Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with ABC
When you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi, Do, Re, Mi
The first three notes just happen to be
Do, Re, Mi, Do, Re, Mi
Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Te
Both our tour guide and our guide book appeared insistent that we approach our visit to Salzburg through the lens of the film, the ‘Sound of Music’. This is despite the fact that the Austrians themselves are generally not familiar with the film; there had already been two poor German attempts to turn the von Trapp story into films before Hollywood’s version of the story. I can only presume that the tourist professionals know that there are still so many baby-boomers that love Maria and her all singing all dancing charges that it is the tourism gift that keeps on giving.
Before I left home for this trip down the Danube, two of my grown up sons asked me where I was going on my latest trip. I happened to mention Salzburg and that I was keen to look at the history behind the ‘Sound of Music’ version of the town. Both of them looked dubious and said that the film was a ‘made-up’ story. There was no history behind it. I was astonished by this apostasy. Our guide on the trip was quite credible when he explained that there was indeed an Austrian ex-Navy man who married his children’s governess (just out of a nunnery!), competed in the Salzburg music festival and because of his hatred of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, fled with his family to eventually make it to the USA. The major departure from historical accuracy in the film was the flight at the end of the film. It was comforting to know that our lens for viewing Salzburg was a reasonable one.
The truth of the matter however is that Salzburg does not need such a lens…it is a very beautiful city from whatever angle you approach it.
We started off from the Danube River town of Linz and our trip to Salzburg was around 1hour and 45 minutes. We stopped first at a small lake town outside Salzburg called Mondsee (Moon lake!) as our guide believed we would all like to see where Maria and the Captain got married. Hollywood had determined that they needed a more picturesque setting than was provided by the original church in Salzburg so they used the interior of St Michael’s Basilica for the film.
After being dropped off by the bus well away from the old centre of Salzburg, we were taken immediately into Mirabel’s Garden, a beautiful garden in its own right but another site for the children in Sound of Music to sing and dance among the trees. What I found more interesting was that Mirabel herself was the mistress of the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg in the early 17th Century. It was not only her garden but the baroque palace beside it was her residence where she awaited the Bishop’s pleasure on his day off from promoting Christian virtue amongst the local populace. His pleasures were regular as one count suggests that she bore him 15 children!
From Mirabel’s garden we strolled past Mozart’s birthplace and onto the pedestrian bridge (Makartsteg bridge) over the Salzach River. As a very functional bridge crossing a beautiful river, this bridge is not remembered for its functionality, it is remembered for the excessive amount of ‘love-locks’ that have been attached to the railings and their supporting ironwork. I have always struggled with the Romeo and Juliet thinking that drives couples to buy a lock, etch their enduring love in miniature writing on it and then attach it to the railings of a bridge. The symbolism of the lock itself is worrying enough but with the certainty of rust, the regular storms fading the ‘enduring love’ message as well as the prosaic council workers arriving with their bolt cutters at dawn to save the bridge from collapse, wouldn’t this be enough for sensible lovers to consider other symbols? Eg. Setting free ‘clouds’ of butterflies or flocks white doves into the cosmos?
Our stroll around Salzburg.
On the other side of the bridge, before we entered the shopping arcades of Salzburg, our guide showed us the first of many small bronze plates we would notice attached to the ground outside shops and homes around the city. He explained that they were memorials to Jewish people who had lived and worked in these places before they were forcibly removed by the Nazis after the ‘Anschluss’ on 12th March 1938. These plaques have been put in place from the 1960s onward as the post war generations tried to come to terms with the horror that was unleashed on Austria by the Nazification of their cities.
As soon as the generally welcomed German troops arrived in Austria, the campaign against Jews began. They were driven from their homes and residences and to cut a long and painful story short, of the 65000 plus Austrians transferred to concentration camps, around 2000 only returned home after the war. This doesn’t take into account the huge number of Jewish citizens who fled the country as a result of anti-semitic repression. Being a tourist in Austrian cities involves a lot more than beautiful architecture and gastronomy.
While not of Jewish background, similar concerns drove the original von Trapps to flee Austria. The family left Salzburg in June 1938 and travelled via Italy (the father was an Italian national) to the USA. The following extract from the National Archives website about the family puts the situation as follows…. “When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, the von Trapps realized that they were on thin ice with a regime they abhorred. Georg not only refused to fly the Nazi flag on their house, but he also declined a naval command and a request to sing at Hitler’s birthday party. They were also becoming aware of the Nazis’ anti-religious propaganda and policies, the pervasive fear that those around them could be acting as spies for the Nazis, and the brainwashing of children against their parents. They weighed staying in Austria and taking advantage of the enticements the Nazis were offering—greater fame as a singing group, a medical doctor’s position for Rupert, and a renewed naval career for Georg—against leaving behind everything they knew—their friends, family, estate, and all their possessions. They decided that they could not compromise their principles and left.” (Joan Gearin)
Our tour continued and we headed down the main shopping street with its ornate wrought metal signs hanging above the shops to indicate to previous century shoppers the general contents of these businesses. This led eventually to the huge square around the Salzburg Cathedral with its Bishop’s Palace, on the facade of which, the makers of ‘Sound of Music’ wanted to hang a NAZI flag for an important scene in the movie. The locals were very concerned and objected. Our guide wasn’t sure how the issue was resolved in the movie’s favour.
Given that our time in Salzburg was limited, we skipped entering the Basilica and went to do further exploring of the city. We decided lunch at Starbucks with the inclusion of toilet facilities was a great option; we were warned that the restaurants were expensive and you paid handsomely for using the toilet facilities.
The main feature of the skyline of Salzburg is the Hohensalzburg Fortress that sits on top of the mountain overlooking Salzburg. It was built in 1077 by an Archbishop Prince and it is argued that it is one of the largest, fully preserved castles in central Europe; it has unsurprisingly never been captured by foreign troops. There is a funicular behind the Basilica that takes visitors up to the top of the mountain and it is also not far from the entrance to the cemetery of St Peters. This monastery cemetery was made famous in one of the last scenes in ‘Sound of Music’ when the family escaped out the back door of the Music Festival venue and made their escape through this cemetery. The NAZIs of course discovered their escape route and fired shots at them in the cemetery. There are no old bullet holes on the grave stones of this cemetery for a number of reasons.
- Hollywood had to build their own St Peters cemetery to ‘shoot’ the movie.
- Neither Hollywood or local tourist guides are allowed to ply their trade in this cemetery anyway.
- The escape through the cemetery is fictional. The family caught a train to Italy as their father had an Italian passport and they were travelling to a singing engagement.
Despite no mementos of fleeing von Trapps being pursued by vengeful NAZIs, a walk through St Peters cemetery in Salzburg is one of the most beautiful strolls to do anywhere in the cities of Central Europe. The setting of the cemetery is between the monastery of St Peters and the cliff face that keeps towering upwards until it meets the fortress on top of the mountain edge. The intricate grave memorials, the small precise gardens full of flowers and the brooding ambience makes for a great slow meander through holy ground.
With not much time left to meet our bus, we crossed back over the Salzach River via the Staatsbrucke and admired the old city walls on the other side of the river. They seemed to be more a protective wall for the Capucin Friars Monastery on the hill side behind them, rather than a defence for the old town across the river. After a quick walk and a browse in the many shops on this side of Salzburg, we hurried back to our meeting point on the ‘love-lock’ bridge. It was a sleepy bus load of tourists that made their way back to Linz after a hard days strolling through the beautiful and musical city of Salzburg.