“Welcome to Salzburg, birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
The flight attendant’s announcement left no doubt as to whose town this was, as the aircraft touched down on an emerald green plain (an ancient lake bed) dotted with cuckoo clock chalets and cradled by a shark’s jaw of jagged Alpine peaks.
Mozart’s name runs through Salzburg’s fame like a stick of Blackpool rock. While the maestro himself had few kind words to say about his birthplace (he was miffed that the city did not rate his soprano wife and returned only once in the last ten years of his life), Mozart and Salzburg are now inextricably linked, both in celebration of his music and in relentless commercialisation. The man is everywhere: on the sides of buses, on tacky souvenirs and on life-sized cut-outs standing outside confectionery shops to entice passers-by with the famous ‘Mozartkugeln’ – chocolate balls bearing his portrait on their gilt wrappers. And just in case you are in any doubt, the legend ‘Mozarts Geburtshaus’ (birth house) is helpfully emblazoned across the front of the building. Even the airport is named after him.
Salzburg’s other musical giant is… Julie Andrews. If Salzburg was already a magnet for classical music lovers, after the release of The Sound of Music in 1965, the city’s popularity went stratospheric. As a result, many of its landmarks are instantly recognisable to fans of the film who flock here to take guided tours of the locations where it was shot. The Sound of Music has inspired the sound of cash registers.
The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an utterly charming cluster of Baroque buildings barely a mile from end to end and watched over by the magnificent medieval Hohensalzburg fortress. Most of the main attractions are within strolling distance of one other.
The town is so picture-perfect as to resemble a Disneyesque historical theme park and, when its church bells chime in a multi-toned call and answer, the glorious cacophony seems to bring the past to life.
The best form of transport in Salzburg is a pair of sensible shoes. A more romantic option is a horse-drawn carriage or, for the more energetic, a self-guided audio bike tour with maps provided of the network of well-marked routes. There are also river cruises from April to October. (The Salzach river regularly freezes over in winter.)
What to See and Do
No visit to Salzburg is complete without a pilgrimage to Mozart’s birthplace, the bright, ochre-coloured building where the town’s favourite son entered the world on January 27, 1756. Today it is one of the most visited museums in Austria, with portraits, documents and memorabilia – notably, Mozart’s violin and clavichord – giving an interesting insight into life in an 18th century, middle class apartment. The museum shop sells some of the less tacky souvenirs.
For a bird’s eye view of the town and surrounding area, head for the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the oldest preserved citadel in central Europe. It is reached by a funicular railway or by foot from the Old Town, the latter approach best for revealing the soaring vertical rock base. Even on an overcast day its white walls seem to gleam from within, while wandering around its inner courtyards is like strolling through the past. The display rooms hold a collection of fearsome weaponry, religious artefacts, furnishings, panellings and carvings.
The small but densely ‘populated’ Monastery of St Peter Cemetery is a touching and mystical scene. A small forest of headstones and wrought iron grave markers are decorated with gilt facings, painted Madonnas, crucifixes, cherubs and images of the deceased. Older remains are entombed in catacombs cut into the nearby limestone rockface.
Salzburg Cathedral is a magnificent edifice in the Italian style (echoing Salzburg’s earlier reputation as the ‘Rome of the north’) and has the first post-medieval facade with twin towers north of the Alps. Look out for the huge, 14th century marble font in which Mozart was baptised.
A short walk over the Salzach river leads to the city’s largest open space, the Mirabell Gardens, which have remained virtually unchanged since 1730. Every year gardeners plant 100,000 plants and maintain the gardens according to the original, 300-year-old plans. Ornate fountains and a collection of statues based on Greek mythology make a stroll here a delightful experience.
A curious feature is the Dwarf Garden, with its grotesque marble statues which served as a Renaissance-era reminder of the world’s imperfections and deformities – and, no doubt, to scare the superstitious populace into doing the Archbishop’s bidding. Tour guides also like to point out the giant statue of Pegasus – missing his, er, horsehood. Crown Prince Ludwig had him gelded for being bigger than his Highness.
Another major attraction is the Baroque complex that is the ‘Domquartier’ (Cathedral Quarter’), brainchild of Prince Archbishop Wolf-Dietrich von Reitenau (1559-1612), who laid plans for a grand development on the site of the original Salzburg Cathedral, which had been destroyed by fire. From their official ‘Residenz’, Salzburg’s prince archbishops ruled the country right into the 19th century
Entrance is off Residence Square, where you’ll be walking over the remains of medieval plague victims and, more recently, the site of a 1938 Nazi book burning and a speech by Hitler after the ‘Anschluss’ (annexation) of Austria. Visitors can walk through a dozen or so adjoining state rooms, lavishly appointed with chandeliers, frescoes, paintings, tapestries and furniture, each room seemingly bigger than the one before. Somewhere in this labyrinth a six year-old Mozart gave his first recital.
The building also includes the Residence Gallery, eleven rooms dedicated to changing exhibitions of European paintings, including 17th century Dutch and Flemish works by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Bruegel and 19th century Austrian masters.
With some 4,000 cultural events a year, Salzburg’s motto – “The World’s Stage” – is no idle boast.
It all kicks off with the Mozart Week around the composer’s birthday in the third week of January, a feast of operas, serenades, church music and piano and violin concerts.
