Salzburg – The Commodification of Mozart and the Von Trapps



That’s Mozart for you selling Mozart balls! One thing you can’t and you shouldn’t miss in this second largest city in Austria – Salzburg – is the Mozartkugen (Mozartballs). Such delicious caramel filled chocolates that you just can’t stop at one! Try to buy them in a super market where you could get three packets for 10 Euros. The souvenir stores will give you one less for that amount.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the wonder kid who began composing music even before he turned five, is Salzburg’s biggest commodity.  Mozart mugs, key chains, magnets, coasters – you name it – and you have it with the child-like face of Mozart looking intensely at you. From every cafe or store, you will hear Symphony 40 that continues to echo in your ears even as you go to bed.

The picturesque city of Salzburg is divided into the old and new towns by the Salzach river. The old city dating back to medieval times on the left bank is home to perhaps the most visited address in Salzburg, i.e. No. 9 Getreidegasse; Mozart’s birthplace preserved as a museum now. The most endearing exhibit in the museum is Mozart’s childhood violin. Staring at the baby violin, I imagined the cute five-year old creating magic on the strings; a rare child prodigy whose music doesn’t fail to transport you to other realms to this day.


If you haven’t had enough of Mozart, there’s the Mozart Wonhaus, the residence he moved to at age 17. Here, you can go back in time as you take a look at his musical instruments, letters and documents. The audio guides make the place quiet and the sound of shuffling feet is all you will hear other than the commentary. Clearly, this is meant for Mozart fans only! The rest who stray in either rush through and exit or wear appropriate expressions of reverence.


As if Mozart wasn’t sufficiently commodified, there is an entire family that is. Yes, the Von Trapps. Salzburg’s blue hills, the meandering river, the green grass and Baroque architecture formed the perfect setting for one of Hollywood’s most enduring films, The Sound of Music. As the movie locations are far apart from each other, we decided to take a conducted tour. Our guide, who in all probability, was a contemporary of Julie Andrews, spoke with such passion about the Von Trapps that it seemed they were family for her!

Do you remember Maria and her children singing Do Re Me on steps using them as musical scales? Well, the tour takes you to Mirabell gardens to see this. The garden has several statues of heroes from Greek mythology made by the well-known Italian sculptor, Ottavio Mosto. The relentless rain could not take away our enjoyment of the colourful gardens laid out with geometric precision.


Schloss Leopoldskron, the residence of the Von Trapp family in the movie is now an exclusive hotel for the rich and famous only. We are given a view of the erstwhile Rococo style palace built in 1736 from across the lake on which it is built.


The gazebo in which the famous ‘you are sixteen, going on seventeen’ song is filmed is now located in Hellbrunn Palace grounds, looking sad and abandoned. The guide insisted that we all sing the song to make us ‘feel the movie’ as she stated. In reality, we ended up looking like a bunch of fools! A deeply embarrassing moment indeed!


Luckily, the moment was offset by the drive to Mondsee to partake of the joy of Maria’s wedding in the cathedral.  The hills loomed large all through the 25 minute picture perfect drive that provided bewitching views of lakes and pastures.


That’s Salzburg! The hills are alive with the sound of music, the chatter of hundreds of tourists tumbling out of buses, crowds that throng every spot from the Castle to the museums, Do Re Me bursting out of toy pianos and cardboard cutouts of Mozart selling balls.

Gita Viswanath






Eisriesenwelt (World of Ice Giants) Werfen Ice Caves – A Journey into the Self


Even as we sat around the dining table, poring over maps and brochures the night before, we knew it in our guts that this was one plan we were making with a great deal of trepidation. On my part, I, being asthmatic, armed myself with adequate warm clothing purchased at Lidl supermarket. Yes, in Europe if you wish to buy affordable clothes, do so at select supermarkets along with your supply of milk, yogurt and veggies. At the back of my mind were my sons’ text messages, replies to my rather nervous question – “1400 steps in zero degrees, think I can do it?”

