D’oh! A Deer

Salzburg’s tour guides are understandably jaded.

“Understandably” to me, anyway, because I’m not really a fan either. I mean, like any red-blooded American, I grew up watching The Sound of Music — or bits and pieces of it — every Easter and Christmas on TV. Some of the songs are catchy. Pretty scenery, and all that. But I never loved it loved it.

The thing is, I only have to deal with the Von Trapp brats twice a year — and at that rate, they’re harmless and quaint. But if you’re a tour guide in Salzburg, you have no choice: The Sound of Music is your life.

Sound of Music tours are a huge business in Salzburg. I was told they attract 100,000 Von Trapp pilgrims annually. At around $50 a pop, that makes it cool $5 million-per-year industry. Our Rick Steves guidebook recommends two Salzburg-based Sound of Music tours: one with a big bus, and the other with a minibus. Both get an unusual number of reader complaints. To get to the bottom of things, I devoted a little Salzburg research time to trying each one — to re-evaluate them, to better explain them in the book, and (hopefully) to make sure our readers fully understand what they’re investing fifty bucks and a half-day in.

(You may be wondering why someone who isn’t a fan of the movie would be given this assignment. I would counter that someone who isn’t a fan of the movie may just be the perfect person for this assignment. My steely eyed analysis isn’t clouded by gauzy memories of whiskers on kittens and schnitzel with noodles. And while we’re on the topic, nobody actually eats schnitzel with noodles. Too many carbs.)

And so, here I am, in a minibus with six North American SoM devotees — the only one not singing along to “Doe, a deer…” My travel companions for the day are two fiftysomething Canadian women whose husbands skipped out on the tour to visit Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden instead (smart guys) and four American college students. It’s clear that the movie — 51 years young and still going strong — has a powerful, cross-generational appeal.

Everybody — young and old alike — knows every word to every song. They know when to sing “flibbertigibbet” and when to sing “will-o-the-wisp.” They’re full-on geeking out on each little morsel of information. And everybody “oohs!” and “aahs!” on cue when our guide shows us, for example, the trees where the kids were hanging from the branches in their curtain clothes, or whatever…I wasn’t really paying attention.

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We pull up to a mansion on the bank of a beautiful alpine lake. This is not the actual Von Trapp family house. And it’s only one-third of the movie Von Trapp family house. (The back of the house, and the interior, were both filmed elsewhere.) But even so, people gobble up the stories of the youngest Von Trapp falling out the wrong side of the canoe and being rescued by Liesl.

Our guide explains that The Gazebo (where Liesl hooks up with a teenaged Nazi) was built just for the movie, next to the mansion. But then, years later, cinephiles were still coming in droves, making a racket, singing and waltzing and taking pictures. So they moved The Gazebo across the lake to a biergarten. But the same thing happened: Tourists would make a ruckus, disturbing the biergarten patrons. Just to be entirely clear on this point: The Sound of Music fans were so rowdy, they were bothering a bunch of Austrian drunks chugging one-liter mugs of beer.

And so, The Gazebo is not anywhere near this lake anymore. They moved it several miles away, to Hellbrunn Palace, where they dumped it outside the wall near the parking lot, between the garbage cans and the toilets. And there, each day, a steady stream of tour buses pull up to let 50 people take turns photographing each other in front of The Gazebo. Then they use the toilets and get back on the bus. Very handy.

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All of this fuss is about a movie prop from the 1950s. And it’s not even a pretty prop. In my hazy memory of the movie, I pictured some fanciful, lacy, wrought-iron objet d’art with leaded glass that twinkled in the shimmering moonlight. But no. In real life, it’s a boxy white frame with clear glass. I’ve seen nicer prefab ones at the Home Depot.

And what about The Meadow — the one where Julie Andrews spun herself silly? Like Hitler’s Bunker in Berlin, its real location is shrouded in mystery: Everyone claims to know where it is, but each one of them will take you to a different place. (Apparently, the actual The Meadow is on private property, and strictly off-limits to the curious public.) But it doesn’t really matter anyway. Guides told me that for their American visitors, any alpine meadow will do — so they just pull over wherever it’s handy. One of them told me, “Local farmers can’t figure out why all of these Americans are always spinning in their fields.”

