Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Salzberg - Innsbruck (Pt. XI)

Note to readers: This is the eleventh part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part X here.

Salzberg took me by surprise. After so much time spent in big cities, the sight of Austrian Alps jutting straight up, stark and mammoth in all their glory, served to remind that even Central Europe was once a wild, unsettled land. First came the Neanderthals, then the many tribes of Cro-Magnon.

In the Alps, near Salzberg
The Celts were first to settle here, 7000 years ago. They came because of the nearby salt mines that give the city its name. In the long eons of human memory, salt has been more precious than gold.

Gardens in Salzberg
Now, Salzberg is an enchanting tourist town, a base camp for Alpine hikers and skiers. I spent the first day walking around the town, through the picturesque gardens and in the castle on the top of the hill.

Festung Hohensalzburg
Salzberg castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, once the mightiest fortress in Central Europe, commanding the town below. In 1535 angry Protestant miners and farmers besieged her, but she held out for some 14 weeks before a runner got through with a message to the Catholics who came and routed the besiegers. Somehow the rich guys always win.

I stayed at a hostel and met Michelle (frank, dour) from Australia while I played guitar in the common room. She told me about a tour the next day that would take us into the Alps to visit the ancient salt mines and to see the various sights. She was suffering from bedbug bites. She had nothing good to say about the hostel.

Alps as Hitler may have seen them
Next day we went on the tour. The bus took us to the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's alpine hideaway resort. Stunning beauty, tainted with the ghost of evil. We met a father-son team from California, Frank (jocular, crass) and Carl (easy-going, open-faced).

Frank, myself, Carl, and Michelle at the Eagle's Nest
On to the salt mines where we donned white coveralls to protect our clothes from the salt. Mining techniques changed over the years, but that's all in the past. Now the mines are for tourists.

Sliding to salt
 We slid down the rails that the miners used to descend into the depths. We navigated a subterranean lake. We saw the place where, in recent times, miners discovered the salt-preserved bodies of unfortunate Celts who had fallen to their deaths thousands of years before.

And eventually we came back out into the sun.

Alpine view
A long day. A rewarding day. From the high slopes overlooking Salzberg, the shadows of clouds ran across the valley floor far below. Frank and Carl were on their way back to America. But Michelle was going to the Tyrol, to Innsbruck.

She invited me along. Why not? I've no set agenda. Yes, let's go.

Inns river
And so, I rode the train to Innsbruck along a track that wound through stunning mountainous beauty, eventually to arrive at Innsbruck, straddling the Inns River, high in the mountains.

Another hostel, but this time there were no bedbugs. But there were lots of young people from all over the world, talking and laughing. We learned about the cable car that would take you to the top of a nearby peak from whence you could hike down: an outdoor activity for the morrow! Then, dinner and sleep. I was very tired.
Innsbruck, top view
Next day, Michelle and I rode the cable car up to see the grand and glorious view of the shimmering valley far below us; a golden river snaking through. Crows alit near us, hoping to beg a few crumbs as we munched sandwiches.
Up on top
Then, we made the hike down. It was an extremely treacherous descent, with many opportunities for us to make a fatal mistake, to replicate the horrific plummet made by Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted troublemaker) on far-away Mount Hood. Michelle sang tunes from the Sound of Music all the way down.

Treacherous trail
We met Tyroleans ascending. They were used to the altitude apparently. They huffed up the steep trails like nothing. My knees ached by the time we made the valley floor.

On the way down
That night, we went with a Korean girl to see the Tyrolean folk show. Yodeling, dancing, music. Tyrol is to Vienna as Munich is to Berlin. Don't take it all so seriously, you Germanic nuts. Have some fondue, drink a beer. No need to get all uptight. Lots of fun.

Tyrolean dancing
I did some laundry back at the hostel, but the dryers didn't work. I had to put the wet clothes in my pack, because it was time to say goodbye to Michelle. Goodbye, Michelle. Thanks much for the companionship and I hope those bedbug bites heal up alright.

Korean friend and Michelle
I had a train to catch. I was at the exact halfway point of my trip and it was time to penetrate the Roman Empire. On to Italy!

To be continued...

1 comment:

kate said...

i love salzberg! as i was reading this post, i was singing songs from the sound of music too. ;)