From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

There’s something wholly overwhelming about the Alps in winter. Even when, as they were when we first arrived at our wide-roofed Alpine lodge one frosty night a few weeks ago, hidden beneath sleepy sheets of fog.

The culture of this area, namely that made up of Bavaria in southern Germany and its neighbor Austria, has developed a tough edge in response to the bitter cold and the sheer rawness of nature. This is where the tradition of Krampus was born, a demon armed with a switch who takes bad children away at Christmas time. This is where heavy, hearty foods and great mugs of beer tide people over through the cold days and long winter nights. Even the traditional Lederhosen attire and oompah bands seem to project a forceful presence within the dark paneled walls of a cozy Alpine inn.

Our adventures in the Alps began in the salt mines of the sleepy German town of Berchtesgaden, just near the Austrian border. Deep under the mountains, salt mining has been a major industry for some 500 years. Like the miners, we rode an open mining train down through the tunnels, clad in dark blue canvas work uniforms and straddling a wooden bench in a line with other visitors on our guided tour. Adventures abounded underground between explanations of the history of the mines: We slid down two steep mining slides at different points in the tour to delve further into the mountain; took a boat across a shallow underground lake as salty as the Dead Sea; and rode a funicular at the end to climb back up to meet our mining train again and reach the surface.

A miner points the way to the Berchtesgaden mine
Salt mine entrance
Giant replica of iodized salt canister
Salt rock
Mountain entrance sign with miners’ slide

Truly, I felt the only thing missing from the tour was the clink of the mining tools and the uplifting ring of traditional mining songs. As if in answer to this thought, a CD of Berchtesgaden miner tunes was for sale at the gift shop alongside the expected array of salts in every grade and seasoning combination, including bath salts. We let the miners serenade us on the hour or so car ride from Berchtesgaden to the Austrian ski resort town of Sankt Veit im Pongau, belting out the local miner’s greeting of “Glück auf!” (a phrase literally meaning something like “good luck”) every so often along the snowy mountain roads.

Nightfall in Sankt Veit im Pongau, Austria

Past field and farm and small town after small town of little wooden homes with low slanted roofs, the transition from Bavaria to Austria was imperceptible. As I had decided skiing was not for me after a few lessons in previous years, I found other ways to enjoy the scenic mountain area this time. I spent the first day at a thermal spa with some friends, swimming around from indoors to outdoors in the naturally heated pool surrounded by the majestic Alps. A few vacationers there would get out to leisurely walk around in or rub themselves with snow and then get back in the steamy water. “No thanks!” I thought, shaking my head while reclined neck-deep in the thermal bath.

Just like the German spas, this one had a complete cafeteria-style restaurant, massages and other spa services, a clothing-free sauna, a fitness room, and more.

On our last day, after some searching around, I went off hiking alone near the ski slopes to a narrow gorge called the Liechtensteinklamm. Parts of the area, including part of the entry road not maintained in winter, are closed for the season so it was an enter-at-your-own risk but still not very difficult trail. Signs warning of the risks of avalanche and falling rocks reminded me that I was at the mercy of the Alps. I only saw a handful of people walking their contented dogs during the roughly three hours that I hiked, large papery snowflakes falling all the while. Silence punctuated only by my boots plodding through the powdery snow and the occasional sound of a bird calling or a squirrel cracking nuts reigned under a muted sky.

No winter maintenance: Enter at your own risk


Liechtensteinklamm gorge
Snow falling through the woods
Mountain stream
Hiking back through farmland

It was the very essence of nature. These are the Alps.

Glück auf!

Castle Höhenwerfen in Austria

Soundtrack of Salzburg

Alps as seen from the hotel room

It’s only fitting that I would remember my experience in Salzburg through its sounds, as even the silence that greeted me when we arrived on the first frosty morning there was striking. I was surprised at how empty and how small the historic city center was, known as the birthplace of Mozart and the residence of the Von Trapp family (now of “Sound of Music” fame). But by late January the high point of the tourist season had passed and we were able to get well acquainted with the layout of the city surrounded by beautiful snow-covered Alps in peace. Shortly after we arrived, small but hefty metal church bells tolled ten o’clock and a guy running a coffee stand next to an empty ice skating rink shouted “Guten Morgen, Salzburg!” into the chilly air, as if to greet the town itself.

