More Than Just Schmaltzburg

In the early years of the 17th century, a powerful but eccentric nobleman built a pleasure resort against a backdrop of the wooded hills outside Salzburg. Archbishop Markus Sitticus named his pretty yellow palace Schloss Hellbrunn. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Sitticus had little love for gilded chandeliers and brocade drapes. So he set about filling his palace with oddities that appealed to him. Paintings of rare birds and fish filled two rooms; another room was painted to depict a Roman forum. An octagonal chamber with an aperture in its domed ceiling was painted a deep, flaming orange in colour.

But it was in the gardens that Sitticus allowed free rein to his eccentricity. The Wasserspiele–the water garden–is a medley of pools filled with fish; channels of rippling water; grottoes; and fountains.

We went visiting one hot afternoon, and it was the fountains that caught us unawares.

Walks through the Wasserspiele are always led by a Hellbrunn guide, and we soon discovered why. Our guide, who looked deceptively charming, did just what Markus Sitticus probably did to his unsuspecting guests four centuries ago. A surreptitious flick of a lever, and we found ourselves soaked from water spewing from hidden fountains. On either side of a path we’d been strolling along. From beside a grotto where we’d stopped to admire a pair of hydraulically powered miniature figures. And, most humiliating of all, from the centre of stone stools on which we’d been graciously invited to seat ourselves. At the end of it all, drenched but inexplicably happy, we wandered through the park, past the small white pavilion in which I am sixteen going on seventeen was filmed in The Sound of Music. Schloss Hellbrunn, we decided unanimously, was enchanting. Quiet, lovely, charming–and full of surprises.

And that is how I’d sum up Salzburg itself.

This city by the Salzach River is one of those examples–fortunately not too rare in Europe–of a city that combines history, culture and scenic beauty in equal (and generous) doses. On the outskirts, green pastures studded with wildflowers extend into wooded hills that loom high in a clear blue sky. In the city, the copper green domes and spires of the cathedrals dominate the skyline. The gardens are crowded with flowers, the Salzach twinkles in the sunlight. Picturesque? Undoubtedly.

The Alstadt–the Old Town–is the historic heart of Salzburg. This is where the Archbishop Princes once ruled; and the cobblestones still ring with the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as they pull along carriages. We sat one day in the Alstadt, watching the carriages trundle by while we admired a century-old combination thermometer, barometer and hygrometer that stood in the square. When the beckoning aroma of kaffee mit schlag–coffee with cream–pulled us into the nearby Café Tomaselli, we succumbed to temptation. A plump waitress in prim black, with a white apron, appeared with a huge tray crowded with apfelstrudel, topfenstrudel, tarts and cakes smothered with cream, custard, and fresh fruit. Would we care for some? Oh, yes, we would–who couldn’t?

There are other cafés in the Alstadt. Other restaurants too, including an Indian one which proclaimed daily specials we’d never heard of. There are boutiques and shops too, selling everything from high fashion to souvenirs. But the Alstadt isn’t glamour; it’s history. History breathes, lives, proudly preens itself here.

The most imposing reminder of Salzburg’s political history is the Residenz, the administrative headquarters for many centuries. Its luxurious chambers and state rooms are impressive, and the small but excellent collection of art in the Residenzgalerie includes stalwarts such as Rembrandt and Breughel.

And then there are the churches, of which my favourite is the unusual Stiftskirche St Peter. St Peter’s is in stark contrast to the gloomy, forbidding interiors of many of Austria’s other churches, including Vienna’s Stephansdom and Salzburg’s very own Franziskanerkirche. Here the walls are airy and pristine white, picked out in a delicate grey-green; murals cover the ceiling, depicting the life of St Peter.

The Franziskanerkirche is much older than St Peter’s, and darker, quieter, more sombre. A young monk, clad in the brown habit of the Franciscans, stood outside, talking earnestly to a lady. Inside, an older colleague knelt in prayer. The quiet dimness of the Franziskanerkirche, I thought, was conducive to prayer.

The Salzburg Dom, built originally in 774 AD but destroyed and rebuilt many times since, is the third of the three main churches. Decorated with frescoes and stucco work, the church proudly acknowledges that this is where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptised 250 years ago.

And that pride is well-deserved–Mozart, after all, is Salzburg. The music he composed is played all across the city. His smiling face is emblazoned on the gold foil on chocolates; his distinctive signature scrawled below. The souvenir shops sell tiny handmade replicas of violins, small enough to fit in your fist. Liqueurs named after Mozart’s sister Nannerl (an accomplished musician in her own right) are on sale. And everyday, there’s a patient crowd of music-lovers waiting for the Mozart Museum in the Mozart Geburtshaus to open at 9.

The Mozart Geburtshaus, where Wolfgang was born in 1756, blends the classicism of Mozart’s age with more modern styles. Wooden floored rooms, stark and austere, hold displays of the composer’s possessions: a silk wallet, a violin he owned as a child; an alabaster tobacco case. There are locks of his hair and sheets of music written in his own hand. The walls of one room are chocolate in colour, with Mozart’s biography scrawled all across in large sloping white letters. And there is the room that portrays Mozart’s Salzburg: an upside-down depiction, three-dimensional and mesmerising. A model of the city hangs from the ceiling, the spires and domes reaching down towards a dark floor studded with star-like lights.

Yes, the Mozart Geburtshaus is a tribute to Mozart; but it’s also a tribute to Salzburg. And a well-deserved tribute at that, to a gentle, soothing city that’s easy to like, hard to forget.

(First published in Lounge, May 2007)

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