Salzburg International Festival – Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg International Festival
Salzburg, Austria

I’d like to say that I planned months in advance and had prime seats waiting for me at Salzburg’s month-long “Festspiele” International Festival of music, but the truth is that I staggered into town clueless and unprepared on the first Friday of performances. However, this bumbling arrival had little impact on the amount of entertainment that I managed to glean from the festival over the week I spent in Salzburg.

Narrow passageways

Narrow connecting tunnels

Once I was settled in one of the last beds available in town (actually, I was outside Salzburg, on a cot at a campsite, in a semi-permanent tent), I dove into the teeth of the festival site in Old City. Salzburg’s Old City streets are narrow, cozy and inviting. They have carefully preserved the motif and décor from hundreds of years ago, going as far as to force the dreaded McDonald’s to conform so closely to its modest street sign and building regulations that you could walk by three times before you notice the restaurant. Simply exploring the maze of streets in the Old City can keep you occupied for hours. The haphazardly laid streets are often interconnected by scattered archways and what appeared to be small tunnels that burrow right through otherwise uninterrupted rows of buildings. These tunneled alley-ways are so small and inconspicuous that at first glance you would assume that they were someone’s private garage or an entrance to an apartment building until you squint through to the other side and see crowds of people streaming down yet another street. Sometimes the tunnels open up into huge enclosed courtyards with cafes, businesses and even little playgrounds. The tunnels themselves have small outcroppings that house display windows, tiny shops and vaguely marked stairways which lead down into restaurants and pubs that, judging from the rock-faced walls, appear to have been carved into the ground out of a solid stone foundation.

The Festspiele boasts outstanding performances of every music genre from classical to contemporary by ensembles from all over Europe. Seats to some of the featured performances are as coveted as the first level at the Super Bowl. While attending the big ticket performances requires that you plunk down a bag of money up to nine months in advance or be very well connected in political or royal circles, the best shows are arguably on the streets. Free preview performances by some of the featured troupes and a fantastic variety of street performers and musical groups jostle for position and keep things interesting for the less privileged masses and unprepared tourists.

Street performer

Street performer

During peak festival times, a walk from one end of the Old City to the other can take all evening due to the jam-packed state of the streets. Performers are so plentiful and do such a brisk business that the crowds from each act often merge together into a huge impregnable sea of people. While a scene like this might normally be considered a nuisance, the good natured, tranquil atmosphere of the of the festival attendees makes being hemmed in by thousands of people almost a joy. If people watching gives you any level of satisfaction, prepare to be agog and riveted by the endless offerings that accompany European festivals of this size. The glimpses of the comings and goings of Austria’s president, VIPs and rich and famous will keep you entertained and euphoric for hours every evening.

Even last-minute attendees with more discriminating tastes can find gratification by such surprise gems as free performances by the fantastically talented New English Orchestra in beautiful, ancient St Peter’s church. It was during my indiscriminate exploration of the Old City streets that I chanced upon a New English Orchestra (NEO) PR person forcing pamphlets on passersby. I took a pamphlet as he promised me that the concert would be the best thing that I saw in Salzburg. As bold as this statement seemed at the time, I am happy to report that it was not an exaggeration by any measure. The two free concerts given by the NEO were exquisite, their mastery making me completely forget that I am usually not a fan of classical and religious music.

Trick fountains

Trick fountains at Hellbrunn Palace

If you suddenly find yourself in love with Salzburg and are craving more information about the city, their 48 hour “tourist card” is one of the best all-in-one city visitor passes in Europe. The card affords one free or greatly reduced entrance into countless museums, historic sights and access to all public transport. You will need every waking second of the 48 hours to squash in visits to sights like the former residence of Mozart that includes a sound and film collection, the Salzburg Cathedral, the massive Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Hellbrunn Palace and trick fountains, the Salzburg Museum of Natural History, the 500 year old Stiegl’s Brauwelt brewery and all of the “Sound of Music” related sights.

After a few nights of subsisting on street vendor food for dinner, I decided that a meal at an authentic Austrian restaurant was in order. I secured directions to the Wiesenhof Gasthof, which consisted of a moderate bus ride out if the city center and a brief, mildly confusing walk through a residential neighborhood. I considered this a necessary evil as I was craving a break from the shoulder-to-shoulder tourist crowd situation back in the Old City, if only for a few hours. The Weiserhof Gasthof only has seven tables that seat eight people each, so your meal effectively requires encounters with the natives. I ordered the sautéed potatoes with white sausage and onions, topped off by a fried egg and floating in a shallow pool of grease. At first glance it seemed to be a bit of a cardiac annihilator, but I quickly concluded that it was probably far short of the average amount of grease I consumed per day in the States, so I dug in eagerly and enjoyed the meal with a clear conscience.

Unfortunately, due to the myriad of waiting adventures in a dozen other countries throughout Europe and the condition of my back after a week on the campsite cot, I was not able to stay in Salzburg as long as I would have liked. However, leaving town with a taste for more probably heightened my all around impression of the Festspiele and made the memories more cherished.

Tickets and all reasonably comfortable beds for the 2004 Festspiele (July 24th through August 31st) are already being swept up at a blistering pace. For more information and a complete listing of the scheduled performances go to