Maybe you are late getting the message: You’d better be good, for goodness sake. Or if you live in certain regions of Germany and Austria, my friend, you’d better be good, for badness and brimstone’s sake. A reckoning is coming and coming quickly. Today is the eve of Nikolaustag– St. Nicolas Day, aka Boot Night. Children put out boots and St. Nick fills them with candy. Unless, *sigh*, well, there’s no easy way to tell this . . .
Salvation by chocolate is not a sure thing in middle Europe.
Judgment is real and is more gruesome than a lump of coal.
On Nikolaustag or its eve, St. Nick is accompanied by his Shadow– his ominous, treacherous, hideous shadow. The Shadow offers not candy and kindness but switches, ashes, and a little roughing up. Or, possibly, if you are really bad (you know who you are), you’ll be stuffed in a sack and carried off to the netherworld . . . in one piece or many, it makes no difference to this guy.
I kid you not.
The exact form of this shadow is dependent on the region of Germany– Schwarz Peter, Knecht Ruprecht, or Krampus are all grotesque and the stuff of nightmares, but, for my money, Krampus is the most horrible. Of the many things Bavaria and its neighboring corner of Austria do right–and there are so many– Krampus is not one. He is, literally, a beastly demon. But don’t take my word for it, let Anthony Bourdain bring you up to speed:
Those of you who live in Germany or have followed my blog in 2014 and 2015 have more than a little knowledge of this Christmas tradition, so I won’t be long winded here. (But you can revisit those old blog posts and get up to speed at these links: St. Nick and Belsnickel, and Saints and Demons)
If you have been nice this year, or even reasonably nice this year (I don’t know about you all, but the bar is set pretty low in my house), then you will probably make it out of this holiday alive. You may even get a bootful of candy!
I did have a friend whose slightly naughty younger brother once got only a bra in his boot– and, to clarify, this was not taken as encouragement to be naughty, but meant to humiliate him into being better next year. Oh, that crazy German sense of humor!
We’re Stateside this year, but we are still celebrating Boot Night. Wish us luck with that– I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.
Tucked below the headlines of terror yesterday was another sad note, from a very uplifting life. Charmain Carr, the actress who played Liesl in The Sound of Music, has died. For all of us who love the movie, or love the story and spirit of the real von Trapp family, or love the city of Salzburg– and this must surely include a lot of us– this news is sure to prompt a moment of reflection.
I offer a small tribute here: photos of Salzburg and the Villa Trapp in a muted sepia.
Today’s travel memory is brought to you by summertime heat–days that start out hot, become alarmingly hotter, and end in your body, bones and all, reduced to a puddle on the asphalt. If this sounds like the beginning of another post on my new home in Florida . . . oddly enough, it isn’t. Today’s memory is from Schloss Schonbrunn (Schonbrunn Palace), in Vienna, Austria. It was built in the 17th and 18th centuries, modified in the 19th century, and partially reconstructed after WWII (the palace took a direct hit in 1945)– so it is, in every sense, “one for the ages.”
Emperor Leopold I had planned to build a palace that would rival, or surpass, Versailles. At the end of the day, Schonbrunn did not meet that goal, but its elegant lines and interiors still impress. The Palace has over 1400 rooms, but only 30-40 are opened for touring.
We visited on an outrageously hot day in July of 2015, when the mercury was hovering at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We toured the inside of the palace, which was impressive–but we were wilting in the un-airconditioned and little-ventilated space, along with a throng of fellow tourists, so our photos skew toward views of the garden, where at least we could catch a slight breeze. (Two days later, we’d find ourselves in Budapest and standing under the nozzles of misting trucks, brought out to offer relief from the extreme heat– relief that’s hard to come by in a region that so rarely deals with this sort of heat, and where air conditioning is the exception to the rule.)
The grounds are massive, and they boast not only beautifully manicured gardens, but plenty of shady spots for sitting, and a maze for your children (or you!) to test your wits in. (Being somewhat witless, and horrifically directionally challenged, I sent the children in ahead of me and then wandered in shady patches and took photographs.)
