Austria – January 2014

Day 1 & 2, Salzburg:

I land in W.A. Mozart around 6 p.m. No problem with my bag and I walk straight out the arrivals door and into a taxi. No fucking around with buses or trains, there will be plenty of that non-sense over the next week or so. My taxi driver is a very welcoming lady who speaks flawless English. She chats about Salzburg city, the population and recommends a couple of things to do which, to my shame, I forget about as soon as I close the door of the taxi. I do, however, remember her words of Hohensalzburg Castle, lovingly conveyed. It is the “symbol of the city”, I’m told. She is native to Salzburg and I get the impression that the castle means more than bricks and mortar to the locals, which isn’t difficult to understand when you glance it for the first time. I’m informed of how to get to the old town and how far it is from my hotel. All useful information.

I receive an extremely friendly reception from the large, very Bavarian looking desk guy. He tells me he has organised a very quiet room for me at the back of the hotel. I’m half expecting a late night call from him as he seems a bit too familiar. I hope he is just being nice and chuckle nervously to myself in the elevator to the room. This never occurs in my two nights there and I feel I should almost be offended.

I wander the town exploring on my first night, a little unsure of where is where and what is what. Dinner ends up being a (large and delicious, due to my hunger) salmon darn with some funny boiled spuds which vary wildly in size for some reason. A side salad which nearly is sent flying across the restaurant as I tackle both balance and vision when my feet decide to release traction for a brief moment. I manage to pull it back from the brink. Hospital on my first night in Salzburg? I’d never be let out again. It’s a casual restaurant. Restaurant is a kind description, it’s more a fast food place with grand aspirations, though the food hits the spot. I spend the next few hours strolling around seeing one of the most beautiful cities gently lit by moon and sundry. Nowhere seems to be open. It is determined to be a quiet Sunday night. I later find out that Austria, or at least Salzburg, closes down on the Sabbath with not even a Spar (which are everywhere) opening its doors for general business.

I begin the week with a coffee, wait, no I don’t, I’m informed by the wayward eyed hostess that my breakfast is not included and it will set me back €30, yep thirty bills if I want some shitty buffet style sustenance with the finger prints of all those awake before me adorning the croissants.

So, false start. Luckily there’s a Eurospar (who’d have thought) around the corner and it turns out to be for the better of the day as I stumble across some great Greek Yogurt, a wonderful peanut butter and the best vollkornbrot I’ve ever tasted and indeed the only vollkornbrot I’ve ever tasted as far as I know. I top this off with some fresh blueberries. Now we’re good. The only down side was that I ended up paying €4 for an orange. Pretty sure I overpaid. Oh well, lesson learned.

Monday is to see the sights, I catch as much as I can in my brief time in a city which reveals a mighty, over-seeing fortress from behind the morning mist as it lifts over surrounding hills. It captures my attention with ease and I find it difficult to turn my eyes from it as I walk, zombified, apologizing to every second person as I narrowly avoid crashing and a potential incident on day two. I cover 31 Km of a small city on foot and believe I start to get a feel for Salzburg. It is truly stunning. Hohensalzburg Fortress is indeed the symbol of the city, visible more often than not, it sits like a protector and stupid as it sounds, you can almost feel its security.

The trek up to Hohensalzburg gives incredible winter views of the city. The final couple of hundred metres work the legs but it’s totally worth it and the reward is a 1,000 year old fortress complete with free Wi-Fi, which I make full use of, as I refuse to pay the Holiday Inn Salzburg for bloody internet access. You can take a cable car up either, which I was tempted by but today I was in a walking mood.

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I’ve decided my lunch is going to be something quick and local. Basically, I’m looking for some street food. Luckily, Salzburg is home to the ‘Bosna’ – two bratwursts, grilled onions, panini roll, mustard and spices. I head for the highly recommended ‘Balkan Grill Walter’ just off Getreidegasse, with a serious hunger on me. I order an original bosna, which doesn’t look amazing but is certainly quick, cheap and delicious. I could go for another, but decide the queue is a bit much and push on. I check out the Mirabell Palace and Gardens which is spectacular in itself and also offers clear views of the ever present Hohensalzburg which now looks miles away. Time to head back to the hotel to refresh and all that.

