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From Austria, With Love

Did you ever wake up with that tingling excitement of doing something you really, really want to do instead of doing what you're "supposed" to do? On the eve of my 29th birthday I woke up with the intense desire to explore a new territory and not throw the usual party the next day. With no agenda or expectations on what to get out of such an impromptu trip, I booked my flights to Austria. On telling the parents and friends about the change in plans, their first question was the same: Who are you going with? When I said I was going on my own, their reactions were all very similar.  “Aren’t you scared?” “Will it be safe?” “Alone on your birthday? But why?” Contrary to popular belief, traveling solo is never about alienation. In fact, its about making friends with the world and ourselves. Did you know Native Americans travelled for centuries in order to commune with the world and ultimately discover their place within it?

From flatland to highlands - Off to the mountains!

Anyways, I arrived in Salzburg on a sunny Friday morning with just my backpack and no place to stay for the weekend. Planning wasn't on the agenda, so this trip was nothing but a scavenger hunt-on-the-go. Turns out, the city was celebrating 50 years of Sounds of Music and anything with sane price tag was gone. At this point of time in Salzburg mainstation, I had a choice to make : either spend the weekend at an exorbitant €200 a night hotel next to Salzach river, or pay €55 and broad a train in next 5 minutes inorder travel to the Dachstein region. It was known to be hikers paradise in summer. BÄÄÄM,  I'm sold! 

Approaching Hallstatt

So little under 3 hours with a train and bus combo, I finally reached the town of Hallstatt that comes with a spectacular package of glacier, mountains and lake. Now all I need is a place to crash for the night. Found a room in small family-run B & B for the night, where dinner  was served on a little balcony overlooking the lake. That was probably my quietest birthday ever, in a strange town with strange people enjoying nothing but the stillness I see in front of me. 



Next day morning I had an early start  to the nearby sleepy town of Obertraun for a Dachstein Nature trail. The weather was fairly good, so the people at the Talstation informed that the mountain walk will take overall 6 hours with just a medium difficulty level. But first, I had to visit the Eishoehle, a 500 year old ice cave. Whether you call it "Garsburg", "Parsivaldom" or "King Arthur's Cathedral" this was a fascinating formation of stone and ice. The 50 min guided tour felt like walking through magical wonderland of ice passages and huge halls with 25m thick ice ground. The amazing light installations there definitely added an eerie effect to the experience.  

Impressions from inside 500 year old Dachstein ice cave

With just a map and limited rations, I left the mountain station near the ice cave and started the onward journey to the top. And boy, the mountains can get tricky! The first three hours of walk was good, with me taking breaks in between for water and taking pictures. I didn't meet another hiker on the way and around midday I reached the first signpost near Heilbronner Kreuz, and thats when the weather started changing real fast and bad. On the signpost it was written that a 14 member school group got killed here in 1954 on a snowstorm. Wow, that piece of info didn't quite help me at that point of time because turning back was out of question due to visibility getting worse every minute with fog. With barely any phone network and nobody around, only horrific images from the movie 127 Hours flooded my mind. On the left side of my narrow trail was a deep abyss, the depth of which I couldn't perceive due to the fog, and then the wind started howling hard carrying flecks of ice from the top of the mountain. I had to hold onto whatever little vegetation I could, and not get blown off the mountain. Waiting there forever wasn't an option for me. So I walked on, taking no more than two steps at time and then waiting for the path to clear ahead a bit. Never in my life I felt this scared and excited at the same time! Living at the mercy of your own decisions is indeed exhilarating at times.


Between devil and deep abyss - tough choice to make at 2100m

I am glad I didn't listen to my fears then and continued till I reached Five Fingers. From heavy fog and wind, the weather miraculously cleared by the time I reached the peak.  And what a view from the top! I don't know how long I stayed there in silence - I finished my packed lunch and laid in the ground. It was so peaceful, like being in a meditative state of mind, not thinking of anything but simply soaking in the grandeur of the nature around me. It was like letting go of familiarity and trusting the unknown.  I was vulnerable and completely at the mercy of the nature, and that forced me to trust my own instincts and not go on autopilot mode instead. This experience in turn opened my heart to what was around me, and at the same time forced me to be alert. Vulnerability made me feel more alive.

Fortitudine Vincimus—by endurance we conquer

It was late afternoon by the time I made my decent from there. The mountains revealed another side of me and I was not entirely pleased. So I took the next train out of that region. Later that evening,  I reached the city of Salzburg which was filled with old world charm, spectacular architecture, connection to the Sound of Music and for being the birthplace of the world’s most prolific composer, Wolfgang Mozart. So after checking-in for the night at a backpacker's hostel, I did touristy stuff in the city the next day. Everything is ideal about the city- Ideally clean, ideally gray, severe, and ascetic as a monastic cell. While walking along Salzach river, I even pondered whether to write about Salzburg at all or not - everything was in such order that it made me suffocate. But then again one cannot blame the city which was ruled by bishops for too long - till the very 19th century. In my opinion, this fact left some kind of an imprint on the appearance of the city and its lifestyle, and that gray May day has significantly deepened such an impression. Churches, abbeys, and castles predominate the overall picture, you know what I mean? 

Even the great Mozart couldn't resist a McDonald's right in front of his birth house.

Interestingly, this monastic vibe of the city was also disliked by none other than her prodigal son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He found it too tight and stifling for his impulsive personality. That is totally understandable when you are one of the bishop’s servants, instead of being a famous musical genius. Oh, things were different in the times of Mozart.  The composer died in extreme poverty and was buried in one of the common graves for beggars. Nobody knows where the great Mozart lies. Irony is, the glory which never reached the composer during his life, still feeds many citizens of Salzburg. When the city got filled with tourists, the people of Salzburg started to order colorful packaging in the form of violins for all the local chocolate sweets and make signs with the inscription “Mozart” which could be seen in every shop window. Dark, isn't it? The story gets even better.

Premium quality chocolates dedicated to the man who probably died of hunger.

For centuries, Salzburg produced and sold salt, and later beer, but thanks to Mozart, today they have their own symbol/souvenir. They started to produce the original "Mozart" chocolates in 1890, and back then, the chocolate balls were wrapped in a silver-blue tinfoil rather than a golden red. The café-confectionery FÜRST is still in business. Now it is owned by the grandchild of the man who created the famous “Salzburger Mozartkugel,” a round chocolate candy with a bit of marzipan inside and a picture of Mozart on the tinfoil with the caption “Original Mozartkugel.” Every chocolate ball has a certificate. But I wouldn't claim these sweets to be the best in the world unlike the outstanding music of the great Mozart.

It doesn't take more than a day to fall in love with Salzburg
I did re-live my childhood's favorite "Sound Of Music" moments - marvelling over the freshly cut green grass and array of colourful flowers in the Mirabel Gardens and humming/ slightly trotting around imagining myself to be one of the Von Trapp kids. Or walking around St. Peter's Abbey remembering the scene how the Captain and his family tried to escape through the cemetery.  

Impressions from the city
Saying goodbye to Salzburg was fast and easy.But the chance to reconnect with nature and be able to  trust my instincts while manoeuvring the challenges in this trip was an immensely powerful opportunity. I can now channel the zen from my trip whenever I feel stressed out while taking on my upcoming new projects. So if you are having doubts about taking a challenging solo trip, just pack your bags and go. Let yourself be scared to death. Wild happiness and a new you awaits on the other side of your fear.

Until next time, auf weidersehen!

Comments

  1. I'd almost forgotten how well you write travel diaries. Felt good returning :)

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