Germany Austria May 2018: A wonderful last day at Hellabrun zoo and Nymphenburg palace

All good things must come to an end. “But why mama, why?” asked the unhappy kid. “So that we can earn money for the next trip,” I unhelpfully answered. We were on the last day of our holiday and the very thought was depressing the two of us. But I was determined not to let it mar our last day.

The biggest worry for the day was where to go. The contenders were Nymphenburg palace (highest on my list), Munich zoo and Primark for shopping (highest priority for the kid). The hubby flatly refused one more palace, so we set off for the zoo.

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Hellabrun zoo is a long train ride from  Munich central station, so we left as soon as we could, especially because the penguin feeding time was 11 am and I was desperate to see that (it was past 10 am when we left!) We hurriedly walked/ ran to the zoo and then to the penguin enclosure which was at the far end of the zoo, without bothering to look at any of the animals on the way. “Relax Beejal, the penguins aren’t being flown out of Munich after their feeding,” admonished the hubby, but I was charged up.

Fortunately, we made it in time (the keeper was a bit delayed, thank God for the lack of the brilliant German efficiency here), and we could see loads of Emperor, Rockefeller and Humboldt penguins, waddling about on the ice.

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The tall commanding Emperor

I love penguins. They are my favorite birds. I love seeing these ataxic birds jump into the water and swim so gracefully. When the keeper picked up a penguin and cuddled him, I was so jealous and would have happily traded places.

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It was a wonderful experience, like watching ‘Happy feet’ live. We spent the bulk of our day here, and came back once again. Somehow after the penguins, I lost my steam and my interest slowly waned. The hubby was very irritated by my mad rush to the penguins and complained about how we’d not enjoyed the zoo because I was obsessed with seeing the penguins eat fish. “Hmmpphh,” I said, “the other animals aren’t being flown out of the zoo because I didn’t see them.”

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A snowy owl (looked so like Hedwig)

Of course, we patiently roamed about the entire zoo. There was a reasonable cloud cover and we had a good time. We saw a seal show that was in German and we couldn’t understand, but there’s no mistaking the love the trainers and the animals share.

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Awwwww!

Naturally, we were fascinated by the big cats, especially a growling tiger prowling about.

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A pair of lions was fast asleep as we walked by and admired the beautiful cats, when one suddenly woke up and looked us in the eye.

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The zoo had fairly large enclosures for the animals to move about in, but they could be a still larger. Though I do visit zoos, I feel that animals don’t deserve this kind of captivity. We wouldn’t like a world in which we were in some enclosure and a “higher” species was gawking at us.

On a happier note, there was a huge enclosure for the primates with swings and branches for them to enjoy, which they did whole-heartedly.

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Some primates are happy enough on land.

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A tropical rainforest enclosure intrigued us a lot. The atmosphere was hot and humid, and we were very much at home. We enjoyed listening to the chirping of the birds around us.

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By afternoon, I was in a rush to exit quickly as I wanted to see Nymphenburg palace before it closed. So, we rushed through the aquarium, shopped for soft toys and had lunch in a biergarten by the flamingos.

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Brew with a view

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We headed back to the hotel together post-lunch, as our Munich day ticket mandates our travelling together. By this time, stormy rain clouds had gathered and the sky was an ominous gray. The hubby refused to head out so I convinced the kid to come with me to Nymphenburg palace even though she was tired by all the morning walking.

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Much needed dessert on the last day of a great trip

A short tram ride took us to the gates of the summer palace of the Wittelsbach rulers. In the good-old-days, it took 2 hours from Munich by carriage, making it the perfect summer getaway for a ruler. It was raining heavily till then, but amazingly, the rain stopped just before we clambered out and walked the short distance along a canal to the long flat palace with buildings all around it and swans and geese curled up in corners at the sides.

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The stunning Nymphenburg palace on a stormy afternoon

Even as we approached, the sun burst through the dark clouds, momentarily brightening up the landscape.

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Buildings and gardens have been added on to the main palace over the years

It was truly breathtaking. The large green grounds with pretty flowers surrounding large water bodies reflecting the simple buildings made me admire the architect who had designed a home so well harmonized with nature. But this was just the prelude to the show. The magic of Nymphenburg unfolds as you see more of it.

We walked into the palace, put away our bags into lockers and set about seeing the palace interiors first as they would close in half an hour. We weren’t too keen on seeing too much of it as we’d already seen the opulent Residenz but that didn’t stop us from gawking at the beautifully designed stone hall with frescoes on the walls and ceilings featuring nymphs (naturally) and the flower goddess Diana.

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I would happily have lain down on the floor to admire this ceiling 

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My photography skills are too poor to capture this beauty. This hall has got to be seen, and we were happy to feast our eyes on it a second time before leaving. But now, we wanted to walk through a few of the rooms, and most importantly, the gallery of beauties.

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The Gallery of Beauties, with my own little beauty

So, the king made his queen a palace for bearing his heir, and then put up specially commissioned paintings of beautiful women chosen by him, in clothes and embellishments chosen by him. How sadistic can a man be!

 

We wandered through pretty rooms with glamorous chandeliers, liking this palace far more than the Residenz, for its compactness and relative simplicity. It felt like a palace one could live in.

DSC_4919Sure I’d love a canopied bed with a chandelier like that. But that’s not why I’d love to live in Nymphenburg. I fell in love with it for the palace grounds.

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The lawns and canals in the front of Nymphenburg palace, from the terrace of the palace

By the time we got our backpacks and set out to see the extensive park grounds of 200 acres at the back of the palace, the sun was out blazing away and no one could have identified this as the scene of a thunder storm an hour back.

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Geese were more at home here than tourists here as we gazed out at unending fields of green punctuated by canals and lakes. The large expanse in front of us was dotted by statues of Greek Gods and the kid, enlightened by “Percy Jackson”, had a blast running amongst them and naming them.

The amazing Nymphenburg park was increased in size over 200 years, and is now a huge forest-like space that would take an entire day to explore.

Screenshot (1)Sadly, we had barely a few hours and were already tired after a full day of walking at the zoo. Yet, we set off to explore at least one half of the park, intending to walk to the largest lake of the park, the Badenburg lake and then to see the waterfall cascades at the very end of the park. We certainly had taken no scale into account while chalking up this ambitious plan, nor the overpowering evening sun.

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Water bodies are the basis of the park, they fill every nook and corner of it. Small canals crossed by Venetian bridges, long canals you can take a gondola ride on and huge lakes that you can’t see the end of, all fill the park and add to its tremendous allure.

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A Venetian gondola in Germany, with a singing gondolier

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Geese with their goslings swam merrily along

Ever the explorer, the kid chose a path through the forest, instead of walking at the edge of the canal. Beautifully shaded, totally empty, surrounded by trees and the calls of birds, this was the most pleasant of all the walks we took.

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Rambling along, we were a tad concerned about finding the right path to the lake, when we came upon a fork in the road. Since we were on a small path unmarked on the map, we had to choose. Inspired by Frost, we chose the road less travelled and plodded on, to reach a clearing in the woods and a charming bridge over a little canal that opened out onto Badenburg lake.

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Thrilled, we pushed ahead and were delighted to see a few people milling about the periphery of a beautiful lake, with sunbeams dancing off the surface and charming geese for company.

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The monopteros at one edge of the Badenburg lake, that I couldn’t figure out any way to reach

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We sat there for a quite a while, stretching out our tired legs and enjoying our refreshed minds. It was so quiet that there was no need to intrude on the peace by conversation or shutter sound, we took a few pictures for memory and then, just sat quietly together.

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Reluctantly, we left this wonderful place of solace and walked on. By now, the kid was very tired and we couldn’t reach the end of the park. So we decided to cut across the forest and walk back along the central canal on the opposite side, coming upon a statue of Pan and his faithful satyr.

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The God of the wild would love this resting place for sure. As we crossed the central canal, we glanced at the reflection of the palace in the narrow canal and simultaneously went “Oooohhhh!”

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The only thing stopping us staring at this view was the hot sun and our own exhaustion. Truly, Nymphenburg deserves an entire day. We crossed over the canal to the other side to see the Pagodenburg lake, where the setting sun was casting its rays.

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We walked back to the palace halls, thrilled by the evening’s adventure and very glad that we’d stepped out in the storm.

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As we exited the palace and came out to the front lawns, we were struck by how different it looked without the dreary clouds and amazed by how the day had changed. It was as though Munich was giving us a fitting farewell.

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I noticed things I hadn’t seen before like the flowers and the cherubic statues.

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The swans reclaimed their places in the canals, no longer hiding their beaks under their wings, but proudly floating about.

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Tired, but very very happy, the two of us caught the tram back to our hotel and packed for the flight back the next day. We had had a terrific 14 days in Germany and Austria. Every day and every place we visited, we had loved. The hubby’s role in turning down the original plan of Italy must be applauded, as his terrific driving.

While I must credit the hubby the most, there are those who are very important too. The kid was a great companion on this trip, interested in the history of the places, willing to step out and walk and walk, and play lots of Uno. My sister was very accommodating as she didn’t insist on my going to her place to visit her and my adorable niece (my only regret). And I can’t sign off without profusely thanking Yogesh Shenoy for planning my trip to the hilt and being the greatest support system. Nor can I forget the lovely Bavaria and Austria that made my trip so special. I hope to be back someday.

Auf wiedersehen Germany and Austria.

Germany Austria May 2018: The mirror lakes Konigssee and Obersee

Our original German road trip was to cover the Romantic Road, the German Alpine road and end in Berchtesgaden, at the border of Germany and Austria. When the Grossglockner high alpine road and Salzburg entered our plans, we had to tweak our route a bit. Finally, we drove down the Romantic Road (Germany Austria May 2018-The unromantic Romantic Road with the very romantic towns), down south to Mittenwald and into Austria, before reentering Germany to drop off our car and hence avoid huge surcharges. As a bonus, we got to visit Berchtesgaden that had gotten cruelly pushed off the itinerary.

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Our trusted car Volkswagen Golf from Sixt rentals

Alright, we really went there because I was desperate to see the stunning mirror lake Obersee, that the hubby had heard rave reviews about from a friend (lucky for me, as I didn’t have to persuade him to go here!) We did have to drop the car off at Freilassing, across the border from Salzburg, and then we took a regional train to Berchtesgaden. Unfortunately, we were used to the extreme convenience of the car and hadn’t realised the difficulty of public transport, which is really what spoiled the day for us.

Getting to Lake Konigssee involved a train and bus change and long waits for both, which translated to 3 hours to reach the much desired lake. Once at the beautiful lake (the most beautiful of all those we visited), worried by the pace of Berchtesgaden and the long wait-times everywhere, we didn’t bother to grab lunch, but hopped onto the first boat we saw.

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This turned out to be a bad move because the boat took a good hour one-way, which meant that we stayed hungry for very long. But we were not to know that. At that moment, we were very happy to get onto anything that was waiting for us instead of the other way round.

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The pier with the wooden boats

Despite the heat and the sun, and the hunger, the stunning lake with brilliantly green and turquoise coloured water, surrounded by towering cliffs was enough to lift everyone’s mood.

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Rows of boat houses lined the lake, that reflected the deep green of the trees

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A duck accompanied us for a short part of our journey

Lake Konigssee is a glacial lake at one end of the Berchtesgaden national park. It’s different from most lakes of the region as it’s surrounded by tall fjord like mountains that seem to rise almost vertically from the lake. The lake itself is narrow and long and there is little wind as it’s all so tightly locked in. This makes for beautiful reflections of the surroundings onto the water.