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Showered, shaved and suspicious I head for a place called Die Weisse which I’ve heard has great beer brewed in the pub….or for the pub, I never actually confirm this despite trying. The answer being lost somewhere between English and German. Not for the first time, I’d imagine. The food isn’t bad at all, a little stodgy, but that seems to be a lot of Austrian cuisine. Maybe it’s the time of year, I’d imagine my ‘oven-fresh roasted pork with dumplings (served with nearly every dish) and bacon-cabbage salad’ might be a bit heavy in the height of summer. But it tastes good and gets the job done on this chilly January night. I go for a Die Weisse Original. The main event really, why I’m here. The unfiltered, bottle-fermented original brewed with three different types of Austrian malt. All this means nothing to me but, man, is that a tasty beer! I get chatting with an American and two Scandinavians, and get a tiresome lesson in Austrian history from the former. I can only manage to stick it out for four, maybe five, originals before I have to call it a night. Early start tomorrow, and I still have no idea where the train station is.

Day 3, Salzburg to Innsbruck to Schwendau:

I get an early start and trek for twenty or so minutes, with about 25 Kilos weighing me down, to the train station. I have a first class ticket to Innsbruck and I’m the only one in the carriage who doesn’t look like they’re going to an important meeting. It takes me about five minutes to order a cappuccino from the guy at the shop, despite the fact that he speaks English, and I start to wonder if I speak English. I’m still not sure. He says he will drop it down to me but wanders past two or three times with the coffee before (having looked at me three times) exclaims, oh….your coffee sir. I just thought he had a lot of coffee orders, but nope, just took his time recognizing me from a couple of minutes ago, and I really stand out in this carriage. The ticket inspector takes his time and is still not convinced I should be here. I am asked for identification and my passport is studied for any sign of something not being right. I have a flash of myself being turfed off the train by belt and scruff. Everyone is fairly friendly but seem to be quite suspicious. Innsbruck is grand, well the station anyway. I find a ticket machine and attempt to buy a ticket to Ramsau-Hippach, which I think I’ve achieved right up to the point when my ticket drops out of the machine and has no sign of either Ramsau or Hippach, no need to panic. I’m still not sure if I bought the right ticket, but I made the journey whether it was legit or not. Looking out the window of the train is like seeing some moving, epic, painting of an idyllic and imagined landscape. The views are stunning the whole way through the Alps, capped with snow, and my attention is rarely taken from the passing scenery. So much so that hours seem to pass in minutes and before I know it I’ve arrived with John.

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John has the look of a man who has spent the last few months in an eleven bedroom, four story house with anything from ten to twenty-five people living in it. In fact, that’s precisely the case. The house looks quintessentially Austrian, exactly what you would expect of an Alpine town nestled in a spectacular valley surrounded by snow and mountains. I mean, from the porch you would think you’ve walked right onto the set of an Alpen advert. Jaw-dropping. There is little time to take stock and John quickly gears me up and we set off up to ‘Blue 8’, an easy slope to get me started. First time snowboarding, fuck, first time on real snow. This should be interesting. The valley is overcast, but rising up through the cover in the gondola reveals blinding sun reflected from crisp white powder. Wow. A different day entirely above the clouds.

John is not particularly skilled in the ways of imparting knowledge, and his instruction is simply, “right, follow me”. I barely make it through the turnstile, not knowing the routine and using the ski pass of someone I’m yet to meet, only for a shove from John we may have been caught out. I’m expected to tackle the chair lift, both on and off, with no idea of how it works. I’ll end up on my arse more than a few times before Loz passes on the knack the next day and it all clicks. Snowboarding is tough. It’s cold and you’re sweaty. You hit the snow hard and it takes a serious toll on your body. You can pick up enough to get down a short slope fairly quick and I think I’m getting pretty good until I see Johann pull off a ‘crail’. Jumping from a ramp, in mid-air he grabs the toe edge of his board with one hand while extending out his other arm. It looks spectacular and puts me right back in my place. He’s been ‘riding’ for about seven weeks and seems to lack that part of one’s mind which screams ‘no, that could kill you!’

