Salzburg Austria is a beautiful Baroque city that is particularly famed for being the birthplace of Mozart and the site where he composed many of his works. More popularly, it is the site of the movie, The Sound of Music.
The city is divided into three primary parts:
- Old Town is the most atmospheric and interesting (at least to us) and is on the left bank of the Salzach River.
- The Right Bank houses the more contemporary and commercial New Town.
- The Left Bank is so different and removed (by both altitude and attitude) from Old Town and contains the Hohensalzburg Fortress.
As usual, we took a free walking tour. Unlike many of the other free walking tours in other cities, this one was limited to the number of participants and was run by one person versus a company. Gerhard, our guide, was very good. The tour focused on Old Town, but it also covered a few of New Town’s most interesting sites, It did not visit the fortress.
An Augustinian monk St. Rupert founded Salzburg in 696. The city grew on the left bank of the river as a religious center with a number of monasteries and nunneries. These religious facilities occupied most of the higher-situated land between the river and the Monchsbuerg (the nearly vertical mountain to the south on which the fortress was located). Merchants took over the lower elevation land.
The city was an independent, religious kingdom. Its population and wealth grew rapidly due to its proximity to some of the region’s largest salt mines. This changed in 1803 when Napoléon captured the town. He closed the university in favor of establishing Munich as the Germanic education center and transferred most of its salt income to Vienna. In 1816, Salzburg agreed to become part of Germany.
Old Town Salzburg
Old Town is the city’s prettiest and most tourist-dominated destination in the city. Most of the tourist traffic is on the lovely, shop-lined Judengasse and to the south, which is dominated primarily by churches, monasteries, nunneries, and other religious-affiliated institutions.
Religious Old Town Salzburg
Salzburg’s Old Town has remained largely a religious town though much of its history. Today it is overwhelmingly Catholic. A portion of government-collected taxes, in fact, go directly to the church. Today, many people (especially the younger people) are opting out of the church so as to avoid paying the yearly Catholic tax. Other religious options are limited. The city’s first Protestant Church, for example, was only built in the 1860s and remains the only one.
Among Old Town’s primary churches, monasteries and other religious organizations are:
- Collegiate Church. This early 18th-century Baroque church was part of Salzburg University. It was completed in 1700 and was the last of the historic churches to be constructed. It has a particularly ornate altarpiece. The lovely, all-white stucco carvings and murals commemorate each of the university’s four primary areas of study: theology, philosophy, medicine, and law.
- Franciscan Church is generally a Romanesque church that incorporates some Gothic and Baroque elements.
- Cathedral Domplatz (The Dom) was first built in 774, but was destroyed by fire. After many other fires and rebuilds, the current Baroque structure was rebuilt in 1628. The huge interior can hold 10,000 worshipers. It also contains crypts of several of the city’s past archbishops. The ceiling portrays the story of Jesus, from the time he arrived in Jerusalem to his crucifixion.
- St. Peter’s Monastery, Church, and Cemetery. The monastery is the successor to the one St. Rupert built in 696 when he founded the city on the site of a previous Roman settlement. The current church was built in 1690. It is the most beautiful in the city with Its altar, organ, and murals. The equally beautiful cemetery has tasteful graves (from ancient to contemporary) and arcades of crypts. The cemetery was used as a model for those in which the von Trapp family hid during the fanciful movie version of their escape in The Sound of Music.
- Nonnburg Abbey. St. Rupert founded the Abbey early in the 8th century. It is the oldest active nunnery in the world. It is also the spot in which Maria attempted to become a nun in The Sound of Music before she was “evicted”.
- Old Residenz was built in the 12th century. It was the traditional home of the archbishop but was rebuilt and extended multiple times. Government and university offices now share the first two floors and a museum displays many of the palace’s furnishings.
- New Residenz (or Residenz Neugebäude) was originally built in the 16th century across the square from the Old Residenz. It was used by the latter archbishops and subsequently expanded to include the clock tower and glockenspiel (carillon). It is now home to the Salzburg Museum.
Secular Old Town–Judengasse
Old Town’s major and longest street, Judengasse, runs parallel to the river. It is between the river and the churches, monasteries, and nunneries that occupied the higher ground. It is connected to the river to the north and to the religious sector to the south via a number of lovely passageways.
The street consists of commercial establishments on the ground floor and residences on the four to five higher floors. While this necessitated long climbs up narrow staircases, space was so tight in the confined quarter that they had few alternatives.
While the street is charming in and of itself, it is made even more so by the intricate wrought-iron brackets that hold equally intricate signs that identify the shops (a practice that was necessary when few people could read). Current businesses have to incorporate their logos into the old signs (see the McDonald’s sign).
