Friday, 18 November 2011

Mozart, Sound of Music and more- Salzberg, Austria

Salzburg- Salt Mountain.

Salzburg is the town which gave the world the gift of musical genius Mozart. However, it is known more widely as the hometown of the VonTrapp family in the 1965 movie ‘Sound of Music’ (SoM). Romantics swear by this place where Maria, Captain VonTrapp and their 7 children frolicked around on the green meadows and fell into ice-cold lakes while singing about their sorrows and happiness.

The name 'Salzburg' is derived from the Salzwelten Hallein (salt mines) located near the town. These mines  made Salzburg one of the important trade hubs of the Austrio-Hungarian empire. These mines were in operation from around 600 BC until recently. Now there is a museum near the mines. Apparently, visitors can also take a guided tour through the mines. And they can actually go on slides across the different levels of the mines! Unfortunately, due to time, constraints we weren't able to visit it on our trip.

However prosperous Salzburg might have been, it has had it's own share of bad times. Time has seen it being attacked by many kings and empires, and more recently, by enemies during the second world war in which almost half of the city was destroyed (Much like Munich). Now it is the capital of the federal province of Salzburg.

We reached Salzburg around 2 in the noon after a two hour train ride from Munich. Our hotel- The Best Western Hotel- is very close to the railway station so we walked from there. After dumping our bags in the cozy room we made way to the town.

 Salzburg is a small town with a river cutting it into two halves. The river is called Salzach, literally the name means ‘Salt River’. It’s named so not because it’s salty, but because it was used in earlier days to transport salt. The banks of Salzach are connected by various bridges (which, btw,  have been spots for many movie scenes. The town has an excellent Public Transport system, with frequent shuttles running through almost all the streets. However, the austere Indian family that we are, we took the bus no. 11 and walked around the city..

We reached the ‘Zentrum’ of the city to find the glistening blue waters of Salzach.  While crossing the bridge we heard people chanting something. At the end of the bridge we found a huge group of Chinese men and women with placards. Turned out that Chinese president Hu Jintao was in town and these people were participating in a pro-Tibet protest. There was also a group protesting against other human rights violation in China. Later we saw an entourage of black cars, near the residence square, surrounded by ‘Men in Black’...guess who was in there!

Leaving the President behind we made our way to St. Peter's Abbey. It is one of the oldest, built in 696 AD. 


While checking out the abbey we accidentally walked into the cemetery attached to the abbey. We found a lot of people surrounding the graves holding flowers and lighted candles. We found out later that it was All Saints Day where people pray for the souls of the departed. 
We made our way out into the square in front of St. Peter’s cathedral to find some old men at a game of life-size chess…missed my chess fanatic brother Bilal then.

We walked through narrow roads lined by Mozart Caf├ęs and Sound of Music Souvenir shops. Salzburg is also famous for Mozartkugeln or Mozart Balls. It’s chocolate with a pistachio core. The creator of this named it after Mozart, which was indeed a clever move as now they are part of the souvenirs that tourists take back from Austria. We also fell victim to this tourist trap and bought them as gifts for friends.

The chocolates aren't the only tribute to Mozart...Mozart has a square named after him, situated in the centre of the city. The mozartplatz has a statue of Mozart in the middle. The square is more than 150 yrs old...

My father was more keen to watch a Mozart Concert than eat the namesake chocolate. However when he found out that he’d have to shell out 150 Euros for the three of us to ‘witness a musical evening’, he decided that he’d rather visit the opera house of YouTube from the comfort of his room.

After this disappointment we were looking for something to cheer him up. Following the directions of an Arab couple we met while walking back to the hotel, we reached a Turkish restaurant. We had a delicious Turkish dinner which immediately lifted my father’s spirits. (As always :) )

Next day we booked the Sound of Music tour which would take us around to all the important locations where the movie was shot. Our driver/guide, Sonia, an enthusiastic lady, greeted us at out hotel entrance and took us from there to Mirabell Gardens. It’s a beautiful 18th century garden with pretty flower beds and some interesting statues (Which I later found out symbolize the four elements of nature). This garden is where Maria and the kids sang the famous ‘Do-re-mi’ song’. (Doe a deer..) However, in the movie the song begins with them on a Mountain slope then within minutes they are in the garden…this, I was informed, is humanly impossible as the opening scene is about 45 kms from the garden… Hollywood….:D

At the Mirabell gardens we were joined by a Mr. Rajesh and his family from Pune, The children were big time SoM enthusiasts who made the trip more fun by singing along with the songs of SoM played in the minivan. For my benefit they told me the entire plot of the movie. Sonia was impressed with how much they knew about the movie and suggested that they come back to Salzburg as guides for children. We Indians, we can win even Austrian hearts!

