Of Salzburg, Bill Bryson writes that he “found it hard to warm to.” Furthermore, he describes Mozartplatz as “quite astonishingly ugly.” I usually find myself agreeing with Bryson, but here I felt puzzled.
I’d taken the 12:30 Westbahn train to Salzburg, arriving in the little town at approximately 3pm. Beautifully, there was nothing on the agenda, so I decided to wander. As I walked along the Salzach River, tea green and hurrying northwest, I found the city to be welcoming and very easy to warm to. I was making my way to Hauptsraße, to a restaurant named Barenwirt, but I found myself wandering along the river bank instead, watching cyclists, roller bladers, and men pushing prams while the sun set lazily in the west. I lingered on bridges catching views of the church and the Monchsberg jutting up just south of where I stood, and explored winding pedestrian streets that terminated in small squares with stout statues, all dwarfed by the mighty, vertical face of the Monchsberg.
I dined on the terrace at Barenwirt overlooking the Salzach, the green hills of Kapuzinerberg in the distance. To sit outside, I’d have to participate in communal dining, where guests end up sharing a table with strangers. (The Buena Vista cafe in San Francisco uses this, too, and for good reason.) Two Asian men joined me, but we didn’t talk. I downed a stein of Augustiner local beer and nibbled on some fried cheese gnocchi that may or may not have been Spatzle while they shared what looked to be an entire animal. It’s been a long time since I traveled alone, but I enjoyed it, sitting with my thoughts and the river.
It was early evening when I left the restaurant, the sky a heavy blue. Again, I found myself at Makartsteg, the pedestrian bridge covered in padlocks (the bridge is named for a painter, so appropriately artsy), this time drawn by the sound of an accordion and a saxophone. I tossed 80 cents into the case and stood on the bridge watching Salzburg at night, joggers pausing to marvel with me at the river beneath us.
When I returned to the hotel, a strange thing happened. I had just showered when there was a knock at the door and, to my astonishment, the knob turned and an elderly employee shuffled in.
“Alice is okay,” she told me, smiling. I had no idea what this meant and tried to convey this to her through a shrug and a raised eyebrow, but she remained, smiling and nodding. “Alice is okay.”
With no reaction whatsoever to my stunned appearance, she reversed out the door, still smiling, as if this were perfectly normal. Worried that some hotel guest had a friend named Alice in critical condition at some hospital and was desperately awaiting information, I went down to the desk and tried my best to explain what had happened.
“Someone from the hotel came into my room and said that someone named Alice is okay,” I tried. The concierge looked confused.
“Was she short? An older woman?” he asked. I nodded, and he smiled, understanding. “That was turn-down service.”
This was still mightily confusing to me, because I’m not used to hotel employees actually entering the room, but I returned anyway and bolted the door, not wanting to wake up in the middle of the night to an elderly woman tottering around my bed, as endearing and maternal as that may be.
It wasn’t until I was drifting off that I realized she’d been trying to ask, “All is okay?”
Bill Bryson must not have had such pleasant company when he visited Salzburg. Perhaps if he’d stayed where I was, he would have found it much easier to warm to.