While one could stay occupied walking up and down the lovely street (and dodging the other tourists), the area also has a number of interesting sites, including Mozart’s birthplace and the original City Hall.
Secular Old Town—South of Judengasse
Most of the parts of Old Town north of Judengasse that are not currently religious still had their roots in Catholicism. Church-related organizations, for example, founded and named many of the currently secular facilities and squares. Many of the squares that were not are named after saints.
Current sectarian Old Town institutions include:
- The University of Salzburg. Although the church originally founded and ran it, the university has evolved into a more secular organization. It has expanded its areas of study well beyond the original four (theology, philosophy, medicine, and law). It now enrolls 16,000 students—about ten percent of the population of the city—with about two-thirds of its students from Germany.
- Several squares and fountains, including the main square, Residenzplatz. The square’s center is marked by the Residenz fountain, with its four horses spouting water from their upturned mouths. Hitler addressed the Austrian people in this square in 1938 to persuade them to join Germany in the Third Reich—an alliance that culminated the next year when 98 percent of residents (or at least of those who had not been jailed, sent to concentration camps, exiled or voluntarily let) voted to do so.
- Fourteen commissioned contemporary sculptures are positioned in several Old Town plazas and one grass park.
- City Hall (Rathaus) with its ornate windows and clock tower;
- Salzberg Festival Hall was created in 1920 to celebrate Mozart’s music. It is housed in buildings that were originally built and used as the archbishop’s stables. Performances took place on a wooden stage. It has since expanded its repertoire to many artists and has expanded to become the largest classical music festival in the world, attracting about 250,000 people (not to speak of about 4,000 employees). It has since built two large stages, including one carved from the side of the Monchberg cliffs, and has added an additional, custom-built structure.
The Festival Hall, of course, played a big role in The Sound of Music. In the movie, the hall was where the von Trapp Family Singers were persuaded to give their first public performance and from which they staged (no pun intended) their dramatic escape.
The family performed twice at the festival: in 1935 and 1936. But they declined the invitation to perform for Hitler. They did, however, accept an invitation to perform in the United States and took a train to Italy before leaving by ship to the U.S. They anticipated the events that would soon overtake Europe, and applied for asylum to remain in the United States.
In other words, they left Austria, without opposition, before the Nazis even occupied Austria. No dramatic escape, no hiding behind gravestones in Saint Peter’s cemetery, no nuns disconnecting German automobile starters, and no long, dangerous hike through the Alps to Switzerland. Not quite as dramatic as the movie, but the reality isn’t always as dramatic as Hollywood makes it out to be.
Mozart’s Old Town
Wolfgang Mozart was born and lived the first 17 years of his life on Old Town’s Judengasse. He then moved to New Town where he lived till age 25. While Mozart was popular among Salzburg society during the early stages of his career, few of the city’s residents knew of Mozart during the height of his career (after he left the city) and he was relatively all but forgotten over the next couple of generations thereafter. There were no recordings of his work.
The city did not begin its obsessive love affair with the artist until 51 years after his death when the city proposed erecting a statue in his honor in 1842. Ironically, the public recognition resulted from a controversy over placing a statue of someone other than a saint or an archbishop in a spot that had been occupied by one.
Mozart’s statue and birthplace, however, are just a couple of Old Town’s many Mozart-related sites. These include:
- Mozart’s Geburtshaus is the home of the flat where the city’s most famous resident was born and lived the first 17 years of his life. The site is now a museum.
- Mozart Statue, which was so controversial at the time it was created and placed in the center of the city’s main square.
- Mozarteum, a foundation created to celebrate the works of the composer.
- Collegiate Church where Mozart gave his first concert, at the age of five.
- Salzburg Festival was originally established specifically to celebrate Mozart’s work. The Festival Hall, in fact, is still often referred to as the House of Mozart.
New Town Salzburg
We visited a few sites on this side of the river:
- Schloss Mirabel, an archbishop’s Baroque summer palace (at that time, it was away from the city that was confined to the other side of the river). It has an amazingly complex carved stone staircase lined with statues, a pretty ballroom, and lovely gardens and fountains that play prominently in The Sound of Music—a movie that, as we learned, very few Austrians have ever seen or in which they have any interest.
