Friday, January 30, 2009

The hills are alive with the sound of fireworks

Because we left our trusty Volkswagon in Vienna, the Borths family (and Carolyn) struck out for Salzburg by rail. I have a minor debate going with a friend over the merits of the train versus ride sharing. Both systems are very easy to use. A well-known website connects drivers and passengers who want to share a tank of gas to just about anywhere in Germany, or even Europe. This service takes some planning on the passenger’s part. You need to call the driver, arrange a pick-up time, and it’s usually a bit slower than the train, but it’s cheaper.

I admit there are advantages to ride sharing, but you can do this on the train:

My mom reserved a cabin for us, so we could take the three-hour trip together. We stretched our legs, got out books and journals, and looked out the window as we rolled through the Austrian highlands. An older Austrian shared our cabin and offered running commentary on all the cities and geography we were passing. He didn’t speak English, so I translated some of his commentary and got to practice my German skillz (an advantage of ride-sharing, according to my friend).

The train may be expensive, but nothing beats those massive picture windows and your own tray table to work on. But that’s just me. I’m glad the family got to share my point of view.

As soon as we landed on the Salzburg platform, mom tracked down the tourism office and got the number for “Bob’s Special Tours,” a tour company that specializes in showing giddy Sound of Music buffs the sights made famous by the 1965 classic.

Before we left the station, we had five places reserved in a minibus that would pick us up from the hotel we hadn’t seen yet. Mom was excited. But before we could see if the hills were really alive we had to check-in to the Hotel Golden Ente (The Golden Duck). We hauled everything up the first flight of stairs and were greeted by The Frau. The Frau is one of those people who takes her job very seriously. As you watch such a person throw themselves to their duty, you believe that if they stopped, the universe itself might cease its expansion and the Earth freeze in its orbit. Frau is a commanding woman, blond, and ready to put you on the right path physically, economically, and morally if you need it. You are not her guest. You are her wayward child.

She packed me into the elevator with all the baggage and led everyone else up the stairs to our suite, though suite is an inadequate word. She lead us to our apartment, or maybe our home. The place had a full kitchen, one and a half baths, two bedrooms, a fold out, cable TV and a spiral stair case that climbed to a locked window. Someday The Frau hopes to put a deck or porch up there. For the time being the stairs could serve as Austrian home gym equipment. Elisabeth would know how to use them.

After we dropped everything off and The Frau bustled off, we went outside to wait for Bob’s tour guide, who eventually arrived, though not with the normal German punctuality. Maybe they play time a little looser in Austria. Her name was Rosa Maria. She spoke with a thick, authentic German accent and knew her script by heart. We were the only people going for a tour on New Year’s Eve, so we had plenty of room in the van to slide around and look out all the windows as we passed the tree line the von Trapp kids climb, meadows that beg for Julie Andrews in an apron, and the church where they solve a problem like Maria.

As we went by the Abbey used for exterior shots and the actual von Trapp home, mom would offer some personal insights, such as my great-grandmother’s actual encounter with Maria von Trapp. Rosa Maria would stop, briefly stare, then continue with her script.

Part of the problem with never getting much chit-chat in was we never really defined our family dynamic to her. In case you haven’t noticed yet, my family has a relatively restricted gene pool. Cheeks, blond hair, short statures, and dimples are in. Carolyn doesn’t look like a Borths. She doesn’t exude the hobbit vibe my family shares, but she does have the fair features and most people probably assume we’re a five person family unit (unless Carolyn and I are holding hands). Because Rosa Maria was focused on the script, she didn’t notice this gesture, so she was a little shocked when we arrived at the gazebo where Rolf and Liesle sing “You are 16 going on 17” and Carolyn and I struck this pose. Josh was quick to observe, “Oh, it’s so cute, they met when she was 16 going on 17” to clarify things.