Our guide, an elderly Austrian gentleman, has a real knack for doling out Julie Andrews trivia at the appropriate rate. (“Did you know that Audrey Hepburn also auditioned for the role of Maria?” he asks. “Yes, in fact, I did know that!” no fewer than three of my fellow SoM aficionados exclaim.)

But there’s a lack of mirth in our guide’s delivery. I don’t sense a deep-in-his-bones love affair with “The Lonely Goatherd.” He seems to get a minor kick out of the story of the Trapp Family Singers…but would he lie down in traffic for Christopher Plummer? As a SoM cynic myself, I can relate. When he asks if we have any questions, I can barely stop myself from asking, “So, how do you solve a problem like Maria?” But I keep quiet. I think my guide and I would be the only ones laughing.

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Day two. The big bus tour has a similar itinerary but more people. Lots and lots more people…49 SoM fanatics on a 50-seat bus. A sneezing Fräulein Maria on the side of the bus  (Gesundheit!) seems to guarantee that this will be one heck of a fun day. And our lederhosen-clad guide — even more polished than the minibus guide — recites his tightly crafted spiel with the poise of a seasoned stand-up comic. I imagine he’s been regaling his audience with these same quips, puns, and factoids, twice a day, for many years. The bus offers a comfy ride and a higher vantage point. But loading and unloading at each stop is a chore. And, by the trip’s end, rather than feeling the warm camaraderie of the minibus, I feel a need to escape.

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All told, each type of tour has its pros and its cons, but both were perfectly fine. So what’s with all of the complaints? After taking both tours, I think I figured it out: The Austrian local guides never can, and never will, equal their customers’ intensity of affection for the movie.

The Sound of Music is an American phenomenon. Yes, the exteriors were filmed in Salzburg. (And after these tours, I’m wondering if there’s a square inch of this city that didn’t wind up somewhere in the movie.) But fundamentally, it’s an American movie, based on an American stage play, by American composers who wrote songs in English that have almost nothing to do with Austria’s musical tradition. Most Austrians haven’t even seen the movie; those who have, certainly weren’t reared on it. Mozart is in their bones. But Sound of Music is this weird thing that just happened to them.

And so, when our readers go on one of these tours, then write us a note complaining that the guide was gruff, or the tour felt rushed…I’m not saying these people are wrong to be disappointed. But it’s hard to blame the guide for phoning it in, just a little bit.

OK, look at it this way: Imagine that some obscure-to-you movie was filmed in your hometown. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it was the 1990 Tom Hanks comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. So, Joe Versus the Volcano was filmed in your hometown. That’s cool. But it’s been decades now, and you’ve moved on. Everybody in your hometown has gone on to bigger and better things. As it should be.

But here’s the thing: People keep showing up, having traveled at great distance and great expense to see everything in your town relating to Joe Versus the Volcano. They want to see the shop where Joe bought his four steamer trunks that he later lashed into a raft. They want all of the tinseltown tales about Meg Ryan’s artistic journey in playing three different roles. They are desperate to see the very pier from which Joe set off on his sailboat trip to Waponi Woo.

Now, these people are willing to pay you a lot of money. Like, every day, a dozen of them will hand you fifty bucks apiece to show them this stuff. There are many other things in your town that you are legitimately passionate about. But these people don’t want to see those things — and six hundred bucks ain’t bad for a half-day’s work, am I right? So you take them to see the vacant lot where Abe Vigoda and Lloyd Bridges had their trailers. Because you’ve got to give the people what they want. But — and this is a big but — that doesn’t mean that you actually enjoy it.

My point here is that there’s more to Salzburg than just The Sound of Music. But you are really excited about The Sound of Music. And that’s great! Just be prepared for an enthusiasm gap between you and your guide. They’ll take you to the locations. They’ll tell you the stories. And they’ll play you the songs on the bus. And they’ll do it all with a smile (as much as Austrians ever smile). But cut them a little slack…and don’t expect them to sing along.

