So how exactly do you solve a problem like Maria? Are the hills really alive? And what is edelweiss anyway?
For answers to these and other imponderables, I started at the very beginning. A very good place to start. Salzburg, site of the actual story behind “The Sound of Music,” first a Broadway musical and later a 1965 Oscar-winning film, really does look like a movie set. No surprise that much of the film was shot on location.
If you love the movie as I do, it’s hard not to walk around the city, see a spot you recognize and break out in song. If you hate the movie, you probably also hate raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
For “Sound of Music” newbies, here’s a 67-word synopsis. In 1938 a young nun, Maria (played by Julie Andrews), leaves the convent to work as governess to the seven Von Trapp children whose father, Georg (Christopher Plummer), is a widowed Navy captain (never mind that Austria is landlocked). Under Maria's tutelage the family discovers song and becomes an acclaimed singing troupe. As the Nazis move to take over Austria, the Von Trapps make a daring escape.
Most Austrians I met were not very familiar with the movie, but Salzburgers are no fools, and “Sound of Music” tourism is boffo business here. The city’s visitors bureau estimates that about 300,000 guests (twice the local population) visit “Sound of Music” locations annually. A full 70% of Americans say it was a main reason they came.
Not one but two tour companies compete to show you “Sound of Music” sites. To help you choose, I sampled them both.
Both tours visit key locations in the film: the gazebo where eldest daughter Liesl and her boyfriend, Rolf, sang and danced "Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in a rainstorm; Leopoldskron Palace, which stood in for the rear of the Von Trapp mansion on the lake; assorted churches; the Mirabell Palace Garden (scene of much of "Do-Re-Mi") and more.
Both pepper the tour with factoids and insider secrets about the story (no real Rolf? Say it ain't so!), personages, actors and production. Both play tracks from the movie and encourage guests to sing along, and the guides are so gosh-darned earnest that it’s hard not to love them.
The Original Sound of Music Tour (a name it calls itself) has been in business since 1967 and claims never to have missed a day. After all this time, it has it down to a system: twice-daily four-hour excursions ferry tourists by the busload to sites in the city, then through mountains to more filming locations in hamlets 15 miles away.
Our dirndl-dressed guide dished movie trivia and showed clips on a screen at the front of the bus. In some locations, visitors were able to de-bus and walk around, including in the village of Mondsee, where the interior of St. Michael’s Basilica, through movie magic, stood in for Nonnberg Abbey, Maria’s convent home in Salzburg, site of her majestic wedding to Georg.
A nearly hour-long stop allowed visitors to peruse the church, shop for souvenirs (“Sound of Music” tea towels seem to be a thing), and break for the all-important crisp apple strudel.
Then there was the moment when our jovial driver did donuts around a traffic circle until the entire bus yodeled to “The Lonely Goatherd” playing over the bus PA system. If that's not fun, I don't know what is.
Fraulein Maria's Bicycle Tours is a relative newcomer, having opened shop in 1999. Fraulein Maria’s tours top out at 15 riders on sturdy bikes with gears, baskets and flip-folders of song lyrics on the handlebars.
What the tour lacks in breadth of territory, it makes up for in depth of coverage of Salzburg's storybook city center. Traveling by bike allows you to climb every mountain, search high and low and follow every rainbow (OK, not really on the rainbows) to the real-life nooks and crannies that buses can’t reach.
Big picture: Besides the “Sound of Music” education, the bike tour was an excellent orientation to the city. Small picture: The intimate group size lets you bond with your tour mates in ways a bus tour can't.
After we boarded bikes named for characters and actors in the movie (I got Uncle Max — not sure what they were trying to tell me), our guide, an enthusiastic American expat, started us with a round of self-introductions, including where we were from (Denmark, San Francisco, Mississippi, etc.) and how many times we’d each seen the film.
During three hours and eight miles, which included plenty of breaks for photo ops, we biked past some of Salzburg's 49 churches and stopped at the actual Nonnberg Abbey, which I immediately recognized from movie scenes, including when the Nazis searched for the Von Trapps during their escape.
The route took us through Residenz Square, where we saw cream-colored ponies and the horse-festooned fountain where Maria flicks water while singing "I Have Confidence"; the cemetery in the spooky getaway scene; the tree-lined alley where the kids frolicked in their new play clothes made from old drapes; and Frohnburg Palace, the facade of the Von Trapp home in the film. I felt Maria's goosebumps as I stood outside the imposing wrought-iron gate.
After the tours, I wandered the narrow lanes, gracious squares and pretty restaurants and beer halls of this historic and walkable city, and it became clear that it was indeed the ideal location for the movie. The sound of actual music was everywhere.
Salzburg is, after all, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in 1756. The house where he was born is a major attraction, and his likeness is seen all over town on signage, posters, bonbons known as mozartkugeln and even rubber duckies.
I had many musical choices during my three-night stay, but my favorite was a chamber concert at dusk inside the eight-plus-acre Hohensalzburg Castle, which dominates the skyline from a hilltop adjacent to the city center. The Salzburg Marionette Theatre also staged a production of “The Magic Flute” during my visit.
Street musicians seem everywhere. You’ll probably hear them at one of Salzburg’s many sidewalk cafes such as Café Tomaselli, the city’s oldest, established in 1700. St. Peter's calls itself Europe’s first restaurant (established 803) and has a program of Mozart dinner concerts in its Baroque hall, where I broke bread with guests from all over the world.
There was nothing particularly musical about the beer garden at Sternbrau, but this brewery, founded in 1542, has a prettily lighted courtyard and hearty, traditional Austrian foods to go with the beers.
When it came time to leave Salzburg, it was with a heart full of song, a belly full of schnitzel with noodles and beer with the foam afloat, and legs a little sorer from the bike tour. I bade a fond so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and adieu and can't wait to return. And I'll sing once more.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO SALZBURG, AUSTRIA
From LAX, Austrian and Lufthansa offer connecting service (change of planes) to Salzburg. Restricted round-trip service from $1,266, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (the international calling code), 43 (the country code for Austria), and the local number.
WHAT TO DO
Original Sound of Music Tour, 662-88-32-110. Tours 9:15 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Adults about $52.
Fraulein Maria's Bicycle Tours, 650-34-26-297. Tours 9:30 a.m. daily, April-October, and 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily, June-August. Adults about $35, children and students ages 13-17 about $22, 12 and younger about $14.
Hohensalzburg Castle. Tickets from about $14. Open daily; hours vary seasonally
WHERE TO STAY
Altstadthotel Weisse Taube, 9 Kaigasse, Salzburg; 662-842404. Intimate, recently renovated, 31-room hotel just off Mozart Square. Doubles from about $240 a night in summer.
Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron, 56-58 Leopoldskronstrasse, Salzburg; 662-839830. Double rooms from $192. Though it’s a bit out of the city center, “Sound of Music” fans may thrill to an overnight in this palace, a movie location.
Blaue Gans, 41-43 Getreidegasse, Salzburg; 662-8424910. Although it’s Salzburg's oldest inn (600 years), the design of this "art hotel” is contemporary, even edgy. From $298 per person.
WHERE TO EAT
Café Tomaselli, 9 Alter Markt, 662-84-44-880. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 8 a.m. Sundays.