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Highlights of Day One

Before my wife and I arrived at the Mirabell Gardens during the morning of our first day in the Old City, we came across an unexpected juxtaposition. We saw a building with a small sign for massage therapy and cosmetic surgery. Fastened next to the entrance wall was a graphic statue of the Crucifixion. As we soon experienced in Vienna, Catholicism, the major religion in Austria, is omnipresent in Salzburg as well.

The extensive grounds of the Mirabell Gardens contain thousands of exquisitely arranged blooming red and white flowers, not coincidentally the color of the Austrian flag. But what fascinated me the most was the gnome garden. Each statue fancifully showed a variety of highly individualized male and female dwarves. Whether you prefer hunters or homemakers, crabby or cute poses, these gnomes are a delight.

The afternoon highlight of day one in the Old City was the Salzburg Cathedral (The Dom). Its cavernous sanctuary rivals the largest ones in Vienna except for some extraordinary features: instead of just one iconic altarpiece, there were two more almost as ornate, an adjacent one in the right corner and an adjacent one in the left corner. Instead of having all of its 4000 organ pipes in one place, high above the entrance to the sanctuary, there were four more sets of pipes, each placed in its own imposing balustrade, two flanking the central altarpiece and two further back. Nonetheless, there is still a tremendous amount of unrivalled uncluttered space because the interior is not buttressed by the myriad of pillars that characterize so many of the Viennese churches.

One last distinction is the rococo decoration. Myriads of alabaster arabesques snake around the Salzburg cathedral’s sanctuary, from just above to floor to just beneath the dome. I have seen similar accoutrements in palaces, museums, and concert halls but never in any Viennese churches. 

The highlight of the evening of day one was a trio of street musicians, especially the clarinetist, located underneath one of the arches within the Dom square. We had heard that many of the summer performers throughout the city are excellent, but none of them could be as supercharged and talented as this one. The group played a variety of East European folk melodies, much of it in the rollicking Yiddish tradition (Klesmer style). While the bass and the accordion player were seated, the charismatic clarinetist entertained us as he roamed about the makeshift stage. During the liveliest pieces, he wiggled and wriggled. When the music occasionally toned down, he got meditative, momentarily entrancing himself and charming his audience: he played that clarinet as if it were another limb of his body.

Despite a couple of distractions (the stench of horse and buggy manure and the racket made when a worker later scraped up the mess, and the antiphonal clanging of church bells), my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our time with these impromptu street musicians. They were a fitting coda to our first-day experience in the Old City.



Exploring New Territory

The first day of our last week in Salzburg was quite an adventuresome walkathon. On our first lap, we traversed the Old City until we came to the lift that would take us to Monschberg, one of the mountains ringing the Alte Stadt.  My wife, with her unerring radar, readily located the lift.

When we got off, we began our journey by walking a good distance along some woods to reach the Schloss Monschberg, a castle converted into an award-winning five-star hotel. When I first came to Salzburg, I had wondered what it would be like to enter the stately orange-tiered mountain fortress that I saw every day from my apartment window. Now I got the chance.

The hotel is plush but not ostentatious. It has none of the elaborate baroque, renaissance, or rococo trimmings that dominate so many of the churches and municipal buildings in the Old City. I didn’t see any fancy chandeliers or allegorical sculptures or frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Accordingly, my wife and I felt very much at home inside and outside the hotel. No one asked us for any credentials as we roamed the premises, especially the picturesque terraces high above the teeming Old City. Without any fuss from the staff, I was able to read one of the English newspapers on the rack, my wife had a cappuccino in the outside café after I ate my daily peanut butter sandwich next to one of the benches on the terrace, and we both used the restrooms. We never felt like we were intruders. In fact, the Schloss Monschberg reminded me of the equally renowned, elegantly understated, and welcoming Kahala Hotel near Waikiki.

After our comfortable visit to the hotel, we wandered about the paved mountain paths close by.  One of the steep downhill sections was a dead end. Gratified that we had already absorbed a good dose of scenery from other vantage points, we climbed back up to the lift and returned to the Old City.

When we got back downtown, my wife suggested that we visit a synagogue on the other side of the Salz River. We had plenty of time, and we still had abundant stamina; so I agreed. Once across the bridge, we found a street that would lead us directly to the synagogue.  As we were walking, however, we took a detour.

My wife and I saw a long staircase beside which there was a sign for St. John’s Church. That particular church was not on our list of coming attractions, but my wife was determined to check it out. So we climbed up about one hundreds steps to the church. It was very small and pretty much unadorned, not camera worthy.

Ahead of us lay another long staircase. We had no idea where it led to, but a woman nearby informed us that if we continued, we would see a wonderful vista of the Old City. That settled it. Off we went, trudging up more hundred-or-so steps until we reached a lookout area amidst the original, once fortified medieval city wall.

