Valhalla in Salzburg

“Where the heck are we going?”
“You’ll see! It’s going to be great!”
“You’re not going to kill me and stuff my body in a trash bin, are you?”
“I can’t promise that. It’ll depend on your behavior.”
“Great.”

The lower city of Salzburg twisted away from us as we climbed, as my good friend bounded ahead in a dubious looking direction, trying to remember his way in the dark of the sleeping architecture.

That spring, I was visiting a good friend of mine (I’ll call him Mountain Man) who was living Germany. He was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching english at a gymnasium in what was until very recently, East Germany. The Wall had come down only a few years before he went over and it was a great time to be there. Every one felt positive, everything seemed to be getting better and most importantly of all, you could now travel all over what was once forbidden territory. We were having a blast.

This particular night though, we had traveled back to one of his old haunts. We spent a day traveling and another punch on our euro-rail passes and had arrived in Salzburg, Austria.

Mountain Man knew Salzburg. It was his old stomping grounds, having spent a year studying abroad in this charismatic city. I had only been there once before on one of my family’s epic en-mass vacations. Traveling with the family meant nice hotels, meals at meal times and package style tours with guides. Mountain Man most defiantly had other plans and to be fair, we were doing this on the cheap.

I will freely admit, that the traveling with my family (my WHOLE family, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had made me jaded. Growing up and traveling en masse, I never had to think about where we would stay, eat or go and look at the local pile of ancient rubble. It was all planned for me and though we didn’t travel opulently, we did travel comfortably.

This trip would be different. This was where I really learned how to travel.

We had arrived in Salzburg by train and immediately headed into the city to secure lodging. It was early evening and Mountain Man was afraid that the hostel that he had in mind would be near full capacity by now. He had gone on and on about how popular it was as were their breakfasts. Warning lights should have been going off in my head with the mention of the word “popular”, but foolishly, I had equated it with the notion of it being due to its fine rooms and beds. How wrong could I be? Ohhh. Very, very wrong.

I actually could hear it before we saw it. The music was thumping out into the darkening streets and the yellow light of the foyer poured out from the open doors almost as powerfully as the cigarette smoke. As we walked in, I was immediately taken by two things. First was that the place was packed by what looked like fourteen year olds, all holding ¾ empty beer steins and smoking what must have been four to five cigarettes a piece. The second was that Mountain Man was asking the clerk for a couple of beds for us.

“No! I don’t care if we have to sleep on benches in the park, but we aren’t staying here!”

Mountain Man looked at me thought the blue smoke and smiled sheepishly. “Well, that’s about our only other option. At this hour, we’re lucky that they have any room at all. By the time we get to the next hostel, the chance of finding space is just about nil.”

I looked around at the plastered and partying highschool age patrons and sighed. “Fine, but do they at least have a double room or something. Just so we don’t have to be in the bunk room?”

He winced again. “Nope. We’ll be in a room with 32 beds.”

Great.

After securing our packs, we fled the hostel looking for an activity that didn’t involve drunk teenagers and tobacco. Mountain Man, in an attempt to make up for my obvious disappointment in our lodging situation, promised an experience that would be second to none. He wouldn’t say what it was, but that it was just “going to be awesome.”

A bit suspiciously, I followed. What else could be done?

We climbed out of the lower city and up towards the less traveled areas. It was getting late now and the only light was from the street lamps. With hardly anyone else out walking and all the shops closed, it felt a lot like trespassing. The roads we took turned into wide alleys and the alleys into open stairs, punctuated by small parks and paths that appeared sporadically as we ascended. This was when I had posed my question to Mountain Man.

We had climbed for quite a while and I was sure we were lost. “This it it!” Mountain Man had stopped at a set of massive, studded, dark oak doors on an unmarked wall.

“Are you serious?”

He just smiled. I looked around to check for empty rubbish bins, just to be safe.

