Author Topic: Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg  (Read 1741 times)

Jubal

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Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg
« on: April 25, 2018, 09:57:02 AM »
Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg


A two and a half hour train ride from Westbahnhof station brought me to Salzburg – or Saltcastle, as I sometimes amuse myself by imagining its anglicisation. Despite having a name that translates to something one can imagine as a dreary part of the coast somewhere near Hull, Salzburg undeniably has a certain mystique in world culture – as the home of Mozart, as the great prince-Bishopric  that at times rivalled Austria itself in size and power, as a city whose name we learn as if it screamed “high culture” in the sound of violins from its every doorway.


The view from my AirBnB!
The first impression one gets of the city from its rail station (Hauptbahnhof) is a little less grandiose. The north of the city has only been settled in the past century or so, having previously been bog and wetland lying beyond the (now largely removed) early modern bastion walls of the heavily fortified town. I stayed here, at an Airbnb – which had the advantage of being high up a block of flats, and thus offering (via its breakfast room, shared with the owners) a tenth floor panorama of Salzburg looking south towards the castle. This was my first view up the Salzach river towards the old town, and it’s a breathtaking sight. The castle, white-walled, still maintains an imposing presence high above the huge cupolas of the old town’s great churches and palaces below.

The Salzach itself was long the city’s lifeblood, a pulsing trading vein that carried the ample salt reserves of the region downstream to Germany and far beyond. Mining – salt or otherwise – produced the funds that grew this city, and it is said that the salt-boats were solely manned by those unable to swim, in order to ensure they kept their cargo safe. Even with its modern associations of music and dance, Salzburg grew to reflect the very harsh realities of power in the prosaic, power-driven way that cities often do. Archbishops worked with aggressive nepotism, forging and destroying and rebuilding webs complex alliances triangulating between Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, Bohemia, the Emperors and the Pope. The successful turned the river’s wealth into stronger walls and greater churches. Others found themselves imprisoned in their own castle, or with enraged and slighted enemies burning parts of their city to the ground.

 The modern river was largely free of boats beyond a single cruiser, and instead mainly played host to mallard, black-headed gulls, and swans, and surprisingly a solitary mandarin duck, a far eastern introduction from recent centuries and now not an uncommon sight in Britain or the Netherlands but rare in central Europe. Along its banks, the modern life of the city; the fast-flowing waters may be grey and choppy, but it is still to the Salzach’s banks that the city’s youth come to relax. Walking down the tree-lined riverside path was to pass a kaleidoscope of punks, runners, dog-walkers, families, bundles of teenagers and happy young couples; in one place a couple of battered sofas had even been dragged out to the banks for their owners to recline on whilst smoking. Like Vienna, the grandeur of old Salzburg has in places breathed out to leave a backdrop for modern life to go on.



The view over the Salzach.
Turning a bend in the river, one passes unmarked where the boundaries of the pre-1900 city might have been. Here the taller, older buildings start reflecting a world the later prince-Bishops, their power waning in the eighteenth century even as Salzburg reached new cultural heights and bore its most famous son, might have recognised. On the southwest side of the river the Mirabell Gardens present one of the nicest examples of the highly formal style that seems to generally dominate Austria’s publicly accessible gardens and urban green spaces. The Schloss Mirabell was the summer residence of the bishops – it was drizzling when I visited, passing an indefatigably hopeful-looking ice cream salesman on my way in, but it was interesting to note some of the features, including an outdoor theatre with rounded hedge walls and complete with a small orchestral pit. A greenhouse with a small aviary revealed a crowd of lovebirds, their colours feeling almost anarchic compared to the carefully trimmed lawns, fountains, and tree lines outside.

From the Schloss Mirabell, crossing a bridge covered in padlocks, a modern gazetteer of couples  visiting the city, brings one to the old town. No longer the salt capital it once was, today’s Salzburg has long, long since grasped its new market: there is no need to sell Salzburg’s goods to the world when the world will happily come to Salzburg. Few places I have ever been have been so carefully, energetically, and efficiently geared to tourists: every space a shop could be, there a shop has been placed, plus market stalls in the squares (I will admit that the “schnitzel in a roll” turned out to be surprisingly good). Even with large building works and restoration going on in parts of the old town the volume of tourists was simply vast, and the catering for them thoroughly multilingual; the degree of English-language signage was higher than for equivalent parts of Vienna.



