Salzburg center lacks charming hotel accommodations
|Sleeping in Salzburg|
Salzburg is still alive with The Sound of Music. Subtle evidence of that is a yellowing check for $20 stuck under the glass at the reception desk of the fading Hotel Elefant in the town's Altstadt. It was written in 1981 by Maria von Trapp, the Julie Andrews character in the 1965 movie.
The town has been popular with Americans for several decades. There was a Helen MacInnes book, Salzburg Connection, a Cold War spy thriller, and out of the book came a very bad movie of the same name, with cars chasing up and down the Hohensalzburg. Awful as it was, the movie at least gave us a look at a gorgeous little city.
But it was that Hollywood blockbuster of blockbusters, The Sound of Music, with Julie Andrews scampering through high Alpine meadows, that forever changed life in Austria's third largest city.
Since the movie, Salzburg seemingly has been on everyone's European itinerary and the Sound of Music tour remains its number one tourist attraction.
And there is no lack of tourists. Each day in high season, hundreds of tour buses dump waves of visitors into the Altstadt. Others arrive by rail, auto and air. Even in the dead of winter the Getreidegasse bustles and one hears American voices everywhere.
But Salzburg is far more than a movie set. It has a rollicking past and great charm. One cannot fail to be intrigued, for example, by the central figure in its history; the lecherous, egotistical Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, the man who built Salzburg while fathering 15 children out of wedlock-with, to his credit, the same woman. (Unfortunately, things didn't end well for Wolfie, he got on the wrong side of the Pope and spent the last five years of his life a prisoner in the Hohensalzburg fortress. You may want to visit the ostentatious tomb he designed for himself in the St. Sebastian cemetery.)
All that history, God-given beauty, Archbishop-given buildings—and of course one little 'ol movie—have been very good for Salzburg hotel business, especially in the center of the city. Too good, maybe. Since this is where overnight visitors want to stay, and since there has been almost no new competition, a handful of little inns in the heart of town have been able to maintain high occupancy rates by simply keeping the doors open and the linen clean.
Most in the old-town retain a degree of charm and all are acceptable lodgings. But at a time when small, family-operated hotels all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland are upgrading their facilities and services, it is disappointing to see tired public rooms, scuffed furnishings, and poorly-lit and equipped bathrooms in hotels which could and should be atmospheric little gems. Instead, most of them have the air of overused package tour hotels.
Hotels in Salzburg Old Town
Those who seek the best accommodations will find them at the Altstadt Radisson SAS. Located between Rudolfskai, which fronts the river, and the pedestrian-only Judengasse, the hotel has entrances on both streets.
It's current site encompasses three ancient Salzburg addresses and the ground on which it stands was once the Höllbräu, an inn and brewery. A Jewish synagogue may also have stood on the site in the late 14th century and excavations for the current structure turned up parts of the wall that encircled the town in the 12th century.
Though corporately-owned, the Altstadt has made a conscious effort to keep the atmosphere of a small, intimate inner-city hotel. Its entrance from Judengasse is via a simple arched doorway over which hangs the traditional, Salzburg decorative wrought iron sign. There is no uniformed doorman. The reception area is small but very elegant with a patterned granite tile floor, recessed lighting and a richly burnished dark wood check-in counter.
Standard doubles are on the small side but solidly appointed. In the "Superior" category, Number 408 retains the old rough beams of one of the earlier structures that occupied the site. "Deluxe" rooms, such as Number 310, are simply larger with a separate sitting area.
On the Rudolfskai side of the building, the hotel's long, narrow Restaurant Symphony (also the breakfast room) is lined with windows which overlook the river about 60 feet below. A few of the restaurant's tables are in an adjoining glassed-in porch that hangs high above the Salzach.
At several times during the year the Altstadt offers a special three-nights-for-the-price-of-two arrangement that includes an upgrade to a deluxe room, one dinner, and a welcome cocktail.
Though it may lack some of the old world charm of the famed Goldener Hirsch, the Altstadt is our first choice in Salzburg.
Double rooms start at about $250
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 10/20
If you've ever been to a once-popular but now-fading restaurant or bar whose walls are adorned with pictures signed by athletes and politicians from another era, you know what's going on at the Elefant. The $20 check written by Maria von Trapp displayed under-glass at the reception counter has that same feel.
This was once a lovely hotel, but that's been several years and a few hundred tour groups ago, though it did get a much-needed buffing in 2002. Furnishings are of good quality, the reception area floor is that wonderful old herringbone hardwood pattern, there are some nice Oriental rugs, and many guestrooms have been wallpapered; the charm is still there, it just could be so much more.
Small doubles start at about $185 per night. Based on three visits we are lukewarm on the Elefant. It doesn't seem to get any better, just more expensive.