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Only electric boats are allowed in these waters. The entire perimeter of the lake is the national park and mountains so there is no walking track or habitation around the lake. There are only 2 stops on the lake, from where people can hike into the park. Naturally, one would expect complete peace. Instead, we had a boat full of yakking tourists and this “peace-loving” man!

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As we went deeper into the lake, there was nothing to be seen but the mountains and the waters. Soon the snow-covered peaks came into view, forming one distant edge of the lakes.

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It was too stunning to describe, too stunning to capture on camera. But sadly the peace was broken by the boatman starting a commentary in German. It must have been amusing, because everyone who could understand it was laughing away, but for me, it was an intrusion into my mental space. So I drowned out the noises and concentrated on the locales around me instead.

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What a place to unwind

At some point of the way to the first stop, we were completely surrounded by mountains. Here, the boatman took us closer to one side and stilled the motor. He clambered out onto the steps we’d used to get onto the ship. The kid was petrified looking at him. He then picked up a flugelhorn (trumpet) and played a few notes. The same notes echoed back. Perfectly. He continued playing, a tougher set of notes progressively and the echo would mirror it perfectly. It was like listening to a beautiful song where one verse was loud and the next soft. It was the most amazing part of the day. When he finished, I’m sure that no one wanted him to stop. It was so magical that I didn’t even record it, I just sat transfixed. That lilting melody is still playing in my head as I write today. These few minutes were worth the entire day trip.

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That wonderful fuzzy feeling stayed with all of us for a very long time there onSuddenly there came a gasp from all the people in the front. The onion domed red-roofed church of St Bartholomew came into view. 

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The famous pilgrimage church is where the bulk of the passengers got off. We didn’t disembark as we wanted to reach the last stop before the predicted rain, but we ended up missing an important lunch stop.

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Looking back to the church as we moved ahead

The boat moved deeper towards the end. The mountains were less green here, steeper, taller and the sky bluer. A waterfall could be seen at one side. This area was wider but the water stiller, brilliantly mirroring the mountains and skies. Since the boatman was no longer talking, it was very enjoyable and we loved this portion of the ride.

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Soon, we reached Salet, the last stop. The waters were crystal clear, a few children were feeding fish and the boats were anchored to the pier.

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We saw lots of families with small kids and dogs walking to lake Obersee, a 20 minute walk from the boat dock. I was surprised by the huge numbers of people in this tiny place. People were resting on the grass or sitting on rocks. There was a general cheer in the atmosphere. I think the weather that we found hot, sunny and unbearable was pleasant and wonderful to the locals and they were having a blast.

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We crossed over this little stream, hoping the lake was worth the “trek”, not realising that hunger and thirst contributed in a huge way to our exhaustion. And then, we just stopped in our tracks as we came upon Lake Obersee.

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The still lake completely mirrored the surroundings. The famous wooden chalet on the lake made me wish I could break in and stay here. It was totally shaded and very very pretty.

But very tragically, Instagram had made this quiet abode of nature a selfie paradise. This tiny, really tough-to-reach lake was packed with tourists, yakking away. The line to get onto the little wooden path to the chalet was crazily long. Disgusted, we walked a little further, on the trek towards the waterfall, till we were adequately far away from the madding crowd. Here we stood in a few minutes of silence, trying to enjoy the atmosphere.

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A pair of ducks swam by as we stood there alone. The kid clambered onto a rock jutting out from the water and enjoyed the calm. However, even this moment of peace was short-lived. Some people saw her perched on the rock and rushed here, making us rush off. We walked on towards the waterfall, but it was a long way off and we were too hungry to walk on further, so we turned back.

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We walked back to the ferry pier with ice creams to help us along. But the German eis had spoiled us and the Magnum bars we got here just didn’t live up to the brilliant eis we’d had elsewhere. Back on the ferry, the kid was very disappointed to see a muzzled dog. What with the horse-carriages and the muzzled dogs, our animal rights activist was on a roll.

I wanted to get off at the stop of the church but the kid was very hungry so we simply continued back. As the boat pushed away from the pier, the reflection of the onion domed church in the water glittered in the lake.

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The journey back seemed faster and very different. Dark clouds rolled in and I was surprised to see waves in the waters. The lake seemed to mirror the darker skies.

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We were so hungry by the time we reached the shore that we hurriedly downed our food without bothering to take pictures. A light rain fell, bringing much needed respite from the sun and made the long wait for the bus (es) back more bearable.

Undoubtedly, Lake Koniggsee and Obersee were the most beautiful lakes we saw on this trip. It was sad that local transport was so challenging here, which really spoilt our day. I’m sure we would have been better off driving here and dropping the car off on our way back, or staying in Berchtesgaden, which certainly looked like a small charming town.

Yet, I can’t complain. I got to see the lake that I badly had wanted to, and this image will stay imprinted on my mind forever.

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Germany Austria May 2018: An evening in Salzburg

Despite spending 3 nights in Salzburg, we had spent 2 days on trips outside the town, so this last day at Salzbug was the marathon Salzburg sightseeing day. We’d already roamed the old town in the morning (Germany Austria May 2018: Salzburg) and gone on the Panorama Sound of music tour in the afternoon (Germany Austria May 2018: Revisiting the Sound of Music in Salzburg). We finished the tour at Mirabell gardens, where we roamed about for a tiny bit and then headed straight to our hotel, as the hubby and kid were tired. I was keen on seeing the city by night, so I quickly freshened up and headed out alone to the old town. Big mistake. I should have set off from Mirabell itself to save some time and a long walk.

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This time I crossed the first bridge near my hotel so as to avoid the delinquents lolling about on our side near the river. The sun was lower now, a cool breeze was blowing and the unbearable heat of the afternoon was gone. Families were out and children were playing in a small park. Houses were built into the mountainside, the mountain itself being a back wall. 

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The opposite bank had a larger walking path and many more people. The setting sun lent a golden glow to the whole place.

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I walked over my beloved love lock bridge and (naturally) took lots of pictures.

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Walking along without much of a plan, I stumbled into a quaint square that led me into the old town.

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It opened straight onto the well-lit Getreidegasse. With more time at hand, I enjoyed looking at the beautiful wrought iron signs above the shops.

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Apparently, in the middle ages, people were fairly illiterate, so signboards had to represent what the shop sold. The street has maintained the same rule even in the 21st century!

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Surprisingly, this was a clothing store. How can one guess this?

 

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Some signs were remarkably ornate

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Church of St Blaise at one end of the street

I suddenly remembered that I had to see Salzburg in the setting sun from the Monchsberg elevator. I followed the walking route of Google maps but it didn’t show me anything. I hunted about the empty alley but found no signboards or people to talk to. I was about to give up when I saw a shady doner shop, and rushed in, but the counter guy didn’t understand the words elevator, top of mountain or museum of modern art. Finally, in despair, I asked if he knew the lift and he grinned and pointed the way to a glistening shiny building. I found it! I quickly bought a ticket and rushed up the lift to the terrace and this stunning view of Salzburg in the twilight.

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The viewing terrace is a very narrow small platform outside the museum of modern art and there were very few people up here. The view of the entire town with the sun illuminating the fortress was well worth the effort to get here. The restaurant at a higher level was so tempting, but I was too full with the apple strudel.

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Reflection of the fortress in the glass walls of the restaurant

I waited for the colours of the sky to change  and just enjoyed the breeze ruffling my hair.

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My heart satisfied, I went back down to walk through old town. It looked so different from the morning. There were a handful of people about, it was very quiet. A golden glow had settled over the town.

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Quaint cafes along small roads

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I wanted to visit the cathedral at leisure, but sadly, it was already shut.

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Residenz square with the Triton fountain was the only place well lit

Salzburg wasn’t a well illuminated town. Nor were there many people about. So, I started walking back out of the old town, towards my hotel.

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I got a little lost trying to get out, so I took longer than I’d anticipated and it was fairly dark by the time I got out of the old town.

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Last glance at the fortress and old town Salzburg

I knew that the path beside the river wouldn’t be safe anymore, so I chose to walk down a large road. Even that was empty and quiet, especially as I walked further away from the central area.

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Once again, I felt unsafe, despite the numbers of cars whizzing by. I sped up and hurriedly reached the hotel, and admired the Salzach river and the reflections of the opposite bank in it.

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Beautiful, yes. Scary, yes. Worth the walk, certainly. Yet, Salzburg somehow disappointed me. I found it a town more photogenic in the pictures than in reality. I can’t explain why, but that’s how I felt. But that night, I really couldn’t dwell on this, as we had to pack and leave for Munich the next day.

P.S. Salzburg is one of the safest cities in the world. It’s crime rate is very very low. It’s possible that my paranoia stems from the fact that I live in Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, and am used to a constant hustle and bustle. That can be the reason why I don’t enjoy European towns by night, they are way too empty for my comfort.

Germany Austria May 2018: Revisiting the Sound of Music in Salzburg

“The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears”

I grew up with the Sound of Music, like almost all 70’s kids (and 80’s and 90’s). I fell in love with Austria, music, songs, Captain von Trapp, Maria and Gretl, but most of all, with the romance of the entire movie. My teenage idea of love were Maria’s implausible story. So naturally, when we suddenly slotted in Salzburg, we had to book a Sound of Music guided tour (SoM from now on) through Panorama tours.

Most outdoor scenes were shot in and around Salzburg, but the guided tour didn’t cover Salzburg old town. The Aldstadt sights we saw by ourselves. As we hadn’t seen the movie before going, there were quite a few areas that we didn’t recognize, but we saw the movie after coming back and revisited our trip with a lot of “oohs”, “aahs”, and “that’s where this was shot” squeals.

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For example, we encountered this horse bath during our mad dash from the Monschberg ridge to Mirabell gardens, and just liked what we saw, but realised that Maria and the children had danced about it in “My favorite things.”

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The mint colored domes as Maria runs through Salzburg

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The Alte Residenz is where the Nazi flag flutters once the Anscluss (German possession of Austria) occurs

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“I have confidence in confidence alone!
Besides, which you see, I have confidence in me!”

Words to form the backbone of years to come rang through my mind as I saw this fountain where Maria regains her confidence.

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Maria and the kids rode a horse carriage through the pretty streets of Salzburg while learning Do-re-mi but my considerate kid was appalled by the misuse of animals. Proud of her!

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Nonnberg abbey, where Maria was training to be a nun is the red domed building. It’s still an abbey and no one can enter it

Panorama’s original SoM tour took us to see the less accessible locations of shooting. My last post ended with our running to Mirabell gardens where the tour was to start (Germany Austria May 2018: Salzburg) and we just reached the Panorama tours spot in the nick of time, when we realised that the entire area was cordoned off because of the marathon. No vehicles were allowed here, no instructions were posted on the Panorama board, no one picked up at the Panorama phone center as it was a Sunday. I was heartbroken and had almost given up when the hubby saw the bright red bus far off and we rushed there.

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There were 4 busl oads that sunny afternoon. Panorama makes huge money for sure! We hadn’t had lunch and armed with some (lousy) bakery stuff, we plonked ourselves in the bus, relieved to have air-conditioning and some rest for our tired calves.

