Matt Newbury visits the stunning city for the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music and shares a few of his favourite things.
Life doesn’t get much better. We are bouncing along mountain roads on The Original Sound of Music Tour, Tyrolean hats on heads, Austrian beers in hands and singing along to Do-Re-Mi at the top of our lungs.
It’s surprisingly harmonious, but then again the bus is packed with gays, many of whom, like us, watched the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna a couple of days earlier, before making the pilgrimage to Salzburg. One group have even come in matching outfits (made from old curtains, obviously) joined by one of their mothers, dressed as a nun. “I’m Mother Abysmal and these are the von Crap Family Singers,” she helpfully explains.
It’s a brilliant tour and one that has been on my gay bucket list for years. Like everyone on the bus, I fell in love with the Technicolor movie masterpiece as a child, even auditioning at the age of 11 for the 1981 West End revival starring Petula Clark. I’d heard about the open auditions on TV and begged my mum to take me to London to try and get a part. I queued along with 4,000 other children before finally walking on stage at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, terrified. It turned out they weren’t looking a chubby, dark-haired Devon boy to play either Kurt or Friedrich. I cried for a week.
So this Austrian holiday was my chance to lay those demons to rest and finally fulfil all of those The Sound of Music fantasies. And the bus tour is the perfect start. It takes in Leopoldskron Palace (schloss-leopoldskron.com) which was used as the Captain’s back yard, overlooking the lake used for the famous boating scene where Maria and the children fall in the water. We also learn lots of juicy trivia, including how Julie Andrews almost accidentally drowned Gretl (the youngest of the children) when she fell out of the wrong side of the boat.
The happiest tour bus on earth also visits Hellbrunn Palace (www.hellbrunn.at/en), home to the gazebo where Rolfe the secret Nazi postman (“boo”) sings a rather chauvinistic Sixteen Going on Seventeen with Liesl. We also pass Nonnberg Convent and Frohnburg Palace (the Trapp Villa in the film) before climbing into hills to Mondsee Church where the Baron and Maria are married. We escape the church as an inebriated pair of American bears insist that Mother Abysmal marries them on the altar steps, much to the misery of some of the church elders.
Of course, it’s the staggeringly beautiful city of Salzburg where some of the most famous scenes in the film were shot, and we book a walking tour with a brilliant guide called Roman. He begins his tour by telling us that no one in Austria (and indeed Switzerland and Germany) has heard of the 1965 film, even though it won 10 Oscars and remains one of the most successful films in cinema history. This is because they already had a hugely successful German language film called Die Trapp-Familie (The Trapp Family) and even a sequel called Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (The Trapp Family in America).
The Julie Andrews’ film, directed by Robert Wise and based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, also contains one staggering flaw. At the end of the film, the family are seen escaping over the Untersberg Mountain — which would actually have taken them into Germany and Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.
Such is the complete lack of awareness of The Sound of Music amongst Austrians, that when our guide was living in New York the first time he ever saw the film was when friends persuaded him to dress in traditional attire and dragged him along to a Sing-Along screening. Not only was he blown away by the cult following the film attracted, he also won the prize for best costume. Intrigued, he decided to find out everything he could about the music phenomenon.
As already hinted, the real von Trapps didn’t actually escape to Switzerland, but instead took a train out of Austria and completed a European concert tour before moving to Stowe, Vermont in the 1940s. When not touring they began welcoming guests to the rustic 27-room Trapp Family Lodge. This was destroyed by a devastating fire in the 1980s and replaced by a huge 96-room Alpine Lodge, still run by the von Trapp family today.
It was here against these sweeping mountains vistas that would have seemed comfortably familiar, that our guide eventually met two of Maria’s daughters, who were only too happy to share their incredible tale. They also helped him hatch a plan to return to Salzburg and put together authentic tours and shows catering to the obsession of fans like my boyfriend and me.
Our walking tour begins in the Mirabell Palace and Gardens where some of the most memorable scenes from Do-Re-Mi were filmed. After posing for photos on the famous steps and pretending we are skipping around the fountain, Roman (who is gay himself) also points out that the gardens become one of the most popular cruising spots as the sun begins to set. The Mirabel Palace is also one of the most popular locations for gay marriages in the city, with couples climbing up the impressive baroque Angel’s Staircase before tying the knot in the marble and gold splendour of the Audience Hall, where Mozart himself also performed.
