It’s only fitting that I would remember my experience in Salzburg through its sounds, as even the silence that greeted me when we arrived on the first frosty morning there was striking. I was surprised at how empty and how small the historic city center was, known as the birthplace of Mozart and the residence of the Von Trapp family (now of “Sound of Music” fame). But by late January the high point of the tourist season had passed and we were able to get well acquainted with the layout of the city surrounded by beautiful snow-covered Alps in peace. Shortly after we arrived, small but hefty metal church bells tolled ten o’clock and a guy running a coffee stand next to an empty ice skating rink shouted “Guten Morgen, Salzburg!” into the chilly air, as if to greet the town itself.
Bells pealed from every small church throughout the day every quarter hour, and for most of the morning this set the backdrop for our visit. Bells, the occasional clip-clop of horse hoofs on cobblestones pulling tourist carriages, and silence. Silence as we passed the old and new Residenz, the Dom (cathedral), St. Peter’s Church and its adjacent cemetery. This last was fascinating, as it lay between the pencil-like tower of the church and a sheer face of rock into which monastic homes had been built high into the cliff. The graves are rented by families, and we saw many newer graves alongside older ones. Most are carefully tended like a garden (some were being attended to by family members during our visit), with arrangements of perennial pink heather, fresh roses, pine branches, and even occasional small Christmas trees decorated with ornaments or candles.
As we walked through, light sounds of construction on a wooden roof behind and above the graves on the mountain gave way to the Cranberries’ “Zombie” playing softly on the workers’ radio. The Irish war-themed 90s single lent a surreal feeling to the cemetery visit.
But the mood picked up after lunch as we emerged from a quiet wooden tavern to the surprising sounds of Karneval beginning already in Salzburg. The owner of the guest house where we stayed told us that Karneval celebrations aren’t so typical in Austria – the traditions come more from Switzerland – and that the troupes performing concerts throughout the days and parades at night that weekend only do this every few years in Salzburg.
So we toured the Salzburg History Museum and the town squares to one marching band pop song (mostly American music) after another. Linkin Park’s “Castle of Glass” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” in particular were played over and over by different elaborately costumed bands of teenagers.
But Karneval garb is quite different in Salzburg than it is in Mainz. Whereas Mainz paraders are all fools and cute animals, the Salzburg bands had scarier or at least more bizarre themes. Witches, skeletons, trolls, monsters, zombies, elves, magicians… Most wore either huge elaborate masks or detailed airbrushed make-up.
The concerts continued the entire day both Friday and Saturday. One song blended into another as we and the bands moved alternately through the city. In the evening the celebration culminated with a parade (only an hour long) to showcase all of the groups as they crossed the bridge over the Salzach River into Salzburg’s center. Some of the scarier masked characters got in spectators’ faces (mostly for women and children), messed with their hair, or (in my case) stole their hats and kept parading away.
By this time, of course, my heartbeat had been realigned to the beat of a giant bass drum. And the music continued after the parade was over. Groups continued to draw small audiences in various squares on both sides of the river for hours after the official celebrations had ended (and before they began their next full day celebrations).
We spent our next and last day in Salzburg at Mozart’s former home where he was in fact born. Depending on where we were in our rounds of the home-turned-museum, we alternated between more marching band pop and rock music and Mozart’s classic works. I’m not sure what Mozart would think of the modern sounds of Salzburg, but they certainly created a memorable experience for me.