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The lonely goatherd and Lisa (our pretty guide) drove us out of Salzburg towards the living hills. Considering that half the roads were blocked, the driver did an amazing job of maneuvering the huge bus through the narrow claustrophobic lanes. I felt relieved once he was out of the town. We drove straight to the Leopoldskrunn palace, where the captain sees his children in the boat and they all fall into the lake. It was so perfect a sight, the large man-made lake with tall trees around, the fortress far behind and the perfectly white palace reflected in the lake. I could have happily sat on a picnic bench here for hours doing nothing but taking in the view.

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All the scenes on the terrace between captain, Maria and the kids were shot on the outdoor veranda of this beautiful house, which is now a hotel. Even the grand ballroom has been inspired by an actual room in the palace.

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Note the two lions at the edge of the water, near the fence. That’s where all those scenes were shot, especially when the boat capsizes. The amazing thing about the scene that follows is that it’s a continuous conversation between Maria and the captain. The scenes of the captain were shot in this palace and the scenes worth Maria were shot in a yellow building 10 km away and then they were put together. Ah the magic of film making.

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The von Trapp house was a canary yellow villa 10 kilometres away. It is now a music school and we only drove past it, we couldn’t even run down the long driveway and pretend to be the “urchins” hanging out of the trees.

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The budding romance between Liesl and Rolf was very charming, but for me, the love story between the Captain and Maria was infinitely better. So I was thrilled to see the gazebo where both couples professed their love, singing, “16 going on 17” and “Something good”.

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“So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good”

It would be so gorgeous in the moonlight, especially if it were still in the lawns of the white lakeside palace where it was during the actual shooting. It has been moved to Hellbrunn palace, the summer residence of the Archbishop of Salzburg. . On this bright sunny Sunday it seemed as though the whole of Salzburg had accumulated here. Kids were running about, parents were pushing their strollers, dogs were panting in the heat and flowers bloomed everywhere.

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It also housed the trick fountains, a naughty entertainment for the archbishop. He’d invite prominent people for lunch and had water outlets below their chairs that would be intermittently turned on during the meal. Not to let his highness down, the palace now had a huge trick fountains section to spray unsuspecting visitors.

From here, we drove out to the Salzkammergut, with rolling hills, meadows as far as the eye can see, lakes surrounded by quaint towns and the alps rising majestically are all around. It’s actually a place where one can stay for a week, cycle about and chill. To help enjoy the ride and loosen up for the “merry singing” bit of the tour, the driver had beer, chilled water and a yodelling drink for the self-conscious.

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We were lucky enough to have driven through a small part of it on a rainy day from Hallstatt to Salzburg. I could totally understand how the composer thought of the song, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

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The lakes of the Salzkammergut are the biggest draw. We drove past Lake Fuschl, the lake of the rich and famous, where the Austrian celebrities and who’s who owned properties.

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This bright sunny day of the SoM tour, we drove past this lake, which looked so different in the sunshine.

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Since we were not the ones driving, I actually enjoyed this drive more. The tiny villages and pretty houses looked so alluring and I felt so bad about the fleeting visit.

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While I spent my time looking around me, enjoying the environs of the beautiful land, the hubby spent his drive-free time enjoying the environs of the bus.

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While the hubby slept blissfully, Lisa (bored of the trivia maybe) played track after track of the movie, urging us to sing along while she didn’t. Apparently, SoM is not a huge sensation in Austria, just good money for the tour. So we should pardon Lisa for not sharing our enthusiasm.

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Shortly, we drove up to Lake Wolfgangsee, a huge lake nestled amidst the mountains. People were out in hordes at the lake front, yachts were sailing on the lake and paragliders were enjoying the respite from the rain.

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This looked like such a wonderful place to stay, the houses sloping upwards from the lake up to the road itself, all looking onto the lake. There are 2 towns on this lake, St Wolfgang itself and St Gilgen, both of which looked like wonderful places to stay at and I had strongly considered staying here and day tripping to Salzburg, instead of the other way round.

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As we drove on, Lisa pointed out the super glamorous Red Bull headquarters to us. While we all sighed in unison, the kid piped up, “Mummy this is where I’m going to work.” Kids today are too smart. We chose our profession first and then everything just happened. Today’s generation chooses the destination first and then works towards it. 

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As we drove on singing along softly to the songs, I really wished we had a more enthusiastic bunch of people on the bus. They were all prim and proper and no one was hollering along. Even when the lonely goatherd played, no one yodelled. I think they all needed more of the yodelling ale.

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A pretty villa owned by a man who bought the entire area, and then the adjoining little lake as well

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We passed by fields of green with yellow wildflowers.

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And admired the brilliantly blue lakes with boats bobbing on them.

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And then, finally, we reached Lake Mondsee, the longest halt, to see the cathedral where Maria and the Captain were married.

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In the movie, Maria gets married in the abbey, but the actual wedding scene was inside this cathedral. The exterior was never seen.

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Remember Maria walking down in the floaty white dress and long veil. It was shot right here, without the pews.

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I could picture Maria gliding up the steps and kneeling before the priest with the Captain. This was my favorite scene after the Ländler dance where Maria dances with the Captain.

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The old town pedestrian-only part of Mondsee was charming as could be with a lane of multi coloured buildings and gorgeous shop windows.

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We were so terribly hungry that we had to eat something here, pizza for the kid, the famed apple strudel for me.

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It was truly the best apple strudel I’ve had so far, made even better by the fact that I had to share it with no one! While the kid finished her pizza, I strolled about the pretty town.

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We’d seen a huge line of people outside an icecream store, both on our way to and back from the town and we wondered if he was doling it out for free.

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Of all the towns I’d seen in Austria, Hallstatt and Mondsee stole my heart the most. I will certainly return to the Salzkammergut someday.

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As we walked back to the bus, we came across an Indian couple posing in a grass meadow like Rose and Dawson in the Titanic. I wanted to take pictures but the “nice” kid stopped me. We got into the bus and set back for Salzburg, with a last look at lake Mondsee.

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The drive back to Salzburg was not through the hills but on the autobahn, a terrible disappointment for me. Lisa played a short movie about the filming of SoM in Salzburg narrated by Liesl. Swiftly, we reached Mirabell gardens, a palace with large lawns built by the Archbishop for his wife.

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We stood at the entrance to the gardens on the Do-Re-Mi steps where Maria and the kids sing and dance, but it was so crowded that we could only take one picture of the beautifully designed garden lawns with the green domes of the old town and the fortress in the background.

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Apparently, the gardeners change the floral patterns and the flowers that they plant all the time so none of the pictures look identical.

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Picture courtesy: Ravi Thapar, shot just 15 days after my visit

Since we were completing the SoM tour, we had to walk on the parapet of the Pegasus fountain (where Maria and the kids dance).

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And run and jump through the vine-covered tunnels.

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Jump about a fountain surrounded by statues.

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Pat a dwarf or two.

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Or simply admire the pretty flowers.

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Just a fortnight later, my brother-in-law was greeted by a garden of brilliantly red roses.

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Despite the obvious beauty of these places, I didn’t love the SoM tour. Maybe the guide and group weren’t engaging enough, maybe the hot day and lack of food put me off. Most of all, I think it was the cast that made the film so wonderful, and that’s what was missing; the handsome Captain, the bubbly Maria and the adorable kids. That’s what I missed the most, the magic of Hollywood.

“So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye”

Germany Austria May 2018: Salzburg

Salzburg wasn’t on my original itinerary. We were supposed to go to Berlin from Munich. Somewhere during the planning stages, my brother-in-law waxed eloquent about Salzburg, Yogesh pointed out that Salzburg was much closer, and hubby loved the idea of nature over history. That’s how we ended up spending 3 nights in Salzburg.

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We stayed at a hotel right at the river Salzach 20 minutes from the old town, yet spent only one day and evening seeing the town itself, the other 2 days were busy on day trips to Hallstatt and Berchtesgaden. Whilst this wasn’t a good move, Salzburg didn’t enthrall us enough to need longer. Was I wrong about that? Maybe.

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Stepping out of the hotel to this view

The day we toured Salzburg was the day of the Salzburg marathon. A lot of streets were cordoned off, police and volunteers lined the roads, and locals were out in full form to support the runners. We’d seen a few runners in the morning from our bedroom window but it was much more exciting to be down on the road amidst the fun. A band was playing on the porch of our hotel and mothers with children were lined up. The kids  were super enthusiastic and hopping up and down, cheering and clapping as the runners passed by. They held out their arms to high-five the runners too.

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We walked along the Salzach river towards the old town, with the towering Festung Hohensalzburg (Salzburg Fortress) as our guide. The roads were filled with supporters and the atmosphere was electric. The kid and I danced along as we took in the sight of the pretty pastel houses lining the riverfront.

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Many bridges crossed over the river that was once an important trade route for salt, mined in the many mines around Salzburg. In fact that’s what the town was named after, the fortress of salt. To reach there, we crossed over the padlocked Makartsteg bridge that seemed to sparkle under the bright sunlight.

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I love bridges with locks, j’adore. So it’s natural that I spent maximum time on the bridge where locking your lock and throwing away the key ensures a lifetime of happiness together. I thought that walking over this bridge was truly a romantic start to touring a romantic town.

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On the new town side of Salzburg stood the famous hotel Sacher, inventor of the Sacher torte. Unfortunately, the iconic hotel was under renovation, but it sure summed up my ideology in life.

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We crossed the bridge and passed through an archway between the pastel buildings to come upon the iconic Mozarts Geburtshaus, the birthplace of the legendary Wolfgang Mozart.

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We chose not to tour the inside (much to the hubby’s relief) and turned our attention to the narrow and crowded main alley of Salzburg, the Getreidegasse.

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The most famous shopping lane of Salzburg, the Getreidegasse houses international fashion chains, coffee shops, traditional stores and even bakeries. However, it wasn’t this high-end street in the olden days. It was initially a Trabe-gasse (for trotting along).

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My sister would have loved this street

Typically, these buildings had narrow houses with windows that became smaller as the floors got higher. Arched pathways connected the front and back of the houses to different buildings and courtyards. These archways and courtyards are the main charm of old town Salzburg, as are the wrought iron signs of the stores.

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Not to forget to mention the shoes. The poor husband had to tear the two women away from this store. Only to see them get stuck at a charming stall and drool over every cute thing present.

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The buildings were ornately decorated in very pleasing colors. I loved this part of Salzburg. Once again, I was impressed by the good-looking pharmacies.

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All lanes lead into one another, and while it’s easy to walk about in circles, getting a little lost is always part of the fun. Though we had the downloaded Rick Steves Salzburg audio tour (since I had so intelligently lost my guide-book on the second day of our trip), Salzburg was just as enjoyable to walk about, come out onto a square and then wonder, “Where are we?”

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Café Tomaselli, the oldest café of Salzburg, frequented by Mozart

And to gawk at gorgeous souvenir shops.

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We walked straight to the main square, the Residenzplatz, that was sadly under restoration. A huge open space, lined by long elaborate buildings, lost a lot of its beauty by cranes and construction material, not to mention the swirls of dust rising up. Despite that, the grandeur of the buildings was not diminished. This main square was once the seat of all power in Salzburg, surrounded by the old and the huge new Residenz and Salzburg cathedral, with the beautiful Horse fountain in the center.

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The square was commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg in the 16th century, who had a huge Italian hangover. The fountain has four horses snorting out water, giants and dolphins and is topped by a Triton spewing out water. It was very hot and sunny now, so we rested in a patch of shade while I read aloud from the tour to a disinterested audience. Frustrated by the inattention, I strode off to the next square, Mozartplatz.

