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Even the Moon Looks Real in Salzburg, Austria

If I were to bring someone to Europe who had never been, the city of Salzburg in Austria might be our first stop. It’s a great introduction to the continent, and has perhaps everything a new visitor is probably looking for.

The hotel my wife and I shared was on the outskirts of town. It was hot—in the 90s Fahrenheit—but we were glad to be settled and onto a new city after our stay in Munich. The hotel offered free use of bikes, a great perk that a lot of hotels are offering their guests these days, and so we climbed on and pedaled toward town, riding along the beautiful and winding Salzach River, sparkling in the afternoon sun and leading us like some kind of Yellow-brick Road. The bike paths framing the river on either side are wide, leisurely, and relaxing. One man passed by us coming from the other direction, on his bike in a full business suit, returning to work after lunch maybe.

The medieval city loomed in the distance, its distinct fortress crowning the hill behind it, and, beyond that, the misty, gray illusion of the Alps. As far as introductions go, this is one of the best pleased-to-meet-yous in all of Europe.

One of the city’s many gems is Getreidegasse, the pedestrian boulevard in its Old Town. Here, the wrought-iron shop signs lack words, since most citizens in the middle ages were illiterate. A boot might indicate a shoemaker, a silhouette of a couple dancing telling us that a dance studio exists here. We were struck by these signs, works of art in their own right, catching the sun and casting interesting shadows. I may have photgraphed every single one of them.

Farther down this street is the house where Mozart was born. We took a quick look at its façade but skipped going in. It was crowded and seemed too touristy, at least in the summer. Instead, we ducked into #39, a tiny bar, just an alcove really, specializing in Austrian schnapps. We ordered a couple of strong samples and sipped them, leaning on the oak barrels that line the wall opposite the bar. They were sweet and strong, and I could feel each sip warming its way inside, spreading like fingers through my guts.

A funicular took visitors up the cliff to the fortress, but, again, the lines were long and we decided to pass. I loved the look of the fortress, watching over the city from above, ancient and steady and wise. Over the course of the afternoon, I kept looking up at it, shading the sun with my hand. It had, somehow, a calming presence, and I never felt the need to ride up there to see it. It was where it belonged, and so was I.

Salzburg is full of interesting nooks and squares, and we took our time wandering. The Salzburg Cathedral loomed. I knew we were making our way toward it. My wife loves a good European church, and can’t pass one by. And although I’m not particularly religious, I have to say these visits are a highlight for me too. I love the vast scope of some of them, like the Salzburg Cathedral, its rich and infinite silence, the echo of footsteps or even a map folding, the quiet click of a phone camera. In these moments I usually hang back, watch my wife wander, looking, letting her hand run along a smooth wooden railing, touching a stone pillar. I’ll watch her light a candle and close her eyes, praying, I suppose, or having some kind of interior, reflective moment. I’ll sit in a pew a few rows behind her and just watch, listening to the quiet, looking at the way the light slices into the open spaces. I’ll feel my breathing synch to hers, I think, and I’ll put my camera down and settle into the long moment. I’m not much for sermons, but this I can appreciate.

The Salzburg Cathedral is my wife’s favorite church in Europe. I don’t disagree. Mammoth in size, you still feel a soft intimacy with its antique white and beige colors. Clear windows invite natural light in. No stained glass here. When we eventually leave, wandering back out to the cobblestone street, I feel that same inner warmth spreading through me that I’d felt drinking the schnapps a couple hours earlier.

* * *

We bought a small painting from a street artist, a watercolor of a Salzburg street. These really are the best souvenirs to be had. When we can, we’ll skip the trinket shop with its keychains, refrigerator magnets, and shot glasses, and instead stop to look at what the local street artist is doing. Often, for just a few euros, we get ourselves an original water color or sketch, and when we do, we ask the artist if they would mind if I take their photo. They always oblige (but, still, ask first), sometimes turning back to the painting their working on for the photo, sometimes smiling at the camera and holding up a piece of their work. The two pieces—the painting and the accompanying photo—make great keepsakes. In addition to the painting we bought in Salzburg, I have street art from Venice, Madrid, and Stockholm, to name a few. Framed, they sit on tables and shelves and serve nice, daily reminders of our travels and the artists we’ve met and had short, friendly conversations with. And when you run out of room in your house, you can slide them into a photo album or scan them. Best of all, they’re flat so they’re easy to take home with you.

* * *

The next morning we took a day tour to the small town on Hallstatt, a quaint, picturesque village about an hour outside the city on the lip of Lake Hallstatt. It has a population of only 859, but you wouldn’t know it on the day we were there. In addition to our tour bus, there were perhaps a dozen others. The streets were packed with day-tourists. While we enjoyed our afternoon, we could only imagine what this place would have been like had we booked a night in a room and navigated our own way here, rather than squeezed onto a tour bus. It’s something to keep in mind looking forward: which places would be best enjoyed not as a day-trip via tour bus, but as a night away instead, strolling the quiet and narrow streets after most of the tourists had left, taking the day’s oppressive heat with them. Next time.

The highlight of the day just may have been the drive through Austria’s green countryside. This is Sound of Music country, and it’s stunning. Best of all, we passed several lakes almost glowing in topaz blue. It’s a color I’d only seen in the Caribbean Sea, and I couldn’t take my eyes from it. My wife and I spotted a few small summer cottages on the banks of one lake, and fantasized about coming back and renting one for a few nights.

As much as we’d wished we had stayed the night in Hallstatt, we enjoyed our evening back in Salzburg. It really is a fairytale city. It was the first phrase that came to mind when we’d first seen the city looming in the distance from our bicycles, ad it’s a phrase I kept repeating every time we walked its charming streets. We walked into Mozartplatz, the intimate square featuring Mozart’s statue, plenty of benches, and the Salzburg Cathedral in the background. We stopped and listened to a couple young musicians, perhaps still in their teens, playing a cello and violin. We never made it to a classical concert during our time here, but with so many talented and classically trained street musicians, surprising us at every corner, we didn’t feel we needed to. The music was all around us. We listened, a chill darting through me, overwhelmed, really, with the beauty of it all: the sounds, the night, the spires and clocktowers melting into the night sky. A fairytale city.

A family passed by us, the children young, and one little girl, holding her father’s hand and hurrying to keep up, said excitedly, “Even the moon looks real!”

Later, we ended the night at an ice cream shoppe, the cobblestone street glowing with lantern light. We sat on a bench, ate, and people-watched. One woman, in her seventies, arrived on her black bicycle, its fenders rattling over the stones in the best way, a sound so vintage European it brings me back every time I hear a similar noise back home. Flowers filled the straw basket at the front or her handlebars. She parked the bicycle against a post and got in the ice cream line. It was late, nearing midnight, the streets quiet with the exception of this small gathering in the crossroad of streets by the ice cream shoppe. We’d finished our treats but stayed and watched this woman take her cone to the short, stone wall across from us, and sit, crossing her legs at the ankles, to enjoy her ice cream. From another square somewhere behind us, we heard music. Then, from another direction, distant laughter.

She finished her ice cream and crumpled a napkin in her hands, stuffed it into a side pocket. She made small talk with someone she seemed to know who was walking his small dog. Then, eventually, she stood, walked to her bike, toed the kickstand up, and pedaled off, the bike disappearing down a dark side street. “If we lived here,” I said, still gazing into the alley, “we could do that every night.”

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