Austria: A fairy tale come true
The hills are alive...
It was like stepping into a fairy tale. On my first morning in old-town Salzburg I was awoken by a lady singing in the street.
I leaped out of bed and rushed to open the window shutters - this is too good to be true, I thought to myself.
No, it wasn't a young girl returning home after a night of partying. Instead, it appeared to be a young lady happily on her way to work.
Witnessing random bursts of song is not unusual in this romantic Austrian city on the border with Germany. After all, it is the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as The Sound of Music - arguably the most successful musical of all time.
At this point, I must admit that the multi-award winning film and stage adaptation is a personal favourite of mine. So you can imagine my excitement to discover that the streets, as well as the hills, are still alive with music decades after the world was introduced to Fraulein Maria and the family von Trapp.
Walking through Residence Square - a magnificent forecourt between the two residential palaces of the archbishops of Salzburg - I was reminded of scenes from the movie -which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. A special commemoration event, The Sound of Music Gala, takes place in Salzburg on October 17.
In the film, Maria - played by Julie Andrews - crossed this courtyard singing "I have confidence" while on her way to the von Trapp family home for the first time. She also stopped to splash water at the horses of the Residence Fountain.
The square is bordered by a Catholic Cathedral - also known as the Salzburger Dom - first started by an Irish priest in the year 774.
Gunter Hausknost, our tour guide said: "It was consecrated under Bishop Virgil, he was an Irish man who came to Salzburg because of the missions - it was very trendy for the Irish to mission in the German-speaking world".
Salzburg - The Getreidegasse
Residence Square - regularly used for live concerts, farmers' markets and Christmas fairs - is also home to Nonnberg Abbey, where Maria Augusta Kutschera, on whose life The Sound of Music is based, failed miserably in her attempts to become a nun.
Close by in Mozartplatz, or Mozart Square, stands a monument of the city's most celebrated citizen. The statue of the composer whose masterpieces include The Requiem Mass in D minor and The Magic Flute was unveiled in front of Mozart's sons in 1842.
Although Salzburg has capitalised on Mozart's prolific symphonic ability - which has influenced scores of world greats as well as thousands of local performers - his character is far less revered. "He was a hyperactive person and he had terribly rude manners," said Mr Hausknost, wearing full traditional Bavarian lederhosen - knee-length breeches made of leather.
Women, of all ages, also stroll by wearing the traditional, colourful "Dirndl". It consists of a bodice, blouse, full skirt and apron.
Women wear their traditional dress with great confidence and pride - they believe it's sexy, fashionable and complements their femininity. Handmade skirts can cost up to €3,000.
A few feet away from us, the Mozart-in-Residenz concert performers are warming their vocal chords while the sound of strings, brass, percussion and woodwind echo throughout the square.
The music can even be heard from the Hohensalzburg Fortress - Central Europe's largest completely preserved fortress, dating back to the 11th Century. It sits on top of the Festungsberg - a small hill in the middle of the city.
Although the archbishops took refuge here during times of conflict it has never been conquered or damaged by an enemy force.
The castle is surrounded by the Bavarian Alps, rolling plains and miles and miles of breathtaking flatlands. St. Peter Stiftskeller restaurant the oldest restaurant in Europe is built into the mountains.
The fortress also overlooks the three stately villas used to create an illusion of the perfect palace in The Sound of Music.
These are Leopoldskron Palace, Frohnburg Palace and Hellbrunn Palace - where the charming scene for "Sixteen going on Seventeen" was shot inside a glass-cased gazebo - now also the location of my cheesiest holiday photo.
"Robert Wise [the film's director] wanted to make a movie that showed Salzburg on the one hand and showed places that were very romantic. One was the front facade, the other was the rear, everything is mixed up even in the opening scenes, all the mountains and lakes were 30 km apart so they really wanted to give the cinema visitor an enormous feeling for the entire landscape," said Mr Hausknost.
The Salzburg tourism board says visitor numbers are booming in the city, which has a population of around 150,000. Asia and America are key markets yet the streets and sites are not crammed with guests. The flow of visitors is very manageable and sightseers can walk along with ease, sipping a "kaffee" or nibbling on a delicious sweet pretzel from a street vendor. All the while, the city's 34 church bells chime on the hour, every hour, until 10pm.