We beheld a photo op bonanza. All of the Old City lay before us, with the Alps hovering in the background. We had never seen from any other angle or at any other height that particular profile so splendidly arrayed, so perfectly configured. It was uplifting, and we got there without a lift.

After we were done gawking and had finished taking pictures, we noticed that just above us was the Capuchin Monastery that, unlike St. John’s, was on our to-do list for the week. With a little more climbing, we entered the sanctuary. It was much more embellished than St. John’s, but it was much more humble than the extraordinarily extravagant Benedictine Abbey we had seen at Metz, outside of Vienna. What was remarkable, though, was a triangular tableau above the golden altarpiece. There stood elongated, paper thin figures of Jesus on the Cross, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, all of whom seemed to be delicately suspended in mid-air as if they were on a monastic mobile. In contrast, as we navigated down the steps to the street, we saw fleshed-out, life-sized, rock-solid statues of the Stations of the Cross strategically spaced along the way. The most graphic of them displayed a muscular Jesus hanging on the cross flanked by the two bloated thieves.

We finally made it to the street to continue our magnificently interrupted quest to find the synagogue. But there was one more detour, a brief one this time. We came across St. Sebastian’s Church. I remembered that it too was on our list, but I forgot what it was noted for. The simple church itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but it did have an extensive cemetery with various sized tombstones and decorative crosses on some of them. After a minute or two, we left. (Only after we got back to our apartment did I learn that Mozart’s wife, Constance, and his father, Leopold, were buried there.)

In any case, my wife and I methodically searched for the synagogue, tracing and retracing our steps along the streets that were supposed to intersect with it. But our efforts were in vain.  Either the synagogue was no longer there or perhaps it was purposely inconspicuous to pre-empt any anti-Semitic attacks. At this point in our wanderings, I wasn’t thinking very clearly; both of us were getting weary. But after a few espressos at a nearby café, we had enough energy to walk back to our apartment. Mercifully, there were no steps to climb, just a mile of a paved road delightfully shaded by trees.

In between all of our excursions, we stumbled upon the house where Silent Night was written, a dwelling located on one of the oldest cobblestoned streets in Salzburg, Steinstrassse.

Lists are fine, but being spontaneous is often exceptionally rewarding, as we discovered today.


Mozart’s Homes in Salzburg   

Last week, my wife and I visited Mozart’s second and last home (Wohnhaus) in Salzburg, also nicknamed “The Dancing Master’s” house, where he spent a decade before residing in Vienna for the last two years of his life. There was lots of information, but an inordinate amount of it didn’t focus on what I had expected. Instead of being exclusively devoted to Mozart himself, many of the exhibits and a good deal of the documentation related to his father, his sister, and some of his personal and professional friends, including the composer Gluck whom he greatly admired. Although there was coverage of Mozart’s career achievements, it was spread out in bits and pieces that at times I had trouble reading or couldn’t read at all. The layout was the culprit here. The walls were appropriately covered with portraits and other period paintings with side-by-side explanatory comments, but at times the bulky glass cases in front of the walls didn’t allow any room to get close enough to decipher either the German or the English print. Even if my whole body covered the glass, I still wouldn’t have been able to make out the letters. And even the writing within the glass cases was tough to read because of annoying little glaring beads of light attached underneath the front of the cases.

On the plus side, there were some rooms solely about Mozart. At the entrance was a screen presentation of Mozart’s extensive travels in Europe initiated by his father, journeys that Leopold Mozart was convinced were essential to enlighten and humanize his prodigy son. The last room had extensive information about how the “Mozart name” has been used for profit, and the one before it showed fraudulent portraits of Mozart throughout the years.  Overall, this museum was a disappointment.

This week, my wife and I toured Mozart’s birthplace (Geburtshaus) where he lived through his teenage years. While I was disappointed with the Wohnhaus, I was much fonder of The Geburtshaus.

First of all, everything printed in English was accessible; there were no obstructions or distractions. Secondly, all of the rooms either had Mozart memorabilia or material directly related to him. Occasionally, there was a reference to something mentioned in the Wohnhaus, but just about everything in the Geburtshaus was new to me. One item was especially hilarious. In a letter to his father, Mozart lists dozens of people to whom he sends his regards from ancient heroes to contemporary fops to imaginary people. Mozart tosses in some gibberish to liven up his parody of well wishing. Some items are endearing. For example, in a letter to his wife, he playfully recites all of his pet names for her and then buoyantly expresses his utmost devotion to her and the children. Some items were not very flattering. This anecdote shows how brash and exacting Mozart could be: According to one source, whenever Mozart, as pianist soloist in one of his concertos, heard a wrong note from the orchestra, he would stop the concert and reprimand the exact person who made the mistake.

Another thing that fascinated me and especially my wife was part of a room that allowed you on a computer to highlight samples of Mozart’s musical phrases and then simultaneously listen to them. You could move the cursor as fast or as slowly as you liked.

