My mum’s a massive fan of The Sound of Music, and a friend of hers recommended the tour to her. It’s a must-do, her friends told her. My dad, my brother and I weren’t interested in seeing the Hollywood scenes and preferred to see Salzburg city centre, the UNESCO world heritage site. However, we compromised and joined a tour which featured a few film locations along the way.

Our tour started in the gardens of the Mirabel palace where Kristina, our guide, told us the name Mirabelle means beautiful. ‘And as you can see,’ she said. ‘The gardens are, indeed, beautiful.’

It was the Austrian summer, but after a three-day heatwave, the skies had dulled, but the clouds couldn’t dampen the beauty. Salzburg overlooked the gardens and the city. The grand fountain shot water as tourists posed for pictures and admired the colourful array of flowers adorning the lawn. Four statues cornered the water fountain, each representing one of the classical Greek elements, earth, water, fire, and air.

The palace and the gardens held numerous weddings throughout history and couples still wear the traditional Austrian dress to get married there today. There’s a university named after Mozart and a theatre. In The Sound of Music, Maria and the kids danced and sung, using the steps ascending from the Pegasus statue into the gardens as a musical scale.

the river salzach, salzburg austria with padlocks on a bridge shwing love
The padlocked bridge over the river Salzach. Snapped by my dad.

‘If you haven’t noticed,’ Kristina said as we exited the gardens towards the roads outside the old city centre. ‘Salzburg is a small city and is built on two things. Mozart and The Sound of Music. When the film was first released in the US, it was a huge success, and Salzburg became famous overnight. However, the locals didn’t know about the film. They were confused when American tourists flocked to see the scenes the film portrayed. Now, look,’ she said, pointing to a poster in the corner with a picture of a woman dancing. ‘The hills have come alive.’

Outside the gardens, Kristina pointed out two more Salzburg sights. The Mozart museum sat in a modest building with a sign in German. It was Mozart’s birthplace, and he lived here with his mother and many siblings.

‘However, he hated Salzburg,’ our guide said. ‘When he moved to Vienna, he fell in love with the city.’

We’d assembled on a bridge over the river Salzach where couples locked padlocks to the railings and etched their initials into the metal locks. To our left was the hotel Christopher Plummer stayed while they filmed the Salzburg scenes. Plummer hated the film, and according to legend, he even hated the kids. The man who played Captain von Trapp referred to the movie as the sound of mucus and “awful.”

‘Sorry to The Sound of Music fans,’ Kristina said, smiling softly at my mum.

‘It’s okay,’ my mum said. ‘I knew he hated the film.’

‘You’re going to break her heart,’ my dad said. ‘She thinks the film is entirely true.’

It is based on a true story,’ Kristina said. ‘They got married by the lakes in the film, but the real von Trapps actually got married in a small church, here in Salzburg.’

‘That was the bit I wanted to see, but they wouldn’t let us do the tour. I wanted to sing the hills are alive. These three,’ My mum said, ‘said Hollywood faked it all and I’d see more reality in the city.’

‘Follow me. There’ll be a few scenes from the movie coming up.’

My mum smiled, and we crossed the bridge. My dad laughed and asked my mum if she wanted to carve their names onto a padlock and lock it with the rest. My brother and I glared at him and threatened to throw him over the bridge. Despite my mums’ disappointments and darkening of the lunchtime sky, the four of us remained in high spirits.

narrow salzburg streets
A narrow road in the centre of Salzburg. Another of my dad's amateur photographs.

Buildings displayed Salzburg’s age. Cars were forbidden in the city centre, owing to its listing as a world heritage site. Designer brands and traditional shops lined the narrow streets. Above the doors and designer branding, remnants of a time gone by, when the medieval inhabitants couldn’t read hung from the old walls. A large key indicating the shop was once a locksmith, and a boot fastened above a carpenters shop a hundred years before the current brands called it home.

