Friday, October 31, 2008

The Advantage of a 3-Day Workweek

For anyone looking for the perfect long weekend excursion from Graz, I can highly recommend a quick trip through Salzburg and Munich. Salzburg is about 4 hours from Graz by train, but it's pretty easy to get there, with direct trains leaving every couple hours. As Austria's fourth-largest city (behind Vienna, Graz, and Linz), this UNESCO world heritage site boasts one of the best-preserved Old Towns this side of the Alps...not to mention that it embodies pretty much anything Americans think of when they think of Austria: the Alps, Mozart, and The Sound of Music. Only a short 150 km hop away is the Bavarian capital of Munich, reachable by a most affordable €29 Bavaria Ticket, on which up to 5 people can travel quite economically. Though Munich's big-city population of 1.3 million inhabitants dwarfs Salzburg's 150,000, it's the cheaper of the two cities by far. With no lack of cultural events or big-city pleasures, a perfunctory 2 days in Munich is just enough to whet the palette till a return trip.

Leaving Graz right after school on Wednesday afternoon, I arrived in Salzburg and met up with my travel buddy around dinnertime. It was already dark and we were starving, so we decided to save the sightseeing for the morning.

Our main goal for Thursday was to visit the salt mines. Salzburg, literally "Salt Castle," has been a locus of the salt industry since the Celts, some of whom are still around today, preserved in salt in collapsed mine shafts. Having read the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky this past summer, I was already familiar with the history of the region and intrigued with getting a closer look for myself. Our super-helpful guesthouse owner booked us on an afternoon tour of the Berchtesgaden Salt Mines just over the border in Germany, and we spent the morning exploring the Old Town of Salzburg. It didn't take long for my Sound of Music fever to set in, however, as we wandered around Maria von Trapp's (a.k.a. Julie Andrews') old stomping grounds. This is one of the few exceptions I take to being a shameless American tourist: to the shock (and disappointment) of my Austrian colleagues, I really do love The Sound of Music, and my enthusiasm tumbled out in the form of, "Oh! This is where they sang Do Re Mi!" or, "This is the cemetery where they hid from the Nazis until that sellout Rolf found them!" As we weren't taking the Sound of Music Tour, this was my form of release.

After a massive cheese and bacon pretzel for lunch, we boarded the van to the salt mines. It was an interesting trip out, passing little villages and even Hitler's mountaintop retreat, the Eagle's Nest. When we arrived at the mines, we donned a large jumpsuit that all visitors are required to wear into the mine and rode a little train through the dark and twisting tunnels deep into the mine. Once we reached a large, cavernous hall, the guide explained how the mines have been in operation since 1517 and are still in operation today--an impressive history. To save time and descend further into the mine, the visitors, like the miners of old, straddle a wooden slide and whoosh 40 m down into the next level of tunnels. During the tour we learned how salt is and was mined, learned about the qualities of salt and its uses, and crossed an underwater lake of salty brine on a flat boat. It was a great hands-on aproach to the salt mining industry, and a fascinating must for any visitor to the area.

We arrived back in Salzburg just in time for a classical guitar concert by the students of the Mozarteum, the Julliard of Austria. But we were in luck and the musical enjoyment of the evening didn't stop there--it was quite the musical weekend in Salzburg, with an extensive Jazz Fest throughout the city. Since there was no cover charge for any of the bands, we went jazz-hopping and saw about 3 or 4 great bands before turning in.

Friday was to be our castle day. Salzburg certainly has its fair share of castles and fortresses, so our first stop was at the Schloss Mirabell (Mirabell Palace), where a little more Julie-Andrews-wannabe singing and dancing was in order. Leaving the Schloss Mirabell, we took a tour of Mozart's residence before heading up to the big Salzburg fortress on the hill. This fortress, much like Graz's own Schlossberg, was impenetrable for centuries (since its original foundations were built in 1077 to be exact) until forced to surrender when Napolean came into town--again, not because he actually defeated the fortress, but because the rest of Austria fell. Shame. It's the kind of place where you can expect to spend the better part of a day looking through the museum, taking tours, and simply exploring the fortress and the hill--well worth the small entrance fee!

Friday night we took the train up to Munich, realizing upon our arrival that we'd barely eaten anything all day. And what better way to rest your weary feet and fill your empty stomach than to visit the world's most famous beer garden, the Hofbräuhaus? The visitor is greeted with a mural above the entrance to the beer hall proclaiming, "Durst ist schlimmer als Heimweh"--Thirst is worse than homesickness. Taking these words to heart, we elbowed through the crowd, managing to find an elusive couple of free seats at a long table and ordered sausage and beer from our lederhosen-clad server as the oompah band tooted out a tune in the corner. Soon our beers arrived in the classic Munich Maß, or one-liter beer stein. (This is actually the equivalent of only 2 German beers, but it looks much more impressive in a Maß.) Having this stereotypical yet necessary visit to the Hofbräuhaus out of the way, we were free to eat wherever we liked for the rest of the trip.

Saturday was an unusual combination of attractions, which sound bizarre when simpy listed off: the Potato Museum, followed by the Dachau concentratin camp, and finally an evening of swing dancing. I'd come across the Potato Museum as I was searching for tourist attractions in Munich; having been there briefly 5 years before, I had left with the impression that Munich was a mediocre city with no particular draw. Curious, and wanting to give Munich another chance, I found a list of classic and not-so-classic tourist attractions, including the Potato Museum. And it was free admission. Having visited the Coffee Museum last year in Zurich, I was all about the small and random museums--it had given a great historical, cultural, and artistic overview of coffee, and at the end we got all the free coffee we could drink. (N.b.: Not to be abused. Man, that was a jittery afternoon!) Would the Potato Museum give us all-you-can-eat potatoes?? Fortunately my friend was up for a little starchy adventure, and we made our way over to the world-famous Potato Museum. But wait--how can the Potato Museum be world famous, you ask...well, it was conveniently located in the same building as the Guatemalan Consulate. Need I say more?... Much like the coffee museum, we learned about the history of potatoes over the world, their uses, and their influence in diets the world over. But alas, no potato tastings!

About a half an hour outside of Munich is the Dachau concentration camp, located in the town of the same name. Dachau bears the distinction of being the only concentration camp in operation for all 12 years of the Third Reich, a model and a training ground for all others to come. It was primarily a work camp, as opposed to the extermination camps of Eastern Europe, but an estimated 25,000 prisoners are believed to have died within its walls. Our tour was informative and sensitive, and although it makes for a downer of an afternoon, I feel that a visit to a concentration camp is a must if you are in the area and have never visited one before--to honor the memory of those who suffered and learn from the past.

After Dachau we grabbed a beer--probably one of the best things you can do to detox from an afternoon like that--and then went out later that evening to see the Roaring Zucchinis, a swing band playing in a local jazz bar. It was the first time I'd been swing dancing in over a year, and it felt GOOD. I was glad to have my dance partner back, and glad that it all came rushing back quite easily. The highlight of the evening was when an 80-year-old German man--and incredible dancer who was dancing the fast songs I didn't even want to try--leaned in and said to me (in English), "You dance quite nice, baby!"

Sunday was our last day in Munich, and we decided to take a 3-hour walking tour of the downtown area with Free Tours, which is exactly what it sounds like: free tours! (They've got a series of city tours set up in quite a few major European cities, and now I am a total fan.) Our Aussie guide, overzealously dressed in lederhosen he'd spent too much on for Oktoberfest one year and then never wore again until he realized it'd be perfect for the tourists, gave amusing and comprehensive explainations of the city's history and sights--and by the time the tour was over, I was completely sold on Munich. Wondering how I escaped from Munich 5 years ago with no impressions at all, whether good or bad, I now had such an appreciation for the city and regretted I didn't have more time to spend there before going home!

Leaving Munich for Graz on Sunday afternoon, I reflected on the weekend well-spent. It was just the right amount of time with just the right--and delightfully varied--amount of activities...the perfect mini-break.

Two more spots to tick off my list.

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