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City feeling

Behind Salzburg’s church doors – a walking tour

Churches? Seriously? Churches are boring and dusty, right? At least that’s what people tell me a lot. It seems that younger people, in particular, often have no idea of the religious treasures and eye-opening little “miracles” that are hidden away behind many a church door. Including me. Resolved to remedy that situation, I set out on a personal journey of discovery through Salzburg.

6:30 am. I trudge through the narrow lanes of the city. Nary another person to be seen. Salzburg still seems to be fast asleep at this time of day. But it is really early, after all. Well, it is what it is, I think to myself, and continue my expedition out towards the Nonnberg stairway. One foot in front of the other, one stair at a time. And before I know it, I’ve reached the top. A little out of breath, admittedly, I tug on the door handle of the Nonnberg Convent church, poking my head through the crack and peeking circumspectly into the interior. Still nothing happening. I step inside and find a place to sit in one of the wooden pews. Filled with expectation, I sit there quietly, taking in the sight of the high altar. Then, punctually at 6:45, I hear subdued voices. Just a few minutes later and the nuns are already singing their Gregorian chants. Their veneration is palpable. The meditative tones of the music seem to penetrate deep into my soul, even filling my slightly stiff limbs with warmth. Though I never get to see the actual faces of the nuns, since they are hidden away behind a big glass façade in the organ loft, I feel incredibly close to them. After absorbing a few of their songs, my curiosity compels me to continue my expedition. I whisper a quiet goodbye to the nuns and slip out the door.

The Fascination of Salzburg Cathedral

7:30 am. Now at a slightly quicker pace, I make my way to the next astonishing piece of architecture – Salzburg Cathedral, no less. This early in the morning, Cathedral Square is still quite empty. Deserted, in fact. I sneak past the unmanned ticket booth at the entrance to this house of worship and am immediately enveloped by this astonishing edifice. Totally captivated, I stare down the entire length of the aisle, marveling at the ornate wall decorations on either side. Taking a deep breath, I positively inhale the history of this astonishing example of sacred art. I decide to take a short tour, past the side chapels, the main altar with its grand inscriptions commemorating former archbishops, and through the crypt, where I am unexpectedly greeted by a “shadowy” installation entitled “Vanitas”. Before leaving the cathedral, I pause to reflect next to the font where no less a figure than Mozart was christened. As was Joseph Mohr. Joseph who? Don’t worry, there’s no shame in asking! I did, too. It was only recently that I learned that the man who penned the words of probably the world’s most famous and beloved Christmas song, “Silent Night”, actually came from right here in Salzburg. After a few moments, I tear my eyes away from the sight of the four lions that are supporting the font on their backs, and head for the exit.

My search for the “Hand of Asylum”

8:30 am. Now setting a brisker pace, I make my way past the statue of the Virgin Mary as I cross Cathedral Square. Barely one minute later, I find myself standing at the monumental entrance to the Franciscan Church. While the rest of my body remains virtually as sedate as the stonework of the church itself, my eyes are busy darting back and forth. Where could it possibly be? It begins to bother me a little. I don’t see it. Am I blind? But stop! There it is, below eye level. Index- and middle finger pressed tightly together, the others forming a kind of fist. Somehow, I hadn’t imagined it would be that small. If I hadn’t known it was there, I would likely have overlooked it completely. The “Hand of Asylum”. Tradition has it that anyone who touches it, guilty or not, will find sanctuary within the church. I briefly caress the fingers sculpted from red marble, but then decide to continue on my way. Time is pressing, after all. And the Loreto Kindl awaits.

The Loreto Kindl and its blessings

9 am. On the so-called “Right Side” of the historic district (in other words, on the far bank of the river, in Paris-Lodron-Straße close to Mirabell Gardens), I find the next stop on my travels. Loreto Convent, which belongs to the Capuchin Order, is quite hidden away. The only clue is a white sign with a depiction of the Loreto Kindl. Slightly uncertain, I step inside, but am immediately confronted by my next hurdle, a wrought-iron gate. To the right of this is a bell. I press it once, twice, three times. Nothing happens. But then, a split second before I am about to try one last time, a door creaks open inside the church. A gentle woman’s voice invites me in, directing me to a sparse room, furnished only with a chair, a bench to kneel on and a small altar. After a few moments of silence, a second door opens and the woman, whom I had previously only been able to hear, not see, stands before me, slightly hunched over. She stares at me intently. She is so old, she could be my great-grandmother. With a slight-yet-firm gesture of her hand, she requires me to kneel before her. Reflexively, I also fold my hands together. And then she produces the actual star of the show: the Loreto Kindl – a carved figure made of ivory, about eleven centimeters in length. I catch sight of its gem-studded cloak, which was made by nuns from this very convent. I am told that pilgrims come from far and wide to place the statuette to their forehead and receive a blessing. I am no exception, allowing the ceremony to affect me. Each time I am touched by the figure, it’s as if my heart skips a beat. I am simultaneously overwhelmed and unsettled. After the sister says a final prayer, I step back out into the bustling city, visibly intoxicated by the experience. With a lump in my throat, I return to the left side of the historic district.

Climbing the Scala Santa

11 am. On weekdays, the square in front of the Cajetan Church is usually a hive of activity. Today, on this rather gloomy Saturday in winter, I don’t encounter a soul. The Cajetan Church is very much the focal point of this square, towering skywards like an iceberg in the ocean. Once inside, a small sign labeled “Heilige Stiege” points the way to the left wing of this sacred building. What awaits me there? Is this replica of the Scala Santa comparable with the original in Rome? But I don’t have time to dwell on idle speculations, since, after just a few steps, I stand right there before it. And what a powerful sight it is. Two angels, one to the left, the other to the right, guard this marble staircase as if it were their own. Reverentially, I begin my climb up to the Chapel of the Cross. But the twist of this tale: You have to make your way up one step at a time on your knees. Like it or not, that’s simply how it’s done. After 14 steps, my kneecaps are raw, or so it seems. “Can’t give up now”, I murmur into my thick scarf, not now, with half of it already under my “belt”. By the time I reach the top, I have difficulty getting to my feet. But the sight of the gilded “holy of holies” takes my attention away – albeit briefly – from the tough “ascent”. After a quick prayer, I leave the Cajetan Church and totter back out into the fresh air.
On my way home, I recall all of this morning’s highlights. Who could possibly have imagined I would see, and experience so much?! It truly is astonishing how much Salzburg has to offer. Even at second glance, behind its church doors.

Have we whet your curiosity? If so, we have put together the most important information about all churches, the highlights and more, including a map showing this particular tour. I can’t wait for you to share it with me.