Salzburg – a version of unattainable utopia removed from our dystopian bustling cities has had its square deal in the books of history. Before there was Hollywood or The Sound of Music there was Salzburg steeped in history of art, culture and music. Contrary to the popular recommendation (and belief) my visit to Salzburg was not a paltry day trip from Munich or Vienna, oh no that just wouldn’t be enough for a Salzburg fan like myself. I enjoyed a leisurely four day stay befitting the city. It was as much about its historic art as much about The Sound of Music story. Equipped with my Salzburg Card (which I will elaborate about later in the post) I took a plunge deep into the pages of history to its ravaged beginnings. Come along if you too are a keen admirer of historic art, lover of luxurious living, music and I shall take you there through this article and share what you should look for during your visit.
The origins of today’s Salzburg trace back to the late 7th century when the Bavarian Duke Theodo asked Bishop Rupert to spread Christianity among the Bavarian tribes which brought him to a ruined city along the river Salzach. He restored, rebuild and renewed the city from the depths of ruin and ravages of war and named it after its main resource and trade – Salt. Salzburg literally translates to Salt Castle, however you won’t notice any salt pans or salt trade happening in the city along the river now. The Bishop founded the Benedictine Monastery of Nonnberg, he brought education and reforms to a torn-to-shambles civilization. If not for Bishop Rupert who was canonized to Saint Rupert, Salzburg wouldn’t be called by its current name and its rise from its ashes would be in question. Saint Rupert became the patron saint of the Salzburg region of Austria and the city celebrates his day on 24 September each year with much fanfare. Fast forward to the early 1600s and Saint Rupert would be mighty proud of the city he breathe back to life to be bathed in absolute splendor almost a millennium later. The fervent Rome aspirant Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau is solely responsible for having conceptualised a baroque city.
Prince Archbishop of Salzburg
Back in the 1500s Salzburg was its own kingdom and not a part of the Austrian Empire. The religious head and the head of the state was rolled up into one role and that made the Archbishop of Salzburg the Prince Archbishop who was the end all and be all of the kingdom. Around 1590s Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau was so enamored by the Roman Catholic art movement in Italy he promised to transform the medieval Bavarian-esque city of Salzburg into the Rome of the North and he did. But before you can dive into that sea you need to swim a bit in the vast and encapsulating world of the ‘Baroque Era’.
There have been scrolls written and scribes at work elucidating the art and music from Italy. Unrecoverable from the influence of the structured and detailed Renaissance era, Europe was immediately drunk on the evocative, emphasized and opulent baroque era. The Roman Catholic Church in Italy has always been the epicentre of all art movements in Europe and baroque was an opposing effort to the revolting reformation of Luther in Germany that was spreading across the continent. From the 1600s to the mid 1700s baroque was trending in art, fashion, music and architectural design. After ingratiating Italy and France, baroque art had pervaded Bavaria and other regions of Germany setting its ambition on the Austrian empire. Baroque art movement made living in excess a statement that every monarchy in Europe was eager to express. Baroque art was a distilled extract of grandeur, opulence, passionate expression, detailed emotion, evocative colors and forms, flamboyant patterns and design. baroque was the antidote to the simplistic protestant art and design.
Rome of the North
Sitting between Bavaria,North Italy and the Austrian empire, Salzburg was waiting in the wings for its time to shine under the baroque influence and shine it did. For its square footage, Salzburg packed in as much baroque art and architecture as permissible. An ardent admirer of the trend setting baroque art, Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau had ambitious vision to transform Salzburg with a brand new look and also appease the subjects with the luxurious surroundings. As fate would have it there was a massive fire in 1598 that burned down the city’s most important building – The Cathedral. The blazing fire devastating the city only played into the hands and plans of the Prince Archbishop who commissioned the Italian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi to give Salzburg a baroque makeover and transform it into ‘Rome of the North’. Vincenzo Scamozzi left no stone unturned to ensure the strokes of baroque art and architecture had painted every corner and carved every stone.
