Climbing the Alps (In a Bus)

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Flag of Austria  , Austrian Alps,
Sunday, October 30, 2011

    I started out my morning bright and early, waking up at 6:30 so I would have plenty of time to get to the tour of Eagles Nest.  I decided to buy some food at a bakery on the way there instead of getting the hostel breakfast.  I got to the tour meeting place about 30 minutes early and found a bakery that was supposed to be just opening.  But it was closed.  And the next bakery was the same case.  In fact, the city seemed totally dead.  Sundays are usually pretty quiet in Europe, but it was especially quiet.  I kept walking until I finally reached a bank and realized something important.  Europe has a different date for daylight savings.  The time was actually an hour earlier than my cell phone time.  Suddenly everything made sense.  I was very happy that we didn't gain an hour, because I would have missed my tour.  I walked back to the hostel and got breakfast there and also made two extra sandwiches for lunch, since I didn't really know if the tour would provide lunch.  By the time I got back to the tour meeting place they had just started letting people on the bus so that worked out well.  I had expected a bus full of retirees but the ages were quite varied.   The majority were families with young kids.  Our tour guide was fluent in Italian, German and English.  The tour guide talked for most of the way to the Eagles Nest in all three languages.  After dropping off the Italians for a different tour, he only had to speak English and German.  He was a great tour guide, I don't think I've ever had a funnier tour guide.  He had a ton of one liners regarding what we passed.  For example, after we passed the city jail he announced we had just passed the cheapest hotel in the city.  Some of the people on the bus were also funny, but not intentionally.  An elderly American couple had to have three students explain to them that the European Union was not actually a huge European workers union that had seized control of the continent, but it was actually a coalition of countries.  The couple were absolutely convinced that the reason the Euro was sinking was because the European Union was ruining the economy of Europe with their evil union plans.   One interesting thing I saw on the bus ride was the mountain that the Von Trapp family from the Sound of Music supposedly climbed over to escape into Switzerland.  There's only one problem with that story.  Had they actually "escaped" over that mountain, not only would they be in Germany, but they would be about a 30 minute drive from the vacation homes of the majority of the Nazi party's leaders, including Hitler.  Although as my tour guide pointed out, the father in the story was a submarine commander so maybe he only knew his way around the oceans.  
    The border between Austria and Germany was packed with traffic, snarled by the massive border checkpoint between the two nations.  Just kidding, I wouldn't have even known had the  tour guide not mentioned that we crossed the border.   Once we crossed into Germany, it took about 15 minutes to get to the base of the mountain that the Eagles Nest is built on.  As I previously said, the whole mountain was once covered in huge mansions for the Nazi elite.  There were also some vacation hotels for German soldiers and officers on leave.  The mountain had its own farms on site so they would have fresh food.  Additionally, there is a ski lift at the base of the mountain.  During the war the mountain was first bombed by the British and later, most of the buildings were blown up by the Americans.  The only buildings spared were a five star resort which had been taken over the Nazis and the Eagles Nest.  Following the war, the resort was returned to its rightful owner.
    To get to to Eagles Nest, you must ride in special converted city buses up a number of very steep switchbacks until you reach the entry tunnel.  This tunnel is probably a few hundred meters long and  takes you into the mountain to the elevator.  The elevator is coated in  brass and other than the light bulbs, is completely unchanged.  The reason brass was used is because Hitler was claustrophobic and the brass apparently made the elevator seem larger.  The elevator goes up the mountain very quickly into an entry room.  This leads to the large meeting room.  The meeting room comes complete with a huge black fireplace that was a personal gift from Mussolini to Hitler.  In the adjoining room is Eva Braun's tea room, where she would entertain the wives and girlfriends of the visiting diplomats and rulers.  It is amazing how little of the building has been changed from when Hitler was present.  Aside from these rooms, there's not all that much to see, as the guards quarters were converted into a kitchen.  There is a 300 meter long path to the very top of the  mountain.  From there you can climb a few boulders even higher for the best view.  The  view was absolutely spectacular.  Words really can't describe how  amazing it was.  The highest mountain of the Alps was visible and was covered in snow.  There were several patches of snow around the Eagles Nest but only one large patch.  Most people think of the Eagles Nest when they think of Hitler's residence, but in fact, he never lived there.  Hitler actually had a mansion at the base of the mountain and would take ride up to the Eagles Nest when needed.  The only people who lived in Eagles Nest were the Nazi guards.  Eagles Nest was built as a gift to Hitler on top of this huge mountain.  It was used almost exclusively as a meeting point for diplomatic missions, typically between Mussolini and Hitler.  The reason it was saved from the American dynamite was because the mayor of the nearby town of Obersalzburg basically begged for it to be saved.  Now it serves multiple functions. In addition to being a historical icon, it has a cafe that is open during the day and offers an elegant dining experience in the evenings.
