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The Sound of Music (1965)

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Article 2

 Travel (Austria): Tourist Trapp

Martin Spence follows the fairy tale to where the hills are alive with the tones of the tour guide and the sound of music

by Martin Spence

The Guardian (London), December 29, 1990

ALL YOU NEED to go in search of The Sound of Music is a ticket to Salzburg and a happy childhood. Your cases can be as suspiciously light as the ones that a simple Austrian girl called Julie Andrews twirled like a cheerleader as she left her convent for the Von Trapp villa, a rich husband, and a ready-made family. A captain with seven children, what's so fearsome about that?

In reality, quite a bit, but this was a fairy tale with the horrors left out. A fairy tale with everything: the Andrews of what Kenneth Tynan called the soaring voice and thrice-scrubbed innocence; a Rodgers and Hammerstein score magnificently brisked up by Robert Wise, the editor of Citizen Kane; the most memorable opening photography in the history of movies; the Austrian Alps; and a Cinderella story based on a youth and middle-age romance.

As my heavily-oversubscribed coach for the Original Sound of Music Tour drew away from Mirabell Square, I realised not just that Music has replaced Mozart as the city's main attraction, but that the majority of my companions were not even born when the film was released 25 years ago at the height of Beatlemania. The Americans and Italians were busy comparing notes. The Korean girl beside me had seen the film five times to my 28. The clipped Austro-American tones of our tour guide broke into my reverie. 'Up there, Nonnberg Abbey where Maria spent time. Still some nuns up there. So. Left is Mozart's home. Right, the Mirabell Gardens where the Von Trapp kids sang the Do-re-mi song. So. We're headed out to Leopoldskron.' An 18th-century schloss, this, built originally for one of Salzburg's ruling archbishops, used in the film for the back of the Von Trapp villa.

The real villa, in the suburb of Aigen, is now owned by missionaries and surrounded, for obvious reasons, by a 15-foot wall: 'All get off the bus now. Walk briskly. Private property here.'

We scuttle past the municipal swimming pool to the far side of the lake into which Maria and the moppets comically fell under the stern gaze of Christopher Plummer and the baroness. Within seconds, we are back on the bus. 'So. There is the Mozart Bridge where Maria and the kids sang the Do-re-mi song.' Melanie permits herself a little joke. 'Probably you've figured it out by now. The kids must have been singing the Do-re-mi song all over town. Sure took a long time to learn.' We are not amused. This is a pilgrimage.

We enter a traffic jam. 'So. We are headed for Fuschl Lake. Left is the meadow where Maria sang the opening song. So. Let's get in the mood. Join in.'

The tape whirrs into The Sound of Music, a cow drinks from a mobile trough beside the road and a posse of leather lads whip past us. Across the lake, above the trees, is the sacred spot, shimmering in the electric heat. My eyes fill with tears. It was here that the film's Director of Photography, Ted McCord, used oxen to get lights and canvas screens up, so bad was the weather in Salzburg in 1964. Here that imported birches were stuck for Julie Andrews to twirl through.

Melanie points out the sheep mountain above St Gilgen where Maria and the children rode in the old cog-railway. 'Is popular with paragliders. I haven't heard too many of you singing. Mozart's sister Nannerl was born in St Gilgen. Cans of Coke and Fanta are available from me.'

By the time we reach the church at Mondsee where the wedding scene was filmed, we are all singing. The Fanta has worked a miracle. The church itself is splendid: egg-yolk yellow, built in 1470 and baroquised in 1776. We yodel back along the Salzburg autobahn to the strains of The Lonely Goatherd.

INTENT on completing the pilgrimage on foot, I crossed the Mirabell Gardens, relentlesly [sic] pretty in the mid-day heat. Someone has clawed a souvenir arm off one of the muscled Grecian athletes, between whom Maria and the children danced. Crossing the rushing Salzach river, I climbed slowly up the vertical outcrop to the Winkler Cafe. There, Maria and the children continued their scale-song against the dramatic backdrop of the Hohensalzburg fortress, carefully photographed without the two pay-telescopes cemented into the rock.

A narrow path led me through pleasant woods towards Nonnberg Abbey, where the real Maria was married in 1927 in an Isadora Duncan dress sliced off at mid-calf. Below me, the pigeon-dropping bespattered horse trough where the captain's eldest daughter and her boyfriend trysted. Ahead, the multi-galleried Felsenreitschule, hewn out of the living rock, where the Von Trapps won the song contest in fact and on film. And, beyond that, the eerie churchyard of St Peter's with its Roman helmets levitating above the tropical greenery, and the rusted grilles behind which the songsters hid when the setting was recreated by 20th Century Fox.

I was stopped in my tracks at the gate to the Abbey courtyard (where the nuns declared on film that 'Maria's not an asset to the abbey'), by a notice saying 'Eintritt verbotten. Off Limits.' Inside the Abbey Church, the marble floor was cool and it was easy to imagine the real Maria approaching the altar.

A bus from the ring-road below the Abbey took me to the ultimate shrine: the Untersberg mountain, setting for the Von Trapp's final escape from the Nazis into Switzerland. In reality, they took a train to Italy from the station at the bottom of their garden. A dizzying cable car whisked me to the summit station. Two nuns were sipping coffee by a pinball machine. Michael Jackson's Bad was blasting over the sound system.

Had that three-hour answer to the question 'How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?' brought us all there? That deeply conservative 25-year-old film with false values, true hopes and a voice that speaks from somewhere out of time. I didn't stop to ask. My favourite song was rising to my lips. Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens. Suddenly the hills were alive.

1990 The Guardian

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