The fascinating tour continues, mixing up The Sound of Music locations with historical and cultural highlights and a liberal dose of cheeky gay trivia. As well as visiting Residenz Square (where Maria sings I Have Confidence in Me) and Summer Riding School (where Christopher Plummer sings Edelweiss and the children sing So Long, Farewell), we also learn about horny homosexual Archduke Ludwig Viktor, the gay-themed paintings on the ceiling of the Residenz Palace depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, and where to find the sexiest nude statues in the city.
Discovering more about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg’s most famous son is another highlight of the tour, as is learning all about the history of Mozart’s Balls. Created by confectioner Paul Fürst in 1890 and known locally as Mozartkugel, these delicious golden snitch-shaped delights made with marzipan, nougat and dark chocolate and with Mozart’s face on the front, won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1905.
Our top tip when visiting the city is to invest in a Salzburg Card. Unlike similar schemes in other cities, these really do get you into everything including all the museums and galleries, Mozart’s Birthplace and Residence (mozarteum.at/en), on a cable car to the summit of the Untersberg and even on a panoramic speedboat on the Salzach River. The card will also take you on the funicular up to the striking Hohensalzburg Fortress (salzburg-burgen.at/de/hohensalzburg), the biggest medieval castle in Europe with breath-taking views over the baroque towers of the city below.
While there is some gay nightlife in Salzburg, we opted to visit the Augustinerbräu Kloster (augustinerbier.at), an amazing beer hall in a real monastery run by monks. They have been brewing beer here since 1621 and only offer one type, but it has been described as the best beer in the world by the History Channel – and now by us!
Grab yourself an earthenware stein (we opted for the litre size) and allow the monks to fill it up from an oak barrel, before finding a long wooden table to sit at in one of several historic baroque drinking halls or head outside into the largest beer garden in Austria. There is an arcade of small shops and market stalls where you can buy food to enjoy at your table, before swilling out your steins under water taps emptying into a stone trough and returning for a top up. The atmosphere is amazing and it’s a very hard place to leave.
A second night in the city is taken up by The Sound of Salzburg Dinner Show (obviously…) directed by Roman. Taking place in the impressive Restaurant Sternbräu Griesgasse (sternbrau.com), a dinner that includes both schnitzel with noodles and indeed crisp apple strudel is followed by an evening of pure unadulterated entertainment.
Performers from the Mozarteum University which specialises in music and dramatic arts perform songs from The Sound of Music, as well as traditional Austrian folk songs and even some Mozart. At one point I am pulled on stage to perform a Viennese Waltz, exposing my lack of coordination and two left feet to a room full of delighted international tourists.
After staggering back to our hotel, we decide to watch a bit of TV before falling asleep. There are only two English language channels and we have a choice of repeats of Jonathan Creek or a channel showing The Sound of Music on repeat. Well, you can never have too much of a good thing…
To say we fell in love with the city is an understatement. It’s magnificent and the historic centre hasn’t changed a bit over the fifty years since the film was released. There are a host of events planned for the anniversary including The Sound of Music Gala on 17 October, which will unite members of the Von Trap family with the actors who played the children in the movie.
Salzburg may be home to Mozart and all things baroque, but for an astonishing 70% of overseas visitors, The Sound of Music remains their primary reason for travelling to the city. That’s 300,000 annual visitors in a city with a population of half that number. Why not plan to join them? It will be one of the best things you do this year.
Matt stayed in the stylish ACHAT Plaza Hotel, which combines traditional hospitality with modern comfort. Just a short stroll from the train station, the hotel is also right next to the river and a beautiful walk into the heart of the old town. The hotel also boasts two saunas, a Turkish bath, and a traditional “Hirschenwirt” hostelry with a beautiful beer garden. And the buffet breakfast is amazing! www.achat-hotels.com
You can book one of Roman’s brilliant walking tours at austria-guides.eu
The hugely popular Sound of Salzburg Dinner Show can be booked at soundofsalzburg.info
The Original Sound of Music Tour can be booked at panoramatours.com
The Salzburg Card can be purchased at most hotel reception desks and tourist information offices in the city and at the airport.
If you travel in the summer months, why not book onto one of Fräulein Maria’s Bicycle Tours for a fun way of visiting the sites. mariasbicycletours.com
For more information or to book anything else including the anniversary gala, visit salzburg.info