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Updated on: Sunday, November 14, 2021, 02:13 PM IST

Salzburg: Author Manjiri Prabhu shares how the city helped her develop the plot for her novel, 'The Trail of Four'

The mystery author gives a sneak peek about the picturesque city and the making of her book
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Salzburg in Austria is synonymous with Mozart and chocolates. But for me, it is synonymous with the Schloss Leopoldskron, a magnificent Rococo palace from the 18th century. Apart from its interesting history, it is famous for the film, The Sound of Music. The exterior of the palace was shown as the home of the von Trapp family and the outdoor scenes were filmed on the terrace of the palace.

It was in 2001 that I decided to use the fascinating palace and Salzburg town as destination characters in my novel. I was invited by the Salzburg Global Seminar, who owned the palace, for a seminar on ‘Books to Screen’. The moment I stepped into the majestic Marble Hall and stared up at the imposing walls with the grand paintings and the ceiling deeply etched with evocative frescoes narrating the four phases in nature, profession, seasons and human life, I knew that the Schloss would be a perfect character in a mystery novel. Many years later, I returned to the Schloss to fulfil this desire and The Trail of Four was born.

Library at the Schloss Leopoldskron

The Schloss, which boasts an intriguing history, was built in 1736 by Archbishop Leopold Firmian. Two years later, he died. His body was buried at Salzburg Cathedral, but his heart was buried in the private chapel of the Schloss as a gesture of his love for it. The Schloss passed through many hands over the next century till it was finally acquired and renovated by famous actor-director Max Reinhardt (who co-founded the famous Salzburg Festival) in the 1920s.

Reinhardt used the Schloss as a backdrop for his plays, inviting theatre personalities from around the world to perform. However, during World War II, the Austrian-Jewish director had to flee to America when the Nazis took over the Schloss. Reinhardt died in 1942, apparently pining for the Schloss.

Perfect premise for a mystery novel

But when the war ended, the Schloss was once more handed back to Reinhardt’s widow. In 1947, three Harvard youngsters initiated the Salzburg Global Seminar, organising seminars with the aim to challenge the present and future leaders to solve issues of global concern. The Schloss is now owned by the Salzburg Global Seminar, which continues to host eminent personalities from across the world to support the evolving needs of change-makers across generations.

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Schloss in winter

My decision to base the novel there led to many firsts for me. Firstly, having based it out of India, which was my comfort zone, the prime necessity was to write the novel like an insider of the country and of the place. That was an uphill task, but made easy by the Schloss personnel and these detailed pieces from the history of the Schloss.

In-depth research had to follow to cement every tiny detail of history with the current plot and for it to look original, local, logical and natural. Giving life to local characters, that too some from the past, was another major task within this task. Mingling with locals, reading the pre-WWII history was very helpful for that. But all this became possible because I actually stayed in this historic and notable property and soaked in its energy and spirit.

One of the most unique features of the Schloss is undoubtedly its library, modelled along the lines of the St. Gallen Monastery library in Switzerland. The wooden décor, the bookshelves embedded within wooden arches and pillars, the huge fireplace and the log-like, curvy structure gave the library the perfect ambience ever. But the most intriguing feature was the secret staircase. Hidden behind a bookshelf, it sprung at me, demanding me to put it in a mystery novel! The staircase spirals quietly to the upper floor of the library (the only access route to the first floor) and leads on to Max Reinhardt’s original, private apartment.

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The glittering Venetian room with paintings of harlequins in gold-gilded frames, the Chinese Room with ornate, eastern lamps, and the magnificent Marble Hall are all glorious representations of Max Reinhardt’s vision, his eye for detail and artistry. And for me, additionally, the excitement lay in embedding parts of the Trail of Four into these iconic features of the Schloss, offering clues in solving a trail set 75 years ago.

The Great Hall opens out to the terrace and gardens that overlook the scintillating lake and Untersberg mountain. This is where scenes from The Sound of Music were shot and are still easily identifiable. But it’s not just the palace that is fascinating. Salzburg in its entirety radiates a sense of fresh appeal. It is secure in its tradition, settled in its history and happy in its art and culture. In perfect balance, the result is a heritage city.

Cemetery under snow

The town has an old-world charm which has a soothing effect on you — the ancient cemetery decorated with flowers; the Cathedral dome that has braved and survived multiple fires over centuries and is now a breath-taking marvel; Mozart’s birthplace and residential quarters — the musical heart of their history; the Festung or Fortress perched on the top of the hill; the Mirabelle Palace and Gardens where the song Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music was filmed; the quaint shopping street, Getreidegasse….

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Getreidegasse street

Be it the big open-air chessboard or simply the innumerable churches, monasteries, museums and sculptures steeped in history, Salzburg offered me the chance to step away from using a European landscape as a mere backdrop, and to represent it as a character and re-introduce it to the world through the art of fiction.

It was a unique voyage that not only combined my love for writing with my love for travel and hunger for knowledge of other cultures, but an amazing journey which brought me closer to the culture, art, people and history of Austria. And more profoundly, the response to the novel, even from the Austrian and European readers, was really heartening and encouraging and set the ball for my thriller series, where interesting European destinations became exciting characters of depth and history. The perfect road to contentment.

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Published on: Sunday, November 14, 2021, 07:00 AM IST
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