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The birthplace of a man who achieved as much as Mozart, for the world and for Salzburg, must have an outstanding monument to commemorate the great man, and we were lucky to see him without the crowds.

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Sadly, in this square of reverence, my pop-addled brain could only sing, “Amadeus, Amadeus, Come and rock me Amadeus” by Falco. Poor Mozart must be turning in his grave. This was pure blasphemy. Then I looked about at the square lined by souvenir shops and Mozart chocolates and thought that there was enough blasphemy around anyways.

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Mozart-balls, chocolates named after Mozart, an Austrian speciality

I saw a building with a large mural that resembled the sign of a pharmacy and thought it was yet another decorated pharmacy. However, it was a huge sundial on the first drinker’s room in the city.

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The spires of the Salzburg cathedral beckoned and I was keen on seeing the mightiest Romanesque cathedral north of the Alps. The Archbishops of Salzburg wanted to make it Rome of the North, which explains 27 churches in just old town and more than 35 in Salzburg. The Salzburg Dom was the grandest of them all, sitting pretty in a corner of Domplatz lined by elegant buildings and filled with horse carriages.

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The Virgin Mary statue seemed to face away from the cathedral. It was only when I read the guidebook that I went to the far end of the square and stood facing the statue in front of the cathedral and saw the brilliant placement of the statue. The angels seem to be placing the crown on her head. What precise engineering!

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Virgin Mary is surrounded by allegoric figures representing angels, the devil, wisdom, and the Church.

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We entered the church in silence, in reverence for the greatness of the builders, who rebuilt it twice, once after a fire, and again after bombing in World War II, and yet constructed such a masterpiece.

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The service was on and beautiful music filled the church and our hearts and drove Amadeus and Falco out.

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Stunning ceiling art

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Taking photographs and wandering about the church seemed inappropriate, so we sat there quietly, away from the madding crowds outside and simply enjoyed ourselves. Sadly, I never got to go back to this church and I begged my brother-in-law to take lots of pictures for me on his trip, which he certainly did.

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Picture courtesy: Ravi Thapar, the far end of the cathedral

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Picture courtesy: Ravi Thapar, the majestic dome

Lovely candles, my favorite part of churches.

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Picture courtesy: Ravi Thapar

Music was ringing in our ears as we stepped out and admired the square when a commotion disturbed us. A huge group of Veena world was trying to negotiate past a huge group of Kesari tours without ending up in the rival group. I sighed a sigh of relief in not being with them, the hubby sighed a sigh of longing.

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We hurriedly rushed into the next square, the Kapitelplatz, with a giant chessboard and a huge golden globe with a man on it. Modern art smack in the center of Baroque Salzburg!

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Look who’s carrying the weight of the world on her dainty hands!

At the other end of the square was a beautiful fountain with Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea, with the fortress towering over it. Such a contrasting view this was!

DSC_3873We turned into yet another narrow alley past some souvenir stalls to reach St Peter’s cemetery to see graves studded with beautiful flowers.

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Edelweiss socks, so cute

Instead, we found ourselves climbing up a steep slope. Without intending to, we were climbing up to the Salzburg fortress, that wasn’t part of the plan. The views as we climbed were certainly worth the tachycardia and the dyspnea.

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See the square with the golden globe and the spires of the cathedral

We weren’t planning to go to the fortress so we walked down from it on the Monschberg ridge to reach the viewing platform over the city near the Monschberg elevator.

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It was so steep that I had to hold the railing on the way down. We walked along the top of the mountain which was a lovely green path with tall trees on both sides. There were very few people on this path but I wanted to reach the famous terrace so I dragged the hubby and the kid along. Enroute, I found many other viewing points with beautiful views over Salzburg.

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This was from a small garden looking onto the other side of Salzburg. For miles ahead stretched green meadows with small pretty houses and the grand Untersberg mountain in the distance.

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People were sitting on benches and the grass, with books or their dogs and just relaxing, sunning themselves. However, we walked on and on, hunting for the terrace. Though there was a lot of tree cover, it was still very hot and sunny. We were hungry and pressed for time as we had to reach the sound of music tour by 2pm (and it was 1pm and we were miles away). The stress was mounting and we were panting while walking at a great speed. The kid was terribly unhappy because she wanted lunch before the tour but now I was worried that we’d miss the tour itself. Suddenly, we came upon a terrace with a beautiful view over Salzburg.

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New town Salzburg across the river with the Sacher hotel under renovation

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The charming old town of Salzburg

This still wasn’t the terrace I was looking for and there were no signboards or people to help. The hubby used Google and found a walking running route to the other side of the Monschberg mountain and through the tunnel to re-enter the old town, cross the bridge and race down to Mirabell gardens to catch our Sound of Music tour.

Thus ended our entertaining morning of sightseeing in Salzburg, in a mad dash. I’m sure we’d have liked it a lot more if it hadn’t been so hot and we hadn’t had to rush through. I did come back later in the evening to see the lit up town but that needs another post as does the sound of music tour, so stay tuned.

 

 

Germany Austria May 2018: The fairytale town of Hallstatt

“The loveliest lake village in the world is Hallstatt,” 

Alexander Humbolt, 18th century explorer

My agreement with Mr Humbolt resulted in 2 blog posts about “the loveliest”. I think this little town of 1000-strong local population, 2 main streets and walkable from end to end in half hour took up THE maximum camera space, on my camera and the hubby’s phone. And that’s saying something.

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We had parked in the parking lot at one end of the town and walked down to the lake to see the most stunning spectacle. The tiny town sandwiched between the lake and the mountains just took our breath away and we were speechless for a while.

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On this cloudy day, the beautiful blue of the lake contrasted sharply with the dark green trees and the wooden roofs of the houses. Part of the town jutted out into the lake, while the bulk of the town rose upwards along the mountain’s edge.

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Plaque describing doctor and travel writer Franz Satori’s impression of Hallstatt. The town is named after the Celtic word for salt, ‘hal’

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Swans gently swam along the edge, hoping maybe for a crumb of food or just enjoying their time in the water.

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The kid was enthralled by this swan and made all sorts of clicking noises to entice it to come our way. Swans are not native to Hallstattersee, they were brought in to satisfy the whim of Empress Sisi in the late 19th century. The next one to be enamored by these unfriendly birds was my daughter!

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The gentle breeze and the overcast sky and the huge expanse of water ahead of us created the most tranquil surroundings. The only noise at this far end of town was the gentle lapping of water against the shore. This made me regret terribly that I hadn’t stayed at Hallstatt, because this was the last moment of peace we had.

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After taking a gazillion pictures, and then just leaning against the railing and taking in the atmosphere, we were finally ready to enter the fairy land of the actual town. We walked past beautiful houses with stunning flowerbeds in their balconies.

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Spring had certainly arrived in Hallstatt!

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I had been hoping to see studded windowsills throughout Bavaria, but hadn’t seen too many, and so, was naturally thrilled in Hallstatt. The kid was thrilled too and we had a good many fights over the camera, which I’m happy to say that I frequently lost.

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We passed by some random sculptures and I had to grab the camera back.

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However, the minute we walked through the bars marking the pedestrian-only zone, we were shocked. The sheer numbers of people were more than we saw anywhere on this trip. There flew away the peace and tranquility, and we needed to escape the yakking tourists. So, we walked in the lane just behind the promenade and came upon a huge row of wooden houses. The first souvenir shop we saw got us all going trigger-crazy.

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The kid went crazy too. She wanted to buy everything in the shop. Not like I didn’t!

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“Can we have a bicycle Mommy? Or a ducky, an owl?” she pleaded.

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“We’ll look ahead,” I told her, as we turned towards the lake and she promptly rushed down to a pier to be closer to the waters.

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The most charming way to see Hallstatt is by boat, but the only ones we could find were one hour ferries and we just didn’t have the time. Next trip maybe?

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Swanspired paddle boats

Walking along the lake promenade instantly transported us to another world. It was like touching a portkey and reaching a fairytale land at the top of the magic faraway tree. Lining the promenade were quaint wooden houses.

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Souvenir shops with charms, wooden toys and dolls, stuffed toys and other wooden handicrafts studded the road.

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Restaurants extended over the lake, providing traditional Austrian fare (including fish from the same lake) with a great view. This restaurant dates back to 1472, where it was a salt manufacturing center apart from being a guesthouse.

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When we visited in early May, the flowers were just blooming. just a fortnight later, they were in full bloom.

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Picture courtesy: Ravi Thapar, 15 days after my trip

Just then, we heard a loud flapping sound and turned swiftly to see a pair of swans taking off powerfully from their gliding spot on the lake. I’d never seen swans fly before and was quite amazed that these large birds could fly so well.

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We reached another pier from where we could see a large group of people sitting down at the same Gastof Brauhas we’d clicked minutes ago and the ascending town of Hallstatt.

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Hungry people reminded us of our own hunger and a dessert shop advertising fresh crepes and scones was very tempting indeed.

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Before we could choose anything, the kid saw something and ran off. Frightened of losing her amidst the crowds, we rushed after her, only to see her calling out to her new bff, a swan, posing merrily for the onlookers.

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We dragged her off with difficulty, and then we saw a narrow alleyway with colourful buildings. It was irresistible to dive right in.

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Suddenly, we came upon the charming central market square of Hallstatt. The square was really important in the 14th century when Hallstatt was granted market rights.

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It was too charming for words and surprisingly, very empty, which added to the charm for me for sure. Buildings of different colors surrounded the large open space, at the center of which was a decorative statue of the Holy Trinity.

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This square had been destroyed in a fire in 1750, after which the buildings were built using colored stone instead of wood, which is why it looks so different from the rest of the town.

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We rested there for a while, just soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying the relative peace. The kid loved this square and once she was done running about, she wanted the camera to take her set of pictures.

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Finally, we got up and went out towards the lake, intending to climb on towards the other end of Hallstatt town to reach the classic viewpoint. But every footstep showed us beautiful scenery.

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I looked longingly at the ferry, wanting to take time out for a boat ride. I love being out on the lake and Hallstatt is supposed to be even more scenic from the lake, but that will have to wait another day.

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We had to walk on a path above that of the lake now to reach the famous viewing point. The kid and hubby were getting frustrated with me and my list of viewing points of Hallstatt.

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But no one complained when we reached a spot with loads of “selfie-obsessed people” and turned around to look at the lake and gasped.

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The classic “stock photo” of Hallstatt was certainly worth the long walk up the slope (note how far the ferry is). So were the reflections on the lake.

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I think we’d have stood here forever, staring at the view, but we were rudely elbowed out by the rudest community of tourists on the planet. Honestly, they beat the Gujjus hands down, make them look like cute, fluffy bunnies. The nonstop chatter irritated the kid so much that she went and stood against a sign labelled “Point of Silence.”

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I do feel the kid missed the point too. You can’t have silence amidst groups, whatever community they be from. This is probably the most important reason to stay over in Hallstatt, to roam the town without the day-tripping crowds.

We walked back to the market square because we wanted to walk to a waterfall that the hubby had seen as soon as we entered Hallstatt. Yet, we took ages because the camera couldn’t control itself.

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The view of the lake between the houses was too beautiful for words.

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Some of the houses were too pretty not to photograph and I murmured an apology for invasion of their privacy.

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This sign leads up to a small pedestrian staircase to the higher level of Hallstatt.

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We wanted to see Hallstatt’s pretty roofs so we climbed up some steps, and then lots and lots of steps. I concluded that no one in Hallstatt could ever get osteoarthritis of the knees.

