June 4, 2010 Obertraun to Hallstatt Austria

9 06 2010

We moved 5 minutes down the road today.  To Hallstatt from Obertraun. 

The plan had been to go visit the Salt mines and then go shopping in Hallstatt for the remainder of the day.

We had our typical buffet breakfast of meat, cheese, bread, yogurt, juice and cereal at the SeeHotel.   We had noticed the waters receding last night and by this morning the road to the hotel was actually dry. We didn’t need to walk along benches to get to our vehicle this morning.  Yipee.   Packing up was much faster this morning since we hadn’t brought all our luggage in, just a garbage bag of essentials.  Way easier.

A short run down the road to Halstatt and we headed directly to P2 where we knew from yesterday that we’d be close to the funicular to take us up to the salt mines.

We headed up on a 0930 run up the mountain.  This thing smoked…  5 m/s up the hill, and it was a STEEP hill.  In no time we were up at the top of the lift, in and around the clouds of the morning.  The weather forecast said that things should improve.  It had stopped raining but there were DEFINITELY no shortage of clouds shrouding the alp peaks and the lying in the valleys now below us.

From the funicular there was a 10-15 minute walk explaining the history of the salt mining in this area for the past 7000 years.  Archaeologists had found hundreds of people buried as well as tools dating back thousands of years.  It had been a rich source of knowledge about the Hallstatt people.  The salt mine had been so successful that Hallstatt became a key centre of commerce long before Christ.  The only thing that apparently really sunk the salt business was a mine collapse that sealed the mines for almost 100 years.   By the time the mines reopened another mine had become the major salt producer.  This collapse marked the end of the “Hallstatt period” as historians have come to call it.

We arrived at the mine entrance just in time for a tour.  Since the majority of visitors were German speaking, the tour took place in German and the guide gave us an English bit before moving on.  The English was REALLY abbreviated from the German. I don’t know a lot of German, but I could recognize many terms and descriptions that WEREN’T in the English one.  This place really seems to cater to the Austrian and German tourists that come here in the summer to escape the heat of the cities.  Even so, the tour was quite interesting and we learned a lot about olden day salt mining and the methods they use today, in these same mines.  While on the tour we got to slide down these big wooden slides to go to a lower level, just as the miners had done for thousands of years before us.  It made for a bit of fun.  The group was fairly large at 40 or so and I was surprised to learn that the groups in the busy season go up to 70!  We finished out our tour of the mine with a ride on a mine train (A long series bench with wheels that you straddle) and we whizzed 600m back to the daylight at the end of the horizontal shaft.  With our tour complete, they gave us little samples of Hallstatt salt and tried to sell us pictures of ourselves going down the slides.  I didn’t like mine, but some of our group shelled out the 5 Euros for their picture.

When we got out and began our walk down to the funicular we were reacquainted with an old friend – the SUN!!!  The sun was slowly breaking through the clouds and the village of Obertraun, below, became visible clearly from up where we were.  We took pictures with the sunny meadows behind us and generally soaked up the warmth and life that the sun brings.  We were so happy!

It was at this point that I threw out my idea for a “plan B”.  If you recall, the original plan had us spending the afternoon wandering through Hallstatt buying a bunch of overpriced and largely worthless souvenirs.  I threw out my idea.  I figured they could go shop until they drop but I was going to go check out the Dachstein Caves.  They looked quite interesting and one of them was an ICE cave!  After some discussion around the group it was agreed – The Dachstein caves would be the activity for all of us.  (So much for being a rebel – apparently I ended up as a leader 🙂 ) 

The road to the caves was back to Obertraun and then off along a new route that led pretty quickly uphill.  It wasn’t long before we swung around a corner and the gondola system that would take us up to the caves was visible.  Wow!  It went a LONG way up.  The gondola takes people even higher than the caves for those that want to get up to 2990m and do some serious alpine hiking or mountaineering.  We were just going to go up to the first station.  Strangely, this is the time that I found out that Clara is afraid of heights… She was going to tough it out on the gondola though as she was NOT going to miss these caves.  The cost to see both the “Mammoth Cave” and the “Ice Cave” was 15.50 Euros. It was pricey, but I was sure it would be worth it.

We all boarded the gondola at around 1345 and we went to the ticket office to be assigned to a group for our cave tours.   We found out that we would be seeing the Mammoth Cave first and then over to the ice cave.  No problem.