    Regardless of how little it was actually used, the Eagles Nest is still a very cool structure.  After about an hour and a half at the top, we went back down the elevator and heard more about Hitler.  Apparently he would have his driver take him straight through the tunnel to the elevator.    In addition to the main brass elevator, there was also an emergency backup elevator which could hold a total of six people.  Because of this, Hitler would only allow five other people onto the main elevator with him.  Hitler had a fear that he would be left behind on the main elevator if there were more than five people in the event of a mechanical failure.  Another weird feature of Hitler was that he required his driver back up into the tunnel to the elevator so he wouldn't have to exit the tunnel in reverse.  Our tour guide commented on this, saying that while Hitler had many problems, his biggest problem was definitely being born.  We had some time at at the end of the tunnel, so I watched a guy crazy enough to be biking up the mountain work his way through all of the switchbacks.  It took a huge pile of snow for him to finally get off his bike and walk up a hill.  I was quite impressed.  
    Eventually the city buses showed up and we rode back to our initial bus.  This bus took us to the town of Obersalzburg, which is a very stereotypical German village.  It had a couple of churches and all of the buildings looked nice and Bavarian. I didn't see a single international chain store or restaurant either.  Unfortunately it was Gedanksfest, which meant that other than  two restaurants and a gift store, literally nothing in town was open.  Since both open restaurants looked very expensive, I decided to just have the sandwiches I had made for lunch.  Not ordering food gave me time to wander around the town as well.  I wandered around the town's cemetery, reading a few gravestones.  Eventually I noticed that the entire wall around the cemetery was covered in plaques.  When I started to read them, I realized that about a third of them were for soldiers from the First World War and the rest were for soldiers from the Second World War.  Of these, I would say about half of them were from Stalingrad.  I know they were our enemies and some may have even been SS, but I can't even imagine what it would be like to have such a huge portion of your town's population killed so quickly.  It would seem especially devastating since the government was constantly claiming the war was going so well.  One other thing I noticed was that while the deaths on the Western front weren't that high to begin with, they also stopped completely a few months after D-Day.  Meanwhile, deaths in the Eastern Front continued all the way until 1948, which I'm assuming were deaths in POW camps.  After the cemetery, I walked through town some more and then got on the bus for the ride back home.  I think I may have gotten a bit dehydrated because I was very tired when I got back to Salzburg.  I walked around Salzburg for about an hour but started to feel sick, so I just went back to the hostel and fell asleep until about 6 PM.  After I woke up I went out to get some dinner.  Unfortunately Salzburg was celebrating Gedanksfest as well, so that meant only a few really fancy Italian cafes and some Turkish doner kebab places were open.  Oh but there were gift shops.  So I could have just spent a couple hundred euros and eaten a bunch of Mozart balls.  Instead I went to a Doner place that looked decent.  But unfortunately, it wasn't.  It was actually the worst doner I've had.  It didn't have half of the ingredients I'm used to and the sauce wasn't very tasty. It did not satisfy my hunger at all.  I still ate it but I ended up eating all of the snacks I had brought with me when I got back to the hostel.

