SILENT NIGHT AND THE SALT MINES
Here's another sample chapter from my recent guidebook Daytrips Austria.
A Daytrip from Salzburg
It's only a few minutes from Salzburg, but the ancient town of Hallein is a long way removed in the type of experiences it offers. You can plunge deep into the bowels of the Earth while exploring a salt mine that has been worked since Neolithic times, visit a prehistoric farm before seeing a remarkable museum of Celtic antiquities, and even trace the origin of that most beloved of Christmas carols, "Silent Night."
Hallein owes both its history and its very name to salt, the prefix "hal" being an ancient Celtic word for the mineral. It developed during the Middle Ages as a place where precious salt was extracted from brine coming down from the hillside mines. Some of its medieval past remains intact, while many of the narrow streets are still lined with 17th- and 18th-century houses. Next to the 15th-century parish church is the home and grave of the composer Franz-Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), whose one famous work is still sung by millions the world over.
Trains leave Salzburg frequently for the short 20-minute ride to Hallein. Some of these are expresses, others second-class locals. Return service operates until late evening. For those without railpasses, an all-inclusive Salz Erlebnis Ticket is available that covers the train, bus, salt mines, and museum. A similar ticket is available at the Hallein station for those who used a railpass.
Buses depart frequently from the square in front of Salzburg's train station for Hallein, a ride of 40 minutes. Get off at the Hallein train station. Returns run until mid-evening.
By Car, leave Salzburg on the A-10 (toll) to the Hallein exit, then follow signs through town and uphill to the Salzwelten Salzburg — Bad Dürrnberg, a total distance of about 17 km (11 miles). Upon returning downhill to the town of Hallein, park on the Pernerinsel Island near the train station and tourist office. An alternative free route from Salzburg is to take the B-160 road past Hellbrunn and continue south on the B-159 to Hellein.
All attractions are open daily all year round. Bring along a light sweater or jacket as the salt mine is chilly, and wear sensible shoes. The mine is not recommended for handicapped persons, and children under the age of four are not admitted. The local Tourist Information Office, T: (06245) 853-94, W: hallein.com, is on Pernerinsel Island at Maultorpromenade 6, near the parking lot and the train station.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Stadtkrug (Thunstr., near Unterer Markt) A good value in traditional Austrian dishes. T: (06245) 83-085. X: Sat., Sun. lunch. € and €€
Papaya (Griesplatz 8, a few blocks southeast of Unterer Platz) International dishes for a young crowd. T: (06245)88-505. X: Sun. in winter. € and €€
Sun-Ly China Restaurant (Dr. A.-Eder-Str. 6, just north of Unterer Markt) Chinese cuisine, with lunch specials. T: (06245) 83-247. €
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Leave the train station (1) and board the bus to Salzwelten Salzburg — Bad Dürrnberg, the salt mines up on the mountain. Those coming by car can drive directly there by following signs.
The main attraction of Hallein is the:
*SALZWELTEN SALZBURG — BAD DÜRRNBERG (Salt Mines) (2), W: salzwelten.at. Open daily April-Oct. 9-5; Nov.-March 10-3. Tours take about 90 minutes. Adults €€€€, children 7-15 and students €€€, children 4-6 €€. Family plans offered. Admission includes the Celtic Village plus the Keltenmuseum and Stille Nacht Museum in Hallein. Children under 4 not allowed, unsuitable for handicapped persons.
Here you'll join a group, which enters a changing room and is issued protective clothing for the subterranean trek. The group then goes to the mine shaft and boards electric wagons, which carry you underground as far as the salt deposits. From there on the tour is on foot, mostly some 3,000 feet beneath Germany as this mine works the same deposits as the famous mine in the nearby Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. There are stops at displays explaining how the salt is extracted, and at dioramas depicting Celtic miners at work in the Dürrnberg mines as early as 700 B.C., along with artifacts of their early religion. Don't miss the famous Mann in Salz, a prehistoric corpse perfectly preserved in salt and discovered in 1616.
Descending to the lower levels is exciting as you travel rapidly downwards through the mountain on polished wooden slides, followed by a boat ride on an underground salt lake along the way. The visit ends with another electric wagon ride back to daylight. Salt mining operations ceased here in 1989; it is now strictly a show mine.
You might want to take a break at one of the simple outdoor cafés near the mine entrance, where you can sit down with a drink or light meal and enjoy the mountain view.
Just above the mine entrance is a reconstructed prehistoric Celtic Farm Village (Keltendorf Bad Dürrnberg) (3) in the style of about 500 B.C., complete with a prince's burial site. A detailed English explanation of everything is available on request. Open same time as the mines. Admission is included with the salt mine.
Continue steeply uphill to the early-17th-century Pilgrimage Church of Maria Dürrnberg (4), constructed in 1596 of the same local pink marble that is still quarried today.
Nearby is the Kurgarten (5), a lovely garden with one of those strange open pavilions called Gradierwerke where you march around a covered track breathing salt-air fumes that are supposed to be good for your health. It's free, so try it. There are instructions in English.
Return steeply downhill by bus or with your own car (cars should park near the tourist office and saline works (8)) to Hallein and follow the map through the old part of town to the Stadtpfarrkirche (parish church) (6), where Franz-Xaver Gruber, the composer of "Silent Night," was organist for 28 years in the mid-19th century. His organ is still in use, and his house next door now houses the Stille Nacht Museum, filled with memorabilia including the original guitar used in the first performance back in 1818. W: stillenachthallein.at. Open Jan.-Advent, daily 3-5; Advent-Dec. 11-5. In front of this is his grave, a national shrine of sorts, and nearby a plaque in English placed there in 1934 by the schoolteachers of Los Angeles, honoring his "Universal Message of Peace and Good Will."
The route on the map takes you through the picturesque Altstadt to the:
*KELTENMUSEUM (Celtic Museum) (7). Pflegerplatz 5, T: (06245) 807-83, W: keltenmuseum.at. Open daily 9-5. Admission included with salt mine; otherwise €€.
Hallein's superb and quite modern museum features displays of local life among prehistoric Celts, the salt trade through the ages, and regional folklore. Among the outstanding exhibits are an Iron-Age grave complete with skeleton, a diorama of prehistoric salt mining techniques, tools, implements, and jewelry; plus room interiors and costumes from the 19th century.
The best way back to the station takes you past the Saline Works (8), where brine was converted into salt on a island in the Salzach River, the tourist office, the car parking lot, and through the Town Park.
Text and map copyright © 2008 by Earl Steinbicker.
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