Austria… What did that word conjure up? A small topography-laden blip of a once great empire? A poor man’s Bavaria? A county of bonkers hikers attacking the Alps in shorts and sturdy boots filled with fat socks? In truth Austria was one of those places I definitely knew without knowing.
Like Kenya or Japan, Cuba or Canada; a country whose name was so well-known and evocative but wasn’t half as visited as it should be. At least outside its main two cities Salzburg and Vienna.
What I found was a truly magical little country which was both markedly different and rather similar to its bigger neighbour. A place where my limited German got me where I needed to go, but where the Austrian spirit still shone brightly through.
Amid the calls of the schnitzel and strudel, my friend Steve and I continued our road-trip eastwards and were deposited under fluffy grey clouds that spat frost into Salzburg.
Salzburg is a man and that man is Mozart. The classical genius’ mark is all over the city. His birthplace, his faded bronze statue, ‘his’ little marzipan cookies that look out at you from every other shop begging the tourist to come and buy them and think they’re getting something the locals actually eat.
It is a truly beautiful little city; compact and slung along the Salzach River between castle-topped hills that were still dusted with the white of winter. From the Kapuzinerkloster, hiding behind its private turreted walls in its quiet woods, one can make out the majestic jumble of the old town. Domes and massive churches bulging out over muted pastels and backed by the medieval fortress and then the geological fortress of the Alps. It manages to be grandiose and cutesy at the same time. The elegance and ecclesiastical flourish of a Paris or St Petersburg with the careful and calm air of a Cambridge or Bath.
Its castle added a sense of the fortress-town to it, and we were lucky enough to have trudged up the steep hill near closing and found the whole structure open, un-staffed, unpopulated and free to enter. Almost as fine as the building itself, were the views out.
Despite the castle, this is not a city to feel old in. Not Rome, not Athens, not Santiago de Compostela. Salzburg is a place to have coffee and cake in the footsteps of great poets, musicians, thinkers, writers. An 18th-century fondue of art and education, promenades and coffee houses, restaurants and fine shops. A moneyed place that I wanted to eat in and a city that had a secret bohemian spirit.
220 Grad - coffee
A brief mention to this bar for the sheer quality of its coffee. Most coffee in Austria is actually pretty bad. Not in a quality sense, but coming from Spain, which leans towards the strength of Italian coffees, the Austrian coffee often was rather tasteless, milky and lacked the caffeine slap in the chops. 220 Grad is modern, cool, run by fairly attractive young people, and served various African and South American coffees.
Café Tomaselli - Apfelstrudel
I didn’t want my first Apfelstrudel to be from here but at a loss of finding another apt location on a freezing early morning just-got-off-the-bus cake exploration, we buckled and headed here. Tomaselli is very much the Botín of cafes. For over 150 years the Tomaselli family has been running this grand old matron of wooden beams and be-shirted waiters rushing about as the hordes of multi-coloured wind-cheaters passed in and out with their clicking cameras. Old newspapers in wooden slats hung at the sides for the well-heeled locals to read over their hot coffees, though I wondered how they viewed the place now.
We ordered a couple of espressos with a side of milk - we really needed waking up - and from a separate waitress ordered a couple of slices of Apfelstrudel that she extricated from a vast cooler of fancy-looking desserts and diabetes-inducing cakes.
It came, dusted with icing sugar, a flat and flaky casing of pastry generously stuffed with slices of crisp apples stewed with raisins. It was not life-changing, but it was a needed-fix from a necessary tourist stop.
Innergebirg - wines, with cured meats and cheese
One of my missions was to discover more about Austrian wines, which unsurprisingly don’t export that well to Spain. We stumbled upon this bar by sheer accident, having come down the hill from a view-finding walk, we realised rather quickly that we had not packed correctly for Austria in Spring. Frozen stiff we saw a bizarre word with the word ‘wein’ underneath. That was enough.
Innergebirg was a modern bar built into the side of a hill. The guy running it told us the name meant something along the lines of ‘into the hillside’. But inside you’d just think you were in a cosy tavern.
Bernie became our new best friend and star of Salzburg. An exuberant young guy, clearly knowledgable and excitable but also bored by the lack of business his quiet side of the river. It was cold, it wasn’t quite lunch time and his bar wasn’t peddling Mozart.
We picked his brain about wines and we tried a lot: Grüner Veltiner, the crispy superstar white wine, was followed by the reds Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. He was clearly happy to have interested and booze-hungry visitors. He shared on-the-house homemade schnapps with us and let us try some cured salami and local cheeses too. We went back twice more during our stay.
Die Weisse - Cordon Bleu
After the many cold kilometres of the day, dinner was taken near to our accommodation; again away from the old town centre. Die Weisse was a no-frills modern version of a beer hall. They brew their own quite tasty wheat beer and serve classic and hearty dishes.
Well-lit, friendly, slightly forgettable but utterly functional.
I opted for a Cordon Bleu: a variation on the Schnitzel. In fact, it is a Schnitzel, but stuffed with cheese and ham. So, in short, it is quite simply a better Schnitzel. This was served with some lovely boiled potatoes tossed in butter and parsley and a little pot of some fruit compote.
Augustiner Braü - Cured Bratwurst, Käsewurst (cheese-filled sausage), smoked cheese, black bread, Liptauer
On our last night in Salzburg we unearthed, at the far end of the old town, the Munich-like boisterous Austrian beer hall I had been hoping to find.
Augustiner Braü dates from 1621 and is the largest in Austria…physically it’s massive. 5000 metres squared. Various halls, big, dark wooden ones, were interconnected with fairly handsome tunnels and arcades. Said arcades were full of delicatessen stalls to resemble a marketplace. Buy your food, head to a table and set up shop.
And the beer? Well, you just headed to one of the many shelves, picked yourself up a giant stone stein then walked over to the beer dispenser. Pay the size of your jug, hand it over, and a man with a barrel and a pump fills you up.
We heard that it was cheaper to take your own food to this indoor beerhall picnic where smoking was allowed and dogs could come in. We brought cured and smoked meats and cheese, and a pot of Liptauer (Austria’s answer to Germany’s Obatzda, a cheesy paprika spread).
After our fill we ate those underwhelming Mozart cookies as we strolled, drunk and gassy, back through snow-covered streets and under a silent falling sheet of white to our BnB and thought that Salzburg was quite one of the most lovely places in all of Europe.
A brief mention of Hallstatt is in order for a) it is unprecedented in its beauty and b) it was an almost complete gastro-failure.
Hallstatt is an isolated lakeside UNESCO village of timber houses and stone spires with pointy roofs completely encircled by peaks. It is, quite simply, perfect in its visual execution. However, it is also sparsely littered with very expensive restaurants and is almost comically overrun by Asian tourists from Japan and China. The ‘Asian Invasion’ as Bernie had sadly quipped. Busloads.
But given the weather, crippling cold and the season, it apparently could have been a lot worse.
Struggling to find sustenance we opted for a silly option that drew bemused looks from the other tourists.
Karmez Kebap Cart - Bosna
Near the quay for the little boat that ferries the visitor from village to train station across the lake, we found Karmez Kebap Cart - a kebab and chips stand that also served a favourite Austrian snack that we had been told to look out for: a Bosna - a big old sausage served in a soft panini-style roll with sweet mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. We ordered two ice cold bottles of beer just to logically top off an already ridiculous scenario. I think we shivered all the way back to Salzburg.