Salzburg Part I
Wednesday, September 16
Crossing into Austria from Italy, we began our journey towards Salzburg. The area through which we were travelling - the Austrian region of Tyrol - is quite mountainous, although of a different character than the terrain of the recently-departed Dolomites. The mountains are more classic in their form and structure, rather than the white vertical cragginess typical of the Dolomites.
We stopped for a quick roadside foodstand lunch in a small Austrian town, then quickly continued on our way towards Salzburg. After a few hours of driving, though, Roland had us turn off of the Autobahn just short of the city. He had planned an outing that would give us some very useful historical context - a visit to one of the region's salt mines.
Probably the key historical fact to understanding the rise of Salzburg as a center of wealth and culture is the presence and harvesting of salt, which occurs naturally in large quantities in various areas south of Salzburg. Mined here for centuries... nay, millenia, the proceeds of salt production has funded and powered much of what one sees upon visiting Salzburg (by the way, in case you aren't familiar with German, Salzburg means "Salt Town").
In any case, there are three major salt mining centers in the region, and Roland had chosen one at a place called Bad Durrnberg, near the town of Hallein. The mine itself is called the Hallein Salt Mine. They claim it is the oldest mine in the world open to visitors.
A modern above-ground complex of buildings housed the ticket office, gift store, bookshop, cafeteria - that sort of thing. After purchasing our tickets, we were made to put on some dorky-looking baggy and thick cotton clothing - partially to keep us warm in the cool mine, but also to preserve one's clothes while sliding down the inter-level wooden slides.
From the clothing area, we were brought to a large horizontal entrance shaft leading into the mine itself. Two old narrow-gauge railway tracks led into the tunnel, and riding on one of these tracks was a toy-like green train that had a couple of long bench cars - as in, rail cars that were not much more than a long bench with wheels. We were straddle-seated on these bench cars in one long single-file. With everyone seated, the little electric train we were straddling smartly moved into the tunnel, whizzing along at probably 20 km/hr.
After several minutes of clanking along a dimly-lit tunnel, our mine train came to a stop and we assembled in a larger open area. Our tour guide began showing us what would be a series of small video presentations, somewhat corny but very informative, about the politics, characters, and procedures of salt mining in the Salzburg area over the last thousand years. The two main characters in this series of videos were the historically important 16th-century Salzburg Archbishop Wolf Dietrich, along with his clumsy servant Jakobus.
Crossing into Germany?
We were escorted from place to place in the mine (which actually straddles the Austria/Germany border), and were shown some examples of the earliest forms of mining through to modern methods, as well as the construction and maintenance techniques for the tunnels.
A fun part of the tour are the wooden connector slides. These are just that: polished and rounded wooden slides that allow quick passage from a higher level to a lower level. It seems as if the slides that we used were actual slides used by miners when this section of the mine was in real use - perhaps restored or maintained - but real nevertheless. The guide would send us down in small groups of two to four interlocked groups, and they were steep enough to generate a reasonable amount of speed. The need for the frumpy canvas clothing was quite clear - these slides would probably soil your clothes, and maybe even cause a few friction burns.
Another highlight of the tour was the ride across the "salt lake" - a large underground room filled with a few meters of very briny water. Using what appeared to be a sort of cable ferry arrangement, we were towed across the still waters accompanied by a blaze of multi-colored lights and overly dramatic music. A bit on the chintzy side.
Another inter-level slide
After the salt lake crossing and a few more wooden slide runs, we reached the conclusion of the interpretational videos and began our walk back towards the entrance shaft and train. By this time one is thoroughly confused about which way is which, having gone through so many twists and turns and level changes. One particularly interesting fact one learns (and observes) is that the walls of virtually all of these chambers and tunnels are gradually squeezing together. The geology of the salt mine is such that the material is fairly soft, and combined with the immense pressure from overhead, causes any open space to gradually get smaller and smaller. There was much evidence of this everywhere, and periodically each section much be carved out in order to prevent the mine from entirely closing up.
Old construnction preserved
With the mine tour over (and with a much greater understanding of the importance of salt in Salzburg's history), we drove the short distnace north from Hallein into Salzburg proper. Roland had booked us into a pseudo-hostel sort of place - the JUFA Salzburg (JUFA is a hotel chain, mostly present in Austria and Germany). It had a youthful, modern vibe, and was located just a few hundred metres away from the edge of the altstadt (the old city) of Salzburg.
After freshening up for a bit, we reconvened in the hotel lobby and set out for a walk through the old city. It was a pleasant enough evening, calm, clear and of average temperature. The historic center was not overly busy, giving the many platzs scattered about the old city a quiet and roomy feel. Being the homeplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Salzburg has many references and spots dedicated to him, including the Mozartplatz (with his statue) and the house within which he was born - both of which we visited (well, for the house we just visited the outside).
Old Salzburg definitely felt historic, but it also had a kind of whitewashed cleanliness to it - everything was quite tidy and extra-well maintained; there's none of the elegantly worn-out aesthetic that we had in Venice, for example.
We had dinner at a place called Sternbraü - a complex of related restaurants and accommodation that grew out of a 16th century "beer inn". We ate out in the biergarten-like open courtyard area and enjoyed some traditional Austrian fare (which usually involves sausages, dumplings, goulash - that sort of thing). And, of course, some beer.