Sonia was an interesting guide. She kept us all hooked on to her words as between stops she related the story of the actual Von Trapp family. Yes, it’s a real story! I wasn’t aware of that till she told me. Apparently, the Hollywood adaptation of the Von Trapp family’s story is not very popular among the locals, even though it is one of the major contributing factors to the booming tourism in Salzburg. Sonia herself, even though she benefits from the ‘Sound of Music industry’, mocks the romanticization done by Hollywood. She says, to appeal to the American audience you have to throw in a few kisses here and there and make the leads fall in love with each other.

The next stop was at the Schloss Hellbrunn, mainly to see the Gazebo which served as a meeting point for the lovers in the movie. An imitation set of the interiors of the gazebo was used for two songs.


The first is Sixteen going on seventeen, where the Captain’s oldest daughter, Leisl courts a young Nazi soldier, who later breaks her heart. The dance for the song involved jumping from one bench to another. A lot of stupid tourists tried to do that and ended up breaking arms and legs. So for the public’s safety they decided to lock it and let the tourists hurt themselves somewhere else.
 The second song is when the leads, Maria and the Captain confess their love for each other and then…sing. What else?
The palace grounds were quite amazing too...

From Hellbrunn we headed to the Leopoldskron palace, a re-creation of which was used in the movie as the back of the captain’s not-so-humble abode. On the way we made a stop at a view point from where we could see the Nonnburg abbey. This is the convent where Maria first stayed as a novice, in both the movie and real life, before she was sent to the VonTrapp family as a governess (As a tutor to one of the children in real life). Many of the important scenes were shot here, including a song ‘Maria’. The abbey is a female Benedictine convent, the oldest one in that area, it has been there since 714 AD.

After some quick snaps we were back on track for the Leopolskron palace. The palace faces the Leopoldskroner Weiher- A beautiful lake!


I fell in love with that place right there! I don’t mind waking up in a huge chamber in the palace, ringing a bell for my morning fresh juice then throwing open the curtains to let the sunlight stream in while I sit pondering about life, looking at the lovely blue lake. *sigh* However, if I actually wake up in the palace like that now I would be surrounded by students staring at me, as now the palace is used as a center for conferences. And, the interiors are closed for public view. We could, however, spend some time near the lake. In the movie the kids and Maria and fall into this lake while waving to the captain and the pretentious baroness. 

Tourists take pictures here pretending to fall into the lake. I am pretty sure many actually fall in the process…for the fear of it, I stayed rooted in my spot. No sir, I am not going to risk falling into liquid ice for a silly snap!

Our last stop on the SoM tour was at the Mondsee (Moon Lake) It is actually a small village which has a lake which is named, surprise surprise, Mondsee.  The drive to Mondsee was wonderful. As we went higher and higher it grew mistier. It was still lovely.
 The roads on one side had charming wooden cottages, we then had occasional posh hotels popping up which had surprisingly traditional architecture. On our way up we made a small stop to take pictures from this lovely view point- 

Maybe it was because of the time but when we finally reached Mondsee we found a small sleepy town. It is however quite unique with bright, colourful houses and cafes. 

This charming village houses the Mondsee cathedral which was used in the movie to film the wedding scene of Captian VonTrapp and Maria. 

We had a quick look inside and found a middle aged couple on the altar steps holding hands and looking at each other, as if they are going to get married, while their daughter clicked away on her camera. *shakes head* Tourists….

The church has an attached souvenir shop in which we found over-priced DVDs of the movie and postcards of the actual wedding scene from the movie. We also checked out the Mondsee lake… The walk to the lake was lovely. We walked through a narrow path lined by trees with yellow and orange leaves…

and when we finally reached the lake, it was breath taking.. what can I say except that I have fallen in love all over again..It was calm and peaceful, there were a lot of birds around...It was really out of a post card! I would have like to stay there longer but we had to go back…

That was the end of our ‘SoM tour’. And as a parting song she played 'So Long, Farewell' from the movie.
As we trundled back into our rooms, for a small break, we still had some some sounds of music still running in our heads.

After the quick break we headed to the city’s fort- the Festung Huhenburg. We didn’t know much about it, we just went there as it was supposed to offer a nice view of the Salzburg town. What we didn’t know, however, that it is a steep climb upwards. Had we known that, we would have taken the cable car to the top from the base. Those kings sure did put in all efforts to protect themselves. So panting and heaving, we finally reached the top and let’s just say the view was worth the climb! Laid out in front of us was the entire Salzburg with the beautiful Salzach gracefully curving her way through it. 

