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Calling for kitsch

By July 19, 2013 Travel

“Don’t worry, we have our own private tour. It will focus only on informative things. You don’t have to worry about all that kitschy stuff”.

The tour guide was sure she was doing my daughters and their choir group a favour on a recent tour in Austria as they got set to depart for The Sound of Music tour in Salzburg.
I was on that same tour on a different day and time yet we discovered our reactions at the conclusion were similar: that’s it, that’s all, folks?
The tour is based on the hit movie, based on the hit Broadway show, based on an actual narrative that has been famously diluted in the transition. What was added to the film were wallops of sentiment helped along by catchy songs, love interests (no sex though, need that G rating), and sweeping panoramas of the Austrian Alps. Decades later, hundreds of visitors to Salzburg line up daily for a bus tour to various iconic locations. At 40 euros a ticket, I expected at least an insider peek, at most a rollicking ride of sing-along silliness.

I wanted to yodel, dammit.

Ready for the bus: I have confidence!

We climbed in to an airless van, three couples and our guide, a charming Brit decked out in dirndl. She drove us to several spots and out we hopped, dutifully snapping photos of each location, as she detailed, over a microphone, well worn lore about the cast and crew. Leaving Salzburg en route to other locations used nearby, our guide turned on the film soundtrack and the woman in front of me began to hum in a faint, barely there sort of drone.   Four hours later, we were dumped out at Mirabell Gardens and told to wander about as we would surely see the sights of the Do Re Mi song scene.

I was flat out crushed. That’s it? Just about every Austrian travel book makes mention of the tour and reviews are gushy, if not ecstatic. Yet, I was nonplussed. It was all just flat, like the hum of my fellow passenger.

If we were going to be in a group, I wanted a busload of fans that knew every line, like my sister Jane, who has yet to work any of the dialogue into her legal career to date that I know of (there’s still time). We should all have been wearing alpine hats, given out as we stepped onto the bus, or parts of a nun’s habit.

(I admit that would have been repeating myself as I once dressed as a nun for a Toronto Sound of Music Sing-a-long. Others in my group were brown-paper-packages-tied up-with string.  Our kids went as girls-in-white dresses-in-blue satin-sashes. Not quite Rocky Horror but we roared just as loud. I was a good nun. I kept it to a chant.)

And the bus? The movie—the whole three hours of fabulousness—should have been playing inside the bus with a pause for every pit stop, and our guide telling us,  “Did you like that scene? Well, at our next stop, you’ll have your chance to do your best Julie Andrews imitation.”

We needed to run on the hills and wave our hands about like idiots. We had the real mountain backdrop (they’re alive!) but a fake might even have sufficed. After all, the birch trees and brook were cheated, added on by special effects crew later in Hollywood.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re thinking Mickey Mouse, you’re warm. The genius behind Disney World, and Universal Studios and the like, is that visitors all understand from the onset they are in the land of deep fromage. Once through the gates, we don Mickey ears and wave at the cartoon characters, even though we know the poor sop inside is sweating to death and likely to tell us to fuck off if we step on a foot by error. (See good nun.) Venerating big musical films requires kitsch. Anything less is  Monty Python.

If you’re on the tour, you are a fan already. There’s little dignity in fandom. To pretend distance by having us all shuffle along, museum style, is missing the point. Who doesn’t know the words to at least one of the songs?  Why not ask bus passengers if anyone wants to sing a verse? The hands will go up faster than you can say send up.

Most information, delivered with schoolmarm sincerity, was not new. We SOM fans have had four decades to squeeze out the juice and then, the cast has been on Oprah.  In the fun fact department, I did learn that the child carried over the mountains by Christopher Plummer in the closing scenes was not the same actress seen earlier playing Gretl. She got chubby during the shoot. Plummer, who famously referred to the film as “the Sound of Mucous”, refused to carry her for the scene so a skinnier stand child in was used for that shot.  That was almost worth my ticket price but I wanted more.

As for the locations, we could have driven to all of them ourselves as all were visible to anyone with even a passing interest. (That would not include the locals who have very little interest in the film). Squinting across the lake at the Leopoldskron Castle, we are told that the facade and terraces were locations used for many scenes but, as it is now an international conference centre owned by Harvard, no, one cannot simply waltz across the terrace.

Interiors were never used. Instead producers copied the Venetian ballroom on a Hollywood sound stage. The glass gazebo used for the love scenes has been moved from its original location on the castle property to the Hellbrunn Palace grounds where anyone can peer inside and imagine Liesl and Rolf prancing about in the rain. But then, this scene too (and Maria and the Captain’s love scenes) was also shot back at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood.

The festival hall where the family performs during the Salzburg festival was closed on our tour date, and we could visit the Nonnberg Abbey where the nuns sang”Maria” but not on this tour.

And so it went.

Sigh.

Still, Salzburg, like most of Austria, is gorgeous. I loved our jaunt out of town to the Mondsee Cathedral where finally, we could walk in Maria’s footsteps (that would be the fake Maria, not the real Maria) and glide up the aisle, orchestra swelling in our heads.  The cathedral has since been painted, curiously, a California pink, but at least we were inside!

I did resist hopping down the Do Re Mi flight of steps in Mirabell Gardens, but the cast was really here and the statues and fountains did not disappoint. There is no shortage of thrill to stand on the fountain edge and sing full throttle “Me, a name I call myself, Fa-a long, long way to run“, but I will leave it up to you to imagine whether I did or not.

There is fun to be had in schlepping about town and reliving moments from a beloved film with seemingly endless appeal.

It just wasn’t on my No Kitsch Here tour.

Too bad it won’t make my list of my favourite things.

To read what I did love about Austria see:
One strudel away from Nirvana
The real world class city

Next up, Facing my fears: last view from Austria.
Stay tuned!

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