Three days in Austria (one in Munich)…

 

 

Friday

An early rise is traded for the promise of new adventures.

  After spending four days in Germany (this column, Roscommon People 19/1/18) we’re moving on to Austria today, January 5th. Destination: Salzburg.

  Leaving captivating, cobblestoned Rothenburg, we head, on foot, for the town’s quaint train station. Six people, six travel bags, six sets of memories stored. The train station is like something you’d see in a 1950s western. Adjoining it is a small coffee shop where there are four grim-faced men seated at a table, whiling away the time with a pack of playing cards. Of course they all looked up when we entered.

  The journey will involve taking three trains over five and a half hours. When train number two stops at Rosenheim, the carriage starts to empty. For the first time on this trip, we are a little unsure of what to do next. Do we in fact have to switch trains here? As the final passenger, a burly man with a big moustache, passes, we ask for advice. 

  “This train,” he says, “goes on to Salzburg. The front half of it!”

  The train, apparently, would split in two; with only the front half continuing into Austria. 

  “Don’t try and walk up the middle of the train, you must go on to the platform first!” our English-speaking German friend adds. We got off – and back on – with seconds to spare. 

  The journey from Munich to Salzburg unveils spectacular scenery; the unfolding majesty of the Bavarian Alps is a mouth-wateringly beautiful introduction to our new destination.

  We arrive, and I do my very important counting routine.

  Six people, six travel bags, and half a train.

Saturday

This morning, we join tourists from around the world on the ‘Sound of Music’ tour. The famous film was shot in various locations in Salzburg in 1964. The cheerful guide insists on playing songs from the movie and encouraging everyone to sing along. It’s an enjoyable tour, which lasts three and a half hours, culminating with a visit to the fabulous Church which was used for the wedding scenes in the film.

  Just before everyone gets off the coach, the guide says there’s another attraction which can be visited on foot. The Mirabell Palace (where some of the more famous Sound of Music scenes were shot) is a majestic building with magnificent gardens.

  Our guide fills us in.

  “It has 142 rooms and was built by Archbishop Wolf Dietrich in 1606…”

  Wow! What a man. Respect!

  “For his mistress and their fifteen children”.

   Oh.

Known as ‘The Festival City’, Salzburg is a major tourist attraction. ‘Hohensalzburg Fortress’ is a ‘must-see’. It’s a spectacular sight, a castle which served as a military stronghold. We travelled to the top of it on a Funicular, a ‘cable railway’ which shoots from the ground into the air along a track.

  Later, the city centre is buzzing, tourists everywhere. The almost complete lack of homeless people visible on the streets in Germany and Austria was notable. But three characters here have prime position beside a landmark bridge in the beautiful city centre. They stumble in and out of the path of largely oblivious tourists, never straying too far from their bottles of hard stuff. It’s fairly apparent that their past – and their future – is inside those bottles.

  We move on, passing a jewellery store where some of the watches on display are priced at €12,000. Stare into the jeweller’s window, past the jaw-dropping price tag, and you will see the reflection of the merry men, with their half-empty bottles and their fully empty dreams.

  We’re standing in a room in a house in the centre of Salzburg. It’s no ordinary house, no ordinary room. In this room was born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s fair to say that he went on to great things. By the age of five, Salzburg’s most famous son was a dab-hand with both violin and piano. He went on to become one of the greatest composers the world has ever seen.

  Having browsed around Mozart’s birthplace for an hour or so, we step back into the street to discover the awful truth: the bottom half of the building is now a Spar outlet. No disrespect to Spar, but this seems a bit harsh on the memory of the great man. Surely a step too Spar? But wait, there’s more. A glance in Mozart’s birthplace/Spar reveals that every possible effort is being made to cash in on the renowned son of Salzburg. A mind-boggling array of products/souvenirs have been given the Mozart treatment; there’s Mozart chocolate, Mozart playing cards, Mozart pens, Mozart toys, Mozart keyrings. And it’s not just Spar, far from it; the entire street (dozens of shops) has been turned into one giant, unashamed ‘Cashing in on Mozart’ extravaganza.

