SALZBURG: Keeping a Date with Mozart
Of Mozart, The Sound of Music, intricate architecture and lush pastures – Salzburg's panoramic beauty will captivate your soul with a gush of faint old-world nostalgia.
"Of all the lovely regions I have seen, none can compare to Salzburg's striking natural beauty," said Salzburg city's most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and how very apt his observation was, which I was to discover for myself on a trip to this mesmerising Austrian city last winter.
There is a maxim that a Bengali and his music are inseparable and being a Bengali from the land of Nobel Laureate Tagore, music does come naturally to me. Having been born into a Bengali family steeped in Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti, music was a part of the growing up process which I, like all other Bengali folks, was exposed to right from birth. However, I must admit, my acquaintance with Western Classical music wasn't all that deep, limited to attending the occasional Western concerts that are held in Kolkata, until, that is, I landed in Salzburg.
I was in Salzburg within two hours of landing in Vienna – the capital city of Austria, which was bedecked in snow and where "the splendour of the Alps" took on a new meaning. An interesting statistic was provided to me by my guide Jozeph, that Salzburg's per-capita-ratio of tourists is higher than that of Venice and this city of Mozart is among the busiest in the whole of Europe.
Salzburg is every bit a rococo city and the denizens take immense pride in the fact that Mozart was born in this city. Elegant churches, graceful castles and regal palaces dot the city landscape. No wonder that Salzburg, and more significantly the "Old City" precinct, is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.
The joke 'If it's b(a)roque, don't fix it' is a perfect maxim for Salzburg and the storybook Old Town burrowed below steep hills looks much as it did when Mozart lived here 250 years ago. Standing beside the fast-flowing Salzach River, your gaze is raised inch by inch to graceful domes and spires, the formidable clifftop fortress and the mountains beyond. It's a backdrop that did the lordly prince-archbishops and Maria of The Sound of Music fame proud.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is undoubtedly one of the greatest music composers of all time and the ecstasies that he composed will resonate and reverberate through the ages to come.
Day 1 of my Visit Salzburg agenda began with a sumptuous breakfast at the iconic Café Tomaselli. Legend has it that the great musician would frequent this outlet himself and he had a particular liking for its speciality, Almond Milk. For several years, Mozart's widow had lived on the upper floor of this Cafe, which today has become a landmark feature of Salzburg Tourism. Not far from the Cafe, a leisurely walk through the Old Town is just what the doctor ordered and the magnificent statue of Mozart, which was built way back in the year 1844 at Mozart Square, is your first point of contact with the great musical genius. On this stately baroque square, Mozart is literally and metaphorically put on a pedestal. The square hums with street entertainers and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. It is flanked on one side by the Salzburg Museum. In close proximity to Mozart Square is the magnificent Salzburg Cathedral where Mozart was baptised, and this classic baroque edifice is easily one of the city's most noteworthy cathedrals. Kudos to the Cathedral management for the impeccable manner in which the old Baptismal Arena has been preserved. Needless to say, this area is the Holiest of Holy shrine for musicians and Mozart had composed some of his most melodious music in this hallowed arena.
From the sanctified ambience of the Salzburg Cathedral to the birthplace of Mozart, which is located in close proximity to the Alter Markt, Getreidegasse, to be precise, is the ultimate pilgrimage that any musician can aspire for. While walking across the road to Mozart's birthplace, I fondly remembered Santiniketan – the abode of Tagore, and the great musical contributions they both have left for humanity. World-renowned orchestras, conductors and soloists celebrate Mozart's birthday with a feast of his music during Mozart Week in late January. Mozart's birthplace is open to visitors from 9 am-5.30 pm and from July to August till 7 pm. My guide Jozeph suggested that we have lunch at the Stiftskulinarium restaurant, which happens to be Europe's oldest restaurant and dates back to 803 AD. Here, the cuisine is truly local and you can bask in the uninterrupted sights that offer a peek into Salzburg's rich, virile past.
From Mozart's birthplace, a short walk along the Staatsbrucke that leads to Makartplatz-8 will take you to the Mozart Residence. The Mozart family lived here from 1773 and, now, this residence has been impeccably renovated and converted into a museum. After spending quality time at Mozart's residence, make it a point to visit the Bibliotheca Mozartiana, which undoubtedly must be the most well-stocked library dedicated to Mozart, with as many as 35,000 titles.
Salzburg's most visible icon is the mighty, 900-year-old cliff-top fortress, Festung (Fortress) Hohensalzburg, one of the biggest and best-preserved in Europe. The fortress is a steep 15-minute jaunt from the centre or a speedy ride up in the glass Festungsbahn funicular, which whisks you up to the hilltop castle in a matter of minutes, saving you the legwork of the stiff uphill walking track that leads to the top. It's easy to spend half a day up here, roaming the ramparts for far-reaching views over the city's spires, the Salzach River and the mountains. Making a graceful leap across the Salzach River, the Art Nouveau–style Mozartsteg bridge, named after the city's most famous son, shines in the winter sun.
