Andrew Eames heads to the Austrian city of Salzburg to find its hills really are alive with the sound of music
The landscape around the Austrian city of Salzburg is ready-made for storytelling. Lakes and mountains, rich farmland and historic forest is punctuated by castles on hilltops, country inns, and churches with onion-domed belfries. It’s a place of cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, of bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like a list of my favorite things.
Add to this list a beautiful young governess, a crusty but handsome aristocrat with an endearing tribe of mellifluously voiced children, mix in the threat of war, and — hey presto: you’ve got one of my favorite movies of all time. The Sound of Music.
In this era of big studios and digital wizardry, it seems unusual that a movie should be made in the exact same location as the original story. However, back in 1965 this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was captured on celluloid all over Salzburg and the surrounding Salzburgerland, because there was simply nowhere better, or more appropriate, than the actual true-life setting. This all means that these days a fan like myself can jump on a guided tour to authentic Sound of Music country, complete with sing-along soundtracks and juicy film gossip to keep me entertained along the way.
Before I even get to Salzburg, I learn how the movie, which is still one of the biggest box office successes ever, has been huge for city tourism. Every year, 300,000 visitors come here — twice as many as the local population — to see the gardens Maria danced through with the children, the lake where they went boating, and the church where she and Captain Von Trapp finally got married. It’s a phenomenon that only rarely involves the locals, however, despite its international fame, The Sound of Music isn’t widely known in Austria, and, in fact, the stage version of the musical was only first performed in the country just a couple of years ago.
As soon as I set foot in the place, however, I can see Salzburg is tailor-made for romance, with cobbles and cathedrals, cloisters and cake shops, all echoing with music. In the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, where much of the ‘Do-Re-Mi’ scene was acted out, more than a third of marriage ceremonies involve visitors from overseas. Walking up to the forbidding Hohensalzburg Castle, a vast white-painted stronghold that looms above the city and was once home to the prince-bishops who ruled Salzburg for hundreds of years, I realize that it too was incorporated into the Do-Re-Mi sequence in the movie.
Much of the heart of downtown Salzburg is pedestrian-only, so I browse along the ever-popular Getreidegasse, where you can get every favorite thing, from handmade umbrellas and liqueurs to flowers made of silk and specially tailored dirndl, the Austrian (and Bavarian) national dress. In the grand, old-fashioned Hotel Sacher Salzburg, where celebrities ancient and modern have stayed, I follow in Julie Andrews’ footsteps by having a coffee and sachertorte cake by the riverside. I could have gone across the road to the Hotel Bristol, where Christopher Plummer (Captain Georg Von Trapp) was billeted during the filming and where he used to entertain late-night guests by playing the piano in the bar.
But there are other sounds of music here, specifically those of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in Salzburg and is celebrated every evening by a concert of his music in the St Peter Stiftskeller, one of the oldest restaurants in Europe. Mozart was also familiar with the Do-Re-Mi principle, but he didn’t make a song and dance about it.
Which brings me back to a problem called Maria. While there’s a fair amount of film-fan material in downtown Salzburg, there’s even more in the surrounding landscape. So I joined Panorama Tours’ Original Sound of Music Tour, which departs every morning from Mirabellplatz, just up the road from Mirabell Palace and Gardens. The coach, decorated with the famous image of a suitcase-waving Julie Andrews fleeing over the hills, filled up with the most diverse collection of people you’d ever expect to climb aboard a wheeled vehicle — outside of an airport, that is. There were all manner of Europeans — from as far apart as Stockholm and Istanbul — along with Asians, Americans, Canadians and Brits of all ages and sizes.
Peter, our guide, was himself international in origin, being half-Austrian, half-American, and he laced his commentary with good humor, liberally sprinkled with cheesy jokes and camp re-enactments of bits of the movie, with him playing all the parts. The level of irony was perfect for someone like me, who doesn’t like to admit that Edelweiss makes me watery-eyed, although Peter acknowledged the occasional hardcore fan can sometimes find his lack of reverence a bit hard to stomach.
The coach started by circling the city, with Peter telling us the inside story of what Maria was actually like in real life, and how the Captain was far from being the stern character portrayed in the movie, and how the family finally settled in Vermont, where Maria wrote up the story of the Von Trapp family singers.
The movie, of course, takes some liberties with the truth. And as if to demonstrate this, Peter showed us how the director cut corners when sewing scenes together, matching the front view of the Von Trapp villa with the back garden of a different villa. We stop at the lake where the rowing boat overturned, to great hilarity, at Schloss Leopoldskron palace and the recreated glass summerhouse at Hellbrunn Palace, where love-struck Liesl sings “I am 16…”
And then we set off into the mountains, through meadows and alpine valleys, with the movie’s soundtrack to keep us in the mood. “If you feel like singing, just let it all out. Remember,” encouraged Peter, “you’ll never see these people again.” And some did. A Turkish lady sitting behind me could hardly speak any English, but her rendition of My Favorite Things was word-perfect.
Key stops were the lake of Wolfgangsee, and the placid Mondsee, with its small namesake town, in whose grand baroque church Maria and the Captain were married in the movie. All that was missing was a lonely goatherd or two.
Soon it was time to return to the city, and for our final inhibition-free, full-throated rendition of Edelweiss as we re-entered Salzburg. Just before we disembarked, Peter told us one of his tackiest Sound of Music jokes: “Why did it take so long to make the film? Because in those days you couldn’t get a Plummer on Saturdays.”