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It was just as picturesque as the lower level, maybe more, as it was less crowded. Narrow cobblestoned streets were lined by wooden houses with a characteristic triangular roof. All were decorated with charms, lovely knockers, vines and flowers.

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I loved the houses with the vines and trees as their façade

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Just outside a pizzeria

All along the climb, we could hear the rushing gurgling of water and kept wondering if we were near the waterfall. Then we found the source of the noise, a small mountain stream was rushing along with great force towards the lake, possibly arising from the waterfall.

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We climbed more and more steps, falling behind in our quest for pictures. But honestly, there was too much quaintness on display.

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Classy vase!

We were plodding along when the hubby called out to us, “Hurry up, the view is gorgeous!”

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So we rushed up to a platform with this view of the outstanding Hallstattersee.

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The sun was out, pushing away the clouds and we could see the snow-capped Dachstein mountains. And of course, the much desired waterfall.

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It was very picturesque but hunger beckoned strongly, so we rushed down towards the lake for lunch. Not really rushed, we couldn’t run about in Hallstatt even if we wanted, we had to stop and stare at houses this charming.

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And views like this.

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Back at the lake, the hubby was very tempted to try the local fish, but there were very poor vegetarian options at those restaurants. Despite my telling him that we’d quickly finish a pizza at the nearby store, and then join him,  he wouldn’t hear of it and so we settled down at the lake side with pizza, ice cream and nutella waffle, and watched the world walk past.

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Shortly, a gentle drizzle fell over the lake. Safe under the cover of the awning of the store, we watched people scurry about and umbrellas go up. The gentle drops on the lake, creating small ripples, the swans ruffling their feathers, the sudden emptying of the promenade and the lovely view of Hallstatt made me love Hallstatt even more. 

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A pair of swans enjoying the gentle rainfall

Done with our meal, we rose to walk back through the town, passing by salt souvenir shops with my favorite flowers.

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The souvenir shop displays caught my eyes, in particular, this pair of dolls, but I didn’t have time to stop and buy them.

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I know I should have gotten them. Some things should’t be put off till later.We never saw anything like them again. So the photographs are now the biggest souvenir. We walked out of the pedestrian zone and were once more bowled over by the beautiful spring flowers.

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Hallstatt enamored us so much that when we returned, we urged my brother-in-law to stay at Hallstatt, unlike us. He had already paid at his apartments and couldn’t change either, but he agreed whole-heartedly with us once he was back.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar, on a cloudier but stiller evening

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar

I reluctantly left Hallstatt that day. I honestly wished I could have stayed the night there and seen more of this picture-perfect town, especially when the lights went down at night. Yet, it was such a perfect day that I left with very happy memories and gorgeous pictures.

I will surely be back to visit Hallstatt. Maybe in the fall, maybe in the winter, but I’ll be back.

PS: My apologies for such a photo-heavy post. I found it very difficult not to put up each photo that we’ve clicked.

 

 

Germany Austria May 2018: Fairytale Hallstatt from above and Hallstatt salt mines

After an exhilarating drive on the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, we retired early in preparation for another day of “heavy sightseeing”, for we were to leave Zell am see and drive to Salzburg via Hallstatt, the beautiful lakeside town. Thanks to some poor planning, we couldn’t stay the night in Hallstatt, which turned out to be a really bad move, because a day trip just doesn’t cover the place well enough.

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We left Zell am see on a very cloudy morning after a hearty breakfast. The drive through Austria was scenic as could be, with lush green meadows and beautiful mountains around us and with clouds as our constant companions.

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The train tracks and a small river ran parallel to us as we drove. I could imagine my friends Neha and Yogesh enjoying the same scenery in their train to Salzburg.

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Our spirits were high, we sang along as we drove through the lovely countryside. For a while, we drove on the autobahn, the best bit for the hubby, wherein we came upon the famous Hohenwerfen castle, picturized in the Bond film “Where eagles dare.”

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It was a beautiful castle, perched high up, but sadly we didn’t have time for it.

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Our drive on the highway was for a short while only, and soon we turned off onto smaller (read: more picturesque) roads. A while later, Google Maps took us off the main road on to a very small and narrow road amidst the forests.

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It was very narrow and I was worried about how we’d manage if another car came from the opposite side, but no one came. The road seemed to exist for us alone. Deeper into the forest we drove, surrounded by the tall conifers. A small stream bubbled besides us and every now and then, we crossed over small wooden bridges over it. A few scattered wooden houses dotted the area, pretty as could be.

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“What a fabulous place to stay!” I exclaimed, picturing myself resting on a hammock with a book. “It’s scary mum, there’s no one around,” said the kid. She was correct. There were areas with just one house and nothing else for the next 5 kilometers. “The solitude would still be worth it,” I thought. Just before we joined the main road, we passed by a series of houses so beautiful that the hubby and I would happily have given up our jobs and migrated there.

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As we drove into Austria’s famed lake district, the Salzkammergut with 76 Alpine lakes, tall mountains, hiking trails and tiny villages, the views got better and better. We drove up and down small hills with trees all around.

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The entire Salzkammergut is stunning as we discovered over the next 3 days. But today was set aside for the “Pearl of the Salzkammergut”, Hallstatt. This tiny village is probably the most photographed place in all of Austria. It’s an old settlement, more than 1000 years old, thanks to the salt found deep in the mountains around it. “Salt? In a land-locked country? Where did the sea reach there?” asked the smart hubby. “For that, we have to visit the salt mines,” I answered.

Hallstatt is hemmed in by the tall Dachstein mountains and the area has enough to offer for at least 3 days worth of sightseeing. Since we had 8 hours, we had to pick and choose. We saw just the town of Hallstatt and the salt mines, whilst my brother-in-law chose to take the cable car up the Dachstein mountains to see the aerial view of Hallstatt.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar: View from the five fingers lookout at Dachstein (2108m), see the tiny town of Hallstat projecting into the lake

He also visited the ice caves that we didn’t see as we’d already seen the stunning karst caves of Slovenia (Postojna Caves, Slovenia), but he really enjoyed the trip and it will be on my radar for the future.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar: Dachstein ice caves

As we approached the town, we first caught a glimmer of Lake Hallstatt through the trees. The lake is huge (as seen in the aerial picture) and we drove parallel to it for quite a distance before reaching the town.

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The main town area is pedestrian only (thankfully) and there are 3 huge parking lots for vehicles. We parked in one near the salt mines, after driving through the tunnel that runs through the Hallstatt mountain.

As soon as we walked outside the parking lot, the magic of Hallstatt seemed to descend. It was a cool and cloudy day, very very pleasant indeed. Beautiful flowers and trees filled the roadside and we didn’t know where to look.

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Beautiful gastehaus (guesthouses) lined the roads. Typically made of dark wood with coloured window shutters and flowers at their window sills, I couldn’t stop taking pictures till the hubby gently nudged me and said, “Leave some camera space for the actual town.”

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We crossed over a tiny stream, wondering where it came from, wishing we had time to follow it upstream.

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We saw that it bubbled away into the lake.

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“Gasp, ooh, ahh!” was our state in Hallstatt from the time we got out of the parking lot, to the time we returned. Hallstatt was such a fairytale town that it just belonged within the pages of an Enid Blyton storybook. But first, we had to figure out how salt was mined in Hallstatt.

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The salt mines are at an elevation from the town so they can be reached by a steep walk through the forest or a quick funicular. No prizes for guessing what we did.

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The funicular was so well designed that we didn’t realise how steep the slope was. And I am so glad that we didn’t walk up or down till the mines as it would have been a crazy long walk, and there was lots more walking up ahead!

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The best part about the mines was the view from the top. Looking down to the newer part of Hallstatt, near the mines and the parking lots and trying to identify our car kept us totally busy.

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The most amazing view was once we got off at the top and looked out from where we stood. It was so beautiful that we couldn’t tear ourselves away and missed most of the people who were on the funicular with us.

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The actual mines were located at a 20 minute walk from the funicular, but we first walked over to the viewing platform “World Heritage View” for the stunning views over the Hallstatt-Dachstein region by crossing over the pretty panorama bridge.

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It led us to Rudolfstrum, a restaurant housed in a defense tower built in ancient times to protect the mines, with the Hallstatt skywalk jutting out below it.

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The steel platform projects out from the cliff 360 meters above sea level, to provide a vantage viewing point over Hallstatt town, the lake and the mountains.

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Unfortunately, it was packed with tourists (as was all of Hallstatt) of a community that believes in clicking 100 selfies at every viewpoint without much concern for others. After waiting patiently in a line with no order and movement, I gave up and walked along the edges of the platform for the same stunning view.

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The sunlight seemed to filter through the clouds on to the small town of Obertraun directly opposite Hallstatt, the access point for the cable car to the Dachstein ice caves and the five fingers look out.

2018-05-04 14.24.06The best view however, was that of the main town of Hallstatt from high above.DSC_3432

 

While I stood there mesmerized, the hubby urged me on, knowing that the entire salt mines tour would take another 3 hours to complete and we needed to reach Salzburg before night. Reluctantly, I left the pretty view for the 20 minute steady uphill climb to the entrance to the mines.

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The long walk to the actual mines, as seen from the panorama bridge

To make the long walk more interesting, there were several boards along the way about the history of the mines and even the body of a mummy preserved in salt. We were mean enough to leave the kid in that scary room and run off, but she’s become smarter now and was expecting it.

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Gorgeous reflection of the panorama bridge and Rudolfstrum

All along were posters of the “miner man” pointing out the way. Finally the hubby grew tired of the man.

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When we reached the entrance to the caves, we had to deposit our belongings and wear very unflattering miner’s clothes to make us feel like miners and to protect us on the slides and then we reached the entrance to the mines.

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Right from the bright sunlight, we entered a dark and narrow tunnel, wide enough for maximum 2 people side by side, with the tracks of the mining wagons below us. The tunnels grew narrower and shorter as we went in deeper and we could only walk in a single file.

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As it grew narrower and darker, the kid grew more and more frightened and wanted to leave. But the only way was onwards, deeper into the mountains. There was no turning back. She was so scared that we had to put on the torch-light, but fortunately, the area widened a little ahead and she could relax and look around.

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We could see the old salt pipelines that carried the brine and the salt. Salt was considered white gold and it’s discovery led to the rise of Hallstatt as an important town. In fact the era 800 to 400 BC is referred to as the Hallstatt period. But that’s not what we were interested in. We were interested in sliding down the long wooden slides that miners used to enter the mines.

DSC_3474It’s really very simple, you sit on a small wooden area and put both your legs on the side, then gravity does the rest. Naturally everyone was apprehensive at the start. There were steps to climb down and I was thinking about taking them when a couple of brave people took the plunge and then, so did the hubby with the kid. He just grabbed her, plonked her in front of him and kicked off, despite her protests. And from the bottom came a very happy squeal, “Mummy it’s awesome!” So, I got on too and reached the bottom, flying down, screaming at the top of my lungs.DSC_3463

 

Now that people understood that no one was going to die, the “selfie community” picked up their guts and dashed down the slides, mobiles in hand. We moved on to see some salt crystals and the history of salt mining in Hallstatt.

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We reached a large area where they beamed a movie which explained how salt reached this town hundreds of miles away from any ocean or sea. Apparently, way back in the prehistoric age, when the continents were forming and the earth plates moving about, some portion of the sea got trapped below the mountain and then rose with the mountain shelf.  

