A few months ago, I fulfilled the dream of a lifetime: to do a “book pilgrimage” to Vienna.
As many of my fans know, Mary Stewart is one of my all-time favourite authors and ever since I was a teenager, I’d long dreamt of visiting the setting of her novel, Airs Above the Ground and following in the heroine’s footsteps.
I’d also been wanting to write a novel set in Vienna for a long time, so this was the perfect opportunity for a research trip! 🙂
(And yes, I was so inspired when I returned that I decided to set the next Oxford Tearoom Mystery in Vienna. So if you’ve read APPLE STRUDEL ALIBI, you might spot the sources of inspiration for various scenes in the story! 😉 )
The funny thing is, when we first got married and my husband heard about my dream, he’d promised that we’d make a trip to Vienna for our 20th anniversary. It was always something that we looked forward to in the distant future… and then suddenly, here we were! Where did 20 years go? 🙂
It was a looong flight from Down Under to Europe, with several changes and stopovers, but I was really pleased that we did the last leg on a little Austrian Airlines plane… complete with a breakfast of traditional muesli to welcome us!
Although it isn’t featured in Mary Stewart’s book. we decided to start our trip on the other side of Austria – in Salzburg – and drive across the country to Vienna. Besides, I grew up watching The Sound of Music so I couldn’t miss the chance to visit the home of Maria and the Von Trapp children!
Salzburg is such a beautiful, romantic city – like something out of a fairy tale…
When we travel, I avoid the big international chain hotels if I can and prefer to stay in small boutique hotels and B&B’s (“bed & breakfast”), as they always have so much more character. This time, I found a wonderful boutique hotel right in the heart of the “old town” which was so quaint and charming! Here is the lobby…
… I loved the fact that they even gave you an old-fashioned key on a heavy medallion keychain, instead of an electronic swipe card!
We were hungry & exhausted after our journey from the other side of the world so we dumped our things and headed out immediately for our first meal in Austria!
The hotel recommended a gorgeous little restaurant tucked in a side street, which specialised in Austrian cuisine, and we were welcomed by warm and friendly waitresses dressed in beautiful Dirndl s- the traditional outfit of Austrian women.
I wasn’t very familiar with Austrian cuisine so it was fun exploring the menu… although, of course, I had to order Austria’s national dish: Wiener Schnitzel – a thin cutlet of pork, covered in golden breadcrumbs and pan-fried until crispy, usually served with parsley potatoes, salad and a wedge of lemon. It was delicious!
We were up bright & early the next morning, ready to do some sightseeing in Mozart’s birth city. Salzburg was smaller than I expected – it really had the feel of a large town – and most of it is best explored on foot. It was so quaint and beautiful, full of narrow, winding lanes flanked by little shops and cafes…
We decided not to have breakfast at the hotel but instead head to a traditional Austrian coffeehouse… and we ended up at Cafe Tomaselli, Salzburg’s oldest cafe (opened in 1703 – apparently Mozart himself drank here!) and an institution in the city.
I have to say, I never thought I was a fan of Continental breakfasts (I like hot cooked breakfasts, preferably with lots of egg and bacon!) – but somehow, in Austria, they make even a plain bread roll taste so delicious!!
And you know what’s amazing? You can even have CAKE for breakfast! Yup, there was a lady whose only job was to go around to every table in the cafe, offering a tray laden with cakes and strudels…
I wanted EVERYTHING on her tray!! But I had to content myself with a slice of Mozart cake and a wedge of apple strudel, since I’d already consumed 4 bread rolls, a croissant and several slices of ham (no, that measly bowl of healthy bircher muesli was not mine – it belonged to my saintly husband…)
Salzburg is divided by a river and the skyline is dominated by the Festung Hohensalzburg – the Hohensalzburg Fortress, a brooding medieval castle that sits atop a hill overlooking the city (can you see it in the picture below?)
As it was late autumn when we went, the weather wasn’t great and I was a bit frustrated that most of my photos were very grey… but I have to admit, it does give the place a fantastic, brooding atmosphere, doesn’t it?
The fortress is one of the top sights in Salzburg, so of course, we had to make the journey up the hill for a visit – the thrilling views on the ride up the steep funicular railway would have been worth it alone!
Of course, the biggest attraction in Salzburg is probably Schloss Mirabell – the Mirabell Palace – and it’s beautiful Gardens. Originally built by an Austrian prince for his beloved mistress, today the palace buildings house the mayor’s offices and other city government buildings, although the gardens are open free to the public.
Aside from just being stunning (yes, even in the grey autumn weather!), the gardens are also where memorable scenes from The Sound of Music were shot on location, in particular when Maria and the Von Trapp children sang and danced to the famous “Do Re Mi” number.
The gardens (and palace staircase & halls) also seemed very popular for wedding photos – we saw three brides in the morning we were there! – and it was interesting that many of them opted for traditional Dirndl type outfits, instead of the usual white dress.
Many of the wedding guests also dressed in traditional Austrian attire – the women in colourful Dirndl dresses, the men in smart Loden wool jackets – and a local told us that while traditional costumes were mostly just worn for tourists in the rest of Austria, in Salzburg, they were still often worn by the local residents.
