I woke up to a world that was still wet with showers – not a good sign since I am to spend the day travelling west into the mountains. I am heading to a place called AltAussee which is a salt mine in an isolated valley. Transportation into backwaters is hands down the trickiest, and anticipating this, I have spent a great deal of time studying and printing off the Bynzantine schedules and maps (thanks to my German friend, Ulli!). To get there will be a difficult set of connections from trains, busses and fuss! (feet) To be honest, I’d take a Berlin busy any day. I pack some extra clothes, anticipating that the mine will be chilly – not to mention an extra pair of socks for the wet feet. Just steps outside the hotel, the rain has already made inroads into my shoes. I now wish I’d packed that umbrella or asked at the desk to borrow one. I soldier on through the rain, until I notice that somehow in my distraction I’ve gone the wrong way. Grrr… I stop in at a gas station and the attendant points me in the right direction. Travelling requires the brain to be constantly aware. During my art safari, I must act like a hunter and look behind me to make note of my surroundings for my return journey.
I manage to arrive at the Bahnhof in time for the train despite my mistake, though I’m now soaked. Once on the train, I enjoy the passing landscape which becomes more mountainous and picturesque the further we go. The train traces through a valley and arrives along a lake, revealing beautiful vistas with chalets reflected in waters only momentarily before it plunges into a tunnel to exit into yet another fairy view. A group of students pile on the wagon, all excited to be going off to camp. We pass the famous saltmine town of Hallstratt and arrive at a place called Badaussee. Bad refers to the baths, not anything untoward.
Once off the train, I search for the Bus stop which I find behind the station. A bus 955 arrives as planned. When I ask about the Salt mine, he states that I will have to walk the last five km. I nod, my spirits sinking. I knew that the connections would be tricky, but I hadn’t counted on this. It will tighten my window of time to return. According to the online bus schedule, there appears to be only one return bus at 15:46. As I sit down a class of students jump on and the bus begins to wind its way through the narrow Austrian burbs. More chalets flash by, many sporting beautiful wood carving, porch boxes brimming with flowers and antler trophies.
As we approach the final bus stop, the teacher mentions that his class is going to JUFA, the youth hostel I recall stands opposite the mine’s entrance. Suddenly the bus makes a sharp turn up a road marked with the Salt Mine sign and the driver announces that he is taking us directly to the mine.
It seems that local bus drivers can follow their whims. We cheer. Luck is with us.
Once inside, I catch the 1:15 tour which starts with everyone donning canvas jackets and hosen to wear in the mine.
The tour opens with a rather goofy video whereby an Austrian comedian explains the geological origins of salt mines, using jokes and references to Jesus and Austrian cooking. Then we pass through a door and head down a shaft. The darkened passage is only a two-armed stretch wide and underfoot is a narrow train track which the feet suddenly become aware of in the darkness. The way is lit only by dim lights which reveal walls alternately lined with wood, stone and then salt. I had naively expected the salt to be white, when it fact it is striped in the colours of black white and orange – sort of like a tiger icecream. The air is cool and moist, the faint smell of damp wood filling the nose. The way is direct and slowly tilts up; our guide leads us forward at a good pace, considering that there are children in the group. But everyone follows without comment until we arrive at a big underground room.
In the first chamber, he speaks about salt and the mining techniques, the second he shows us is the underground chapel. This mine has been worked for centuries, the workers offering their prayers to St. Barbara.
Finally we take another tunnel to reach a second room where the guide speaks about how Hitler had most of his looted treasure brought here as the war turned against him. This collection was part of his Linz Museum, a dream to build the greatest art museum in the world. In the end, it all ended up here – a place that was secret, hard to get to, and relatively stable environmentally for fragile works of art. I can imagine the difficulties, they must have had transporting the work up the snow-choked narrow roads in winter and then down this shaft. The mine stretches like a warren for kilometers in all directions, with artwork hidden in various chambers. Among these 6500 works were two Vermeers, the Art of Painting, and the Rothschild’s Astronomer.
As things became desperate for the Third Reich, Hitler ordered everything in his realm be destroyed rather than taken by the enemy. In the end, Hitler sent a contradictory message about his beloved art. Despite the absolute destruction order, he bequeathed his collection to the German people. This left the henchmen under him in a difficult position as to what to do. Ultimately, Gauleiter Eigruber, the commander in Austria chose destruction, so he ordered a large stockpile of bombs be wired in the mine and made ready to blow. The fate of the world’s greatest collection of art hung by a thread.
Local workers noted the situation, and they quietly acted, not so much wanting to preserve art as they were to maintain their own livelihood. A few undid the wiring and removed the giant bombs which had been placed in boxes labelled “Fragile Marble.” By the time the American Officers called the Monuments Men arrived, they found a mine with only its entrance destroyed. Once inside, they discovered shelving stuffed with unbelievable masterpieces. As I look about, I imagine the scene – something out of King Tut’s tomb. Instead of being able to savour the moment, the Monument’s Men were informed that they had only days to remove the art since the Russians are to take control of the area. Somehow these resourceful men managed to organize, pack and arrange transport for these paintings in the midst of 16 hour days of working with dicey lighting, little food and driving rain. Having wet feet during this tour, I can identify with the one usually stoic Monument Man, George Stout who wrote in his journal “All hands grumbling’ to describe the art evacuation. Seeing the place in person, I’m even more impressed.
We finish up the tour by zooming down two wooden slides and then seeing a light show by an underground lake. It’s beautiful, but the Enya-like music involves a strange and modern take on Yodeling. Once back out into the lobby and de-costumed, I head immediate outside to make my way back towards Badaussee to catch that one bus. Fortunately, the Fates are on my side and the rain has stopped. I break into a light jog down the long switchbacks. The air is crisp and cool with deep green forests surrounding the road. Wild strawberries peep out from the undergrowth and I spot a few wildflowers. I have to keep an eye for approaching cars on the narrow road as well as the large slugs underfoot. I arrive at the designated bus stop some 45 minutes later, thankful that my feet held up. Who says researching art can’t be a workout? After a nail-biting wait while both doubt clouds my mind and the sky above. The bus arrives just on time as big raindrops start to fall. The bus drops me off as the train arrives – dependable Teutonic transit as always. I have learned to trust it just as I have to learn to read their complex schedules. Once on board, I collapse into a seat and eat my picnic lunch. My feet are still damp, but I’m happy to have gone through all the obstacles to get here.