How do you solve a problem like Maria? Head to Salzburg to see the groovy side of the city, writes Julietta Jameson.
I HAVE harboured a deep prejudice against Salzburg. All that do-re-mi in the gardens, dancing in the rotunda and warbling about hills being alive has damaged my perception of Austria's fourth-largest city.
To put it bluntly, I can't stand The Sound of Music. I've never been able to get much past the bit where the scary nun sings about climbing mountains and if I have been forced to watch more by friends who adore it, I've found myself barracking for the bad guys rather than the sappy von Trapps.
And so it is with trepidation that I travel on one of Austria's marvellously efficient trains to the Tyrolean treasure, for it is most associated with what I consider musical cinema's greatest travesty. But I approach it determined to solve my Maria problem and see the Salzburg beyond The Sound of Music (TSOM).
"Good luck with that," a friend quips by text as I leave my Salzburg hotel on my first day in town. "It's everywhere in the city. No escape."
"You know, most Salzburgers have never seen the movie," says the first local with whom I discuss my mission. "It's what we call kitsch. Do you know this word?"
I'm so delighted that on the spot I SMS this news back to my dubious mate in Australia.
This local, a city guide named not Maria but Martina, is walking me through Alstadt (old town) towards Salzburg's Museum of Modern Art, where she suggests I start my quest with a lunch not involving schnitzel with noodles, nor crisp apple strudel.
On our walk along one of the city's most touristy streets, I've seen one TSOM souvenir: a bag emblazoned with its name among other Austrian cliches. Not bad, I think.
Salzburg is ringed by hills, upon one of which the MoMA sits. We reach it via a lift cleverly carved into the rock face. "They shot a scene up here for ..." Martina starts as we walk through the park near the restaurant, then hesitates and puts her hand over her mouth; "the movie," she almost whispers.
Before I can answer, I am distracted by a spectacularly of-the-moment space of stone, glass and red vinyl that would look at home along Sydney's harbour. This is the restaurant M32, which is attached to the MoMA and where, on a huge terrace overlooking the entire city, it seems more well-dressed Salzburgers than tourists are dining. We settle at a table right at the edge.
My, it's a pretty view. One of the prettiest European vistas I've seen, with the Salzach River ambling by a succession of colourful domes, turrets and campaniles, the city's world-famous fortress directly across on the next rise, the Alps in the background. And the food is sublime, cutting edge, fresh, flavoursome and plentiful. I'm so enraptured, it's almost like Salzburg's hills are alive with the ... "Hey," I interrupt my thoughts. "What's the story with my hotel?" I ask Martina.
I'm staying at the Hotel Stein. It's as groovy as all get out, with some rooms decked out in zebra print and purple, others in a baroque-on-steroids kind of ironic frou-frou, but Martina tells me it's one of the oldest in Salzburg. In fact, it has been there since 1399.
It has a terrace, overlooking the city, where all the beautiful people congregate for cocktails and, concurrent with my visit, Hollywood is in town, not in dirndls made of curtains but in black suits, dark glasses and earpieces. It's the venue for the world-premiere party for the movie Knight and Day and the stars, Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, are in the house. The place is crawling with security staff.
That seems to be typical of Salzburg, a place where old and new coexist. Martina says of the old town: "It's a place where Salzburgers live, as well as being a World Heritage site." The city is indeed a UNESCO jewel.
To prove the point, after lunch we amble around the old town, poking our heads into some of the hippest small hotels in all of Europe that meld old and new beautifully.
The Boutique Hotel am dom, for example, has just 15 rooms but each is unique, some with huge claw-foot baths right in the bedroom.
One of these is on the top floor, positioned beneath a skylight that captures a dramatic view of the dome of the cathedral.
The stone stairs are ancient, like something from the Roman catacombs, but the decor is a strong contemporary statement of minimalism meeting glam.
There are many museums dedicated to history but Martina recommends the Salzburg Museum, where a room is dedicated to exploring "The Salzburg Myth": that is, the reality of the city from the 19th century on versus the waxing lyrical by historians, artists, theologians and the like.
It's interactive, riveting and, I am pleased to say, has not a von Trapp in sight. (It was also voted European Museum of the Year in 2009.)
There are many beautiful old artworks in the city, housed in churches and galleries. However, surprisingly, there's also a thriving modern art scene, not just in the MoMA (it has two branches: more traditional arts in one and graphic and photographic in the other) but also in private galleries that welcome visitors.
The Rudolf Budja Galerie specialises in 20th-century and current American and European art. I see works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Frank Worth and some playfully pornographic Nina Levett porcelain, called Neurotica. I'm clearly not buying but the gallery staff are friendly and welcoming.
The next day, Martina wisely leaves me alone to shop but the theme of old and new together - and a relatively TSOM-free experience - continues.
Along Salzburg's famous Getreidegasse, I see Hummel porcelain figurines and stunning religious sculptures in one store, then the most fabulous shoes in the next. There are Christmas decorations, then, further afield, glorious vintage clothing and, at a shop called Deco Art, an extraordinary collection of Bakelite jewellery as well as art deco collectables and 1950s craft.
