Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Pork Crusades... Part II

Salzburg… took a late train thru southern Germany and Austria, so I didn’t get to see any of the Alps or the terrain. I arrived at the Haptbahnhauf Salzburg (main train station) and pulled out my trusty roll of maps and searched for my hostel. The train station in Salzburg is located in a suburb outside of the main city. I walked about fifteen minutes thru the night air, which was considerably cooler than in Munich, and found the YoHo Youth Hostel tucked into a small alcove in a quaint side street.

Family owned and run, this hostel was much smaller and cozier than my previous. I put my stuff away (upper bunk… damn) and headed to the bar. To my surprise, there was only two other people in the bar, lazily smoking and drinking a pint while watching a rugby match… a lot different than the frenetic revelry of Munich. I decided to call it a night, and went up to my bunk. There, I met my first roommate of the trip… let’s call him Pierre.

When I was planning my trip, I called this hostel to make sure that I could stay there… since they did advertise themselves as a youth hostel… sometimes they have upper age limits. But YoHo assured me it would be OK for an old-timer like me to crash. Well… Pierre must have been in his late fifties… but he had the body of vintage Iggy Pop!! Not five foot tall, no fat, all muscle, covered head to toe in full body tattoos! He introduced himself in a thick French-Canadian accent, and explained in detail that he had been retired for ten years. He spent half the year backpacking everywhere (every continent, over 160 countries!) and half the year in Canada to keep his health insurance.

I was really impressed… this was someone who I thought was really cool… until he continued to speak. He next talked to me about how he was on new medication, and it made him a very light sleeper… so if I snored, he calmly explained that he would get up and force me to roll over or leave the room. Now… this was strange… but still funny in a crotchety-old-bastard sort of way. Pierre then talked about his loose bladder, and that he always gets up at 4 a.m. to piss in the sink… “No big deal… we all do it.”

Yes. I’ve pissed in a sink. But not when there was an unoccupied, fully functional bathroom just across the hall. Not when my roommates are planning on brushing their teeth in that sink in the morning. Not when I’m going to wash my face in that sink… goddamn Pierre.

The next morning I awoke a little tired from Pierre stirring me during the night… little fucker. After my obligatory cornflakes and Nutella, I signed up for the singular reason for coming to Salzburg… the Official Sound of Music Tour.

Let me preface this. For those of you that don’t know, several of my older sisters (all four) used to make me watch that damn movie everyday for years. We would each have parts that we had to learn and sing aloud to the film. Mine… Hansel, Friedrich, the Captain, and the Mother Superior (pre-puberty… I could hit those notes on “Climb Every Mountain”). So during my informative, character building years, I involuntarily spent waaay too much time singing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” and practicing the jumping steps at the end of “Do-Re-Mi.” I know every song, every spoken word, every horse jump in the gazebo, and every one of the favorite things. I feel it is my duty, if not what I was put on this Earth for, to go on this damn tour to rub it in the face of my sisters…

I paid my 42 Euros (ouch!) and hitch a ride on the double-decker tour bus. We met up at a church near the old city to meet with other tour groups. I was standing around waiting for the tour to start when a dapper older woman approached me and hollered, “Are you an Aggie?!” I was flabbergasted until I noticed that I was wearing my Aggie class ring (’98 Whoop!), and answered that I was, indeed, an Aggie. This blue-haired lady let out a screech of joy and yelled out “Evelyn!! You’ll never believe it!! I found one of your Aggies!” Turns out Evelyn was the woman’s Aggie daughter, (Class of ’89) who was touring Austria with her husband and twin girls. So here we were… two Aggies, neither of whom live in the U.S. (she lives in England), who found each other in Austria on the Official Sound of Music Tour, discussing our rancid football team…

The tour began with a scenic drive thru Salzburg, telling the actual story of the Von Trapp’s. I won’t retell it, but if want to real story… go on the tour. We drove to Monk’s Mountain (the hill she sings “Sound of Music” on) overlooking the city. From there, we headed to the palace with the terrace and the lake, saw the gazebo, jumped on the steps, and walked thru the tree-lined driveway to the front of the other palace. The whole way, the soundtrack to the film was playing on the bus with people belting out the songs under their breath… not wanting to admit that everyone else on the bus was wanting to sings the songs aloud too.

The bus then traveled thru the hills and salzkammergut (lake districts). As we climbed into the mountains, it started to gently snow, covering the pastures and little villages in white and green. The towns we passed were incredibly charming, but all the same. Every building was as cute as a button, all huddled around one small church and lots of barns on the outskirts.

