Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Salzwerken

So as you can see, the family has eaten well in Austria. Actually, we are packed into our salt mine tour outfits. Not as flattering as they could be, especially with all those winter clothes. Salzburg and Munich are both towns started because of salt.

The salt was left as deposits of seawater became trapped during the continental drifts. Over time (and I mean a very long time) the water part went away and the salt part was left behind to mingle with the rock part. This is known as rock salt and has provided people with an essential mineral for at least back to the 6th century BC.

The first people to mine the salt as far as we know were the Celts. I didn’t even know the Celts were in this neighbourhood but apparently they were a prolific bunch and spread all throughout France, Germany and south through Serbia, Bulgaria and many other central and Eastern European countries and there were even Celts in central Turkey. Who knew? The Celts had primitive methods for extracting the salt, as you might imagine, given they were around in the 6th century BC. They would only mine during the winter months because of air flow problems in the mine.

The mine is designed with air ducts at the bottom and the top of the mountain today. This means that during the summer the hotter air rises and enters through the top shafts, cooling as it goes in and then dropping into the lower shafts before heading out the bottom. This would create a wind in the tunnels but doors have been created to control the air flow. It means that the tunnels stay about the same temperature (10 degrees Celcius) year round. In the time of the Celts, the cold air would flow in the bottom of the mountain during the winter months (as it does today) and would get warmer as it went inside so that it would rise and exit out the top shafts. It’s like a natural air conditioning system!

We didn’t have to wear our touques and mittens but we kept our winter coats on. As we exited the mine some time later I was actually glad we went in the winter because I think in the summer it would be uncomfortably cold in shorts and t-shirts.

The whole tour was a fun variety of rides. We started with a ride on a narrow gauge train into the mine. Then we walked through the tunnels to a slide. The miners would go down in the tunnels by sliding down long wooden banisters. Their banisters were longer and steeper than the tourist ones we slid down but we were all thankful because our slides were quite thrilling enough. It heated up your tender bottom so it was good we had several layers of clothing on. The slide was lots of fun.

Next, we entered a cavern with an underground salt lake. The Celts started the mining process but it was lost after about 1 AD and it wasn’t until just after the middle ages that people started mining again. At that time they discovered how to use water to extract the salt instead of having to chip it out of the rock. They would fill the whole cavern with water and the water would leech the salt from the rock. Once the water reached 27% salinity, they would drain it down to the town below. The townspeople would fill large copper bins with the water and burn huge amounts of wood beneath to boil the water off. When the saltwater reached a sludge stage, they would form it into cones and the cones would be the way they would sell it to other areas. We got to ride across the lake in a boat. They lit the cavern with atmospheric lighting and played mood music to accompany our ride.

When the boat came to a stop we faced several carved masks that looked very devilish, though our guide assured us we weren’t THAT far under the ground. Apparently, children would come down to wear the masks and scare away the evil spirits. Either that or bad children would be sent down to wear them for punishment. We couldn’t agree later which it was.

After the ride we walked through more tunnels and crossed the border between Austria and Germany. There was a little sign letting us know when we crossed to German soil. There is an agreement between Germany and Austria that Austria can mine the area below and Germany gets a section of forested area on top of the surface. Since the mines are no longer working, our guide indicated the Austrians got a bad deal but it seemed they were making a pretty good profit on the tourism side to me.

We came to another slide. This time it was even longer so Tom took a video of his ride. We also got to see a the replica of a body discovered in the 16th century. It was a Celtic miner and the miners who discovered it took it out to show the bishop. The bishop stated the body wasn’t Christian and they disposed of it. Our guide pointed out that wasn’t very good marketing on their part but really, how were they to know what a tourist goldmine they had on their hands? So, we have a picture for you of the replica rather than the original.

To get out of the mine we took an escalator. Yes, an escalator. Then we rode the narrow gauge train back to the start. All in all it was a very fun tour.


maryanncart said...

Great reading your blog and hearing your voices after talking to you today...The word I have to decipher is "lowela" which is also funny, considering how low you descended!!! Hope your trip to Munich was good. Love Mom, Grandma Mac