Makatplatz, a square that is primarily known for the reconstructed home (and now a museum) in which Mozart lived for 15 years. We learned how Mozart’s father, Leopold, a bookbinder who later pursued his passion as a musician, taught his son Wolfgang and daughter Nannerl to play violin and piano respectively and toured as a family musical group. That was until he decided to focus his attention on fostering the career of his highly talented son. The success allowed the family to move from its cramped 100-square-meter left bank home to this more spacious 300-square-meter flat on the less populous right bank. The father, meanwhile, wrote a famous book on learning to play the violin that is still used today and another book cataloging his son’s musical scripts.
- St. Sebastian Church and 15th-century cemetery, the latter of which is particularly interesting for its beautifully columned arcaded, carved monuments and Mozart family (Wolfgang’s wife and father).
- Capuchin Monastery, an early 17th-century complex atop a hill overlooking the river and Old Town.
Although we did not visit this 11th-century fortress, it dominates the heights surrounding the town. It was built to protect the town during the wars between the traditional Roman Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. It subsequently served to protect and serve as a place of refuge for the city’s successive generations of archbishops. These archbishops continually expanded and remodeled the fortress through the 17th century, when it generally reached its current state.
- Esszimmer is a wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant where we had lunch, each with one primary dish. Tom had grilled quail on goose liver and dark lentils with a mushroom cabbage roll. Joyce had gin and lime-marinated, mi-cuit wild Scottish salmon with salmon strudel and crème fraiche. The meal began with home-baked bread and whipped potato balls with herbs and crème fraiche, and ended with a very good pumpkin roll with lemon crème. Our wines were a Mayer am Pfarrplatz 2018 White (Wiener Gemischter Satz), a white blend of wines and a 2015 Cuvess d’or Franz Schindler Neusiedlersee, a blend of cabernet, merlot and blauflankish from Austria’s Hugelland (near the Hungarian border).
- Koller and Koller Tagesbar (K+K am Waagplatz) where we had a very nice dinner consisting of fillet of char with truffled pasta and venison schnitzel with chanterelle cream sauce, bread dumplings, red cabbage, and broccoli. Both dishes were tasty and perfectly cooked. As it was our first night in Austria, we had to have the apple strudel with vanilla ice cream dessert. The sommelier suggested a very good wine to pair with our food: a zwegelt-based (Austria’s most common red grape) 2017 Grassl Nepomukkof ‘Rubin Carnuntum’.
- Balkan Grill is literally a hole in the wall—a small window in the middle of an obscure Old Town passageway in which we happened to pass a long line of people. When we asked at our hotel about it, we were told that it is a tiny, fast-food sausage shop that is incredibly good, and was highly encouraged to try it—which we did. The shop occupies only two or three square meters. It consists of a refrigerator, a small grill, and two people—one cooking the sausages and the other taking and fulfilling orders. Sausages are ordered by number in one of five combinations with various combinations of curry (which is on all versions), spices, onions, mustard, and ketchup. Within less than 60 seconds of ordering, you get two thin, Nurenburg-style sausages, wrapped in a lightly toasted roll that is more like pita than a hot dog roll. After receiving your food, you stood around eating it in the alley. While it wasn’t bad, we wouldn’t go out of our way for it.
Hotel Goldener Hirsch is part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection Hotels. It is an upscale hotel that is in 2 historic buildings in the UNESCO area of Salzburg, right on the main walkway. Upon entering the lobby, one is warmly greeted. As a Marriott elite member, we were given a chocolate bar and then led to our room where they had to explain some things. The hotel had been recently renovated and reopened (they are still finishing up some things). Yet a few legacy things still existed. One was the light switches (which they claim were a legacy but were going to be replaced). To turn them on, you either turn the knob left or right, fast or slow…whichever works. We often gave up. The new toilets are “washer” toilets with a remote control for the cleaning process (we did not use this feature). But try to find the button to flush? Well, it took a few minutes. And the button stuck so we had to call in help (who came with a screwdriver) to release the button so that we could flush. Yes, they are still working out the kinks. Then there is the espresso machine in the room. Thank goodness they gave us instructions on how to get hot water from it. Where is a normal hot pot that works easily? That all aside (and not enough to stop us from returning), the room was wonderfully comfortable and huge. The beds, the pillows, the slippers, bathrobes….wonderful. We had a deep tub (which we didn’t use, a shower, double sinks, magnifying mirror, and, yes, more chocolate on our pillows and chocolate with the in-room coffee/tea. The doubled pane windows kept out the street noise. As the AC didn’t seem to cool the room sufficiently, we opened up the windows in the shower/tub area which kept the whole space cool. The room had motion sensors under cabinet lights which illuminated when you made your way to the bathroom at night or when you just walked by them. A very welcomed addition. Good wifi and good space. This is the place I want to return to if ever in the area.