Romancing the salt

If you’re looking for a destination that is both cultured and casual, fastidious and fun, look no further than Salzburg

Salzburg is a city of ghosts. Sure, there are jeans and polo tees walking around – but they are mere visitors. You may not actually see them, but the only people who really count are the spirits of times past – dressed,  in your mind, in elaborate evening dress. The men are effortlessly gallant, the ladies very feminine. They bow and curtsey to each other, sit through hours of chamber music, and pray in magnificent churches.

Salzburg’s 1,50,000 residents today – the women in colourful dirndls, the men in lederhosen and checked shirts – are your spirit guides. They urge you into concert halls that look like they did in the 17th century, all marble and gilding. They walk you by the ancient River Salzach, where once the barges, piled high with the salt that made Salzburg prosperous, plied. They peer down with you from the high fortress from where the countryside all around is laid open to scrutiny. They bid you step into a world of olde-worlde courtesy and romance – with nary a séance or time machine called into use.

Today’s Salzburg is Austria’s fourth largest city, capital of the eponymous federal state, known for its Alpine setting, Italianate architecture, music and elegance of living.  It is a city that has survived annexure, war and occupation, including bombing during World War II that destroyed almost half of its buildings; miraculously, much of its Baroque architecture remained intact – making it one  of the few towns of its style that still exists. Even the most insensitive visitor will not be immune to the romance and chivalry that is inevitable with all that living in the past. And – dare I say it? – Salzburg is about the democratisation  of romance. You don’t need a partner to really enjoy the vibe of this city in a country that prides itself on being one of the last bastions  of European tradition. Even if you think you don’t have a cultural bone in your body, Salzburg will manage to pull something out of its booty that you will love. Beautiful cathedrals and squares, a palace that an archbishop prince built for his lover. Church steeples cradled between city mountains. Music and drama at annual festivals, as well as at little dinner theatre venues. Food that is mercifully not blandly European. Shopping that spans international big brands on ancient cobbled streets and exclusive handmade goods (look for heimatwerk stores) hidden in shaded alleyways. Even its own lake district. And you don’t need  a guide; this is a city made for wandering about.

Start in the Alstadt (Old Town), with its squares, cathedrals and museums, watched over by the steep Monchsberg cliff on one side and  a looming fortress on the other; it was declared  a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Cross the River Salzach on one of the many pedestrian bridges; place a ‘love lock’ among the many hundreds on one of the railings; the city fathers hate it, but it is now a tradition and this is a city – in a very different way from Paris – of love. Then amble through the Mirabell caboodle – Palace, Platz, Gardens. As you walk, you will hear the bells of the cathedrals, the gentle strains of violins in rehearsal, the muted buzz  of friends at one of the many outdoor cafés around town, sitting under colourful awnings – some of them upside-down. You will feel the ghosts take you by the hand and lead you this way and that. It’s too good a city to be not shared.

A history of acquisition:

Salzburg achieved independence from Bavaria in the 14th century, having long been the seat of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, affiliated to the Holy Roman Empire. This state of affairs remained in place till the 1800s, when Napoleon secularised the archbishopric and handed the city of Salzburg over to Ferdinand III of Tuscany, former Grand Duke of Tuscany, as the Electorate of Salzburg. In 1805, it was annexed to the Austrian Empire, then transferred to the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1810 after Austria’s defeat at Wagram. The Congress of Vienna in 1816 restored it to Austria, making it the capital of the Duchy of Salzburg, a crownland of the Austrian Empire, then absorbed into Austria-Hungary in 1866. When that empire was dissolved after WWI, Salzburg became part of the new Republic of German Austria, established  in 1918. During WWII, as part  of the Anschluss (occupation and annexation of Austria  into Nazi Germany in 1938),  a concentration camp was  also located here.

