|Watzmann Mountain above Berchtesgaden
One of my favorite places to visit in Bavaria, Germany is the town of Berchtesgaden. Rich with history and lush with beauty, it’s nestled within the folds of rolling alpine forests and bejeweled by crystal clear lakes and rivers. Towering above in majesty is Watzmann Mountain, named after a nefarious king whose exploits I’ll leave for another day.
The little village has undergone many changes of ownership, from Augustine monks beginning in 1300 A.D. to an Austrian annexation in 1805. After a brief period of French rule in 1809, it finally found its legs as it came into the kingdom of Bavaria in 1810.
Even before the monks, the area was rich in salt deposits, and mining began in the early 12th Century. This sparked rivalry with two other salt-bearing, Austrian towns, now known as Hallein and Salzburg.
The Berchtesgaden Salt Mine of today was actually created in the 1500s but didn’t become a fully developed state operation until the mid-1800s.
The salt, encased in composite rock, is flushed out with fresh water, leaving behind beautiful caverns. Although the mine is still in operation today, yielding 900,000 cubic meters of brine annually, (that’s over two million gallons!) it is now open to tourists. And might I say, even though a salt mine sounds dull, it’s far from it.
Visiting there was like taking a step back in time. Ushered into a room, our group was instructed to don period coveralls made of heavy material and cloth hats. Not only would these keep us warm as we ventured into the depth of the 54-degree Fahrenheit mine, but they, also, gave us a sense of history.
|My family is toward the back. I'm not there as this was the second time we visited the mine, and I stayed back with my mother-in-law who had no desire to go underground.
From there, a small train, with a bench down the center that we straddled, took us into the mine. We soon disembarked and followed our tour guide into a dimly lit tunnel. On our way, we were told about the salt in the stone walls. Curious children moistened their fingers and slid them along the rock. Then they licked the salt off of them. Okay, some adults did it too. Fine. I did it, as well, but only after peer pressure from the others on the tour. I’d be surprised if they allowed that today now that we’re more germ aware.
|First of two slides
Eventually, we came to the first of two slides, this one being 34 meters high. It descends to another level into a cavern that has opened up before us. This, we’re told, is how the miners would enter the mine quickly, much like a fireman’s pole, I would image. Other avenues, a path and a staircase, were provided for the less adventurous or for those with physical constraints. My husband and I were much younger then. We grouped our family of four, held on to each other, and swooshed to the bottom, much like the miners of old, except we squealed all the way to the bottom. The 250-year-old cavern, dubbed the Salt Cathedral, had, at one time, been filled with water.
|Dedication plaque at grotto
Around the corner, a beautiful grotto, a tribute to the “Fairytale King” Ludwig II, created a small sanctuary with stacked square stones and blocks of backlit salt. I could find no pictures in public domain to use, showing the beauty of this little room. However, it can be viewed on this interactive map. Just click on #5. Truly breathtaking.
|Lake at bottom of cavern
Moving on, there were other points of interest, which you can see on the aforementioned map link. Eventually, we came to the second slide which provided a 40-meter drop down to a small crystal clear mirror lake—earning the name by mirroring the ceiling above—at the bottom of a large cavern. A raft awaited us, and we boarded in small groups to be pulled to the other side. This cavern had been solid rock at one time, but as the water was pumped in, the salt was dissolved and extracted, forming a cave with the lake at the bottom.
The Berchtesgaden Salt Mine tourist attraction has been updated since we visited forty years ago. A light show has been added to the lake, and there are other high-tech stops along the 800-meter path. I’m happy, though, to have experienced it in the purer form.
Before our final exit, we came to the 14-ton bronze Reichenbach pump that once moved the brine uphill 356 meters (1168 feet) through wooden pipes. Ingenious in its design, it was one of two pumps commissioned in 1816 and was fully operational by Dec 22, 1817. It remained in constant operation until February 19, 1927.
This interactive map, as I mentioned above, shows all of the stops in the mine. The pictures are well done and beautiful.
|Outside of mine
The contemporary town of Berchtesgaden is proud of its “white gold” legacy as the industry still thrives today.
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Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother and a great-grandmother—though much too young for either. Kathleen has been a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.