  Shocking, although I do buy a cute miniature Mozart violin, complete with case…

  Over coffee, I check out the bould Archbishop Wolf Dietrich in a guide book.

  “The Archbishop did not take celibacy too seriously” it says. “He did not try to hide his affair with Salome Alt, who bore him fifteen children. On the contrary, he built a palace for his mistress in 1606, which he named Altenau”.

  It was later renamed Mirabell, because his successors wanted to distance themselves from the playboy Wolf Dietrich.

  A final thought on Salzburg city centre: fabulous style (both women and men). Much evidence of affluence. And they love their fur coats!

Sunday

The highlight of our trip came today – a cable car ride to a spectacular mountain-top at Grodig. It’s 1,853 metres high.

  Despite my fear of flying (and heights) I’m signing up to this. About twenty people squeeze in, adrenalin and anticipation rising.

  Our girls helpfully point out (and they’re not joking) that just before he ‘took off,’ the man operating the cable car blessed himself!

  In any case, it’s a wonderful experience; the view as we journey upwards is breathtaking.

  I must admit that when we got to the top of the snow-covered mountain, I was a nervous wreck for a few minutes. They’ve carved into a section of the mountain-top and built a bar and restaurant (no ‘Mozart-themed’ food or drink thankfully); so far, so good. But there’s also an opening, and an opportunity to walk on to the peak of the mountain, perilously close to the barrier-less edge.

  “This is madness!” I say to our son Matthew (7).

  He responds: “Well…there’s free WIFI”.

  After a few minutes, I’ve settled down. We take photos and savour this spectacular experience…but I’m glad to touch ground again. 

Monday

Goodbye Salzburg, hello Munich. More trains, beautiful scenery, busy platforms, flawless counting…six people, six travel bags. After off-loading the bags at our hotel, it’s on to visit a concentration camp.

  Located ten miles northwest of Munich, Dachau was the very first concentration camp set up by the Nazis (in 1933). Originally meant to hold about 6,000 ‘political prisoners’, at its gruesome peak, 48,000 were crammed into the place, in horrible conditions. Between 30,000 and 43,000 people are estimated to have died in the camp over the course of 12 years.

  I had imagined that visiting a concentration camp would probably be eerie, emotional, uneasy, unpleasant. And it was all of that. But it was well worth visiting.

  Maybe my judgement was clouded by thoughts of our destination, but from the moment we arrived in the town of Dachau, the whole place felt miserable, dank…as if you were breathing in the stench of its wretched past. A bus took us the short journey to the concentration camp. Nothing has been altered; this camp is now as it was then. From the outside, it is ugly and grim, and it gets worse. There is no admission charge, presumably because taking money would add insult to infamy.

  Inside the gates, the massive yard where thousands of prisoners lined up each morning, many of them randomly beaten at the whim of sadistic brutes. Torture and death was a daily reality, misery the best you could hope for. You can almost smell the secrets of this yard.

  There’s an excellent museum adjoining, which contains fascinating information (and artefacts) relating to Dachau and the horrors that shape its legacy. 

  As darkness crept in and with the camp due to close at 5 pm, we hurried along, to see more. Within minutes we were in the gas chambers and other killing rooms. I will spare readers any more details. You leave Dachau feeling sick in your stomach; passing through the gates, leaving behind the ghosts of yesteryear and the guilt of today.

  Monday night in Munich. The pedestrianised High Street/boulevard (called Stachus) is a wonderful, atmospheric area. The Christmas decorations still in place, Munich city centre was a colourful, vibrant and exciting sight; there’s a wonderful range of attractive shops and restaurants, and large crowds of people.   

  The kids tried some ice-skating and we tried some hot German punch.

  Later, a walkabout reveals some stunning, historic buildings, but the night is moving on. After a bite to eat in a lovely Italian restaurant we return to the hotel, where the receptionist is pleasant but painfully slow!

  Great trip. Back home on Tuesday – and never mentioned the war once.