    Monday was my final morning in Salzburg.  Like the previous morning, it began with a loud Indian man and an elderly German man having a delightful chat at 6 am in my room.  This chat continued, despite everyone else in the room alternated between trying to sleep and glaring at them.   I got out of bed around 8 AM and had another hostel breakfast.  My train didn't leave until three in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to stroll around the city.  I did have to check out at 10 AM, so I got everything all packed up and took it to the luggage storage room that hostels so helpfully provide.  The checkout took awhile because a group of  Greek students wanted to book at room for two months, but the hostel limit was 14 days. After I checked out, I walked to the Altstadt and realized that Gedanksfest is a multi-day affair.  Which meant that almost everything was still closed.  What was nice though, was that there were almost no other tourists.  I walked around the Altstadt for a while and then headed up into the hills that surround Salzburg.  I found an old set of walls that had been erected prior to the castle. About a kilometer away was another set of walls erected at the same time as the castle.  I think the Prince Bishop's motto should have been, "if you think you have enough walls, build five more".  The views from on top of the hills were great, as you could see all of the Altstadt, much of the Neustadt and the Alps in the distance.  I also passed a playground that included a number of ropes courses and a climbing wall up the side of the hill.  They had signs about safety up, but other than that it didn't have any other safety restrictions or personnel.  Something tells me that would not be seen in the U.S. thanks to our obsession with lawsuits.  I also passed the museum of modern art.  Everyone there was speaking Italian or French, and had a small dog either on a leash or more often in their handbags.  This included the men.   These people fit my exact stereotype of people who would spend their days hanging out at an abstract modern art museum.
     After walking up in the hills for a while I went to the summer palace of the Prince Bishops, which is now a park.  It has some typical playground equipment and also some hideous garden gnomes. The garden flowers were still in full bloom, which considering the date, was nice to see. This is something I haven't seen in a long time, as most flowers in Marburg have withered away due to the impending winter.  After the park and garden, I stopped by the market once again to get lunch.  The first sausage stand I went to had a Salzburg specialty sausages which I ordered but was told they didn't have it ready yet and wouldn't for a few hours.  He told me he could sell me a hot dog.  I declined the exotic hot dog and went to a different stand.  I ended up getting a more Germanic sausage and ate it on the way to the Residence.  On my way back, I stopped at one of the pretzel stands and got a "doughnut pretzel" and a regular pretzel for the train ride back.  The donut pretzel was covered in sugar and had a really soft inside.  It was delicious!  The regular pretzel was pretty good, although it did  have a slight rye bread flavor, which made it interesting.  It took a few bites to get used to but after that it really grew on me.  I ate both of these on the train ride back.  After I bought the pretzels I went back to the hostel, got my luggage and went to the train station.  I got there about 20 minutes earl and ended up waiting about 30 minutes since the train was late.  This delay only increased as we traveled.  By the time I was in Frankfurt, the train was over an hour and fifteen minutes late.  I also had to sprint half the length of the train in Frankfurt, because they made an announcement that all but 2 of the cars were being detached for the ride to Giessen, which is where I was getting off.  Unfortunately in my wagon, this message came out garbled and no one understood it.  Eventually a conductor came aboard and told us we had a minute to run to the front of the train.  So that was a little stressful.  The trip to Giessen was pretty uneventful.  From Giessen I took a regional train to Marburg, which took about 20 minutes.  Unfortunately I just missed the 9:30 PM bus, which meant I had to walk to my dorm.  I finally got home around 10:15 PM and was exhausted.  I don't even remember if I made dinner before falling asleep.  
    So that was my trip to Salzburg.  Overall I loved the city.  It is probably the most beautiful city I've been too this entire trip.  I think the Alps were what really sealed it. Between the mountains in the background and the awesome blue water, Salzburg was absolutely stunning.   I definitely want to go back and take some of the other tours that were offered. I'll probably go back in the fall, as the leaves are all changing colors, making the mountains and hills even prettier.
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