The man at the ticket counter said it would take approx 15 minutes to walk to the Mammoth cave and that our tour started in 30 minutes.  Ack.  We hadn’t had any lunch and it looked like we weren’t going to have any lunch either :(  The group hit the little souvenir shop and grabbed ice creams for a quick energy boost.  I bought a milk chocolate bar and a snickers which I could have later.  We left in a hurry and started up the hill towards the mammoth cave.  The walk wasn’t strenuous but it was a constant gentle uphill.  By the time we got to the mammoth cave we were pretty hot since by now the clouds had given up any pretence of being able to stop the sun.  It was a sunny, hot day and we were starting to cook in our fleeces and jackets which we wore in anticipation of cold wet weather on the mountain.

Within about 10 minutes of our arrival our guide came out and introduced himself. It seems again that as the English speakers we were in the minority but this time the guide would talk to us as we walked from point to point and then address the mostly German speaking crowd at the specific locations.

The cave was huge. It actually goes on for over 60km in the ground but our tour was only 800m  The weather in the area is generally cooler than in many places which means that water evaporation is not as quick.   The slow evaporation meant that stalactite and stalagmite growth conditions weren’t favourable.  The impressive things about the cave were its sheer size in volume and the formations that formed as the underground prehistoric river flowed through it.  It was very interesting and nice to be in the “climate controlled” 8C. The tour was quite informative and it definitely made me wonder what the other 99.8% of the cave would be like.

With our caving appetite whetted we were excited to see the Ice cave.  Good thing too, since we would have to book it down and then back up to ice cave which was even higher up the mountain as the last ice cave tour would be starting in about 25 minutes.  Cathy wasn’t feeling well and her knees were bothering her, so she decided to stay down below at the little restaurant while the other seven us headed up, and SERIOUSLY UP.  Switchback after steep switchback eventually led us to the entrance of the ice cave.  We had just enough time to breathe and congratulate ourselves for making it up when our guide appeared.  Our tour group was much smaller this time and we had an English tour since we were the predominant group.  The ice cave was amazing!  There was a start where you walked along and he gave you the same basic information about karst formations and caves but then he opened yet another door and we entered a frozen wonderland.  Wow!  Icicles hanging right next to you as you walked along the boardwalk.   Ice flows that looked like frozen rivers that had solidified hundreds of years ago and now stood still for us to gaze at in wonder and amazement.  There were ice columns that extended over 40 feet.  There were ice curtains…even a frozen waterfall.  The tour ended with a view into a pit of ice that really made you think that if you slipped off the walk that you might just come out in some mythical land.  What a great tour.

After finishing our tour we had about 25 minutes to get down to the gondola as the last ride down would be at 1710.  Again we didn’t have much time to rest but headed directly down and got in line.  The 1700 gondola was full but we DID get into the 1710.  Shortly, we were back down at the parking lot and climbing into our van and tuning the now quite necessary Air Conditioning.

Next stop: Hallstatt.  We drove back down our now familiar little road to Hallstatt and with the flooding subsided were able to drive right down into the centre of the village which was where our hotel was situated.  At on point on the road we passed between two buildings and I swear there was no more than 6” total to spare for the van!

We unloaded and I went up to park the van.  I had to go back out via the narrow passage and all the walking tourists so that I could go and park up above the village in the free parking.  Of course free parking came with a price.  I had to hike DOWN the stairs again to get back to the hotel.  My feet and knees had just about had enough of all this.

At the hotel I learned that we were up on the 3rd floor (that’s 4 floors up for we North American folks) so we were about to haul our luggage up the stairs when the girl at reception had a young lad come up and help with the carrying.  Most excellent.  The rooms were spacious and nicely decorated in a period style.  The floors creaked liked you’d expect of a 300 year old building.  There would be no sneaking in our out from THIS place.

We headed out for dinner to a little place Maggie and Francis had eaten at the last time they were here.  The gentleman serving us was quite friendly (almost a little too casual) and we had a challenge getting him to stop chatting with the other clients so that we could order. That being said – he was a nice enough fellow and easy to get along with.  We ordered a bottle of wine to share as this was the last night that Clara, Cathy and Maggie’s sister would be with us.  They were beginning their journey back to Hong Kong tomorrow.  We feasted on fish pork and beef after having started with soups and salads.  Desert was different.  We had some puffy egg-centric dessert that I liked while the others gave a mixed review.  We also had found Francis’ new favourite desert – Kaiserschmarren. 

By the time we finished dinner – we were stuffed.  We walked across the small town square back to our hotel rooms and we called it a night.  With no Internet available I got lazy and didn’t write the blog… I started falling further behind 😦

We had a long day ahead of us the next day as we would be heading to Graz so I took advantage of the quieter evening to get some better shuteye.  Soon we would be heading to Croatia!

Good Night!

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