Salzburg cathedral.
The architecture of the old town remains unchanged even as its business model is shifted, streamlined and adapted for a new age. Small covered archways and tunnels link up narrow, high-walled streets in a warren-like structure that, even with only a little practice, one can use quite effectively to duck around the human roadblocks that will inevitably happen on occasion. This maze-like quality gives a certain feeling of fun to moving around the old town and its courtyards, restaurants, and tourist shops. Occasionally, of course, the warren suddenly opens into the light – the great squares of the middle of the city are not all filled with market stalls, and often provide the space for the real showpieces of Salzburg’s architecture to loom, whether out of gloom or sunshine, in sudden majesty above the unwary traveller.

The central cathedral is the largest of these ecclesiastical power-shows, and the three platzes around it are empty to give it the maximum chance to impose itself on viewers. Its huge early modern front is the most impressive side, and the seventeenth/eighteenth century style is very common across the city’s central areas. Partly through its less than sedate past, partly through energetic phases of building, there is relatively little of a medieval era look remaining around the centre of the city. It is cupolas rather than spires and white and gold rather than bare stone that are the hallmarks of Salzburg’s style. I only went inside one of the churches – a reminder of just how different they are to the Anglican ones I grew up around. The levels of paint, gold, and colour are dazzling – to my eyes, too much so, especially the paintings, such that the eye almost loses focus, overwhelmed by the quantity and scale of the art to the point where one perhaps loses some of the scale and power of the architecture itself. The full artistic might of an old Catholic church is nonetheless quite something to behold, and the tourists filing through square by square, often huddled to try and stay with their group leader like a migration of penguins, no doubt still felt (as I did) suitably dwarfed by their surroundings.

Salzburg’s slick tourist-filled present has not allowed it to escape prosaic human reality, though. The state elections were approaching, and the city was lined with billboards for the state’s OVP and SPO leaders; out on the streets, beggars at most street corners, their faces more or less prematurely aged, were I suspect the aftermath of failures in supporting new arrivals from the Balkan route. Some seemed relaxed, one old woman clapping along with a wide grin to some nearby buskers, but many seemed tired more than anything. On the road up to the castle, close I think in age to the relaxing punks on the waterside, was a girl huddled in a headscarf, curled up in exhaustion. I will never know by what roads she came to that place, or what will happen to her now. But the two slate-coloured eyes, old beyond their years, will stay with me as one of my enduring memories of Salzburg. Cities, after all, are human, are political, by nature; the architecture and the stories of Salzburg are a fabric woven through centuries by those who lived and died in the city. What tales will they tell in future – of the failures of European councils to distribute refugees more evenly, of governments preaching integration and practising segregation, and of the humans and human costs of that? What will we remember, and what will we forget?

Salzburg castle, white-walled, built piece by piece by generations of Salzburg’s archbishops – a role more for politicians than clerics – was my treat for the last day of the trip. A funicular railway carries one up to the castle, from which several terraces and galleries (some studded with fixed cannon and mortars, others with café tables and chairs) offer stunning views of the city on one side and the mountains on the other respectively. Both views are honestly breathtaking panoramas. To the south of Salzburg, the mountains offer a dramatic backdrop – rolling, snow-capped, with a flat green valley below. To the north of course lies the city, nestled between two hills; the roofscape of domes and spires, with the river slicing through the middle, is the centrepiece – and the cathedral more so than ever – with older walls and monastic buildings up the hills on either side.



A part of Salzburg castle, looking in from the walls.
The castle itself was undergoing a good deal of restoration work while I was there; the main courtyard was a mess of building equipment, and most of the food serving locations seemed to be shut. There were nonetheless all the main attractions – the castle’s museum, its audio-tour which leads up one tower and along a walkway section, and the state rooms. The museum and tour were much what one might expect, cataloguing the successive stages of building and the fates of the various rulers of Salzburg – one dying imprisoned in their own castle here, one facing down the Peasants’ War there, and so on. The castle is impressive in its scale, and the museum is easy to get disoriented in; rather little space was given to the medieval, and rather a lot to the modern regimental, history of the castle, I felt, but there was a fair quantity of both. The selection was interesting – a pottery model of the castle that reminded me oddly of Trumpton, a 15th century culverin, stucco from one of the oldest castle chapels (recently re-excavated), and many more items that built up scattered tesserae in the many-panelled mental mosaic I was building of the castle’s history. The “audio tour” meanwhile is, and this was unclear from the signs, a tour of a specific tower and wall section otherwise inaccessible. It is worth doing, as with many things around Salzburg, for the views – on a less tourist-heavy day one might have been able to get a 360 degree panorama from the top of the tower, though in practice I found myself having to move several times for a group of girls (speaking a language neither German nor English, probably of the Slavic family though I find it hard to tell) to get their hair-billowing photographs neatly posed.