Gotta love the CULTURE

A city shaped by romance and art

Love can be a very controversial subject among Salzburg’s retinue of guides. “What did she call her?” Heidi Hochriesser, prima donna of the city’s guides, demands of me as I traipse behind her though the very beautiful Mirabell Gardens,  with the sun shining as stunningly on us as it  had through the scenes in The Sound of Music picturised here. ‘She’ is the guide I had followed around the day before; ‘her’ is Salome Alt, the companion of Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau. We’ve just walked through the arched portals of Mirabell Palace – then called Altenau Palace – built in 1606 outside the then- boundaries of the city by the Prince-Archbishop as a token of his love for Salome. It became home to their 15 children, 10 of whom survived. Much of the Baroque palace has been changed and refurbished, even made more pedestrian, though the original marble staircase and the Marmorsaal (Marble Hall) have outlived all comers.

Salome, Heidi will insist, and you will agree,  was not a wife, because the archbishop was not allowed one; but she was also not a mistress as  my earlier guide had termed her, because she  was so much more – the only woman in the archbishop’s life. In fact, if you read it the way  Heidi tells it, Salzburg is a city wrought of love; because Salome was here, the archbishop made  the best of his city, transforming it from a provincial city with narrow streets into a city with some  of the most glorious squares in Europe.

The old town has three significant adjoining gathering places. Alter Markt (Old Market) is a very Italianate square, with its traditional coffee shops and its fountain with a statue of St Florian, protector against fire. Take a break for coffee and homemade strudel at the Café Tomaselli, which, at about 300 years, is the oldest coffee shop here (see Gotta Love the Food in this feature). Peep into the Alte  F E Hof Apotheke, a chemist that has been around since the 16th century and served the prince-archbishops, and marvel at Damian, dressed as  a silver ‘living statue’ of Mozart. This former banker allegedly earns a comparable living by suspending himself by unknown means a few feet above the ground and being photographed in the act.

Residenz Square hosts the Salzburg Museum, topped by the glockenspiel (a musical instrument of bells that play a melody) that plays at 7am, 11am and 6pm, and which hosts the spectacular panorama by Johann Michael Sattler, depicting the historic centre of the city and its surrounds  in 1829. Don’t miss the marionette show – one  of the few homegrown aspects of The Sound of Music that the locals are happy to acknowledge. Residenz Square leads to Cathedral Square and beyond to Mozart Square, where the composer’s statue was erected in 1842, 51 years after his death. The city was aiming, of course, for the half-century, but a Roman mosaic was found  in the foundations during the construction and work was halted. The mosaic was then destroyed during the war; what you see now is a copy commissioned by the city guides’ guild.

Just off the squares are the cathedrals.  The Salzburg Cathedral (Dom zu Salzburg) is  the most impressive early Baroque church north of the Alps. Uniquely, this massive cathedral has five pipe organs; Mozart is said to have favoured the one to the right of the altar. Many of the masses he composed were first played here.  Close by is the Franciscan Cathedral, Gothic  and Romanesque and with Baroque chapels.

Another must-visit on Salzburg’s historical roster is St Peter’s Cemetery that hosts the resting places of many of Austria’s best-loved citizens. Among them is the tomb of composer Michael Haydn, which he shares with Mozart’s sister  Anna Maria who absolutely dreaded the idea  of being buried with her sister-in-law Constanze  in the cemetery behind St Sebastian Church. And towering over the city is Festung Hohensalzburg, the castle that was built first in 1077 and added to over 600 years. You get up to it by funicular, and from its tower, you get the most spectacular views over the city and the surrounding countryside,  just as beautiful as when Sattler created his panorama from this vantage point – making all that climbing up a spiral staircase very worth the effort. Although Festung Hohensalzburg was one of  the biggest mediaeval fortresses in Europe, and very much a fortified stronghold, it has some beautiful rooms in it because bishops also lived here. The fortress was also a prison for some years – and, ironically, the deposed Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, who shaped much of Salzburg as we know it, died here a prisoner.

And there is, of course, the Museum of Modern Art Monchsberg – but we’re wondering if you want to bother in this city of the glorious past.  It’s located on the edge of the steep Monchsberg Cliff, 60 metres above Anton Neumayr Square, high above the rooftops of the Old City, where the city casino used to be. Many locals would rather  it were still the casino. For a taster of the art, look at the muscled man outside, by the M32 restaurant. It is by Markus Lupertz, the same sculptor who cast Mozart in modern mode down in one of the squares – again, not popular with the locals, who don’t like their hero nude, muscled and armless.

