Tag Archive | Austria

Salt of the Earth

As I donned my alluring green suit of baggy pants and enormous cover-all shirt over my clothing, I looked around the changing room. All the other tourists were putting on their protective suits, in fetching colours of blue, brown, red and green. This certainly wasn’t the prelude to a fashion show, but the start of an underground exploration of the oldest salt mine in the world, in the Hallstatt High Valley in the Dachstein Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria.

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The Salzwerk is located high above the town of Hallstatt. There are two ways to reach the High Valley. One option is the funicular, a small train that glides silently up the mountain side in three minutes.

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The alternative is an hour long hike along a steep, zigzagging track up through the alpine forest. In an effort to burn off some of the delicious Austrian food we’d been eating, we chose to walk, and were rewarded with amazing views of the Hallstӓttersee, the town of Hallstatt below us, and the Muelbach Wӓsserfall which tumbles down the mountainside in a rush over the rocky, fern covered slopes.

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There had been a heavy shower of rain the previous night and that, combined with the abundance of water in both the lake and the waterfall and the effort of hiking up a 45° slope for an hour, left us both feeling the extreme humidity.  As we finally walked out of the forest into the alpine meadows of the High Valley, my husband remarked, “Everywhere in Austria is uphill!” We came across a shrine to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Instead of the offerings of coins and floral tributes left by other visitors I was tempted to leave a note suggesting that she should also be the patron saint of hikers.

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Our guided tour of the mine began at the Christina Tunnel, opened in 1714, along which we walked for fifteen minutes before entering the Salt Crystal Chamber.

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There were six enormous salt crystals, lit from within, giving the chamber an eerie red illumination and the perfect “glow in the dark” photo opportunities.

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Long wooden slides have been used for centuries by miners to go from one level to another and our tour was no exception. At 64 metres, the second of the slides is the longest in Europe, and our guide put out a challenge – who could descend the fastest? Not me! I made a cautious but safe descent, while others took a leap of faith and hurtled down with shouts of glee.

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Our guide won the challenge with a speed of 60 km per hour. It was obvious that she’d had plenty of practice.

Once we were all down the slide we made our way to the Hӧrnerwerk cavern which contains a large subterranean salt lake. The water was still and black, and reflected the walls of the cavern in a mirror image. A laser light show depicting the beginnings of salt mining in Hallstatt dating back to 5000 BC played across the rock and the water, while a robotic miner called Sepp told the story of “The Man in Salt”, an ancient miner whose corpse, with his hair, skin and clothes completely preserved in the salt, was discovered in 1734, and subsequently reburied in the prehistoric cemetery in the meadow outside the mine.

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After walking more than a kilometre into the mine we exited at the end of our tour by boarding the pit train. This was no time for being fussy about the need for personal space as we all sat, lined up along the bench one in front of another, pressed together to ensure we all fitted on. The tiny train sped through tunnels just high enough to avoid a mass scalping, before shooting out onto a small platform that led up a flight of stairs to the obligatory souvenir shop.

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There on the wall was a photo of me coming down the slide, my blurry green suit flashing past – maybe not a fashion shot but a permanent record of my underground adventure.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Pattern

One of my passions, apart from travelling and writing, is quilt making, and everywhere I go I always see great quilting designs. Gates can be elaborate and highly ornamented or plain and practical but they all provide endless inspiration for new patterns. I am still to put the inspiration into practice but when I do I’ll have plenty of photos to reference.

On the Thames Pathway at Hampton Court Palace, London

On the Thames Pathway at Hampton Court Palace, London

In the cemetery at The Abbey Church of St Peter, Salzburg.

In the cemetery at The Abbey Church of St Peter, Salzburg.

Symmetry and simplicity - the gateway to the Bedouin Desert Camp, Wahiba Sands, Oman

Symmetry and simplicity – the gateway to the Bedouin Desert Camp, Wahiba Sands, Oman

Entry into the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Bosham, England

Entry into the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Bosham, England

A portal between the old town and the new, Rothenburg, Germany

A portal between the old town and the new, Rothenburg, Germany

The gates of Buckingham Palace, London. I knocked and knocked but I didn't get in!

