A trip on a musical note

Salzburg diaries

A trip on a musical note

At the northern boundary of the Alps in Western Austria is a city state — Salzburg. Salz means salt carried by the barges on the Salzach river, and burg is castle in Austrian.

My favourite English Classic, Sound of Music, had been shot here 53 years ago. Tourist buses are available in the city specifically for viewing the film sites. However, to experience the joy of cycling through the culturally-rich town centres and the flawless countryside, I booked myself for the Fraulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour.

The main town square, Residence Platz, had the Horse Fountain right at the centre. It was a baroque-style, hill-shaped intricately carved structure. Water sprayed from the mouth of the horses sculpted around the base. This was where the scene of Maria skipping and splashing in water while singing I Have Confidence in Confidence Alone was filmed. The town square also appeared briefly in the second half of the movie, showing the Nazis marching all over Salzburg. With the melodious song sequence more profound in our memory, we did not realise that the latter scene had been unpleasant for the locals.

“While the shooting was on, people thought the Nazis were back and were very scared,” our tourist guide said, with a fine mix of disdain and amusement, pointing to a building right across the fountain, where the Nazi flag had been hoisted for the movie. “Did the movie ultimately do well here?” a concerned group member asked. “No,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. The irony was that the movie, which had created a global fan following for its characters, story and scenic displays, had created little interest in the very place it had been shot.

Fact or fiction?

We glided up to the Nonnberg Abbey, located north of the Alps. The last stretch of the ride was quite uphill. For unseasoned cyclists like me, dragging the bike was easier. The abbey’s familiar entry gate made the movie feel so real, so much so that I felt the Von Trapp children would be coming by anytime to take Maria home.

Interestingly for this abbey, Maria was not a fictional character. Maria Augusta von Kutschera had served here as a novice for the Benedictine Sisterhood. She eventually went on to become the governess and then wife of Baron Von Trapp in 1927.

From a distance, the imposing Mount Untersberg stood facing us. “Maria must have had supernatural powers in the movie to have heard the church bell from there,” our tour guide said, referring to the opening scene where Maria gets late for church while singing The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music.

“The movie director didn’t even get his geography right in the last scene,” she said, her voice edged with sarcasm.

Observing the quizzical look on our faces, she continued, “He shows the family crossing this mountain to escape to Switzerland, but in reality, they would have found themselves in Germany, and worse still, very close to Hitler’s holiday home.” The two amusing bloopers revealed how minor yet crucial details can get ignored in the larger scheme of things.

Colours of the city

Once we resumed our tour, the bustling city atmosphere smoothly dissipated into a milieu of tranquil lush green meadows dotted with white and yellow daffodils. A colossal lake attached to a colonial style mansion came into view. This was the back of the Von Trapp home. My mind was flushed with delightful visuals of Maria and the kids falling in this lake after their boat tipped over, and the timeless romantic scenes of Liesel with Rolf, and Maria with the captain.

In truth, the film crew had not used this mansion. This rococo designed palace, Schloss Leopoldskron, is Salzburg Global Seminar’s property since 1947, and has always been sealed off. Other than the boat scene, all the others were shot either from the adjacent property, which had access to the palace park facing the lake, or in the studio using a replica. “But where is the gazebo?” I found myself asking, not able to find the priceless white musical pavilion that had entertained the world with Sixteen Going On Seventeen. “That created havoc. Tourists would swarm around it like bees. The elderly residents got annoyed with their loud singing and dancing, which is why it has got shifted to the Hellbrunn Palace gardens.” It seemed quite evident by now that the locals respected the movie mostly for its tourism revenue, and perceived it only as a hackneyed and cheesy version of the true story.

The glass white gazebo was in a quiet cosy corner of the Hellbrunn Palace garden. “It’s locked for safety purposes,” said the tourist guide. Now, what was so unsafe about a gazebo? She must have some interesting reason for it. Sure enough, she did. Apparently, quite a few years ago, an exuberant 81-year-old woman had broken her hip inside, while prancing from one end to the other, singing “I am 81 going on 82!”

Having heard the most gripping attachments to the movie for over three hours now, we were visibly depressed that our next stop was home. By now, my mind was shuttling between whether the movie still held the charismatic impact, or had the behind-the-scenes action taken over. Unable to reach a consensus, the only agreement I settled at was: don’t miss either.

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