Our trusty travel agent Gerd, on recommending a stay at Bad Reichenhall (Germany), what he described as the gateway to the area, had mentioned how close it was to Salzburg (Austria). We hadn’t taken a lot of note of this at the time. Our knowledge of Salzburg was limited largely to it being the location for much of the filming of the movie, The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews. Being a city, we had assumed it would be like most cities, difficult to access and visit in a day. And that was all the time we had. However, during our stay in Nussdorf, Heike & Ralf, our Airbnb hosts had told us how we could drive into the “carpark in the rock” and pop up in the historical centre. On checking it out and realising it was so close, how could we resist a day of doe, re, mi coupled with a bit of Figaro (Mozart)?
A bit about Salzburg
There is more to Salzburg than Julie Andrews and Mozart! Given that the name literally means “Salt Mountain” or “Salt Castle” it should be pretty obvious that it was linked in some way to salt mining. Founded as an episcopal seat in 696 and becoming a seat of the archbishop in 798, its main sources of income were salt extraction, trade and gold mining. The fortress of Hohensalzburg, one of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe, dates from the 11th century. In the 17th century, Salzburg became a centre of the Counter-Reformation, with monasteries and numerous Baroque churches built.
Salzburg’s historic centre is renowned for its Baroque architecture and is one of the best-preserved city centres north of the Alps. The historic centre was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The city has three universities and a large population of students. Tourists also visit Salzburg to tour the historic centre and the scenic Alpine surroundings.
A fleeting visit
After a HUGE breakfast at our family-run hotel in Bad Reichenhall, we hopped in the car for the 20-minute drive across the border. Ralf’s advice was spot on and soon we were parked and making our way through the long tunnel through the Mönchsberg Rock – adorned with advertisements.
We popped up from underground and stood a little dumbfounded. Nothing had prepared us for the enormous, beautiful baroque buildings despite having visited Vienna on a previous trip. We just stood and marvelled at what we later identified as St Peter’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery and former cathedral. It is considered one of the oldest monasteries in the German-speaking area and in fact the oldest with a continuous history since its foundation in 696. It also houses the famous catacombs in the movie when the Von Trapp family attempt to hide from the Nazis before escaping to Switzerland. More about that later.
Once we’d caught our breath, we meandered through a couple of arches and boom!, were met with the gigantic Salzburg Cathedral. The church was founded in 774 on the remnants of a Roman town, and the cathedral was rebuilt in 1181 after a fire. In the seventeenth century, the cathedral was completely rebuilt in the Baroque style under Prince-Bishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau to its present appearance. Salzburg Cathedral still contains the baptismal font in which composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized. We didn’t go inside to see this, but we did wander around the corner to Mozartplatz (Mozart Square), which naturally boasts a large statue of the famous musician.
In the steps of Maria / Julie Andrews
Situated in the centre of Salzburg’s old town and between the cathedral and tribute to Mozart is Residenzplatz (Residence Square), which is home to the largest baroque fountain outside of Italy. According to my source, it is in this square while singing “I Have Confidence in Me”, that Maria happily splashes water in the fountain, The Nazi soldiers apparently also march through the square later in the movie and hang their flag over the entrance of the old Residence Palace. I need to watch the movie again to confirm this and the information that follows.
From the large central square, we wandered along the road parallel to the large rockface of the Mönchsberg. Carved into the rock is the Rock Riding School. It was initially built to be a cathedral but was later repurposed by the archbishop into a riding school where tournaments were held. Today it’s Salzburg’s most popular concert venue and is where the real Von Trapp family won the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936.
A bit further along the road is the Karajan Square & Horse Pond. Built in the 17th century to wash the horses of the prince-archbishop, the Horse Pond was briefly featured in the movie as a backdrop to Maria and the kids singing “My Favourite Things” while dancing in their clothes made from curtains. Unfortunately the fountain was empty and under maintenance, so was not looking particularly attractive. As a result I didn’t take a photo so have “borrowed” an image from an online source.
The streets of Salzburg
On our way to the next Sound of Music location, we meandered through the picturesque historic town. Being Sunday, a lot of the shops in town were closed. Given we’d arrived fairly early, even the cafes and restaurants had not opened for the day, so it was really nice to wander down the cobbled streets without flocks of tourists. We managed to get a photo of Mozart’s birthplace and his family home without having to navigate the umbrellas and other devices that the tour guides wave about to control their groups. Even the lock-covered bridge wasn’t too busy so we could enjoy the spectacle.
