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Salzburg: Salt and Mozart

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg, which grew rich from the salt trade long ago, is touristy but still enjoyable today. It’s known for its hilltop fortress, Baroque architecture, old town, and hometown genius, Mozart. Visit the grand cathedral (where Mozart performed) and Mozart’s childhood homes.

Complete Video Script

Salzburg is steeped in history. In the year 700, its Bavaria rulers gave control of Salzburg to the local Bishop in return for his promise to defend and expand Christianity in the area. Salzburg remained an independent state for over a thousand years — until it surrendered to Napoleon. Thanks to its formidable fortress and its knack for remaining neutral, the city managed to avoid the ravages of war… until World War II.

While much of the new part of town — on the far side of the river — was destroyed by WWII bombs, the historic old town survived. The new town has the big business and train station, but the old town, sitting between the Salzach River and a hill called Mönchsberg, holds nearly all the charm… and most of the tourists.

With around eight million visitors prowling its cobbled lanes each year, Salzburg can feel pretty touristy. You don't go to Salzburg to avoid the tourists. You go to experience a town which, in spite of the crowds, is thoroughly enjoyable.

Most of the happy tourists probably wouldn't be here if not for the man honored by this statue. Wolfgang Mozart spent much of his first 25 years in Salzburg — one of the greatest Baroque cities north of the Alps.

For centuries, Salzburg's leaders were both important church authorities and political rulers. They were "prince-archbishops" — combining both political and religious power. The energetic Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich (who ruled around the year 1600 had the greatest impact on the town.

Wolf Dietrich was raised in Rome, counted the powerful Medicis in Florence as his buddies, and had grandiose Italian ambitions for Salzburg. His goal: to build "the Rome of the North."

This square, with its striking cathedral and Italian-style palace was the centerpiece of his Baroque dream city. A series of interconnecting squares lead from here through the old town. This fountain could be straight out of Italy. The Triton matches Bernini's famous Triton Fountain in Rome.

Lying on a busy trade route connecting northern Europe with the south, Salzburg was well aware of the exciting things going on in Italy. Things Italian were respected and in vogue. Some northern artists even Italianized their names in order to raise their rates.

Salzburg's cathedral, constructed in the early 1600s, was one of the first grand Baroque buildings north of the Alps.

It’s Sunday morning. The 10:00 Mass is famous for its music and today it's Mozart. Enter the cathedral and you're immersed in pure Baroque grandeur. Since it was built in only about 15 years, the church boasts particularly harmonious art and architecture. In good Baroque style, the art is symbolic, cohesive, and theatrical… creating a kind of festival procession that leads to the resurrected Christ triumphing high above the altar.

Music and the visual art complement each other. The organ loft fills the church with glorious sounds as Mozart, 250 years after his birth, is still powering worship with his musical genius.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was the cathedral organist for two years, was born in this house in 1756. It was here that he composed most of his boy-genius works. For fans, it's almost a pilgrimage.

But his later residence, the Mozart Wohnhaus, across the river, offers a better exhibition on his life and times. The place is filled with scores of scores, portraits, insights into his family life and how the young prodigy was basically home schooled by his hard-driving father. The Mozart family was successful enough to entertain Salzburg's high society in this fine room.

This family portrait shows Mozart with his sister — he was proud of his first ever compositions for four hands — his father (also a fine musician and composer) and his mother who died two years earlier in Paris. Nannerl called this portrait the best ever done of her brother.

Mozart spent a good part of his childhood on the road, performing all over Europe. But throughout his youth, he called Salzburg home. When he was 25 he was ready for the big city and moved to Vienna.

And way back when Wolfgang was still practicing his scales, Salzburg's busy open-air produce market gave farmers the chance to sell directly to locals. Today, the people of Salzburg are happy to pay a premium for the reliably fresh and top-quality produce. Austria — with its Germanic passion for quality — is enthusiastic about organically grown fruits and vegetables.

Public marketplaces come with fountains and Salzburg's are part of this city’s ingenious medieval water system.

In the 13th century, Salzburg was plumbed with a clever canal system which has brought water into Salzburg from nearby hills ever since. The stream, divided into smaller canals, was channeled through town. The constantly flowing water flushed out the streets, provided fire protection, and powered factories.

It was the harnessing of wind and water power with mills like this that helped kick the economy into gear and lift Europe out of what many call the "dark ages." These canals powered about 100 watermills in Salzburg which were busily cranking as late as the 19th century.

Tucked away in the heart of the old town and abutting the rock wall of Monchsberg is St. Peter's Cemetery. The graves are a collection of well cared for mini-gardens. It seems each plot is lovingly tended by relatives. That's because in Austria, grave sites are rented, not owned. Rent bills are sent out about every 10 years. If no one cares enough to make the payment, you're gone. Iron crosses were cheaper than carved tombstones. Rich guys' fine Renaissance-style tombs decorate the chapel walls.

Wealthy as those guys were, when they ran out of caring relatives, they were dug up, shipped out, and their fancy tombstones ended up on the wall.

Salzburg's wealth was based on salt. Its name basically means salt fortress. Its river is called the Salzach not because it's salty, but because of the precious cargo it once carried.

Salt — so precious as a preservative in pre-refrigerator days — was a huge part of this region's economy all the way back to pre-historic times. There were major salt mines just upstream. Salt could be shipped from here down to the Danube and beyond.

The banks of the Salzach River — ideal for strolling and biking — were once medieval tow paths. Cargo boats would float downstream and be dragged back upstream by horse. Today, these riverside paths are much enjoyed providing easy access to the surrounding countryside.