live slow, love nature, be adventurous

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mountain Air and Salt Mines in Hallein, Austria

One thing I knew I wanted to do while visiting Salzburg was getting closer to the mountains. Because we were visiting in November, with daylight hours becoming increasingly shorter, proper hiking wasn't really an option and since most cable cars had stopped service already as well, we had to look at other options. There are tons of interesting places in close proximity to Salzburg, but most of them aren't the most practical day trips in shoulder season - you know, that strange time of the year when the summer crowds are long gone, but skiing season hasn't started yet - and so our choices weren't quite as abundant.

Still, making up our minds wasn't easy and I would have loved to have one more day for a walk along one of the nearby lakes, but in the end we decided to visit Hallein, a little town about twenty minutes away from Salzburg by train. Hallein itself isn't the most exciting place in the world - I wouldn't make the trip from Salzburg just to see the town - but it does have a sight that offers an insight on the resource that made Salzburg a rich and powerful city: A Salt Mine.

As a child, my parents and me would often visit caves and mines and one of my favorite childhood memories is actually a proper cave tour on a class trip in fifth grade. Equipped with lights on our helmets, we crawled through narrow cracks in the rock, climbed into dark holes and probably destroyed most of our clothes in the process and I still remember our guide telling us a story of two women who once got lost in the cave for days because they had failed to bring the proper equipment. Isn't it funny how so memories never seem to leave us?

At this point - aside from seeing a little cave in Railay in Thailand - it had been years, though, since I last properly went underground and I figured it was about time to make it happen again. There are a couple of different salt mines in the region surrounding Salzburg, but we settled on visiting the one in Hallein simply because it was the easiest to get to. The entrance to the mine was located in a little village on top of the mountain D├╝rrnberg that we got to via bus from the Hallein train station. Seeing the idyllic farm houses and green spaces made it hard to believe that a large - and once heavily operated - industrial mine was resting underneath our feet, but smelling the clean air of the mountains was a great break from our usual stress.

When we arrived, we had just missed the beginning of a tour and so we had a few extra minutes on our hands that we chose to spent in the Celtic village on the grounds of the mine. It's not an actual Celtic village of course, just a re-construction of what such a village could have looked like, but the Celts did settle in the region many a thousand years ago, so it's probably not too far off. We also had a wonderful view down into the valley which is always appreciated.

Once it was time for our tour, we had to change into some protective clothing. Since we were wearing thick winter coats, the suits kind of made us look like proper Michelin Men and in my case, the effect was only increased by my new ridiculously large Zara blanket scarf. But what can I say: Michelin Men have a right to fashion, too! I do have a picture of S and me in our new fancy getups, but I don't think any of us want them on the internet... for now!

Afterwards we boarded a tiny, little train that swiftly brought us deep into the mountain where our tour started properly. The tour was definitely more based on entertainment then on education, though the slightly ridiculous movies that we were shown did mention a few interesting facts. S and me definitely enjoyed ourselves and shared many a good laugh, but in my opinion a visit is only really worth it if you either understand German or have a super deep interest in the topic at hand.
Our guide translated all the information she told us in German into English, but the movies were in German (there were subtitles, though) and I'm not sure I would have enjoyed our visit as much would we not speak German. I don't know if there are separate English tours, though, so that may be worth a look into.

One of the highlights of the tour are the slides. Back in the day, the miners would use them to get to their workplace quickly, but these days they serve as an adrenaline-inducing activity for visitors. During our surprisingly long ride down the slides, I clang on to S like a spider monkey, hoping for my unbrave heart not to burst - well, I'm a little chicken. Actually, that's unfair to chickens - I'm sure most of them are much braver than I am! It did result in the funniest picture ever though, with S grinning largely and me looking like I was just told something absolutely terrifying and I kind of regret that we didn't purchase it.

It was on to more calm pastimes and a boat ride over a large salt lake, accompanied by colorful lights illuminating the walls and some sort of New Age music playing along, though. A bit too kitschy for my own non-kitschy taste - remember what I said about entertainment vs. education above? - but beautiful for the senses nonetheless.

I managed to survive another, seemingly much longer slide, before hopping back over the German-Austrian border that we had crossed at some point earlier and reaching the lowest level of the tour. It was another maze of tunnels until we reached the exit of the mine and were finally greeted by the light of the sun again: It's extraordinary just how much brighter everything seems once you've been underground for an hour! Just imagining what it must have been like to spend hours actually working in the mine makes me shiver a little bit.

After stripping off our ridiculous uniforms and subsequently feeling about a hundred pounds lighter, we had one last look into the valley before we decided to be on our way back the mountain again. We figured it would be possible to find a path down to town and so opted not to wait for the bust, but just walk.

We quickly came across a well maintained path that soon turned out to be a path of pilgrimage. Every once in a while there would be a small chapel or another place of prayer, adorned with pictures depicting different scenes of the crucifixion of Christ, and we even met a group of pilgrims on their way up the mountain. We also came upon some more remnants of Hallein's salt history in the form of old buildings and tracks that stood seemingly abandoned.

After climbing down many different sets of stairs, we found ourselves in the town center of Hallein where we admired its beautiful surroundings. I miss living close to proper mountains and so I really loved seeing the snow-capped Alps in the background.

By the time we made it back to Salzburg, the sun had already begun setting and we went on a little late afternoon stroll along the river Salzach. Even before our arrival, I was convinced that I would come back to this little region of the world eventually and seeing a little glimpse of what the Salzburgerland has to offer only reinforced my wish to come back in the summer time one day.

Have you ever visited a mine before?


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