As we sailed into Passau early the following morning I didn’t give much thought to that city as we had opted to take the optional day tour to Salzburg, a city I’ve wanted to visit ever since I was a young girl sitting next to my grandma and watching The Sound of Music.
After breakfast we boarded our motor coach for a nearly two-hour drive back into Austria. Along the way we passed the town that was the birthplace of Hitler, and the tour guide gave us some info on his early history. I’ve often wondered what made him do what he did, how he became the monster he was, and nothing jumped out at me that would indicate how he utterly flipped his lid to become one of the world’s most monstrous, callous, and unfeeling human beings in the entire history of the human race. I guess there’s really no getting into the mind of a mad man.
A little while later we spotted the snow-capped Austrian Alps off in the distance and knew our destination was nigh. We parked the bus a ways outside of the city center and after a very long bathroom break, started our walking tour of the city at Mirabell Palace Gardens where a large part of “Do Re Mi” was filmed in The Sound of Music. Our guide was quick to point out that no one in Austria really cares about, or for, the American version of the story of the Von Trapp Family Singers and I sensed a whole lot of disdain during his commentary throughout our 1.5 hours together. Next we crossed a bridge over the river that was covered in locks (something I had first seen in Paris in 2008 but is now seemingly happening in every city where a bridge crosses a river). Finally we reached the center of town where we learned about Mozart and his life (a hard one, apparently – his family sounded worse than Lindsay Lohan’s mom), and stopped to talk about/see about a hundred different churches. I know religion is an important aspect in any major city’s history, especially when said church acted as government and royalty, but by the time we were done with our walking tour I was really quite over looking at or learning about one more church. I felt like the tour could have been much shorter if we didn’t stand in front of yet another Cathedral to learn its history in relation to the city’s past, especially since we didn’t/couldn’t go in any of them. (Note: while I’m an atheist, I can appreciate the architecture and creativity that goes into the buildings themselves, and if I’m going to be forced to look at church after church after church, I’d much prefer to have a chance to see what’s inside instead of standing around looking up at a yet another damn spire.) The walking tour concluded – finally – at the Salzburg Music Hall where the Von Trapps gave their final performance before fleeing the Nazis. That particular amphitheater is an outdoor one which I guess in my head meant that we were going to be able to actually see it, but the giant doors were firmly closed to tourists so instead we saw a picture outside of what the stage looks like. Not exactly what I was hoping for, but it is what it is.
(Side note: while we were on this cruise, an Instagrammer I follow was on a similar tour with Viking River Cruises and based on her photos and recaps, their groups were allowed inside many of the places we only stood outside and gawked at. I mention this as something to keep in mind when considering your own river cruise itinerary and ship selection. During many of our walking tours I was slightly disappointed by how limited they felt, and in hindsight having seen the access that other tour groups had, I am doubly disappointed in what we weren’t allowed to experience.)
Finally we were let loose from the walking tour and told to meet our guide back in front of Mozart’s birthplace in three hours. The first thing we immediately did was head straight to the Christmas Market. I don’t know if I was in an exceptionally good mood, or if the atmosphere in the market simply felt more cheerful, but aside from an Italian woman almost taking out my eyeball with a cigarette she was flinging about carelessly as she used aggressive hand gestures to emphasize the moral of whatever story she was telling, I found the market in Salzburg to be one of my favorites on the entire trip. I liked the way it was broken up into two adjacent squares and how much room there was in between stalls to wander the aisles. I never felt cramped or rushed to get in and get out. I also felt like the stall owners/workers were much more relaxed when it came to visitors perusing their wares (aka: no one yelled at me for touching an ornament to see if I liked it.)