Here’s one of the brides in a beautiful Dirndl wedding gown – isn’t it gorgeous? There were loads of shops in the city, selling Dirndls for tourists, and I was very tempted to buy one, but I knew that it would look out of place (and everyone would probably think I was wearing a fancy dress costume!) back home…
And here’s one of the wedding party, all in traditional attire…
Of course, after all that walking about in the chilly weather, it was time for some hot drinks and a sweet treat at another traditional coffeehouse! And we couldn’t visit Salzburg without tasting some of its famous Mozartkugel – “Mozart balls”.
Cafe Fürst is where the original Mozart balls were invented in the 19th century: a rich centre of pistachio, marzipan and nougat, coated in dark or milk chocolate…
OK, as you can see from the photo, I couldn’t resist also ordering a chocolate profiterole filled with fresh whipped cream and a chocolate-dipped roasted chestnut. What’s a girl to do when she’s got huge displays of goodies in front of her?! 😉
(I have to admit, I felt slightly sick after it was all finished – and no, I didn’t need dinner that evening!)
For such a small city, Salzburg was crammed full of sights – too many to show you all here (yes, I took hundreds of photos!) – and even though we had a leisurely few days there, I think I could have easily stayed a week and still been kept busy!
I loved the romantic horse carriages going around the city…
The spectacular Residenz palace of the Prince Archbishops of Salzburg…
On our last night, we attended a concert at the Schloss Mirabell and it was just magical sitting in the magnificent Marble Hall, listening to the Baroque ensemble orchestra play classical favourites – if you ever visit Salzburg, it’s an experience not to be missed!
Salzburg sits on the northern edge of the Austrian Alps and so before we started the drive to Vienna, we took a detour up into the mountains…
Why? Well, several of my favourite scenes in Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground take place when the heroine goes to stay in a wonderfully romantic converted castle hotel. I’d always dreamt of re-enacting that experience (OK, without the terrifying chase across the castle rooftops!) – and when we were planning our trip, I tried desperately to find the castle mentioned in the book.
Sadly – unlike some of the other locations in the story – the “Schloss Zechstein” didn’t seem to exist. But I was determined to stay in a castle hotel… and after some online detective work, I found one, tucked in the Austrian Alps…
It wasn’t exactly like the one described in the story (it didn’t have a moat, for one thing, or towers with turrets) – but it was close enough! 😉
And it was absolutely gorgeous, with romantic atmosphere & character galore…
There was a wonderful moment when I woke up the next morning and remembered that I was staying in a real-life castle!!!
And it was a castle with a really good breakfast buffet too 😉
There was so much to explore within the castle itself, it was tempting just to stay on the property… but we couldn’t miss the chance for a hike in the Austrian Alps!
Sadly, I didn’t see a piebald stallion dancing on the slopes – but I did see a piebald cow… does that count? (Mary Stewart fans will know what I’m talking about! 😉 )
We also made an unexpected feline friend! As we were walking past a field, a calico cat suddenly popped her head out of the long grass, then bounded across the field towards us! We were surprised at how friendly she was – we were complete strangers, after all; she even followed us for a while down the lane beside the farm.
It was a fabulous hike and I worked up an enormous appetite – I was glad that the castle restaurant served as hearty a lunch as it did breakfast… that Wiener Schnitzel had my name on it!! 😉
After lunch, we spent a happy afternoon exploring the castle from top to bottom. It had originally been built in the 12th century and it was fascinating as it wasn’t symmetrical at all, with different wings and sections added on ad hoc over the course of history. There were spiraling staircases rambling up to different storeys and unexpected passageways opening up around every corner.
While I didn’t find any spiral stone staircases leading up a rooftop turret, I was THRILLED to discover a lift on the very top floor (not quite the roof but close enough!), as well as a curving wooden staircase that led up to the roof space of the castle chapel (not quite a turret but again, close enough!).
If you’re a Mary Stewart fan and have read Airs Above the Ground, you’ll probably know why I got so excited (if you’re not a Mary Stewart fan, you’re probably thinking I’m a bit mad – haha!)
I think, looking back, our stay at the castle was the highlight of the trip for me. Yes, Vienna was amazing and I loved it too – but this was just special. You know how sometimes you imagine and dream about something for ages – it’s often hard for the reality to match up to your expectations. But this surpassed it and more!
In fact, I loved the the place so much that I really wanted to include it in my own book (imagine what the Old Biddies could have got up to in a castle!) but it just didn’t quite fit my story. Oh well, maybe another novel in the future…
However, I was inspired to include something else we found in the castle: a therme – a traditional Austrian sauna and spa!
(Yes, Gemma’s reactions in that nude sauna scene in APPLE STRUDEL ALIBI was inspired by personal experience!!).
I couldn’t take any photos in the sauna – for obvious reasons! – but here’s a picture of the beautiful castle pool.
It was too wintry for me to consider swimming, but I did see several people braving the cold water!
It had been an amazing stay and I was very sorry to leave – but Vienna was calling… so we loaded up the car and set off on our way to Austria’s historic capital…