I begin to realise I’ll be feeling every bit of this introduction to snowboarding tomorrow when I catch my heal edge and slingshot my head into the hard snow. It rattles my brain and hurts like hell, and I’m wearing a helmet. No one should attempt this first time without one, and a back brace, and some impact pants. They probably saved my life, though I mistake the coccyx protector for a cup. A hard lesson learned.

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Day 4, Schwendau:

We make it, partially geared up, to the gondola by about 10 a.m. Intent on a full day of riding, though I’m feeling the effects of yesterday….everywhere. I feel hung-over, though I haven’t had a drink. I’m pretty sure every muscle aches, though it would be difficult to distinguish any that did not, but I don’t seem to have any broken bones. There’s always day two on the slopes I guess. It feels like the seasonaires are preparing for war as we hang over the evergreens. The gondola takes about 15 minutes, from memory, and you get a sudden sinking feeling when it stutters to a halt for a few moments. It gets going again though, and images of a James Bond type dive from the swinging cable car fade away.

I get in a few runs on an easy slope before Loz arrives to give me some much needed instruction. In relative moments later, I’m getting in my first turn. Snowboarding is not an easy activity to pick up, but it helps when the person guiding you isn’t just taking photos and laughing. Time for a break, and as per Loz’s professional advice, a beer. I get my German down, through practice with John, and know exactly what I’m doing. “Drei bier bitte”, only for the hostess to respond in an unmistakably English accent, “Three beers? No problem.” Aw, for fuck sake…..why do I bother?

Above the clouds it’s glorious. The sun is amazing and it doesn’t feel like it could possibly be below zero. Sitting sipping my beverage, eating a pretzel, not in a bad way after all my knocks. Sure I’m sore, but it could be a whole lot worse. Certainly compared to the lady we witness being smashed at the bottom of Blue 8 by a guy coming off Black 17 at full belt. She was not getting up. Cue snowmobile ambulance, complete with little siren. There’s a brief audible wince from the congregation and everyone goes back to drinking.

The ‘Aprés Ski’ is madness. Respectable people, in expensive gear, drinking too much Glúhwein (mulled wine) while dancing on tables to horrible music. All at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and none of them teenage hooligans. It really is a sight to behold. A group of four amateur skiers all dressed in matching apparel thinking they look the shit. Ridiculously large glasses of beer in hand and big red faces make it hard for anyone to look cool, add ski gear and icy flooring and, well, no one looks savvy when they’re constantly trying to catch their balance.

We head back down the mountain in time for the last lifts and the last bus back, which drops us right outside the house. It’s amazing how the big blue buses navigate these narrow streets. After a quick shower and a change, we head to Mayrhofen to get some Gasser. Basically a deli, with some quality, great value sandwiches made with speciality meats from the butcher…..which happens to be the same shop. All perfectly grand once they don’t use the same knives for both. They don’t. I’m reliably informed that all the seasonaires go out on Wednesday so we pick up some “good” beers in the local supermarket and head back for pre-drinks in ‘The Mansion’. Everyone is around and in great form, the downstairs kitchen is full to capacity and the night is well and truly set up when the bottle of Jágermeister starts doing the rounds. No shot glasses, or vessels of any kind, just gulps each. Not sure how many ‘gulps’ I had. I’m brought on a whistle-stop tour of the various cool, and uncool, places to hang out in the Zillertal Valley. My memory of individual establishments starts out blurry and does not improve with the scandalously cheap booze on offer. We did not hold back. A Snapchat photo being evidence against our behaviour only surfaces upon my return. John looking a little worse for wear and me, draped across his arm, somewhere between conscious and…….well, not conscious.

