A self-guided tour of the four towns and villages connected to the famous "Silent Night" Christmas carol. Included are recommended hotels, restaurants, walking routes, museums and important sites.
While hordes of tourists flow through Mozart's birthplace, and board buses for "Sound of Music" tours, relatively few connect the Salzburg area with the familiar Christmas carol, Silent Night. Even outside the holiday season, a self-guided "Silent Night" tour will reward many travelers. Visits to sites connected with the carol can deepen its meaning and offer both a realistic view of modern Austria and a strong sense of 18th century life.
It was just two days before Christmas when the organ bellows rotted through at St. Nikolas Church in Oberndorf, 11 miles north of Salzburg. Knowing his congregation's love for music, the young parish priest wrote a poem and asked the church organist and choirmaster to set it to music so they could sing it with guitar accompaniment at midnight Mass. In his study over the schoolhouse in the neighboring village of Arnsdorf, the organist gazed out the window onto the peaceful, snow-blown fields. Soon he started to hum slowly, then sing: "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" - "Silent night, holy night"
Just before Mass he trekked back to the church, where the two men practiced the hymn and taught the refrain to the choir. Shortly after midnight on Christmas Eve 1818, with organist Franz-Xaver Gruber singing bass and Father Josef Mohr singing tenor and accompanying on the guitar, the touching melody and words of what arguably has become the world's best-known Christmas song, were heard for the first time.
Salzburg, Mohr's Birthplace
Our self-tour starts in Salzburg, where Josef Mohr was born on December 11, 1792. Mohr was born out of wedlock and into poverty. He was the son of a seamstress and a military deserter. His birthplace and childhood home still stands at Number 9 Steingasse (although recent research suggests it was Number 11), a four-story tenement on a well-preserved medieval street. Marked only by a small plaque, the building nestles between the right bank of the Salzach and the 2,100-foot Kapuzinerberg in the New City, the eastern part of Salzburg, built primarily after the 16th century.
It's likely young Josef escaped the poverty of his youth by climbing the narrow, stepped walkway that enters the Steingasse beside his house and weaves through medieval fortifications to the Capuchin friary atop the mountain. Here Josef (and today's traveler) could look out over the riches of Salzburg and into Bavaria beyond.
The view to the Old City on the left bank is postcard-perfect and has changed little in the past two centuries. The Hohensalzburg fortress, finished in 1681 after six centuries of construction, dominates the panorama, towering over the city's baroque spires.
Mohr could reach school or church in the old city in minutes via one of many bridges to the western bank. It's easy to retrace his steps. The shortest way to the massive Renaissance cathedral - or Dom - where he sang and was later ordained, would have taken him over the river, past the 15th century town hall and Mozart's Birthplace (not celebrated as such until decades later) on the famed Getreidegasse. From there, he walked through the wafting scents of the old market still active today and past the Residenz, palatial home to the ruling archbishops, into the Domplatz to the cathedral.
It's only a few more steps to the adjacent St. Peter's cloister, where Mohr celebrated his first Mass. Rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries in Baroque style, the church borders ancient Christian catacombs and a cemetery where Mozart's sister Nannerl is buried. The cloister also houses Austria's oldest restaurant, the Peterskeller, established by Benedictine monks in 803 and frequented by Mohr.
It's an invigorating climb from St. Peters up winding pathways to the top of the Mönchsberg, the 400-foot high hill that stretches from the Hohensalzburg nearly two miles along the old city. (Other options to the top include a funicular railway and an elevator.) The walker is rewarded with commanding views of the Alps to the south and the old and new cities and the Kapuzinerberg to the east. To the north, the Salzach glimmers as it makes its way 11 miles downstream to Oberndorf, where Mohr moved in 1817 to serve as assistant pastor at St. Nikolas.
He traveled to his new assignment by riverboat, a common means of transportation in 1817. Today, a local narrow-gauge railway offers a less precarious option, and many summertime tourists rent bicycles and follow a riverbank path.
Mohr's old church fell to floods nearly a century ago, but the Stille-Nacht-Kapelle, the small memorial chapel completed in 1937, stands on the site. Inside, candles flicker and fresh flowers lie before a wood-carved nativity scene and altar. A guest-book reveals visitors from around the world. Light filters through two stained-glass windows, one depicting Mohr and the old church, the other Gruber and the Arnsdorf schoolhouse. The "new" church, down the street and behind a brass memorial to the two men, contains statues and altar paintings from the original church, while the town museum houses a new exhibit dedicated to the carol.
Arnsdorf: Home of Franz Gruber
It's minutes by car or bus, or an hour's walk to Arnsdorf, still a tiny village consisting of a church, a schoolhouse and a few homes. Franz Gruber took his first teaching job here in 1807, living upstairs in the schoolhouse with the first and second of his three wives (not at the same time). He played guitar, violin and organ, a joy he shared daily with the young farm children.
The musical spirit lingers. On a recent visit to the schoolhouse, the sounds of children singing Austrian folk songs and the rhythmic strumming of a guitar echoed down its hardwood floors and white plaster walls. Except for nylon parkas draped on wooden pegs, the year might have been 1818.