Highlights of the fortress visit include the Golden Hall – where lavish banquets were once held – with a gold-studded ceiling imitating a starry night sky. Your ticket also gets you into the Marionette Museum, where skeleton-in-a-box Archbishop Wolf Dietrich steals the (puppet) show, as well as the Fortress Museum, which showcases a 1612 model of Salzburg, medieval instruments, armour and some pretty gruesome torture devices.
How can we have an evening in the hometown of Mozart without a concert? Well, make no mistake, Austrian Tourism authorities have rather innovatively packaged concert shows at the impressive Salzburg Marionette Theater for exclusive Mozart Operas. The Golden Hall is also the backdrop for year-round Festungskonzerte (fortress concerts), which often focus on Mozart's works.
I was also informed that The Von Trapp family of Salzburg (of The Sound of Music movie fame), are an integral part of the city's cultural folklore and one great way to explore the many fascinating city vistas and the adjoining rural areas of Salzburg is by embarking on an exclusive bus tour operated by Panorama tours.
I was pretty impressed by the ingenuity of the Austrian cultural mandarins who have come up with a one-of-its-kind Festival District, at the scenic Mönchsberg neighbourhood. Apart from the festival halls, the Felsenreitschule, in particular, is sheer class and Fischer von Erlach, the world renowned architect, had designed this masterpiece way back in 1693.
No matter what time of the year you travel to Salzburg, there will always be cultural events galore to choose from with 4,000 plus cultural events taking place every year in Salzburg, thereby conferring on this outstanding city the priceless tag of Europe's most important cultural hub.
No visit to Salzburg is ever complete without a visit to the regal, opulent Hellbrunn Palace. The specialities of the palace are the "Trick Fountains", which were a legacy of the aristocratic Italian noblemen and this is perhaps the only place in the world where you will find these Trick Fountains. The Archbishop of Salzburg, Marcus Sittikus, took enormous pride in entertaining his honoured guests with surprises beside these fountains.
Since I was travelling to Salzburg in the month of December, I was witness to the rather gorgeous Christmas Market, held inside the premises of Hellbrunn Palace. The Bengalis' love affair with sweets is by now well-known and the Christmas pastries on offer at the Christmas market was just irresistible for me. After a long time, I also had the privilege to listen to Christmas carols sung by some of Austria's most legendary folk musicians. And what a way to welcome Christmas, as you hang out over the finest mulled Austrian wine and partake in the festive spirit with the local denizens. Imagine the sight of 400 Christmas trees shimmering with 10,000 plus lights!
For a slice of Baroque architectural splendour, the Dom Quartier is the place to visit. The crowning glory of Salzburg's new Dom Quartier, the Residenz, is where the prince-archbishops held court until Salzburg became part of the Habsburg Empire in the 19th century. An audio-guide tour takes in the exuberant state rooms, lavishly adorned with tapestries, stucco and frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr. The 3rd floor is given over to the Residenzgalerie, where the focus is on Flemish and Dutch masters. Nowhere is the pomp and circumstance of Salzburg more tangible than at this regal palace. As you wend your way across to the Cathedral Terrace, the surreal sight of the Old Town takes your breath away. Try reaching the Organ Gallery, from where the entire Dom Quartier complex and the Old Town's historical remnants can be savoured. The tour also takes visitors along the sanctified Long Corridor, which features sacred paintings from the erstwhile Archdiocese of St Peter, with brief halts at the museum of St Peter, where you will marvel at the ethereal sight of the Franciscan Church, and as the tour culminates at the glorious Carabinieri Hall, you are left absolutely stupefied. With its horse-drawn carriages, palace and street entertainers, its stately baroque square, Residenzplatz, is the Salzburg of a thousand postcards. Its centrepiece is the Residenzbrunnen, an enormous marble fountain, ringed by four water-spouting horses and topped by Triton, bearing a conch shell.
Outside Salzburg, make it a point to venture along to the rather idyllic surroundings of Salzburg's Lake District Area – St Gilgen. Here, you drive past the shimmering Lake Fuschl and Lake Wolfgang, and the mesmerising natural panorama and majestic views from St. Gilgen have beckoned many naturalists to spend quality time and introspect on the deeper meaning of life.
