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March 2003

Salt Lake City

No, not that one. We’re talking about the beautiful town of Hallein

If you’ve been to Salzburg, you may have heard of, though perhaps not visited, the second-largest town in the state of Salzburg, Hallein. This ancient salt-mining town and former Celtic settlement, at the foot of Hohen Göll (1,853 m) on the Salzach River, has been inhabited since the Stone Ages. Once a center for extracting salt from the mines of neighboring Bad Dürrnberg, Hallein today is very much in the shadow of nearby Salzburg, most visitors being too preoccupied with Mozart’s birthplace and Salzburg’s other attractions to consider venturing further afield.

The town is just a short drive—about 16 km—away from Salzburg and easily accessible by car, train or bus. In warmer weather it is also possible to cycle to the town from Salzburg along the Salzach. Hallein may no longer manufacture salt—production stopped as recently as 1989—but for thousands of years, ever since the first settlers came to the area around 2500 BC, the economy of the town was inextricably linked to that of the salt industry. Touring the underground salt mine at Bad Dürrnberg and visiting the famous Kelten Museum (Celtic Museum) in Hallein are two experiences that should not be missed.

The oldest Celtic finds in Europe are in and around Hallein. Every year, generally from August to October, international teams of archaeology students resume excavation work on a site at Bad Dürrnberg under the guidance of experts from the Kelten Museum. Visitors are welcome to have a look at the excavations—you can get to within a few meters of the site or ask for a guided tour by calling the museum in advance—though exciting finds, such as the discovery of a human skeleton, are rare. Once a find has been uncovered, it is moved to the museum and displayed in a special showcase with other recent finds, until experts have decided which part of the permanent exhibition it should be included in. The museum, a large, yellow brick building, situated on the banks of the river, not only exhibits relics from Celtic burial sites but sheds light on the history and culture of this fascinating tribe. One of the most interesting rooms features a view into a burial mound complete with food, weapons and tools.

The Celts were initially attracted to the area because of the salt reserves; the name Hallein even derives from the Celtic word for salt. This mineral was a very precious commodity in the days before refrigeration and on settling in the area the Celts began mining and trading the “white gold,” as salt was called. Once it had been extracted, it was transported first along the river and then on land, to towns and cities throughout Europe. The rudimentary tracks created by the Celts were later taken over by the Romans, who made them into proper roads. The most famous of these became the Via Salacia, which led from Hallein all the way to Rome. To find out more about the region’s former industry, it is worth visiting the Bad Dürrnberg salt mines, a short drive outside the town. Once visitors have reached the car park and ticket office, they can either walk (it takes a little less than one hour) or travel by cable car to the entrance of the mine. Guided tours are given daily from 11 am to 3 pm from November to March, and from 9 am to 5 pm from April to October. For reasons of safety children under the age of three are not allowed inside the mines. A tour lasts about 90 minutes and begins with a ride on an electric train into the interior. A guide explains the history of salt mining in an underground museum, which features miners’ lamps, digging maps, old tools as well as minerals. There are even sections of old wooden pipes on display, which were used in early attempts to transfer water containing dissolved salt out of the mountain to boiling houses. Here salt was extracted by heating the water, a method vastly superior to the strenuous method employed previously, when miners would carry the rock out of the mine on their backs. The mine also features a salt lake and models of miners in their woolen work clothes. For children the best part of the tour is undoubtedly slithering down the polished wooden slides to reach different levels and crossing the border on foot between Austria and Germany inside the mountain.

Hallein has entered the annals of history for another, less dramatic reason. For 30 years, from 1833 until his death in 1863, the composer and musician Franz Xaver Gruber lived and worked in the town. Gruber is best remembered today for composing the music to the world-famous Christmas carol “Silent Night.” The Stille Nacht Museum is located in his former home and the manuscripts of the song together with the guitar used to accompany the very first rendering at Oberndorf in 1816 are on display. Visits are by appointment only and need to be made through the Kelten Museum. Gruber’s grave, situated adjacent to the museum entrance, attracts visitors from all over the world.

A short drive from Hallein, located near the picturesque town of Werfen, is another sight well worth seeing: the Eisriesenwelt Höhle, the world’s largest system of ice caves. The entrance to this impressive natural wonder measures some 20 meters in width and 18 meters in height and is visible from quite a distance away. Nonetheless, the caves were virtually unknown until, in 1879, Anton Posselt, a scientist from Salzburg, made his way some 200 meters into the darkness and “officially” discovered what had previously been known only to hunters and poachers. His discovery was published a year later in a mountaineering magazine, but the caves soon slipped back into obscurity. Another pioneer in cave exploration, Alexander von Mörk, realized the significance of Posselt’s discovery and began sounding out the caves himself. His expeditions were soon followed by others, in the 1920s, and soon thereafter the first tourists arrived. Early climbing routes were established to the cave’s entrance and its interior. Today a cable car provides an alternative to the steep climb to the entrance.

The temperatures in the caves are nearly always below freezing and there are plenty of inclines, so warm clothing and sturdy shoes are a must. Once inside the cave, visitors are led by a guide and illumination is provided by lamps. The ice formations hidden in the darkness take on a spectacular, luminous and crystalline quality when strips of magnesium tape, set alight by the guides, are placed inside or behind selected formations. Truly breathtaking is the only way to describe the visual splendor inside this “cathedral” of ice. Unfortunately photography is not permitted not, as many visitors may think, because of the effect of the flash, but because the timing of the tours is strictly controlled. The walk takes you about 1 km into the caves, yet covers only a small fraction of the vast interior. If you take the cable car up to or down from the caves, you’ll be riding on one of the steepest in Austria and have the chance to enjoy the magnificent panoramic views of the Salzach valley, Castle Hohenwerfen and the surrounding mountains. You can also walk the route, which takes about 90 minutes and is safe and well-graded, but steep in places.

Visitors to the area may like to stay in Hallein, which has a selection of more than 40 hotels and guesthouses. Hotel Hafnerwirt, run by the Penzinger family, for example, offers comfortable double rooms for € 72, including breakfast. Alternatively you can make Salzburg your base. Try the inexpensive Pension Sandwirt, conveniently located directly across the tracks from the rear of the Hauptbahnhof. It offers clean, comfortable rooms with satellite TV and breakfast at prices often less than those at youth hostels (reservations are recommended). The warm hospitality with which Claudia and Walter Herzog greet their guests is genuine and not untypical of the region.

>>>BY CAR:
Take the A12 to Salzburg,
then the A10 to Hallein
>>>BY TRAIN: Regular train service
takes about two hours
Hallein/Bad Dürrnberg

Tel. + 43 6245 853 94
Fax. + 43 6245 853 94 29
Kelten Museum
Tourismusverband Werfen
Tel. + 43 6468 53 88
Fax. + 43 6468 75 62
Hotel Hafnerwirt
Tel. + 43-6245-80319
Pension Sandwirt
Tel. + 43 662 87 43 51 Fax. + 43 662 87 43 51

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