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So apparently, salt was mined here as long back as 7000 years ago. Surprising! They showed us several videos about how they discovered the timeline of the mining and lots of ghastly stories about the loads of people who died, when we came upon the best part of the mines, the 64 meter long wooden slide. The hubby and kid, now seasoned, quickly hopped on and slid away.

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This surely looks steep and scary

There was nothing for it. I got on and slid down, so fast, that I started falling off and dumbly, put out my hand to correct my position (despite clear instructions from the guide NOT to do so) and got a wonderful friction burn.

 

Off the slide, we found ourselves at the edge of a small lake. A lake in the centre of the mountain, with salt at the bottom of it!

 

 

DSC_3477They even put up a show with brilliantly coloured images projected over the lake showing the discovery of salt and the start of the mining. DSC_3478

 

 

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This show and another where they projected the life and times of a typical miner family were the only two entertaining shows. The rest bored me terribly and I was itching to be out in the daylight in the pretty lanes of Hallstatt, instead of listening to this guy drone on.

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Yet, they took us deeper and deeper inside and showed us the discovery of the world’s oldest staircase, dated to 13th century BC, that is now kept in a museum at Vienna. It’s been perfectly preserved by the salt.

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Finally, the tour ended. I was worried about climbing up lots of stairs as we had descended quite a bit, but luckily, they bundled us onto a miner’s train and took us up and out through narrow tunnels.

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Happy to be back out, we walked down a lot faster than on the way up, passing by these pretty rivulets.

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Riding the funicular down, I couldn’t help but take another picture of the beautiful town of Hallstatt from up above.

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The walk to the car was scenic, but I had to steal a quick look at the lake at the place with the most beautiful view of Hallstatt.

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“Wow,” is all I could think. I couldn’t even speak aloud at this moment because I was too spellbound and dumbstruck. But this view is only a teaser of things to come, both when you walk through Hallstatt and when you read the blog.

 

 

 

 

Germany Austria 2018: The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne. I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life,” said Marilla. “Oh Marilla,” exclaimed Anne, “Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them. I think it’s worse to expect nothing than be disappointed.”

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery

Like the child Anne, I have the bad habit of setting my heart too much on things. On a trip, it is making someplace THE focal point, THE obsession. And like the child, it’s frequently something that might not get realised and hence lead to deep disappointment. This year, the obsession was the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), which was a silly obsession as it conventionally opens in early to mid May and we were there on 3rd May. This high altitude road is closed from November to April because it is totally snowed in. The unusual prolonged winter in March 2018 reduced the chances of its opening while we were there. The fear wasn’t allayed by my trip planner Yogesh, who urged me to plan something else on that day.

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The purpose of visiting Zell am see was to drive the Grossglockner High Alpine Road

I had so many alternate plans lined up that it became imperative for the road to open on time! The obsession build up as our trip grew closer, to the extent that I had downloaded the Grossglockner app on my mobile and was checking it twice a day, sometimes three times. And till we left, it kept saying, “opening shortly.” And I kept telling myself, “Be still, my beating heart.”

The flight to Frankfurt and the subsequent travel naturally distracted me adequately, so I only checked the app the day we reached Würzburg (still closed) and then directly on the day we left the lovely Rothenburg ob der Tauber, when it suddenly said, “open”.

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“Joy hath no bounds,” was my state, till the eventful fall of the hubby on the Nördlingen tower the same day (Germany Austria May 2018-The unromantic Romantic Road with the very romantic towns), when I was not sure whether he’d be able to do such a strenuous drive with such a severe injury. But I had underestimated his resolve (and interest) for he kept staring at the webcam the previous evening at Zell am see and chalking out the route.

Finally, the next morning arrived. With great excitement (and staring at the webcam), we finally set off after a hearty breakfast at our lovely hotel Traube. My friends Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy joined us for this drive at our hotel and we set off, hoping for clear skies. (Warning: There is a ridiculous number of images in this post)

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It’s not easy to plot the Grossglockner drive on Maps, but the website has an inbuilt route planner that we followed. We were driving it from North (the Salzburg end) to South (the Corinthia end, where one can drive into Italy). The drive to Bruck, the starting point for the high Alpine road, was scenic as could be and set the ball rolling for the day to come. The day was beautiful, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, no hint of the rain that was predicted. Happy I was. As we drove through the beautiful alpine scenery, we turned off into a road with pretty meadows with wooden chalet like houses.

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There were very few boards on the way, so naturally the hubby was a tad concerned about being on the right route, but we had to be on the right road with these mountains looming up.

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Of course, we were on the right path when the toll booth came up, but surprisingly, the rate was less than that on the website. I was worried, would we travel only half the road? The man at the booth handed us a map of the best viewing points and the two offshoots to the highest motorable areas and we set off.

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a 48km long toll road that drives through Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park with stunning views of tall mountains including Austria’s tallest peak, the Grossglockner.

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This is it,” I thought, “The Grossglockner Road itself. Buckle up, sit back and enjoy the ride.” And then I found myself being pushed backwards into the seat as someone had found the accelerator and was going for it gung-ho.
The initial part of the drive was a steep ascent from the bottom of the valley into the mountains. This portion hugged the side of the mountain, so there were sharp curves and we could see ourselves getting higher and higher very swiftly.

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The gorgeous Austrian Alps beside us as we ascend

There were waterfalls all around, one so huge and close to us that we were tempted to get off and stop. We didn’t stop as we wanted to reach the top before the predicted rain, and thought we would see it on the way back. Bad move.

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We had decided not to stop on the way, but it was irresistible. The road had multiple viewing bays, that were simply too tempting to get off at, and we did give in to temptation. After all, what’s a road trip without the view?

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Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy at our first stop, already 1850 meters ASL

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So many photographers!

We continued to ascend, turn after steep turn and resisted all temptation to stop every two minutes, because that’s how breath taking it really was.

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Even though it was not raining, there was a fair amount of cloud cover, which hung about as blobs of cotton on the mountains beside us. Now, the surroundings began to change, the leaves grew sparser and bits of dirty snow dotted the sides.

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First sighting of snow on the road

We were surprised to see cyclists on this route. “They must be bonkers,” I thought, “and super fit.” Not only were they super fit, they were super fast too. In fact the same cyclist crossed us twice while we were busy stopping for photographs!

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The wheels for the trip, our trusted Volkswagon Golf

 

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The man of the trip, just as trustworthy

A lot of the viewing bays had signboards about elevation, peaks seen and fauna, but we didn’t waste a moment looking at them, we were just so blown away by the views. At this point, maybe midway to the top, we had our first marmot sighting (that I coudn’t see) and saw a treehouse with a view to kill (that we couldn’t climb).

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It was great fun having Neha and Yogesh with us. The kid was totally charmed by Neha and found a new friend. Now I can’t speak to Neha without her butting in!

As we drove higher, the entire scenery changed. The trees and the greenery reduced and were replaced by huge masses of snow.

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We were level with the clouds now.

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Soon, we drove right through them. “I wanna take the clouds home,” said the kid. So did I.

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This bit was scary, but the hubby maneuvered expertly as we ascended higher. Just a little ahead, we stopped at the Haus Alpine Nature Exhibition where we thought marmots could be petted. Marmots are cute large squirrels for whom the European Alps are home. Unfortunately, there were only wild (non-pettable) marmots here, but we had a great time playing in the thick carpet of snow while Yogesh photographed the marmots.

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The mean machines that keep the road motorable

At this point, we could see the huge mountains looming ahead and dense snow all around us. After all, we were already 2260 meters above sea level. But the hubby was looking terribly distressed. “Houston, we have a problem,” he said. We were dangerously low on fuel. I was surprised as we had checked the fuel gauge the previous night and the morning of the drive and there was enough. He thought the indicator might be erroneous because we were on a slope, so we parked on level land and checked again. There wasn’t enough fuel to even complete the journey. “Possibly, the steep ascent used more fuel than we thought,” he said. This was terrible. The only petrol pumps on this road were at the two ends. I had visions of 4 adults pushing the car and the kid steering.

There was just one option, to head back down the way we came and get to the petrol pump before the toll booth. Hopefully being downhill would consume less fuel. We apologised to Neha and Yogesh for being so dumb (we’ve been driving for years and couldn’t even estimate the amount of gas needed) and headed back down.

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One of the 36 switchbacks on the road

The drive down was very different from the drive up. I talked even more than usual because I was so stressed and the kid naturally had to match up. Neha and Yogesh’s eardrums were in for a really rough time! We made it down and out in good time but it was a really long drive to the gas station. “Please make it, please make it,” I prayed desperately till we reached and I think we all were relieved by the refuelling.
Once the “longest pitstop ever” was done, and we were back in buoyant spirits, we continued driving up, this time non stop beyond the point where we’d turned back.

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The road is a true engineering marvel

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More curves

Even though thunderstorms had been predicted by this hour of the noon, they hadn’t yet started. We were now ascending even above the layer of clouds. We drove through a series of switchbacks, but unlike those at Sikkim, these weren’t terribly tight or steep and the road itself was implacable, making this one of the best drives of my life. Suddenly, a very sad voice piped up, “Mommy I’m feeling sick.” “Oh no,” I thought, “the motion sickness is acting up despite all the medication.” We tried distracting her with all sorts of stories when the solution suddenly struck. “You need food,” I cried. in all my excitement, I’d forgotten that she needed to keep being fed on road trips to control the nausea. There was no restaurant for a long while, so we stopped at the nearest parking bay to get food from the boot and my jaw just dropped open. Splayed out beneath us were the switchbacks we had just climbed, like a huge brown anaconda amidst the pure white snow.

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We let the kid keep hogging while we all jumped out and took scores of pictures. A big thank you to the kid and her vestibular apparatus for helping us find this place.

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Now, we ascended towards the lookout post seen in the picture above, Fuscher Torl, at 2428 meters above sea level. It was all too gorgeous for words. The snow was all around us now. Soon we came upon a large parking lot from where 2 roads diverged. One went to the right and one to the left and curved steeply upwards.

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The road that leads to the Fuscher Torl and towards the main mountain passes

We were perplexed by the 2 roads. “It certainly goes onto the right,” said the hubby, “all the cars are going there.” “Then who’s going there?” I asked him, pointing to the road to the left where I could see a few cars descending. “Let’s go and see,” said the enthusiastic hubby.

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What a road! We had unknowingly stumbled onto the narrow cobblestone road that led to the highest viewing point of the drive, the Edelweissspitze at 2571m. The road till there was narrow, just enough for one car, very steep with very tight corners. No wonder very few cars were going there. But the brilliant hubby took us up there. Outstanding bit of motoring that was.

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Once we reached the very top, we ran about the panoramic viewing platform like little kids. We were amazed to see cyclists at this elevation too.

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The marmot point we had turned back from for fuel was a tiny speck with the 200mm lens

We saw crazy people sitting on the railing and clicking selfies. I tried explaining the hazards to the kid while suddenly, we both got pelted hard by snowballs. We turned around but could see no one. Splat blotch bang, some more made their way. That’s when we looked up. The naughty hubby had gone up onto the terrace of the exhibition gallery and was busy pelting us.

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The kid rushed to get there to pay him back and splash, ran straight into a puddle and got all soaked and I had to rush back to the car to change her socks and shoes while the hubby clicked away from his vantage point.

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More than thirty 3000m peaks can be seen from this panorama point, many of which were partly hidden by the clouds. Even more stunning was the series of switchbacks that we’d driven on the way up.