And, rising above Salzburg and straddling the German border is the rugged 1853 m peak of Untersberg. Spectacular views of the city, the Rositten Valley and the Tyrolean, Salzburg and Bavarian alpine ranges unfold from the summit. The mountain is a magnet to local skiers in winter, and hikers, climbers and paragliders in summer. From the cable car top station, short, easy trails lead to nearby viewpoints at Geiereck (1805 m) and Salzburg Hochthron, while others take you much deeper into the Alps. Temperatures can feel significantly cooler up here than down in the valley and trails are loose underfoot, so bring a fleece or jacket and sturdy footwear if you plan on doing some walking. A cable car runs every half-hour to the peak. To reach the cable car valley station, take bus 25 from Salzburg's Hauptbahnhof or Mirabellplatz to St Leonhard and the valley station.
Outside Salzburg, near Untersberg (21 km southwest of Salzburg), the open-air Freilichtmuseum harbours around 100 archetypal Austrian farmhouses, evoking the crafts and trades of yore. It has tractors to clamber over, goats to feed, a butterfly watching area and a huge adventure playground.
The little town of Mondsee too is worth a visit and is most renowned for its signature Wedding Chapel, where the wedding of Maria and Baron Von Trapp was shot in the movie starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music.
The grand rococo palace of Schloss Leopoldskron, a 15-minute walk from Festung Hohensalzburg, is where the lake scene was filmed in The Sound of Music. Its Venetian Room was the blueprint for the Trapp's lavish ballroom, where the children bid their farewells.
A short climb up the Nonnbergstiege staircase from Kaigasse or along Festungsgasse brings you to a Benedictine convent, founded 1300 years ago, that was made famous as the nunnery in The Sound of Music. You can visit the beautiful rib-vaulted church, but the rest of the convent is off-limits. Take €0.50 to switch on the light that illuminates the beautiful Romanesque frescoes.
Beyond Salzburg's two biggest money-spinners – Mozart and The Sound of Music – hides a city with a burgeoning arts scene, wonderful food, manicured parks, quiet side streets where classical music wafts from open windows, and concert halls that uphold musical tradition 365 days a year. Everywhere you go, the scenery, the skyline, the music and the history send your spirits soaring higher than Julie Andrews' octave-leaping vocals.
While in Salzburg, discerning visitors make it a point to dine at St Peter Restaurant, which has a history of over 1200 years of genuine Austrian hospitality. Hosts Veronika Kirchmair and Claus Haslauer offer guests the finest Austrian dining experience amidst its "Old Stone" interiors.
Mozart Dinner Concerts too are an integral part of the culinary tradition at Stiftskeller St Peter's lavish baroque hall. This themed dinner, with Mozart music, costumed performers and 18th-century-style food transports you back to the time of Mozart.
When you are tired of tramping around, visit Augustiner Bräustübl. Since 1621, this cheery, monastery-run brewery has been serving potent homebrews in beer steins in the vaulted hall and beneath the chestnut trees in the 1000-seat beer garden. Get your tankard filled at the foyer pump and visit the snack stands for hearty, beer-swigging grub like Stelzen (ham hock), pork belly and giant pretzels. Who says monks can't enjoy themselves? Cheers to Alpine Coziness!
Traveller's Fact File
Off-the-beaten track destinations worth exploring: Hohenwerfen Castle (1 hour, south of Salzburg); World of Ice Giants (10 min drive from Hohenwerfen Castle): Großglockner High Alpine Road (1 hour 40 min south of Salzburg), Krimml Waterfalls (2 hours southwest of Salzburg).
Salzburg Festival: The absolute highlight of the city's events calendar is the Salzburg Festival. It is a grand affair, with some 200 productions – including theatre, classical music and opera – staged in the impressive surrounds of the Grosses Festpielhaus and the baroque Felsenreitschule. Housed in the former royal stables, the Haus für Mozart (also known as the Kleines Festspielhaus) is another of the venues of the Salzburg Festival. Tickets range from €11 to €430; book well ahead.
Salzburg Card: With a choice between a 24, 48 or 72 hour pass, you'll enjoy free admission to over 30 attractions and museums in the 'City of Mozart', free use of the public transport network and discounts at numerous other sights. The free 'Salzburg Guide' is provided with the card on exchange of your voucher.
Accommodation: Some of the city's outstanding hotels are Romantik Hotel Im Weissen Rössl, Hotel Sacher Salzburg, Hotel Schloss Mönchstein, Arthotel Blaue Gans.
The Sound of Music Tour: The Sound of Music movie turned 50 in 2015 and Salzburg is singing about it at the top of its voice. But who were the Trapps really? To find out you need to start at the very beginning – in the original family home in Aigen.
It can be difficult to move in Salzburg at times, which is why it is refreshing to escape the throngs for a while and follow the Salzach River as it curves gently south to Aigen and Villa Trapp. Nestled in its own park, the stout yellow mansion, built in 1863, is grand but not ostentatiously so – a fitting home for one of the city's most famous families.