Mannequins stood in a window leading to an alley awash with the sweet smell of cinnamon. The plastic models wore circular dresses tapered at the waist with a handkerchief hanging from their apron strings. ‘In the UK, you have to go through the hassle of picking out the perfect dress, but in Austria, every girl already has their wedding dress,’ Kristina said. ‘It’s a traditional folk outfit, and some older women still wear them today.’

indicating what the shop is
A man with an umbrella. Did the shop sell umbrellas? Thanks for the photo, Dad.

Salzburg castle watched over the streets. Mozart followed us everywhere. Souvenir shops sold everything they could relate to their most famous resident and the city of music, postcards, mini statues, and music boxes filled shelves and stands outside the gift shops. The house he lived situated in the middle of the main road.

We walked to the end of the road and stood in front of the old gates to the city, which now served as a car park. The car exclusion zone didn’t apply to taxis and residents. Traffic consisted of a few cars and horse-drawn carriages. To the left of the gates, was an old train line where the von Trapps were supposed to have fled the Nazis during the war.

The tours last stop was the catacombs of St Peters Monastery and Mozart’s sisters final resting place. Next to the cemetery sits a restaurant with cracked walls and the date, 803, carved into the stone. This is supposedly the oldest restaurant built within the walls of St Peters Abbey, where monks from the monastery made and drank beer. Graves sat upon a hill. The dates of death stretched back 100 years and more.  In The Sound of Music, the von Trapps fled through the cemetery trying to escape the Nazis. The tomb of Mozart’s sister lay behind bars like a prison cell out in the open. German inscriptions detailed her birth date and death.

austrian dress for men
Traditional menswear
traditional austiran womens dress
Traditional womenswear

‘These weren’t the graves the von Trapps hid behind,’ Kristina said. ‘The filmmakers felt it would be easier to recreate the tombs and film the scene in a studio where they were able to control the environment. However, tourists still flock to the cemetery to see the graveyard represented in the film.’

My mum refused to smile. ‘What’s wrong,’ my dad asked.

‘Nothing,’ she said.

‘Are you realising everything you ever believed was a lie?’ My brother asked.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I love the film, and I still do, but I thought it was true. I think it’s out of order that they let us believe it was all real. I would’ve preferred the film if it was more accurate.’

‘That’s Hollywood for you,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry if I have ruined the film for you,’ Kristina said. ‘I really didn’t want to, but I’ve got to show you Salzburg. And there’s more to the city then what’s in the film.’

‘It’s okay,’ my mum said. ‘I think the cities beautiful. I’d still like to do the Sound of Music tour as well. I think it’ll be interesting to see the other side now.’

My dad, my brother, and I sighed.

 ‘Thank you for joining me today,’ Kristina said. The clouds opened, and water began to fall on our heads. Tourists pushed umbrellas up.  ‘I’ve enjoyed showing you around Salzburg and hope you’ve found it informative, but we’ve come to the end of the tour, fortunately just as the rains about to start. Enjoy the rest of your time in Salzburg.’

We said our goodbyes and left our guide to find somewhere dry. My mum and my brother hid underneath their umbrellas. My dad and I were stuck with our plain t-shirts. The rain dropped heavier. Our pace hastened with the weather. We found refuge underneath the canopy of a church and searched for somewhere to eat lunch, and settling on a restaurant offering traditional Austrian cuisine. My mum sang songs from the film. Despite the lies, she kept the hills alive with the sound of music. I was soaked. So was my dad. We’d earned the beers with our lunch.


  1. I actually met the real Maria back in the late 70’s – elderly, soft-spoken, smiling. When asked about the film compared to her actual experiences, she said “you have to allow Hollywood to do a little Hollywooding” and left it at that. The film was enjoyable, but bears very little resemblance to the book! I can see why your mum was disappointed…

    1. Author

      She was disappointed but I think she understood the whole hollywood way of storytelling. Still, the city itself cheered her up, it was beautiful

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