We parked a few times to take pictures of all the scenic overlooks, lakes, and ski chalets. The bus stopped in a town called Mondsee (Moonlake). Here we walked thru a little town dotted with tiny houses, each a different shade of pastel. We were walking towards the mustard yellow church when the tower bells rung… then each of us knew where we were… this was the wedding church in the movie. Indeed, when I turned the corner, there it was. The inside was, of course, beautiful… but after a while, every church tends to look the same.

The Christmas markets were open, so I ate some brats with sauerkraut and creamed potatoes. I walked around the town a little more, looking at the huge cliff faces of the Alps that surround the village. We soon boarded the bus again and headed back to the Salzburg. From the dropoff spot, I pulled out the map, and made my way for Salzburg’s greatest known site… the Castle Hohensalzburg.

I traipsed down thru the city’s pedestrian ways to the River Salzach and crossed the footbridge. From there I entered the narrow, twisting pathways of the Old Town… filled with people cramming into shops and picking up bits of sausage and nuts from the myriad of vendors lining the courtyards. In the old town there are six churches, and this is an area barely bigger than a large shopping mall! I strolled thru the area, checking out the people, the horse drawn carts, and the beautiful public artworks until I made it to the massive castle nestled at the top of a mesa adjacent to the city. I paid my seven Euro and got in line for the trolley that take up directly up the mountain… sideways. It’s like an elevator that is cockeyed about fifteen degrees.

Once you reach the top, the views over Salzburg were amazing. First off, this was a fortress that actively defended the city from raiders, both over land and water, for hundreds of years. You can see exactly where the cannons are aimed, and why this was such an important, and imposing, fortress. You also realize that Salzburg is tiny… really tiny. It’s not much bigger than my hold haunt of Pflugerville. It kills me that these cities that everyone knows, everyone has heard about… are really, really, tiny. I guess I lived in Houston for too long… I expect everything to be at least thirty-five miles away.

After the fortress tour, I walked down the wet, muddy, and absolutely unsafe near vertical declining pathway back into the city. It had started to rain, and the path got really slick… several people fell on their ass and slid down the road twenty feet or so until they hit the build-in speed bumps. It was around three in the afternoon, and the church bells started to ring. But since there are six churches in the old town, one church went off, rang their chimes, and then the next church started up. There were church bells ringing until 3:15… that’s gotta get annoying real quick.

At the foot of the largest cathedral, there was a choir singing Christmas hymns in German. Turns out, they were hooked up to a speaker system throughout the Old Town. So every corner you turned, you kept thinking there was another choir, but it was the same group singing Mozart in the town of his birth.

I spent another hour or so walking around the city, and headed back to my hostel. When I arrived, the hostel was no longer a sleepy little townhouse. It was packed to the gills with 17 to 24-year-olds blaring music, getting drunk, and even playing full contact rugby in the halls. My hostel had been invaded by Australians.

This entire trip it seemed that everyone I met was Australian… to the point where I started to wonder if there were any people left in Australia. It was explained to me that since there is nothing surrounding Australia, that most students take extended holiday trips at the end of high school or during college using one of several major tour groups. I was lucky enough to fall right in the middle of one of the groups.

Later I went downstairs and ate my schnitzel with noodles (really) and started to drink with the young ones. I ended up having a blast! I found myself caught listening to all the gossip and cliques that start and form whenever a group of people hang around each other enough. One guy was sleeping with two different girls. One girl was giving out free boob touches for drinking cash. One of the guides had “pleasured” an under-aged highschooler. I just sat back and enjoyed the show. At this point, I needed to do some laundry, and ended up hanging out in the basement with a gaggle of young girls who got a huge kick out of flirting with the new, old guy. After finishing my laundry, and about a dozen beers or so, I carried my stuff (and a passed out 17-year-old) up the stairs and put everything where it belonged. And no… that passed-out-girl didn’t belong in my room…

The next morning the skies cleared, and I spent the dawn lazily walking thru the city once again; picking up a fresh butter and honey crepe along the way. But not before I realized that I had a ton of tissues and an extra pillow shoved under my head when I awoke. Pierre had obviously not liked my snoring and tried to remedy the situation while I slept off my beers. I sat in the bar and watched The Sound of Music, picking out the sites where I had been and now easily recognized. I packed up the bag, filled to the brim with somewhat clean clothes, and strolled thru the city until I reached the train station. I quickly boarded and found my first class seat… this time it was inside a private compartment! That was nice since this was going to be a long train ride to my next port of call.

I split my Europe trip into two parts, and I had reached the halfway point. As most of you know, I am neither that young nor that physical fit anymore. Five days of non-stop walking while carrying a backpack was starting to take its toll. My feet, hips, and back were in need of a good rest. So today, I would enjoy my nine-hour bullet train ride (at 284 km/hour), rest the feet and back, savor some very delicious train food, and watch the everchanging European landscape race past my window until I arrived at my next destination… Paris.

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