Step inside as a hotel guest or on a guided tour and the first thing you clap eyes on is a sweeping staircase – not as opulent as the one in the film, but a feature nonetheless. "The Trapp children used to slide down this banister on their bellies," says manager Christopher Unterkofler. He points to a portrait hanging above the staircase. "Those are the real children: Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina. In reality there was no Kurt, no Liesl." Pictured are the seven children from Georg von Trapp's first marriage to Agathe Whitehead, who died in 1922 of scarlet fever.
"Agathe was the love of his life," says Christopher. "But Georg von Trapp was a practical man and knew the children needed a mother," Cue Maria. Two years after meeting the postulant nun and teacher from Nonnberg Abbey, the baron proposed and they were married in 1927 – he was 47, she was 22. "The nuns were pleased as Maria never really had the right temperament to become a nun. She was not in love but she liked the baron and came to love him in her fashion. And she always loved the children." Three more Trapp children followed from their marriage – Rosmarie, Eleonore and Johannes.
Truth behind the Hollywood legend
What swiftly becomes clear is that this is a house brimming with stories that unravel the truth behind the Hollywood legend. Photos line the walls and memorabilia fill the cabinets. "Georg von Trapp was a first-class captain and one of the most decorated Austrian admirals of WWI," says Christopher. "The photo of him on a submarine was taken after he sank the French battleship Léon Gambetta, for which he received the highest honour: the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. He was a national hero who dreamed about sailing around the world with his family – a dream he never realised after losing much of his fortune during the Great Depression."
When the film was released in 1965, the children were shocked about how their father was portrayed. "He was a kind family man, totally devoted to his children, not stern like in the film. And he never made the kids march," says Christopher. The famous whistle was a means of calling the kids in from play in a pre-mobile age, with each child responding to a different note. Education was paramount – the children were taught languages and how to play an instrument. Both Maria and Georg von Trapp believed that music brought people together and this was always a house filled with song. During the world economic crisis in 1935, the family let out the downstairs rooms to seminarists, one of whom was Father Wasner. The Catholic priest does not appear in the film but his part was important – he spotted the family's musical talent and became the director of the Trapp Family Choir, playing a pivotal role in their success as a touring act.
The Trapps and World War II
Then came the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938. Captain Von Trapp, a staunch anti-Nazi, declined a commission in the German Navy and refused to sing at Hitler's birthday party. As the darkness drew closer, the family decided they had to leave Salzburg for the United States via Italy. "But the Trapps never looked into the mouths of Nazi pistols," Christopher admits. "They simply locked up and took a train to South Tyrol. The next time you watch the movie, look closely at the closing scene with the Bavarian Alps and you'll notice a small black house, the Eagle's Nest. If they had gone that way, they would have walked straight into Hitler's path."
During WW-II, Villa Trapp was the Salzburg headquarters of Heinrich Himmler, the dreaded Reichsführer of the SS. Gone was the cheerful song and children's laughter, and in its place were vicious dogs, swastikas and a high wall concealing what went on behind it. "He had the men who built that wall shot," Christopher says. "When Himmler fled in 1945, the Trapps wanted the house to go to the Missionaries of the Precious Blood to eradicate his evil spirit with the power of prayer."
What became of the Trapps is a happy ending befitting of Hollywood. The family arrived in the States with just three dollars to their name and successfully began a new life. If their heavy-going choral music didn't go down well in America at first, they soon learned to adapt their repertoire.
The hills are alive...Fast forwarding 70 years, the daughter Maria returned to the villa in 2008. The home had been lovingly restored to its former glory and converted into a guesthouse by Christopher and his wife, Marianne. Maria's greatest wish during her brief visit to Salzburg was to go up to the peak of Gaisberg, to feel the spirit of her Austrian home and gaze out across the hills that were once alive with the sound of the Trapp family music.
If you are still craving more of The Sound of Music folklore, here are the top five Sound of Music locations for your own self-guided tour of the movie locations when you are in Salzburg:
Schloss Mirabell: The garden's gnomes, Pegasus fountain and steps with views of the high-on-a-hill fortress might inspire a rendition of Do-Re-Mi, especially if there's a drop of golden sun.
Residenzplatz: This stately square in Salzburg's baroque heart is where Julie Andrews (aka Maria) belts out I Have Confidence, playfully splashing in the Residenzbrunnen fountain.
Schloss Leopoldskron: Remember the lake scene where the curtain-clad kids tumble out of the rowboat? It was filmed with this rococo palace as a backdrop.
Untersberg – No time to climb every mountain? Take the cable car up to this 1853 m peak, which appears briefly at the end of the movie, for stunning
Schloss Hellbrunn – The gardens of this whimsical 17th-century summer palace are home to the pavilion depicted in the song, I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen.