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Hallstatt Salt Mines (Hallstatt, Austria)

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“ Address: Salinen Tourismus GmbH, Salzbergstraße 21, 4830 Hallstatt / Tel.: +43 (0) 6132 200 24 00 / Salt mine/museum in Sourthern Salzkammergut region (different from Hallein) „

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      22.10.2011 08:23
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      A great day out with plenty to suit all the family

      Long before the lovely Von Trapp children trilled their escape from the Nazis and even before Mozart was banging out hits on his harpsichord, the city of Salzburg made its fortune from salt - the name even means "salt castle". There are three salt mines in the vicinity of Salzburg that are open as tourist attractions and we visited the one at Hallstatt which is approximately an hour's drive south of the city though we were based in the village of Bad Mitterndorf from which it's about forty minutes by public transport.

      The town is situated on the Hallstatter See and if you're coming by public transport you'll get off the train at the tiny station on the opposite side of the lake and hop on the little boat which ferries you to the town; the sailings are scheduled to meet the train in either direction and a useful notice at both ferry stations advises you which crossing you'll need to pick up a particular train.

      The town is incredibly beautiful: you might even think it looks like a film set. It would be a shame not to allow some time to look around the town and the lakeside when coming to visit the mines. The houses are colourful and quaint with ornate wooden eaves and balconies; brightly coloured flowers tumble over the sides of window boxes and the shops and inns have fabulous wrought iron signs hanging above the doors. All around the towering mountains surround the lake; this is the stuff of picture postcards.

      We followed the signposts to the funicular and bought our tickets at the ticket office. If you're visiting the salt mines the price includes a return ride on the funicular and you need to scan the barcode of your ticket as you enter the funicular car so don't discard your ticket after the tour (unless you don't mind walking back to town). The funicular ride is over too quickly and the view was good but not brilliant on the wet and misty day we were there.

      Once out of the funicular there's a steep walk of about ten minutes to the salt mines visitor centre; you can reduce it a little by using the glass elevator but only by a minute or so and it's the novelty factor that makes it appealing (but certainly useful for those pushing wheelchairs or childrens' pushchairs). It's a pleasant walk, punctuated at intervals by the boards that provide information about different aspects of the history of the area. There's been salt mining at Hallstatt for seven thousand years and many ancient artefacts have been found in graves on this hillside. Over 900 Iron Age graves were unearthed in the mid nineteenth century by Johann Georg Ramsauer, then the director of the salt mine. Examples of these traditional burials can be seen in a small building where excavated remains are displayed with the items they were buried with. I'd have liked to have spent longer looking at this exhibition but we weren't sure how frequent the tours of the salt mines would be and we needed to make sure we got back to the station in time for our train.

      When we arrived at the visitor centre we were informed that the next tour would be starting in fifteen minutes; that's just enough time for a drink in the tiny café (they serve hot and cold drinks, snacks and full meals) and to have a quick look around the souvenir shop. The shop sells not only salt related products and souvenirs relating to the salt mines tour but a variety of other items some that you might associate with Austria in general, others such as scented candles or lavender products that you might pick up anywhere.

      Shortly before the tour is due to start the guide calls everyone through to the dressing room to be allocated a uniform. The young woman issuing the uniforms clearly has a good eye because nobody had to exchange the one they were given for a different size. The trousers and jacket go over your clothes and you must be sure to fasten the Velcro at the ankles as this will make your journey down the miners slide safer and faster later on. You leave your bags and coats with the assistant in the changing room and you'll get a numbered token on a piece of string that you can stick round your neck for safe keeping.

      While we waited for stragglers we were able to view an exhibition that used some short texts and some old photographs of Hallstatt miners to give an overview of the lives and traditions of the miners who worked there and their families. Conditions were harsh and pay was low. Miners would come to the mine on a Monday morning, often walking long distances to get there, work long shifts and sleep in specially built bunkhouses at the mine, and go back to their families on Sundays. If a miner and wished to marry he would have to ask permission from the mine managers and once married would also have to ask their permission to start a family. I would have liked to have spent longer looking at this but once everyone was ready we were hurriedly taken to be briefed on the itinerary of the tour and given safety information. In contrast to other salt mines where I believe you are even encouraged to lick the walls to taste the salt, you are requested not to touch the walls at Hallstatt. The ground is mostly pretty even but there are small sections that are a little uneven and in the galleries it is slightly darker than in the passages so you should take care as you walk.

      The tour was conducted in German and English with the guide narrating short sections alternately. I found that she spoke very quickly and with a poor English accent and it was actually helpful to listen to both the English and German to get the whole story. I got the impression that her English was learned by rote; there was no invitation to ask questions but it wasn't really until afterwards that I thought of things that weren't covered and that I would have been interested in knowing. Perhaps the guide would have been able to answer the questions had I thought of asking at the time but I certainly felt like questions weren't exactly welcomed.