After we finished our time at the market we walked around for a bit looking for a hat for Alan and then, seeing that we still had a couple of hours to spare before it was time to meet up with the rest of our tour group, decided to take the funicular up the mountain to tour the fortress. Hohensalzburg Castle (“Fortress”) is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. Construction began in 1077 and it was refurbished from the late 19th century onwards. During the early 20th century it was used as a prison, holding Italian prisoners of war during World War I and Nazi activists in the 1930s. The tour we chose to do, conducted via audio guide, was fairly short and covered only a small part of the interior fortress itself. When we did go outside, it was up what felt like 20 flights of winding stairs, putting us at the very top of one of the buildings with a view out over Salzburg in every direction. I’m not going to lie – I was pretty thankful that I’d gotten used to climbing stairs at our house because otherwise I’m not sure I would have been prepared for quite so many of them. I definitely was not prepared for the round and round and around again nature of the staircase and by the time we got to the top I was pretty dizzy (going back down wasn’t any easier). The view from atop that tower was, as I’m sure you can guess, pretty darn spectacular. Unfortunately, as we were standing atop the fortress that’s when it started to rain pretty heavily and steadily.
At that point we decided to head back into town but to get out of the fortress we were deposited smack dab in the middle of a small, adorable Christmas market that took place within the fortress walls. We didn’t buy anything, but I loved how convivial everything was and it definitely appeared to be a gathering place for locals instead of tourists as there were several small children there with their families, and lots of multi-generational groups gathering around drinking gluwhein. I think my favorite Christmas tree of the entire trip was in the center of this particular market.
We wandered around for a bit – it wasn’t very big so not much wandering to be done, actually – when we heard what sounded like really bad music coming from around the corner from the exit of the fortress and back to the funicular. We took a look around but couldn’t see anything that clearly indicated what we were hearing so we kept exploring. At that point we landed smack dab in the middle of what I can only describe as a Krampus convention. (It turns out that these were the Krampus’s who would later descend on the Salzburg Christmas Market as part of their yearly Krampus shenanigans.) Some were dressed up in full, scary Krampus regalia, while others were only partially ready for the annual run. In some cases, there were even cute teenaged girls in those costumes.
For those of you who aren’t aware of what a Krampus is, you’re sorely missing out. In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure that, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved. This is, of course, in direct contrast with Saint Nicholas who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. Krampus carries chains, which are thrashed for dramatic effect and are thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes, which explained the bad music we had heard. Some of the Krampus we saw were banging on the bells with their chains, while others were just attached to their costumes and clanged as they moved. Of more pagan origins are the ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and occasionally swats children with. I was told by a couple of locals that over the past couple of years the swatting got a little out of control and a number of communities banned the swatting of children. (When we got back on the boat some women said they were swatted by Krampus while walking through the Christmas market in Passau. I don’t know about you, but if some Krampus swatted me with a birch branch, he might find himself the recipient of a punch to the throat.) In some cases, the birch branches are replaced with a whip.
Some folklorists and anthropologists believe the Krampus has a pre-Christian, Germanic paganism origin. In 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:
There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.
And in 1975, anthropologist John J. Honigmann wrote:
The Saint Nicholas festival incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic antics appeared in Medieval church plays. Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of “heathen” elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.
Finally, sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a basket strapped to his back to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. This part of the legend refers to the times that the Moors raided the European coasts (and as far as Iceland) to abduct the local people into slavery.
After we marveled at Krampus and got our pictures, we took the funicular back down to the historic city center and slowly made our way over to the group meeting spot. By this time it was pouring rain but having lived in Ireland for almost two months by that point, I just tightened my jacket, threw up my hood, and braved the elements. I felt very proud of myself for this showing. We had a bit more time than we had thought, so we wandered through a few of the smaller (and I do mean small) markets that were set up in hidden courtyards and passthroughs.
Finally, we were back on the bus for the two hour drive to the boat, during which time I slept. I feel like we stayed up late that night in the lounge talking with our fellow passengers, but I can’t really remember which night was which since our activities were pretty much the same once the boat was en route to its next destination – eat dinner, drink wine, hang out in the lounge and drink more wine (and sometimes whiskey), and marvel at the outstanding feats of civil engineering as we passed through locks.
All in all, I thought our time in Salzburg was great and I am so happy we did the excursion. If I had to do it all over again, I might have used our free time to book a tour for just the two of us focused exclusively on The Sound of Music (a couple we met and spent a couple of meals with did just that) since that was my initial reason for wanting to go there. That’s the only way the day could have been made that much better.
** This post is part of an ongoing series detailing our experience cruising down the Danube River visiting Christmas markets in Hungary, Austria, and Germany, aboard AmaWaterways‘ MS AmaSonata in late November 2015 **