2/3rds of the passengers on the boat are going to Salzburg today. If Boris and I weren’t spending a week there in March, I would be on one of those buses too. Boris signed us up for the optional tour to Christkindl, Steyr, and Linz. We are actually docked in Linz; the square with the Christmas market is just three minutes from our ship’s berth. The forecast calls for snow today and we saw flurries as we boarded the bus.
Today the focus of the first part of our excursion is really all about Christmas. All our Austrian guides have talked about their own Christmas traditions. The Christmas season really begins here with the start of Advent, which is a time of fasting; the Christmas season ends with the Epiphany on January 6. Our first stop is Christkindl, just under an hour’s drive from the ship. The town’s name is literally Christ Child. We think of the Christ Child as the infant Jesus, but in Austria the Christkindl is usually depicted as an angel. It is the Christkindl, not Santa Claus, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve (December 24). The fur tree is not brought into the home until that day. In Austria, the father usually decorates the Christmas tree while the mother prepares the Christmas Eve dinner. It is a live tree adorned with real candles and candies (usually chocolate). The children are not allowed into the room until all is ready and a bell is rung to signal that the Christkindl has been there. The evening includes carols, the reading of the Christmas story from the bible, opening gifts, and a big meal.
The origin of the city of Christkindl comes from a man who was cured of his epilepsy and wanted to thank the God for the cure. He placed a small figure of baby Jesus in a tree trunk. People began to make a pilgrimage to the tree (which was at the location that the city is today) and petitioned for a church to be built on the site. The church was designed by an Italian architect, but was completed by the same Austrian designer who created the Abbey at Melk that we saw from the Danube at sunset yesterday. In many churches the altar panels are built into the back wall to provide stability, but this altar panel is self-sustaining and designed around the tree trunk with the imbedded figure of the infant Jesus. Parts of the tree trunk are visible from the front; a look from the side provides a better view of the trunk.
After a visit to the church, we stopped in the post office so anyone who wanted to mail his or her Christmas cards could do so, receiving the special Christkindl stamp. I sent a postcard home and bought some postage stamps. The post office clerk then added the Christkindl stamp to my collectable stamp pages and thanked me for letting her help me design something. She was very nice and seems interested in helping me put together a way to have a keepsake. Our guide told us that the lines at that post office can get very long so we were lucky to be the first group of the day.
Our last stop in Christkindl was their museum where we saw two very special nativity scenes. Upstairs was an amazing display featuring all aspects of life in the area around the time of Jesus’ birth. The display spanned the length of the entire upper floor. My favorite section was the one depicting the carpet traders and their servants. On the ground floor was a display that took up the width of the room with several levels to the depiction. The engineer who built it came to Austria to help design weaponry. He worked on the nativity for almost 40 years, from 1900 to 1939 (the year he died). There are over 600 figures and most of them move. It was lovely to see baby Jesus reach out to the people who had come to see him.
Today is a special day in Austria, the fest of St. Nicholas. Children may put out clean shoes, or plates of cookies in anticipation of his visit. Since this is a time of fast, St. Nichols leaves only small gifts of fruit, nuts, or chocolate. In some parts of the country, foil-wrapped chocolate in the shape of St. Nicholas is the gift. St. Nicholas may visit the home with his scary assistant bringing the book that shows if the child has been good or not during the year.
If not, you may be taken by the Krampus, the scary devil-like assistant. Our guide related that when she was three years old she had been scared by the Krampus who claimed to have two live children in the sack he was carrying. The Krampus is usually played by a teenage boy; it is said that it is not a safe time for young girls to be on their own. The mother of one of the young adult woman passengers told us that her daughter was almost taken in a grocery store by a Krampus when they were visiting Austria when she was younger.
Our next stop was Steyr, a city very close to Christkindl. We had had snow flurries off and on during the drive up, but it stirred up again just as we left for Steyr. Our guide told us it was the first time that she had seen anyone shovel snow this year.
We drove into the old town through the narrow gate and immediately passed the trade guild building for those we worked with iron ore. We drove to the middle of the town plaza (egg shaped, not a square) and the driver dropped us off by the huge Christmas tree that seem to mark every Christmas market. We were next to the city’s oldest standing building from 1497. The decoration on the buildings was wonderful. Like other Austrian cities, each floor had three windows on each level. The higher your status, the lower your floor.
We walked down to where the two rivers meet in Steyr, our guide giving us the very good advice to look up to note the decoration on each building and what they symbolized as we passed by. The biting wind whipped across the bridge, but I had to stop to see the beautiful swans floating on the river. This was another fairytale moment to add to the trip.
After crossing the bridge, we visited the Christmas museum. It was really a collection of antique Christmas ornaments and tree displays. Nothing really kept my attention here. It was in a large house and you could take an indoor sleigh ride to see “what the angels were doing on the upper floors”. We passed. It was very cold, so Boris and I returned to the main plaza and had a nice lunch in the Hotel Mader. The food was excellent. Boris had wiener schnitzel and tried a couple of the local beers. We shared a ham and goat cheese appetizer and I had a roasted chicken with risotto that was seasoned perfectly. I sat facing the window and saw several series of snow flurries while we enjoyed our meal.
There was time for just a few more pictures after lunch and then we boarded the bus for the trip back to Linz. The snow started in earnest on the trip back and at one point the driver asked the guide to be silent so he could concentrate on the road. When we got to the city we did a quick coach tour through downtown Linz before returning to the ship. Just as we got back, the snow cleared so Boris and I decided to walk back into town with the guide. We stopped at the information center and she showed us the map on Linz set out on the large ground floor of the building, a unique find that only Boris and I got to see.
The same building has the balcony from which the Anschluss was announced (annexation of Austria into Germany by Adolph Hitler on March 12, 1938). Surprised at the location? Linz was Hitler’s boyhood home; he grew up and went to school here. According to our guide, he was a poor student and never graduated. Boris had already done the research before we arrived so he knew about the connection. I give our guide credit; she mentioned it as part of the town’s history. She would have preferred not to.
Having bought a “few” gifts and other Christmas items on this trip, Boris and I were in need on another suitcase so we went down through the shopping district to the mall (called the Passage) that the guide suggested. We found one and earned a lot of comments from our fellow travelers about having to buy it. (We have to do this all the time.) We had spotted a hat store on the way to the mall and of course had to return there so Boris could buy himself a traditional Austrian hat to go with his Loden coat (an Austrian style jacket) that he had purchased in Munich on a previous trip.
Our last stop was the Christmas market in the main square. It was my least favorite of any we had visited and we bought very little. There is another market at the other end of the shopping street, but we never got that far. As we were leaving the market the snow returned; we walked back to the boat enjoying the snow and the Christmas lights which were now on. We went to teatime in the boat’s lounge and I did some laundry while the majority of the other passengers were still off the ship. In the evening they announced that the other buses were blocked by a 50-car pileup on the highway and their arrival to the ship was delayed until 9 pm. (They were supposed to get back at 5:15.) Our specialty dinner and briefing for tomorrow’s activities was cancelled. They served the regular dinner in a restricted portion of the dining room to those guests who had taken the optional tour and were on the boat.
Fortunately, the evening entertainment went on as planned. The vocalist and composer told us about Austrian Christmas/Advent traditions and sang local Christmas songs in German. I once again got to hear Still, Still, Still and we all joined in the English verses of Oh Christmas Tree and Silent Night. It was a nice evening. Boris made the right call in not selecting Salzburg. On to Germany…