Of course the fortress itself was worth seeing. As we were walking through dim hallways and on cobbled roads I was imagining how it would have been when the kings and their subjects lived here...think of the sound of horse hooves' on cobbled streets, the king's messenger coming out to make the latest announcement...Okay, I think I am confusing it with some medieval Period film...

The sun was setting as we walked down from the fort. After reaching the base, instead of feeling tired we felt rejuvenated somehow…My dad was happy that he was still somewhat close to his former shape. While we were walking back to our room we saw a Sikh family with two cute little sardarji boys with pagri and all. Just on an impulse we went upto them and introduced ourselves. They seemed happy to see people We spent a nice few minutes talking to them about the sights in Salzburg and the other places we visited.

By the time we reached our room we were dead-tired and in this exhaustion we made history by not having dinner that night.

The next day we were to travel to Vienna at 9 am. Before that we made a small visit to the local weekly market. Held on every Thursday, The Schranne market is an open market  near the Mirabell Gardens. 

You can find all kinds of stuff you can imagine. Fruits, Vegetables, flowers, meat, different varieties of cheese, shoes, hand bags... There were some small kiosks selling Korean medicines as well! A heavenly aroma led me to a kiosk selling freshly baked cakes, croissant, strudels and pretzels. 

We finally got to taste Austria’s famed Apple Strudel and I must say, I wasn’t really impressed with it. The butter croissants though, are to die for. I can still feel the soft croissant melting in my mouth.

There was a kiosk selling home made chocolates, the seller an old gentleman let me have some samples... I would have bought some had it not been so expensive. Most of the customers here seemed to be old couples. Some lonely old people with their dogs and occasionally a middle aged person. That’s another thing we noticed here, most of the population seems to be in their old age.

The market was a bit expensive but the art of bargaining never fails..

After half an hour of buying knick knacks and snacks, it was time to leave.

After a wonderful 2 days stay it was tough to leave this beautiful town. The lakes and mountains of Salzburg were on our mind as our train rambled towards Vienna, accompanied with the Sound of Music of course. :)


So Long, Farewell!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Europe Tour- Munich, Germany

Since the beginning of this semester I have been on my toes. I know now that attempting to read your coursework is a real drain of your time. I have also been busy with other activities on campus. My father saved me from premature graying when he suggested a week-long trip around Western Europe. I convinced my professors of the necessity of this trip, packed my bags and left the remote corners of Semenyih to the shores of Brindisi. It took me four flights and two sleep-less nights to reach Brindisi (My mom joined me from Cochin. From there we flew to Rome via Doha and then to Brindisi.)
The travel plan was already charted out by my Dad- three countries in a week. Two days in Germany, four days in Austria, two in Switzerland- Parfait!!
 30th Oct : We flew from Brindisi  to Verona (In northern Italy) early in the morning  and from there we took a train to Munich (Muenchen). 
It was four hours of travel through picture-postcard scenes. Our train rambled through the great Alps, we passed tiny European villages with green pastures and rolling hills with cows grazing on them...(The setting reminded me so much of Dil Waale Dulhaniya Le Jaayeenge , and of course I had a middle-aged version of the Kajol-Sharukh jodi with me for entertainment :D) 
We could guess we were in Austria when we saw the plains. I was now seeing what I studied in my geography textbooks back in school! The architecture was also a pointer. There is a marked deviance from the Italian architecture. The churches can be mistaken for mosques with their prominent domes. Of course the most obvious difference is the language. The names of the stations changed from Bolzano and Bressanone to Innsbruck and Worgl. We were willkommened  in Germany by box shaped houses and buildings. In a train journey that lasted less than 6 hours I had seen three different architectural styles!
Once in Munich we checked into our hotel- Hotel Wallis- and set out to explore the city in what little day light was left. Btw, on 31st Oct all European countries set their time one hour back. So now the sun sets at 4.45 pm :D
It was freezing cold outside. However, after 8 months in boiling Malaysia I embraced it with shivering hands. Our walk led us to a Pakistani Restaurant where we had excellent Chicken Shorba which warmed us up from the very inside. Afterwards we took a tram ride to see the city by night. Back in the room- jetlagged souls that we were- we collapsed into our beds
Next day we decided to take a Hop on-Hop off bus tour around the city as we had just one day and absolutely no clue about what we need to and can see in Munich. It turned out to be a pretty good idea…

Munich is the capital of the state of Bavaria. It is one of the biggest and most populated cities in Germany. Munich has a lot of history to its credit, some parts of which are dark. It was one of Hitler’s strongholds when he was in power. The first concentration camp was built a few miles away at Dachau.
What’s impressive about Munich is how it was rebuilt, to its current grandeur, after it’s almost total destruction in the 2nd World War.Walking along the streets of Munich today you can’t but admire how in just 6 decades the city has restored its past glory.