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Contrast this with the same view taken exactly 20 days later by my brother-in-law on a bright and sunny day.

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Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later

Sated by the views, we drove down that scary narrow road, again with excellent maneuvering by the hubby, on past the Fuscher Torl, where a memorial was built to commemorate those workers who died during the construction of this masterpiece of a road, built over 5 years from 1930 to 1934, in order to generate revenues for a cash stripped Austria. Brilliant foresight and engineering!

We drove down towards the Fuscher Lake, opposite the Mankei inn where tame marmots are kept by the innkeeper.

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The lake was almost completely frozen when we went, and I have included my brother-in-law’s pictures simply to point out the difference over just 20 days.

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Us approaching the Fuscher Lake

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Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later. You can see the walking path across the lake that was covered by snow on our trip

The lake itself was barely recognizable as a lake to us when we went.

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The almost completely frozen lake when we went

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Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar; the barely frozen lake 20 days later

Hunger finally overcame our excitement and we were pleased to get a meal at the Mankei inn. The marmots were still hibernating, so there was no chance for the kid to play with them.

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Camera gear for the trip!

We drove on towards the two tunnels that go through the mountains. We crossed the first and came out at a winter wonderland (in May).

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We drove on to cross the Hochtor pass, which at 2504m, was the second highest point on the drive. In olden years, it was the most dangerous part of the road, but now, as safe as any other point.

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Snow ploughs start clearing the road in the end of April from both ends and meet at this summit. Once all the snow is cleared, the road is declared open.

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The kid and the hubby scribbled their names on the tall walls of snow.

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Neha and Yogesh found a viewpoint from where the tallest mountain of Austria, the Glossglockner (3798m) could be seen on a clear day.

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Both the kid and Neha wanted to build a snowman, so that had to be done. We saw a flat glacier like area and got out.

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Neha and the kid had a blast throwing snowballs at each other. Then the hubby joined them and the two adults pelted the kid bigtime!

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While Yogesh and I were busy taking pictures, Neha had a go at us!

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What a gorgeous place this was and what views!

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Happy with the playing, Neha and the kid got down to the serious business of constructing a snowman. They made a small mound of snow for the body and Neha started shaping into a body and a head and the kid promptly flattened it out.

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The process repeated itself till Neha made a separate head and placed it on top. Yogesh rummaged about in the bracken and retrieved pebbles for the eyes and made arms out of sticks, and voila, we had a snowman.

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Having had our fill of snow, we drove onwards towards the next offshoot, the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe point, named after the emperor of Habsburg, who had climbed to this height in the late 19th century, with great views over the glacier.

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We drove through these tall walls, shovelled aside by the snow ploughs as we descended. Unfortunately, the road to the viewpoint was closed because of risk of avalanche, so we continued to drive downwards.

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Frozen waterfalls

As we descended, the snow reduced and the greenery started reappearing.

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By now, the large clouds that we had been seeing for long, rolled in further. It looked as though snow was flying off from the higher parts of the road we had come down from. There didn’t seem to be much point in continuing downwards and we thought we’d seen all that we could of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse so we took a U-turn.

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The Grossglockner Road continues southwards to the village of Heiligenblut

Of course, the road had more surprises to give us. We weren’t a minute too soon in turning back. Black clouds covered the sky. We sped up and swiftly reached the Hochtor tunnel when snow started falling.

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All the places that we’d stopped at were barely visible now. We could barely merge out the outline of the Fuscher Torl restaurant at the bottom of the curve leaving to the highest point the Edelweissspitze. The highest road leading to it was totally shrouded in clouds.

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Soon visibility dropped to a couple of meters.

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It was actually scary now. We had to be extra careful as the road was slippery and we had to conserve the brakes on the steep descent. But I must say, the hubby drove exceptionally well.

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The rain fell in full force now. It started raining like it rains in Mumbai. We drove down through the rain and the clouds, each turn scarier than the previous one.

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The valley couldn’t be seen at all

The rain continued in full force till we reached our hotel. Neha and Yogesh caught a bus to Kaprun and the hubby, exhausted by now, drove us to the hotel. We had an early dinner (pizza and pasta for the kid’s daily pizza need) and retired early after a wonderful day. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse was one of the best drives I have even been on, and this day, one of the best of my days. And I think all 5 of us would agree on that.

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I must acknowledge a lot of people for this wonderful day. Firstly, the great team at Grossglockner who cleared out the snow on time for us to see it. Secondly, the kid, for conquering her motion sickness enough to manage such a drive. Third, and very importantly, Neha and Yogesh, for telling us about the drive,coming with us and making our day much more special. We had a great time with you both and hope to meet up again.

But most of all, to the man himself, the Schumi Thapar, for agreeing to rent the car despite his reservations and driving so fabulously despite his injury.

Oh! How could I forget! To dreams!

Germany Austria 2018: Zell am see, a sleepy Austrian lake town

This day we were to drive from Germany into Austria. We had already spent a wonderful morning hiking the Leutasch gorge (Germany Austria 2018: The dizzying spirit gorge of Leutaschklamm) and were now safely on our way, surprised though by the lack of any border or passport control between the two countries. This was something I saw time and again on our trip.

The drive from Mittenwald to Zell am see was the most beautiful drives of our trip. Tall mountains, covered with green conifers or capped by snow were our constant companions. Small towns filled the valleys and extended till the base of the mountains.

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There were places on the drive that had very steep slopes. But at one point there was a board that read, “Drive slow, steep gradient ahead.” And naturally, our undaunted Schumi took the curve and the slope at a “not slow at all” rate, and then came to a grinding halt as there was a huge traffic jam ahead. That’s when we realised that the board meant a 16 degree downhill gradient.

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What was even more amazing was that the long line of vehicles in the jam waited patiently behind each other, no honking, no overtaking, no getting on to the opposite side of the road (so unlike India). Once we were on level land, everyone just sped off. Soon we merged onto the highway and the fun began. Despite the speed limit of 100 kmph, the heavy vehicles were at 100 and all cars were overtaking them, so we did the same. So much for speed limits.

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It was a little scary too, as roads kept merging onto the high-speed highway and cars joined our road at great speeds. The hubby had a blast driving, and I had a blast taking pictures.

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Castles along the way

Shortly, we turned off the main 4 lane highway onto a smaller 2 lane one and then a single carriageway road.

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This portion of the road wound through small towns and green meadows and was as charming as could be. Austria is simply designed for road trips. Every turn made us happier.

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The sun was out in all its glory by now and the grey clouds of the morning were gone. There were places where we were totally surrounded by the mountains.

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In the small towns along the way, spring had surely arrived and flowers filled the front yards and window sills of all the houses.

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As we got approached our destination, the Alps loomed up again, surrounding us. It was mesmerising.

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The first view of the lake as we drove by was gorgeous. We never saw this pretty shade of water again though.

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Zell am see is an alpine lake town built along 2 ends of lake Zell. Pleasant weather exists year round, and the proximity to Kitzsteinhorn with year-round skiing, the Grossglockner high alpine road, along with plenty of cable cars, hiking treks and summer luges make this a very popular destination. Perhaps this and my best friend Archana’s strong recommendations hyped up Zell am see for me.

We drove into the pedestrian only town center where our hotel was located (great find by Yogesh again, thanks!) and really struggled with the narrow entry to the hotel and getting to the parking lot. But the room and the views were totally worth it.

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There was a hall with cupboards and a small storage space for suitcases, with a large bedroom and bathroom. It was very spacious and well decorated. Huge windows dominated the rooms, looking out towards the lake, the old town and the church.

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Hungry as we were, we rushed to find lunch. Zell am see is very popular in the Middle East, so there are plenty of Turkish/ Lebanese restaurants and the kid was desperate to find hummus and pita bread, which we got 5 minutes from our hotel.

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After a very satisfying lunch, we had a good afternoon rest and set off in the evening to see the much acclaimed town of Zell am see. A small map in hand, we walked out to see the old town and church that were just behind us.

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St Hippolyte’s church, built in the 11th century

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There was a large square with some important looking buildings but surprisingly it was totally deserted. The cafes were empty and everything seemed shut. We thought it might be because of the late hour, but found the same the next day.

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District Council Office in the main town square

There were a series of fancy shops and souvenir stores around our hotel, but all of these were closed too. The shop windows were very alluring however.

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Maybe it was good that they were shut. I had lots of free time in this town and would most definitely have shopped. From here, we walked till the tiny but cute railway station with lots of empty restaurants and cafes and this board.

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“Damn, they have Maggi here, I needn’t have carried it,” I thought. We had so much Maggi on the trip that I haven’t been able to eat any even three months after getting back. From here, we walked back towards the main town along the lakeside and the railway tracks. The train runs through the town of Zell, providing great scenery and connectivity, but was quite a fright to me at the thought of crossing the tracks. It was a little disconcerting at first, soon it became quite exciting for the kid and me to hop back  and forth.

We made our way down to the lake itself to see a swan and some ducks preening themselves in the water.

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A swan, as lazy as Zell am see

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The lake itself was very beautiful, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with a large walking track around it. It was very cool by now and the hubby and I were enjoying our time together when we saw the kid tottering at the edge of the water, calling out to the swan.

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No wonder this was what followed!

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This was the only time in Zell am see that we saw any other people. Whether it was because all the cable cars in the vicinity and the cruises on the lake were closed for maintenance, or because we had landed up at a time when Zell am see was in between the end of skiing season and the start of the summer season, Zell am see was a ghost town. That’s probably why we just didn’t enjoy it. There was nothing to do here. Yet, in retrospect, it gave us the much-needed chill time on our otherwise packed trip.

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Relaxing on the benches

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View from the bench

We walked along the promenade, admiring the distant mountain peaks, up to the Grand hotel, the grandest hotel of Zell am see. Beautiful carvings surrounded the windows and the kid promptly asked me why we weren’t staying here. 

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“You need this car to stay at this hotel,” I told her!

We walked amidst the hotel gardens, admiring the spring flowers.

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We walked on almost past this side of town, where lots of boats were anchored in the lake and birds flocked about.

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The kid’s great pals, the ducks, waddled along us, fearless of any humans, till she started running after them. Then they squawked and flew off.

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We crossed a park that the kid would have loved if she were younger and she was saddened to realise that all the playthings were too small for her now. So she contented herself with skipping along the little walking track right at the edge of the lake.

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We turned back at this point and crossed over the tracks towards the residential part of the town, where all the apartments were, and where we could see the mountains behind the town, where skiing was the big attraction.

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The houses were very pretty indeed, but the lack of people was disconcerting.

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Walking back towards the main center, we stopped by the only open stores in the area, all owned by migrants from Syria to pick up groceries. It was like walking into a small shop in Dubai. Hungry by now, we stopped for cake at a fancy coffee shop, but sadly chose a chocolate cake with apricot jam that destroyed the taste for us. Deeply disappointed, we peered into more shop windows to salve our souls.

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What a beautiful model of Zell am see at Christmas

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My favorite part of Zell am see, the shop windows. I loved this grumpy elf and beaver

Admired some more flora.

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Saw a few pretty buildings.

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We retired early that day, for want of better things to do, and because the Grossglockner drive was up the next day. We spent our evening looking at webcam images of the road and fell asleep hoping for clear skies.

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View from our room after sunset

All in all, we found Zell am see to be quite a dud. Maybe we were there at the wrong time. My brother-in-law visited in mid May and pretty much loved the place.