After a couple of days in Salzburg we boarded a train, organised by UK- based Railbookers, that took us on an enchanting journey through the Bavarian Alps to the historic red-roofed city of Graz. If you truly want to experience the unique, unspoiled beauty of the Austrian landscape, rail is the best way to travel. Along the way I passed through deep lush valleys shielded by enormous Alpine mountains, villages of colourful wooden houses with logs of timber neatly stacked in sheds outside and I got a real sense of the country's peaceful agricultural life.
After a comfortable four-hour train journey we arrived in Graz. The Unesco World Cultural Heritage site is also known as "the garden city" due to its vast number of private and public gardens. The region is dotted with farms and vineyards that produce fresh vegetables, meats and wine, and was named the culinary capital of Austria in 2008.
Although the city, located south east of the Alps, was damaged during wartime air raids, it has retained much of its Baroque and Renaissance architecture and yet has a very vibrant, urban feel.
After 24 hours in Graz, we boarded another train to Vienna, travelling along the oldest mountain railway track in Europe. The three-hour journey once again included astonishing views of the Alpine region, vast vineyards and famous ski resorts.
Minutes after arriving at Vienna Central Station we were whisked off to Hotel Imperial - a former palace located directly along the Ringstrasse Boulevard in the heart of the city - which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year.
The luxurious five-star hotel was not just my home for the next 24 hours, but United States Secretary of State John Kerry was also sleeping under the same royal roof.
Despite the Viennese coffee houses being a central part of the city's culture, Mr Kerry's massive security team opted to get their caffeine fix at a McDonald's cafe located near by.
Other celebrities who have stayed at the Imperial, where standard room prices can start at €550 a night, depending on the season, are Liam Neeson, Hillary Clinton and Michael Jackson.
Located along the banks of the River Danube, the city, once the heart of the sprawling Habsburg empire, has retained its rich artistic and regal charm showcased by the superb Spanish Riding School, St Stephen's Cathedral and the picturesque street "Music Mile". The Vienna tourism board recorded more than six million overnight visitors from January to June this year.
Tasting Austria's culinary triumphs - the Vienna sausage, chocolate Mozart balls and the traditional Wiener Schnitzel dish are essential experiences.
Although tour guides in each city revealed that, generally, Austrians are "not fans" of The Sound of Music story - with its depiction of a family fleeing the Nazi era - I for one can say each destination surpassed my preconceived romantic ideals. And so, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, another iconic Austrian export - "I'll be back".
Whether it's designer fashion or the traditional "trachten" apparel, antique jewellery or a musical memento, there's something for everyone along The Getreidegasse - Salzburg's most famous shopping street. Wrought-iron guild signs hang above the doors of 800 elaborately decorated shops and boutiques on this medieval alley. Romantic passageways also lead shoppers to the popular Green Markets and Farmers' Markets.
The best way to appreciate the natural, unharmed beauty of the Austrian landscape is by train. The Unesco World Heritage Semmering Route from Graz to Vienna is the oldest mountain railway track in Europe. It was built over 41 km of high mountains between 1848 and 1854. The almost three-hour journey allows passengers to feast on views of dynamic glaciers, Alpine lakes and acres of lush forestry and vegetation - it's worth every minute.
If you think puppets are just for kids, think again. The Aicher family has made the high art of puppetry part of the cultural life in Salzburg over the last 100 years and The Sound of Music marionette version is one of the city's leading tourist attractions. The all-dancing, all-singing show, which features more than 50 puppets - including The Lonely Goatherd - is a unique, impressive and uplifting musical extravaganza for all ages.
Railbookers offers tailor-made holidays by rail to Europe and beyond. Its five-night holiday, 'Highlights of Austria', by air and rail visits Salzburg, Graz and Vienna, with beautifully scenic train journeys in between. The package costs €917 per person. Or you could create a journey unique to you with the expertise and experience of one of its travel consultants. For more information, call (0044) 203 780 2253 or visit railbookers.com.
For more details on each city, check out Salzburg Tourism at salzburg.info, Graz Tourist Office at visitgraz.com and Vienna Tourist Board at vienna.info.
For further information on holidays in Austria, visit the official Austrian National Tourist Office website, austria.info.
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