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Following the Salt Trail

So-called “white gold” made the Salzkammergut district rich. Visitors travelling on the old salt route through this exciting region follow in the footsteps of historic figures: miners from the grim and distant past, an old emperor in his villa, and courageous mountain-dwellers who foiled the Nazis. But what does George Clooney have to do with all this?

Hallstatt, Salzkammergut © Österreich Werbung/Weinhäupl
Hallstatt, Salzkammergut © Österreich Werbung/Weinhäupl
Bergkern Salt © Salzkontor
Bergkern Salt © Salzkontor
Altaussee Salt Mine © Salzwelten
Altaussee Salt Mine © Salzwelten

When Helmut Tucek guides visitors through his “Salzkammer” shop in St. Wolfgang and tells them about salt, one has a great urge to immediately sample from the salt mixtures in the small, ornamented wooden drawers. “Natural salt is more than just sodium and chloride”, says Herr Tucek, holding up a gleaming stone that represents the origins of all the salt here. “This Bergkern salt from Aussee contains no fewer than eighty-four minerals. These are all elements that are also present in our bodies, which is why this salt has such a soothing effect on our organism.” Unlike its commercially produced counterpart, this transparent, reddish-gold salt does not have a negative impact on our blood pressure or circulation, and because of its many minerals, it also tastes much better.


But one does not want only to taste salt; one wants to see where it comes from. And where it comes from is truly one of the most spectacular areas in all of Europe. From tranquil St. Wolfgang, where Herr Tucek sells his “white gold” not far from the famous Romantik Hotel Im Weissen Rössl, the journey leads over hills and mountain passes into the heart of the salt region to Hallstatt, where millennia ago people were already mining salt and delivering it throughout Europe. On the way, one experiences first-hand the charm of the Salzkammergut, where one romantic lake follows directly on the heels of another. This allure comes from the contrasts. The pastoral meets the untamed, the soft encounters the harsh. This is a region that breathes history, especially around darkly sparkling Lake Hallstatt, nestled in a high valley some 300 metres above sea level. Here, on the famous Salzberg, one finds the world’s oldest salt mine. The Salzberg Valley offers the visitor an astounding 7,000 years of cultural history.


Today, salt continues to be mined in Hallstatt. But for modern-day visitors to the Hallstatt salt mine, the focus is on fun and adventure, and a favourite attraction is the descent into the mine via two miners’ slides, complete with a speed check and photograph. And then one finally finds out - and understands - how the salt got into the mountain. When the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart some 240 million years ago, the Salzkammergut lay on the coast of a turbulent body of land. Over millions of years, dried-out salt seas were moved around by volcanic eruptions, formation of mountains and shifting rock plates. They were forced upward, pressed together and covered with a layer of limestone. Inside these new mountains, the salt rested until it was discovered by humans several thousand years ago.


Even at that time, salt was shipped from Bad Ischl via the Traun River to the Danube, where it was transported on as far as Hungary, Bohemia and Slovenia. Today Bad Ischl is known as a resort with a particularly healthful climate, and as a Mecca for people nostalgic for the days of the monarchy. This was, after all, something of a second home for the emperor. Francis Joseph I spent eighty-two summers of his eighty-six-year-long life at the Imperial Villa. Bad Ischl is also the site of Austria’s oldest brine bath, today an ultramodern wellness spa whose saline water has healthful benefits for the respiratory organs, the musculoskeletal system and the cardiovascular system.


From this small town at the confluence of the Traun and Ischl Rivers, the traveller crosses Pötschen Pass to reach the area known as Ausseerland and continues on to the most remote, quietest corner of the region, Altaussee. The Sandling towers over the village as the region’s most salt-rich mountain. A tour of the Altaussee Salt Mine takes visitors even deeper into the world of salt. One travels 700 metres into the mountain, and after 350 metres the salt line is reached, recognizable by the shimmering purple salt crystals in the rock.


That the salt works even still exist can be attributed to several courageous miners from not so long ago. In 1944 the Nazis stored more than 30,000 artworks from all over Europe here – the most valuable art storeroom of all time – and at the end of the war they intended to destroy the art treasures by blowing up the mine. But the miners of Altaussee foiled their plans. In May 1945, in an act of resistance, they secretly removed the four 500-kilo aircraft bombs from the mine and defused them, to protect themselves but also to safeguard the future of the salt works. Only a few days later, American soldiers arrived and secured the billion-dollar art depot.


It’s a heroic little story, and it's no wonder that it even came to the attention of Hollywood. George Clooney made a film version of this episode in history under the title “The Monuments Men” - starring himself.