It was a lot busier by the time we reached the beautiful Mirabell Palace & Gardens, but we were content to stand in the shade and enjoy some of the weekend entertainment on offer.
This baroque-style garden, which was built in 1606 by the archbishop Wolf Dietrich for his mistress is a beautifully landscaped garden filled with gorgeous flowers, marble statues and fountains. We were happy to rest on a bench in the shade next to the palace – only to discover we were seated right next to the Pegasus Fountain. The iconic song, “Do Re, Mi” was partially shot here, this being the water feature that Maria and the Von Trapp kids dance around, jumping up and down the steps, as well as running through the hedge maze tunnel nearby. We watched a group/family standing on the stairs in an attempt to re-enact the scene from the movie (and getting grumpy when anyone dared step in the way), all the while admiring the breathtaking view of Hohensalzburg Fortress in the distance.
Not too many people joined us on our visit to the “dwarf garden” near the palace. Not only was it fun to see the statues of the little people but we relished some time in the shade before venturing back to the main part of the city.
Strolling along the river gave us a lovely view of the old city with its backdrop of the Fortress Hohensalzburg. We had decided that the walk up to the fortress and the nearby Nonnberg Abbey would be our final haul for the day. We made our way past the famous Sacher café, home of the chocolate cake with the same name. Whilst it looked inviting in the shade, we’d been to the original café in Vienna during our previous visit for a taste of said cake, so were content to wander past.
Soon after passing the lock-endowed bridge where we’d crossed over to the right side of Salzburg’s historic district, we turned left to reach the Steingasse. Steingasse is one of the oldest streets on the right side of the Salzburg historic district. It runs parallel to the River Salzach at the foot of the Kapuzinerberg.
Aside from the River Salzach, which was a vital transportation artery for salt – the “white gold of the mountains” – the Steingasse, which entered the city from the south, also had a very important role to play. It was the most travelled road into the mountains, and to Italy beyond, making it one of the most vital north-south routes for medieval commerce! That said, local artisans and merchants also did business along this narrow city street. Pottery makers, dyers and tanners – in particular, those trades that had the greatest need for water – tended to gather here. Until the flow of the Salzach was regulated in 1862, virtually all of the imposing houses here, most of which stand to this day, had magnificent back gardens and direct access to the river. Joseph Mohr, the famous poet of the Christmas song “Silent Night”, once lived at No. 31 Steingasse. Nowadays, there are only a few shops in this street. The wide Imbergstraße has supplanted the narrow Steingasse as the main artery. The houses along Steingasse are now mainly used as residential buildings and in the main are looking a little run down.
To get back to the other side of the river, we crossed the Mozart Bridge, another location famous for the singing of “My Favourite Things”.
Before heading to the Fortress and Nonnberg Abbey, we stopped off at a Bakerei (bakery) for a bite to eat. Despite the prime position on the Residenzplatz overlooking the cathedral and fountain, we paid very little for wonderful, typical Austrian baked goods and sat in the shade under the eaves outside watching the world go by.
Energised, we made our way through Kapitelplatz which houses a sculpture named “Sphaera”. It’s about nine metres high and made by German artist Stephan Balkenhol and represents a male figure on a golden sphere with a neutral expression. A nice distraction, and good photo op, but we were soon navigating the steep stairway to the fortress. We were extremely grateful that they were in the shade.
We were happy to have reached the fortress and enjoy the views over the city, but decided to move on to the abbey instead of paying the fee to enter the citadel. Nonnberg Abbey was founded in 714 and is the oldest female convent north of the Alps. It is where the real-life Maria became a novice nun and got married to Georg von Trapp. Nonnberg is where four scenes from the movie were filmed: the scene of the nuns singing “Maria” in the courtyard, Maria leaving the abbey, the kids visiting her at the abbey, and the Nazis hunting the Von Trapps.
Our final destination before heading back to Germany and Bad Reichenhall was a visit to St. Peter’s Cemetery & Catacombs. The small yet beautiful flower-filled St. Peter’s Cemetery was the inspiration for the cemetery rebuilt on set for the scene towards the end of the movie in which the Von Trapps hide from the Nazis behind tombs. Besides being the resting place of Mozart’s sister, this is also the resting place of Max Detweiler, “Uncle Max” from the movie. This unique cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the world and is Salzburg’s oldest Christian cemetery.
Our departure from Salzburg was a lot less traumatic than that of the von Trapps. We also had a much shorter and less strenuous trip – a 20 minutes car ride to Germany rather than a long hike to Switzerland.
Thanks Gerd, Heike and Ralf for suggesting a visit to Salzburg – it was easy and most worthwhile!