Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Salzburg, Austria

Posted on 8/3/03


The Germans must have sensed that I was writing nasty things about them at night in my room in Munich. They must have known that I had grown to hate them more than I hate cold slaw and they were not going to let me get out of the country without one last kick in the ass.

My train ticket to Salzburg seemed like a no-brainer. The transaction was quick and the price was barely $20. I noted that there was no departure time, date or seat assignment on the ticket. I brought this to the ticket agent’s attention, but she informed me in very broken English that it was an “open ticket,” trains left every 30 minutes all day and I could just hop on any train when I was ready and that would be that. Just for fun, I asked her about the schedule and after showing interest in the 1:37 train, she was kind enough to write the time on my ticket for me.

When the time came to actually get on the train, it was a whole different story. I was ready to get the Hell, Norway out of Germany ahead of schedule, so I jumped on the 1:06 train. Before sitting down, I corralled the first train guy that I could find to see if I should or should not be sitting in any place special. He examined my ticket and told me that I could sit in any seat, gesturing to the car we were stand in, that didn’t have an “R” for “Reserved” on it. Satisfied, I found a seat and powered up my laptop for one last edit over the shit storm of an essay that I planned to post on Germany. The first train guy that walked by, took one look at my ticket and informed me that I was is the wrong section. What section was I in? “First class,” I was told, despite the complete lack of first class amenities, other than the car was 98% empty. Despite being given the exact opposite information a mere 10 minutes prior to this, I decided to let the argument go and complied with his request. I powered off my laptop, packed everything up and moved to the closest second class car, four cars down on the now moving train. This was no easy trek with the Barge being three inches too wide for all of the doorways. After I wrenched my way to a second class seat, I again made myself comfortable, powered up my laptop, cracked my knuckles concert pianist style and prepared to let the zingers fly. Seconds later, another train guy came along, demanded to see my ticket and curtly enlightened me to the fact that I was on the wrong train. I reached around to feel my back for a “Please harass me” sign that someone may have stuck on me in the train station. The Train Gestapo told me that I needed to be on the 1:37 train, just like it said on my ticket, in blue pen, in the upper left corner where the ticket agent had written my preferred departure time. I tried to explain to the Train Gestapo that this was an open ticket and the time written in pen was just for my benefit, not a specific train assignment. This did not change the Train Gestapo’s opinion that the pen note was the true gospel and that I needed to be on that train. Then he informed me that if I wanted to take the train that I was currently riding, I needed to pay an extra seven dollars. Well, by this point I had had it up to my bald spot with the Germans, their inhospitable country and what appeared to be a total lack of consistent training for their Train Gestapo. I told him in so many words that I would sooner stick my big toe up my nose far enough to touch my brain rather than pay an extra $7 for the pleasure of taking the train that I was currently riding, which was by that point almost half way to Salzburg. He told me that I would have to get off the train at the next stop and wait 31 minutes for my “assigned” train. I politely informed the Train Gestapo, that (roughly paraphrasing here) I would indeed get off this train and take the next train if it would make him happy and that he and his fellow Train Gestapo were quite possibly the best trained, most consistent, considerate and understanding people that I had ever met in the entire course of my existence. My sarcasm was lost on this dickhead as he seemed happy satisfied his job performance and moved on to torment other people.

I got off the train at the next stop, two thirds of the way to Salzburg, deep in the throes of a world class, hissy fit. While I waited, I tried to soothe myself with German chocolate which was, like the rest of Germany, a huge let-down.

I knew nothing about Austria. I had traveled around Europe several times and talked endlessly with others who had been through Europe and the word “Salzburg” had never come up. The only reason that I was bothering to stop in Salzburg was that my friend Inger told me that it was a fun and beautiful city. I don’t think Inger has ever been more right about anything in her life.

The Golden Arches

The mood swing that I experienced going from Munich to Salzburg could have knocked over two Minnesota State Fair prize winning cows. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, it was clear to me that Salzburg kicked ass. Much like Scandinavia, there was a clear defined social center in the middle of the Old City, but this place had more character than me after two bottles of wine. The streets were narrow and charming, having the design and décor preserved the from hundreds of years ago. Even the dreaded McDonald’s was forced to conform to Salzburg’s street sign and building regulations.