The gates of Buckingham Palace, London. No one heard me knocking!

A Change of Seasons Part Two

The second part of our journey was on the Glacier cable car which goes all the way to the summit terrace. The edges of the terrace were treacherous with thick ice and a mound of snow had been pushed up in the centre so that it was safe to walk around. The track to the summit of Zugspitze, adorned by its gilded cross, was closed to walkers and we weren’t going to be buying anything from the souvenir stand either.

Back inside the warmth of the cable car station we followed the walkway around to the Fascination Zugspitze Interactive Museum where the sign said that cable car tickets would give us free admission. We tried to swipe them time after time without success until the lady on the information desk spotted us and came to help. “Where have you come from today?” she asked and laughed when we told her we had started from Garmisch. “Your tickets won’t work here – you’re in Austria now!” Lucky there were no passport checks!

We paid our €2.50 entrance fee and made our way through the museum, from the Conquest of the Zugspitze display with old photos and artefacts telling the history of the railway, past the glass floor and internal viewing platform which looks down 200 m to the rock below, to the 3D model of the Zugspitze.

We left Austria and crossed back over into Germany, exactly where we weren’t sure, and made our way back to the summit terrace. The cloud had begun to clear and the 360° view over the mountains was amazing. On a clear day it’s possible to see into Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland – this day we were happy just to be able to see the mountain peaks, more than 400 in number, and green alpine valleys stretching away to the horizon.

      The last part of our journey was on the Eibsee cable car, which took us on a 10 minute 2,000 metre descent to the Eibsee Lake. We walked along the track through the alpine forest to the train station to wait for the cogwheel train back to Garmisch, shedding our warming Winter layers as we went. At the foot of the mountains we were back in Summer.

A Change of Seasons Part One

At an altitude of 2,962 metres Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany. It’s part of the Wetterstein Mountain Range in the Bavarian Alps and is a popular holiday destination for more than 500,000 people every year. Zugspitze is on the border between Germany and Austria and belongs equally to Bavaria and Tyrol.

The June day we decided to make the ascent to the top of Zugspitze the weather forecast was positive – fine and sunny with a maximum of 4º C at the summit. We were prepared for all eventualities and carried our scarves, gloves, thermals and coats in our backpacks, hoping we wouldn’t need them.

The round trip from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the summit of Zugspitze and down to Eidsee is in three stages. The Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, the first part of the journey, is a tiny cogwheel train which leaves from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and carries its passengers 11.5 km into the mountains.

We travelled past farms where the farmers were mowing the lush meadows and baling the hay in preparation for the next winter. At Kreuzeck-Alpspitzbahn the track began to incline and we felt the cogwheels take over at Grainau as the ascent became steeper. The train made a single stop for passengers to take advantage of the view towards Eibsee before heading into the 4.8 km long Rosi Tunnel.

The track ends at the Schneeferner Glacier at a little station directly underneath the Sonn Alpin Glacier Restaurant inside the mountain 1,838 metres higher than where we started. We came out of the station, at an altitude of 2.600 metres and stepped into another season. The thermometer on the wall just inside the exit was showing a temperature of 1° and out came the scarves, gloves, thermals and coats! The mountains were white and the snow was thigh deep in places. There were icicles hanging from the roof of the restaurant and every now and then we heard a thud as another chunk of snow slid off the roof and crashed to the ground.

There were small toboggans at the top of the nearest slope, free for tourists like us from warmer climes to try out. As we weren’t wearing waterproof clothing one ride was enough, but it was tempting to try it again and again.

The peaks of the Wetterstein Mountains were shrouded in cloud so we warmed up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate at the Glaciergarden Restaurant, a round glass pavilion with the best heating I have ever experienced. Off came the scarves, gloves and coats!

 To be continued…

Walking with Maria

Salzburg is as well-known for the beautiful baroque architecture of its Altstadt, or Old Town, as it is for being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and at times the locals are outnumbered by tourists.

