I first visited Salzburg twenty years ago on an icy, monochrome January day. I was on a ski holiday in nearby Zell am See with an old school friend and we had opted for a day’s break from the pistes to go by train for look around the world-renowned baroque City.
It seemed a strange choice at the time; the cold formality of Salzburg seemingly a world away from our cosy alpine resort with its cheery cellar bars, gluhwein and apres-ski scene. in Salzburg, by contrast, a biting wind blew down the winding streets and across the open squares of the Altstadt. Save for a scattering of bakeries and shops on the Getreidegasse (the street of Mozart’s birthplace):, businesses were closed; the City seemingly silent and uninviting. We climbed the tortuous steps to the Hohnensalzburg Fortress, looming menacingly above the town and surveyed the bleak winter-locked landscape. The alpine charms of Zell am See were soon started to beckon us back.
In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to visit Salzburg again on a number of occasions to attend environmental conferences and events. These recent experiences have proved much more positive than my first midwinter forray. Since then, I’ve discovered a colourful, vibrant and fascinating city set amidst a fabulous backdrop of alpine landscapes straddling the border between Austria and Bavaria.
There are dramatic peaks, spectacular glacial gorges, turquoise lakes and pastoral lowlands occupied by ancient towns. Much of the surrounding alpine landscapes comprise protected areas including the renowned Berchtesgaden National Park which is internationally important for nature conservation as well as for outdoor sports. The charming mountain resort of Berchtesgaden also has another dimension to its past however and is linked to some of the darkest episodes of the 20th Century.
More than Mozart and the Sound of Music:
Mention Salzburg and a whole series of clichés spring to mind including Mozart, the Salzburg Festival, Baroque architecture, alpine meadows and of course the “Sound of Music”. Despite its obvious popularity as a mecca for Julie Andrews fans, Salzburg is well worth a visit for a whole host of reasons.
Salzburg has a fascinating history; the City grew wealthy through the mining of salt in the surrounding mountains and became an important power base for an ambitious and ruthless dynasty of Archbishops who ruled much of the surrounding region throughout the Middle Ages. The Archbishops occupied the formidable fortress of Hohnensalzburg which dominates the Mönchsberg, or”Monks Mountain”, right in the heart of the city centre. Hohnensalzburg is a great place to start a tour of the City, not least for the amazing views of the surrounding countryside which provides a geographical context for the region.
The view out over the Altstadt (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) from the ramparts of the fortress is particularly striking with mighty baroque buildings including the Cathedral, the Residence Palaces and St Peter’s Abbey dominating the view.
Across the River Salzach, Salzburg’s other downtown peak, the Kapuzinerberg forms a backdrop for the more recent buildings, parks and boulevards of the Neustadt (New Town) to the North East. From the uppermost vantage point of Hohnensalzburg, the views South towards the Alps and the Mt. Untersberg (a mountain with a story which we’ll come back to later on) are also stunning.
Inside the fortress, the impregnable defences and fearsome array of torture gear hints that the Archbishops of Salzburg were not people to be messed with and undoubtedly had ways of loosening their guests’ tongues. It’s all quite sobering and makes you grateful to be alive in the present era (despite all its woes) rather than the turbulent and barbaric days of the 13th Century when life was cheap and when those on the wrong side of “justice” often met a sticky end. In the upper courtyard of the fortress there is a remarkable old lime tree which is around 400 years old and which provides welcome shade for tourists on hot summer days.
Despite all these down sides, the ruling elite of Salzburg left some remarkable legacies including many baroque buildings of the City and the remarkable “AlmKanal”, an impressive irrigation canal, which was first started around 800 AD and then extended to bring fresh water for the City’s residents (or at least to those with wealth and status).
The construction of the canal was an impressive engineering feat for its time and involved constructing a tunnel right under the Mönchsberg itself to bring fresh water right to the heart of the Altstadt. As well as providing drinking water, the Almkanal also powered man many mills and small industries. The tunnel network under the Mönchsberg also reputedly provided a route of escape from the City during times of siege.
For closet “Sound of Music” fans though there are plenty of locations around the City to remind you of the one of the UK’s most predictably popular Christmas TV offerings. These include the colourful Mirabell Gardens designed by Fisher von Erlach on the Eastern side of the river and the stately Leopoldskron Palace which is located in a peaceful suburb located South of the City.
For real devotees though you’ll find no shortage of kitsch organised tours taking you around the main Sound of Music sights and packed with photo-hungry globetrotters eager to catch the best snaps to send home. Despite being tempted I decided it was a better policy to head out of town and experience some of the beautiful Salzkammergut region of lakes and mountains located a mere 40 minutes East of the City.
