Angels and gingerbread

Under the influence of gluhwein and the markets of Salzburg, Gerard Ryle glimpses the childhood magic of Christmas.

Two red paper angels blow trumpets, heralding the coming of another world. This world, in Salzburg in late November, smells of ginger and candied apples. I look past the baroque cathedral, in which the newborn Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptised, at a city that is brightly lit and near-freezing, as alien and magical as Christmas itself.

The effect is mesmerising: the crowded, steamy stalls of hot, mulled wine and honey-scented candles under mediaeval rooftops, from where young girls dressed in angel wings bawl seasonal messages in different languages as if from Hans Christian Andersen himself. You'd think you had woken up in one of his fairytales.

Until the early 19th century, this part of modern Austria was an independent city ruled by Catholic prince archbishops. It's a place where hundreds of years of wealth, drawn from the white gold of the nearby salt mines that give the city its name, are reflected in fortresses and palaces, church towers and town squares.

The Christmas stalls, whose tradition can be traced back 400 years, are seemingly everywhere in and around Salzburg and, remarkably, have avoided the temptations of industrialisation.

The baubles are handcrafted. The toys hand-carved. The gingerbread moist in a way that makes you realise what the fuss is all about.

At Hellbrunn Palace, outside the old city gates, the stalls are set in a courtyard whose facade serves as an oversized Advent calendar and they look for all the world like they were painted on for a Christmas card. All cute and red and brown and green and designed to make you smile as you part with your euros.

The palace is another legacy of the prince archbishops. Here they once liked to play pranks on their guests by serving meals on tables surrounded by trick fountains. The modern legacy of those magnificent waterways, which flow around equally magnificent gardens and a modern children's petting zoo, feature large pike, whose still, black eyes stare accusingly from the shallows. I stare back, accused by the memory of a fish lunch at restaurant M32 on the Monchsberg, with its magnificent views over the city and a chandelier made of 500 deer antlers.

Salzburg is influenced by and set right on the border with Germany, near the flat, forested communities of Bavaria, with their high-pitched, half-clad wooden houses and tall, thin churches.

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The influence is apparent in the Wolfgangsee lake district, about 30 minutes from Salzburg by bus and that, only recently, began hosting Christmas markets in three enchanting villages connected by ferry.

Lunch at the village of St Gilgen, which has a museum in what was once the home of Mozart's grandfather, is served straight from one of the market stalls; simple fare of pretzel, sausage and sauerkraut for less than $8. The meal seems to gain extra flavour in the cold, hungry air that swirls off the snow-covered mountains and across the bottomless black waters of the lake.

Tourism is Salzburg's new white gold and wherever you go, you are reminded that this was Mozart's birthplace, where he wrote more than 350 works before moving to Vienna. His image is present in performance halls, museums and statues and especially on the packaging of cakes, sweets and chocolate balls - delicate concoctions filled with crushed nuts.

Musicians from all over the world come to study at Salzburg's university and the city has about 4000 annual cultural events that play on its heritage, from opera to jazz, from palace concerts to fortress concerts, from Mozart dinners to recitals featuring puppets.

Most attractions are easy to walk to and, with most of the population speaking English, it's impossible to escape the theme-park feeling. Nevertheless, the theme-park feeling is seductive and the locals are keen to assure you of the authenticity at the core; that discussion in the city's smoky coffee shops is dominated by heated debates about the latest performances.

But the city is also not above the kitsch. It was the setting for the 1960s Hollywood movie The Sound of Music - the Oscar-winning adaptation of the true story of Baron Georg von Trapp, a local aristocrat, and Maria Augusta von Kutschera, a novice from the Benedictine convent who was destined to be his wife. Each year, thousands of tourists visit the settings of the movie, from the Frohnburg Palace used as the facade of the von Trapp villa to the Mirabell Garden where actor Julie Andrews and the children portraying the von Trapps sing Do-Re-Mi.

More kitsch can be found in the nearby village of Oberndorf, about 20 kilometres from Salzburg and reached easily by train or, if you prefer, a horse-drawn, bell-ringing cart. It was here on Christmas Eve 1818 that the carol Silent Night was first performed.

A small museum in the village is worth visiting, if not for the historic children's toys, then for the chance to learn more about the poignant tale of the song's origins. The French emperor Napoleon had just ransacked Europe, leaving behind a trail of pestilence and destruction, and the people of Oberndorf had an added problem: they couldn't afford to have their church organ repaired in time for Christmas.