But aficionados of the 1965 movie “The Sound of Music” come to see the sights connected with the Von Trapp family and the wayward Benedictine novice Maria. Many of the locations in the movie appear to be within walking distance of each other, but in reality they are spread far and wide. The easiest way to see all of these is on a Sound Of Music Tour and there are several different versions on offer, from Gray Lines’ tour with the original bus company featured in the movie to Frӓulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour.

The Mirabell Gardens, begun along with the palace in 1606, provide the backdrop for Do-Re-Mi, as Maria and the children jump up and down the stairs, and frolic around the Pegasus Fountain and through the gardens. In Spring the gardens flourish and colour abounds.

The lakeside scenes of the Von Trapp family home take place at the baroque Leopoldskron palace, in the back garden and on the patio. This majestic palace is reflected in Leopoldskron Lake, into which Maria and the children topple while in a boat when they discover that Captain Von Trapp has returned with Baroness Schroeder.

The gazebo, scene of the songs “Sixteen going on Seventeen” with Liesl and Rolfe and “Something Good”, the love song of Captain Von Trapp and Maria, was originally near the Leopoldskron Palace. It was moved to a position on the opposite shore of the lake to prevent fans of the movie trespassing. But amazingly the proprietor of the café nearby complained that the tourists were chasing his regular customers away, so the gazebo was dismantled again and placed in the Hellbrunn gardens. It’s locked – sadly you can’t copy Liesl and leap elegantly from one bench to the next while singing!

St Peter’s Abbey is the oldest monastery in the German speaking world. The beautifully kept cemetery behind the Church was the inspiration for the set built for the scenes where the family hides as the Nazi soldiers search for them. The tombs behind the wrought iron gates make for fascinating reading, while the gardens in the cemetery have an air of tranquillity away from the tourist bustle.

 To see some of the other film locations it’s necessary to leave Salzburg behind and journey into the countryside. The village of Gilgen, where Mozart’s mother was born, and Lake Fuschl appear at the start of the movie. In the distance it’s just possible to make out, on the side of a mountain, the alpine meadow where Maria sings the title song.

At Mondsee a visit to the Collegiate Church of St Michael is essential as the wedding of the Captain and Maria was filmed here. Experiencing the baroque design of the Cathedral and its lavish interior is worth the journey from Salzburg.

Also at Mondsee is the avenue of trees in which the children are playing as the Captain drives to his home with Baroness Schroeder. Of course in the 52 years since the film was made these trees, which were saplings in the movie, have grown and now they make a shady boulevard in which movie fans from all over the world can sing, kick up their heels and be Maria or Georg for just a little while.

With Our Heads in the Clouds – Part Four

From Krippenstein station we rode the third cable car over the mountain to the alpine valley station. This time our only companion was the cable car driver and once we arrived he retreated to his office and left us to our own devices.

There was not another living being to be seen, neither human nor animal, and the silence was complete – no birdsong, cars or voices to break the stillness. There were several lodges across the valley but we met no other people.

We walked a little way along the path into the valley. At an altitude of 1800 metres the air was brisk and fresh and finally the clouds were gone.

We searched in vain for edelweiss, but there was an abundance of other delicate alpine blossoms.

We took all three cable cars back down to the first valley station at Obertraun just before closing time to avoid an unscheduled overnight stay. Later when we were back at our guest house in Hallstatt we were admiring the view of the mountains as we had done every day and suddenly we realised that we could actually see where we had been. The clouds that had shrouded the mountains for much of the day had cleared and the 5Fingers platform was just visible at the top of the mountain. With our binoculars it was easy to see where we had been standing a few hours before.

We had taken a gamble and it paid off. The weather gods had given us their blessing this day.

With Our Heads in the Clouds – Part Three

After a delicious lunch of steaming vegetable soup and crusty bread at the Schӧnbergalm restaurant, we took the second cable car up to Krippenstein, at an altitude of 2100 metres. It was no surprise when we came out of the station to find that once again we were enveloped by cloud, but with our faith in the weather gods unshaken, we set off on a 45 minute walk to the 5Fingers viewing platform. To get there we had to follow the Experiences trail around the top of the mountain from one side to the other, and as we made our way round the cloud started to clear again and at last we could see the valley, the Hallstatter See and the town of Hallstatt, like a miniature village 1000 metres below.

