Advent forest, Salzburg

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The Advent market of Hellbrunn Palace — just outside of Salzburg, Austria — is open from late November until Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, our guided city tour, which included a 15-minute stop at the palace grounds (otherwise closed during the winter) was on Christmas Day.

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However, the absence of any other people among the remaining structures and decorations made it easy to appreciate the lesson of a simple good idea plus repetition.

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The market areas in the two entry courtyards of the Baroque palace were set within “forests” of 400 cut trees and 13,000 red balls, according to one website.

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The palace was (caused to be) built by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Markus Sittikus, between 1612 and 1615. Its 148-acre park includes a section of trick fountains and a pavilion built for the filming of The Sound of Music. 

The Prince-Archbishop used the estate as a pleasure retreat during the long summer days, always returning to Salzburg for the night.

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I hope, wherever you are today, that you are enjoying a wonderful holiday season!

Travel tips

Lovely, compact Salzburg makes a good Christmas travel destination, as long as you realize that almost everything will shut down at about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and not reopen again until December 27. Do your shopping, as well as visit the fortress and other museums, on the 23rd. The two Mozart homes are open on Christmas Day and the 26th, and the guided tour companies are running on those days as well.

Be sure to make dinner reservations for the 24th, 25th, and 26th well in advance (a few weeks out). Our hotel had two good restaurants, and they were so fully booked for Christmas Eve that the hotel was not providing room service that night.

However — this year, at least — the big Advent/Christmas market in the old city center was open through December 26 (although it closed early on the 24th), so it was easy to get a lunch or an early dinner of sausage and gluhwein.

Salzburg’s old city center from a pedestrian bridge. Note The Sound of Music “do-re-me” reenactment on the left side.

Also, Austria is one of the very few European countries that still allow smoking in restaurants and bars. Ask about it when booking or look around for ashtrays on the tables before sitting down if you want to avoid that sort of nostalgic experience. (Two of our three dinners were in restaurants without smoking.)

Snapshots: Prague

We spent the week before and just after Christmas in Prague and Istanbul this year. In recent years, we’ve found that we like traveling during the cold-weather months, when the streets, museums, and restaurants are so much less crowded.

I loved the low, slightly hazy light in both cities (OK, I live near the equator the rest of the time).  And although the temperatures were between about 27°F and 40°F  (-3°C to 4°C), there was practically no wind and no rain or snow.  Maybe we were very lucky, but honestly, I’ve been colder in Amsterdam in July.

Below are some snapshots and a few travel tips for Prague.  Do not adjust your set:  with some pictures I got a bit carried away with the ‘Effects’ buttons on iPhoto.

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(If you want to scroll through larger versions of the images, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on any of the thumbnails in the gallery.)

At the airport, just before you exit for the bus area, you will find a booth selling public transportation tickets.  We bought 3-day passes for about $15 each. They allowed us unlimited use of the metro (subway), bus, and tram lines.

If you like, you can take the 119 bus from the airport to the end of its line at Dejvicka (about 30 minutes) and then transfer to the green metro A  line.  (You could also buy tickets on a private bus line that will take you to any hotel in the Old City area.)

We stayed at the Courtyard Marriot (collecting points), which was not very atmospheric, but comfortable and the staff were friendly.  The hotel is in the neighborhood of Zizkov and is very convenient to the green metro line and tram lines to the Old City.

It is also near the huge and interesting Olšany Cemetery (1680 to today) — which you will find if you accidently walk in the opposite direction of the Old City, which we did first thing for about a half mile.

For some reason, we never chose the right direction in Prague, and we were lost just about every minute in the Old City and the Mala Strana.  This was not very important as those parts of the city are relatively small.  Eventually, we would stumble over the right tram line (and then take it going the wrong way).

(If the Prague tourism office is reading: “you are here” maps placed on the streets about every 5 or 6 blocks would be great.)

English is widely spoken in the parts of Prague where a visitor is likely to be, and there are signs in English everywhere.

We just wanted to wander around for two days enjoying the old architecture and the Christmas markets,* so the only museum we visited was the Prague City Museum.  My husband wanted to see the 19th century model of the city, which was remarkable — especially because they show a short 3D  movie where the camera “flies” over the town.  It’s a rather sleepy attraction, but I loved it.

The Czech food we ate was, well, filling.  Our meals consisted of a big piece of pork or duck, braised cabbage (very good), and potato and bread dumplings. Bread dumplings are really just steamed white bread.  The potato dumplings were something like gnocchi.  I can’t recommend any particular restaurants.

There were classical music concerts in churches all over the Old City.  We went two nights in a row to the 12th century St. Martin in the Wall Church to listen to, first, organ and violin and a soprano and, then, a string quartet.  The 5:00 p.m., one-hour performances were of a very high quality for about $25/ticket. Brochures** about these concerts are available all over town and at hotels.

There is a little more on the sidewalks of Prague here.

Next:  Istanbul.


* I bought small, 1″ to 2″ traditional Czech glass ornaments for about $2.50 to $3 each; they all made it home intact.

** The venue was advertised as “heated.”  I would say the translator did not fully understand the word.  We kept our coats on but were happy nonetheless.

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