The Austrian Lake District; The Wolfgangsee, St Gilgen and the Zwölferhorn:
From the City Centre, I took a bus out to Stobl on the Wolfgangsee and decided to take a ferry back to St Gilgen, visiting St Wolfgang on route. Despite being quite busy, the Wolfgangsee, is a beautiful lake surrounded by spectacular peaks, which although not high by alpine standards are still very impressive in their own right. I decided to stop off at St Wolfgang itself, a compact resort hugging the Southern shore of the lake and under the flanks of the Schafberg mountain.
St Wolfgang provided inspiration and the setting for the “White Horse Inn” operetta and has become quite a magnet for visitors. I must admit that I found the place to be somewhat of a tourist trap however; expensive souvenir shops jostled with crowded cafes for attention; all equally intent on emptying the contents of your wallet as quickly as possible. I sought sanctuary in the relative cool and calm of the Parish Church and checked out the famous Winged Alter carved by Micheal Pacher in 1481. Undoubtably this is real medieval treasure and well worth a look.
I left the church by a different door to find the narrow back streets completely choc-a -bloc with vintage tractors; a hundred or so spluttering but well-groomed machines belching out diesel fumes into the narrow thoroughfares and successfully holding back the tourist hoards at every available exit. On another day I might have found all this rather exciting, but on this occasion I decided that it was definitely time to leave.
So it wasn’t without too much sadness that I boarded the boat again and continued my journey down the lake, enjoying the fresh breeze, the space and the relative calm of the open water; St Wolfgang could keep its treasures for another day !
I found St Gilgin (at the Western end of the lake) to be an altogether more agreeable place and enjoyed the calm of the summer’s evening down by the shore watching becalmed boats and bird life. A craft fair was just winding down; however in comparison with the crowded alleys of St Wolfgang, this seemed spacious, cool and uncluttered and the venders relaxed and less pushy.
There was also a band playing covers of Irish and Scottish songs which made me feel quite at home here. I had a chat the musicians during a break. Surprisingly, it turned out that all the members of this authentic sounding Celtic outfit hailed from just down the road in Salzburg; I was quite convinced by them I must admit !
I enjoyed strolling through the deserted streets of St Gilgin as I waited for the last bus back to Salzburg. The bus was packed with bright, young people heading into town for a Friday night partying, the women looking good in tasteful and colourful dirndles. Ethnic costumes aside, this really reminded me of Friday night back home in rural Scotland; could I be in Banchory or Inverurie heading for a night out in Aberdeen ? (maybe not enough swearing, fighting or binge drinking for that though).
Following my voyage on the Wolfgangsee, I opted for another trip to St Gilgin with the aim of ascending the Zwölferhorn mountain, which is accessed by a vintage gondola system (and again providing another easy escape from the City of Salzburg).
It’s a pleasant journey gliding above the alpine pastures and forests, the views becoming ever more expansive. From the top station, I hiked up to the summit and enjoyed a fabulous panorama over the Wolfgangsee and the peaks of the Salzkammergut region. Today I was in luck and found the mountain trails remarkably uncrowded, save for a few trekkers and of course lots of cows.
The alpine meadows (or alms) of the region are truly spectacular; to the sound of tinkling bells, lazy, contented cows graze nonchalantly amongst a blaze of colourful wild flowers including spotted orchids, bell flowers, alpine asters and edelweiss. Near to the Zwölferhorn itself, there are a couple of chilled-out mountain huts serving local specialities and a welcoming glass of beer or radler.
I opted to do a circular walk away from the main paths and through open patches of forest and meadows. Soon I was a world away from other walkers and was on my own amidst the alpine pastures with a spectacular backdrop of peaks to the South. After taking in a couple of minor summits, I decided to head down to a more remote hut, taking plenty of time en route to photograph insects and plants.
I approached another small alm hut, to be greeted by the haunting sound of trumpets which echoed around the secluded valley. Two old-timers sat on the balcony playing instruments, the atmospheric sounds blending perfectly and unobtrusively with the pastoral alpine landscape. There were no other visitors around and it seemed that the vintage duo met up every so often to play there purely for their own pleasure rather than for the specific purposes of entertaining anyone.
I enjoyed a leisurely beer and found some interesting information about alm life in the old days which; although at times tough, lonely and challenging, this lifestyle appeared not to be without its charm in comparison with our own frenetic 21st Century lifestyles.
A sudden rumble of thunder focused my attention and I set off again quickly down through the forest, eager to get back to the valley before the storm broke over the peaks. It wasn’t to be though; the first heavy drops of rain splattered on my backpack and the heavens abruptly opened. I was soon soaked to the skin as the deluge began, the thunder rumbling ever nearer and flashes of lightning bouncing off the surrounding summits.
