Hallstatt, Austria - Thursday, 6/2

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We spent this day looking at the small town of Hallstatt, which is on the banks of lake Hallstatt. What an incredibly beautiful town in Austria! This town appears to be typical of many in the mountains and valleys around Salzburg. It was very picturesque and beautiful, with several open courts surrounded by shops.

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There was an 18th century Lutheran church where people were finally allowed to worship according to their conscience after nearly three hundred years of persecution by the Catholic church. During the times of and following Luther's Protestant Reformation in Germany, the Austrians, who were very receptive to the ideas of the Reformation, were prosecuted mercilessly for nearly three hundred years. They were imprisoned, killed, robbed of all their possessions and forbidden to practice their faith according to their conscience. This church was built when they were finally allowed to do so.

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We had a delicious lunch on the banks of the lake, enjoying some of the best food during our whole trip. We had Austrian Weiner Schnitzel Von Scheim (with pork). It came with delicious small white potatoes served with a cranberry sauce and salad. Britten had potato soup, Ellie had sausages and noodles. I had apple strudel with whip cream. Delicious!

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After walking the village streets a little longer, we headed up the mountain for a tour of the oldest Salt Mine in the world. The Hallstatt salt mine has been in operation in some form or other back to the pre-Christ roman era and their are archaeological remains of mining going back to about 7000 B.C. We took a rail car halfway up to the mountain and then climbed about another quarter mile to the mine entrance. As we got ready to enter the mine, we had to put on overcoats. The temperature down in the mines is about 50 degrees.

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We went about 300 meters (1000 feet) into the mountain through a real miner's tunnel. It was only about 6 feet wide and 8 feet tall, semi circular in shape. At that point we saw one of the old mining pits (150 years old) where miners would dig the salt out and pull it up in buckets by rope.

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Then we went another 300 meters further into the mountain to the second stop. Here was the leaching chamber where miners would crush the salt and rock and pour it into a small lake / large pond which would dissolve the salt. The brine solution would then be pumped up to the surface and the water would be evaporated, leaving the salt. This is still the basic method used for salt mining today, but with more modern equipment. This mine, along with two others in Austria, provide about 1.6 million tons of salt per year.

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Another stop displayed the world's oldest wooden staircase, which was discovered in the mine after a cave-in destroyed one part of the mine, opening up another. In the new section, miners discovered part of the remains of an ancient wooden staircase and had the good sense to call in the archaeologists. The archaeologists excavated the site and, after years of study, reconstructed the staircase. During the tour, we were able to go down into the mine using an old miner's slide. It is two pieces of polished wood, each about 8 inches in diameter and aligned like rails about a foot apart and two feet off the ground. You just sit on these two rails and slide down on your backside! (Click here to see a movie of it.) The rails level out at the bottom where you don't even have to think about slowing yourself down, gravity takes care of it. What a brilliant way to get down! There were two of these rails, one about 100 feet long and the other about three hundred feet long. Finally, at the end of the tour, we road a small "train" rail out of the mountain. The train part was only the locomotive at the front. It pulled what looked like park benches. You would sit facing forward and travel through a very small tunnel (about 5 feet tall and three feet wide) for about 500 meters to get out of the mine and to the side of the mountain. (Click here to see a movie of it.) The last stage of the tour was a place where, about one hundred years ago, as miners were trying to open up a new shaft, they found remains of previous work. They called in archaeologists who discovered what is believed to be the oldest wooden stairway ever discovered. It has been dated at 1108 BC. Through the next several decades, it has been carefully reconstructed and is on display in this last tour station, along with other archaeological finds.

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Outside of the fascination of being inside an ancient salt mine, the area outside was beautiful beyond description. You are about 3000 feet high in a small Alpine valley with streams running down the valley bottom into lake Hallstatt below. From up on the heights you can see the small town of Hallstatt below and the beautiful lake and surrounding valley area. Magnificent!

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On the way back to Obertraun we stopped to do a little wading in Lake Hallstatt. The lake is fed by snow melt from the mountains and is VERY cold!

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After this we went back to Obertraun and hiked around the community to the upper end of lake Hallstatt. There was a beautiful park area for the kids, boating docks and a slide in the shallow end of the lake.

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There was a small cafe on the lakeside and there was what appeared to be a small group of musicians who just enjoyed getting together and playing. There were about six or eight violins and violas. One lare bass cello. A large horn the looked kind of like a cross between a trombone and a trumpet. I've never seen one like this before. It had finger valves like a trumpet, but with about six of them instead of three. It looked like a trombone at the front end, but there was no slider. There were about eight or ten guitars and maybe two accordions. They would just pick a song (sounded like maybe Austrian folk songs) and play from memory - no music. One song everyone sang (in Austrian of course!). It was delightful! After this we headed back to our rental and hit the sack.

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