Sunday, February 26, 2012


Setting foot in Salzburg, Austria is like stepping back in time. This statement sounds like a cliché to describe a city whose reputation and business depend on an 18th century wunderkind and a mid-20th century family choir. Mozart and the Trapp kids aside, Salzburg is at least five years behind other European cities on the political correctness scale. Not only do the locals still smoke in restaurants and bars, but drivers have little use for seatbelts.
Is Mozart’s home town a haven of resistance to modern diktat? Or is the city still in a time warp? Since I am unaware of any study commissioned by the Brussels bureaucrats on this matter, I cannot express an informed opinion. However I suspect that the home town of the Sound of Music is far from being the bland playground for family it would like to have tourists believe. When scratching the gelded surface of the baroque landmarks, one finds some wicked stories.
By promoting the Trapp family values, Salzburg authorities may want to conceal less virtuous stories. In Salzburg, family values are a rather modern concept. Until Napoleon unleashed his brand of creative destruction on the city, from the early Middle Ages without interruption Salzburg had been ruled by autocratic prince archbishops. One of the most notable and colorful was Wolf Dietrich Von Raitenau who during the 17th century razed the mediaeval town to re-build it in his cherished baroque style. The elegant Mirabell palace is certainly his most magnificent building legacy. The palace was built as a love nest for his 15 children and his mistress, appropriately named Salomé.
If Von Raitenau’s reign ended in disgraceful fashion, it was not for having renegaded on his chastity vows. In this troubled period, the prince archbishop made some bad political decisions and paid dearly for his mistakes. He was jailed in the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the imposing medieval castle which still proudly watches over the city. Contrary to the majority of central European castles, this particular one doesn’t show wear and tear. It came under siege only once: the surrounding forces were not well-armed foreign troops but mobs of angry and hungry farmers.
In the early 1800s, when Napoleon’s troops reached the castle’s foothills, the castle surrendered without a shot. At this time medieval furnishing was no longer fashionable and no one of importance lived in the castle. The French soldiers removed whatever could be taken away. In order to efficiently sack Salzburg and avoid twice visiting the same house, the French named the streets and gave numbers to the houses. Salzburg is grateful for this initiative.
                 The Fortress and Man on a Golden Globe Sculpture
                                     by Stephan Balkenhol.                             

The rooms of the fortress are still empty save for an impressive collection of torture devices. In these pre-water boarding times, torture was more labor intensive, but not lacking creativity, as the artifacts reveal. They may have inspired the Gestapo, which set up shop in a convent at the bottom of the castle during WWII.
To show its Nazi credentials, Salzburg held book burning fetes on the square in front of the prince archbishop’s palace. Some of these books were authored by Stefan Zweig, who had been a city resident for many years. Zweig has now been rewarded with a museum. Actually Salzburg has museums for nearly everybody and everything. Mozart, its most celebrated son, born in 1756, has not one but two museums. Obviously the tourism-fed city does not hold a grudge against the genial composer. Mozart hated the city: he felt snubbed by its rulers.
It is not all baroque in Salzburg. The city is breaking new grounds in the modern art department. It has two modern art museums, both named Der Moderne. One is located in the historic center and the new one on the Mönchberg, overlooking the city. Architecturally, the mountain museum is a strikingly provocative building. Its bunker-like structure seems to defy the mediaeval fortress which stands on the opposite side of the mountain. In an act of defiance to conservative family values, the winter exhibits bare it all! There were oversized penises, courtesy of Canadian artist Evan Penny; clitorises on the sadomasochistic photos of Nobuyoshi Araki; and naked androgynous women snapped by photographer Helmut Newton.
Artistic provocation seems to be the staple of modern art. All this pornographic art and erotic titillation were for every kinder to see. It is extraordinary that gemütlich Salzburg didn’t rate it R. Is this another act of resistance to the politically correct?
On the other hand, the winter music festival, Mozart Week, was musically correct to the hilt, with predictable artistic quality. The festival’s habitués are well behaved and don’t wear jeans like in Carnegie Hall in New York City. Many don Alpine fashion: dirndl for women and steireranzug, a loden jacket with green lapels for men, like the characters of the Sound of Music musical. With its small white apron the dirndl may be fashionable again among Austrian and Bavarian women but it very much remains a symbol of the 3 Ks, kinder, küche, kirche; children, kitchen and church and, therefore, an outdated female role model.
Mozart is still Salzburg’s poster boy but there is a new kid on the block. Dietrich Mateschitz was not born in the city but he has taken it by storm. The flamboyant and attractive looking billionaire is the owner of Red Bull the energy drink. With plenty of disposable income, he is challenging the Salzburg cultural tradition. Hangar-7, his brain child, looks like a futuristic glass airport terminal. It was built to display Mateschitz’s high-octane collection of vintage planes, racing cars and motorcycles. Being Salzburg, it is also an art center and a concert hall. Hangar-7’s claim to fame is its over-the-top restaurant. Creative cuisine is a novelty in Salzburg.  However patrons are challenged to find a table in the small smoke-free section of the restaurant.