29 Replies to “D’oh! A Deer”

  1. I myself went on the SOM. Tour on the small bus and stayed at the Von Trapped villa. Yes I am a SOM. Fan but went on the tour open minded. You failed to state. That that the entire movie was not filmed in Salzburg, But most was. Opening scene and church wedding scene in Monsee. Our guide was fantastic, very entertaining and was very well educated not only on the movie but of the real family. Every citizen of Salzburg we ran into off the tour and walking around had seen the movie. Can understand your review due to you are not a fan but as a critic, you should be more open-minded and definitely make it a point to say this is how I feel.

  2. My wife and I traveled Europe with Rick Steve’s books back in 2005 (we were 30 at the time.) In Austria we enjoyed Salzburg, Hallstadt, and Reutte. But I am no fan of the Sound of Music, and to my initial chagrin, my wife dragged me along on the big bus Sound of Music tour. I think because my expectations were so low, (I was certain that the tour would be utterly dull and annoying,) I ended up having a surprisingly good time watching all the crazed fans nerd out together. Even a spoilsport like me was charmed by the positive attitude and excitement of the fans. The glass-topped bus offered lovely views as we drove from site to site, and lounging on the bus was a nice respite from the trains and hiking that had been wearing me out. I thought it was well worth the $50, and my wife was over the moon. When momma is happy, everybody is happy.

  3. We went on one of the bike tours and had a good time. Unfortunately, we were grouped with a bunch of high school students on a summer exchange program. I doubt any of them had ever seen the movie. I would have preferred a group who could sing along!

  4. My husband went on a SOM tour in 1981 on our honeymoon. We both loved it. I love the movie, the scenery, the story, even if it is embellished . I am 60 years old now and 5 years ago took our college graduate daughter there. We did our own SOM tour on bikes with the help of a map, kindly marked with the site locations for us by a TI employee. My daughter loved it just as much as we did., more than Venice and many other cities and towns we visited. She also fell in love with the city for other reasons too. It’s food, scenery, easy to navigate, classical concerts, and beautiful baroque architecture. SOM is a wonderful memory for many ,not what makes Salzburg the special city in Austria that it is, but just a small part. I enjoy Rick’s guidebooks and suggestions for the most part, but still love that Salzburg is a place I know well and is not overrun with people carrying his book like the Cinque Terre. Maybe the author’s attitude and biases about this beautiful city is why. Cameron, I think you need to see the big picture. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  5. I am a big SOM fan. My husband, not so much. We both love Mozart, so we finally made it to Vienna and Salzburg on on of our trips to Europe. The Mozart venues in both cities are magical, as are the other sites. We took the “big bus” tour and he enjoyed it as much as I. Not only did we get to see much of the city of Salzburg, the bus your drove us out of the city, into the hills and lakes. The tour guide gave us a brief history of the fortress monestary on our way out of town. It was a lovely drive as the sun broke through, shining on the hills and lakes. We stopped in the charming city of Mondsee, and toured the “wedding church” on our own. Absolutely beautiful. The tour guides were cheerful and informative, never getting cranky even when listening to the SOM songs for, what must have seemed to them, the millionth time. I would say that everyone on the bus was appreciative of their efforts in that regard. For me, who fell in love with the Broadway album when I was 7, it was wonderful, and brought back many happy memories of looking at the photos on the album cover, seeing the movie when it came out, and then sharing that movie with our kids. We all love musicals, and make it to Broadway and the West End whenever we travel to NY and London. For those of you who are not SOM fans, I will say this. I was talking to a co- worker of my husband, who is from Nigeria. Like us, he loves to travel. When I asked him which place he had travel to that he considered the most beautiful, he said Mondsee. He was unaware of the SOM as a phenomen and didn’t know about the tour bus but he spent three days in Mondsee because of its beauty. So I say go and enjoy, and take in the scenery and enthusiasm of your fellow bus travelers. There is enough sadness and cynicism in this world. To steal from SNL, don’t be a Debbie Downer like Mr. Hewitt.