Schonbrunn is a very popular tourist destination, so if you go in the summer, you might consider purchasing tickets online ahead of time to avoid lines. Schonbrunn also hosts many concert series and has a zoo on its grounds, so there is lots to do. Plan on spending at least half a day there (better still, a whole day).
Finally, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite photos from the day: a bicycle in the gardens. Not sure why I love this photo so– maybe it brings a human scale to a massive palace and grounds, or simply offers a sense of adventure and movement (travel!) to a formal landscape.
Our holiday visit to Salzburg was fantastic, but it began with a few grumbles. No snow? We wanted flurries and the full picturesque Christmas package, but no snow was in the forecast. In fact, it was nearly balmy by Alpine standards in December. (It turns out, however, that “Alpine balmy” is plenty cold as the sun drops low, so we quickly stopped complaining and huddled over our steamy mugs of mulled wine!)
I’ll give you the quick tour of our Salzburg shenanigans here, complete with photos.
We live near the French-German border, and Salzburg is nestled just into the Austrian side of the German-Austrian border. This makes for a long drive, but we were up for it. We left early, so we’d have a full half day as we rolled into Austria.
As we rolled in, we made our first stop at Hellbrunn Palace–right on the edge of Salzburg. In 2014, we’d visited Helbrunn in late November, just as Christmas Market stalls were being built for the upcoming holidays. It about killed us to see all of the preparations but miss the festivities themselves, so our first order of business was to remedy that injustice. And Hellbrunn did not disappoint!
Hellbrunn offered a charming market and a petting zoo/nativity area for children, all set in the fantastic gardens of the Palace. I’ll post a couple of photos here, but say little more about this, as I’ve already written a post about Hellbrunn’s market (here).
After eating and drinking our way through Hellbrunn, we headed to Villa Trapp to check in and have a quick rest–we needed a little energy before heading out for an evening in Salzburg.
The main attraction for us, especially that first evening in Salzburg, was the Christkindlmart (the Christ-child Market, or sometimes called the Weihnachtsmarkt–Christmas Market). There were a number of spots in the city where you could cruise through markets–Mirabell Gardens (which we did the next day), around the Dom (cathedral), and Mozartplatz (where there was ice skating).
The markets were charming in the moonlight, with Christmas lights twinkling overhead and warmth, light, and wonderful smells tumbling out of each stall. We enjoyed Gluhwein (warm mulled wine), sausages, Weihnachts Schmarr’n in many varieties (with nuts, apple, gingerbread, etc, this is like big bread or pancake chunks cut up and fried with sugar), sugar and apple pretzels, and white Russians in steamy mugs.
At some point, we wandered into the Sternbrau Brewery and Beergarden for a cozy dinner. Everyone went to bed happy.
The next morning, we picked up breakfast on the run and headed for town, with our sights set on the Hohensalzburg Fortress, sat high atop the hill over the city. But to get to the top, you have to start from the bottom. At the foot of the hill, we wandered through a town just starting to come to life for the day. My nephew stuck his head around a corner, only to find that he’d stumbled on the entrance to St. Peter’s Cemetery– a familiar sight to anyone who has watched The Sound of Music. (Although I think that scene must have been largely reproduced on a soundstage, it is clear that this is the location represented in the film.) The cemetery is beautiful–set in the churchyard, with its back up against the stone hills of Salzburg. And those stone hills hold their own surprises. There is a doorway in the hills, to the back of the cemetery, which leads into the catacombs.
The catacombs are hand-hewn, carved into the rock of those hills. For a small fee, you can tour the catacombs–a short but lovely tour, it’s worth the fee. There are small chapel spaces cut into the rock, as well as windows and overlook perches, where you have a nice view of the church and cemetery. After we had finished up with the catacombs, we started the climb toward the Hohensalzburg Fortress.
Let me say, for the record, that the fortress is fantastic and the views are not to be missed. Within the fortress, you can wander the walls and interior courtyard, visit the fortress museum, and enjoy the Marionette
Museum there. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon.
Still, for me, the greater treat of the afternoon was Nonnberg Abbey, which is tucked around the bend of the hill just below the fortress. We knew the Abbey was there, but had been told that it’s not open to enter, so the best we could hope for was to peek into the gates. (Those famous gates from The Sound of Music— Nonnberg is the Abbey where Maria was a novice.)
Imagine our delight when we found the gates to Nonnberg open, and we were able to wander in. The chapel (which is the actual location where the von Trapps were married) is stunning and still small enough to feel intimate. The courtyard and garden cemetery tucked just inside the walls of the Abbey were serene. It was a great place to linger for a moment above the bustle of the town.
After visiting Nonnberg and the Hohensalzburg, we headed back down into town and eventually found ourselves at the Sacher Cafe– world famous for its Sacher Torte. We ordered a myriad of desserts and nibbled off of each plate. The cakes were brilliant and the coffee was outstanding. We had no luck getting a table in the restaurant for lunch (reservations needed, at least during Christmas week), but I’m so glad that we made our way back for dessert. In a city of fantastic food, this cafe ranks among the best of the best.
Honestly, I don’t remember what happened after our afternoon nibbles. I expect we toddled back to Villa Trapp for a moment’s rest before hitting an evening of Christmas markets again.
Another night to wander the markets under the stars. We spent a lot of time doing that, in various locations, during the Christmas season. But it never got old. Salzburg’s market offered so many tasty delights, and so much “eye candy”-old-world-decoration that it was impossible not to be enrapt by it all. My favorite shop window on our last night in Salzburg was a confectionery shop that boasted a sugary replica of the Oberndorf Chapel, just outside of Salzburg. This is the chapel where the Christmas hymn “Silent Night” was written.
After an evening of wandering, ogling Christmas baubles, eating, and drinking, it was once again off to Villa Trapp for a long winter’s nap.
We woke slowly Christmas Eve morning, some of us taking breakfast in the von Trapp’s dining room, and then set out (our bags packed for home) to visit Mondsee before the long ride back to the Rhineland-Pfalz in Germany. Mondsee’s cathedral is probably best known as the wedding chapel in The Sound of Music, and it’s a stunner. It was a treat to see it decked out for Christmas. And, as always, it was a treat to stop by Cafe Braun before leaving town and eat breakfast and some of the best apple strudel to be found on the planet. (I ordered the strudel with both ice cream and cream–I don’t know if they make these out of an egg custard recipe or with some liqueur I can’t quite pin down, but they are incredible.)
Cathedral at Mondsee
We left for home with tired feet, full bellies, and a storehouse of wonderful Christmas memories. Next year I may be celebrating Christmas far from Salzburg, but I feel certain that Salzburg will be there in spirit– I’ll perfect my strudel and custard recipes, I’ll drink my mulled wine in a Salzburg gluhwein mug, and I’ll carry a certain old world spirit. Like Hemingway’s Paris, Salzburg in this season will be my moveable feast.
You’ve probably put away your holiday decorations, and it’s far too early to start planning for next year’s season. But before spring rolls around, I wanted to write about Salzburg and the Christmas festivities we enjoyed there during the holidays.
In late November of 2014, we visited Salzburg and Villa Trapp just before the holiday markets opened–I made a vow to return for the 2015 holidays so I could experience the season in full swing in this corner of Austria. I’d been to Salzburg once before (about 17 years ago), in warmer weather, but had only stopped for the day, and I’d been chomping at the bit to get back ever since. Salzburg absolutely captured my heart.
Well, as long as I’m beginning this post with flashbacks to past trips, let’s lay all the groundwork for this recent trip. Or, as they say in Salzburg, “let’s start at the very beginning. . . a very good place to start.”
Salzburg is tucked just inside Austria, on the German-Austrian border, only about an hour and a half from Munich. It’s a fabulous city for wandering and nibbling, for venturing out to Salt Mines (more interesting than it sounds) or WWII sites, and for listening to Mozart or channeling Julie Andrews.
If you’re not very familiar with Salzburg, here’s the 30-second run-down: home to Mozart and Maria von Trapp; fabulous apple strudel, pretzel vendors, and confectionary; incredible mountains, lakes, and countryside; ice caves and salt mines; Hitler’s Eagles Nest and Nazi camps; fortresses, monasteries, castles, gardens, and marionette theaters.
Of course, the American thing to do in this city is to take The Sound of Music tour–which we did back in 2014. It was fun, if a little cheesy (a busload of American tourists with a soundtrack of Julie Andrews speeding through the Austrian countryside–you can imagine). Among the tour stops were Leopoldskrone Palace (used to film the back veranda of the von Trapp house in the movie), Hellbrunn Palace (near the home used as the facade of the von Trapp house, and the final resting spot of the “16 going on 17 gazebo”), Mirabell Gardens in downtown Salzburg, Lake Fuschl (a beautiful town out in the Alpine Lake Region), and Mondsee (another lake town and the filming location for the wedding scene).
On our 2014 trip, we also toured the Salt Mines and visited Berchtesgaden (on the German side of the border). Both are worth a visit. In the salt mines, you not only learn about the industry that made this area so rich, but you get to ride the steep and long wooden slides that the miners used to descend into the mines, and you ride in a boat on an underground lake, which is a really eerie and fun experience. As for Berchtesgaden, besides being a picturesque town, it has a very storied history with the 3rd Reich. My first visit there,
about 17 years ago, included an interesting historical tour of the area. Our 2014 visit was just a quick pass through. Neither time was I able to visit the Eagle’s Nest–Hitler’s mountain top retreat high above the city (and well known as the place where one of the plots to murder him was foiled). The Eagle’s Nest is only open during warm weather, as the road up the mountain is treacherous. I’ve always had mixed feelings about visiting that space, so I didn’t mourn the lost opportunity for long.
On to the epicenter of both our 2014 and 2015 trips to Salzburg: Villa Trapp. The von Trapp’s actual home was opened a few years ago as a small boutique hotel. The owners, Christopher and Marianne, had a struggle on their hands seven or eight years ago, when they proposed opening Villa Trapp as a hotel. The locals were furious, anticipating a hotel creating a disruption to the quiet neighborhood where the Villa Trapp sits and adding to the already manic Sound of Music industry in the city. But somehow the squabble was resolved, and the Villa Trapp was opened without disruption to the neighborhood. The Villa will never be a large scale hotel–it is, as it was, a very grand family home. In fact, it is a very quiet place, sat on a large, walled property in the neighborhood of Aigen (on the edge of Salzburg) and housing only a few guests even when fully booked. (I believe the Villa was, historically, a 14 bedroom house. How many guests it can now accomodate in its bedrooms and spacious suites, I don’t know, but the staff told us in December 2015 that the hotel was fully booked and we heard almost no one else, despite having some company when we took breakfast in the dining room.)
The photos in the top banner of this post are from Villa Trapp.
We stayed there the 22-24th of December, and were sad to leave when we learned that they were holding a Christmas Mass in English on Christmas Day there. The Villa was purchased by the Trapp family around 1923 (it’s a mid 19th century villa). They lived there until 1938, when they fled the country and left the house in the hands of a missionary group. (The von Trapps didn’t actually have to walk over the mountains, they took a train–but they did get out just one day before the borders were closed by the Nazis, so the escape still counts as dramatic in my book!) Hitler quickly occupied Austria, and the SS took over the home for Heinrich Himmler’s office and residence space. After the war, the villa went back to the hands of the religious order. The order remained in the villa until around 1992–which is why it was unavailable as a filming location when The Sound of Music was being shot.
The villa is a very gracious place to rest on your travels, and it is so very steeped in its history–the owners are glad to speak with you about the home, and they even offer a tour of the house at noon each day, and have a DVD available that takes you through the family and house history and features one of the von Trapp children (Maria–known as Louisa in the movie–who passed away at 99 years old in 2014).
This Christmas, we were joined on our trip by my sister and her family. We each had a spacious suite of rooms, and felt pampered as we rested up from our drive and our days out in Salzburg. Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt (Chirstmas Market) was in full swing, and we enjoyed cruising that, as well as walking through the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Salzurger Dom (the cathedral), St. Peter’s Cemetery and Catacombs, Nonnberg Abbey, and Hellbrunn Palace–but I’ll post more on that in a few days in part two.
Until then, so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu! (couldn’t resist)
*And for a little fun, watch Julie Andrews and Diane Sawyer meet the hoteliers at Villa Trapphere.