I was whacked with an gnarly unexpected surprise a mere two hours after arriving in Austria when I met the president. Yes, the president of Austria personally shook my hand. I had no idea who he was at the time, but from the crowd of people trying to reach out to him, the throng of cameras flashing and the grim security, I knew he must have been someone cool, so I too extended my hand and received his warm greeting. I took several pictures before I turned to the person next to me and asked who he was. Turns out this was no ordinary Friday night in Salzburg. I had stumbled into town on the opening night of the annual month-long Salzburg Festspiele classical music festival. The president, several high ranking military figures and Austria’s rich and famous had zoomed in over the weekend to view some of the performances. After being shunned in Germany by everyone, including the 10:00AM drunks, meeting the Austrian president almost immediately upon my arrival was a clear sign that great things awaited me in Salzburg. But I digress.

El Presidente

Due to the festival and it being high season for backpackers, every hostel bed in Salzburg was filled, so I was forced to book a bed in a tent at a campsite outside of town. It wasn’t nearly a bad as I expected it to be. The tents were large, surprisingly water-proof and there was no bug problem to speak of. The tent even had an electrical outlet. With the number of rechargeable items that I carry around and use every day, I could have used at least three more outlets, but unemployed travel writers can’t be choosers, so I dealt with it by maximizing every second in the tent with one or more components plugged into my outlet splitter and charging at all times.

After carefully locking and alarming my bags in my tent (security at the campsite was non-existent), I bussed into the city and floated around the streets in a total state of awe and contentment. It was early evening and crowds of people were strolling through the streets in their nice summer clothes and many were even sporting traditional garb with the men in their Lederhosen and the women in their Dirndl dresses. Countless sidewalk restaurants and cafes filled the streets with people relaxing and enjoying beer, wine and ice cream while watching the bevy of street performers that were so numerous that the crowds that they drew often merged into one another, creating an impregnable sea of people down the narrow streets. Normally, tight crowd situations make me wanna punch someone in the eye, but this atmosphere was so cheerful, friendly and good natured that I couldn’t have imagined myself any more happy and comfortable. I got a fantastic chocolate gelato cone and munched on it as I moved from one street performer to another. I saw not one, but two juggling acts, a mime who drew the biggest crowd I have ever seen a mime play to, the requisite statue guy, numerous musicians and a puppeteer. The streets in Salzburg’s Old City are not only narrow, but they are often interconnected by scattered archways and what appeared to be small tunnels that burrowed right through the buildings. These tunneled alley-ways were so small and inconspicuous that at first glance you would assume that it was someone’s private garage or an entrance to an apartment building until you squinted through to the other side and saw crowds of people streaming down yet another street. Sometimes the tunnels opened up into huge enclosed courtyards with yet more cafes, businesses and even little playgrounds. The tunnels themselves had small outcroppings that housed display windows, tiny shops and vaguely marked stairways that led down into restaurants and pubs, that judging from the rock-faced walls, appeared to have been carved into the ground out of a solid stone foundation.

Typical street in Salzburg's Old CityAn inconspicuous alley-wayJuggling five tennis racquetsHave you ever see a mime with this large of an audience?A neat spin on the statue guy concept.  He was really good.  Scared the crap out of people every time he moved.

During my indiscriminate exploration of the maze of the Old City streets, I stumbled upon a square where a British little person was forcing pamphlets on people. He made a b-line for me the instant he laid eyes on me. Typically when someone homes in on me that fast, they are either trying to sell me something or wanting to convert me to their cult. Despite my best efforts to blow him off, he succeeded in stopping me and commanding my attention. He was hawking promotional material for a free performance of the New English Orchestra in St. Peter’s Church later in the evening. Other than the word “cider,” “free” is my favorite word in the English language. I took the brochure and promised to attend the performance. As I walked off, he called after me, promising that the concert would be the best thing that I saw in Salzburg. This was a declaration that I could not ignore.

I returned later in the evening for the performance. I’m not a religious man. In fact, if you’ve paying attention you know that I have a running theory that if there is a God, He is certainly doing His best to biblically screw me at the worst possible moments. As usual, I entered this house of God tentatively. I always feel like the wolf in the hen house when I walk into anything that remotely resembles a place of worship. When it happens to be a 800 year old European church, the sensation is more akin to a pagan walking into the Middle Ages Freakish Christian Right Annual Convention during the witch burning workshop. I was one of the last to arrive at the overflowing church, so I didn’t get a seat, but I walked around the right hand side of the congregation and sat my ass on what must have been a hundreds of years old stoop while the choir opened the evening with a soft hymn. I had almost no view of the orchestra and until they marched down the isle later in the performance, I had zero view of the choir, but I had no problem hearing anything due to the fantastic acoustics. There were some atmosphere microphones set up, but otherwise no one person and no single instrument was amplified, yet I could hear every little stroke of the strings and hum of the choir.

The orchestra and choir launched into the first piece with jaw dropping mastery. The experience was so overwhelming that it was almost beyond words. I was sitting in the wings of an 800 year old structure, drenched in history, listening to extraordinarily beautiful music and voices. The exquisiteness and the magnificence unloaded on me mentally and emotionally like a tidal wave. I wept. I couldn’t help myself. The beauty, depth and significance of the moment totally over-powered me. I’m tearing up now just writing about it. That instant was by far the deepest feeling of peace and beauty that I had witnessed in recent memory. Now do you see why I don’t go into churches???

After the concert, to cleanse my palette, I got wasted on cheap wine and went to a strip club. Just kidding. I just wanted to break up the mood.

Actually, I wandered through the bustling streets of Salzburg with the multitude of fellow music aficionados and happy tourists until almost midnight when I caught the last bus back to the camp site.

Needless to say that my first night in Salzburg drastically changed my travel plans. I extended my stay from two nights to five. I abandoned my anti-tourist approach. I wanted to see and learn as much about the city as possible. I bought the 48 hour “tourist card” that offered me free entrance into countless museums, historic sights and access to all public transport. I visited the former residence of Mozart that included a sound and film collection, the Salzburg Cathedral, the massive Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Hellgrunn Palace and trick fountains, the Salzburg Museum of Natural History and the 500 year old Stiegl’s Brauwelt brewery. And I don’t even like beer. The only thing I avoided was the “Sound of Music” related sights. I learned almost the minute that I arrived that the movie was set in Salzburg, hence the general obsession. I know as a theatre major I could have my degree revoked and be stoned by a mob of my peers for saying this, but I fricking hate musicals and I wanted nothing to do with the out-of-control tribute Salzburg had to the movie. Otherwise, short of enrolling myself in a crash course in German, I soaked up everything the city had to offer.

Salzburg CathedralThat's Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the hill.Hohensalzburg Fortress up close.

Trick fountainsDinner table with trick fountains both behind the seats and in the seats themselves.  Dinner and a enima!The Stiegl’s Brauwelt brewery pyramid of beer

In my pursuit of Austrian culture, with the help of a fellow camper’s Lonely Planet, I was able to find the Weiserhof Gasthof, a very nice, cheap traditional Austrian restaurant. The place was way off the beaten path and hard to find, which was a sure sign to me that; a) There would be no dipshit tourists there and b) I would get authentic food. As luck would have it, the restaurant was right on the bus line that I had to take to get out to the campsite. I walked in and was immediately eyed up and down by the patrons and staff. I was clearly not a neighborhood regular. There were only six tables and they all seated about nine people, so I looked even more conspicuous sitting down and taking up one corner of a huge table. Being a small, neighborhood restaurant, the one and only waitress had only a marginal understanding of and desire to fulfill the requirements of a member of the service industry. She let me sit for what seemed like 20 minutes after I had closed my menu and began looking around the room expectantly to order. I asked for the sautéed potatoes with white sausage and onions. When the plate came I could feel my arteries involuntarily flinch. Everything had been grilled in a pool of grease. The potatoes were saturated in it, the sausage was of course oozing it and there was a surprise cardiac annihilator ingredient in the form of a giant, fried egg blanketing the entire dish. Being the first-rate American grease eater that I am, I dug in and greedily devoured the entire thing. I don’t know how the Austrians keep their girlish figures. While they are no where near threatening the U.S. with the title of “Fattest Bastards in the World,” they also aren’t as collectively thin as most of the rest of Europe. But most of the rest of Europe’s traditional recipes don’t start out with the words “Melt two pounds of lard in a bucket and generously pour it over everything, including fruit and cereal…”

One of the more adorable characteristics of being in Austria (as well as Scandinavia and to a certain extent (gag) Germany (I can no longer even say this word without having to spit)) is that girls and women of all ages will hold hands or hook arms while walking together. It is so cute! It’s sad that even in this day and age, in many parts of the U.S. this habit would probably invoke whispers and hoots of certain dykedom. It’s totally adorable! Four year olds do it, 90 year olds do it… I think the world would be a better place if platonic signs of affection like this were more socially acceptable. That and if women went braless. Yup, a little hand holding and no bras and we could be looking at world peace, my friends. Who’s with me?

As if the concept of the tiny Smart cars wasn't cool enough, now they have Smart sports cars! I'm totally gittin' one!