Next morning, we woke up to the sound of continuous rain. Heavier than a drizzle, lighter than a downpour, the rain made a day in September unusually cold at 10 degrees for Salzburg.  We dressed in layers, put on our raincoats, carried sandwiches and water and left for Werfen by the 8.25 a.m. train from Salzburg HBF.

Fifty minutes later when we arrived at Werfen, it was dull and gloomy. There was not a single person on the platform and we had no idea how to get to the caves despite our supposedly impeccable research. We nudged open a door to find a dank room with wooden benches. The man who was resting sat up startled. Soon, we realized he didn’t understand English. But he was kind enough to walk us to the station master’s office. We were told there would be a shuttle half an hour later that would take us to the caves. While we sat in the waiting room watching the relentless rain, there were just two other people around. Even Malgudi would have had more, I thought!

When the bus arrived, we could have hugged the driver. An aunt of mine used to say, “people are born as soon as a bus arrives.” True to her saying, even if, much is lost in translation, at least a dozen people appeared from out of nowhere. Two young Americans waiting to board, looked devastated when the driver told them, “Sorry, no card, only cash.”  (7 Euros round trip) After dispensing tickets to all, the driver called them in with a smile, “Get in, I’ll take you to an ATM.” That was one of our early encounters with kindness during our trip to five countries in Eastern Europe.

At the base, there were huge crowds of cheerful tourists bundled up in jackets, caps and gloves of every hue. In the midst of these crowds, I acquired an unknown daredevilry. I told myself, “If so many people are all set to climb, surely I can too.”

A long flight of stairs to the ticket office, a twenty-minute uphill walk to the cable car, a three-minute car ride, another twenty-minute climb, a really steep one and that too at high altitude, which included a walk through a tunnel full of slush and lo and behold I was at the entrance to the world’s largest ice cave. My two travel companions dropped out midway due to inclement weather and the consequent slipping on sleet. 20170919_111115

Along the way, I was relieved that the rain had stopped. Until I saw snow flakes, at first gently, then urgently, settling on my coat sleeves. Before I could blink, the Tennengebirge mountains around me, the banister I was holding on to, the trees – everything was getting coated with soft, fresh, whiter than white snow. For someone from the tropics, this was a truly magical moment. But alas! Magic is magical because it is ephemeral.

My specs were covered with snow. My hands despite the gloves began to get numb and my pace slowed down due to the build up of sleet. People walked past me, even children, making me feel inadequate for the task at hand. My sons’ replies – one “unlikely, you can do it” and another “go for it, you’re not old enough to miss it” – both motivated me in their own ways. I carried on steadfastly, somewhat stunned at my own ability. When I finally arrived at the entrance to the cave, I was puffed up with confidence about lasting the 70-minute walk inside.

Werfen ice caves, discovered in 1879 by Anton Posselt, is located south of Salzburg in Austria in the Hochkogel mountain in the Tennengebirge section of the Alps. The guide who makes the 70-minute ice cave walk 7 times in a day was a young, lanky mountain lad who lives in a hut next to the cable car station. He warned us that a blast of icy cold wind would hit our faces as we entered the cave as the door to it is kept open 24 hours in order to maintain freezing temperature inside the caves.

Now, the big question – How do giant ice sculptures form inside the caves?

The corridors and the crevices link the lower lying entrances to openings in the higher reaches enabling draughts of air to circulate as in a chimney. During spring, the ice that melts from the mountains seeps through the rock crevices and freezes on contact with the cold and frozen lower areas of the caves. This wondrous phenomenon occuring over  thousands of years has led to the mesmerizing sight of the ice formations. 1280px-Werfen_Eisriesenwelt_4

I climbed each one of the 700 steps mouth agape, totally awestruck and for want of an expression remained poker faced. The cave extends to an area of 42 square kilometers. However, only one kilometer which is open to the public is an ice cave, the rest having limestone formations. Artificial lighting is not allowed inside the caves. We are given lanterns to hold during our walk. Photography is strictly prohibited. The pictures of the ice sculptures here are taken from the internet.


