn’t want it to pass in the first place.  The small little village was packed with tourists, mostly large groups of Asians with their selfie sticks and utter disregard for anyone else.  I know that’s stereotypical but the thing about that particular stereotype is that it is unfortunately true and I have witnessed such groups time and time again over my travels.

But once I got over the mass crowds and kind of just accepted that fact, I was swept away with the charm of Hallstatt. Alexander von Humboldt called it “the loveliest lake and village in the world” and, coming from Montana where beautiful lakes are as common as cows, I wasn’t sure whether I quite agreed with the entirety of that statement, but I at least had to conclude that it was pretty high up there. Standing on the shores of the lake, looking at the town curving around its shores, its wooden buildings piled on top of each other in impossibly tight layers, it was perfectly picturesque, exactly like it looked on television.  The nostalgic part of me couldn’t help but wish Hali had been there with me to see it.

I began walking through the town, which was essentially one single street lined on each side with wooden buildings, each one decorated with ornate wood carvings, bright colored ornamental paintings, and tons of flowers popping against the dark wood stain. On the side opposite the lake, the buildings were stacked up, layered so precariously up the mountainside that I could hardly believe they were still standing.  Doctor and Writer Franz Satori said of the town in 1831, “I have yet to see a place as strangely situated Hallstatt.  The houses seem to sit upon each other, built as they are on the sloping, narrow bank, clinging like swallows’ nests and reflected in the enamel green of the lake.”  There exists nothing but stone and water in this place, with the town placed smack dab in between the two.  There is local joke that the only two ways to die in Hallstatt are by drowning or being hit by a falling stone.

While the upper layer buildings were either churches, lodging, or residences, the ones directly lining the streets were restaurants and all manner of odd little shops.  The biggest commodity for sale was salt products, whether it be for baths or cooking.  Hallstatt actually comes form the Celtic word “hal” meaning “salt” due to the salt mines located high up on the mountain.  Therefore, salt to Hallstatt is much like huckleberries are to Bigfork.  Woodworking shops were also quite common and in some you could actually look inside to see workbenches with wood shavings piled high on the floor, since everything was hand might right there.  Hallstatt’s artistic culture goes back for centuries, when materials like ivory, amber, and gold were found decorating anything and everything.  And of course, it wouldn’t be Austria if you didn’t stumble across the occasional lederhosen. During my trek around town, I also took a path going steep up the mountain, but after discovering it led nowhere, unless I wanted to walk all the way back to Salzburg, I abandoned the mission and retreated back the ground level.

After I had walked the village end to end in both directions, I was sufficiently hot and sweaty.  The task became finding a spot on the lake that wasn’t private property where I could go swimming.  Shortly outside the opposite end of the town, just past the bus stop in the opposite direction I had initially wandered, was a lovely little green park right on the lake.  Judging from all the people stretched out on the grass in bathing suits, I could only assume it allowed to swim there.  I stripped off into my bathing suit, and dove in the dark waters of the lake.  I’m opposite from most people.  I love swimming in eerily dark waters because it means the water is both clean and deep and thus there is no chance of me putting my feet down into mud.  As lovely as the lake at Fuschl am See had been the previous day, I much preferred the comfort of stretching out my feet to tread water without the feet that I might brush up against some algae. After some swimming, I got out and stretched out on a bench to read.  When I got too hot again, I dove back in and process repeated until it was time for me head back on the bus.

That night when I returned to Salzburg, Christian informed me that we wouldn’t be able to climb the wall because, after some inquiry, he discovered that in order to get the key for it, we would have needed to call on Friday.  Alas and alack.  Instead, Christian and I just hung around his flat.  He offered me an Aperol Spritzer, which is a pretty common summer drink in both Italy and Austria, consisting of white wine, Aperol flavoring, and lemonade.  At first I declined, not wanting to take advantage of his hospitality.  “You’re so well behaved,” Christian said.  Well I hadn’t been called that in a while.  “But I guess I do not know whether you are actually well behaved or you just don’t want one.” I laughed at that and finally accepted one.  We turned on the old Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon and watched until we both began drifting off to sleep.

I got up when Christian did to go to work the next day though I wouldn’t be leaving until that afternoon.  Before he left, I thanked him for everything he had done for me and we bid each other farewell.  I have a fierce sense of equality and thus couchsurfing is actually a bit difficult for me because I feel as though nothing I can do or say can really repay people for the kindness they show me, and I feel terribly guilty for that for some reason.  Perhaps I shouldn’t.  Travel is making me get better at accepting help, learning to pay it forward not back, but I still struggle with it at times.  I spent the rest of the morning just relaxing, playing a bit of music, and repacking my stuff, before finally clearing out of the flat and heading to the bus station.  After a few days of feeling like a real person again, I resumed my state of impermanence, a leaf blowing in the wind, a cloud drifting across the sky.