After that first gelato, I mysteriously developed a sudden and freakish ice cream habit. Not to say that I haven't always liked ice cream, I just haven’t always needed it at least twice a day. I have only had urges for ice cream of this level during those times when I was not drinking alcohol and my body demanded that I provide it with a different regular source of sugar. After debating whether or not I could finance yet another vice, I came to the conclusion that with all of the walking that I did each day, my body simply needed more sugar. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Now ‘scuse me while I step out for a cone.

On my third and fourth days in Salzburg, it rained. Hard. I was in the middle of my daily exploration of the Old City when the rain started. Initially I freaked out when I pictured my $3,000 of electronic equipment sitting in the tent back at the camp site, but to my surprise, the tent held up admirably. Other than the water that I tracked in, the place stayed bone dry. The rain didn’t hinder my outings around the city very much. With all of the covered alleyways and narrow streets, even a hard rain like we were experiencing barely affected us down on street level. The only time I bothered to whip out my James Bond umbrella was when I had to exit the Old City and venture back to the campsite.

Things got really unpleasant at night as a result of the rain when the temperature dropped what seemed like 30 degrees in just a couple of hours. After experiencing Austria’s hottest day of the summer the day before, this temperature dip really took me off guard. Being in my usual clueless state of contentment wandering around Salzburg during the day, it wasn’t until I got back to the campsite that evening that it dawned to me that I was in for a rough night. Obviously the tent provided zero insulation from the air temperature outside and my clothing situation was no help. After returning from the Arctic Circle, I unloaded everything that was even marginally warm. What remained of my “warm” clothes consisted of two pair of pants and two light weight long sleeve shirts. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a blanket or a sleeping bag. All I had was a bed sheet since most hostels require that you provide your own. So, I had no choice but to work with what I had. I put on a pair of shorts, then both pair of pants. On top I had two T-shirts, both long sleeve shirts and finally I put on two pair of my pathetic ankle socks. Then I climbed into the virtually useless bed sheet and wrapped a T-shirt around my head. I looked absolutely ridiculous and this is how I slept for two nights.

It was pointed out to me during my stay at the campsite that other than an alarming number of bees, the bug presence was almost non-existent. Indeed, my entire trip had been mostly bug-free. Aside from a brief attack in Trondheim and the swarm that harassed me while I was climbing Preikestolen, I had been completely oblivious to the fact that my days and nights were spend without being tormented by bugs. I had totally forgotten about that torturous part of summer in Minnesota, where an evening spent outdoors usually involved one or more anti-bug precautions. Man, no bugs, constant nudity… Europe just keeps getting better and better!

My choice to stay in Salzburg for five nights was not random. Although I knew I would keep plenty busy for five days between my wanderings and trying to nail it all down in print, I also wanted to return to St Peter’s church for another performance of the New English Orchestra on Tuesday night. I didn’t expect that I would relive the same awesome, cathartic feelings the second time around, I just knew that I was in for another brilliant free show. As free shows go, this was as good as an impromptu beachfront, Cancun wet T-shirt contest.

Actually I did weep again. Not because I was emotionally moved, but because my ass and back were killing me by the end of the show. Those goddamn Christians, I swear sometimes I think that they were never completely happy unless they were totally miserable. I showed up 30 minutes early this time to get a seat in the pews. The pews in St Peter’s Church were obviously designed by a Medieval torture specialist. The seat portion was nothing but wood, that was no surprise, but the seat backs were definitely designed with malicious intents. The rail on the top of the seat backs protruded out about and inch and a half, making it impossible to rest your back against the seat back itself. The protrusion either forced you to sit up perfectly straight (which I’m sure was the intention at the time) or you had to lean forward and rest yourself on your knees. As a result, one was always either at strict attention or bent over worshiping. This did hellish things to my back and bony ass. The concert went on for almost twice as long as Friday night’s performance and I was near tears by the end of the encore. In fact, I’m surprised there was an encore. I know it wasn’t due to the clapping from the people in the pews. We were all too crippled to clap much at the end. It must have been those bastards in the heavenly folding chairs that were set up in the isles and the back of the church. Damn them to Hell, Norway.

After five nights, it was time to leave Salzburg. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to keep moving if I was going to visit 12 more countries before November. I especially regretted visiting Salzburg before Vienna as it has always been my experience that the biggest cities in each country were typically not my favorite and Vienna was about six times larger than Salzburg. Sigh. Alas, I screwed on the courage, put on a happy face and departed for Vienna.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012