As we humans battle it out in the daily grind, natural phenomena such as these ice formations continue to occur regardless in order to enthrall and to humble the two-legged species. The sound of shoes on wooden stairs and the guide’s drone were all that could be heard. Looming large all around us were tons of ice in different shapes defying our very notions of size and the possibilities of nature. Another 700 steps down brought us back to the entrance which is from where we exit too.

The hour-long descent to the base took nearly twice that time for me. The snow had thickened on the mountains, the sleet was hardening dangerously. I dug my glove-clad hand hard into the banister which was an inch high with snow and made my way down watching every step. After all, if I had to take a toss up there, there wasn’t much hope.

When I finally got back to the ticket counter and met with my travel companions who were waiting anxiously for me (even sensing dread when they heard the siren of an ambulance!), I felt good about everything. No one can emerge unchanged from a cave. Neither Zarathustra, nor you, nor I.

Gita Viswanath




Haus der Musik (House of Music) Vienna


If you thought museums were all about walking silently on polished floors and looking at glass-encased displays with a look of wonder on your face, then think again. Haus der Musik, German for House of Music in Vienna is an interactive museum where you could even get Mozart to compose a piece for you!

A flight of musical stairs take you up this multi-storeyed museum which is housed in the Palace of Archduke Charles. It is also significant for the fact that the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic, Otto Nicolai lived there a century and a half ago. Indians should be proud of the fact that Zubin Mehta is an honorary President of the museum.

Inaugurated in 2000, House of Music uses technology to great effect to take us on a tour that begins with the very origins of sound in the womb to conducting the Blue Danube yourself. Imagine my delight when I, with the help of a virtual simulator, conducted that most popular of Strauss’s compositions which turned 150 this year! The room also includes an entire wall with people dancing the waltz.

Yet another fascinating computer game lets you type out your first name and then none other than the master, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composes for you! You can print out the score and carry it as a keep sake. I got so engrossed in it; trying out with my children’s and grand-daughter’s names that I didn’t realize a little queue had formed


behind me. 20170914_171433

Massive instruments fill the museum, even a walk-in organ pipe and a gigantic xylophone hung from the ceiling. The entire third floor is dedicated to the history of different composers such as Strauss, Mozart, Haydn and Mahler. Original staff notations and instruments fill this section. Strauss’s large collection of violins is on display here.



What I regret, however, about this visit is the fact that I was alone. Even just one other music lover with me would have made a big difference. I could have played the waltz dice game and we could have shrieked at music happening to the movements of our arms in front of a wall. Lastly, what’s performance without applause? Sadly, there was no one to clap when I conducted The Blue Danube. Sigh!

Gita Viswanath



Plan, Pack and Go!



Who doesn’t need a break from the drudgery of routine? Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a long vacation, some preparation would be necessary.

Let me tell you about our preparation for a thirty-six day (yes, you’re not myopic, you’ve got it right) trip to parts of Eastern and Central Europe.

