Sound of Salzburg

The Sound of Music is 50 years old this month. We take a music-themed tour of Salzburg, Austria.
The square in Salzburg, Austria. Most of The Sound of Music was filmed in the city, with key sites open to the public via tours. This month marks the film’s 50th anniversary. Courtesy Tourismus Salzburg
The square in Salzburg, Austria. Most of The Sound of Music was filmed in the city, with key sites open to the public via tours. This month marks the film’s 50th anniversary. Courtesy Tourismus Salzburg

The walk across Salzburg’s Mönchsberg Hill is an exercise in blissful escape. While the city’s Old Town heaves with visitors, few people take on the kilometre-or-so stroll through the woodland between the ­centuries-old fortress and the 21st-century Museum der ­Moderne.

The walk is also, it would seem, the only place in the entire city where it’s possible to avoid a certain film. This lasts right until the terrace outside the Museum der Moderne, with the view looking down at the Old Town.

The scene is instantly recognisable. The brain registers it without the faintest hesitation. This time, it’s Do-Re-Mi.

This is something that happens time and time again in Salzburg. In Residenzplatz, one of the network of grand squares deliberately designed to show off Salzburg’s baroque splendour, it’s the bit from near the start of I Have Confidence. At the Mozart Bridge over the Salzach River, it’s where the children merrily skip on their way to the picnic dressed in frankly awful outfits made from curtains. The Festival Halls built into the rock at the bottom of Mönchsberg are where the family wows the public before dashing off on their daring escape.

It’s testament to The Sound of Music’s longevity and place in the collective consciousness that there’s no head-scratching or mental puzzling over what was shot where. The film may be 50 years old this year, but the Salzburg it shows is still imprinted in the memory.

Few cities are as closely associated with one film as Salzburg. When The Sound of Music was filmed, the director Robert Wise calculatingly gave the city a role as prominent as Julie Andrews’s. After release in 1965, the movie’s success sparked a tourism boom in Salzburg that has continued unabated ever since. Some of the stats given out by the city’s tourism office are astounding. Forty per cent of visitors to the city cite The Sound of Music as a major reason for visiting. Applied to the American market, three-quarters of respondents said The Sound of Music was the main spur for booking a trip there.

The irony is that Salzburg didn’t exactly need the injection of visitors. It has long been a city that has attracted and cultivated tourism – and in its most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it already had a musical hook to lure people in with.

Mozart is usually regarded as Austrian, but that’s technically incorrect: he was a Salzburger. During his lifetime, Salzburg was a distinctly odd ecclesiastical city state, ruled by autocratic prince-archbishops. It remained that way for hundreds of years, fuelled by the riches from the nearby salt mines, before Napoleon came along at the beginning of the 19th century and knocked the system down.

Salzburg joined with neighbouring Austria, and it wasn’t long before it was being packaged up as a tourism honeypot. The masterpiece baroque buildings that the ­prince-archbishops had built and the looming mountains nearby made it ripe for adding to the European Grand Tour circuit.

Wise and co didn’t have to fiddle with an awful lot to make Salzburg look good on the big screen. But that isn’t to say he didn’t use the occasional sleight of hand.

One of the staple stops on the bus tours that hundreds of Von Trapp-loving fans go on every day is the Leopoldskron Palace, a couple of kilometres outside the city centre. Now owned by Harvard University, and used for hosting seminars, this was one of the two buildings that doubled as the Von Trapp family home.

The palace itself is never properly seen in the film, but the lake behind it – with the distinctively peaked Untersberg Mountain on the other side – is very prominent. It’s where Maria and the children fall in while standing up on a boat and waving to Captain Georg von Trapp.

The Panorama Tours guide, Sharon, explains that shooting of the sequence didn’t quite go to plan, however. “The girl who played Gretl [Kym Karath] couldn’t swim,” she says. “So it was agreed that Julie Andrews would stay close to her and keep hold of her when the boat ­capsized.

“Unfortunately, Julie fell backwards and all the kids fell forwards. The lake’s only about two metres deep, but a crew member had to dive in to save Gretl.”

