07/28/2016 - 07/30/2016
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is one of those legendary drives in Europe. The 48 km road with 36 hairpin turns winding through the Alpine peaks seems as though it was made for a sports car commercial, despite having been built before the existence of sports cars or commercials. The problem that quickly became apparent to us on the slow drive southeast was that the sky was heavily overcast with a constant drizzle. It was very possible that once we ascended into the cloud line, we wouldn't be able to see anything whatsoever. We debated whether to abandon the plan and head straight to Salzburg, but ultimately decided we should just go for it since it could be years before we were in this area again, if ever. Fortunately the rain eventually stopped although the fog never lifted completely. We were denied the expansive, beautiful views of the Hohe Tauern National Park that one can find on the web but we still got to enjoy the drive and experience the majesty of some of the most famous peaks of the Austrian Alps.
About halfway through the drive we started to become aware of a faint burning rubber smell and at one point we pulled over to confirm that it was coming from inside the car and not outside. I looked at the tires but there was nothing amiss there. As we approached the end of the Alpine road in the town of Heiligenblut we saw a thin tendril of smoke escaping from the hood of the car and the burning smell grew stronger. Fortunately, we were just about there so we gritted our teeth and rolled into the tiny village and found a parking spot close by a cozy restaurant. Heiligenblut was the quintessential Alpine village dominated by a rustic church with a tall spire.
Once inside the restaurant, we reviewed our options. It was going to be dark very soon and there was certainly no auto service station in the town itself that would have anyone available to look at the car. I favored abandoning our plan to drive to Salzburg that night and finding a hotel to bed down where we were. In the morning we could call the rental company and hopefully someone could either pick us up or deliver a new vehicle. Mei Ling didn't seem as worried about the smell and the smoke, thinking it might have something to do with the cooler air and fog at the higher altitude. In the end, we decided to proceed to Salzburg. The evening air was cool but not cold, and if the car ended up conking out on the road we wouldn't freeze to death overnight. I just hoped we wouldn't catch on fire. The one caveat I insisted on was that we not return the way we came on the Alpine Road, even though it would take us an hour longer to drive further south to the next intersection with a major highway. I knew if anything bad went down in the peaks, we weren't going to see another human being until morning. After dinner we set off for Salzburg, and as usual Mei Ling's intuition was right. There was no trace of a smell or smoke for the rest of the trip. We didn't arrive in Salzburg until eleven, but fortunately it was a lockbox entry and no one had to wait up for us.
Our itinerary unfortunately forced us to miss the Thursday weekly market in Salzburg, and on Friday morning we couldn't find a decent daily market. Instead, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Mirabell Gardens north of the River Salzach and then the Residenzplatz and busy pedestrian lanes south of the river. Hovering above us always was the clifftop fortress Festung Hohensalzburg, which we chose to forgo a visit to. The best views of Salzburg from ground level came from the bridges and the walking path north of the river.
On the way back to the car, we found a park with a playground for the kids. Cleo discovered a grid of musical tiles set into the ground.
Anyone with a warped sense of humor knows about Fucking, Austria and mine is as warped as anyone's. While the name of the town might seem shocking to English speakers, it has no particular meaning in German. The town is apparently named for someone named Focko who founded the village 1500 years ago. However, over the years since the town became internet famous, local authorities have had to deal with a deluge of British tourists asking annoying questions and even worse, stealing the town signs. Apparently it becomes wearisome informing tourists time and time again that no, there are no Fucking postcards. We didn't have vandalism on our minds, but I still felt a little sheepish as we drove into the little village looking for the road signs. I half expected to have to wait in line for our photo ops, but there was no sign of life in the area whatsoever. The one or two cars that passed refrained from chucking beer bottles at us as we snapped our photos.
On the way back from Fucking we bypassed Salzburg and went to the picturesque town of Hallein, slightly to the south, for dinner. Much of the center of town was torn up for some renovations of the cobblestones, but we still got to enjoy an impromptu concert of classical music from across a street barricaded with plastic netting. It only took about 15 minutes to walk through the entire old town.
We proceeded to the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor which had a beautiful courtyard setting. I confirmed with the manager that there wouldn't be any problem accommodating the kids, and he gave me a sideways look. "As long as you understand this isn't fast food," he said. I was a little nonplussed since it was hard to imagine how anyone could have mistaken his restaurant for a fast food joint, but we sat down in the courtyard. As it turned out, the manager hadn't exaggerated. It was over an hour before the first bite of food appeared on the table and two hours before the last dish arrived, despite the fact that only three other tables were occupied. I couldn't really complain - he'd warned us. It would have been easier to deal with the painfully long wait if the food had been good, but it was universally mediocre to awful. The worst was a sushi dish that consisted of three slivers of salmon atop damp balls of undercooked rice, garnished by withered bean sprouts. The only saving grace was a dessert of delicious fruit crepes. We concluded that the restaurant was worth a visit, but only after dinner elsewhere, just to enjoy the crepes in the courtyard.
On Saturday morning we took a final stab at finding a produce market, but there was only a flea market open for business. Instead we went to the Baroque palace Schloss Hellbrunn, where Archbishop of Salzburg Markus Sittikus installed numerous trick fountains designed to playfully soak his guests. We just missed a tour of the fountains when we arrived, so we spent a half hour exploring the grounds.
Once the tour got started, we were part of a large group composed largely of a Taiwanese high school class. The fountains were beautiful and the kids had a lot of fun with the surprise soakings in the summer heat, so I was glad we'd made the visit even though we were getting a late start on the road to Vienna.
We had one more stop before Vienna, which was the Ars Electronica Center in Linz. This miniature science museum had a lot of great interactive exhibits for the kids, including programmable electronic insects and a conductive disk which turned the entire body of anyone gripping it into a musical instrument.
We walked across the bridge for a quick peek at Linz's old town, but soon decided we'd rather get to Vienna in time for a pleasant dinner than explore a whole new city.