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Our last morning at Zell am see saw a very different lake. Gray clouds had moved in, a mist rose from the lake and the gorgeous mountains were totally obscured. The lake was much stiller this morning and the surroundings reflected off it beautifully. Somehow, I preferred this more than the bright clear days.

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Sadly, Zell am see didn’t live up to my expectations. Yet, I am very glad I went there becasue it was the base for our Grossglockner high alpine drive, that turned out to be THE best drive of the trip. We were joined on the drive by two good friends, Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy, whose presence made the day even so much better for us. But that’s a new story, for a brand new day. So, stay tuned.

 

 

 

Germany Austria 2018: The dizzying spirit gorge of Leutaschklamm

This was the day we left Mittenwald (in Germany) for Zell am see (in Austria). En route, I had planned a walk through the Leutaschklamm, a gorge that was carved by the erosion of the Limestone Alps by the Leutascher Ache river, and had an entertaining spirit and goblins story to spruce it up.

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We knew this gorge was just on the way out of Mittenwald, so we set off in the car with Leutasch gorge keyed into Google maps. The signpost for the gorge and Maps took us on a narrow steep road ascending the mountain. The road continued steeply higher and higher and got narrower and narrower. I was surprised as none of the blogs mentioned such a steep road. Bang in the middle of the road, Maps showed “destination reached”. Surprised, we drove on, thinking the parking must be ahead. Suddenly, the front panel of the car showed “Welcome to Austria”. Huge alarm bells went off in my head. We weren’t supposed to drive into Austria before the gorge and not without a toll sticker. It was compulsory in Austria to have a small red toll sticker (vignette) to drive on any of the highways. If you didn’t have the sticker, the police could fine you up to 200 Euro. Scary price to pay for a 9 euro sticker.

 

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So we promptly took a U-turn and stared at the sign for Leutasch, wondering how to reach there. I desperately searched on Google trying to find a route, but it either routed us  back the same way, or into Austria (the other route into Leutasch was from Austria). I was almost frantic now. Suddenly, I googled Leutaschklamm, the German term for Leutasch gorge and it showed a route very near where we were. We drove a kilometre ahead, hunting for boards, when I saw a tiny sign labelled Leutasch. “Just double park, I’ll check this out,” I said, while Google was trying to take us into a residential colony instead. I walked backwards to the sign board, crossing over a beautiful turquoise coloured stream coming from between the tall mountains we’d driven up. “This is it,” I thought excitedly.

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At the sign, I could only see a narrow path running parallel to the stream with a large board that read Leutaschklamm and Wasserfall. Thrilled at the discovery, I hurried back to the car to deal with the “bigger problem”, that of where to park.

I saw a parking space nearby on the road itself, but there was no meter so I was confused. Just then, an old German lady walked by. I desperately asked her where to park. She didn’t know a word of English, I didn’t know a word of German. Oh! I should have listened to Yogesh when he told me repeatedly to learn basic German. With gestures, we tried to communicate. I gestured to the car and the parking spot and kept saying, “Park, park.” She just grabbed my arm and marched me across the road to the sign board. I was too stunned to react or pull away. She spurted a stream of words in German and kept holding up four fingers. She was shooting German off at such a rate that I couldn’t cope even if I’d known any German. Suddenly, I realised what she was saying. This was one of those free parking zones where you could use a parking disc up to 4 hours. I thanked her with the only German I knew, Danke and she hugged me tight and went off!

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I told the hubby the happy news and we parked, when suddenly the kid grabbed my arm and whispered softly, “Mum don’t do this again, I was very scared that she was going to kidnap you.” As I controlled my laughter, I asked her what she did about the fear. “Oh I told Dad,” was the prompt reply, “But he said not to worry. Anyone who kidnaps mum will return her immediately!”

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The loving husband

We walked down the narrow road by the side of the gurgling stream. I told the hubby that I wasn’t sure where we’d land up but this looked like a nice walk. On one side was the pretty stream, on the other, the tall mountain whose side we’d driven up before turning back.

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On the other side of the stream were the prettiest houses one could imagine, small wooden chalet-like homes with gardens with beautiful flowers. They all had lovely wood carvings outside them. “What a place to live!” exclaimed the hubby.

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Small bridges crossed over the stream at regular intervals. Ducks quacked lazily in the teal blue waters. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. It was as if this place was only for us. A little ahead, the stream moved away and a large meadow  took its place. The bright green grass with little yellow and white wild flowers with the snow-capped mountains in the background made the grass-hating-me want to rush into the meadow and lay down in it.

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So totally a scene from the movie “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.” We ambled along, enjoying the atmosphere and it took a good 20 min to reach the start of the gorge from the main road. There was still no signboard, only a small hut selling snacks and drinks and a manned stile marking the entrance to the Wasserfallsteig (or waterfall), a small route that goes through the gorge up to a waterfall.

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The narrow entrance into the gorge

This is the only paid part of the route. We must have walked three minutes beyond the stile and the whole atmosphere changed. We left behind the bright sun and the distant snow-covered mountains and entered a new land.

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The view behind us just before we entered the gorge itself

Large cliffs loomed up vertically beside us. We were walking on a very narrow wooden path fixed to the cliff with a small railing to hold on to. Just below gushed the river that continued as the peaceful stream we had walked along.

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As we walked in deeper, the cliffs grew closer, the light lesser, the water wilder. Here, it was a wild, gushing, foaming mass of water, beautiful but wild. It crashed in the gorge, the foam rising up to wet us gently. It was a lovely sight, beautiful enough to distract me from the fear of walking on a pathway supported by screws drilled into the mountain.

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As we moved in deeper, a roaring sound could be heard. The spray of water was getting more powerful now. Our wooden pathway ended in a platform just in front of a roaring huge waterfall, drenching us and making us squeal with delight. 

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The only pictures taken here were from the hubby’s waterproof phone!

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Notice the bridge high above the waterfall

We had a blast in the gorge and left only because we got so wet. Once out, we met an adorable dog Flint, with a black patch covering half of his white face and played merrily with him. Then we surveyed the various routes available to hike the gorge from an elevation.

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The Leutascher Geisterklamm is a free walking trail, with impressive views from high up on metal walkways built above the gorge, a project costing 1.4 million euros. There are 2 trails here, a smaller blue trail and a very long red trail that heads into Austria.

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No prizes for guessing which one we took. We asked the man at the café how to start the blue trail and he advised us to go to the right, climb up till the elevated walkways, cross the panorama bridge and come down through the forest (anticlockwise in the above map).

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We had already walked within the gorge along the green trail. Now we wanted to see it from above and cross the Panorama bridge over the river

The smarter kid noticed that all the people were taking the route in a clockwise fashion and that we were the only ones on this route, but I persisted with it because it looked shorter on the map.

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The trek started out innocuously enough, in a deeply forested area, and  we walked along quite peacefully for 5 minutes. And then began a series of steep switchbacks, going higher and higher, very rapidly.

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In retrospect, we realised that we hadn’t accounted for the map being a 2-dimensional structure, and we saw the map with the height elevation later on during the hike. The short appearing curves were the steep switchbacks actually.

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We huffed and puffed our way up. The climb was never-ending. There were no railings or steps to make it easier, only a few benches for exhausted people to sit on and some entertaining stories about goblins and spirits and how the mountains, continents and the gorge were formed.

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I struggled up the steep path

The infinitely smarter kid kept insisting that we should head back down and take the route that the rest of the world was on. But it seemed to be even tougher to climb back down those steep slopes than up, so we persisted.

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The hubby and kid climbed up the shorter steeper rough sections in the middle

To make it more fun for her (and because he likes living dangerously at times) the hubby made her scramble up rough paths to the next level instead of walking up the gravel one. By now we were so high up that the snow-covered mountains in the distance appeared to be at our level, but I was too exhausted to even click photographs.

But now the path had started levelling out. We could hear the sound of water so we understood that we were nearing the gorge. Suddenly, the kid perked up and cheerfully moved ahead, like a different person. The hubby ran to keep up with her. The clumsy, out-of-breath-me simply plodded on, unable to run, when she ran back, face all flushed, shouting excitedly, “Come fast mum, it’s amazing.”

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We were at the top of a metal staircase that ended in a bridge to the opposite side. It was truly a wondrous sight. I climbed down cautiously and stared in amazement, while my nimble mountain goat swiftly clambered down and rushed over the bridge to the opposite side. 

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The insanely high suspended panorama bridge over the Leutascher Ache river

“Don’t panic,” I told myself, “Breathe, you will get across.” I am petrified of heights. The wire mesh grate below our feet didn’t help matters. But this trip was about facing my fears and this fear I had to.

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Terrified moi gripping onto the railings

“Come on, cross the panorama bridge, it’s awesome,” hollered the hubby as he merrily hopped on to the bridge. My knuckles white as I gripped the railings, I slowly and cautiously walked towards the bridge that crossed from one cliff-face to the other.

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“Face your fears. You are not scared. You are not going to fall. This structure is not going to crash,” I kept saying this to myself as I tottered over the panorama bridge. “Look down,” urged the hubby. Face-your-fears urged me as I looked down and promptly felt everything sway.

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The view below our feet, picture courtesy the hubby

I rushed back to my side of the cliff and started walking on the metal walkways ahead, trying not to look down at all, just straight ahead.

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Standing on the metal walkway screwed into the cliff

I grew a bit bolder as I walked along and could actually take pictures of the bridge that was now at the same level as me.

 

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Meanwhile the fearless duo on the bridge had a blast clicking the river and the waterfall below.

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The walkway I was standing on was drilled into the limestone cliffs 75 meters above the level of the waters, but it seemed even higher when I was on it.

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What a marvel of engineering! The bridges and the large walkways had to be dropped here by helicopter, but I am still amazed by how they drilled those metal walkways into the cliff. This path extends further into Austria for another kilometer. I would have continued on it when the hubby and kid who’d already crossed over yelled out a happy “Bye” and disappeared out of sight. I gathered my wits and almost ran across the bridge out of fear of being left alone, pausing once to take this picture.

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I did it! I faced my fears! I looked down and crossed the bridge all by myself!

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Once we were all on more stable land, we continued on the longer route through the forest that I was sure would be less steep. The kid, however, wanted a crane to rescue her! As we walked on, we met Flint again.

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Now that we knew we’d reach down soon, we moved on faster. The route was through very dense forest area and a little scary too as there was no one to be seen here.

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Every now and then, some board about the spirits would pop up, else the well-worn path was the only indicator that we were on the right path. Shortly, we came upon these two poles, marking the boundary between Austrian territory (yellow and red) and German land (blue and white).

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Suddenly we came out of the covered area into bright sunshine and saw a stunning view indeed and a restaurant. “Finally we have come upon civilisation ,” I thought.

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The sunlight (and civilisation) didn’t last for long though. We promptly entered another deeply forested area with a gentle but very rocky path, that I struggled walking over despite my hiking shoes.

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Finally, we got off the trail and were back out of the gorge area. It had been a wonderful albeit scary walk and I felt very proud of myself. I walked happily back to the car, a new spring in my step.

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We drove towards Austria, my obsession with the toll sticker reaching a peak. I was desperate for a gas station before we entered Austria. “Relax, we’ll get it at the border,” said the hubby. “There’s no border,” I said, googling gas stations desperately now. But there was no need. Less than 100 meters ahead was a gas station with a big board advertising the vignette. Vignette obtained, we drove on and found ourselves in Austria (no border) and said a temporary Auf Wiedersehen to Germany.