Monday, May 19, 2014

Salz Welten at Altausee -- Not for the Claustrophobic

Mines are not for the claustrophic.
Have you ever been in a salt mine? Did you (also) lick the walls?

OK, so we're on our way back from Graz (Austria) and driving through the Salzkammergut when I turn to Herbert the Loquacious Lard Maker and say, "We should see a salt mine while we're here." And he says, "Are there salt mines here?" And I say, "What do you think a Salzkammer is?" And he says "Oh."

Now, I'm no expert on the etymology of place names, but Salz means salt and Kammer mean chamber. Either this place has salt mines or it was once a giant salt shaker. As a surrealist--the other me who writes fiction--knows, it's all possible. "I want to lick the walls of a salt mine," I say as we drive right past a sign with "SALZ WELTEN" on it. "Um." I point and slap Herbert the Loquacious Lard Maker on the shoulder until he turns the car around.

From the autobahn Salz Welten, the tourist attraction buried deep within a working salt mine, is around a 4-pop-song drive. You'll need to pay very close attention to the signs. You'll also need to drive through a couple of tiny villages and up a mountain. Is it worth the trip?

Are you a fan of salt? Salt, as you may know, is necessary for life. You and I probably eat too much of it, but we're very lucky to have ready access to it. A long long time ago, salt was so precious that it was used as compensation. That's actually where we get our word salary and the idiom He's not worth his salt. And here is where I'll stop being an English teacher and get back to the matter at hand.

Salz Welten is a walking tour-slash-museum. Finally, I've found my type of museum! To even get to the beginning of the tour, you have to walk with your group about one kilometer into the mine. But first you have to put on protective clothing in size RL (ridiculously large). When the guide handed me a shirt and trousers with a big L on them, I hesitated.


"What?" he said in German. "Do you think I have the perfect size for everyone?" or something like that. The medium trousers and shirts were hanging right there next to the RL ones. I'm kind of small, you see. And to help you see, here's a picture of me wearing the RL get-up the guide gave me. I had to hold up the pants during the entire tour. Is walking through a mine tunnel in the dark while holding up your pants difficult? I'm glad you asked. Well, it's easier than walking with them around your ankles.

It's hard to see in the picture, but I'm standing with my feet a bit far apart so the pants don't slip down. I've cinched the drawstring up as far as possible, pulled the pants up past my navel and doubled up the material. That's why I look pudgy in the picture.  

The highlights of the tour:

The Art Chamber

The Nazis hid their stolen art in the salt mine at Altausee. As WWII was coming to an end, they are had brilliant idea of blowing up the thousands of pieces of art so that they would not wind up in Ally hands. They wheeled the bombs into the mine in boxes marked "Marble -- Don't tip" or something like that in German. It was only the curiosity of a mine worker that saved the art. Wondering why anyone would be storing marble in the mine, he opened one of the crates and found the bomb. The multimedia presentation in the art chamber is impressive. Definitely a highlight.

St. Barbara's Chapel

I'm not Catholic or a miner, so I'm only slightly familiar with St. Barbara. If you're a Catholic miner, you're certainly familiar with the legends surrounding her. The shrine to her in the salt mine here demonstrates just how important this saint is to the men and women who work here. Barbara's own father supposedly executed her for converting to Christianity.

The tour also includes a laser light show in a chamber that hosts concerts for audiences of up to 600. It's entertaining but also completely unrelated to salt mines as far as I can tell. It is, however, a good opportunity to let go of my pants and sit a spell.

The tour lasts a little over an hour and costs 16 euros for adults. It's good fun and informative. And, yes, you do get to taste the salt.
Salt tasting

I must be off,

PS: Have you started writing your entry for the Second Annual I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest? Check out the guidelines HERE.


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Ficton, PANK, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.