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Back-packing Through Europe: Austria

Guten Tag. Willkommen Sie”, the young Viennese shopkeeper greeted me in German as I initiated conversation with a well-rehearsed “Entschuldiging, bitte”. What followed was the comprehension of the work culture and etiquette most Europeans follow. Austria is a land of superlatives- the nicest people, the best cars and the most effective preservation of heritage. The Austrians are blessed with a rich cuisine comprising Schnitzels, Apple Strudels, Goulashes, Pretzels and more. The chilly summer breeze hit me the second I left the Vienna Airport and it was at that very second that I felt the unparalleled impression that Europe leaves on us.

Vienna

Modest albeit grand, historical yet modern, the heart of Austrian culture lies in the capital, Vienna, or as they say in German, Wien. One cannot afford to blink, lest they miss a grand sculpture on the side of the road that the locals take for granted. This city exists to satisfy. The petrolhead spotted his favourite Porsche 911 cruising along the smooth, enviable roads. The music enthusiast heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony playing in his ears while passing the Vienna State Opera. The art lover sat for hours admiring Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel”. The socialist stood before Karl Marx Hof and felt the red flow through his veins. As for the photographer, the world was his oyster.

Schloss Schönbrunn

Architecturally and imperially profound, this Baroque palace exudes royalty like no other. The building is now a gallery depicting the life of the Habsburg royal family and their most significant member, Maria Theresa, who changed the course of history by reforming Vienna- and eventually Austria- to what it is today.

Wiener Naturhistorische Museum

Located in Hero’s Square which comprises the cultural zenith of the city, the Natural History Museum is home to some very unique artifacts especially the 29,500-year-old Venus of Willendorf, the Steller’s sea cow that became extinct over 200 years ago. With a staircase that diverges in two directions and a dome constructed with much detail, this royal vibe made the place so much more than just a museum.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

This is home to some of the most priceless paintings to have been created. Ranging from the Renaissance period with the walls adorned with Madonna and her child, Jesus, to impressionist paintings by Claude Monet, I just stood there, absorbing every bit I could. I knew all about Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Johannes Vermeer and the like, but when I saw their lives’ work before my eyes, I believed I had finally seen it all.

Fascinating tales of days gone by is what gives this city its eminent charm. For someone who directs himself to a very different Queen when he hears ‘Bohemia’, I learned a lot about Austrian politics through brochures. The streets have a different story to say, as my admiration for Otto Wagner – the architect behind the city’s structure – grew manifold. Despite several attacks orchestrated by the man with a toothbrush moustache, the Danube keeps flowing peacefully and the city is just as breath-taking as it was when Mozart, Beethoven, and Freud used to walk the streets.

There is no better joy than walking, care-free, and breathing in a bit of Europe – something that guided tours cannot offer.  It is not just the hopping on and off the tourist attractions that drives people from all over the world to Europe. Travelling around the city and eating Eastern European cuisine in street-side cafés made me easily blend with the local citizens; a wonderful sensation, to be honest.

 Salzburg

Even the slightest shred Hollywood knowledge is sufficient for someone to realise the significance of Salzburg. Austria Tourism seized this opportunity and transformed this city into one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe. As I left the train from Vienna, the old cliché did come true- the hills were alive with the Sound of Music. Having spent two days in Salzburg, here are “a few of my favourite things”:

Mirabell Palace

Remember ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from your childhood? The song was filmed here. Built in 1606, sculptures of medieval men and mythological creatures welcomed me to the garden which was decorated with even larger sculptures of medieval men and mythological creatures amidst a large fountain.

Hellbrunn Palace

Despite gaining immense popularity for hosting “16 going on 17” from the Sound of Music, this palatial complex is famous for its waterworks and the vast expanses of meadow and lake. The trick fountain tour is a fun way of spending your afternoon as the guide teaches you how water makes things aesthetically beautiful.

Zentrum

With buildings from periods ranging from the late Middle Ages to the 20th Century, the Historical Centre of Salzburg or Zentrum is concentrated evidence of majesty. We started our visit there with the Domed Cathedral, a large gallery and church which can easily be identified from a distance. After spending time at the Domplatz and wandering around, we ascended the staircase to Mozarts Geburtshaus or the house where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. With Symphony No. 25 playing softly in the background, we were transported to the world of Mozart.

The river Salzach plays a very significant role in shaping the city. Lovers come from far and seal their undying love for each other by attaching a lock on a footbridge over this river and throw the key into the water. This river also separates the Old Town of Salzburg – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – from the rest of the city. A walk by the river at dusk is an irresistible wanderlust, and when it’s dark, the sight of the city lighting up in glorious colours made me stop, stare and realise that this is not a place I would like to leave.

Innsbruck

Innsbruck is a quaint little town that would give any large metropolitan city a run for its money. Furthermore, the snow-capped mountains on three sides and the Inn River flowing peacefully through the centre gave the image of a picture-perfect valley. Despite the mountains, a mid-afternoon wind called the Foehn made temperatures rise in the historic capital of the Tyrolean Empire.  A visit to the Swarovski Crystal Worlds, a tour around the Old Town near the Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof (main railway station in German) and discovering the fascinating cuisine of Germany centred around the sausage, or as they call it- the wurst, simply made my day.

Hungerburg Mountain

Nestled at the foot of the Nordkette Range, the citizens of Innsbruck took the effort to have a transport system to take you to the top. A smooth ride, it started with a funicular ride which dropped us at the cable car station. If you are lucky enough, you can spot mountain goats in the distance, a rare sight.

Ambras Castle

The highlight of my day in Innsbruck, the palatial complex is located outside the main town. The castle is situated deep inside the complex. This gives spaces for sprawling lawns and ponds. The castle is now a testimony to the Tyrolean Empire and allows visitors to enter the gallery and the Spanish Hall, both of which are decorated with frescos and sculptures.

The Hop On Hop Off bus service provided constant commentary on all the noteworthy aspects of Innsbruck- hence not a single moment of the tour was dull. Winter sporting events is a major attraction of Innsbruck and the town is a popular destination for Winter Olympics (having hosted it in 1964, 1976 and 2012), I learned as we drove past the Olympia SkiWorld and the Bergiselschanze- a ski jumping hill at the eastern end of the town. We drove through Maria Theresien Street and witnessed St Anna’s Column, a beautiful sculpture built to commemorate the liberation of the region from Bavarian troops during the Spanish War. On the same street is the Goldenes Dachl, a landmark structure decorated with 2,738 fire-gilded copper tiles built for the Emperor Maximilian’s wife.

Visiting the beautiful town of Innsbruck concluded my short association with Austria. Glorious memories forever etched in the mind of the young tourist, played before his eyes as he resolved to return and do justice to the country’s immense resources. Therefore, it was with a heavy heart and a fresh perspective that I bid my final ‘Auf Wiedersehen’.

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