Baroque Squares and Fountains
The Prince Archbishop had Vincenzo Scamozzi build five stately squares like Domplatz, Residenzplaz, Kapitelplatz with streets that had baroque houses and buildings lining it dressing up the town center and the labyrinth of pathways leading to it all embellished in the trendy style of design Europe was boastful about. After Scamozzi another Italian architect Santino Solari who was then commissioned by the next Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus. Of course the Residenzplatz fountain was the vision of Prince Archbishop Guidobald von Thun und Hohenstein (1654-1668) – an ardent lover of all things resplendent. The fountain boasts of mythological figures made of marble while the architectural design is responsible for the fountain’s visual impact: The fountain’s major axis lies on the line between the Hercules Fountain in the Old Residence and the Carillon of the New Residence. The way the fountain captures sunlight creates the impression that light is flowing from the fountain to the heavens.
The other fountains of significance is the Pegasus fountain in the Schloss Mirabell und Garten and the Trick Fountains of Schloss Hellbrunn. Fountains and their squares have held a special place in architectural design among all the great cities in the world and Salzburg was not going to be left behind in that category… Wolf Dietrich was determined as displayed across the city.
With my Salzburg Card ( valid for 72 hours) I had the opportunity to visit all the baroque buildings, museums and navigate to the far ends of the city like a local would enjoying every minute of this historic and gorgeous city. The card offers access to local sights and public transport (don’t take a car to the old town it defeats the purpose of soaking in this remarkable city). Every baroque building in the old town is a visual you can’t erase from your memory. Let me share some of the highlights of the baroque sights you need to spend more time admiring than others. Please visit Tourismus Salzburg to purchase Salzburg Card.
A time capsule into the city’s baroque period that opened for visitors only in 2014. The tour encompasses the Alte Residenz (old residence) which is now known as Salzburg Palace Residence, Residence Gallery, Terrace looking at the Cathedral tower and Dome, North Oratory, Cathedral Organ Loft, Cathedral Museum, Long Gallery and concludes in St Peter’s Museum. After the tour you can come down the stairs of the cathedral and be lost in its baroque wonders. Lets begin the tour so you could refer to this post when you visit Salzburg.
Salzburg Palace Residence
Also known as Old Residence of the Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Ratainau houses 180 staterooms and the tour of Dom Quartier begins at the Old Residence. As I entered the staterooms it was clear to me that the goal of the Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich was to drench, soak and bathe (in that order) the visitors and guests of honor in pure baroque opulence. Doused in splendor yet detailed in its art and narration are the staterooms, such as the Audience Room, Throne Room, Carabinieri Room.
These rooms have more historic significance than just their art and design backdrop. They have received head of states, dignitories from Europe and the world and stood witness to treaties and alliances that made waves in world politics. Napolean Bonaparte was received by Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth in 1867. Since this is the highlight of your tour you could choose to get a private guided tour of the Dom Quartier but of course please do check ahead of time for the tour guides time. Alternatively the very well narrated audio guide should suffice if you’d like to pace the tour as you please and the Salzburg Card allows you one entry at the Dom Quartier. I had set aside the morning just for this tour and luxuriated in the midst of the baroque art well preserved in its original state which includes the ceiling frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr, Venetian mirrors, crystal chandeliers made of Bohemian smoked glass, gold-plated baroque ceiling stucco and valuable clocks.
The tour flows from the staterooms into the Residence Gallery which has an exhibition of art pieces from the baroque era aplenty. After the gallery a door opens into a terrace that overlooks the Residenzplatz below and a good view of the Dome of the cathedral as well as the towers. Take some time to enjoy the view and watch the city’s visitors stroll around the squares shopping, relaxing in the cafes and figuring out where to go next? It’s a treat for the observant kind and I had a good time doing just that since I was fortunate to visit during St Rupert’s day and all the locals and travelers alike had the squares and streets bustling with joyous energy. The North Oratory is regalia and exquisite pieces of baroque craftsmanship, sculptures artefacts you name it. This is where the era shines its light on the works of great artiste and how the church supported and sponsored them. Move along the way and you enter the Organ Loft of the Cathedral.
