The hills are alive… taken from the train
We were off to visit Salzburg! But not by boat, or even by bus. We’re back to Imperial opulence. The President of the USA has Airforce 1: Emperor Franz Joseph had the Majestic Imperator, a special train for carrying him and his entourage. The train has been restored (read all about it here), and we would be riding it to Salzburg, and from there on to Passau in Germany, where we’d get back on our riverboat which would cover the distance on the river while we were away.
As usual, we divided into factions and boarded a bus to take us to the Linz railway station, which was busy. It was important to keep that coloured lollipop in sight as we made our way via stairs, escalators and underpasses to the train. There were four carriages, one for each faction, and each one was quite different in décor and purpose. Staff offered us drinks (wine, tea, coffee) and little nibbles as we travelled through the countryside. They actually cooked croissants on the train – not microwaved. They were absolutely delicious, the best croissant I’ve ever eaten. Then we visited the other carriages to get a feel for the resplendent whole.
Unfortunately, the weather was foggy so we couldn’t see much outside until we reached a higher altitude. And there were the mountains. Our guide was already filling our heads with the sound of music. He claimed to be a die-hard fan and promised us snippets about locations etc from the 1964 movie. Oh joy. Apart from the Sound of Music, Salzburg’s biggest claim to fame is that Mozart was born here. I’ll leave you to read all about Salzburg here.
You’ll be surprised to learn that there are castles on crags and an old city with cobblestoned streets, and a row of horses and carriages offering scenic tours. It also has a lot of churches and their clocks are not quite in synch. We were on our walking tour at noon and the noise of all those bells was deafening.
I have to tell you that my very first teenage crush was Captain von Trapp in the Sound of Music. I was 13 or 14. But I’m a lot older now, and frankly, I couldn’t care less about where the movie was filmed, or the lane Maria danced up singing I have confidence in me. And I sure as hell wasn’t the only one. I don’t think it was just our guide, though. Everybody got the same spiel, so there must be some people in the world still obsessed with the film, and the tour guides are instructed to make it part of their patter. I will share one thing I thought was pretty funny. Remember at the end of the movie they all escape up into the mountains to get away from the Nazis? The guide pointed out if they’d kept going they would have ended up in Hitler’s backyard at Berchtesgaden. The reality was much more prosaic – they caught a train to Italy.
Our little gang of six had lunch in an olde worlde pub (sausages and sauerkraut for most of us) then wandered across the square to what was claimed to be the oldest restaurant in town for dessert. You can’t leave Austria without having apfel strudel, can you? This place had the weirdest setup for ordering. One waiter offered coffee, somebody else offered cakes – but they wanted paying separately, as if they were two franchises using the restaurant. The apfel strudel was disappointing, mainly because of the pastry, which was stodgy. Some things are simply better eaten fresh.
And then it was back to the train for the journey to Passau. To our surprise the platform where the train waited was being patrolled by a veritable phalanx of armed police. This wasn’t so much to make sure we left as to ensure nobody uninvited left with us. Austria has its share of people trying to reach Germany, and the train was taking us over the border. A small dose of World Reality even before the Paris massacre.
Train travel in the dark is boring, because you can’t see anything outside. But to wile away the hours a group of young performers in costume went from carriage to carriage singing arias from Mozart’s operettas. And there was wine and beer.
That narrow escape I mentioned? No that wasn’t the train. The water level in the Danube was dropping every day. Any boat needs enough water under its keel to keep moving and Captain Zoltan was a worried man. Just ahead was the part of the river where a ship was most likely to be trapped, so he made the decision to make a run for it. He jettisoned what he could – mainly 200,000 litres of fresh water – and headed up river. This meant that when we reached Passau in the train we had to transfer to coaches to the next port. As soon as we were all on board, the Amavenita set off again. I asked Cherie what would have happened if the ship had to stop. Sh said another ship would be brought into service further up the river, and we would all be transferred by bus. It sounded like a logistical nightmare to me, but she said it was always a contingency plan – and it worked. I’m glad we managed to avoid it, though. Mind you, it was close. During the night we were woken by the rattle of rocks on the hull. In parts of that dash upstream the Amavenita only had 15-25cm of water under her keel. The captain and his crew did a wonderful job.