For more than 250 million years, salt lay protected and undisturbed in the mountains of the Salzkammergut. In Altaussee in the Ausseerland-Salzkammergut, the Sandling Mountain holds the honour of being the most salt-rich mountain of the region. A tour of the salt mine takes visitors deep into the world of the ‘white gold’.
Prior to opening the large gate to the Steinberg tunnel of the Altaussee Salt Mine, Harald Pernkopf provides his guests with a few safety tips. There are mainly families visiting today. Since the 1920s, the Steinberg tunnel of the exhibition mine has been accessible to visitors. The Altaussee Salzwelten in Ausseerland-Salzkammergut has a long and eventful history. It all began during the Middle Ages in the mid-12th century. Salt mining in Altaussee was first mentioned in documents in 1147. Between 1334 and 1449, the medieval Aussee salt industry experienced a golden age under the leadership of the private Hallinger Union. In 1449, it was nationalised by Emperor Friedrich III. Starting in 1906, the production volume quadrupled from a previous amount of approximately 10,000 tonnes of salt per year. At its peak, there were 238 people proudly employed in the industry. Today approximately 400,000 tonnes of salt are mined annually by 35 miners in the largest active mine in Austria. Around 30,000 guests visit the exhibition mine each year.
The tour through the mountain begins. Full of excitement, the group follows their Salzwelten guide. The tunnel leads 350 metres through the limestone layer of the Sandling to reach the salt line, which is recognisable by its red stone. “The salt core of the mountain is like the yolk of an egg,” Pernkopf explains. “Around this salt core, there is a layer of clay without which the salt would have long been washed out.” The approximately two kilometre tour is covered on foot in 90 minutes – at times the tour leads through pure rock salt. Along the path to discover this vital mineral deposit, one loses all sense of time and space. It is a dive into the history of salt and the hidden world of mining. The highlights of the tour include the Barbara Chapel, which was hewn out of rock salt 700 metres deep in the mountain, two miner slides as well as a storage area for art treasures during the Second World War, complete with a multi-media presentation.
During WWII, invaluable art treasures, including stolen works, were hidden in the Altaussee mines by the Nazis. Paintings and sculptures as well as coin and jewellery collections from throughout Europe were stored in this bomb-proof facility. Shortly before the end of the war, these art treasures were slated to be destroyed. Only through the brave acts of local miners, was the destruction prevented at the last minute. It’s a tale of heroism. No wonder, that even Hollywood has taken notice. George Clooney captured the story in the film "The Monuments Men" and brought it to cinemas in 2014 with Clooney himself in the starring role. In Gabriela Zerhau's realistic drama “A Village Defends Itself”, which was shot in 2019, former employees of the mine and several residents of the Ausseerland acted as amateur actors.
In 1319, work was begun on the Steinberg tunnel in Altaussee. Given the methods at the time, progress was measured at a maximum of 10 centimetres per day. For the first 350 metres, the miners had to carve through the limestone until they could finally reach the rich salt deposit. Assuming that the work was carried out every day, the miners needed nine and a half years to finally reach the ‘white gold’. Seven hundred years later, modern mining equipment is utilized for the construction of tunnels. “For a typical tunnel, today’s miners can achieve 1.6 metres per day, including the removal of material,” explains Pernkopf, who is currently responsible for press relations and marketing at the Salzwelten. However, it’s clear that he still enjoys giving tours.
In Altaussee, salt is mined in its original form using traditional mining techniques. “During dry mining, like here in this tunnel, the raw, completely natural rock salt is extracted, checked, ground and sifted into the individual granules. It is unusual that the rock salt mine in Altaussee is the only one of its kind in Austria since the salt content of the rock in our area is actually too low for dry mining,” says Pernkopf as he passes a bowl of sifted rock salt through the group. Everyone happily enjoys tasting a sample. The salt has a cloudy colour because it contains traces of many other elements and minerals, which have been preserved for 250 million years in stone. This is exactly what makes rock salt a high-quality nutritional product. Conventional table salt is pure sodium chloride. Rock salt supplies the body with additional vital substances such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and iodine. “But wouldn’t sea salt be even healthier?” a woman in the group asks the salt professional. Harald Pernkopf laughingly replies, “The salt in the mountains of the Salzkammergut is nothing more than sea salt. It remained behind as the primordial sea dried out millions of years ago. However, at that time, the oceans weren’t polluted with oil, trash and plastic like today. There weren’t any humans after all.”
As the supercontinent Pangea broke apart 240 million years ago, the Salzkammergut lay on the coast of an unstable section of land. Over millions of years, dried-out salt seas were pushed upwards, pressed and covered by a layer of limestone through volcanic activity, mountain risings and rock movement. The salt slumbered inside the mountain until a few thousand years ago, when it was discovered by humans. In earlier times, salt was almost exclusively used for the preservation of food, especially meat. At so-called salt outcrops, the salt reached the surface and appeared in the form of salt water springs. The spring water was accessed and collected by means of water wheels. The brine from the spring was poured over hot stones, leaving behind salt on the stones, albeit in very small quantities. The organised mining of salt first began during the Bronze Age. Prehistoric mining reached its zenith during the so-called Hallstatt Period, a period of the early Iron Age between 800 and approximately 400 BCE. During this time, miners had already penetrated into the mountain to a depth of 200 metres. The mining tunnels were chiselled out by hand, and the miners fought metre by metre through bare rock to reach the so-called ‘Haselgebirge’ (a mixture of clay, plaster and salt with an average salinity of just under 70 per cent). The oldest salt mine in the world can be found in Hallstatt, where this valuable raw material has been mined for the last 7,000 years.
Altaussee is one of three mining locations of Salinen Austria AG. The company is one of the oldest in the world and still continues its industrial production today. At the mining locations of Altaussee, Hallstatt and Bad Ischl, four million cubic metres of brine are extracted each year. The resulting salt production equals 1.2 million tonnes annually. Sixty kilometres of brine pipeline connect the mining locations in Altaussee, Hallstatt and Bad Ischl with the salt works in Ebensee. This oldest pipeline in the world is a technical masterpiece from the 17th century and was created using approximately 13,000 hollowed-out larch trees connected end to end. Today the brine flows through thick plastic pipes underneath the so-called ‘Soleweg’ (brine path). This trail carries hikers from the natural serenity of Hallstatt through Bad Goisern and Bad Ischl to Ebensee. The actual production and refinement of a multitude of salt products takes place in Ebensee.
Back to the exhibition mine in Altaussee: The culmination of the tour is a light show deep in inside the mine at the salt lake, which contains six million litres of brine. There visitors will also find the lake stage, a popular and exclusive venue for selected concerts and events. In the visitor shops of the Salzwelten, guests can acquire all sorts of salt products made from the white gold of the mountain: natural salt mixed with herbs and spices – fine compositions that are perfect for the preparation of special dishes. For those wanting to enjoy the salt of the Salzkammergut in other ways, a visit to the Narzissen Vital Resort in Aussee or to the Bad Ischl Eurotherme Spa is highly recommended. There the brine is used in swimming pools and for other special treatments which promote health. “Glück auf!”