Long before I ever visited Austria, I had heard of the town of Salzburg as the home of Mozart and as the setting for the Sound of Music. Apart from these flat images, however, I had no idea of what the town was truly like. I did not understand its atmosphere, its origins, or what made the lives of its 150,000 or so inhabitants special. In the summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to discover the town that lay beneath the tourist attractions, and in the Alpine foothills of northern Austria, I found a place molded by a rich history and with a vibrant culture undiluted by its worldwide renown.
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That summer, I was traveling on an Education First tour of central Europe with my German teacher and a few classmates. As we approached Salzburg, my teacher told me of its reputation as a tourist hub. Sure enough, I found souvenir shops selling “Mozart Schokoladen" (chocolates) and “Mozart Schnapps,” and noticed an advertisement for the Sound of Music Tour. The formal gardens on that tour truly are beautiful, and Mozart’s home and birthplace are open for tours. However, since I had only one day and wanted to see a panorama of Salzburg, I passed on those attractions.
We strolled through the old town, much of which dates to the Middle Ages. I learned that the area was settled even before Roman times. Salzburg’s history is not isolated in the past; it remains integral to the town. The old row houses, cobblestone streets, and narrow, winding alleyways all speak to earlier eras and to the cultural and societal changes that have shaped the town into its current form.
I saw some of the most striking reminders of the town’s past in the long string of church steeples that rises above the tile roofs along the Salzach River. The churches are all quite old, but they represent diverse historical periods. I saw simple medieval structures of dark stone just blocks from opulently ornamented Baroque cathedrals. Perhaps the most impressive of these is Salzburger Dom, located on the Domplatz at the center of town. The cathedral was first built in the Early Middle Ages, but was later rebuilt in the Baroque style.
While exploring, I had looked up to a cliff above the town to admire what is probably the greatest reminder of Salzburg’s history, Der Hohensalzburg (The High Salt Castle). I learned that the castle was first built in 1077 to defend the town’s salt trade, and was expanded over centuries. I paid a few Euros to ride a tram up the mountain to the castle’s lower terrace. The view showcased the intrinsic beauty of Salzburg’s surroundings, with nearby fields and woods leading to distant purple Alps. I entered the castle and strolled through its many courtyards. As I gazed up at ramparts and peered through cannon holes, I felt as though I were looking into life in a dangerous and uncertain age, in which Der Hohensalzburg stood as a proud symbol of order.
I saw the Hohensalzburg and the other old buildings as evidence of a continuous evolution, rather than one distant past. Walking through the streets, I saw everyday Salzburgers dining in sidewalk cafés, carrying groceries, and working in their shops. I realized that they were just a part of the most recent phase of Salzburg’s life. Salzburg, as it dazzled me with its history and beauty, made me understand that historic places are not frozen in time. Salzburg is a living community that treasures and understands its past while looking always to the future.
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