This is followed by the Easter Festival (founded by the Salzburg-born conductor Herbert von Karajan), the Whitsun Festival featuring world class orchestras and, the daddy of them all, the Salzburg Festival, a celebration of music and drama which runs from mid-July to the end of August.
Celebrating its centenary in 2020, the Salzburg Festival takes place partly in the Great Festival Hall, which has a facade the length of a street. It was opened in 1960 with the opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ by Richard Strauss under the artistic director, Herbert von Karajan. Despite having only a six-week run, the Festival provides some 2,800 full-time jobs and brings almost €200 million into the local economy.
Look out also for Culture Days and Jazz & the City in October and Salzburg Advent Singing in November and December. The whole sonorous cycle then begins all over again, while throughout the year the town is serenaded by some of the most accomplished street musicians you’ll hear anywhere.
For an atmospheric evening of chamber music, you can’t beat a Salzburg Fortress Concert amid the magnificently musty smell of antiquity in the Prince’s Rooms, with sweeping views over the city and surrounding countryside. Pre-performance dinner packages in the Panorama Restaurant are also available.
You can see those famous film locations on The Original Sound of Music Tour with Panorama Tours. If you’re lucky, you might be in the bus with the registration plate SOUND1. Bring your singing voice, as passengers routinely burst into word-perfect renditions of their favourite songs.
It would take a hard heart to stroll through Salzburg’s charming alleys and gardens without humming the odd snippet of “Edelweiss” or “Do-Re-Mi” or expecting Miss Andrews to pop out with a dancing retinue of kids dressed in recycled curtains.
While the performing arts scene is dominated by classical music, Salzburg does have one art museum well worth the visit. Perched on the Mönchsberg (Monks’ Mountain) and overlooking the city like a lighthouse, the white marble-clad Museum of Modern Art is reached by a lift cut through solid rock. (Traces of an exterior lift are still visible on the cliff face.)
The museum’s collection of some 55,000 works, ranging from the 19th century to the present, is focused on graphics and photography and includes works owned by the Province of Salzburg and the Federal Photography Collection. The modern building hosts a series of special exhibitions on international art from the end of WWII to the present day.
There are magnificent views from the museum’s terrace or from inside the elegant M32 cafe-restaurant. After your visit you may choose to return along the wooded hill. Several paths lead back down to the Old Town, where the museum has an annex in the Rupertinum, an early Baroque building redeveloped to host exhibitions and house an extensive archive.
Dotted around Salzburg are some splendid modern public artworks which, far from jarring with their Baroque environment, only serve to complement it. These include: German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol’s, ‘Sphaera’ in Kapitelplatz, which has one of his familiar, white-shirted men standing on a vast, golden globe; Jaume Plensa’s ‘Awilda’ on the forecourt of Salzburg University, one of the Spanish artist’s famous, outsized humanoid heads; and Tony Cragg’s ‘Caldera’, an undulating, bronze sculpture which, Cragg-style, seems to reveal human outlines as you move around it. ‘Caldera’ sits in the middle of Makart Square, where you will also find Mozart’s residence from 1771 to 1780, which now houses a museum in the former family living quarters.
Austrian cafe culture is not limited to Vienna, and Salzburg has some great spots for watching the world go by.
At Cafe Glockenspiel in Mozartplatz the upstairs terrace overlooks a statue of the man himself with one foot on Mount Parnussus, the mythic Greek home of the muses.
Established in 1703, Cafe Tomaselli is where the waiters wear black bowties and white shirts and the waitresses black dresses with white aprons.
Cafe Bazar is a chandelier-hung favourite of artists past and present with a riverside terrace looking back over to the Old Town.
Food & Drink
There is no really authentic Salzburg cuisine (or even Austrian, for that matter, Wienerschnitzel aside), and like the rest of the country meat figures prominently. Two local specialities worth trying are ‘Käsesuppe’ (cheese soup) and a feather-light soufflé dessert called ‘Salzburger Nockerl’.
First mentioned in the year 803 on the occasion of a visit by the Emperor Charlemagne, the Restaurant St Peter is the oldest documented restaurant in central Europe. Hewn out of the limestone cliff which protects Salzburg from the westerly winds coming off the Alps, the St Peter can accommodate up to 800 guests in 12 rooms.
Go for a Mozart lunch concert (two courses accompanied by an opera singer and pianist) or a candle-lit dinner concert in the Baroque Hall (three courses, five-piece ensemble and two singers). Some menu selections are based on recipes from Mozart’s time.
Salzburg’s main shopping thoroughfare is the Getreidegasse (Grain Alley), where the oldest building dates from 1258. The pedestrianised street is renowned for the wrought iron signs which hang outside almost every store depicting the merchandise for sale inside. Even Macdonalds was required to put up an unusually ornate version of the golden arches. Alleyways lead off the main drag into charming inner courtyards with a variety of giftshops.
Probably the most popular Salzburg souvenirs are the aforementioned ‘Mozartkugeln’ (Mozart Balls). Legally, Cafe Fürst, which has been run in Alter Markt for five generations, is the only outlet permitted to call theirs ‘original’, as the framed newspaper article in the shop window proudly proclaims. What a shame that old man Fürst failed to anticipate his concoction’s worldwide success and neglected to register the patent.
Further info about Salzburg: www.salzburg.info
Further info about the Salzburg region: www.salzburgerland.com