The Salzach has always been flood – prone, and as climate change, deforestation, and melting Alpine glaciers make rivers throughout Europe flood more frequently, Salzburg is increasingly at risk. What’s more, its pedestrianized historic center—known as a stage-set perfect collection of 17th- and 18th-century baroque architecture—sits right on the lower-lying left bank of the Salzach.
Every August, the picturesque Austrian town of Salzburg is flooded with music lovers, paying tribute to Salzburg’s most famous son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In 2002, however, tourists weren’t the only thing flooding Salzburg’s cobbled streets. Swollen by several days of extraordinary rainfall, the Salzach River burst its banks just south of the city. Bridges and roads were closed for hours, and 1,000 buildings were partly or totally submerged. For several tense hours, it appeared the flood would wash the old town away.
Salzburg has always been a little unusual. Though it was never a royal capital, its medieval power and prestige were based on a succession of prince-archbishops, who were urbane power brokers rather than dour monks. Compare the gloomy Hohensalzburg Fortress, their first stronghold on the rocky heights of the Mönchberg, to the luxuriously decorated Residenz down by the river where they moved later; across the river you can also see the French-style confection of Schloss Mirabell, built for one of the prince-archbishop’s mistresses (you may recognize the splendid gardens from The Sound of Music). The archbishops’ summer retreat at Schloss Hellbrunn, 20 minutes southeast of the city, is positively lighthearted, especially its elaborate gardens, full of exotic grottoes, water-powered automata, and so-called “water jokes” (apparently the bishops weren’t above spritzing a visiting dignitary in the eye to get a good laugh). Their home church, Salzburg Cathedral, has been praised as the finest Renaissance Italian church ever built north of the Alps.
Mozart, as it happens, couldn’t wait to leave his provincial hometown and get to Vienna , but today he’s Salzburg’s main tourism draw. A statue of Mozart was erected in 1842 in the center of town, in a cafe-lined plaza renamed, naturally, Mozart-platz; the town’s premier music hall is named the Mozarteum. Head through the narrow shop-lined streets of the historic district to the composer’s birthplace, the Mozart Geburthaus, Getreidegasse 9, the cramped apartment where the Mozart family lived until he was 17; his boyhood violin, his concert violin, and his viola, fortepiano, and clavichord are on display. In 1773 the family moved across the river to the roomier Mozart Wohnhaus, Makartplatz 8, bombed in World War II but rebuilt as a Mozart museum in 1996. While Mozart’s music is performed all year round, the sum-mer Salzburg Festival is the premier event: For tickets, contact the box office at Hofstallgasse 1, A-5020 Salzburg.