The atmosphere was quiet and wistful as we drifted one late Sunday afternoon through the grand squares and charming side-streets of Salzburg.
Wistful turned to magical when we walked past a churning old water mill and stumbled into St. Peter’s Cemetery (Petersfriedhof). St. Peter’s Cemetery may not be the most illustrious, grandest, or romantically wild cemetery but it surely must be one of the prettiest. It is situated at the foot of the Festungsberg mountain and dramatically crowned by the ‘High Salzburg Fortress’ (Hohensalzburg Castle).
The current old cemetery dates back to 1627 but its origins go back as far as 700. It is a small intimate place of tiny paths, flowers, intricate stonework and filigree wrought iron crosses enclosed on three sides by baroque arcades gated with iron grilles. What makes this cemetery especially beautiful is that many graves have their own mini-garden cultivated by the local priests.
Adding to the air of mystery was the sight of the early Christian catacombs, carved out in Festungsberg’s sheer rock face. The catacombs are believed to have been built by early Christians during the Migration Period of 400 to 800 AD, a period of profound change and migration within the Roman Empire and beyond its ‘barbarian’ outer zones, a transition into the early middle ages. The catacombs contain two small chapels, one of which is dedicated to the murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury.
The cemetery is the final resting place for Salzburg’s dignitaries, musicians and poets including Mozart’s sister Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) and the architect Santino Solari. Unusually the graves are paid for by rent every ten years and if the rent isn’t paid, the grave is dug up and the person swiftly evicted.
St. Peter’s Abbey
As we left the cemetery, and the early evening sunshine was displaced by the gathering gloom of a Sunday night, our stroll was to reveal one more surprise.
We walked into the darkening inner courtyard of the Benedictine Monastery. The entrance to St Peter’s Abbey were set back from the courtyard and I pushed at the heavy wooden door, thinking that at this late hour it would surely be closed.
To our surprise the doors gave way to allow us to step into a cavern of sumptuous rococo interior, breathtaking yet not over-whelming, filled with a magical and mysterious silence. We were alone, thinking that at any minute that we would be thrown out by an annoyed priest, barely daring to breathe in case the spell was broken. We explored and wondered at the Abbey, slowly relaxing as the silence and solitude continued to cast its spell.
Then we drifted back through the intricately wrought iron and gilded inner gates, out through the doors and into the now empty streets and squares of Sunday night Salzburg.