The state rooms of Leonhard von Keutschach.
The state rooms are, I would say, well worth the extra three and a half euros to see – even, as they sadly were, mid-restoration. These were the rooms of Leonhard von Keutschach, the last of Salzburg’s truly medieval-era rulers. They are preserved not far from the medieval style, though with a great deal of ongoing restoration work, much of it repairing older botched restorations. Huge, spiralling pillars and lavish gold-studded ceilings nonetheless manage to feel oddly homely when placed in settings dominated by wood rather than stone, and without the intricacies of later periods; this more medieval aesthetic is something I very much take to, and Keutschach’s rooms exemplify it well. One of Keutschach’s interesting quirks is his heraldic symbol – a turnip, probably a reference to his family’s farming heritage but apocryphally in response to a family member throwing one at him when he was a child. If the story is true, it certainly did his political skills no harm; he proved a brutally effective and uncompromising politician, nepotistic beyond belief and at one point going so far as to invite troublesome civic leaders to a banquet before imprisoning them by surprise. His skills as an economic manager translated well into the political realm: salt, gold, and silver from Salzburg flowed down the Salzach to fund his state rooms and more building works besides, a model of late medieval success.

Neither the castle visit, nor Salzburg’s blend of ecclesiastical and temporal power that built those great white walls, were to last forever. One of the final things to note around the castle was the bizarre spectacle of the marionette museum, which included some interesting posed vignettes of historical scenes from the area and some more recent computer animations beside them. Once I had finished looking around, the funicular railway beckoned again, and the pathway led me out through an amber jewellery shop – Salzburg’s enterprise proving once again boundless. I wandered around a nearby church building, considered looking at its catacombs, but then decided that I should be heading off; it had already been a long day. The downhill path took me past a familiar bundle of huddled rags – I put some money in her small plastic cup this time, gave an embarrassed nod in response to her thanks, and continued on my way, my heart no less burdened for giving a quarter of a sticking plaster to one person’s problems – but another night with food, or a place to sleep, is something more than nothing. The street beggars, like the city itself, have been carried and thrown on the waves of larger political tides. In the case of Salzburg, Napoleon’s advance forced the last of the prince-Archbishops to flee, and under French pressure the city was restructured into Austria as part of a wave of land-grabs that compensated the larger German princes for French annexations via a French plan that forcibly reincorporated hundreds of smaller principalities into their larger neighbours. Salzburg was passed around a few times but ultimately in 1816 ended up as part of the realm it shared most of its borders with – Austria.

My very last stop in the city was a shop that sold an impossibly vast array of hand-painted eggs – which my mother had heard were fairly common in various parts of central Europe and had suggested I look for. I picked three – one with a rough world map, one with a spring rabbit, and one simply patterned – and bought them. Carefully carrying my boxed-up haul, I headed up the river one last time towards the station, bought my ticket, and sat on the train’s upper deck watching the mountains go by. The city that lay ahead was the capital that had eventually gained dominion over Salzburg – a strangely fitting end to my journey through the city’s past and present.

Vienna, and home, beckoned.

« Last Edit: April 25, 2018, 11:40:34 AM by Jubal »
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Glaurung

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Re: Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg
« Reply #1 on: April 25, 2018, 10:58:02 AM »
Many thanks for this: very interesting to have someone else's view of a city that I first visited nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps worth moving to the Articles section?

One small editing point: the compass directions in the second paragraph seem to have got turned round. The Hbf is in the northern part of the city, and one heads south from it to the old city centre and the castle.

On a linguistic point, I think Salzburg might have ended up in English as "Saltbury" or "Saltborough" - I'm fairly sure modern German 'burg' is cognate with Old English 'burh', which has ended up as -bury or -borough in modern placenames.

Jubal

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Re: Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg
« Reply #2 on: April 25, 2018, 11:43:16 AM »
Hm, possibly, though I just didn't know if it fitted with the general theme of the Articles section, and was concerned it might a) be too personal in style and b) might touch on political stuff a bit much. Vulcanology I guess should be the arbiter there.

You're of course right about the directions, thanks for that (and thanks to Cara for pointing out a couple more errors I made).

And yes, I think Saltborough is closer to how it would have developed in English, I used "Saltcastle" partly because I like it more and partly because it maybe makes the original meaning of the etymology a bit clearer.
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comrade_general

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Re: Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg
« Reply #3 on: April 26, 2018, 11:46:42 AM »
Nice essay, ese.

Jubal

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Re: Gold and Salt: A Visit to Salzburg
« Reply #4 on: April 27, 2018, 09:36:02 PM »
Danke :)
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