Salburger Dom
Inside the Dom

Bells pealed from every small church throughout the day every quarter hour, and for most of the morning this set the backdrop for our visit. Bells, the occasional clip-clop of horse hoofs on cobblestones pulling tourist carriages, and silence. Silence as we passed the old and new Residenz, the Dom (cathedral), St. Peter’s Church and its adjacent cemetery. This last was fascinating, as it lay between the pencil-like tower of the church and a sheer face of rock into which monastic homes had been built high into the cliff. The graves are rented by families, and we saw many newer graves alongside older ones. Most are carefully tended like a garden (some were being attended to by family members during our visit), with arrangements of perennial pink heather, fresh roses, pine branches, and even occasional small Christmas trees decorated with ornaments or candles.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

As we walked through, light sounds of construction on a wooden roof behind and above the graves on the mountain gave way to the Cranberries’ “Zombie” playing softly on the workers’ radio. The Irish war-themed 90s single lent a surreal feeling to the cemetery visit.

But the mood picked up after lunch as we emerged from a quiet wooden tavern to the surprising sounds of Karneval beginning already in Salzburg. The owner of the guest house where we stayed told us that Karneval celebrations aren’t so typical in Austria – the traditions come more from Switzerland – and that the troupes performing concerts throughout the days and parades at night that weekend only do this every few years in Salzburg.

Getreidegasse – main street for shops
Skeleton band for Karneval

So we toured the Salzburg History Museum and the town squares to one marching band pop song (mostly American music) after another. Linkin Park’s “Castle of Glass” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” in particular were played over and over by different elaborately costumed bands of teenagers.

But Karneval garb is quite different in Salzburg than it is in Mainz. Whereas Mainz paraders are all fools and cute animals, the Salzburg bands had scarier or at least more bizarre themes. Witches, skeletons, trolls, monsters, zombies, elves, magicians… Most wore either huge elaborate masks or detailed airbrushed make-up.

Karneval parade at night


The concerts continued the entire day both Friday and Saturday. One song blended into another as we and the bands moved alternately through the city. In the evening the celebration culminated with a parade (only an hour long) to showcase all of the groups as they crossed the bridge over the Salzach River into Salzburg’s center. Some of the scarier masked characters got in spectators’ faces (mostly for women and children), messed with their hair, or (in my case) stole their hats and kept parading away.

By this time, of course, my heartbeat had been realigned to the beat of a giant bass drum. And the music continued after the parade was over. Groups continued to draw small audiences in various squares on both sides of the river for hours after the official celebrations had ended (and before they began their next full day celebrations).

We spent our next and last day in Salzburg at Mozart’s former home where he was in fact born. Depending on where we were in our rounds of the home-turned-museum, we alternated between more marching band pop and rock music and Mozart’s classic works. I’m not sure what Mozart would think of the modern sounds of Salzburg, but they certainly created a memorable experience for me.

Mozart’s home
Mozart Kugeln chocolates

Remains of an Empire: Habsburg History in Vienna

Shönbrunn Palace from across the front courtyard
Shönbrunn Palace from across the front courtyard

“And in this room where you’re now standing, Mozart as a young boy performed for the Empress of Austria.” It’s difficult to walk in Vienna without stepping all over history, nearly all of which has one thing in common: The Habsburg Family.

A dynasty of emperors who ruled over the Holy Roman Empire for 300 years, the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, and produced rulers throughout Europe and beyond. What surprised me the most, in fact, was how many countries were ruled by members of the House of Habsburg. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Maximillian, for example, was the Emperor of Mexico. Maria Leopoldina, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and Empress Maria Theresa, became Empress of Brazil through marriage.

Building upon building in Vienna continue to house the remains of the Habsburg family’s wealth and decadence, work and family life, scandals and secrets:

Shönbrunn Palace

The most grandiose of the Habsburgs’ Vienna homes is the imperial palace of Shönbrunn, a short bus ride away from downtown Vienna. An extensive yellow rococo-style building dating back to the late 17th century, it reminded me of the Residenz palace in Würzburg, Germany. The building itself was so beautiful that we saw no less than five wedding parties having professional pictures taken on its sweeping steps. Top-hatted horse and carriage drivers offered rides to visitors within the orderly front courtyard while meandering garden paths fanning out from the back provided scenic walks past fountains, hedges and fruit trees, Roman ruins, a domed pigeon aviary, and an outdoor concert stage.

Inside, there were so many rooms that some were simply named for their style of décor: the Walnut Room, the Porcelain Room, the Chinese Cabinets, the Bergyl Room (named for its artist), and so on. It was here in the Mirror Room where six-year-old Mozart played for Empress Maria Theresa. Mozart is speculated to have been retroactively painted into a work of art depicting the wedding celebration of Maria Theresa’s son, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and Isabella of Parma. At four years old his talents were unknown, yet he was subject to the old fashioned equivalent of being Photo-Shopped in as a guest after he became a renowned composer.


