Salzburg Beyond the Sound of Music

Ice caves, azure lakes, and Mozart weave magic in the Austrian city.  
Salzburg
The view of the city spires and the winding Salzach river from atop Hohensalzburg Fortress is bound to move even the most seasoned traveller. Photo by: Juergen Richter/LOOK-foto/LOOK/Getty Images

Think Salzburg, and the mind paints a picture of wide open greens, of hills and vales “alive with the sound of music.” That is, for the thousands of us swayed by the 1965 musical in which a train of kids merrily follow Julie Andrews singing “Do re me.” It was that image that enticed me to visit Salzburg as part of the road trip my husband and I took in central Europe last summer. Flying in and out of Munich, we distributed two weeks between Salzburg, Prague and Seiser Alm, a pristine Alpine village in Italy.

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Salzburg’s old town, or Alstadt, brims with baroque architecture and breezy cafés. Photo by: Manfred Gottschalk/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Driving 150 kilometres from Munich the scene changed from the wide-laned Autobahn to narrow lanes, meandering through meadows with majestic peaks looming in the backdrop. These rolling greens were punctuated with small towns that had the prettiest flower-decked balconies. We had reached Austria, and the magic had begun.

I made sure to get my fill of all things Sound of Music—from a guided themed tour to cycling through the countryside singing like one of the von Trapps (and masterfully ignoring the almost-annoyed look of some locals, perhaps tired of movie fans interrupting the birdsong every so often). However, it was only when I stopped chasing the movie’s experiences that Salzburg opened up its treasure chest.

The first charmer is right in the heart of the city—Altstadt or the old town of Salzburg, a UNESCO site peppered with striking 17th- and 18th-century baroque towers, domed museums and church spires. Strolling on Getreidegasse, its bustling centre, I found my muses in the beautiful doorways and ornately carved gild signs high above the pedestrians’ heads. Some of the old houses are decorated with names of former owners and significant dates in their history.

The old town is also the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The bright ochre building on No. 9 Getreidegasse, where the legendary composer was born on January 27 1756, is now a museum offering a window into his early years. We gave that a miss, but the same evening we had the legend serenade us: High up in Hohensalzburg Castle, the 11th-century fortress that looms over the city, an orchestra of four played the master’s tunes. The rays of the setting sun wafted in through large windows, suffusing us all with a golden light.

The fortress—regarded as the largest fully preserved castle in central Europe—sits atop Festungsberg mountain, almost 1,800 feet high. Whether one takes the 20-minute uphill walk from Festungsgasse in the city, or the funicular ride, the result is the same: gaping at spectacular views of the city below.

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True to its name, the cave of Eisriesenwelt or the ‘World of the Ice Giants,’ is a wonder with its frozen waterfalls and spectacular ice sculptures. Photo by: Andy Christiani/Lonely Planet Images/Getty images

Salzburg’s charms spread far and wide. We headed 40 kilometres east of the city to Lake Wolfgang, and found a stunning vision of deep blue surrounded by the Salzkammergut mountain range. Sure, the region is lined by resort towns peddling activities galore, but I was content to just put my feet up and gaze at the gorgeousness of the peaks clothed in summer greens.

Another morning, we headed to the ice caves in Werfen, an hour’s drive from Salzburg. The steepest gondola in Austria took us up Hochkogel mountain, into the limestone and ice cave, Eisriesenwelt. Deemed the largest ice cave system in the world, it burrows 42 kilometres deep into the mountain, but only the first kilometre is open to visitors.

Armed with oil lamps we followed our guide along winding passageways, steep staircases and high-ceiling galleries. Our eyes adjusted to the low light, and the ice formations came to life—massive and wondrous in their peculiar shapes and hues, taking on different shades from the cave walls. The cold began biting but our eyes continued to grow wide with wonder.

Back in Salzburg, we made sure we got our fill of Wiener schnitzel (crispy, breadcrumb-covered veal cutlet) at Paul-Stube and apple strudel at Café Mozart. The city has two institutions that most visitors don’t miss—Café Tomaselli at Alter Markt 9 and St Peter Stiftskulinarium in St. Peter district. Established in 1700, Café Tomaselli prides itself on being Austria’s oldest coffee house, where young Mozart often ordered his favourite almond milk. We however dug into the original chocolate cake and took people-watching quite seriously while sipping on our cappuccinos at the balcony. Believed to have been around since 803, St Peter restaurant is perhaps the oldest in Central Europe. It swept us off our feet even with the small meal that we managed to squeeze in—a salad of white asparagus, raspberries, mangoes, scallops and pine nuts, and a creamy lemon-strawberry mousse, downed with some Austrian port wine.

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The glacial Lake Wolfgang is a treat for aquatic activities and unparalleled views. Photo by: Andreas Strauss/LOOK-foto/LOOK

Our last excursion took us to Hallein Salt Mine, a 30-minute drive south of the Salzburg. We time-travelled as far back as the sixth century, when the Celts mined for ‘white gold’ here in Dürrnberg. All activity ceased when the Romans arrived, and resumed in the 12th century, until 1989, when the mining came to a halt. Now kept active for tourists, the mines are a rare window into a centuries-old culture. We plunged to the depths of Dürrnberg, like miners did for 800 years before us; traversing dark corridors on a train, stepping on rafts to see the process in action. We emerged with our mind still on all that we had seen, with souvenir packs of salt that held the taste of another time.

  • Nidhi Dhingra travels with a curious mind, a sketchpad and her taste buds; finding treasures wherever she goes. She weighs life with friends made and experiences gained. Blue skies and open landscapes make her heart sing like nothing else can.

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