Contact: Hotel Elefant, Sigmund-Haffner-Gasse 4, A-5020 Salzburg, tel. +41/0662/843397, fax 84 0109-28
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 5/20
Management at the more country Weisse Taube is much friendlier and more helpful than at the Elefant, plus the prices are lower. With doubles from €96-169, it's a better value. But here, too, there is a maintenance problem; it's time for a little urban renewal.
Rating: Quality 7/20, Value 5/20
Hotel Blaue Gans
Over the past several years this simple hotel, which is next door to the very grand Goldener Hirsch, has morphed into one of Europe's many "art" hotels with a website that is a triumph of style over substance. Whatever the theme, the rooms are small, the service indifferent and the maintenance merely adequate. And with doubles from €139-199, it is no bargain.
Contact: Hotel Blaue Gans, Getreidegasse 43, A-5020 Salzburg, tel. +43/0662/84 2491, fax 8424919
Rating: Quality 8/20, Value 6/20
In 1988 we picked the Wolf as the Salzburg hotel which offered the best combination of value and comfort. We even included it in our book, The 50 Best Country Inns and Small, City Hotels of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Were we to compile another such list, however, we could not include the Wolf. The rooms are rather Spartan and quite small. We still prefer it, however, to the Weisse Taube, Elefant, or Blaue Gans-and its prices much lower. Doubles are €80-138.
Contact: Hotel Wolf, Kaigasse 7, A-5020 Salzburg, tel. +43/0662/84 34 530, fax 8424234.
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 10/20
Other Hotels in Salzburg
This four-star hotel, which seems to attract mostly business travelers, is in a quasi residential district about a 10-15 minute walk from the Old Town. Guestrooms are spacious and well-appointed in a traditional old-world style. Ask for one away from the street. Parking is free, there is a fitness room on the hotel's top floor with sauna, steam bath and roof terrace. Video players and fax machines are available in some rooms. Doubles range from €129-176.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 10/20
This hotel, in an attractive Baroque-style building just out of the right bank's commercial area, has the great advantage of being a definite step up the quality ladder from most left bank hotels and also one step down in price. Guestrooms are more spacious and better maintained and furnished. The location is quiet and the welcome warm. With doubles as low as €105, Markus Sittikus offers good value.
Contact: Markus Sittikus, A-5020 Salzburg
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
This cozy hotel enjoys a convenient location just over the river from the old town. Though time had taken a bit of a toll since an earlier, very positive review, the Trumer Stube has recently been refurbished and is a better deal than any hotel in its category in the old town.
In addition, the Hirschbichlers are pleasant hosts and able to offer guests passes for on-street parking in the neighborhood. That's not to say there will always be a spot available, but at least there is the possibility of free parking-a convenience that doesn't exist across the river.
This is a simple hotel-don't expect large rooms or piles of fluffy white towels-but for one of its double rooms you'll pay less than similar accommodations just a 10-minute walk away. Doubles from €89.
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 12/20
Unquestionably the best value in Salzburg. In addition to 16 thoughtfully furnished guestrooms with hardwood floors, guests can surf the Internet in the hotel's cozy reception area and parking is free.
The disadvantage is the old town is a 15 to 20 minute walk away. By bus, however, it is only three or four minutes away.
This is a non-smoking hotel. Double rooms are in the 75 to 105 euro range.
Proprietor Walter Gmachl is an ebullient sort you will immediately warm to.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
A fairly recent refurbishment, including all new bathrooms, has raised this hotel near the rail station from a backpacker's flop-stop to one that we can recommend to a broader audience.
Guest rooms are pleasantly furnished and bathrooms now have convenient, fully glassed-in showers. There is no lift, however. Though very near the rail station, the Auerhahn is nonetheless a long walk from Salzburg main tourist sights. Public transportation, however, is readily available and the price, 72 to 81 euros for a double room, is right.
The Auerhahn is also one of Salzburg most popular restaurants, rating a red toque in Gault Millau.
Contact: Gasthof Auerhahn, A-5020 Salzburg, Bahnhofstrasse 15, tel. +41/0662/451052, fax 451052-3. Proprietor: Family Pongratz
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 15/20
In the U.S., the holidays are behind us on January 2nd. In Salzburg, however, as we recently discovered, there is one more to go, the Feast of the Epiphany. This year is was on January 5th, a holiday for all Austrians and a day to dress up and have a big lunch at a gemütlich restaurant.
Based on a tip, we headed for Gasthof Auerhahn and the rustic dining room that is a favorite of many Salzburgers. The cozy warmth of its rough-hewn wood walls and its carved beams overhead was perfect on a chilly day. So was the food.
Very thinly sliced smoked goose breast served with a light vinegar dressing was not only delicious but had the added advantage of justifying one's European trip. To wit: this is stuff we can't get at home.
Main courses of baked salmon in a lemony cream sauce and pan-fried perch (Zanderfilet) from an Austrian river left no doubt as to how every seat at the Auerhahn came to be occupied that Tuesday afternoon.
The salmon came with rice and a clutch of perfectly prepared winter vegetables, while alongside the perch were generous servings of buttery spinach, fresh green asparagus and small boiled potatoes.
There was no room for dessert, instead we sipped the last of the straw-colored wine from the province of Burgenland, south of Vienna.
Such was the level of our contentment that we purchased one of the dozen or so original watercolors by a local artist and on display at the Auerhahn.
Lunch or dinner for two will be about $60 without wine. One of Marcus Witek's paintings will cost between $250 and $400.
Contact: Gasthof Auerhahn, A-5020 Salzburg, Bahnhofstrasse 15, tel. +41/0662/451052, fax 0662/451052-3.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
More Pubs & Grub
At Hotel-Restaurant Gablerbräu (Linzergasse 9, tel. 88965), on the right bank, not far from the Hotel Trumer Stube, the light Kaiser beer vom Fass goes down easily but the food is several notches below the Auerhahn. Mixed salads of shredded carrots, white radish, cucumber, and lettuce had a watery dressing. Rumpsteak in a peppery sauce was a little tough but tasty and came with good Pommes Frites and green beans with bits of smoked ham.
Chunks of venison filet in an almost black reduction sauce, and the pasty Semmelknödel that accompanied it, were less to our taste.
The beer is good, the prices modest (dinner for two without beverages, $45), and you'll get enough to eat. Expect to pay about $50 for two without beverages. No Gault Millau toques here, however.
Alter Fuchs (Linzergasse 47/49, tel. 882200) is a new, right bank, below-street-level, gathering spot for the under-40 crowd. For us it was an after-dinner stop for a drink and/or dessert. The suspicious sounding but luscious Liwanzen mit Powidl und Rumzwetschke ($6) is a couple of puffy pancakes, with a smooth prune-based sauce, three or four stewed prunes, a shot of liquor-possibly rum-all topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. We split it.
This is a very lively spot-jam-packed two nights running-but friendly and under control. Highly recommended.
Near the Hotel Auersperg, Wegsheidstuben (Lasserstr. 1, tel. 874618) is one of those homey, corner beer joint/restaurants in a mostly residential part of town. It looked promising, but the food was a disappointment. Zwiebelrostbraten had the salt shaker emptied into it and accompanying vegetables were canned. Enough said. To be avoided.
Not far from the Hotel Jedermann, Die Weisse (Rupertgasse 10, tel. 72246) is a rambling old brewpub specializing in wheat beer. It is an acquired taste.
Parking in Salzburg
Many hotels are located on streets which limit vehicle access. As a visitor you can drive to hotels and pensions in the Altstadt at anytime, even on streets which restrict vehicles. You may creep along at 5 miles an hour among crowds of pedestrians but stay with it, as long as you're hotel-bound it's o.k. After check-in, however, you will need to find parking during your stay (forget the car except for excursions to the countryside). Some hotels provide permits for street parking but a public garage is the more likely solution. Most hotels have discount arrangements with these garages and you will pay approximately 120 AS ($10) per day. Hotels out of the center usually offer free parking.
For admission to virtually all Salzburg attractions and unlimited public transportation, the Salzburg Card is a worthwhile investment. A 24-hour card is 21 euros the 48-hour version is 28 euros, and the 72-hour card costs 34 euros. With it comes the Salzburg Guide containing a city map and useful information.
A Von Trapp Gets Scammed
While The Sound of Music has been a financial boon to Salzburg and Hollywood, Maria von Trapp, the Julie Andrews character, didn't make out so well.
In 1956, according to Julie Hirsch's book, The Sound of Music-The Making of America's Favorite Movie, Maria was approached by a German film producer who offered $10,000 for the rights to her story. Upon advice from a lawyer, Maria also asked for royalties and a share of the profits. The producer lied and told her German film companies were forbidden by law from paying royalties to foreigners - she was by then an American citizen. A gullible Maria agreed and unknowingly signed away all the film rights to her story.
There was a German film version but it was 20th Century Fox that created the blockbuster that might have made her a very wealthy woman.
After spending 30 years as a missionary in New Guinea, Maria von Trapp died in 1987 at the age of 82 and is buried next to her husband on their property in Vermont.
- Edelweiss is not an Austrian folk song. It was created by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein and it was the last they wrote together, as Hammerstein died in August 1960, nine months after the musical opened and five years before the movie.
- The entire interior of the von Trapp villa, including the ornate ballroom, was built and shot at a studio in Hollywood. The set was eventually donated to the Hollywood Museum. The abbey courtyard/cloister scenes, and the graveyard scenes where the von Trapps hid from the Nazis, were also filmed in Hollywood.
- Magicians though they are, the filmmakers couldn't quite reproduce those Alpine meadows and mountains. For that they had to go to Austria for the real thing.