Our world is criss-crossed by travel circuits, strings of places where it seems everybody has been. Wherever you go, for example, you'll find people who have been to Graceland. It's a definite stop on the "Discover America" tourist circuit, which also includes New York, New Orleans, and at least one Disney theme park.
There is most certainly a European backpacker circuit, and it goes right through the middle of Salzburg, Austria. It has to go there, because everybody on the European circuit has to go on the Sound of Music Tour. It's some kind of requirement of European travel, along with spending 14 hours at the Louvre and having your picture taken with a guard at Buckingham Palace.
I went on the Sound of Music Tour years ago. Aside from an adolescent crush on Julie Andrews, I've never been a big fan of the movie, but I was in Europe, so I had to do it. I even stayed at the famous Yoho Hostel in Salzburg, a stop on the European hostel circuit. It's more generally known as "that crazy hostel in Salzburg run by Australians." To be honest, that sentence is what brought me, at age 23, to Salzburg. That hostel rocks: killerWienerschnitzel and half liters of beer for $1.25 during happy hour.
When I showed up at the hostel, the daily showing of the movie was just ending. You must understand that The Sound of Music is to Salzburg what Elvis is to Memphis: It's also a wonderful city and a former home of Mozart. But if you walk through it as a tourist, everybody who makes eye contact wants to sell you a ticket for a Sound of Music tour.
Consider this: the actual Maria von Trapp was quoted in one company's marketing material as saying, "The Sound of Music Tour arranged by Panorama Tours is something nobody should miss. I never do!"
I was contemplating this -- a rough equivalent to Priscilla Presley always taking the tour of her former home -- as I boarded a van with several other Americans and a hungover-looking Australian as the original movie soundtrack blasted through the speakers. A dangerous omen: Two of the women on the tour started singing along, causing the Aussie to sink further into his seat.
We started out in the countryside, where we saw the meadow Julie Andrews was enjoying herself at the beginning of the movie. Our guide took some demented pleasure, it seemed, in pointing out that the abbey the movie Maria went running to when she heard the bells was 20 miles away, back in town. "So you see, Julie Andrews was very fast!" It was one of his better jokes of the day.
Along the way, we saw Mirabell Gardens, where Maria and the children danced around the statue of Pegasus singing "Do-Re-Mi"; Leopoldskron Castle, which served as the family's movie home and still has the glass "Gazebo of Love," which was added for the movie and remains there for the tours; the Mondsee Cathedral, where the wedding was shot; and Nonnberg Abbey, where the real and movie Maria lived as a novice and where the real von Trapps got married. I wanted to visit the abbey, by the way, but I wasn't 100 percent sure you can just walk into such a place. Besides, the nuns there have taken a vow of silence, which gave me a funny image of one of them running up to me with a sign reading, "Hey, you, get the hell out of here!"
There really was (and still is) a von Trapp family, by the way, and their story bears some resemblance to the movie. Specifically, they sang and they left Austria. They didn't, however, escape to the tune of "So long, Farewell," nor did they dodge Nazis in a graveyard, nor did they walk over the mountains to Switzerland. That's actually a trip of some 400 miles -- tough with all those kids and no luggage -- and anyway, the mountains Christopher Plummer pointed at in the movie lead to Germany.
The real von Trapps formed a family choir in the early '30s, then when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 they took a train to Italy, then a ship to the U.S., where in 1941 they bought a farm in Stowe, Vermont. Today that farm is the Trapp Family Lodge, a 2,700-acre resort done up in Old World Austria style. So the family is making money off a movie loosely based on itself. And who can blame them?
Back at the hostel, the grumpy Australian and I had a few beers, and he said, "So this movie is about some nun that boinked a rich guy with a million kids and then they split for the States." Well, sort of. But I decided he needed to lighten up. It's just a movie. And, being tourists in Europe, we had done what we had to do. We did the tour in Salzburg, where the hills are alive with the sound of singing tourists.