Two men - the priest and the schoolteacher - came to the rescue, improvising with a guitar to compose the carol. A flood in 1906 swept away the original church of St Nicholas, where the song was first played, but a tiny memorial chapel adequately serves that Kodak moment. It is now one of the most photographed sites in Austria, the image that leaps from the tourist brochures, all white and gleaming and pure with snow.

Oberndorf has a small sprinkling of its own Christmas stalls but nothing that can be compared with those found at Austria's single-largest tourist attraction, the Schonbrunn Palace, on the outskirts of the capital, Vienna. A fast train can whip you there from Salzburg in three hours.

Only about 40 of the original 1441 rooms are open to the public at the former summer residence of the Habsburg family, who once ruled the Holy Roman Empire and the once-vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the rooms retain their original furnishings and decorations and convey an authentic impression of the imperial lifestyle.

The gardens that surround the palace are on a scale that knocks over the barricades of the heart, with mazes and gazebos and walkways that provoke the kind of wonderment found mostly in childhood, when all was possible and the limits of disappointment had yet to be discovered.

Today, that same childish wonder can be found in the lights and baubles of the lavish Christmas markets in the palace courtyard and in the painted clowns that wobble on stilts between the sugar-driven stalls of white-frosted doughnuts and pink, spirit-soaked cakes, giving the place a particularly family-friendly feel.

The same family-oriented atmosphere - pony rides and merry-go-rounds - can be found in an even bigger Christmas market outside Vienna's town hall, next to the Ringstrasse, a circular boulevard that features many of the city's architectural splendours.

Inside the town hall building, children are encouraged in a series of well-administered workshops to make their own Christmas gifts.

But it is outside, as night falls, that the markets come alive. The grove of trees in the town square twinkle with multi-coloured illumination, including the heart-shaped bulbs on the Vienna Heart Tree, which has become a favourite meeting place for locals.

And it is here, through the prism of twinkling lights, that I finally understand the source of the magic. The markets offer a kind of annual return to childhood, a place where anything again is possible. Where last season's fallen acorns become today's hand-painted tree fairies; where discarded pine cones become brilliant ornamental white-eyed owls; or chestnuts become stocking-fill angels, if they haven't already been roasted for eating - and if so, they can be cracked open, all starchy and sweet, and eaten out of white paper cups; where children roll the spent cups into makeshift trumpets and their parents sip hot gluhwein, taking in all the sights and sounds of the enchantment of Christmas.

Gerard Ryle travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office and Emirates.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates flies to Vienna and Munich for about $1820, non-stop to Dubai (14hr), then non-stop to Vienna or Munich (6hr). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. There are trains from Vienna to Salzburg (2hr 40min) and from Munich (90min).

The Christmas markets in and around Salzburg and Vienna are traditionally open from November 13 to December 26 but each has its own operating dates and hours. See www.austria.info/au.

Staying and eating there

Hotel & Villa Auersperg is a charming boutique hotel with 55 tastefully decorated rooms in a quiet but central part of Salzburg. Rooms from €109 ($154) a night. See www.auersperg.at.

The Ring Hotel in Vienna is what is known in Austria as a luxury casual hotel. In other words, 68 rooms of five-star excellence without that uncomfortable feeling of hovering doormen. See www.theringhotel.com.

Austria has some of the best food experiences in Europe. Don't miss Carpe Diem, the so-called fast-food restaurant in Salzburg owned by the man who made billions selling the caffeinated Red Bull drink to teenagers around the world. It serves food in an unsweetened version of the ice-cream cone. See www.finestfingerfood.com.

The Blaue Gans (The Blue Goose) is the oldest inn in Salzburg and claims to have been around for 600 years. The house special is roast goose, served on a bed of red cabbage and dumplings. See www.blaue-gans.at.

For more simple fare, try one of Salzburg's many beer halls for a massive feed of dumplings, sauerkraut, ribs, pork and fried onion rings. And beer.

In Vienna, try Kulinarium 7. Consume an amuse bouche in the restaurant's extensive wine cellar. See www.kulinarium7.at.

In downtown Vienna, find the vinegar store called Gegenbauer. Founded in 1929, it sells at least 70 varieties: fruit vinegars, wine vinegars, balsamic vinegars and drinking vinegars.

Austria produces some sensational wines, with the most common being a white wine made from the gruner veltliner grape. Also try Langeloiser Rose from Weingut Brundlmayer, Langenlois.

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