I started running down the endless track in a vain attempt to evade the storm. Fortunately I was in luck; the two trumpet players were making their way down the forest road in a battered old BMW and happily stopped to offer me a lift (which I certainly wouldn’t have refused). By this quirk of fortune I was soon back down in the valley and in the welcome shelter of the bus stop waiting for the next bus back to Salzburg.
The Königsee and Berchtesgaden National Park;
The mountain resort town of Berchtesgaden, located just over the Bavarian border 25km to the South East of Salzburg, is renowned both for its natural beauty as well as for more its darker associations with the Third Reich.
I was in Berchtesgaden to attend a 3 day event about the ECONNECT project, an ambitious European funded initiative which has attempted to restore ecological connections for animals and plants across the European Alps. The Project has been striving to do this through establishing links between important alpine protected areas to achieve benefits for wildlife and biodiversity.
To take forward this vision, the project has considered natural elements including sustainable land use, in addition to economic and social aspects. The project has progressed through the development of number of pilot areas which include the Berchtesgaden National Park and the adjoining Weissbach Nature Park in Austria (both of which lie within the Berchtesgaden and Salzburg transboundary region).
Although relatively small, at 210 square km, Berchtesgaden National Park is characterised by spectacular alpine habitats, spruce forests and meadows. The park is also home to many iconic alpine species including chamoix, ibex, golden eagles, alpine marmots and colourful plants such as blue gentians and alpine snowbells. The main attractions of the park however, are the fijord-like lakes of the Königsee and the smaller Obersee, which are encircled by the dramatic limestone massives of the Watzmann and Hoher Göll.
Despite the conference schedule being pretty tight, I was keen to pack in a boat trip along the Königsee to experience this dramatic natural landscape at first hand. I braced myself for an early departure, giving the added advantage of cheating the crowds who annually throng to the Königsee in vast numbers. To serve these visitors, a fleet of virtually silent electric boats ply the waters every day between Schönau and Salatalm at the Southern end, passing the famous onion-domed church at St Bartholoma (one of the most frequently photographed locations in Germany after Neuschwanstein) en route.
Taking the first boat of the morning had some advantages and I arrived to find the quay almost deserted, save for a handful of hardy early risers who were heading for the peaks. The down side was that the whole lake was enveloped in a thick, oppressive blanket of fog. During the entire journey up the lake there was nothing to be seen whatsoever, save for ominous dark shapes which periodically loomed threateningly out of the gloom. At one point the captain cut the engine completely and the boat glided eerily to halt, suspended in the omnipresent greyness between the swirling mists above and the deep, dark abyss of the lake below. The captain then, most unexpectedly, proceeded to stand on the side of the boat and pulled out a small hunting horn. One steady, melancholic blast and then a few anxious seconds wait; the perfect, clear echo bounced reassuringly back off the mountain side to greet us. The feat was repeated before the horn was put away as we embarked again on our voyage through this mysterious Avalonian world.
It was not Excalibur however, which glinted from the lake, but the small lighthouse guarding the narrows at St Bartholoma; its pulsating strobe slicing through the morning fog to guide vessels safety in towards the pier. Shapes on the jetty started to coalesce and take on human form as the boat slowed on its approach. We tied up and a few rucksack burdened individuals disappeared down the gangplank before evaporating off into the mirk on some peak-bagging quest. I stayed on the boat as it again headed off toward the final destination at Salatalm. It wasn’t long before we arrived and the remaining occupants of the boat were finally dispatched.
Despite suffering from an embarrassing episode of “housemaids knee” (acquired from carrying our small children around rather too often), I was determined to walk to the nearby Obersee and defiantly limped off along the path in that general direction. To a musical accompaniment of a babbling stream, ghostly silhouettes of birches and spruce trees formed through the cloud, the first hint of sunlight illuminating dew bedecked spiders webs. I blundered on, increasingly focusing on the magical landscape unfolding around me in preference to inconvenient personal injuries; it’s really quite amazing how pain and irritation fade away when we change our focus away from ourselves to the world around us.
I was soon standing by the shores of the Obersee and found a large rock to perch on and rest my weary limbs. Rays of sunlight, resembling theatrical set-lighting, streamed through the mist as the banks of cloud slowly dissolved away to reveal a splendid backdrop of precipitous peaks. A few wisps of steam, suspended in time like mischievous will-o-the-wisps, remained floating over the lake. The sky cleared to a deep and perfect blue. The gamble of the early start had paid off; I was in one of the most beautiful locations in the Alps on a bright and fabulous morning and whats more, I had the whole place virtually to myself.