My parents met at the St. Xavier/LaSalle football game when they were 16 going on 17 and 17 going on 18, so this picture was also taken:

The tour also stopped at the lake-side mansion where the movie’s von Trapp’s live. Instead of having a boat tipping into the water, we were treated to hockey players enjoying the weather on the last day of 2008.
Then we struck out into the mountains. I really do love The Sound of Music, but I’ve discovered I love seeing the Alps even more. We stopped in a tiny restaurant overlooking a glacial lake and Alpine town for authentic apple strudel and coffee.

This is the mountain the family crosses at the end of the movie to get to Switzerland. Unfortunately, this would be a poor choice of escape route since Germany is on the other side of this mountain. In fact, The Eagle's Nest, Hitlers personal Alpine mansion is on the other side, an easy day trip from Salzburg.

Someone's home. They just live there. They go to work every day, go grocery shopping, and pick up the kids. And call this home. Karma will bite them in the butt someday.

Our view from a strudel cafe. Rosa Maria says its a popular place for visitors. I can't imagine why.

After getting the requisite caffeine and sugar rush, we headed to the church where the captain and Maria get married. As Rosa Maria explained we could go in, but she would wait by the van, a dude in a ski cap rapped on the window. I was in the back of the vehicle and couldn’t hear everything he said, but his tone seemed to say, “Ya’ll need to get the heck out.” Then he gestured at four guys near a fountain and grinned. I caught the word “Gewehr” which means gun. What was going…BOOM!

Four black powder muskets pumped the air full of sound and smoke. Before we could ask why this was happening, Ski Cap’s four buddies reloaded, swung the ancient weapons up to their hips again and fired. Happy New Year! Ski Cap ginned. We applauded and started to get out, hopping there weren’t any cannons getting loaded nearby for a grand finale.

The residual smoke from the New Year's muskets. Happy 2009!

Carolyn walking down the aisle Julie Andrews strolls down. The anti-nun gate was installed for the movie. In the back, Josh is Gretel the flower girl. I've been made fun of for posing in pictures. Know that this is a Borths brother tradition. Even my girlfriend gets in on it.

Josh and I have confidence in spring time. We have confidence in rain. We have confidence that SPRING will come again!

By the end of the ride, Rosa Maria had loosened up a bit. She turned on the soundtrack to the movie that she probably loathes now and was pleasantly surprised when we (especially Josh) started to sing. I’m sure a lot of people have taken Bob’s Tour who are both enthusiastic and tone deaf. Thankfully we could only claim the former. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, we rolled back into the hotel with “I Have Confidence” stuck in our heads, but now it was time for an even higher art form: Classical chamber music.

Mirabell Palace was the venue for the evening’s performance. Built in 1730 for the prince-archbishop it is so Baroque that you’d never be able to put it together again. The title Prince-Archbishop doesn’t get used very often, but it was the title bestowed on the rulers of Salzburg after they broke away from the Bavarians and was independent until the Austro-Hungarian empire took over in 1815. Combining the secular and religious rule of a city is always dicey and palaces for the archbishops dot the landscape, including one built in a month to store a particularly un-celibate Prince’s mistresses. This same character had his larger palace tricked out with a sprinkler system so he could drench his guests whenever he flipped a switch. He even had hoses hooked up to their dinner chairs so he could soak while they ate. They weren’t allowed to leave until he did, so I’m sure they would spend the rest of the meal contemplating the consequences of flipping off a Prince-Archbishop.

The string ensemble performed in an ornate, gold trimmed hall with plenty of putti and plaster (see Carolyn’s comment on the “Beware” post for more on putti in art). The group consisted of youngish women and one 60 year-old man who founded the group before most of the girls were born. They had a wonderful sound as they lead us through Wagner, Mozart, Chopin, and Bach. It was the first time I have watched a small classical ensemble perform, and by the end of it I assigned each of them a personality based solely on their expressions and body language as they played. After the final round of applause, Carolyn, Josh and I compared notes. We agreed the second violin would probably make a great friend. The bass player would probably ignore you if you were the only two people on a tiny desert island.