Imperial Apartments

The Imperial Apartments served as the Habsburgs’ city home and offices. Equally ornate, these faced a cobblestone courtyard in the center of downtown Vienna rather than the spacious palatial courtyard and sprawling gardens of Shönbrunn.

Sisi Museum

Adjacent to the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum expands on the life story of Empress Elizabeth of Austria (known by her nickname: Sisi) that was mentioned in both of the Habsburg homes. This year the museum celebrates its tenth anniversary of clarifying the empress’s obscure story and debunking some of the myths surrounding her less than happy life.

Sisi married Emperor Franz Joseph I, son of Archduke Franz Karl and Princess Sophie, at the age of sixteen. Franz Joseph is said to have been completely devoted to his wife, though her feelings remained “open to speculation.” One of the audio tours expanded on this with a quote from Sisi in which she described marriage as something a young girl is sold into at an early age, involving making a promise she doesn’t understand, and that she must live with for thirty or more years. Though she did not enjoy the court life that came with her title, she was able to live a largely independent life within the grand imperial homes and traveled extensively. Many quotes from her writing and poetry are displayed throughout the museum, describing a sense of sadness and a loss of freedom.

Throughout her life, Sisi was devoted to maintaining her attractive appearance through diet and exercise, health and beauty treatments, and a penchant for cutting-edge fashion and hairstyles. At a height of 5’8” she weighed little more than 100 pounds and had a famously tiny waist of around sixteen inches.

At the age of 60, Sisi was assassinated by an Italian anarchist while traveling in Geneva, Switzerland. The file with which she was stabbed is on display in the museum, along with many samples of her clothing and jewels.

Silver Collection

Less edgy but equally lavish is the neighboring Silver Collection, which goes on to showcase the Habsburgs’ chic tableware and other riches. One set of cutlery on display is still used for modern day state dinners. Among the more unique items are several mirrored centerpieces the length of a banquet table including candelabras for dramatic reflective lighting.

Amid the impressive table settings are fancily multi-folded cloth napkins. All meals at which the emperor was present – family dinners included – required that the napkins be folded in this style. The secret of the imperial napkin folding method is a tradition that has been passed down to a select few. Only two people in the world currently hold the secret.

There are even basins and ewers used during an annual foot washing ceremony wherein the Habsburgs humbled themselves to a carefully selected dozen of elderly poor, essentially likening themselves to Jesus who had washed the feet of his apostles. The ceremonial pieces are of course elegant, next to a coarse wooden tub where the lucky poor would have placed their feet.

Michaelerplatz by the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, Silver Collection, and Treasury
Michaelerplatz by the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, Silver Collection, and Treasury
Apartments/Museums courtyard
Apartments/Museums courtyard area

Kunsthistoriches Museum

The Habsburg’s possessions are not limited to their former homes and the museums mentioned above. The Kunsthistoriches Museum, an art museum that is a grand work of art in its own right, houses incredible collections that include those of the Habsburg family members. Viennese art crafted from gold, silver, ivory, ebony, amethyst, opal, aquamarine, rhinoceros tusk, and virtually any other material you can conceive of are on display on the first floor. Paintings by Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, French, and Italian painters line the walls on the next floor. Masterpieces by artists Raphael, Caravaggio, Breugel, Peter Paul Rubens, and many more are among the treasures here.

Main stair in the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Main stair in the Kunsthistorisches Museum


Last (of what we had time to visit on this trip) but certainly not least was a storehouse exhibiting some of the most valuable possessions of the House of Habsburg. Room after room of the treasury showcase coronation robes, scepters, crowns, and religious and knight order regalia. In addition to these garments are a number of unique treasures, including a larger than life “unicorn horn” (disappointingly actually an enormous narwhal’s horn). Among the Habsburgs’ most prized possessions are a tremendous amount of Catholic relics: a cloth imprinted with the face of Christ from the time of his death, a piece of the true cross, a tooth of St. John the Baptist, and on and on.

Unicorn horn?
Unicorn horn?


A separate museum we did not visit is dedicated to a collection of the Habsburg furniture. The sheer volume of possessions filling the palaces and museums, in addition to the buildings themselves testifies to the grand force that was once the House of Habsburg. Today their startling wealth and remarkable history hold a dominant role in the tourism and imaginations in Vienna.

Opera, History, and Apfelstrudel: The Sounds, Sights, and Tastes of Vienna

Mozart statue and treble clef of flowers in the Burggarten
Mozart statue and treble clef of flowers in the Burggarten

As Vienna, or Wien as it’s locally known, saturates every sense with its culture, I think this title sums up the Austrian capital well. Despite a comedy of errors, mainly due to a lack of sleep before our early flight, James and I nevertheless arrived in Vienna last Friday as planned for a long weekend to celebrate our first anniversary. An old and beautiful city concentrated mostly in a historic central ring, Vienna is rightly internationally renowned.

Main stairway above the opera house lobby area
Main stairway above the opera house lobby area
Inside view from the balcony
Inside view from the balcony
Entrance to the balcony lounge - seats through the farther doorway
Entrance to the balcony lounge – seats through the farther doorway

The Sounds

Of course, the first thing we did when planning this trip to a world music hub was to book tickets for an opera at the Wiener Staatsoper (Viennese State Opera). La Cenerentola, an Italian opera by Rossini based on the story of Cinderella, was playing during our stay. The director had chosen 1950s Italy as the setting for this version, complete with a classic car collection for the prince. Tickets for €12 got us balcony seats (literally, moveable chairs upholstered in red velvet) next to the stage where we could hear (but not really see) a fantastic musical performance.

During the day, the clip-clop of pricy but classy horse drawn carriages along both cobblestones and the more modern streets could often be heard. At nighttime these sounds were replaced by the unhurried whirring of roller blades and bikes. On the first night we saw police officers stopping traffic for a fleet of rollerbladers. This was also the primetime for teenagers laughing, singing along to pop music from their cellphones, and chattering in clumps gathered in parks and town squares.

While German is the official language of Austria, Austrians have their own particular greeting. “Grüß Gott” is the more religious-sounding equivalent of “Hallo” used here, as well as in Bavaria in southern Germany. We heard many other languages in Vienna too, as tourists from all over the world flock there to enjoy its rich history, music, and sights. In particular, Italian, French, Spanish, American English, Russian, and Japanese were often heard throughout.

Volksgarten - one of many public parks
Volksgarten – one of many public parks
MuseumsQuartier hangout
MuseumsQuartier hangout
Outer castle gate by Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), one of many sights lit up this way at night
Outer castle gate by Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), one of many sights lit up this way at night

The Sights

I found the sights in Vienna created a very pleasant and relaxing atmosphere overall. The downtown area seemed designed to be as pedestrian friendly as possible, minimizing the usual crowded feeling found in major cities the world over. Parks and cafés can be found around many corners, and broad pedestrian-only streets lined with shops are common. Streetcars, subways, and buses seem to have limited the amount of traffic you would expect to find on the main roads.

Similarly, older styled and more modern town squares provide meeting places for people of all ages. The MuseumsQuartier, a public square bordered by modern art museums, has an especially cool set up. Blue plastic Ikea-esque couches fill the open area of the square and, particularly at night, are often filled with young people drinking beers and hanging out.

Needless to say, the main sights tourists come to see are the wealth of palaces, museums, and churches. Most of the sights are centered around or at least connected to the Habsburg family, the former rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even the museums housing artistic masterpieces and historical treasures can be considered works of art themselves. At night, many of the sights were lit up with rainbow colored spotlights, giving them a tie-dyed effect. So much history overflows from these buildings that I will describe them separately in my next post.

Glacis Beisl garden restaurant by the MuseumsQuartier
Glacis Beisl garden restaurant by the MuseumsQuartier
Dinner outdoors at Glacis Beisl
Dinner outdoors at Glacis Beisl

The Tastes

Possibly the best part of visiting another country is sampling its local fare, which we leisurely enjoyed from outdoor cafés, garden terraces, and occasional food stands. In general, the Austrian food seems very similar to food in Germany. For example, a typical basic breakfast consisted of rolls served with butter and jelly and/or eggs cooked in various styles. One day James tried the Katerfrühstück, which translates literally as “tomcat breakfast” or more figuratively as the “hangover breakfast.” This consisted of a beer (which we oddly saw many people drinking with breakfast), a long pretzel, and sausages.

Some of the local dinner specialties we tasted include Wienerschnitzel, a breaded veal cutlet, and Tafelspitz, a boiled beef dish. Of course, Wienerschnitzel is popular in Germany as well but originates from Wien, hence the name. The Tafelspitz is served with sides of grated horseradish and cooked apples, sour cream and chives, and potatoes.

Dessert seemed to truly be the specialty in Vienna. Apfelstrudel was, of course, a highlight with its light pastry crust and sweet warm apple center. One afternoon we had a mini cake sampler with three famous local cakes: Sachertorte, Topfentorte, and Mozartkuchen. The Sachertorte is a rich chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam that was created in Vienna. Topfentorte is a light cake with a cheesecake-like filling mixed with fruit – raspberries, in our case. The Mozart cake is a chocolate cake with a green layer of pistachio and marzipan, modeled after similar Mozart-brand chocolates. Italian gelato and other specialties were also easy to come by in this area.

All in all, a place well worth an additional post and a future visit!