DAY 14 in Werfen, Austria:
Werfen, a market town in the St. Johann im Pongau District just about 45 minutes away by train from Salzburg City, was our destination for the 23rd of June.
Time seemed to rush by like a rapid that morning — an early wake up call, a power walk to the train station, a grocery shop stop for our picnic, a train ride and a hike up a Berchtesgaden Alp (little kids were hiking with us, they were on a school excursion!) — but slowed down in a clearing just behind the Hohenwerfen Castle, which stands high above the Austrian town of Werfen in the Salzach valley. The great mountains loomed before us, breaking the unbelievably blue skyline in craggy peaks. The mountain range wore a cloak of magnificent lush greenery and not a single headdress of ice was to be seen on any of the peaks.
Our picnic in the clearing was calm and peaceful. Everything was beautifully still and quiet, a gentle breeze rustling the many leaves around us, while we chatted away about our individual journeys around Europe (and how small Lauren thought my feet were haha) (oh and also Lauren’s blog: passportsandbeaches.com)– Lauren had rain following her since Ireland (that’s been quite a while!) and that day with us was her first sunny day! The ‘SSE’ (Sunny Singapore Effect), hey?
I relish these moments, surrounded by trees, a gentle breeze, and the birdsong, just connecting with each other and the natural world around us. We had juice, bread, cantaloupe, watermelon, noodle pasta salad, falafels, and hummus! We had a ‘watermelon splash situation’: Miriam was scooping spoonfuls of watermelon and with every spoonful of watermelon she successfully got, along came a splash of watermelon juice to both herself and Lauren, and giggles. After enjoying everything our picnic and the woods had to offer, it was time to pack everything up and head to the largest ice caves in the world.
(We actually plannted to recreate the Von Trapp children picnic scene from TSOM on the Gschwandtanger Meadow, but we found out as we arrived in Werfen that access to it was no longer possible because its owners disallowed it recently. The clearing near Hohenwerfen Castle wasn’t too shabby, so we weren’t complaining!)
A quick bus ride, a chilly hike through a cave shortcut, a cable ride and a sweltering 34°C hike (with phenomenal views) later, we found ourselves standing in the face of the grand Eisriesenwelt (German for “World of the Ice Giants”). It is a natural limestone and ice cave inside the Hochkogel mountain in the Tennengebirge section of the Alps and is the largest ice cave in the world. Although the cave has a length of 42 km, only the first kilometre, the area that tourists are allowed to visit, is covered in ice. The rest of the cave is formed of limestone.
‘Icy’ and ‘chilly’ were words used on their website to describe the conditions in the ice caves. They also said that one should bring ‘a sweater’ to keep warm. No one said anything about “freezing zero and sometimes sub-zero temperatures” or that “everyone else would be clad in really covered attires or even in winter gear — gloves, winter jackets/ pants, beanies, scarves”. So there we were, Lauren and I in shorts, Miriam in a dress, and having nothing more than a thin cardigan to keep us warm.
“Alles in Ordnung?” (“Everything okay?”) Someone asked us, giggling.
“Ja, ja, hahaha es geht!” (“Ya, ya, hahaha it’s alright!”) I replied, trying my very best to hide my worries about the next 75 minutes in the caves.
We had just met Jack (or maybe it was Jake) from Hong Kong, who was travelling alone, and he told us that he saw on the website a picture of a man who went in with slippers and got so cold that he had no choice but to wrap his feet in plastic bags!
What were we getting ourselves into…
We were put into pairs, myself and Miriam, Lauren with Jack (or Jake) and handed something that looked like a handheld lantern. They finally opened the entrance to the caves and we could, for the first time, feel the chill — the wind blowing at us was intense! I tried to capture Lauren’s condensing warm breath but I couldn’t. Lauren had to give me a little push to get me into the cave, I could barely keep my lips pressed against each other, it felt like walking into a tornado! It sounded like it too!
It was like stepping into a whole other world, like stepping into Narnia, except it was icy, and the only things one would find in this world were an ice elephant, an ice hawk and an ice bear, and the homes of the Ice King and Queen, son of Odin. It was pitch black in the cave, our paths and surroundings lit only by our ‘lanterns’, torches (some of us thought ahead) and the glowing magnesium strip of the guide.
1879: The first official discovery of Eisriesenwelt by Anton Posselt, a natural scientist from Salzburg, though he only explored the first two hundred meters of the cave. Prior to his discovery, the cave was known only to locals was ‘an entrance to Hell’, thus they refused to explore it.
1912: Alexander von Mörk, a speleologist from Salzburg, led several expeditions into the caves, which were soon followed by other explorers.
1914: Von Mörk was killed in World War I, and an urn containing his ashes is inside a niche in the cave, just as he requested.
1920: A cabin for the explorers (Forscherhütte) was built and the first routes up the mountain were established. Tourists began to arrive soon after.
1955: A cable car was built, shortening the 90-minute climb to a 3-minute ride!
Eisriesenwelt was formed by the Salzach river, which eroded passageways into the mountain. The entrance to the caves is open year-round, so in the…
Spring & Summer: Thawing snow enters the rock fissures and drips into the cave. A cold wind from inside the cave also blows toward the entrance and prevents the formations from melting.
Winter: Chilly winter winds blow into the cave and freezes the snow and water in the cave, forming the spectacular ice sculptures in the interior of the mountain.
“After forming over thousands of years, the icy labyrinth of caves reveals all of its crystal-clear beauty.”
We weren’t allowed to take our own pictures while in the caves (although Lauren was sneaky with her phone), so head HERE for pictures and a video of an adventure into the caves. Thank You, Jack (or Jake), too for the picture of the three of us You took. 🙂
I took a while to warm up again, my lips stayed blue for a while even ten or twenty minutes in the 34°C heat! I don’t cope well with extreme temperatures, but the adventures that day were so worth it. The mountain- and icescapes! Brilliant!
That night, just as we were about to turn in, Hayley told us that she’d be in Munich the same time as us (as she was braiding Lauren’s hair), so I asked her where she was staying, just so maybe we could meet up somewhere nearby (that didn’t end up working out though). She said, “Say-nay-feld-strabe 1, Wombats Hostel” which confused me, so I asked if I could read the address off of her phone. It turned out to be “Senefelderstraße 1”! She had mistaken ß (ss) as B!
We had a good day, a good laugh, a good night.