In Salzburg, there are two kinds of people; those who love the movie and those who absolutely abhor it. And oh yes, there is a third type: those who make a living from it. Like the guys at Panorama Tours with whom I am all set to take a Sound of Music tour around the city and the gorgeous Austrian countryside. All this is a bit surprising considering that Austrians themselves had no idea about The Sound of Music before America and Hollywood thrust it down their throats.
The women in the bus are excited, the men slightly embarrassed, while the couple of kids from America keep fidgeting, clueless what the fuss is all about. Then the stories begin. The first is about the lady from Australia who took this tour earlier and ended up in tears while the sound track was played towards the end. It turns out she is used to watching the movie at her home it every Saturday (in the company of a bottle of the best wine) for years now and was overcome by emotion at finally seeing where the movie was actually shot. I have no such emotion but like others in the bus, I have fond memories of watching the movie as a child, and enjoying it just as much when I watch it again as an adult.
The play and then the film Sound of Music actually took a lot of liberties with the real story of Maria Von Trapp and her family. In real life, when the Von Trapps escaped the Nazi rule in Salzburg, they took a hike to the nearest train station and went to Italy. The last scenes of the film shows them getting into Switzerland, a five hour drive away; this was shot near Berchtesgaden, Germany, very close to Hitler’s Eagles Nest, so imagine the Von Trapps heading there. All this is told to me by Vincent, my tourist guide for the day, who dearly loves his mike and keeps his busload entertained through the morning.
And so he continues. Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever is not a popular Austrian folk tune (as the movie would have you believe) but was composed for Broadway by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the last project the duo worked on together before Hammerstein died. If anything, Edelweiss today is a popular Austrian beer. Young men wooing were once required to climb up the Alps to bring their love the Edelweiss flower; today they take with them a crate of chilled beer!
Through all these interesting disclosures, we are traveling through serious Sound of Music country, beginning with the Leopoldskorn Lake with the palace at the side, where scenes of the movie showing the terrace of the Captain’s home were shot. The most interesting story is however, at our next stop, at the gazebo at Hellbrunn palace. It is here that Liesl, Captain Von Trapp’s oldest daughter was on 16, going on 17, with her boyfriend, the Nazi sympathizer Rolf, a year older. The gazebo is now closed to the public, ever since, says Vincent, an 85 year-old tourist (obviously going on 17) broke her hip trying to jump from seat to seat in the manner of young Liesl.
The highlight of the tour is the drive through the Salzkammergut (Lake District) with stunning views of the Austrian countryside so well captured in the opening scenes of movie. There is a mandatory stop at Mondsee to take in the cathedral where the grand wedding scene between the Captain and Maria was shot.
On the way back to Salzburg, the sound track from the movie is played in the bus (for once, Vincent is silent) and people begin to sing along, hesitantly at first and then lustily joining in. The Sound of Music works its smooth magic, or perhaps the magic is that of the countryside but grown men in the bus begin to hum along with “these are a few of my favourite things!” And I complete this pilgrimage the next morning with a visit to the Mirabell Gardens, which I am told, also played a prominent role in the movie.
Salzburg’s other claim to fame is that of being Mozart’s birthplace. And the city does not let you forget that. There is the Mozart GeburtsHaus (where he was born), his WohnHaus (where he lived) and assorted touristy memorabilia (in less kind words, called kitsch) all the way from chocolates to pen holders and fridge magnets with his name and face on them. And of course, there are those on the main streets dressed in what they think of as Mozart costume peddling cheap tickets for classical concerts (friendly word of warning: stay away from these).
All that said, Salzburg is a city capable of charming any visitor, even without the loud signs everywhere that scream of these past glories. It is known to be one of the oldest cultural centers in what is present day Austria and is now the fourth largest city here. The Aldstadt (old state – or the city center) is known for its well-preserved Baroque architecture. The city itself was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
It is today a young city, its restaurants and bars buzzing in the spring air late, late into the night. The Salzach River runs through it, the bridges over it and the lanes by the side now used as spots for locals and tourists to meet and chat and watch the world pass by. On narrow Getreidegasse, the main shopping lane in Salzburg, everything is strictly old world; even the signboard for McDonalds is a graceful arch in metal and muted colours, in keeping with the tone of the area. I spend several hours here, exploring the hundreds of shops and boutiques tucked into its narrow arched by-lanes.
One evening, I trek up to the HohenSalzburg fortress that casts a watchful eye on the city at all times. The sun is setting in the distance casting golden shadows on the Salzach and the city skyline is impressive and mellow in this light. Far down, at Kapitelplatz, I can see people, little ants slowly making their way through the street stalls. The giant chessboard painted on the ground is also active, the giant pieces seeming to move of their own accord.
That instant, I can hear echoes of the sound of music from far far away.
Published in the South China Morning Post, March 11, 2012