Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Myth of Salzburg

Two hundred years ago, writers, artists and scientists flocked to Salzburg from the larger cities of Europe in search of an alpine arcadia. These intellectuals were exhausted by the urban grind of places like Vienna and Berlin and generally discouraged about the state of things following decades of European upheavals and conflict. Salzburg, by contrast, looked like the perfect refuge; an alpine Garden of Eden with contented peasants and romantic medieval antiquities.

Two hundred years later, we’re still flocking to Salzburg for much the same needs and reasons. Big cities wear us out. The world never seemed in a more precarious state. Enter Salzburg with its perfect balance of Nature, History and Art. Yes, Salzburg looks like idealised stage set but that’s been the point for a long, long time.

Regardless of whether you have come to celebrate musical genius, retrace the steps of the von Trapps, or lounge around coffee houses, this is a city that understands our need to escape the realities of the here and now and except during the five weeks in late July and August when the Salzburg Festival causes crowds and prices to skyrocket, Salzburg is one of NoCrowds best loved European destinations.

It’s not that we dislike the world famous Salzburg Festival. In fact, we love it but we don’t love its impact on Salzburg. Much like Venice during Carnevale, the city is completely overwhelmed. Hotels, tables and tickets are booked up months if not years in advance. This is Salzburg under siege. If you want to see Salzburg in all its Arcadian glory, go any time except during the Festival.

[If you want to visit the Festival, we suggest you stay outside of Salzburg and hire a driver but that is a subject for another post.]

How to get there

One of the things we love about Salzburg is how easy it is to get there. Salzburg has good rail connections from many European cities including Vienna, Munich, Innsbruck and Zurich. There is a super convenient airport 15 minutes from the centre of town served by both discount and national airlines. Frequent buses from the airport get you into town quickly and inexpensively. Taxis are affordable too.

Where to stay

Having been a key tourist destination for hundreds of years, there are lots of good hotels to choose from in all price categories.

For our visit, we chose the mid-range Hotel Wolf-Dietrich on the right bank of the Salzach River. We liked the price, the location and the fact that they had affordable family suites with a separate room for Eloise. We also liked the fact that all the amenities such as the pool, spa, WIFI, videos and afternoon tea were included in the price of the room.

As it turned out, we were really pleased with our selection. The Hotel Wolf-Dietrich is a helpful and welcoming place. The staff met all our requests with charm and efficiency, even helping us to print out our boarding passes on the office printer on a busy morning. Our rooms were fine, nothing special, but comfortable and the promised amenities were first class. We paid €147 a night for our family suite with a substantial breakfast included. If price were no object, however, we would head straight for Salzburg’s most famous hotel, the Goldener Hirsch on the Getreidegasse which dates back to 1407 and oozes with tradition and history.

What to do

Despite its northern location, Salzburg is a very Italianate city, which is not surprising since Archbishop Wolf Dietrich, its principle architect and a relative of the Medici, set out to create the “Rome of the North”. Like Rome, Salzburg is a great city to explore on foot, filled with surprising medieval passageways that open onto bright and beautiful piazzas. As our visit was so short, we spent most of our time just wandering around.

We window shopped on the Getreidegasse, popped into lots of churches and ancient monasteries, imitated the von Trapp children in the Mirabel Gardens and paid homage to Mozart by visiting his birthplace which is now a museum. Sadly, we only scratched the surface of things to do such as climbing up to the fortress and attending a performance of the Salzburger Marionette Theater If you visit Salzburg with more time and more ambition than NoCrowds, we highly recommend purchasing a Salzburg Card which provides free admission to almost everything, free use of the public transportation and discounts on many tickets and tours.


Even when time is short, we love to shop in Salzburg for such authentic treasures as traditional clothing and textiles, hand painted Easter eggs, antique wood carvings and porcelain and ceramics. Probably the best place in town to buy high quality traditional Austrian crafts is in the Salzburger Heimatwerk which can be found at the far end of the Residenzplatz. Don’t make the mistake we did, rushing in close to closing time only to be rushed straight back out by the only non-charming Austrian of our entire trip. We also found a good selection of traditional Austrian ceramics at Elfriede Rauchenzauner on the Universitaetsplatz and Elfriede, by contrast is very charming.

Coffee and Cake

No trip to Salzburg would be complete without stopping in one of the traditional coffee houses for a coffee and cake. While most tourists head for the Café Tomaselli, founded in 1705 on the Alter Markt and still run by the same family, we much prefer the atmosphere at the more bohemian Café Bazaar on the banks of the Salzach River. If you want to sit with the locals, head for the clouds of smoke. You can still smoke in Austria and many Austrians enjoy a cigarette with their strudel. American tourists don’t. The segregation is almost perfect. In any event, we’ve been coming to Café Bazaar for over 30 years and are happy to report that it hasn’t changed a bit. The art nouveau setting, the bright young things, the old ladies in hats, they’re all there, reading newspapers and passing the time. If only more places could be like this.

Where to Eat

Speaking of places that haven’t changed, our first restaurant recommendation, the Siftskeller St. Peter, happens to be the oldest restaurant in Europe and the place where, legend has it, Mephistopheles met Faust and Charlemagne had dinner. That may or may not be true but it is a fact that this tavern, founded by Benedictine Monks, has been serving up food and drink since 803 and we can’t remember ever having visited Salzburg without making a pilgrimage to Peterskeller for a wiener schnitzel and a Salzburger nockerln, which is a fabulous egg white creation that looks a lot like the hills around Salzburg.

On the night we were there, we were so beautifully welcomed and so nicely treated that it felt like we were old regulars. Of course, we weren’t but we were quite touched. And what did we have to eat? Wiener schnitzel and Salzburger nockerln, which you should be sure to order with your main course as it takes about 30 minutes to prepare. Everything was delicious and exactly as we remembered. As an aside, if you want to eat with some elegant locals, book your table for about 10:00 pm when all the tourists have departed and the post theatre and concert crowd arrives.

Our second recommendation, the informal and more reasonably priced Hertzl restaurant in the Goldener Hirsch Hotel, is a real Salzburg “insiders” meeting place. On the walls are pictures of stars from the Festival such as Bernstein and von Karajan who would frequently head there after a performance. We ate our Sunday lunch at the Herzl and it was a perfect Salzburg experience with a traditional menu, waitresses in dirndls and an atmospheric room. The place was filled with old Austrian couples, chic young families and a smattering of tourists. We ordered tafelspitz (Austrian boiled beef which the Emperor Franz Joseph had every day for lunch) and schnitzels and were blissfully happy.

Of course, there are places in Salzburg where you can go to eat updated and interesting variations on these old Austrian menu stalwarts. For that matter, you could sleep in a contemporary hotel and buy the same normal clothes you find at home but we just don’t see the point. Like Salzburg’s original tourists, we too go to escape the grind of modern life and commune with a better and more romantic past, a past where women wear beautiful costumes, where everything is served with cream, where a four year old can write a concerto and a singing governess can become a legend. The more the world changes, the more we depend on the eternal, unchanging myth of Salzburg.

Useful Addresses

Hotel Wolf Dietrich
Wolf Dietrich Strasse 7
A-5020 Salzburg
Tel: 43 662 871275
Fax: 43 662 8712759

Stiftskeller St. Peter
St Peter Bezirk
A-5010 Salzburg
Tel: 43 662 841 2680
Fax: 43 662 841 26875

Restaurant Herzl Goldener Hirsch
Getreidegasse 37
Tel: 43 662 80840
Fax: 43 662 843349
Image of Salzburg during the Romantic Age taken from the Salzburg Museum's website from the permanent exhibition, The Salzburg Myth

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Great Speck Hunt

On the taxi ride from Bolzano to the ski resort of Corvara in Alta Adige region of Italy (formerly the Sued-Tyrol of Austria), we asked our local driver where we could find the best speck. Speck, which confusingly means “bacon” in German but comes from the same part of the pig as ham, is cured in a way that is absolutely unique to the region combining the salting methods of the Mediterranean with the smoking techniques of northern Europe.

The driver thought for a moment and suggested we try the local butcher. That was the answer we expected. Of course, no self-respecting local gives out the name of his favourite mountain farmer who still makes genuine speck according to a year long process of brining, smoking and ageing but we were not interested in buying any old speck made quickly and artificially from any old butcher. Never mind, we thought, we have seven days to find the real deal. Let the Great Speck Hunt begin!

As a specialty of the Alta Adige/Sued Tyrol region, traditional speck dates back to the days when isolated mountain farmers would slaughter pigs in the autumn so that there would be plenty of meat for the winter when they were snowed into their houses. The old method took enormous patience and involved salting the meat for roughly two months in aromatic brine containing juniper and other secret family ingredients and then cold smoking and hanging the meat for another five to six months in the fresh mountain air.

Many years ago, when we lived in Austria, we had our first taste of traditional speck which was the beginning of a life long obsession. Speck has a smooth, light and elegant taste, unlike any other cured meat, which is a rich addition to soups, pasta, vegetables and seafood but our favourite way to eat speck is either in a dumpling (Speckknoedel) or simply sliced thin and eaten with good rye bread. Speck works wonderfully with red wine and the locals will tell you that it is impossible to get drunk if you eat speck while you are drinking. Sadly, this has never been our experience.

Regardless, every time we visit Austria or the Alta Adige, we dedicate our self to the task of finding and acquiring good traditional speck. This year, our strategy was to ask the chef at our hotel, Parkhotel Planac. Having danced the night away with him last year during Carnivale, we hoped we had enough of a relationship that he would cut us in on some special speck action. At first, he hoped we would be happy with the product being served in the hotel’s dining room. As speck goes, it was fine, but not the speck we were seeking. “The hotel’s speck is good but we’re after special speck, you know the one that is still made slowly and carefully by mountain farmers.” His eyes lit up. He knew we knew. “OK, he said, I’ll see what I can do.”

A few days later, our speck-trafficker was back with good news. A 7.5 kilo side of Bauernspeck (farmer’s speck) with its own certificate providing the name of the farmer, the farm and the region had been found. The certificate went on to say that our speck was from a specially selected, naturally reared pig with an optimal proportion of fat that was particularly valuable because it was produced in such small quantities. Eureka! More good news was to follow. This extremely handsome and noble piece of meat was very correctly priced, costing only €4 more per kilo than the stuff they were selling in town (we checked). We were thrilled, the Chef was proud and the speck was magnificent.


Back in London, we tasted this year’s speck and can report that it is absolutely superb, one of the best we’ve found. Thanks to the Chef at Hotel Planac, we now are aware of the organisation which certifies the producers who rigorously follow the artisanal methods of production. Using the organisation’s website, we can now buy speck with assurance of its quality without having to dance the night away with a chef. In a way, we’re sad about that, but we are still in pursuit of that elusive farmer who continues to makes speck at home in his Raeuchkuchl who will take pity on our speck-obsession and let us have a piece of the top secret, not-for-sale piece he is saving for his family. Let the Great Speck Hunt continue.

Rittnerstrasse 33/AI - 39100 Bozen
Tel. 0471 300381
Fax 0471 302091

If you live in an European Union country and would like to purchase traditional certified bauernspeck over the internet, click here, but be aware that the website is only in German and Italian.

Photo courtesy of the Alta Adige Speck website

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Corvara 2008

Waiting in the only lift line we saw the entire week, one of our favourite ski buddies took us to task. “Just look at this. There was no line last year. Stop writing about Corvara!”

Well, another year has gone by and another group of skiers is furiously lobbying NoCrowds to keep quiet about the most undervalued ski resort in Europe. Our view is that ski resorts get the customers they deserve and this unpretentious place deserves a higher profile amongst those who go to the mountains to ski and who love skiing more than hanging out with celebrities and being seen at fashionable “après-ski” venues. The families in Corvara work hard for our business, offer a great product, deliver good value for money and we’re on their side. As in years past, we make the case that if you want to impress your friends, go to Zurs or Zermatt but if you want to enjoy yourself more, spend less and get away from the hoi polloi, head for Corvara in the Alta Badia.

Actually, despite our singing Corvara’s praises for the last three years, we’re happy to report that not much has changed. The town of Corvara remains unspoiled by either McDonalds on the one hand or too many chi-chi boutiques on the other. Our favourite three star hotel, Parkhotel Planac, has the same charming and efficient staff as last year. The Dolomiti Superski region still offers the largest skiable terrain in Europe with 460 lifts connecting 1,220 kilometers of pistes across three regions of Italy, which is roughly the distance from New York to Chicago. The culture and cuisine, in which the locals take enormous pride, are an appealing mix of Ladin, Austrian and Italian influences. If you are interested in the region, no one is too busy to stop and tell you all about it.

One of the things that save Corvara from the destructive forces of intensive tourism is the fact that getting to the resort is not easy. Over the years, we have tried lots of permutations. We have flown into Bergamo and Venice and have rented cars and taken taxis, but we’re happiest with this year’s solution which entailed a late Friday flight into Bologna, spending the night there and taking a train the next morning to Bolzano where a taxi then took us to Corvara.

By leaving Friday night, we avoided the Saturday morning skiers scrum from London’s airports. By flying into Bologna, a convenient regional airport not particularly near the mountains, we avoided the high fares typically charged for skiing destinations in February. Our overnight in Bologna was a bargain as well. The train ride from Bologna to Bolzano is a snap once you are aware that Bologna has not one, but three Track 4s. (We missed the fast train getting up that learning curve as we madly ran around the station with all our ski gear.) The taxi from Bolzano, which takes you over the Passo Gardena/Groednerjoch, is the perfect introduction to the Dolomites’ dramatic scenery. With train and taxi, our transfer to Corvara ended up costing €65 per person which is about the best we’ve ever done.

In addition to finding a better way to get to the resort, we also added some new mountain restaurants to our growing list of favourites. Moritzino’s at the top of the Piz la Ila lift, the Armentarola Hotel at the bottom of the run into Armentarola and Trattoria Ladina Oies (the famous Teddy Bear restaurant) off the first chairlift out of Pedraces are still excellent but we also thought the Mathiaskeller Restaurant at the top of the second Colfosco chairlift and the Hotel Boe, on the Passo Campolongo half way between Corvara and Arraba were great finds offering good food at good prices with no crowds.

Just so we do not seem to be working for the local tourist board, we will mention that prices seem to be rising in Corvara, particularly for lift tickets and equipment rentals. A quick price comparison with lift tickets in Lech/Zurs for the same week showed that the Dolomites are catching up quickly to the big boys in France and Austria. Ditto for our equipment rental. That was not the case with food and accommodation which still seem reasonable by comparison.

Despite the whinge about rising prices, we absolutely love Corvara. For anyone hoping to ski in Europe far from the maddening crowds, we know of no better place.

Photo Credit: Freddy Planinschek

Useful Addresses

For taxi service to and from Corvara

Taxi Badia
Tel: 335 7373981
Cell: 0471 838080

Pescosta Alfredo
Tel 0471 836393
Cell 347 261 5525

Parkhotel Planac
Via Planac, 13
I-39033 Corvara in Badia
Tel: 39 0471 83 62 10
Fax: 39 0471 83 65 98

Moritzino’s Ristorante Gourmet
Piz La Ila
Tel 0471 847407 – 847403
Fax 0471 847395
Cell 335 600 94 56

Hotel Armentarola
I-39030 San Cassiano
Tel: 0471 84 95 22
Fax: 0471 84 93 89

Trattoria Ladina-Oies
Tel: 0471 839671

Rifugio Passo Incisa
32020 Arabba
Tel and fax 0436 79313

Mathiaskeller Restaurant
Tel: 0471 836754

Hotel Boe Restaurant
Passo Campolongo 19
Tel: 0436 79144

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

London's Soho Rediscovered

Everything we love and hate about London can be found in Soho. Vibrant, edgy and authentic on the one hand, crowded, filthy and menacing on the other. We suspect it was always thus. When we were students in London decades ago, Soho was a really naughty place to go. Maybe we’re just “past it” now, but Soho’s Saturday night raves are not for us anymore. Some might find London’s most famous entertainment district exciting but we can’t help feeling that on a weekend evening it is uncomfortably crowded, filled with drunks and ear shatteringly loud. Because of this, we haven’t spent much time in Soho in recent years.

But recently we ran across a description of an eccentric Soho café, Maison Bertaux and an old fashioned and unusual coffee merchant, Angelucci, that focussed our attention on the fact that Soho still has places to go that are interesting and original. After whinging repeatedly in this forum that homogenized chain stores and restaurants have taken the fun out of many London neighbourhoods, we thought it was time to wander around Soho for a day and see how much fun we could find.

The first thing we noticed, thanks to London’s Blue Plaque system for commemorating famous residences, was how many free thinkers of the past, such as Casanova, Karl Marx, William Blake and Isaac Newton all chose to live inSoho. Today, the streets may be full of advertising and media office workers, tourists and free spirit wannabees but the old bohemian and tolerant atmosphere still exists and despite rising rents and creeping gentrification, Soho still feels naughty.

And what about the purveyors of vice? Still very much in business we can report but the thing which differentiates Soho from other red light districts is that there is a much nicer mix of sex and residents. There’s something about watching a woman touting for business standing next to the Soho Parish School which puts the whole sex industry into a different perspective. It is as if to say, “It exists. So what. And why do you care?”

Having wandered around Soho for a couple of hours, we finally made out way to Greek Street and Maison Bertraux which has been a centre for the French community for over 130 years and today is a café and patisserie that is the most perfect antidote to Starbucks. From the mismatched tables, the home made pastries, the French music and the very French proprietor, we were in heaven. There were all kinds of kooky people whiling away the afternoon and we sat for the longest time, revelling in the fact that such a place still exits.

Afterwards, we headed around the corner to Angelucci’s to buy some coffee. This shop has been run by the same Italian family since 1929 and has sold coffee to everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Dire Straits fans, as the shop was mentioned in the band’s first album. If the survival of Maison Bertraux is a miracle, we would liken the existence of Angelucci’s to the second coming. The shop is really a hole in the wall, the cash register is so old we couldn’t begin to date it. The grinders are out of a museum and the wonderful lady who served us has worked there for 26 years and her twin sister before that. Of course, we bought Angelucci’s special and secret blend, Mokital and of course we paid cash because they don’t take cards. If you want to try the Mokital before you buy, head next door to Bar Italia, the most famous place in London to have a late night espresso and the best place in town to watch an Italian football match. Had we not been late to pick up a child, we would have stopped at Bar Italia too.

Making our way towards home, we made a mad dash into Camisa, a small but perfect Italian grocer of the old school on Old Compton Street. As always, there was a line of loyal locals queuing up to buy the classic ingredients of the Italian kitchen. We have shopped here for years and like the locals, we know that this is where you go for the best quality ingredients at the best possible prices.

Heading home, with the pungent aroma of coffee filling the entire bus, we thought about what a great day it had been. In the future, any time we need a vacation from our middle class life, we’re heading back to Soho. Sometimes, as Dorothy found out in the Wizard of Oz, the stuff you are looking for is right in your own back yard.

Maison Bertaux
28 Greek Street
020 7437 6007
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 8pm, Sunday 9 – 7 pm

23b Frith Street
020 7437 5889
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 5pm except Thursday when the shop closes at 1pm

I Camisa & Son
61 Old Compton Street
020 7437 7610
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 6pm

Bar Italia
22 Frith Street
Tel: 020 7437 4520
Open 24 hours