On another floor, everything was geared to Mozart’s operatic output. The room was a treasure trove. One area displayed detailed drawings of costumes—ranging from the mundane to the exotic—made just for Mozart’s leading singers. Another section contained pictures of highly original stage sets especially constructed for the first performances of Mozart’s operas.

Between the Wohnhaus and the Geburtshaus, my wife and I got an authentic glimpse of many facets of Mozart’s world. If I had to choose only one of the two houses to tour, I’d pick the Geburtshaus for sheer enjoyment. But I’d hate to rule out the Wohnhaus, just for the fact that Mozart lived there for most of his mature years when he created some of his greatest work.


Bookends to the Old City

We visited two churches today that deserve to be better represented in travel guides for Salzburg. During the past week, my wife and I, as we strolled to the Old City, had admired an imposing church (Mullner Kirche) perched on a hillside, but we had never bothered to climb up to see it. Because none of the travel websites ever mentioned this church, we had little interest in viewing it. But it was listed in one of the local panorama tour maps of Salzburg, so if we had time before leaving the city, we still could trek to it. Well, today we met a woman just as we approached the cutoff to Mullner Church. She said it would be a shame if we didn’t take the time to see how impressive that church was. Her recommendation motivated us to schlepp up to the church right away. And we were very glad we did.

As we climbed up the entrance stairway, we saw on both sides of the walls an array of framed paintings ever so reverently portraying—in appropriately muted colors—some of the protagonists of early Christianity. In the sanctuary, I was caught off guard; most of the statues and frescoes depicted the Virgin Mary. In fact, it was she, not the crucified or resurrected Jesus, who was the dominant figure in the middle of the altarpiece: she confidently held the infant Jesus in her hands. In the numerous church sanctuaries my wife and I have visited in Vienna and now in Salzburg, the Virgin Mary had always played a minor role. In the Mullner Church, she was the most prominent figure. The Catholic hierarchy in the Middle Ages frowned upon the Cult of the Virgin Mary. It looks like that adoration might well be alive and well in the Mullner Church.

After my wife and I saw one church that wasn’t but should have been touted as a main attraction in Salzburg, we went to another one, the Cajetan Church located in residential area abutting the Old City. It too was listed in the Salzburg panoramic tour map. In this church, the Virgin Mary had little devoted to her. The primary emphasis was angels. As in the Mullner Church, there were many obligatory representations of chubby baby angels flitting about. But in the Cajetan Church, no-nonsense adult angels predominate, particularly in the altarpiece where Jesus is portrayed in delicate brush strokes. Two big fiercely adoring stone angels flank the lower part of the altarpiece, and two equally fervent but more massive alabaster angels flank the upper part as if they are bodyguards. Jesus, who with one arm outstretched graciously offers a blessing to his followers, is the central figure in the altarpiece. But the formidable angels almost literally overshadow Jesus.

The Mullner Church, showcasing the Virgin Mary, and the Cajetan Church, displaying indomitable, larger than life angels, both have sanctuaries that deserve to be better promoted in Salzburg travel guides. Perhaps because these churches are not in the hub of the Old City, they get little coverage. These outposts of the Alte Stadt should not be outcasts. Let’s give them the acclaim that they deserve.



A Church to Remember

Before leaving Salzburg, I wanted to make sure I took some time to visit the Franciscan Church next to the Dom Square. I had once entered the sanctuary at the beginning of our stay but just for a few moments while my wife and I were getting oriented to the many must-see landmarks in the Old City. Today, after we attended a concert, I methodically browsed about the Church.

A good deal of the Franciscan Church is an anomaly. No paintings adorn any part of the spacious nave. The upper half of the sanctuary is completely bare stone. There are huge unstained, segmented gothic arches on either side of the aisle. On the bottom of the stone column to the right of the altarpiece is a discolored, faintly visible medieval painting. The floor is made out of old cobblestones. On the lower half of the walls are 10 enclaves that wrap around the back of the altarpiece and extend half way into the sanctuary. Each one contains a large central oil painting with equally large marble statues of saints and angels on either side of it and with small frescoes decked out in alabaster filigree filling up the rest of the space. The paintings and frescoes depict sacred and secular concerns—from the pronounced wounds of Christ on the Cross to a slightly bleeding cut on a nobleman’s left knee.

No other church in the Alte Stadt is arrayed like this. Of course, the Franciscan Church has some things in common with other Old City and outlying churches: the 12 Stations of the Cross, an altarpiece featuring the Madonna and Child, and a contingent of baby angels.

After two weeks in Salzburg, it’s been hard for me to distinguish one church from another. But I should give myself some slack. I’ve just recently been acquainted with dozens of Viennese churches during the first full month of our vacation. My recollections of one church begin to bleed into another one. Nonetheless, it will be hard to forget the gritty and the gaudy features of the Franciscan Church.


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