Day 5:

It’s a slightly later start to the day, I think the previous night’s action may have left me in a better state physically, but without a doubt, not mentally. Nobody is capable of riding today, so a plan is hatched to make our way to the Hintertuxer Glacier in Tyrol. There is one slight snag, no one has the skill necessary to read the bus time-table which resembles the periodic table and is definitely coded in some way. It’s impossible to know when, or indeed where, the buses go! We finally accept that we’ve missed any opportunity we had to get to Tyrol and everyone heads off to do whatever they need to. John and I hitch a ride into Mayrhofen and amazingly, pass the bus to Tyrol en route. We head it off and jump on, there’s some negotiation about the price of a ticket and we eventually hand the angry bus driver a shit load of change. He groans and gives us our tickets. How about that luck? We make it to Tyrol an hour or so after lunch time and head straight up to the box office. Cash in hand. Grins on face. The guy looks at us with a smile, and in an enthusiastically bright voice says, “Hi guys, the last tour is in 30 minutes.” We high-five each other, thinking, oh-ho-ho, yes! “……and it takes 40 minutes to get up there.” Instant deflation. Heads hung, we grab some consolation food in a bar with a hammer on a chain, next to a barrel with a load of nails in it. Strange. Alcohol and hammers. A curious combination. The view is good though, looking back down through the valley. We make our way back to Mayrhofen, the bus takes about an hour but you get a great sense of the valley as you snake down the steep roads and John educates me about a few points of interest. Drunken toboggan rides; if you survive you drink for free. You know, that sort of thing.

Day 6, Ramsau-Hippach to Hallstatt:

The lonely train out. An early start and the snow has started to fall in Zillertal. Everyone has spoken of the joy of riding powder, and here it is falling on the day I leave. Maybe snowboarding wouldn’t hurt so much in this. I like the sound of falling on powder. The train is bang on time, Austria so. It’s a long way back to Innsbruck, and then to Salzburg, retracing my steps briefly before heading straight on to Hallstatt. It’s dark when I get in and the stop is on the opposite shore to Hallstatt. I would have gone on and been closer to my hotel if I knew better, but I was headed for Hallstatt, it just happened that my Hotel was in Obertraun. The ‘Seehotel am Hallstattersee’, just 2 Km with about 30 kilos on your back. In the dark, and on the icy paths. An interesting stroll. The hotel staff are friendly, and they are eventually very welcoming when they get passed the patron who seems to have about two hundred questions for the extremely patient custodian, about 90% of which have nothing to do with the hotel. The lady answers politely, “I don’t really know too much about skiing” to more than not. My room is basic and I have to go ask for towels, I desperately need a shower having travelled for about 12 hours, but it’s cozy and it has a bed and they’re going to feed me in a bit, so I’m happy enough. I’m offered fish or chicken. I take fish. Fish turns out to be a three course meal topped off with a coffee, all just arriving to my table at well-timed intervals. The plan is to get the boat over to Hallstatt tomorrow for the day so I get an early night.

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Day 7, Hallstatt and back to Salzburg:

I trek up to the Hallstatt train stop, where you get the boat over to the town. The dock has wi-fi. Gas. It’s cold and the boat isn’t for another hour so I head back to the hotel, just to keep moving, grab a quick bite to eat and head back for the boat. The boat across takes about five minutes and through the snow, an incredible sight begins to appear. Hallstatt must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Rising from Hallstattersee and seemingly growing from the rocks, buildings at steps up the mountain. It really is a remarkable place and it’s easy to see how there might be a full-scale replica in China, though I still think that has to be a joke….right? I spend the day knocking about Hallstatt in the snow. Amazed by it. I’ve wanted to visit this place for so long and it has not disappointed. It’s a shame to leave, catching a return boat for the train back to Salzburg.

