The hills are alive...


The hills are alive with the sound of tour buses. It’s early March and I’m in Salzburg with my pals Rory Cowan, from Mrs Brown’s Boys, and RTE presenter Derek Mooney.

We’re on a journey back in time. Fifty years ago, Oscar-winning movie The Sound of Music made famous the sights we’re about to visit.

Back then, the film held millions of cinema-goers spellbound around the world with its fictionalised account of  Maria (Julie Andrews), a novice nun who falls in love with a widower, Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), after she becomes a governess to his seven children.

Julie Andrews singing her way across the mountains in her role as Maria von Trapp remains one of the silver screen’s iconic images.

The 1965 film adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical has been the staple of Christmas TV entertainment for decades, making it one of the best-loved musicals of all time.

Today, 300,000 tourists descend on the beautiful, historic and quaint city of Salzburg every year to visit the Von Trapp homes and film locations.

I’m not the biggest fan in the world, but as we whizz around Salzburg in our luxury coach I can’t help but get caught up in Rory’s excitement. Rory is a super fan, but, surprisingly, this is his first time to visit Salzburg for the tour.

Eddie, Rory and Derek get into the spirit of Salzburg

In truth, it’s Derek who has brought the three of us together. The award-winning TV and radio star is recording the trip as part of his documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music. You can hear The Hills Are Still Alive on RTE Radio 1 tomorrow at 2pm.

With Rory on board, there are laughs aplenty. Before boarding the bus, the comic actor tells us about the first time he saw the film at the former Classic Cinema in Terenure in Dublin.“I was just a kid at the time and I loved it. I lived every song,” Rory recalls. “There’s a scene at the end where the Von Trapp family are hiding in a graveyard from the Nazis. I can still remember clutching the seat in front of me with the tension. 

“Rolf, who was the boyfriend of eldest daughter Liesl, had joined the Nazi party and is about to betray the family. When Rolf arrives back, the Von Trapps start to come out from behind the tombstones. I was livid and I let a roar, ‘look out yez f**kin’ eejits!’

“The cinema was packed and everyone started laughing. My mother dragged me out, beat me up Terenure Road, and I never saw the end of the film until years later.

“It ran in the cinema for years, and I read where one woman in Wales saw it over 900 times. She used to go to the matinee every Monday afternoon and sit in the same seat. I have a friend in Dublin who has seen it 300 times.”

As our tour bus winds its way up the hills on a cold March day, Derek recalls his first visit two years ago. “It was in the middle of summer, which is a more pleasant time of the year to do the tour,” he recommends.

“I decided to come back, not because I’m a fan, but I thought it would make a very good documentary, especially as it’s the 50th anniversary.

“Some people had forgotten how big it was until Lady Gaga got up on stage at the Oscars this year and did her tribute to The Sound of Music in song. Then people realised, ‘yeah, actually, it is an important movie’. It has been seen by over one billion people.”

The bus tour is four hours long with various stops, but the time flies by. Along the journey we’re treated to a video documentary featuring Charmian Carr, who played Liesl in the movie.

Rory Cowan at the Pegasus Fountain

As we snake through the snow-capped mountains, Charmian says: “Here I am in The Alps just outside Salzburg, and to me this is the world of The Sound of Music. This is where Julie Andrews shot the opening number.”

By the time the coach moves into top gear, the sing-a-long has started, with Rory and Derek leading the choir on favourites like The Sound of Music, Climb Every Mountain and Edelweiss.

First stop is Leopoldskron Palace, where the movie’s famous boating scene was filmed. It’s here that Maria and the children tumble out of the boat and fall into the water. As he stands by the shore, staring across at the big house, Rory has a smile as wide as the lake. 

“In a bizarre sort of way I almost feel I’m in the movie now that I’m here at this instantly recognisable location,” he says. “Looking at the lake and the jetty, I remember the scene with Julie Andrews and the children so vividly.”

On we go to Hellbrunn Castle, where our tour guide takes us to a gazebo, or glass pavilion, that has been reconstructed for fans. The gazebo is where Liesl and Rolf danced at night, with thunder, lightning and rain lashing down outside. They sang Sixteen Going On Seventeen, and shared a brief kiss. It was a very powerful moment between the two of them.

It’s at the gazebo that Rory has his own big moment on the coach tour as he’s mobbed by several British fans of Mrs Brown’s Boys when they spot him. “That’s hilarious, I never expect to get recognised when I’m abroad,” the Dublin-born star says.

Another stand-out moment for Rory is our visit to the movie’s wedding chapel, Mondsee. It’s in this stunning building, which was updated to a basilica by Pope John Paul II in 2005, that the marriage of Maria and Baron von Trapp was filmed. 

As we walk down the aisle together, Rory tells me: “Julie Andrews actually said she never felt prettier than when she was walking down this aisle in her wedding dress during that movie scene.”

Then he adds: “Today is the anniversary of a friend of mine who was murdered back home in Dublin. I’m now going to light a candle here in his memory.”

Outside, the sun breaks through the clouds and we wander down to a quaint little restaurant for a light lunch before the return journey to Salzburg…with more singing along the way.

Back in Salzburg, our tour ends with a visit to Mirabell Gardens and Pegasus Fountain where Maria danced with the children and where the song Do-Re-Mi was filmed.

It doesn’t take much encouragement for Rory to bring the movie to life by doing his own weird little dance on the Pegasus Fountain, much to the amusement of fans.

“It’s hard to explain to a non-fan of The Sound Of Music how exciting it feels to visit all the different locations and landmarks from the movie,” Rory reflects later over a drink.
“I have the DVD at home and I watched it before I came over, and it’s still as fresh as it was 50 years ago. It’s only after I got into acting myself that I realised what a great actress Julie Andrews is in that film.”

Surprisingly, The Sound Of Music wasn’t a big hit in Austria and most locals will tell you that they’ve never watched it. But on our trip we met 
fans from as far away as Australia and Japan. 

Fifty years on, the hills are alive with the sound of cash ringing up for the local economy. For Salzburg, The Sound Of Music is an even bigger money-spinner than Mozart who, incidentally, also hails from the city.