As we walked we could hear the sound of bells ahead and we came across a herd of chamois, or alpine goats, grazing on the tough mountain vegetation.

The Welterbespirale is an aluminium viewing platform in the shape of a ship. The Dachstein Salzkammergut region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as we walked up the spiralling boardwalk to the top, there were boards showing other World Heritage Sites, including our own Great Barrier Reef – a little bit of home away from home. As well as the viewing platform there are several wooden recliners at the summit, designed for sunbathing and enjoying the views, but we weren’t going to try them out when the temperature was no more than 10 degrees!

The 5Fingers viewing platform is aptly named. It’s shaped like a hand that reaches out over the edge of the mountain, with a 400 metre drop to the rocks below. Each finger points in a different direction and one has a glass floor, for those who are brave enough to walk on it. Our prayers to the gods were answered – the wind was blowing the clouds away across the mountains and we had a breathtaking view of the Salzkammergut region. We stood for over an hour, taking in the scene before us.

There was still more to do so while the sky was clear we continued our adventure up and over the mountain to the next cable car stop.

With Our Heads in the Clouds – Part Two

The Mammuthӧhle, or Mammoth Cave is so named, not because mammoths were found there but because of its size. To get there we had to retrace our steps back to Schӧnbergalm and then take another steep and winding path up through the forest in a different direction, until we reached the cave entrance. The track led along the edge of the mountain side and we knew that the valley was nearly 1000 metres below us, but the clouds seemed determined to cling to the trees and we couldn’t see beyond the cable car station.

Like the Eishӧhle the entrance to the Mammuthӧhle is small and unremarkable, but the Mammuthӧhle is a dry cave with several entrances and much warmer temperatures. It wasn’t always dry though and was formed millions of years ago when a mighty river flowed through it, gouging out the limestone as it went. Over 60 km of the cave’s passageways and chambers have been explored – we walked in about one km and even that short distance was enough for us to experience the enormity of this space.

When we’d entered the Mammuthӧhle it was overcast and light, misty rain was falling, but when we came out an hour later the sun was shining and the cloud had begun to clear, giving us our first glimpse of the valley below. The weather gods had answered our prayers at last…for the moment anyway.

With Our Heads in the Clouds – Part One

The day we chose to take the Dachsteinbahn up into the mountains of the Salzkammergut region of central Austria it was dull and overcast and we could see that the peaks were shrouded in heavy cloud. But this was our only chance to go so we decided gamble on the favour of the weather gods.

The Dachsteinbahn Valley station is in Obertraun, at an altitude of 520 metres. The cable car took us to the first stop at Schӧnbergalm at 1350 m, through thick cloud which all but hid the view as we rose through the trees.

After leaving the cable car station our first destination was the Eishӧhle, or Ice Cave, and to get there we walked for half an hour – up… and up… and up along the track which zigzagged through the dense alpine forest, and even though the temperature was 15°, the humidity was extreme.

The entrance to the cave was small and nondescript and gave no indication of the wonder and immensity that lay within.  After a talk by our guide during which she stressed the importance of staying together, we entered and immediately the temperature plummeted to 4°.

Our first glimpse of ice was a giant pillar which reached to the roof of the cave. We walked on past massive ice domes, frozen stalagmites that reached to the ceiling and a slick, shiny floor of solid ice 25 metres thick and more than 600 years old in places.

We passed through a narrow passageway and found ourselves on a walkway suspended over an icy abyss which dropped away into the earth, with solid waterfalls suspended in time and glittering ice crystals floating in the air.

It’s a frozen fairyland, which never melts completely, even in Summer and Autumn when the water that seeps in through the mountains is warmer. The entrance we used is the only way in, and there is no air current, so the constantly cold air in the cave means the build-up of ice in Winter and Spring more than compensates for any seasonal melt.

When we finally exited the Eishӧhle the same way we came in, we welcomed the warmer air with relief, but the clouds were still hanging heavy and dense. Would the weather gods be kind to us this day?