Good to know

  • Entry to churches and gardens in Salzburg is free, though donations are welcomed in cathedrals.
  • Mirabell Palace and Gardens: 00-43-662-80720; Mirabellplatz; palace: 8am – 4pm Mon, Wed, Thur,  1pm – 4pm Tues and Fri; free; gardens: 6am till dusk daily, dwarves garden and hedge theatre closed in winter
  • Salzburg Museum: 00-43-662-620-808/ 700;; Neue Residenz, Mozartplatz 1;  9am – 5pm Tues – Sun; from ` 500 adult, ` 210 child
  • Salzburg Cathedral: 00-43-662-8047-7950;  Domplatz 1a; check website for timings
  • Franciscan Cathedral: 00-43-662-843-629; Franziskanergasse 5
  • St Peter’s Cemetery: 00-43-662-844-576; St Peter Bezirk 1/ 2; check website for timings; from ` 110 adult,  ` 70 child
  • Festung Hohensalzburg: Monchsberg 34; check website for timings; funicular from Festungsgasse every  10 minutes; from ` 770 adult, ` 440 child with return funicular ticket (free with Salzburg card)
  • Museum of Modern Art Monchsberg: 00-43-662-842-220;; Monchsberg 32; check website for timings; from ` 560 adult, ` 420 child,  ` 140 guided tour (free with Salzburg card)

Follow the salt:

The legend goes that the  Celts discovered salt in  Salzburg by following deer, but it’s easier for modern-day visitors to get to the mines  via a 75-minute tour through  the salzwelten (salt mines)  at Hallein. You go underground  into the mountain in a mining  car, and drop down a miners’ chute before sailing across  a subterranean salt lake on  a wooden raft. Hallein also boasts a reconstructed  Celtic village and museum, and a Silent Night Museum that details the history of the world’s most famous Christmas carol (00-43-6132-200-8511;; take a train  to Hallein, then a bus to Durrnberg; from ` 1,250 adult, ` 650 child, discount ticket combinations available).

Gotta love the MUSIC

Mozart on a plate

You’d be forgiven if you thought the Salzburgians would be a bit stuffy about their heritage of classical music; after all, the city’s favourite son  is composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was born here on January 27, 1756, and lives still in two residences; he has a statue in his own square, even a new university of music and drama –  the Universitat Mozarteum – to his name.  And classical music, formal music, reverberates through the city. They’re not stuffy – they’re justifiably proud of the genius, but they are  also very, very accommodating in helping the

average world traveller enjoy his legacy, and very understanding of different levels of knowledge – something we were pleasantly surprised to find in a country that has a history that rather celebrates superiority, perceived or real.

The Mozart Residence on Makartplatz, restored after being destroyed during World War II, houses his original piano, but you will really get a sense of how the musical prodigy lived at  his childhood home – called Mozart’s Birthplace – in a 13th-century building on Getreidegasse. Mozart displayed his genius at an exceptionally early age – at four, he was already playing the violin and writing music. To wander through the rooms is to see not only a well-documented life, but also to catch a glimpse of life in the city in  the 18th century. Here then, is the room where Mozart’s father Leopold gave music lessons to  the children of the traders who lived on the street, and where Mozart and his sister Anna Maria (“Nannerl”), a good musician in her own right, also got their first classes. Here are portraits done in the court of Empress Maria Therese in Vienna when Mozart gave a concert (and climbed onto her lap, embraced and kissed her – he was only six, after all), copies of his first compositions  in the room in which he was born, a baby violin  he played, strands of hair, buttons, snuff boxes given to him as presents, and portraits of his wife Constanze, and their two sons, who followed  him in musicianship. The museum runs into other rooms in the building – with a section devoted to Vienna, to which Mozart moved at  the age of 26, and which he called “the best place in the world.” He died there at the age of 35, having achieved fame but little financial security.