In town there's a classical and jazz CD store that any buff should come for alone - the Musikhaus Katholnigg - and at Blume + Duft, I marvel at the sublime dried-flower arrangements and rue Australia's strict quarantine.
That night, I think about hitting the lively nightclub quarter, specifically a place called Republic, a bar/cafe/club/live-music venue that attracts hipsters, not von Trappsters. However, beforehand I head to an excellent wine bar and shop, part of the Wein & Co chain, just behind my hotel, where I meet two cheery Austrian gentlemen who have just come from the art-house cinema down the road and who share my TSOM phobia. They invite me to their table and I never make it anywhere else, except to stumble into bed, having been duly wooped by the Austrian capacity for white wine and lively conversation.
It's a good thing there's something healthy on the itinerary the following day, something that is, again, the very antithesis of noodles and strudels. It's off to Hangar-7, a futuristic, museum-style space out at the airport, which houses the plane collection of Red Bull founder and local hero Dietrich Mateschitz. In the complex are two restaurants, one fine dining, the other more casual, and it's to the latter, the Mayday Bar, that I go for lunch, with set menus divided into Brain Food, Mood Food and Beauty Food. Apparently, these are based on a Swiss nutritionist's know-how. I go brain.
Each dish comes layered artfully in a drinking glass and is a mixture of foams, purees, sorbets and more-solid textures. It's playful, completely new to me and the effects of the night before are soon zapped away. Of course, you can't come to Salzburg and forsake tradition completely; that's like coming to Sydney and missing the harbour.
So, I choose to indulge in some Mozart and the classical-music culture that surrounds him - Wolfgang Amadeus being, after all, this city's most beloved local and its most highly sought tourist attraction (take that, von Trapps).
I frock up for the Mozart Dinner Concert, a candlelit affair held in a baroque hall. Dinner is accompanied by Mozart tunes. They are played by musicians dressed in wigs and period finery - and they're not half bad.
Contrary to my expectations, it's a fun night and the Koreans at the next table are delighted at the duet from The Marriage of Figaro, if not at the traditional 18th-century Austrian menu (though I am at both).
It's the enjoyment of what I expected to be cheesy that makes me do what
I choose the next day. OK, when in Rome, I think to myself, taking a deep breath and securing myself a ticket to the Salzburger Marionettentheater, which is renowned for its artistry in puppet shows.
And the show I choose to see is The Sound of Music.
I try to put my prejudice aside. I really do. The puppets are great but the story and music grate. They hit Climb Every Mountain and I hit the road.
Sorry, Reverend Mother, life's too short - though Salzburg's is long. And here's what I have come to know: before bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, Salzburg was a city of culture, learning, music, art and sophistication.
And despite a certain kitsch movie's influence, it still is. That's the Salzburg I have learnt to love.
The writer was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office and Tourism Salzburg.
MODERN SALZBURG ADDRESS BOOK
M32 restaurant, Moenchsburg 32. +43 6 6284 1000, m32.at.
Salzburg Museum, Mozartplatz 1; salzburgmuseum.at. Entry to this museum, along with many others, is included in the Salzburg Card. €22 ($30) for 24 hours, €30 for 48 hours, €35 for 72 hours. salzburg.info/en/sights/salzburg_card/.
Musikhaus Katholnigg, Sigmund Haffner Gasse 16. +43 6 6284 1451.
Blume + Duft, Getreidegasse 7. +43 6 6284 5779, flowerworld.at.
Rudolf Budja Galerie, Palais Kueenburg, Wiener Philharmonikergasse 3. +43 6 6284 6483, artmosphere.at.
Deco Art, Wiener Philharmonikergasse 1. +43 6 6284 1752.
Republic, Anton Neumayr-platz 2; +43 6 6284 1613; republic-cafe.at.
Wein & Co, Platzl 2. +43 5 0706 3151.
Hangar-7, Wilhelm-Spazier-Strasse 7A. +43 6 6221 9777, hangar-7.com .
Munich in Germany is the best international airport for accessing the Tyrol area of Austria. Emirates flies to Munich daily via Dubai, from about $2000. 1300 303 777, www.emirates.com/au.
From there, Salzburg is an easy train ride of less than two hours. See oebb.at/en/index.jsp.
The Hotel Stein, Giselakai 3-5, Salzburg; doubles from €175 ($245), +43 6 628 743 460, hotelstein.at.
Boutique Hotel am dom, Goldgasse 17, Salzburg; doubles from €140, +43 6 6284 2765, hotelamdom.at.
See + do
The Mozart Dinner Concert, Stiftskeller St Peter. Office is at Getreidegasse 47, Salzburg; +43 6 6282 8695; mozartdinnerconcert.com. Prices start at €51 for a full adult ticket, €38 for students and €30 for children under 14. The dress code is smart casual.
Salzburger Marionettentheater, Schwarzstrasse 24, Salzburg; +43 6 6287 2406; marionetten.at. Tickets from €18 for adults, €14 for children under 12. Other shows include The Magic Flute and The Nutcracker. See the website for full repertoire and show times.