I continued on towards the end of the Obersee before the path became rather too steep and precipitous for my poor old “housemaid’s” knee (not one to tell the lads back home about !). Reluctantly I turned around and headed back towards Salatalm and the boat back down the lake: besides I had a conference to go to and important things to learn all about the Alps ! The journey back down the Königsee was really quite serene. Mountain peaks reflected in the water under clear blue skies. Once again I had the boat almost to myself and I even got to the Conference on time (well almost…). Another wonderful snatched opportunity !
Dark shadows under the Jenner Peak:
The Jenner peak guarding the North Eastern flanks of the lake is a superb viewpoint and is accessible via an old-fashioned gondola. From the top of the lift it is only a short distance to the top of the small peak which affords a great panorama down the lake to St Bartholoma which is dwarfed by the towering bilk of the Watzmann massive.
Like the lake itself, the Jenner peak is another top visitor “honeypot” and can become exceptionally crowded at times, as camera bedecked tourists jostle for position to get the best snaps over the lake. Although Berchtesgaden is one of Germany’s most popular National parks, it remains possible to find more intimate encounters with nature by taking to the Park’s extensive trail network which leads off into a pristine world of alpine meadows and forests.
Looking North from the Jenner peak you can clearly see the settlement of Obersalzburg, the location of Hilter’s renowned “Berghof”, with the infamous Eagles Nest or Kehlstein Haus standing remote and forbidding on the ridge crest behind. Hilter slowly turned the quiet mountain village of Obersalzburg into a heavily fortified military complex with buildings to house the elite of the Third Reich and a network of formidable underground bunkers. The view from Hilter’s Berghof window overlooked the imposing Untersberg mountain, which is also very prominent in the view from Salzburg itself.
There are some interesting connections with Aachen; legends stated that Charlemagne and his knights lie sleeping under the Untersberg ready to rise up and fight for the German people. It is likely that Hilter, with his twisted mindset, saw himself as the living embodiment of these myths and even described Charlemagne (regarded by many as a brutal imperialist) as being the most significant figure from History. Hilter apparently even wished to be buried under the mountain himself.
I visited Obersalzburg by bus and hoped to look around the “Documentation Centre” which records the occupation of Obersalzburg and links it to the wider atrocities of the Holocaust and WWII. Most of the buildings were destroyed by allied bombers towards the end of the war and the site is now mainly vacant, though in recent years an international hotel has been opened up to exploit Third Reich heritage tourism.
Despite past associations, the view from of the Untersberg Mountain from Obersalzburg is without doubt hypnotic and inspiring; what is hard to believe however is how the undeniable natural beauty and energy of this place could have been channelled into the hatred, xenophobia and systematic extermination of the Holocaust and the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”. The Documentation Centre makes some of these connections a little clearer.
Near to the Documentation Centre, buses depart taking visitors up the incredible switchback road around the mountainside to access the infamous “Eagles Nest” or Kehlstein Haus which remarkably survived WWII unscathed. The final 100m or so of ascent is by an elevator inside the mountain. The Kehlstein Haus was presented to The Führer as a 50th Birthday present from the leadership of the Third Reich. Contrary to popular belief, Hilter in fact only visited ten times or so: in reality he was scared of heights and also felt extremely vulnerable to allied bombers and lightning strikes on the exposed ridge crest.
Bad spirits must still haunt the mountain and my expected bus back to the railway station at Berchtesgaden didn’t show up as expected, necessitating a forced dash on foot down the steeply angled road in order to make my train connection in Salzburg (my “housemaids knee” complaining ever more vocally on the steep and unrelenting descent). Fortunately I made it in time and was soon standing in front of Berchtesgaden railway station, ready to catch a bus to Salzburg.
The station is another classic piece of functional, if somewhat disturbing, National Socialist architecture; Hilter even had his private reception area where he awaited his motorcade to Obersalzburg (though I’m sure he wasn’t used to hanging around for too long).
Despite its negative historic associations, It’s hard not to like the old town of Berchtesgaden with its atmospheric old cellar bars, unrushed street life, fountains and substantial townhouses complete with external decorative frescos. These depict traditional Bavarian legends and folk stores; its easy however to imagine that some less politically correct elements may have been erased in the latter part of the 20th Century.
As I awaited the bus back to Salzburg, I mulled over the experiences of the previous days. Although inevitably some dark shadows still do hang over this part of the World, these are eclipsed by the striking natural beauty of the area; the intensity of colours, the tinkling of cowbells in alpine meadows and not to mention the fascinating old Baroque City of Salzburg. I turned one final time to gaze in awe at the spectacular Watzmann mountain before picking up my bag and boarding the bus.