After wandering the rooms, you just may feel the down of realising that Mozart was a genius burdened, like many of our desi child stars, by expectation and the need to be the breadwinner of two families – his natal and his marital. If so, console yourself with deflection – book yourself an experience you will not forget in a hurry:  a Mozart Dinner Concert, where you eat as  he did. It takes place in a Baroque hall at the Stiftskellar St Peter, known to be the oldest restaurant in Europe (mentions date it back  to 803 AD; and the Mozart family ate here),  and your three-course dinner is interspersed  with performances from three of the composer’s  most famous operas – Figaro, Don Giovanni and A Little Night Music. Purists need not fret – the evening is carefully paced to ensure that you give your attention either to the food or to the music. The food’s brilliant, but the music, played by  a chamber quartet in full period costume and sung by a duo that wanders between the diners and sits at different tables to fiddle with the gleaming cutlery, is truly a feast for the senses.

And if that taster makes you realise you aren’t  so averse to classical music after all – take the plunge and hit Mirabell Palace for a Salzburger Schloss Konzert in the Marmorsaal – or Marble Hall – in which Mozart himself played.  This gorgeous room, all old marble, gilding  and flourishes with a two-storey-high ceiling,  is the favoured venue for civil marriages,  but it is also where, every evening, people  come to listen to world-class classical music performances. We sit through a most gorgeous violin recital. The strains from the violin and  the viola rise and fall over the marble, dance over the gilding; even the charismatic but no-longer-young director Luz Leskowitz looks entrancing  in the passion of the moment. If you give yourself up to the music, you will understand why so many musicians have affairs with each other.

Good to know

  • Mozart Residence: 00-43-662-8742-2740;; Makartplatz 8;  9am – 5.30pm, till 8pm July – August; from ` 700 adult,  ` 250 child (free with Salzburg card)
  • Mozart’s Birthplace: 00-43-662-844-313;; Getreidegasse 9; 9am – 5.30pm, till 8pm July – Aug; from ` 700 adult,  ` 250 child (free with Salzburg card). The website has  a wonderful leaflet for children.
  • Mozart Dinner Concert: 00-43-662-828-695;; Baroque Hall, Restaurant
  • St Peter, St Peter district I/ IV, St Peter Monastery;  check website for seasonal timings; from ` 3,550 adult,  ` 2,100 child (under 14)
  • Salzburger Schloss Konzerte: 00-43-66-848-586;; Marmosaal/ Marble Hall; Mirabell Palace (Schloss Mirabell), Mirabellplatz;  check website for seasonal timings; from ` 2,020 adult,  ` 700 child
  • Salzburg Festival: Held every summer since 1920,  this prominent festival of music and drama should be  on every culture vulture’s agenda. Tickets are now available  for 2013 (

Salzburg and  the  Sound of Music?

Much of the world thinks of the city of Salzburg and The Sound of Music synonymously. Over  15 locations around the city were immortalised in the film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer – among them the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, where Maria and the children sing Do-re-mi; Residenz Square on which Maria sings I have confidence on her way to her governessing job with the Trapps; the Festival Hall (Rock Riding School) where the baron sings Edelweiss before the family flees Austria; parts of Leopoldskron Palace and Frohnburg Palace were both used as Trapp Villa, and the gazebo, now at Hellbrunn, that formed the backdrop for both  I am 16 going on 17 and Something good. Yet, not all was right with that script – in reality, it is said, the Trapp children were unhappy at how their father was portrayed; he was a gentle, kind man, while Maria was the pushier step-parent. And the family didn’t flee over the mountains; they moved to America, where they organised music camps and set up a hotel.
The Trapp Family Reality and the “Sound of Music” exhibition  at the Salzburg Museum is on  till September 2013.

Beyond Mozart

Although Mozart is Salzburg’s ruling god, each year, over 4,000 cultural events take place here that go beyond his music. These include the Easter, Whitsun and Summer Festivals, the Summerzene, the Jazz Festival and Advent Singing across museums, galleries and the Festival Theatres made famous by the annual Salzburg Festival.

Read more in the December 2012 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India