  1. Choose your company. The first step as always is a very crucial step. Pick like-minded travel companions with more or less similar interests. Of course, differences will always exist. Just be prepared to deal with them. For instance, one day in Vienna, we went our ways, some opting for a museum and one for the House of Music. The evening saw us all back in the apartment happily sharing our experiences. Make sure to carry separate keys though!
  2. Fix a budget. Personal expenses apart, it’s best to arrive at a consensus on a maximum limit for shared costs such as airfare, accommodation, food and so on. The duration of your tour and the number of places you visit are directly related to your budget.
  3. Prepare an itinerary. Yes, we are now at the toughest stage of preparation. Select countries as per your interests. This would require endless hours of googling to learn what each country has to offer in terms of things to do, sights to see etc. Ultimately for some reason, even if your trip does not materialize, let me assure you this activity will be a huge learning experience. We chose Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia in that order.
  4. Do your airline bookings. More googling! Sites such as makemytrip, kayak, cheapflights, secretflying are some amongst several that flood the internet. The early bird gets the worm! So get cracking and get past this stage as early as possible to get the best deals ever.
  5. Book tickets for internal travel. Same slogan about the early bird holds true here too. So go for it! Choose a variety for more fun. We did a combination of bus, train and ferry.
  6. Select accommodation. Hostels, apartments and hotels are your options here. Airbnb, are saviours. Apartments in European cities seem like the best option. Sparkling clean, aesthetically done up and centrally located for the most part, they offer safe spaces that provide cooking opportunities as well. An apartment we stayed in in Ljubljana, Slovenia was filled with books. The bibliophile in me didn’t want to leave.
  7. Research individual cities. Prepare a list of things to do and sights to see. You don’t have to be rigid about sticking to it but you wouldn’t want to leave Dubrovnik without walking around the walls, would you?
  8. Visa formalities.  Yawwnnn! The boring but most essential part is the visa. Make sure your passport is valid and you have at least two blank pages for stamping. Take medical insurance, prepare all documents as per the list on the website of the country you wish to visit. We required a Schengen from Austria as that was the country where we stayed for the longest time on our trip. Croatia is not on the Schengen list. However, if you have a Schengen visa, you are allowed to enter Croatia.
  9. Pack sensibly. Check weather forecast for each and every city for the duration of your stay and pack accordingly. A raincoat, umbrella and jacket are must-haves. Do not  over pack clothes if you are staying in apartments. Most come equipped with washing machines. Even otherwise, clothes don’t get dirty the way they do here. With no sweat and grime there, your jeans and tops are eminently reusable without a wash! Your mantra should be “travel as light as possible.” You have to lug your luggage yourself.
  10. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Europe is extremely walker friendly. Most of the time, walking and climbing are mandatory as Old Towns are pedestrian only spaces. Make sure you hit the gym or swim or walk regularly for at least three months before departure. It would be so disappointing to miss a stunning view of the Adriatic Sea in Split in Croatia from the bell tower in Diocletian Palace just because you weren’t fit enough to climb the 108 steps to the top.
  11. Read about the places. It’s always a more enriching experience if you have some idea about the history, politics, and culture of the places you plan to visit. Of course, I’ll end with a caveat.
  12. Don’t see it all in virtual space. Last tip would be not to over research. As in everything else, leave scope for wonder. As we went around our apartment in Vienna, one of us spotted the semi-circle of a ferris wheel looming over a building  right outside the bedroom window and exclaimed with child-like delight, “Hey look at the Ferris wheel. I could touch it!” Another, busy unpacking her suitcase dryly said, “Oh you didn’t know? That’s Prater!”

Those who go out have stories to tell

Many many years ago, setting aside the skeptic in me temporarily, I boarded a green army jeep making its way to a hut nestled in a thick jungle ahead of Sevoke Road in North Bengal. In the jeep, was an excited yet apprehensive colonel’s family.

We wrapped our shawls tighter around our shoulders as we got off the jeep in front of a little hut with a low door. There he was! The sought after seer with a name that resonated. Fakkad Baba.

Whether it was a posting or a promotion, the two earth shattering events in the lives of armymen and their families, it was Fakkad Baba to the rescue. That cold January morning, I had neither care nor concern for either. The Baba with his unkempt hair and smelly jacket looked at me and said, “Pair me chakra hai.” It seemed a bummer of a prediction! After all, he knew I had just got off an army jeep.

Well … twenty four years later, prediction or not, I certainly have chakra on my pair. I present to you my brand new travel blog. Posts on Europe, Russia, Myanmar, China and many more spots on our planet follow soon.

Look forward to dollops of encouragement as I dish out stories from everywhere.

Gita Viswanath