After several days of museums, palaces, cities and concerts, our activities today are the preference of the teenager in our little traveling band. Nicolas likes hiking, climbing and anything outdoors.
Breakfast at the Trumer Stube features home-made pastries, which are excellent. We’re getting spoiled in Austria. I don’t understand why this hotel charges separately for its breakfast, however. Pastries aside, it’s nothing special and certainly not as good or as varied as the Hotel Peter’s.
We spend a couple of hours walking in Salzburg, buying souvenirs. Thankfully, getting the car out of Salzburg is much easier than getting in, but due to the number of one-way and pedestrian-only streets, barricades and lights, it takes us a circuitous half hour to drive from the parking lot to the hotel to pick up our bags. It’s a five-minute walk. Tip: don’t drive in Salzburg! See the previous post.
As we drive south through the Salzkammergut, the Alps rise before us. We drive toward Werfen, about 40 km south of Salzburg and watch the signs for the Eisriesenwelt, the largest ice caves in the world. The guide books and the attractions brochures advise that you can park at the bottom of the mountain, outside Werfen, then take a shuttle to the bottom of the gondola. Or you can hike uphill for two to three hours. We opt for the shuttle (although Nicolas would be happy to hike). But when we arrive at the parking lot, the attendants tell us that there is room in parking lots at the top, so we drive.
This is our first hairy drive in Austria. The road is narrow in spots, but perfectly smooth and maintained. There are lots of tight hairpin turns at the switchbacks; the Austrians have even put convex mirrors at some of the hairpins so you can see what’s coming. We pass wider areas on the mountainside where cars have parked, and ease past hikers walking slowly uphill. We keep going, however, until we can see the entrance to the Eisriesenwelt park, and we find several parking spaces. It’s just after lunch at this point.
We go into the interpretive centre and buy tickets: one to enter the park, and another to take the gondola up to the ice cave. Again, hiking is an option, but it’s a one- to two-hour, difficult climb up. On the other hand, we waited in line for well over an hour, and got on one of the last gondolas scheduled to go up the mountain that day. The cave closes at around 4:30, and the tour of the cave itself is over an hour long. My advice: get to this place early, or go off season. Afternoons in the summer are very crowded in the Eisreisenwelt.
The long wait is worth it, however. At the top of the gondola, though, is another hike, about 20 minutes long, uphill, past switchbacks. The views are spectacular. The Schloss Hohenwerfen (Above Werfen Castle), which seemed to be on a high hill, is a dizzying distance below. The muddy Salzach river and the highways twist like dropped ribbons.
There’s a short tunnel, more switchbacks, steep climbs. The air is noticeably thin. Even Nicolas is slowing down. But finally, there is the entrance to the cave, yawning open to glimmering depths. A crowd gathers and one guide, a handsome university student named George asks for anyone who wants to join the last English-language tour of the day. We push forward. Every fifth person gets an old-fashioned miner’s lamp lit from another lamp. No flash photography is allowed.
At this point, I was disabused of one notion. When I saw the words “ice cave,” I imagined a cave in ice, like a vertical crevasse. However, this is a cave in rock, an opening into the mountain that is filledwith ice. Ice pours out of it, like an underground glacier. And it is spectacular; the ice glimmers dark bluish-green in the dim light. We follow wooden steps that lead us mostly upward, past towering ice stalagmites. One looks to me like a 6-metre wedding gown. Other ice formations are called the “polar bear” and the “elephant,” George explains.
George runs and skids on the ice, and the tourists take short slides and steps on the watery ice, too, when George is not looking that hard. This is symptomatic of the Austrian attitude, it seems. They have lots of rules, like no pictures or no stepping here or there, but don’t seem anxious about enforcing the rules if you don’t make yourself obnoxious. This is in stark contrast to the Greeks, in my experience.
The tour takes you 700 steps in and another 700 out; we see the “cathedral,” a huge empty vault inside the mountain, and an ice wall that George tells us is 25 metres thick! Most of the river of ice that we follow, says George, is at least 8 metres deep. After an hour, we have completed the loop. At the door, the wind blows out from the cave to the outside world. George explains this wind, caused by temperature differentials between the inside and outside of the cave, is what makes, and maintains, the ice—although climate change has shrunk the ice formations.
Now, the long climb back down the mountain. Hohenwerfen castle grows, slowly, but it’s too late to visit it now. This tour has taken most of the day. It’s been worth it.