A focal point of the city is the magnificent Salzburg Cathedral. It is by far one of the most beautifully designed cathedrals I have ever seen. Salzburg Cathedral is a 17th century Italian baroque style design founded by the patron Saint of Salzburg – Saint Rupert in 774 AD. It has undergone five attempts of rebuilding including the attempt by Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitanau after the fire of 1598 damaged it considerably.
Though Vicenzo Scamozzi was commissioned to design the cathedral in early baroque style, the reconstruction only began once the next Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus held the seat. Markus Sittikus was the nephew of Wolf Dietrich and he successfully complete the rebuilding of the cathedral during his reign with architect Santino Solari. The imposing facade is made from Untersberg marble. Take your time to stand in front of the cathedral while you observe Apostles Peter and Paul looking down from the facade with a key and sword down with a salt vessel and the structure of the church in hand. The patron Saints of Salzburg Rupert and Virgil after him are placed looking from the facade. Atop the gable are the Prince Archbishops who completed the construction Markus Sittikus and Paris Lodron.
The interior fresco under the dome and along the nave are worth craning and straining your neck and pleasing the eyes. The original bronze baptismal font is placed in the cathedral where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was baptized.
It was also destroyed in WWII and the restoration was completed in 1959. At the iron gates of the cathedral are the most significant dates 774 – the year of its foundation, 1629 – the year if its reconstruction after the fire, 1959 – the year it was rebuilt after the WWII destruction.
Great architectural eras leave their imprint in town halls, city squares but they are most famously recognised by the palaces built during the era. Baroque architectural style echos through the halls, corridors of the exquisitely designed and decorated palaces in the 1600s. Versailles Palace had set a benchmark that other European empires ambitiously and some ineffectively attempted to cross or reach, Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich was no exception. He built a grand palace with sprawling gardens and named it Palace Altenau – a home for his mistress who gave birth to 15 of his children. Later his successor Markus Sittikus would rename it with a rather apt name Mirabell. The palace was modified and redesigned to its current state by baroque architect, Lukas von Hildebrandt. The new additions included the famous Dwarves Garden which is the biggest and oldest of its kind in Central Europe. Lukas von Hildebrandt is also the designer behind the for the famous Angel Staircase and the magnificent Marble Hall. Marble Hall was renowned to host an esteemed audience to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s concerts. Today Mozart’s concert continue to captivate audiences in rapt attention at the Marble Hall played by various musical groups and opera groups performing at the palace.
Schloss Mirabell und Gartens as it is known locally has an unobstructed view of the Festung HohenSalzburg from its gardens. The flowering plants at the gardens are arranged to look like garlands have been strewn on the grounds of the palace. Spring time is a great time to visit the palace gardens when they are in full bloom.
Soon after taking over the realm of Salzburg, Markus Sittikus wasted no time to commision Italian architect Satino Solari to build a summer home in the outskirts of the old city of Salzburg. He named the summer vacation home Schloss Hellbrunn which literally translates to Light Brown Palace due its hue. This was the Prince Archbishop’s pleasure palace for his downtime in the summer. Solari designed sumptuous park and gardens in its premises with the very popular Trick Fountains that are a visitor’s delight.
Schloss Leopoldskron was another such baroque palace dipped in splendor and resplendence by Prince Archbishop Leopold Anton von Firmian (1727-1744) who built a elegantly grandiose and exquisite palace outskirts of the old city. It was his master project and ended up being one of a kind masterpiece worth visiting. However today Schloss Leopoldskron is not open to public as it has been converted into a luxury hotel and only hotel guests are privy to the work of magnificence as the interiors of the palace. I was one of the lucky few who got this visit the palace and I will narrate my experience soon on the blog in a dedicated post.
Stay Another Day
I can assure you that a day trip or an overnight stay in Salzburg will leave you wishing you had stretched your stay for one more night. I would recommend at the very least two nights and three days are essential to luxuriate in Salzburg.