We left the palace as snow was starting to fall and wound our way to a hotel restaurant on the river to celebrate the New Year. They knew we were coming from the concert, but our waiter was still agitated. We needed to get through a couple of courses if we hoped to get to desert by midnight. We started with champagne (Sekt here in the German speaking world) and an appetizer pictured here:

The pink is beet foam. Each little appetizer is some kind of fish with the caviar in closest to the camera. Carolyn is responsible for documenting this meal. Then came the salad course, and more wine, then the main course, fish or beef, and more wine (Austria is known for their wine. I expected to hop the Atlantic and come back a beer snob, but I have sampled a surprising array of Germanic wine. Bless the Romans for stubbornly sowing vineyards wherever they went.)

Our plates were quickly cleared; midnight was close at hand. Our waiter quickly poured us a second round of champagne and showed us the exit to the river. All of Salzburg clustered itself around the Salzach River watching fireworks sporadically fly over the water. The Salzburg fortress contributed to the effort, but mostly the display was put together by eager pyromaniacs. There wasn’t an organized time to start, and there was no climactic finale. Instead, explosions blossomed overhead, ash rained down and we squinted at our watches to see if it was midnight yet because you can’t hear church bells over fireworks.

By consensus we declared it midnight. The family toasted a wonderful new year, then we turned and toasted our waiter, the cook staff, the hostess, and our dining neighbors who were also enjoying the sporadic pyrotechnics. After things petered out and only the occasional firecracker could be heard going off by the bridge, we returned to the restaurant for coffee and desert.

Desert was a mango sorbet in a fried pastry shell, topped by pulled sugar. The sugar needed to move to get to the mango, so we ate through. The texture was somewhere between fiberglass insulation and Brillo pad, but it sure tasted sweet. A fantastic meal to kick off 2009, but the night couldn’t be over yet. Carolyn and I had taken dance lessons in Vienna so we would be ready waltz on New Years and we had been told there was a dance floor in the hotel connected to the restaurant.

We had seen the dance party when we walked through the building after the concert, and weren’t sure if it was the place to waltz. It was a mix between a tiny wedding reception and a corporate Christmas party with an average age of 50 and an average skin tone of tanning-bed sienna. We retraced our steps with mixed thoughts. If they were playing “The Banana Boat Song” (Day-O, me say Daaay-O!) again, we were going to keep searching for a place to dance, but we weren’t sure where exactly to look. Fortunately the decision was made for us when the doorman told us only hotel guests were allowed at the party. Slightly relieved, we walked on.

Mom and dad decided to call it a night, but Carolyn, Josh, and I followed the sounds of thumping bass to a New Years Block Party set up in the old town square by our hotel. Beer bottles were skittering around below our feet, kicked by drunken revelers who were all coming to hear “Street (something)” rock out thier favorite covers with particular focus on the late 80s and early 90s (especially love ballads).

As we found a spot in the crowd, they started the classic opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama.” I sang along, carrying some Austrians who might not have known all the lyrics (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers…” doesn’t really mean anything in either language). The band also played some German tunes that everyone seemed to know the words to. We were able to sing along to the chorus, but I’ve since forgotten the words and melody, so that popular non-English tune with have to remain an elusive memory.

We watched an older, and very inebriated couple waltz to an early 90s ballad. Their neighbors cleared a large space for them, allowing their stumbling steps to carry them across the cobblestones. Fortunately they were never carried into the cobble stones. No one wants a New Years face plant.

Finally Street (something) said their goodbyes, played their encore and called it a night. We turned with the rest of the crowd, thinking of bed and the Salzburg adventures we would find the next day…

1 comment:

Liz said...

Did you know that Julie Andrews thought that "I Have Confidence" song was really stupid? She sang it with so much gusto to cover up the fact the words didn't make any sense to her. Btw, it is indeed stuck in my head now.