Although it was filmed in 1965, when you walk through Salzburg’s Old Town it’s as if The Sound of Music has just been released. There are Sound of Music tours, Sound of Music landmarks, even Sound of Music “myths debunked.” The city has a familiar feel, too, as if you’ve been there before, even though you know it’s that soundtrack playing tricks with your mind. As we wandered through the narrow streets and crowded plazas, I kept asking myself the same question: What was Salzburg like before Hollywood made it an international tourist destination?
The Crystal Mozart was docked along the Danube River in Linz, Austria, about a two-hour drive from Salzburg. Herb and I had signed up for an all-day excursion that included a walking tour and time on our own. Our guide, dressed in a traditional Austrian dirndl, welcomed us as we boarded the bus. Before beginning her commentary, she said she wanted to get one topic out of the way. “I know you all have many questions about The Sound of Music, and I promise to play some of the songs on the trip back. But you have to understand something. Many Austrians never saw the movie.”
She went on to explain that an edited version of the film was shown in Austria in which scenes involving any mention of the Nazis were removed. With those scenes missing from the story, the film did not have the same impact it had in the United States. And while Americans may think the song Edelweiss is a sort of Austrian national anthem, she emphasized that it was written for the play and is not an Austrian song.
Her words seemed to conflict with the way she was dressed. The colorful skirt and apron and peasant-style white blouse looked to me like she stepped right out of the movie.
“Oh no,” she said. “Everyone has a traditional Austrian outfit. We wear them whenever we want.” She explained that they are high-quality and expensive – at least 500 Euros – and that a man’s leather lederhosen is even more costly. “These are not like the costumes tourists buy.”
And with that, she switched gears and began talking about Salzburg.
About half-way through our journey, our driver pulled off the highway, stopping for a short break. “You might want to take a look at the view,” our guide recommended as we stepped outside. Beyond the restaurant, a grassy expanse cascaded to the most beautiful azure body of water so poetically named Moon Lake – Mondsee in German. Tree-covered hills and mountainous peaks rose in the distance, framing the far side of the lake. Sailboats sat in a sheltered cove surrounded by a verdant ring of pines and other trees. It was a powerful moment of serenity that I still think about, and certainly the most scenic rest stop I have ever encountered.
It was late morning when we arrived in Salzburg and began our walk. We passed the Mirabell Gardens and Palace, which I instantly recognized from the aforementioned movie. Flower-decked and fountain-filled, the gardens date to 1730 and have been open to the public since 1850.
From Mirabell we crossed the Salzach River and headed into Old Town. Salzburg has a population of about 150,000, but Old Town – where the main attractions are found – is compact and crowded. I quickly realized that our midday arrival meant the impossibly long list of places I’d hoped to see would need to be shortened. One afternoon is woefully not enough time to explore this lovely city, but when it’s the only option, you have to make the best of it.
We left the group at the drop-off spot near Salzburg Cathedral and headed to a nearby restaurant called Gasthof Goldgasse. With its cozy beamed ceilings and tavern-like dining room, it was a warm and inviting place to enjoy lunch and revise our plans for the rest of the day. From there we searched for a dessert I had been hoping to try – the Salzburger Nockerl – but after inquiring at a couple of bakeries, we learned that because the Nockerl takes a bit of time to prepare, it’s only served in restaurants. One of the bakeries recommended Hotel Elefant’s aptly named Restaurant “S’Nockerl” Im Elefant, where we found a table outside and placed our order.
We spent the rest of our time in Salzburg walking around Old Town. We wandered through St. Peter’s Cemetery, inspiration for the Sound of Music’s hiding-from-the-Nazis scene. We picked up gifts and souvenirs on the old shopping lane called Getreidegasse – Salzburg’s namesake salt, pumpkin seed oil and signature wrapped-in-blue Mozart chocolate balls. And we took a self-guided tour of Mozart’s birth house, where his childhood piano and violin are prominently displayed.
Much too soon, it was time to meet our guide by the river and walk back to the bus. I wanted to return to Mirabell Gardens on the way, but there just wasn’t time. We passed a familiar-looking entrance topped with two larger-than-life statues, and I was transported once again to the Sound of Music and the topic that had started our day. I typically wait to take photos until there are reasonably few people blocking the scenery, but in this case it was then or never. Of course, I chose then.
Who knows? I thought. Maybe the man with the headphones is listening to Do-Re-Mi.
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I can’t really say that I experienced Salzburg. It was more like passing through a city, with glimpses and tangled memories and pavement slipping much too quickly beneath my feet. But I can tell you that Salzburg is a city worth exploring. And even though our time there was brief, I’m very happy to have made its acquaintance.