  6. My husband gave me the SOM 50th anniversary tour for my birthday this past year. It was absolutely delightful. Yes, we went on the big bus and our guide was fun loving, cheerful and sang along with us all. To visit the locations where many of the scenes were filmed was a wonderful experience. Mondsee, a stunning little gem of an Alpine Lake was a treat but topping it off with a visit to the Church where the wedding was filmed made the day even more special. We have been touring Germany and beyond for the 2 years we have lived south of Munich and every country, city and town has its’ unique qualities and some drop dead gorgeous sites. Sorry you are so jaded Cameron. And again, as a tour guide I would think you are supposed to draw people in to see the charm and beauty not laugh at and poke fun at this charming little city on the Salz or any other city. It also is kind of insulting to your readers when you make fun of a city that they enjoy.

  7. I visted Salzburg two years ago, and being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, I skipped the SOM tours and spent the day ambling around this attractive city. It felt like a much better use of my time, and was very rewarding.

  8. I grew up watching the SOM. Its popularity extends beyond the US, with huge followings in Asia particularly the Philipiines where I’m from. On a trip to Salzburg in 2007 we joined a SOM bike tour. Our guide was a twenty something, very enthusiastic local student. It was such a fun, beautiful and unforgettable experience. In the group was an Italian family, Japanese tourists and of other Americans. I think being on two wheels made a big difference. I felt like I was reliving that scene from the movie when Maria and the children explore Salzburg on bikes.

  9. My 26 yo daughter and I visited Salzburg last summer as part of our own Rick Steves’ inspired trip to Switzerland, Germany and Austria. After reading about SOM tours, we skipped the actual tour and just wandered around Salzburg and surrounding area. Amazingly, during our 4 days there we pretty much got to see all of the main things from the tour (several totally by accident) but really loved the time we spent in the area. Our favorite spur of the moment excursion was the ride to the top of Unterberg after leaving Hellbrunn. Our time in Salzburg was between visits to Munich and Vienna, so the (much) smaller city and surrounding countryside was perfect. We stayed in a bed and breakfast outside of town near the base of Unterberg and it was so relaxing to enjoy morning coffee while looking up at the Alps.

  10. But are there any tours that follow the real Von Trapps? I loved the movie but the real Maria’s story is fascinating.

  11. “But cut them a little slack…and don’t expect them to sing along.”
    OK, I don’t have a problem with someone that’s not interested in SOM but I expect a guy taking 50 bucks from me to sing along and earn his money.

  12. For a sequel to the “real” Maria story, visit the Von Trapp Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. Lots & lots of photos & descriptions of the family after emigrating to the US.

  13. Our children studied in Salzburg in the 1980’s. There was no tour then, we did our own with a car. Back then the Austrians were not interested in the movie. Well it did not take long for them to realize how much money they could make from this American movie. You can still do your own tour and see much more.

  14. I took my mother and aunt to Salzburg and we took the big bus tour. In fact, I have a photo of myself miming a song along with bus-side Maria. I have a very sarcastic sense of humor but I do like the movie quite a bit so I indulged with my mom and aunt. It was a great time once you give in, plus the bus tour had Stiegl beer (and Almdudlers) so I could at least get a buzz going while we solved problems like Maria.

    Jonathan Rundle
    Jon the Road Again

  15. Interesting blog by Cameron. Interesting comments by fans of Rick Steves and SOM, and a couple not so much of a fan of SOM. But everyone seems to enjoy Austria and Salzburg. I also love visting Austria. , but I have only spent time in Innsbruck and the Hall in Tirol area, and always stay at Hall in Tirol on my way to Italy and Germany..

  16. While you are at it, why not have a few words on the Mozart home. That was a huge waste of money for me.
    Salzburg is a pretty city but tourists seem to get a raw deal.

    1. Agreed! And I’m glad you said so. I toured both of the big Mozart sights in town (the “Birth House” and the “Residence”) for my guidebook research chores. And, while each one had mildly interesting exhibits, I felt both were overpriced for what you got. The sights just didn’t do justice to the world’s most respected composer. I love Salzburg’s glorious setting…its rip-off museums and attractions, not so much.

  17. In 1986, as a college student on a pre-arranged tour, I went on the SoM tour. We sang along with the songs, took our pictures in the gazebo, and hopped up and down the steps trying to figure out who should be on which step according to the scale.

    For a bunch of kids from Texas who had never seen anything more famous than the Dairy Queen used in The Last Picture Show, it was thrilling. I was raised on the SoM, didn’t speak any German yet, and had never seen such beautiful mountains, lakes, and green stuff. It was a lovely day.

