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
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
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
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