Where Mozart first heard the sound of music

Salzburg boasts a very famous son. Adrian Mourby explores the historic city that gave birth to Amadeus

Mozart didn't like Salzburg and once upon a time Salzburg didn't much care for him either. The Archbishop was beastly to poor Amadeus. On one famous occasion, he actually kicked the importuning genius down a flight of stairs. The relationship between Mozart and Salzburg began to change in the mid-19th century when an enterprising lawyer turned the second-floor flat at 9 Getreidegasse into a Mozart birthplace museum. He also started a Mozart music association at the cathedral and the two eventually combined to give rise to the city's annual Mozart festival.

Wolfgang is everywhere in Salzburg these days, from life-size cardboard cut-outs to a superfluity of museums and shops selling the usual tourist impedimenta, everything from Wolfgang T-shirts and bow-ties to videos and CDs. There is even a cologne for those of us who want to smell like a dead 18th-century composer.

It's easy to mock Mozart's ubiquity, but if it weren't for him, Salzburg today would be all archbishops and Julie Andrews. The prince bishops did a lot to make their independent city a Baroque showpiece and modern Salzburg is resplendent with domes, gilded altars and cherubs peeping out of stucco clouds. And The Sound of Music's saccharine stranglehold on Salzburg continues with Fräulein Maria Bicycle Tours in the Mirabel Gardens and that blasted pavilion where Liesl was 16 going on 35 reconstructed in the Hellbrunn Palace Gardens.

No, Mozart is the man to come for, especially as the festival is building up its collection of contemporary productions ahead of the 250th anniversary of dear Wolfgang's birth. The Geburtshaus, Mozart's first home, is on one side of the azure Salzach river, while the Wohnhaus, where his family moved when he was six, is across the Staatsbrücke in what was Hannibalplatz but is now Marktplatz.

The Wohnhaus gives a much better impression of how the young prodigy's home life was lived, but both are worth visiting. They show not only how Mozart's family was able to go up in the world once Wolfgang's genius was being marketed across Europe, but also the difference between the old medieval fortress town of Salzburg and the more gracious new town built on the more exposed right bank.

The Geburtshaus itself is a warren of an apartment block - hewn out of rough stone and chiselled from the Monk Mountain on which Salzburg sits. Draped with the Austrian flag, it towers over the narrow lane below - it could almost be a piece of the fortifications. It was here that Mozart first saw the gloomy light of day, in a low-ceilinged, four-room apartment which had part share of a kitchen out on the landing. It doesn't look like a very auspicious start to life, but Mozart's papa, Leopold, had walked out of university studies in a huff and ended up as fourth violinist to the Prince Archbishop. This flat was all he could afford when he married Mozart's mother. Six years later, however, Leopold was making a lot of money out of the relentless tours on which tiny Wolfgang was dragged. Now that it was proving lucrative to have a genius in the family, Leopold moved them across the river to somewhere he could entertain properly. The house he rented is to be found in a rather grand square opposite the Landestheater, close to the splendid 18th century Mirabel Gardens in which affluent Salzburgers spent all day admiring each other.

In the 20th century, however, the Americans carried out two atrocities in the area: they bombed the Wohnhaus, leaving it pretty much ruined, and they filmed Julie Andrews singing "Do-Re-Mi" in the gardens. Fortunately, money - and amnesia - can put most things right.

The restored Wohnhaus sparkles, just like one of the more affluent sets from Amadeus. Whereas the Geburtshaus reeks of poverty, compromise and boiled cabbage, the Wohnhaus looks just the place for the upwardly mobile Mozarts to hold salons and recitals. It has all the same glass cases and copies of portraits that you see in the birthplace, plus a series of targets mounted on the wall (decorated with images of Mozart farting). He was a keen marksman and his gun is housed in a glass case below the flatulent display.

While they lived in Marktplatz, Mozart and his father would cross frequently to the old town. Sadly the 18th-century covered footbridge they used was washed away by the Salzach. The post-war Staatsbrücke takes cars. Nevertheless, winding one's way through the town gate plunges the visitor back in time through the vast compression of tiny courtyards and towering casements that is old Salzburg. It's like being in a labyrinth, one broken only occasionally by crowded lanes such as Getreidegasse and the rather grand, if irregular, ecclesiastical squares.

After passing through Mozart's birthplace and threading through the Altermarkt one very soon comes upon The Residenz. It says something about old Salzburg that nothing in that name tells us whose residence it actually was. It doesn't need to. Only the autocratic prince bishops - Lodron, Thunn and Mozart's bête noire, Count Hieronymous Colloredo, were that important. The Residenz is a firm, imposing Renaissance block of a structure. It is easy to imagine Leopold's anxiety on visiting his employer here in the hope of wheedling some more time off to tour with the boy genius, but it is not an interesting building. Much more attractive is the cathedral, or Dom, next door. Heavy and resolute on the outside, celestial white within.

It is difficult today to realise how parochial Salzburg seemed to Mozart. He struggled all his adult life to get away from this city. But for visitors, Salzburg is a delight. Here we can live the 18th century for a few days and then move on. It took Mozart 10 years to get to Vienna. It didn't even take me two hours.

The Facts

Getting there

Crystal Cities (0870 160 9030; www.crystalcities.co.uk) offers two-night breaks to Salzburg in November and December from £289 each, based on two sharing, including British Airways flights from Gatwick, b&b and guide book. Austrian Tourist Board (020-7629 0461; www.austria-tourism.at).

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