    Now that I have spent more time in Europe and speak German, I would not do a tour like this. Still, it was a day to remember and treasure.

  18. Loved loved loved Fraulein Maria’s Sound of Music bike tour. Leo, our tour guide was fun and full of lots information not only about SOM but also the history of Salzburg. It was a lot of fun and generally a flat ride except for one hill we all walked up our bikes up.. And then enjoyed a great ride down.

  19. The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe has a similar balancing act to work with – encouraging the love for the family’s story, when most people know only the movie version.

    Even if you’re not a rabid fan of the movie, it’s a beautiful place with a real meadow and great cross-country skiing.

  20. Cameron it sounds like you may be very close to violating Rick’s #1 rule of NO GRUMPS ALLOWED. What’s not to love in the SoM?

    When we did the small bus tour, several years ago, it included a ride down the luge and coffee at the cafe across the street from the Wedding church. It could only have been better if one of the nuns were to have accompanied us.

    Salzburg is a wonderful city to tour and the SoM tour only adds to the enjoyment. One thing we saw that I had my doubts about before experiencing it was the marionette performance of the Magic Flute. It was indeed magical, although the performers were a bit wooden!

    Love Salzburg!!!

  21. I think this boils down to a tale of two expectations.

    People who spend $50 to go on a SOM tour want to geek out about the movie. Even though the cinematography isn’t all that great. The carriage ride scenes where Maria explains do-re-mi passes the same location three or four times. The camera clearly picks up the helicopter wash in the final scene (a scene which Rick points out isn’t even accurate). None of that matters. People want to have the same experience they had when they suspended disbelief to watch the movie. It’s a hard standard to meet.

    On the other hand you have the reality that “movie magic” is never the same as the actual location. That picture of the real gazebo from the 1960’s (you got the decade wrong Cameron) demonstrates the point. Moviemakers craft a world- even if it means that the Von Trapp mansion is actually three different places. Don’t expect the guides to be able to deliver the world of the movie.

    In short, you go on this tour to belt out the songs and revel in “a problem like Maria.” If you go expecting something more, then you will be disappointed. That being said, I enjoyed the marionettes performing The Magic Flute better than the SOM tour.

    Bonus points to Cameron for referencing the awful Joe Versus the Volcano- one of the Movies that Spielberg remarkably doesn’t mention often.

  22. Cameron, I need help here picking which tour. You did both so tell me, do they go to the exact same places? Stay the same time at them? Do you see more S.O.M. sites with one than the other? Is it just off the bus, take photo, on the bus? Do they stop longer at any particular site? Does one tour stay longer at Mondsee? Do they just drive by the Abbey or stop? Besides the smaller group versus better windows for viewing, do you see any advantage to one over the other? Most people have only gone on one tour. I need to hear from someone who went on both!

    1. The itineraries are basically the same. The minibus takes it a bit slower and uses some less-traveled roads, but it’s less polished than the big bus tour. The advantage of the big bus is that you have a higher vantage point and bigger windows for the scenery. Both have a visit to Mondsee, about the same length, but it depends on the guide (more than the tour per se). The abbey is simply pointed out from the road below as you zip past–no tours are allowed to actually go up to the abbey (except the bicycle version, which I didn’t mention). Frankly, the options seemed six of one, half-dozen of the other. I guess I’d give the minibus version a slight edge if you like the idea of a less structured tour and really getting to know your fellow tour members. If you prefer anonymity and things working like clockwork, go with the big bus.

  23. My family went on the big bus SOM tour just last week. We took a day trip to Salzburg as we were doing our own Rick Steve’s “Taste of Europe Tour” of 5 countries in 10 days. All of us, ages 13-75, enjoyed the tour as we also got to see Salzburg and the surrounding countryside. Our “Maria” was cheerful and very informative. We usually do our own tour instead of paying money for an organized tour, but due to time constraints and the desire to see some SOM sights, we opted to pay the $50 per person. It was well worth it!

  24. I don’t remember anything particularly remarkable about the Mozart house or residence in Salzburg … except that the McD’s across the street sold beer and had very clean rest rooms!

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