      The tour commentary explains how the mountains came to be so full of salt and the different methods that have been employed to remove the salt. Until the Middle Ages rock salt was hewn and removed from the mine for processing outside but these days the salt is produced by 'solution mining'. In this method fresh water is poured into the mountain and this dissolves the salt. The parts that are not soluble sink to the bottom of the leaching chamber and the brine is pumped out of the mountain. In the past the brine would be processed at Hallstatt but since the 1960s it has been processed a few miles away at a purpose built plant at Ebensee.

      In the main chamber we saw a sound and light presentation that tells the story of how "the Man in Salt" is believed to have died. The remains were found by miners working in 1734 and were carried to the surface. Those miners believed the body to be about one hundred and fifty years old; they had no idea that it was actually thousands of years old. I had read about "the Man in Salt" before we visited and I was looking forward to seeing the remains. However, I feel it is worth pointing out that the remains cannot be seen; in fact, the body was buried in a local churchyard but it is not know which one it was. Since "the Man in Salt" plays such a prominent role in the marketing material for this attraction I do feel that I was slightly misled.

      To tell the truth, though, the disappointment about the lack of this ancient fella is easily forgotten because the real highlight of the tour of Hallstatt Salt Mines is the chance to whizz down the wooden slides. There are two at Hallstatt; the first one is quite short, the other much longer and steeper and is, in fact, at 64 metres, the longest wooden slide in Europe. (The one at the Hallein mines is notable in that the slide actually takes you from Austria into Germany) The slides were used to speed the miners to the next level down. You can choose not to use the slide and there is a staircase at the side of each slide but everyone on our tour, young and old alike, chose to slide. On our tour young children went down with adults, and an elderly couple went down in tandem too. On the second slide we were advised to look up and smile at the camera halfway down; your speed is recorded and the photograph is available for sale when the tour is over. If you do want to buy the photograph it costs Euro5 which I think is rather steep given that they've printed them anyway; if they can afford to print them and run the risk that nobody will buy, then they can certainly afford to make them a bit cheaper (of course, by going down in pairs or a family group you'll not have to fork out as much).

      The slides were great fun but I declined the chance to buy my photograph; I'd forgotten about the camera and remembered when I was almost in front of it and as I remembered I slowed right down to make sure I didn't fly past the camera without looking at it. Unfortunately the effort of slowing down and looking for the camera cause me to adopt an expression of consternation combined with terror and the whole thing caused me to record possibly the slowest descent of our group. The sheer indignity of it was most upsetting. Fortunately Himself went own before me on the second run and was waiting at the bottom to ensure that indignity was captured for posterity free of charge.

      At the end of the tour it's back to the visitor building by means of a ride on train. You sit with your legs astride a wooden form and the train weaves through the tunnels; it's a tad more sedate than the slides but still good fun.

      At the end of the tour the guide handed each person a tiny plastic tube of Salzburg salt. If you haven't already succumbed and bought some piece of salt-related junk in Salzburg then it's an acceptable souvenir and it's not going to be a hassle to get home. Personally I'd advocate giving it away and letting someone think you've brought them back a quirky little gift since it's hardly decorative and it has no real use unless you simply sprinkle it on your chips.

      A visit to the salt mines at Hallstatt is not cheap and while the tour itself is not as good as I'd hoped, there are so many elements to the experience - the funicular ride, the burial relics, the tour, wearing the uniforms, the slides and the train ride - that overall it represents good value for an afternoon's entertainment (although in this part of Austria the best thing - the incredible scenery - is completely free). Another advantage is that the salt mines are open for most of the year which provides an alternative should the weather be poor. The temperature in the mine is a constant eight degrees which means that on some days it'll be warmer in the mine than outside.

      This particular mine is perhaps a little far for an independent day trip using public transport from Salzburg and the one at Hallein would be better if you are based in the city. However, you could get there by car quite easily or you might find coach tours (though it's more likely these will be to Hallein).

      This is a great trip for the whole family and is an excellent combination of history, scenery and lots of fun. Highly recommended.

      Admission prices - funicular and salt mines

      Adults Euro24
      Children 4-25 years - Euro12
      Family Advantage Ticket - 2 adults and 2 children Euro60
      Family advantage Ticket - 1 adults, 2 children Euro42

      For details of the prices for salt mines tour only without funicular, see the following webpage
      http://www.salzwelten.at/salz_en /index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=80&Itemid=88

      Note - the period known as the Hallstatt Iron Age derived its name from this area, so rich was the evidence of prehistoric communities

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