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Austria 07

Back in Salzburg I’m not really sure what to be doing with myself. I wander into a coffee shop and sit down with a cappuccino, it’s a bad idea because it’s getting a bit late, and I’m too old now to drink coffee this close to bed time. But, you’re on your holidays and all that. I stroll around, stopping for a pint in a pub with some cool live music going on, before getting back on my way.

Strolling down Linzergasse, I get distracted by Neil Young blasting from an open door of an interesting looking burger place. It’s only then I realise I’m hungry. The sign outside, which reads something along the lines of “Fresh made organic burgers & much more”, seals the deal. So I head into BioBurgerMeister, for an amazing veggie burger (the days special) that really couldn’t be vegetarian it tastes so good accompanied by a cold beer. I spend a few minutes chatting with, who I assume is, the owner and get all the low down on the lengths they go to in order to source the best. That’s nice to know, but the taste is what really matters and that box was well and truly ticked.

Day 8, A Farewell to Salzburg:

Again, it’s a Sunday. At least I had breakfast organised as there isn’t a hard working Austrian in sight. It’s not like they’re all in worship, I pass about four churches on my way into the old town….they’re all empty! I hear the bells, I don’t see the hordes.

I chance the Eurospar for lunch, an attempt to get some spinach and tuna for a healthy mid-day at least is denied by a red barrier, only the little coffee shop attached is open and I end up buying some pre-made roll I don’t want. I eventually find a salad in the old town later and a homeless lady, who I saw earlier being hassled by Polizia looks at me and gives an unsure ‘danke’ as I offer her some lunch.

I walk around a good bit, I was hoping the market I saw in Herbert-von-Karajan Platz last Monday would be in full swing today, I had my eye on an amazing looking chocolate nut pretzl but alas, it wasn’t to be. That will haunt me for some time I’d imagine. It looked incredible, one of those moments you should act but don’t. Knowing you’ll regret it, but still pushing on with the usual stubbornness you know will force you into regret. I guess if this is the biggest regret I have when I land in Dublin, I can’t really complain.

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Not really much to do around, a lot of closed doors but around 12pm, those that are going to kick-off should be open by now. All the shops packed with Mozart crap are in full flight anyway. Mozart, known for his chocolate and love of bouncing up and down on a spring?!? There are hundreds of tourists around the main streets and it makes you wonder why any shop desperate to sell some fair would ever shut its doors on a Sunday on Getreidegasse. I take in what I can in my last few hours in Salzburg. Catching one more glimpse of Hohensalzburg in all its glory before heading back to my hotel to organise my transportation to the airport. My taxi arrives and the driver insists on putting my bag in the car, which he says is what I’m paying him for. Weirdly aggressive start to the journey. He brings me past a few sites which he gives me brief historical information relevant to what we’re seeing. All this while watching the skiing on his little TV on the dashboard while driving. He tells me I haven’t spent enough time in Salzburg and says that I need to come back for a year, and he will show me something new every day. This scares me a little. When we arrive, he gives me his card and mentions his involvement in ‘Krampus Night’ where he and his fellow ‘Krampus’ dress up as Alpine monsters and roam the streets frightening children. This leads me to duck and cover as he walks past me inside the holding pen in the airport……don’t make eye contact. He seemed like a nice guy to be fair.

Salzburg security is slow and I eventually stumble through the metal detector with my jeans falling down and into the sparsely populated aprés checks area. Paying €2.90 for a 500ml bottle of water in the rip-off Marktcafe behind the security gates where no other source of drinkable (non-alcoholic) water is available. I’d be better off drinking schnapps, it doesn’t cost much more and at least then I’d be drunk. Now just to hang around for a couple of hours listening to some Into the Wild by Eddie Vedder which was without doubt the theme of the trip. I found myself playing it constantly to the back drop of the Alps. By some bizarre coincidence it was even pouring from a laptop in the upstairs kitchen in Schwendau one evening. There was no escape from it, not that I was looking to. It seemed to match perfectly the mind-set of those in the house and indeed my journey.