The apartment that served as Gruber's home is now a museum with furniture from the early 1800s, much of it Gruber's. The small bed, a guide points out with a wink, may explain why Gruber had 12 children.
Hallein: Gruber Home and Grave
In 1833, Gruber took a position at the 13th-century Dekanats Church in the larger town of Hallein, about 10 miles south of Salzburg. A short walk from the town center (following signs Zum Grubergrab) passes tall, well-kept 17th and 18th century houses along open squares and narrow, cobblestone streets.
A small plaza fronts the plain house where Gruber lived and died. Though the church cemetery was moved, Gruber - who died in 1863 at age 75 - still lies between the house and the church in the original family plot; a wrought-iron cross marks the grave. A few years ago, the town restored the apartment and turned it into the Gruber Museum.
Wagrain: Mohr's Last Years
Franz-Xaver Gruber's story ends in Hallein, but our tour continues 20 miles south to the village of Wagrain, where, for 21 years until his death in 1848, Josef Mohr served as parish priest. In that time, Mohr championed the causes of the disadvantaged, the young and the elderly, and the village still honors his memory, not just as the Silent Night composer but as a social reformer. Eight years ago, as part of his 200th birthday celebration, the village established an exhibit devoted to his memory. Visitors can pass by the parish house where he lived. He earned living expenses using the adjacent farmland and orchards that still bear fruit.
Mohr's gravesite is at the entrance to the 700-year-old parish church and in view of the Josef Mohr School and the Josef Mohr Home for the Aged, both built with funds raised by him more than 150 years ago. On December 11, the priest's birthday, crowds gather at the grave to hear children honor him with song. A memorial concert and sing-along also take place in the church on December 26.
Not all the old priest is buried in Wagrain. To mark the 100th anniversary of Silent Night, the village commissioned a statue. Lacking any portraits, his coffin was exhumed and his skull sent to Vienna, where a suggested likeness was drawn and given to the sculptor. Both the memorial and skull ended up in Oberndorf - the memorial in front of the new church, the skull under the altar in the memorial chapel.
Behind the church, farmhouses perch on distant hills. Late one night, just before Christmas, Father Mohr was summoned there to give last rites. While returning, the 55-year-old priest became snowbound for several hours. He fell ill and died four weeks later of a lung infection.
The Story Continues
Silent Night passed to the world thanks to the organ builder who came to repair St. Nikolas' instrument. He brought the carol back to his home in the village of Fügen not far from Innsbruck, nearly 200 miles away. The following Christmas it was performed by two family singing groups (forerunners to the Von Trapps), who later toured Europe, England and Russia with the song in their repertoire as a "Tirolian folksong." One of the groups brought the song to America, performing in New York on December 24, 1839. It wasn't until 1854, six years after Mohr's death, that the two composers received credit for their work.
Fügen has commemorated its role in starting the carol's spread across the globe - it's been translated into nearly 200 languages - by marking the homes of the organ builder and both families and setting aside part of the village museum.
Using Salzburg as a base, easy daytrips can be made to Oberndorf and Arnsdorf to the north, and Hallein and Wagrain to the south.
Trains run almost hourly from the Salzburg Lokalbahnhof (next to the main station) to Oberndorf. The 25-minute trip costs about $3 each way. It's a delightful one-hour walk from Oberndorf to Arnsdorf, although taxi service is available.
Hallein, about 10 minutes from Salzburg, is easily reached by trains that leave the main station twice hourly. St. Johann im Pongau, the train station closest to Wagrain, lies another 50 minutes south along the same line. Purchase a round-trip ticket from Salzburg to St. Johann (about $14), stop off in Hallein, and catch a later train to St. Johann. From St. Johann, travel by bus or taxi steeply uphill to Wagrain.
As a "Silent Night" home base, Salzburg has an abundance of hotels, inns and pensions. The outlying "stops" offer many options as well.
Landhof Kreuzsalgut, a working farm, features modern vacation apartments, farm animals and hiking trails on the rural outskirts of the village. A two-room apartment costs about $70 per night.
The Auwirt is a small hotel perched on Bad Dürrnberg, a high plateau above Hallein, accessible by car or gondola. The property includes meadows, springs, woodlands and a petting zoo. A double with private bath costs about $70.
Schloss Haunsperg is a 14th century country manor with eight double rooms, as well as suites with period furniture. Doubles range from $100-$125.
The village of Anthering is four short train stops south of Oberndorf and home to the Hammerschmiede, an old smithy and residence. Hidden deep in a nature preserve and bird sanctuary, the smithy is now a museum and the residence a four-star country hotel and restaurant. Doubles range from $80-$100. The hotel provides free transfers from the nearby train station.
Contact: Hotel im Wald Hammerschmiede, Acharting 22, A-5102 Anthering bei Salzburg; tel. +43/6223/2503; Web: www.hammerschmiede.co.at/hm/. this link doesn't work anymore
Tourist Info: Since all locations fall within the Province of Salzburg, the SalzburgerLand Tourism Office offers a wealth of information: