Here's another sample chapter from my new guidebook, Daytrips Austria. This one-day adventure from Salzburg will be especially welcome on a hot summer day as it takes you deeply underground into a fantasy world of eternally frozen ice.
A Daytrip from Salzburg
The Eisriesenwelt cave system, whose name literally means "World of the Ice Giants," is one of the strangest sights in Austria. This is actually the largest complex of caves in Europe, with over 25 miles of interconnecting caverns explored so far. Perched some 5,460 feet above sea level and 3,280 feet above the valley floor, it is a short 28 miles south of Salzburg. Nearly the first mile of the caves is perpetually frozen into a wonderland of fantastic ice formations, some of which may date from the last Ice Age. Eisriesenwelt is indeed regarded as the greatest ice cave in the world, whose proximity to Salzburg has long made it a popular — if chilly — daytrip destination.
The ice is formed as a result of unique ventilation conditions in the cave. During the winter months cold winds cause the water trickling down from the plateau above to freeze. In summer, the flow of air is reversed, so that the warm air does not enter, hence the caves remain eternally frozen. Even on hot summer days, the inside temperature is always below freezing.
An additional attraction is Burg Hohenwerfen, a dramatically-situated fortress with falconry shows and medieval dungeons.
Trains of all classes depart Salzburg's main station (Hauptbahnhof) fairly frequently in the morning for the under-one-hour ride to Werfen. Return service operates until mid-evening.
By Car, take the A-10 Tauern Autobahn to the Werfen exit, then highway B-159 into Werfen. It is possible to drive up to the parking lot near the lower station of the cable car, thus avoiding a taxi or bus ride.
The cave is closed between late October and the end of April, while the fortress has a slightly longer season. Be sure to bring warm clothes, sturdy shoes, and possibly gloves as you will be spending over an hour at freezing temperatures. Photography or videotaping is forbidden as it disrupts the tour presentation. This trip should not be taken by claustrophobic or physically handicapped persons and is not suitable for very young children. An early start is recommended. A few miles of outdoor walking are involved, so if it looks like rain bring an umbrella. You will be supplied with a lantern to find your way underground.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Obauer (Markt 46 in Werfen) One of the very finest restaurants in all of Austria, with creative Austrian cuisine. Reservations essential, T: (06468) 5212-12), W: Obauer.com. €€€+
Gasthaus Zaismann (on the mountain road to the cable car, about 1 km from Werfen) Traditional Austrian country food, convenient for those driving up. T: (06468) 7251, W: zaismann.at €€
Dr.0edl-Haus (by the upper cable car station) A rustic Alpine chalet with indoor and outdoor tables, a great view, and traditional Austrian fare. Open same times as the cave. T: (06468) 5248-12, W: oedlhaus.at. €
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
From the Werfen Train Station (1) it is only a short walk across the river to Werfen's main square(Markt) (2), where you can board a minibus that takes you to a parking lot halfway up the mountain. Be sure to arrange for a return ride at the same time. It is also possible to board this at the train station instead, but there are fewer departures. Those with cars can drive to the parking lot, bearing in mind that the road is quite steep and somewhat difficult to negotiate. You could also hike the distance, about four miles with a 1,200-foot climb if you're up to it, but in that case plan on taking a late train back.
However you get to the parking lot (3) you now walk for 15 minutes along a beauitiful path to the lower station(Seilbahn Talstation) (4) of the cable car, where refreshments are available. Purchase a combination ticket (Kombinierter Tarif) that includes the cave tour, and board the cable car for a very steep 5-minute ascent to the upper station.
Adjacent to the upper station(Bergstation) is the Dr.-Oedl-Haus (5), a rustic Alpine retreat with good, inexpensive meals and cheap overnight accommodations. This is where you are assembled into groups for the cave tour.
*EISRIESENWELT ICE CAVES (6), T: (06468) 5291, W: eisriesenwelt.atOpen May 1 until late Oct., tours daily from 9:30-3:30. Allow 3-4 hours for total trip. Combination ticket for cable car and cave tour: Adults €€€, children to 14 years €€.
The groups leave more or less hourly for the 15-minute uphill walk to the cave entrance (Höhleneingang). There they are met by a guide and outfitted with lanterns as there is no lighting in the caves other than an occasional magnesium flare used by the guide to highlight certain features. When the door is opened, there is a tremendous gush of cold air as you fight your way into the large underground hall; then a sudden stillness.
Steps lead from the entrance hall to the enormous Posselt-Halle, named after the person who first entered it in 1879. You then climb up the Grosser Eiswall (big ice wall) that runs across the entire width of the cave. The first man to overcome this barrier and thus be able to explore the miles of caves beyond was Alexander von Mork, who accomplished this feat in 1913 along with two companions.
Beyond the ice wall a long, narrow corridor leads into the magnificent Hymir Halle with its fantastic ice formations such as the Schloss Hymir and the Ice Organ. You are then led through the Thrym Halle and up a drafty air passage to the shimmering frozen curtains of the Ice Gateway, followed by the *Alexander von Mork Cathedral, the largest chamber in the cave. A white marble urn in a recess there contains the ashes of von Mork, who perished in World War I.
The Ice Palace lies beyond this, a half-mile from the entrance and as far into the caves as the tour goes before beginning the downhill journey to the entrance. Spelunkers might be interested in arranging for a private tour extending much farther into the subterranean labyrinth.
Emerge into the daylight and stroll back to the Dr.-Oedl-Haus (5), where you can stop for a much-deserved drink, snack, or meal. From here retrace the route back to Werfen (2), where you might want to hike or drive uphill for about a mile (or take the new elevator from the village) to another worthwhile attraction:
BURG HOHENWERFEN (7), T: (06468) 7603-4, W: salzburg-burgen.at. Open April, Tues.-Sun. 9:30-4:30; May-June and Sept., daily 9-5; July-Aug., daily 9-6; Oct.-Nov., daily 9:30-4:30. Falconry shows at 11 and 3. €€. Elevator to castle €.
First built in 1077 to guard the valley approach to Salzburg, this mighty fortress was destroyed in a peasant uprising in 1525 and reconstrucyed to its present form later in the 16th century. Several falconry shows are presented daily against a backdrop of towering mountains. The tour includes visits to a special exhibition, a falconry museum, a chapel, an arsenal, and — of course — the dungeons.
Text and map copyright © 2008 Earl Steinbicker