On a lazy afternoon, sitting in an aesthetically decorated village home in Karimabad, Hunza, I was listening to my friend Deedar on his expertise in hand made carpets and Shahtoosh shawls when I picked up a Beethoven’s CD case from the rack and told him casually that I shall be in Austria later in the month. This made Deedar’s eyes sparkle and off he went with nostalgic stories of his time in Vienna mentioning Vienna Opera house, Danube, Mozart, Beethoven, movies like Amadeus and Sound of music and Salzburg. My eyes wide open; I knew what to look for while in Austria.
About three hours train from Vienna passing though valleys, crossing rivers and small picturesque towns, one arrive at the historic town of Salzburg, close to the German border. Salzburg is known for towering Hohensalzburg palace, Salzach river, St Peters cathedral, Mirabell palace, Redbull head quarters and most important of all legendary Mozart, the 18th century musician. Salzburg was included in the UNESCO world heritage sites in 1997 as one of best well-preserved historic towns.
Salzburg is a small town of around 150,000 people and numerous palaces, churches, museum hotels and cafes. Historically Salzburg was an important salt mining town and most of the wars in early centuries were around salt rights and sales. Salzburg remained an independent state from 14th to 19th century when it finally became part of Austria in 1815. Salzburg received its fair share of bombings by Allied forces in World War II like most of other east European cities however most of the castles and historic buildings survived atleast partly and were later renovated.
Historically the town was ruled by Archbishops and it was Archbishop Gebhardt who oversaw the construction of the one of best preserved palaces of Europe which is Hohensalzburg palace perched on the top of one of the bounding ridges of Salzburg. Salzburg old town is sandwiched between the Hohensalzburg palace ridge and Salzach River and the comparatively newer part is on the other side of the river again limited by mountain ridges. Salzburg was a natural fortress and this help from God indeed helped Salzburgians ward off potential intruders into their peaceful lives.
The old town of Salzburg is preserved as a typical historic European town with cobble streets and horse carriages being the way for transport. One enters the old city through the Mozart square with the Mozart statue standing in the centre of the square. The statue was erected in 1842 many decades after Mozart’s death. Salzburg and Mozart go together as Mozart was born here in 1756. Mozart went on to write symphonies, operas, chamber music etc and became immortal along with the likes of Beethoven and Hayden.
Just next to Mozart square is the St Peters Cathedral or Dom zu Salzburg which originally was constructed in 774 however was demolished and built in nearly present form in 1628. The cathedral again got hit in World War II and was renovated in 1959. The cathedral is part of the postcard pictures of Salzburg with imposing green domes. The renowned architect Santino Solari was commissioned in early 17th century to rebuilt Dom zu Salzburg and today it is one of the master pieces of early Baroque architecture, north of Alps.
The idea of walking up to Hohensalzburg on the steep mountain ridge sends shivers especially if you are tired however Austrians believe in cable cars and Siemens has installed a powerful cable car at an almost sixty degree gradient. The cable car is there since early twentieth century and seeing these cable cars taking tourists to the palace makes one think about similar ventures for Baltit fort in Hunza or Kalamdarchi fort in Misghar Valley in Pakistan. The view from Hohensalzburg is simply breath taking with panoramic views of valleys on both side of the ridge but it’s the bird eye view of Salzburg that is priceless with a view of the cathedral, old historic town with its churches, Salzach river, Mirabell palace and valleys beyond.
The Hohensalzburg palace was constructed in 974 however it was continuously remodeled and renovated throughout centuries and its present shape dates back to seventeenth century. It is the best known landmark of Salzburg and oversees the whole town and surrounding valleys. It used to be the fortress where the Archbishops shall resort to in times of wars and had its own grainary and water supply. Today the vast fortress houses museum, restaurants and coffee shops.
If someone is fortunate enough to have visited both Hunza in northern Pakistan and Salzburg in Austria, one cannot miss the striking resemblance between Baltit fort and Hohensalzburg palace. While Hohensalzburg is more historic by a couple of centuries, Baltit fort was actually a palace where Mirs of Hunza lived for centuries in contrast to Hohensalzburg palace which was more a fort to defend against invaders rather than a palace. Both are perched on mountain ridges over looking the valley with rivers flowing in the middle. While a lazy tourist can reach Hohensalzburg palace in minutes using cable car, one has to have good lungs to trek up the steep pathway to Baltit fort. Salzburg gorge is narrow and easily walkable however Hunza gorge needs some serious trekking.
Similarly Salzburg beauty is augmented by the presence of Mozart, St Peter’s cathedral, Hohensalzburg palace while Hunza is surrounded by several 7000 metres plus snow covered beauties including the famous Rakaposhi, Golden peak, Dehran peak, Lady finger and Ultar peaks and last but not the least 900 years old Altit fort perched on a sheer mountain cliff overlooking the Marcopolo’s silk route to China. Salzburg is close to fabled Eagle’s Nest in Germany which was Hitler’s 50th birthday present basically a nice villa on top of a mountain which now serves tourists from all over the world. Guess what, Hunza has its own Eagles nest perched on a mountain cliff a few kilometers up a winding road from Hunza and is known for its beautiful sunsets with snow-capped peaks around.
Landing back from Hohensalzburg palace via the cable car, one can go for a nice walk on the narrow streets of the old town. The streets are lined with high end cafes, restaurants, souvenirs shops and designer shops of every fashion brand. The architecture is mainly Baroque and has been maintained immaculately. Walking through the streets, it looks like a maze and all streets are connected through narrow alleys and passageways. The residential blocks are typical Austrian cottages with a huge wooden door at the entrance that leads into central veranda surrounded by parking place for horse carriages. A typical house used to be two to three storeys with first floor for the landlords and the upper storeys for the servants and guards. Another typical feature of these houses even today is exquisite flower arrangements hanging from the balconies which add beautiful colors to the otherwise dull structures.
Walking through these alleys, one ends up at the famous Getreidegasse which is one of the oldest business streets lined with designer shops with standard wrought iron guild signs. A little down this street is Getreidegasse 9, a yellow colored five storey building, it was where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 to a musician Leopold Mozart. The place to day is owned by Mozart Society and has been converted into a Museum displaying Mozart’s memorabilia including his violin. A little walk north in the street takes one to beautiful 1330 St. Blasius church, nicely tucked into the mountain wall.
While the cafes in Salzburg are famous for their cakes and variety of coffees, the restaurant offer a wide variety of dishes reminding one of the great history of Austro-Hungarian Empire which at one point in time included Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia and parts of Poland, Ukraine and beyond . Hence one finds food ranging from Hungarian Goulash which is basically spicy curry with potatoes and succulent beef to desserts like Apple strudel, famous Sacher cake and Swiss Musli.
Now this Musli is a delicious amalgam of yogurt, cereals, nuts and fruits and usually taken as breakfast. Almost a decade back, sitting in Café de Hunza, I asked the owner Shafqat for some dessert and he offered me Hunza Musli. On my probing, he told me that this is an ancient dish of Hunza and is considered a reason for the legendary longevity of Hunza people. He acknowledged some connection with Swiss and their influence in the recipe however i could not understand whether the recipe came from Swiss or went to Swiss or it is some sort of combination. Sitting in Salzburg, I open a menu card and here I have Austrian Musli. Now whether Musli has Hunza origins, Swiss influence or it is an Austrian delicacy, it is for sure, mouth watering, delicious and a full meal.
Crossing one of the several bridges over river Salzach, one enters the other part of the town which is though less historic but equally vibrant. One cannot miss the Mozart residence in Market square. When Mozart grew up into a boy, the house at Getreidegasse 9 became somewhat small for a big family and the musician father was very particular that Mozart has his own space for writing and playing music. Hence in his teenage years, Mozart shifted to this relatively huge house on the other side of the river where he would receive other musicians and compose one of the best musical arts this world would ever know.
Right next to Mozart’s residence are the famous and postcard picture Mirabell palace and gardens. Mirabell palace and gardens were founded by Archbishop Dietrich in 1606 for his beloved and the hard work bore fruit in shape of fifteen children from the marriage. The palace today houses the Mayor’s office and conference rooms and overlooks the beautiful Mirabell gardens which are indeed a horticulture feat with an architectural masterpiece in the form of Pegasus fountain installed in 1913. Standing opposite the Mirabell palace with fountain at the back is one of the best backdrops for photographers. The backdrop covers the lush green gardens with colorful flower arrangements, St Peters cathedral and Hohensalzburg palace at the top. Other places worth visiting in Salzburg include Hellbrunn palace with its trick fountains, Redbull hangar-7 as well as Salzburg zoo.
Salzburg has served music for centuries; it is a town where kids still grow up with dreams of becoming composers and opera singers. There are atleast three universities in Salzburg and all are dedicated to Mozart and music in a big way. The Hollywood classics like ‘Sound of Music’ and ‘Amadeus’ were shot here in the old city. Salzburg transports you into a historical era where people used to discuss music and lived their lives writing or singing music along the shores of silently flowing Salzach. A two to three days stop over in Salzburg while enroute from Vienna to Munich is definitely highly recommended.