More later…

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A House Guest in France, Part IV

We awoke to a sunnier day than the day before, cleaned up and since we had some time before our train, decided to head out to take a look around Lyon. We easily found a cafe where we absorbed some much needed caffeine and a croissant. The French are not generally big on breakfast, at least not in the “bacon, eggs and homefries” sense. Across the border in Germany, they are keenly aware of the need to fortify one’s self for the trials of the day ahead with meats, bread, more meat and ummm, other various meats. Aaaand Nutella. Here in Lyon however, breakfast was a light affair and though I truly love France, this lack of a proper breakfast is perhaps the one thing that I have trouble forgiving them.

After a bit of coffee and a bite to eat we set off down the back streets and tried to get the feel of this, the third largest city in France. Most folk on vacation in France do not come to Lyon and this I feel, is a great shame. We found the city to be full of interesting museums, shops, churches and wonderful, wonderful medieval and renaissance architecture. If I had to describe the bit of the city we were in, I would have to say it was like 1880 never quite left. It still maintains that wonderful old world feeling without feeling run down and worn out. In short, we loved it and vowed to one day return and spend at least a week walking its street and eating in its restaurants.

One thing we did decide was that we needed to find a gift to bring with us to give to our soon to be host. Remember, personally, I had never met him before. Action Girl knew him from chatting at work, but I was totally in the dark as to who he was or what he would like. Our upbringing dictated that a gift would be needed for our arrival, but what to get? At home in the States, I would have simply gotten a good bottle of wine, but here… In France… For someone who lives here… Well, I felt a good deal out of my league when it comes to wine selection. We looked around for a while but were running out of time. Then we saw it. PERFECT!

We left for the train station with our happy purchase stuffed in our pack, carefully wrapped up in paper and old socks. As we wandered into the train station I started to slow down. My head was starting to hurt and I blamed it on the stress of travel and the lack of any substantial breakfast. I popped some Bufferin and massaged my temples as we threaded our way through the French rail system. As we found our way to the train departure area and waited for our commuter line, my head got worse and worse. Then the first real warning sign appeared. I started to instinctively shrink away from bright light and tried to shade my eyes. “Oh crap”, I thought. “It’s a migraine

Let me digress here for a moment and leave our intrepid travelers to explain what a migraine is and what it decidedly ISN’T. I don’t want to be pedantic about this but any other migraine sufferer out there will know why I’m getting nitpicky. I have had various individuals say to me at one time or another, “Oh, I had the worst migraine at work the other day.” or “I have such a migraine right now.” and to these folks I say, “No. You didn’t/don’t. I can tell this because you aren’t balled up in the fetal position, retching you lungs out and begging for relief from what ever god you may have displeased.” Confusing a bad headache for a migraine is a bit like confusing a nasty splinter with a gun shot wound. People who get migraines never EVER confuse them with anything. I get them from time to time. They seem to have no particular trigger for me and can hit whenever. Because of this, I carry medication. This is good. The bad news is that though it works, it A: Takes time, and B” comes with the added bonus that it will pretty much knock me flat for a minimum of 6 hours. More like 12 if I’m not disturbed.

I managed to eat one of our granola bars before my stomach got too sour and took the pills I always travel with. I recall laying down on my pack and closing my eyes as Action Girl arranged a coat over my head. That must have looked odd. I can also very vaguely remember getting on the train that, thank God, we would be on for the next few hours, uninterrupted by changes . I shuffled into a seat and Action Girl again covered me up with my coat. It turned out that this was a commuter train and therefre, slow. This turned out to go a good thing since I was dead to the world for the next several hours.

When I finally revived, we were in Montelimar and I was being offered hot coffee by my wonderful wife. I have no recollection of getting off the train. I had caught the migraine pretty early on and I was starting to come out of it. After another little while sleeping off the medication at the Montelimar train station, I awoke feeling… well, not perky exactly, but human, anyway. It was great to be back. Action Girl related to me some of the more quizzical looks that we received on the train. It must have looked like she was accompanying a cadaver on a journey. We chuckled about it, I thanked her for her essential help and we wandered off to find the car rental shop. I’d never driven in France, but I grew up winging a 1974 Chevy Silverado through Boston from time to time, so I felt that I had a bit of an edge over the average American.

How hard could it be?
We’d just have to see.

Next, the land of a million-zillion roundabouts, the goat track of doom and a plate of fresh brains.

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