Travel Story The hills are alive in Salzburg

The Sound of Music, 1965, Julie Andrews
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

This pretty Austrian town may have many other claims to fame, but it's the association with The Sound of Music that draws millions of visitors each year. 

I’m in Salzburg, Austria, and just like the majority of the 6.5 million visitors who come to this pretty town each year, I am tuned in for echoes of The Sound of Music.

Salzburg, with its 150,000 residents on the Salzach River, is 2.5 hours’ drive from Vienna and a popular day trip.

Apart from being the setting for The Sound of Music, it has a number of other claims to fame.

Its baroque architecture helped in getting it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it has one of the best conserved town centres north of the Alps.

It has what is claimed to be the oldest restaurant in Europe, St Peter Stiftskeller — Das Restaurant, which was established in AD803 and still serves up delicately thinned schnitzels and its rather famous Stiftskeller mixed grill at just over $30 per person.

Its Mirabell Palace was built in 1606 and still stands proud amid the beautiful, geometrically designed and mythologically themed Mirabell Gardens.

For goodness sake, in 1756 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born here, and his four-storey birthplace museum is remarkable to visit. Composing from the age of five, taken on to play by the Salzburg court at the age of 17, Mozart composed 600 works before dying aged just 35.

But it, interestingly and undoubtedly, is this one work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that draws the big crowds.

Let’s play a game called “Sing the Next Line” ...

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow ... ”

“Doe, a deer, a female deer ... ”

“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favourite things ... ”

And, of course, the run up the green hill, arms flung wide, the spin, and (all together now) ... “The hills are alive, with the sound of music ... ”

It seems most of us are simply born knowing the songs.

And it is a fact that local tour guide Eva Riedler knows one in particular, as she’s singing it now ... “You wait little girl on an empty stage for fate to turn the light on ...”

In fact, the ebullient and joyful Eva isn’t standing on a stage, but in front of the actual pavilion where Liesl (Charmian Carr) sang Sixteen Going on Seventeen to Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte). The pavilion is at Schloss Hellbrunn, a 400-year-old palace in Salzburg.

“I need someone older and wiser, telling me what to do ... ”

Eva even has an updated version — “I am 60 going on 70” — in keeping with the age group of her usual audiences. But, of course, Liesl doesn’t get to turn to Rolfe, who turns to the nazis as World War II moves in.

In Mirabell Gardens, there is the Pegasus fountain, which the von Trapp children ran around and, nearby, the “Do Re Mi” steps. 

In Residenzplatz square in the historic old town, there’s the ornate Residenz Fountain, in which Maria (well, Julie) splashes, and where she sang I Have Confidence in Me.

There is Nonnberg Abbey, from which the novice nun Maria sallies forth.

Leopoldskron Castle was used as the front of the von Trapp house and is now the exclusive Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron.

In Salzburg, there is a The Sound of Music hop-on hop-off bus to visit sites, minibuses with Julie Andrews running in the mountains with her guitar case and endless tours.

The set of the dramatic scene where the nazis search for the von Trapps, who are preparing to walk out of Austria over the mountains, is clearly based on Salzburg’s St Peter’s cemetery.

It is interesting that the film has become such an important industry for the town, and for Austria, as it refers to Austrians colluding with nazis at the start of World War II. Some of those involved in filming The Sound of Music have spoken about the resistance to the film in Salzburg. Maybe for some, it was a chapter of history preferably forgotten.

The film is only loosely based on the life of Maria Augusta von Trapp, who did indeed enter the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey but was asked to teach one of the seven children of widowed submarine commander Georg Ludwig von Trapp. His wife had died from scarlet fever and, when he lost all the money that had come from her torpedo pioneering family, the Trapp Family Singers literally had to sing for their supper, eventually moving to Vermont, in the US, to do so.

Maria’s book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, later became a bestseller and was adapted for the stage musical and film. 

And that led back to Salzburg.

Julie Andrews, now 80, said upon her recent return to the city for the 50th anniversary of the film's release last year: “Going back to Salzburg ... I thought would I be nostalgic ... would I be sad ... but it turned out to be quite a joyous thing.

“The amazing thing to me is that 50 years after the film was released, the biggest tourist attraction in Salzburg is either Mozart or The Sound of Music and, if you think about that, that’s really unusual.”

Unusual, indeed, and particularly because of the two, the latter is undoubtedly the greater. The town, and the hills, are alive because of the sound of music.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Emirates and Scenic.

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