Once Upon a Time…

…far far away, in the land of rolling hills and rocky cliffs, lived the Von Trapp family. Okay, okay. I know, my posts are enough of a novel as it is… But, Salzburg, the city that served as the storybook setting for the movie The Sound of Music is, well, something out of a storybook. Churches, shops, jewelry stores, banks and apartments of old Austrian design are huddled between an alcove of towering cliffs and the banks of the Salzach river. Europe’s best-preserved castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, rises from the peaks of the most prominent rocky crag, guarding and protecting the winding cobbled streets that twist and turn along ornamented buildings below. Signs of gold, red, yellow, green and blue sway overhead the cobbled lanes, hanging from intricate iron brackets. Then, suddenly the tight, winding streets open up into cozy piazzas marked with elegant fountains and enclosed by grand cathedrals, theatres, opera houses and government buildings. For me, it was love at first sight. Salzburg, the home of Mozart, has captured my heart.

When I arrived in Salzburg Monday afternoon, my cs host Silviu accompanied me on a stroll through the charming city. He introduced me to the main landmarks so that I might be able to easily navigate my way around the next day, when I more thoroughly explored the city on my own. One of my favorite landmarks was the old “car wash.” An ornamented wall with paintings of gallant horses served as the background to a decorated fountain that was surrounded by a bigger trough of water with steps leading into the bowl from opposite ends. This is where carriages and horses would be washed during the first half of the twentieth century. That night, we relaxed to the smooth sounds of the sax at Jazz It, a local dive near Silviu’s apartment.

Silviu is an intriguing character. His strikingly handsome face and piercing blue eyes are largely shrouded by a long mane of hair and a full scruffy beard that gets bushier at the chin. His look matches that of one of his biggest interests: death metal. Silviu, a Romanian, thoroughly enjoys nights of heavy metal, head-banging in dark dives. Yet, outside of the metal bar scene, Silviu is perfectly comfortable in the subdued setting of a jazz lounge or in the academic and artistic setting of the university café that’s popular with music students (where we ate at earlier that afternoon). His manner is gentle, even a bit tender. His eyes speak of compassion. His thoughts, though, speak of distrust, a distrust in anything that can’t be explained by the physical world around him. Silviu is a self-described cynic and agnostic.

Silviu is also an open man, however, and willingly discussed and debated ideas on hope, humanity and God with me. Silviu has traveled to India – where there exists a world, which many say, is a far cry from the conveniences and comforts of Western civilization. Thus, Silviu certainly has experiences from which he can draw sound arguments that support his ideas. I too have seen the different worlds of the Cambodian people and the villagers of Vietnam and Laos. So, I can understand many of his arguments.

And that was Silviu’s only qualm with engaging me in debate. He didn’t want to come across as a person who wanted to pull me away from the hopeful optimism and spirituality that marks my own personal views of the world and of humanity. I continually reassured him, though, that challenge is good. Challenging debates help us fully measure just how much faith we do possess in our supposed beliefs. They help us identify the areas where the foundation of our faith might be weak and faltering.

It turned out, Silviu and I couldn’t really stray from these debates whenever we spent more than ten minutes together, even when others joined us in our activities. Our exchanges were always respectful and completely amicable, and we usually wound up sucking those around us, no matter how hesitant they might be, into the debate.

My exchanges with Silviu were leaving me with a lot to ponder and consider and were quickly flagging places where my faith needed further exploration and instruction. And that was okay, because I had a lot of time for self-reflection the next day. Silviu had to work on his doctorate’s program at the university, so I set off to discover more of Salzburg. First, I met with a cheerful young cs student for lunch. Cordi’s sweet disposition and easy smiles were like a refreshing breeze after the deep, dark discussions with Silviu. Cordi took me to a little café popular with students in the old city, called Picnic. Then, we went to a new 60s café she had just discovered, called Afro Café, for desert. Both places had a fun, easy-going atmosphere. After sharing tales of our travels and adventures and our plans for more to come, we parted ways. She was off to statistics class. I was off to wander the city.

I ambled along snapping pics of the winding cobbled lanes, ornamented churches and the towering castle. Along the way, I munched an original Austrian Brez’l and bread from the oldest bakery in Salzburg. Before too long, I found myself in an old cemetery with unique graves. Some of the graves and headstones were monuments gated in arched alcoves, similar to the gated alcoves that the Von Trapp family used to hide from the Nazi soldiers. This cemetery backed right up to one of the sheer cliffs surrounding the city and from there I could spy old houses formed straight out of the sides of the rock. How cool would it have been to live on the side of a cliff?!

I spent a long time in the cemetery… thinking and taking pictures. It turned out to be the same cemetery that Silviu has pictures of hanging on his wall in his bedroom. Eventually, I wandered away from the ancient bed of the dead and headed up the side of the cliff toward the Festung Hohensalzburg. I had planned to hike up to the castle and see first-hand the best preserved castle in Europe, but my curiosity veered me off course and the next thing I knew was I was wandering down a path along the rocky crags… away from the castle. I still got some great views of the city… and, I was able to take in the landscape, the smell of the surrounding evergreens and limber, the calls and chirps of the birds, alone and in peace, instead of with a throng of tourists on the terraces of the castle. I was more than content with where my wandering feet had led me. I had found myself amidst the pages of a fairytale storybook…

Later that evening I met up with Silviu. He and the couchsurfer he would be hosting that night were at a local brewery. Silviu says the brewery scene is the epitome of the truly local Austrian experience. You grab a litre or half litre mug from the shelf, pay for the beer, bring the receipt to the barman at the tap and fill up your mug. You can also stop along any one of the stands along a strip of shops selling Austrian sausages, brats, breads and more. Before too long, Silviu and I were back at the questions and debates, and our fellow cser pitching in from time to time. A metal head like Silviu (though you wouldn’t think it from his preppy style of dress), the cser tended to side with my host.

By midnight, I was on the way to the train station to catch my train to Bern, Switzerland. My train left at 45 past the hour and arrived the next morning around eight. I would do my best to get some shuteye, before another full day of wandering in more lands of the fairytales…

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