Fun and education at the same time? Do they mix? For sure they do. Either on the road travelling or in the back garden.
One of the best examples we’ve seen of a “museum” getting it that fun, history and education go together is the 7000 year old salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria. The oldest salt mine in the world.
If you ever get anywhere close to this part of the world (a bit south of Salzburg in Austria) , it’s well worth the visit. Young or old. 4 is the minimum age, and so long as you’re fit and able to do a bit of walking and sliding, there’s no upper age. You will entirely regret wearing high heels if that’s your thing.
People have been mining at Hallstatt for 7000 YEARS. That’s 5000 years before Christmas. But it’s not just a boring old museum. It’s an underground network of tunnels connected by slides which you can hurtle down at 30 km per hour, an underground lake with a history lesson in lights, life sized models, demonstrations and films of how it all works. It takes several hours, and the five of us (aged 10 to 47) eagerly took it in right until the end, when a tiny open train speeds you though tunnels back to daylight.
We didn’t pay for many organised tours on our trip – we could count them on one hand over a year – but this one was worth it. For the mine itself it costs 19€ for adults and 9€50 for children up to 16 (family tickets are discounted and you pay a few euros extra for a combined ticket to get up the mountain by funicular train).
Full details of opening times etc are on the mine’s website at www.salzwelten.at.
We took the funicular railway up to the mine entrance because it was pouring. The views from the top overlooking the Hallstatt lake are mighty impressive even in the rain. We’ve done a separate post on the town of Hallstatt which is one of the prettiest places in Austria. If you are under 4 it’s free with a parent to go up in the funicular, you just can’t go into the mine.
First you’re kitted out with overalls, mainly to protect your clothing and keep you warm (it’s about 10 degrees centigrade all year deep underground). They are colour coded by size. Most of the people on the tour were South Korean (Hallstatt is really popular with Korean, Chinese and Japanese visitors). Amidst a sea of green, we were in burgundy.
The Entrance to the Mine
A tour guide first takes you to the entrance of the mine. Their uniform is a typical mining one with 29 buttons, 3 of which are always left open. That was an interesting tale in itself: Saint Barbara is the patron saint of miners. She was locked in a tower by her dad to protect her from the Christians when she was 26. He flew into a rage when 3 years later, after planning to marry her off to a non Christian, he heard that she had secretly converted to Christianity. He killed her and was then struck by lightening.
Hence 26 buttons and 3 of them closed. The tour was underway with a bang.
We walked along ever narrowing tunnels as we worked our way into the mountain. The guide at this point tells you it’s quite normal and OK to turn back if you’re getting a bit claustrophobic. We stuck together and no one in our group turned back. Then the guide (who combined just the right amount of fact with fun) tells you that there’s a 50m drop between the tunnel we are in and the one we are going to next. There’s a wooden slide. It’s how the miners used to get about between tunnels.
There’s a great film which explains pictorially how so much salt came to be in the mountain in the first place. Despite 7000 years of mining, there’s still a massive amount left.
Until the early Middle Ages, salt was collected as “rock salt” and physically chipped out by hand using deer antlers as picks. Nowadays, automated saline extraction methods mean that the salt is dissolved in water which is pumped deep into the ground, and then the salty water is sucked back up. Before automation, buckets were used to scoop up the brine (26% salt and water) and take it to the surface.
At ground level, the water is boiled off in big brine coppers (you can see some at the mine entrance) and it’s turned back to salt. Underground you can watch a film of the process and see demonstration pipework. The brine coppers are no longer used. Although Hallstatt is still a working mine and will be for a long time to come, the brine is now transported to a modern salt plant at Ebensee.
Slide number one it turns out was a practice slide for slide number 2 to get even deeper into the mountain. It’s 64m long and is the longest wooden slide in the world apparently. On this slide, your descent is timed. It becomes a question of honour. Who can go the fastest. I can’t remember who was the fastest in our group. Oh yes, that was me. 30km per hour much to the chagrin of my teenage boys. My heart was in my throat.
The underground lake and the Man in Salt
There’s a saline lake at the deepest point of the tour, and there you are shown a pretty impressive slide show reflected in the water, about the mining process and the Man in Salt.
The archaeogical term, Hallstatt Culture, comes from Hallstatt. Because salt preserves, there were incredibly well preserved finds of clothing, tools and general life found all around the mine. In 1734, a corpse was found by working miners. There had been a mine collapse previously and based on the clothing, hair and skin it was estimated that the miner had died at least a few hundred years before. The tools and clothing found on and with the man were described at the time as “quite strange but well preserved”.
Turns out the “Man in Salt” was Neolithic and lived around 1000BC. The whole tour revolves around this salt miner coming to life and explaining the process from the salt getting into the ground in the first place to how it is extracted in modern times.
The train ride home
Without any warning of the surprise which awaits, as you are reeling at the enormity of the historical finds and the salt mining process, you are asked to hop aboard an open wooden train.
This is the way out. You’re asked to keep your hand and legs well in. It’s fast and quite an adrenalin rush whizzing though a tunnel which doesn’t actually look wide enough to fit your head. I had only just recovered from my mega slide adrenalin rush. What a great way to end a fantastic tour.
Matt (14): “I had loads of fun, it was a really interesting tour, well for me anyway. Most of the time tours can be pretty boring but this was really good.”
Adam (16): “It was well explained and the slides were excellent. The video about how salt forms and is covered over by land was really well done.”
Katie (10): “Walking into the tunnel was exciting and my favourite part was the mini train on the way out – it was fast, like being on a horse, in really narrow tunnels. Or maybe it was the slides. How they take salt out of the ground was really cool. I thought you had to dig it out of the rocks in big lumps.”
Neil (47): “Remember to duck on the way out in the train or you’ll be decapitated! Must have been hard and dangerous work being a miner.”
Jen (21 3/4): “Who was it that won the mega slide race again?”
Are there any museums or sights you have visited which do a great job of mixing education and fun? Can they, or should they, be mixed?