It’s amazing how the past and present go hand in hand in Munich. While the city still has it’s gardens, fountains, monuments and squares, it is also a business hub with headquarters of some of the world’s leading automobile companies. I never knew BMW stands for Bavarian Motor Works (As opposed to Beloved My Wife :D)

Our first guide in the Hop on- Hop Off, Ursula, was a pretty dynamic German lady. While talking about the beer-obsession in Bavaria she said, ‘Half liter of beer a day keeps a doctor away in Bavaria’. You can see people- old and young, men and women-sitting outside cafes and in restaurants talking over gigantic mugs of beer and digging into greasy hot dogs and burgers.
Our first stop was at Hofgarten. We hopped off there and made way into the famous English Garden. It’s a huge garden, one of the world’s largest spread around an area of 3.7 km.
It’s a beautiful place! And autumn made it all the more beautiful. Yellow, orange, crimson red, sneak peaks of surviving green leaves…on dark trees, falling, gently swaying in the air and scattered on the cobbled streets…It somehow made the monuments look grander. Many people find autumn depressing. I find inspiration in it. Autumn is nature shedding it’s past…it’s somehow nature’s way of telling us that nothing is worth clinging on to, for in the end there is always spring, rebirth-regeneration, new beginnings…

We spent a good two hours in the English Garden, even then we couldn’t cover even half of the sights there. We were informed later that the garden’s (artificial) stream is popular among surfers (Apparently they surf even in winter!)
After a cappuccino break we hopped in again. Next stop: Marienplatz. This is one of the city’s main attractions. It’s a huge square buzzing with tourists and tourist traps. The square houses the new town hall- Nueus Rathaus. It’s a grand structure built in the gothic style.

 It took almost 3 decades for the completion of this hall. Moving ahead from the square you’ll see streets lined with branded outlets- Zara, H & M, Mango… There were quite a few sales on so the place was really crowded. From there we proceeded to Viktualien Market. It was built as a substitute for the Marienplatz which was the city’s first shopping area.It’s a huge square with various kinds of food stalls. 

It was surprising to see so many people around even though it was a weekday…There is also ‘bier garten’ here where people sit nursing cold beer. There are hundred of wooden chairs and tables set out for visitors to have a quick bite on. We stopped for a small meal of grilled fish from NordSee and pickled olives from a local herb shop.

The next stop was the Nymphenburg Palace, It is one of Germany’s many palaces built on sprawling grounds, set amidst calm lakes. This was the summer residence of the Wittelsbach family.

 Apparently, the palace wasn’t big enough to accommodate their guests also, so they built a few guesthouses also near it.
It was here at Nymphenburg palace that Bavaria’s ‘Fairy Tale King’ Ludwig II was born. He is known so for his penchant for commissioning the building of many extravagant castles in and around Bavaria. Some of which have, apparently, served as inspiration for Disney castles.

Our last stop was at the Olympia Stadium, the site for the 1972 Summer Olympics. It still seems in pace with the modern world with its unique tent like design. 

The sporting facilities are now open for public use. The area around the stadium has been landscaped beautifully with lakes and pathways. There were families and couples there, kids chasing ducks and some crazy people jogging in shorts in 7 degree Celsius. We strolled around Olympia till sunset and then set back to our hotel room.

Despite our resolve to cut down on desi food and try some local food, we found ourselves in another Pakistani restaurant at dinner time. This time to pay a ridiculously over priced bill with an extra 20% ‘service charge’. Needless to say the server didn’t receive any tip.
Next day we had till mid day in Munich. After a ‘full-filling’ breakfast offered by our hotel we set off to Marienplatz to see the ‘Glockenspiel’. (It’s a traditional ceremony followed since 1908 and witnessed by thousands everyday. It involves life-sized figures on top of the tower, enacting Bavarian folk tales, set to musical tunes.)

With this we wrapped up our stay in Munich. Packed our bags and off we went to Salzberg, land of Mozart….More about it in the next post!

Auf Weidersehen for now!