Travel

Hear the magical bells of Salzburg

The cemetery at St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg.
Stephan Siller/Tourismus Salzburg
The cemetery at St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg.

SALZBURG, Austria — Music-lovers routinely flock here for the city’s acclaimed international festival, its multilayered connections to the Von Trapp family and “The Sound of Music,” and its rich legacy of musical genius. Mozart was born here and spent his formative years in the city, and his birthplace houses a museum that is one of the most visited sites in Austria.

But during a first visit to the city, my most memorable musical experiences occurred outside the concert halls and museums, encountering the old city’s extraordinary church bells. Quite serendipitously, on our first venture from the modern section of the city into Old Salzburg, we were crossing the footbridge across the Salzach river just as noon struck. Seemingly on cue, all the city’s church bells (and there are a lot of them!) began ringing, resonating through the sunlit air up and down the river. It was so entrancing, we stopped in our tracks for some minutes and simply reveled in the sounds, a magnificent, reverberant mix of pitches, timbres, and rhythms.

Salzburg is often referred to as the “Rome of the North” for its abundance of Catholic churches with grand domes and bell towers in the Austrian baroque style. In fact, many of the church bells toll every quarter hour, so hearing their peals as you walk around is really an integral part of being in Salzburg. The Salzburg Cathedral alone has seven bells, one of which is the second largest in Austria.

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In addition, the tower of the Neue Residence, the governmental palace of Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, contains a carillon of 35 bells. Three times a day — at 7 a.m., 11 a.m., and 6 p.m. — the carillon plays classical tunes. From around Easter to October, each mini-concert is followed by a rejoinder from atop the Mönchsberg, the towering mountain that frames Old Salzburg, as the Hohensalzburg Fortress’s “Salzburg Bull” cuts loose. The 200-pipe organ dating to 1502 is said to be the world’s largest mechanical musical instrument.

For our final day in the city, we ventured to St. Peter’s Abbey. Founded in 696, it is the oldest monastery north of the Alps, and we arranged to be in the cemetery when noon struck so we could be right under the church’s giant bells as they and the others in the town began to ring. The cemetery, with its beautifully tended gardens, gravestones, and monuments, is surrounded by three churches built in the early Middle Ages, and the soaring Romanesque apse of St. Peter’s thrusts into the landscape of the burial ground. The cemetery borders on the sheer cliff face of the Mönchsberg, with its series of catacombs built into the stone. As the bells began their noonday tolls, the sound bounced off the rock walls and the whole cemetery thrummed with a thrilling, clangorous din. Long after the bells ceased ringing, their echo seemed to vibrate the air as we walked back through the city to regretfully take our leave.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.