It’s little titbits such as this that make The Sound of Music tours fascinating even for the people who are ambivalent towards the film. There are a fair few of them on the bus, dragged along by ­obsessive partners.

Indeed, it’s these obsessives that play a major part in making the tours absurdly entertaining. They merrily bellow along with the songs as they’re played on the bus, yodel with gusto as The Lonely Goatherd blares out and some even dress up in traditional Austrian folk costumes to have their photos taken by a very famous gazebo.

The gazebo – where Liesl and Rolfe sing the somewhat emetic Sixteen Going on Seventeen at each other – was once by the lake at Leopoldskron. But it became so popular that they had to move it.

“All the people at the seminars could hear was people singing ‘I am 16, going on 17’, and they couldn’t concentrate,” says ­Sharon.

So the gazebo was moved to the gardens of the Hellbrunn Palace, which was built as a hunting and party retreat by ­prince-archbishop Mark Sittich in the early 17th century. It’s otherwise known for its series of “trick” fountains, which squirt water at unsuspecting ­passers-by.

The gazebo itself is much smaller than expected – the interior scenes were shot inside a much-larger mock-up in a ­Hollywood studio. It’s also locked. “Tourists kept trying to recreate the scene, leaping from bench to bench,” says Sharon. “They kept slipping and hurting themselves, and after one elderly lady broke her hip, the authorities decided it was safer to lock it.”

The journey continues into the Austrian Lake District, which featured in many of the indulgent aerial opening scenes, until the bus reaches Mondsee. It’s a pretty little town where cafes serve strudel. “Don’t ask for crisp apple strudel, though,” says Sharon. “It’s not supposed to be crisp, despite what Maria sings in My Favourite Things. Also, asking for schnitzel with noodles marks you as a tourist – it’s supposed to be eaten with potatoes.”

The twin-towered St Michael’s church in Mondsee doesn’t ring any bells from the outside, but wander in and the heavily OTT black-and-gold ornamentation is very familiar. This was where Maria and the captain got married in the film – the nuns wouldn’t allow the crew to film inside ­Nonnberg Abbey where the wedding supposedly took place.

In real life, the wedding happened a good few years before the Von Trapps made their escape. Maria had already had two more children with Georg and a third was on the way. It wasn’t the only bit of artistic licence, either. The real-world escape was far less ­dramatic.

On the way back to the city, ­Untersberg comes into view again. In the film, this was the mountain the family escaped over after leaving the Festival Hall. The sheer ludicrousness of this becomes apparent once you discover that two-thirds of Untersberg is in Germany, and on the other side is Eagle’s Nest, the secondary Nazi HQ where the high command spent considerable chunks of the year. The ­movieland escapees were running towards the very people they were trying to get away from.

In reality, the Von Trapps departed by train. Georg was born in Zadar, now in Croatia, but under Italian control at the time. He was quite entitled to claim Italian citizenship – leaving wasn’t such a tense drama.

The family ended up in the United States, where they toured as a singing troupe and opened up a mountain hotel in Vermont. It’s still open today, but their original home has also been turned into a hotel.

The Villa Trapp is in Salzburg’s suburbs, well off the beaten path and remarkably unbesieged by The Sound of Music fans. There’s an evocative atmosphere of the past about it, with black-and-white photos of the family lining the wooden staircase. The breakfast room is full of memorabilia, surrounding one heavily polished, mega-family-sized communal table.

The villa is much smaller than portrayed in the film, although still large enough to have some considerable wealth behind it. But one photo in particular tells a delightful story. In it is an elderly lady, holding a can of Red Bull. It’s Maria von Trapp – not the one played by Julie Andrews, but the second eldest daughter whose name was changed to Louisa in the film to avoid confusion. In 2008, just before the villa reopened, the last remaining member of the family was invited to come over to see the home she left in 1938. She was well into her 90s and having too many medical needs to fly over on a normal scheduled flight, so an appeal went out to modern Salzburg’s biggest brand name. The ­energy-drink giant Red Bull offered to fly Maria and her attendants over in their company plane – apparently she had to be warned off taking too many sips from one of the cans of its product.

But that, it seems, is how you solve a problem like Maria...

weekend@thenational.ae

Published: March 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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