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 need only scratch the surface of modern Europe to see the pulsing of its medieval veins. This can be a little unnerving, but it’s also deeply gratifying in a way that’s hard to pin down.
Take Christmas traditions as an example. In America, we embrace a jovial, generous Santa Claus (who, for all of his good character points, does seem to team up with Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the rest of the commercial establishment a little too often for comfort). He surrounds himself with other agreeable characters– Rudolph and Frosty–and they have a jolly time. Sure, adversity must be overcome, but their stories never really cross to the dark side.
Would you like a little saccharin with that sweet?
Not so in Germany and Austria. Oh, they’ll serve you sweets at each turn this time of year, but you’re never quite sure what they are fattening you up for. You might cheer your good fortune at stumbling upon a kind old lady in a gingerbread house! You might anticipate a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th (Nikolaustag) with unbridled joy! But wait. What if the good fortune is not what it appears?
Because sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes, you walk into a Salzburg sweet store in late November to see this: St. Nicholas in all of his chocolatey goodness.
But the next thing your eyes fall upon is this:
Holy camole! What’s that all about? Well, simply put, you are in the Old World now, the land of the Brothers Grimm, where every light casts a shadow.
Yes, there’s always a dark underbelly in Germany. For each saint, there’s a devil; for each sweet, there’s a reckoning; for each life, there’s a death. Each candle-strewn Christmas pyramid holds back the dark of a frozen winter, and each yin has its yang.
Many unlucky children have found themselves, not on Santa’s lap, but staring down a devil named Krampus. (You just met his likeness in foil-covered chocolate, above.) A demon who, at best, humiliated children with twigs instead of candy at Christmas. At worse, beat them heartily with those switches. And at worst, dragged them down to Hell. (Well, they had been naughty, you know.)
This is stern stuff. A little shocking to those of us raised on Miracle on 34th Street or T’was the Night Before Christmas. Well, my friends . . .welcome to Middle Europe, where St. Nick is often accompanied by a sinister sidekick: Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Schwarz Peter. Krampus is horned and devilish, Knecht Ruprecht and Schwarz Peter are more recognizably human, but sooty, uninviting, and coal and switch-laden. (Whether this surly sidekick is malevolent or simply mischievous is entirely dependent upon whose hands he is in. . . or possibly on how naughty the child has been.)
Our first run in with Krampus was in that sweets store in Salzburg, but last weekend we ran into him again–this time at the Christkindlmarkt at Bernkastel-Kues. His boat was parked among the market stalls.
I’m not sure what the boat motif is all about. We were on the Mosel River…but my sister has (rightly) suggested that this looks more like something from the River Styx, where the ferryman will guide you to the afterlife…right after St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht decide your fate!! Oh, and Merry Christmas!
We laughed about this, but for those of us who remember Santa as all love and no menace, this is jarring. Our “Christmas judgment” was always at the hands of this guy:
He was rumpled and happy, and he smelled of candy canes. If we got tongue tied, it was only because we were overcome by his largess. It was never because we feared for our very souls.
Honestly, if I had found myself, at age six, sitting between St. Nicholas in his starchy Pope’s hat and some vaguely human entity who looked like this
swarthy vagrant. . . well. . .
Hmmmm. . . I don’t know how that would have worked out. I certainly wouldn’t have produced a long list of “things I’d like for Christmas, because I want them, or I need them, or I saw them in the Sears Wish Book, or the Saturday morning commercial looked awesome, or Sarah’s best friend Suzy has one and I want one too!”
And so, it occurs to me that all German and Austrian children must be really, really, very, very good at Christmas time. And very undemanding.
And very scared.
Good thing they get to stave off the dark and deadly cold of the season by going home and lighting candles on those popular German Christmas pyramids and candle arches, and by hanging glowing Moravian stars all over the house. You certainly need all the light you can get when Krampus is skulking around outside in the dark streets.
It’s the German way–an austere world view, gilded around the edges with gingerbread and chocolates. The devil will always lurk in the shadow of the saint; the dark and cold will always stand sentry at the edge of the firelight. . .but if you are well behaved and diligent, you may just hold the dark at bay for a while.
So, I’ll leave you with a holiday toast: eat, drink, and be merry. . .for tomorrow, you may meet Krampus.
*One, final, note: this dynamic duo of St. Nick and Krampus seems to own the holiday of Nikolaustag (Nikolaus Day and Eve, December 5th and 6th). After that, Weihnachtsman, Kris Kringle, Santa, the Christ child (Christkind), or some other regional “santa” takes center stage for Christmas. I can’t say that I understand these myriad traditions yet…but maybe I can shed more light on this by next Christmas.
I haven’t had time to write this week, but I’m looking forward to setting pen to paper someday and filling you all in on my recent trip to Salzburg. (My new refrain = Salzburg uber alles. Probably politically incorrect in some historical way, but I LOVE this city and its surroundings.)
Anyhoo, to tide me over–and share my enthusiasm with you until I can write–I offer up a photo of the actual von Trapp family home, now a magnificent bed and breakfast, where we stayed while in the city.