Boating Customs On The Salzach River

Every three years, on the last Sunday in July, a historic battle of pirates takes place on the river Salzach at Qberndorf (Salzburg). The pirates’ camp is situated below the State Bridge where the “wedding” of the pirates’ captain is to take place. The brigands attack and rob a salt-boat, then they fire on the town of Laufen (on the opposite, Bavarian side of the river). Finally, the defeated pirates try to escape in their ship. They are arrested and condemned to death, the sentence eventually being commuted to “death by drowning in beer” - now the celebrations can begin! This custom traces back at least to the 19th century, and may owe its existence to the predilection for historical representations during the Romantic era. In this special case, one more factor could have been crucial. The boatmen on the river Salzach, confronted with the economic decline of their profession, may have tried to secure their economic existence as well as their professional identity.

Also on the river Salzach near Oberndorf, the “Schifferstechen” (a fight between boatmen using spears) takes place on Sundays in July and August at irregular intervals (not every year!), organized by the boatmen-guard. The competition is held in the middle of the river, the best three fighters being awarded a cup. It is followed by the “Hansl-und-Gretl-Spiel”, the “Wurstspringen” (jump for the sausage) and a river-feast. The custom of “Schifferstechen” is first mentioned in 1596. The play, however, dates probably from the 18th century and belongs to the same playing-tradition of the boatmen as the Pirates’ battle and the “Sternsingen” at the beginning of the year, all three manifestations partly owing their evolution to the precarious economic situation of the boatmen in the 18th and, in particular, the 19th centuries.

Toward the end of July in the city of Salzburg, on the eve of the opening of the Salzburg Festival, more than one hundred dancers, clad in regional costume and equipped with torches, perform a “Fackeltanz” (torch-dance) on the Residenzplatz. Whilst this particular custom was inaugurated only in 1949, torch-dances of this kind are a traditional way of marking ceremonial receptions.