Late last week the weather turned spring-like here, the days warm and bright, soft air drifting in through open windows. It reached about 18 or 19 C yesterday, too warm for the wool sweaters that are all I brought with me. The mountain that’s closest to us, seen through the windows of our hotel room, is green, its snow entirely melted. The towering alp to the northeast though, the other side of which we saw as we drove from Munich, still rises white against the blue sky.
The close mountain is about as tall, relative to our position, as Galteemore, the tallest of the peaks in the Galtee Mountains, as seen from our windows in South Tipperary. The summits of the Galtees, though, were stripped of their forests millennia ago, cleared for cultivation, and through erosion became, over time, boggy heath land. The mountain seen from the windows here in Salzburg are still forested at its summit, deep pine green and faded brown conifers in the early spring. Here and there, halfway down, are large grassy clearings with isolated buildings. The clearings are steep, steep as those in the wild Connemara mountains in the west of Ireland, where highland sheep graze on spindly black legs in nearly vertical pastures.
I see no sheep on this mountain, only the occasional flash as the sun glances off a passing car on a road not visible from here. I will miss the now-familiar green meadows when we move this weekend to our flat by the wood. The mountains are more distant there.
I’ve been struggling with how to describe Salzburg and the surrounding Bavarian countryside. What does it look like? Why or how is it different from Ireland? Or the Mediterranean landscape of Southern California, also split by mountains? I’ve compared Salzburg’s mountains to the Wasatch in Salt Lake City, but they’re similar only to a point.
The landscape and the architectural aesthetic is so different from these that it’s as though I have no words, or am only now beginning to find the words, to write about it. Away from its historic centre, Salzburg is not particularly remarkable. Its buildings are low – no office or tall apartment blocks here – a bit blockish and fairly modern. Parks and green space are plentiful, and many are dotted with schlosses – grand houses of the past. A long narrow park with a path through it is lined with these schlosses, set far apart. Along the river opposite the Altstadt, a 10 or 15 or more large, square-but-gracious-looking pastel-painted schlosses sit side by side.
The river, the Salzach, is wide and shallow, at least where I’ve peered into it. Its waters flow north in gentle ruffles and are pale, pastel green-blue, through which I can see stones on a sandy bottom as through pale blue glass. It’s very different from the deep bog-brown smooth-flowing River Suir that runs through Cahir, rising fish glinting in the late sun of a summer evening. Thickly leaved horse chestnuts and beeches clustered on its banks are reflected on its mirror-like impenetrable surface. The rocky banks of the Salzach, by contrast, slope steeply down to the river and are nearly bare.
As a Californian, used to muted earth-toned and pastel buildings, I was impressed by the use of colour in Irish towns. Colour is even more evident in the cityscape of Salzburg. Buildings are painted deep, saturated and bold colours. Just from my window on one small neighbour, I see apartment buildings painted salmon, saffron, lemon yellow and rich sky blue. The white house across the way has a purple door and mailbox; even its chain link fence is painted purple. The office building next to it, also white, has window frames of magenta. The schlosses, as I mentioned, are pink, yellow, blue and gold. In the Altstadt and the surrounding distracts, rococo facades are also painted pastels with filigreed ornaments in contrasting colours.
In the country side, buildings are timbered, often with hipped roofs decorated open-work gingerbread shapes. Churches in country villages rise in tall, narrow austere blocks, with vertical thrusts of steeple attached on otherwise unornamented front walls. Many of the steeples bulge with onion-shaped bulbs just before their pinnacles. So unlike the stone churches of Ireland, they still startle me when I see their masculine silhouettes dominant in the landscape.
In memory, Ireland seemed comfortable and emotionally accessible from the first time I saw it. Although new to me, the landscape seemed natural, familiar to my psyche. Here, the landscape seems exotic, and though I once had the vocabulary of art and architecture, now I stumble, searching for words now lost to me. Like German, the landscape is not disagreeable; it’s just pushing me to find words to express meaning.