The Sounds of Salzburg Are a Sight to See

Wedged beneath Alpine peaks, Salzburg, Austria, is breathtakingly beautiful. Yet it's better-known for the pleasures it has historically offered the ears than the eyes. The central-Austrian city is the birthplace of Mozart, the home of a world-renowned annual music festival and the setting of The Sound of Music.

Founded in 700 and run by a powerful Church and aristocracy until 1815, Salzburg is also noted for its exquisite Catholic churches and abbeys. The Alstadt, the city's old section, is so thoroughly Catholic that waiters and conductors greet guests with Grüss Gott (literally, “howdy, God” but meaning “good day").

Salzburg's signature structure, as well its spiritual center, is the magnificent Dom, located in the heart of the old city. A church has stood on this spot since the 8th century. The current Renaissance-style cathedral was consecrated in 1628.

The notorious Archbishop Wolf Dietrich, intent on building an extravagant new church, was suspected of setting the fire in 1598 that demolished the old cathedral. The townspeople rose up against the archbishop, whose most notorious category of misdeeds, though my no means his only one, was his siring a dozen children. Dietrich was imprisoned in 1612. Markus Sitticus, his successor, went ahead with the new church.

The Dom is grand externally but admirably restrained on the inside. (Sitticus apparently was wary of repeating Dietrich's extravagant ways.) On weekday afternoons especially, when crowds are light, the interior emits a sense of peace and quietude.

Emblazoned on the church's huge bronze doors, invariably seen upon entering and exiting, are three allegorical figures representing faith, hope and charity.

Mozart at the Dom

The Mozart connection is strong even at the Dom. He was christened in the cathedral's 13th-century font and was the congregation's organist from 1779-1781. Tour guides light-heartedly note that very few worshipers ever found fault with the music at the church.

St. Peter's Abbey, founded by St. Rupert, is considerably smaller than the Dom but much more luxurious.

The church contains vaulted arches dating from the 12th century and the lavish interior is a product of the Baroque flourishes of the late 18th century.

Rupert was bishop of Worms when he was asked by a duke to Christianize Bavaria and its outer regions. Known for his simplicity, prudence and zeal, Rupert converted pagan temples into churches and established the salt-mining industry from which Salzburg derives its name. When he died in 718, he was buried in St. Peter's Abbey.

For several hundred years St. Peter's Abbey was a center of Christianity in central Europe. Its archbishops became powerful political rulers. Some ruled selflessly and kept their vows while others plunged their state into ruinous wars and lived scandalously.

The abbey's cemetery has a brooding, eerie atmosphere, even in mid-afternoon. Near the grave of Mozart's sister are the Catacombs, two small chapels built into a cliff. Romans who had secretly converted to Christianity held Masses here during the persecutions of the third century.

The Sound of Music

The cemetery was shown in the Sound of Music, which was filmed in and around Salzburg. The age-old burial ground was used for the scene in which Liesl's Nazi boyfriend blows his whistle to alert authorities to the hiding Von Trapp clan. The historic Nonnberg convent, located near the Dom, also has a connection to the movie.

The convent, founded by Rupert and originally headed by his niece, Erendruda, was where Maria lived, both in the film and real life.

The Sound of Music is mostly unknown in Austria, except among shrewd tour guides who know that Americans adore the film.

Among many historical errors, the film downplayed the strong Catholic faith of Maria. Raised as a socialist and atheist, she was dramatically changed by a chance encounter with a Jesuit priest when she was a teen-ager. She left the convent only because a doctor was concerned about her health.

Several outfits in Salzburg offer tours of the movie sites. Gunter, our guide, told us, “It's a typically American movie. The dresses are American. The music is very American.” The von Trapps did not escape by hiking over the mountains into Switzerland.

“That's hundreds of miles away,” explained Gunter. Refusing to fight for the Nazis, Captain von Trapp agreed to leave Austria and forfeited his home and property.

Before Starbucks

A short walk from St. Peter's Abbey is the Franciscan Church, also known as the Collegiate Church. The church is considered the masterpiece of Fischer von Erlach, Austria's most celebrated Baroque architect. Visitors gape at the harmonious dome and the elaborate red marble altar. Masses with music composed by Mozart are said regularly.

The Capuchin monastery in the new city holds special interest for coffee lovers. The trademark brown robes and white hoods of the monks so resembled coffee topped with steamed milk that the word cappuccino was born.

It's apt in Salzburg that a popular drink should be associated with the Church. Catholicism is interwoven into the city's history, culture and landscape.

Though politically sovereign archbishops are part of the past, the faith still holds sway over much of the populace.

Jay Copp writes from Chicago.