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Austria: Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna, Werfen
Werfen, Austria: It’s cold up there
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Surprisingly, the world’s largest ice cave has not been marketed well. And there are reasons. Looks like the authorities want to limit visitors to preserve the natural phenomenon. A one hour drive from Salzburg stands Eisriesenwelt – Ice Cave.
After enjoying a day exploring Salzburg, we were ready to move on. Post breakfast, we packed our bags and took a taxi to fetch the car we had booked from Europcar. Their office was just across the station. It was question of just crossing the under-passage platform. A walk would have been faster and quicker and would have saved us Euro 8! However, this was evident only after we reached Europcar’s office!
Since we were 4 of us, I had booked a luxury sedan, preferably a VW Passat. We got a pleasant surprise when we were upgraded to a Mercedes E Class Automatic! Happily we got in the roomy car ready to negotiate the next 300 kms. It’s fun to drive a star. Not used to driving automatic cars, I did give some jerks in the beginning but thereafter it was smooth sailing. And at our service was a GPS which I so dearly missed in Budapest, Hungary.
We took the A10 motorway to reach Werfen. It was about 60 kms. We were at the base of the hill in about an hour. Before beginning our ascent, we took a brief picture stop. The imposing Hohenwerfen Fortress, atop the mountain was an awe-inspiring view. The castle was 900 years old and visitors can make a visit. However, that was not on our agenda. After driving up for 5 more kms we were stopped by the Ice Cave volunteers and asked to park our car – about 2 kms away from the ticket centre and information booth. Being summertime, parking lots were full to the brim. Thus began our walk.
The cost to visit the Ice Cave is Euro 19 per person. This includes a return ticket on the cable car. Trekkers have the option to save the cable car… but that would add to at least a few more hours of walking. Use of cable car made more sense to us. Keep in mind the journey time: 20 minutes walk up to the cable car station; 3 minutes ride up by the cable car; 20 minutes walk up to the Ice Cave entrance; 70 minutes guided tour of the cave which includes climbing 700 steps. Now add the same for return journey. All in all, keep aside 3 hours of walking and an hour more for breaks.
Make sure to carry some warm clothing with you. I would also recommend a warm cap and a pair of gloves to help you keep your hands on the ice-cold railings. Of course, you would need this only when you are within the Ice Cave. Outside of it, you would be sweating… thanks to the walk. The volunteers give you a guided tour. Tipping is welcome.
The Eisriesenwelt is a labyrinth of caves with a total length of over 40 km. As is the case with all caves, their formation spans a long period of time. The first cracks and crevices in the limestone appeared during the elevation of the mountains about 100 million years ago and over the course of thousands of years became more developed and extended as a result of chemical reactions and water erosion. Caves in the Alps are still developing, although in many cases the process of drying out has limited their development. There are various ways in which cave ice can form.
The Eisriesenwelt is a dynamic cave, meaning that the corridors and the crevices connect lower lying entrances to higher openings hence making it possible for draughts of air to circulate – similar to the effect in a chimney. Depending upon the outside temperature, it is either warmer or cooler inside the mountain and this causes the air to circulate upwards or downwards. In winter, when the air inside the mountain is warmer than outside, cold air streams into the mountain and reduces the temperature of the lower areas of the caves to below freezing point. In spring the water seeps through the cracks in the rock and when it reaches the colder lower areas of the caves it freezes and turns slowly into the wonderful ice formations visible inside the caves.
At the end of the nineteenth century the caves were only known to hunters and poachers. Not until 1879 did Anton Posselt, a natural scientist from Salzburg, push 200 metres into the darkness of the caves and officially discover the Eisriesenwelt. One year later he published a detailed report of his discovery in a mountaineering magazine, but the caves then slipped back into obscurity.
Alexander von Mörk, pioneer of cave exploration in the Salzburg area, recognised the significance of Posselt’s report. His expeditions were followed by various other discoverers in the 1920’s and the increasing popularity of this wonder of nature soon attracted the first tourists.
We had reached the base at 12 noon. At 4PM we were back on the road. Our destination was Innsbruck. We had an option to turn back and take the motorway. We decided, instead, to take the inner roads. That would mean adding to our journey time but giving us the opportunity to drive through the beautiful Austrian countryside. That country is a picture postcard!
Midway, we took a stop at Hotel Gasthof Hohe Brücke in Mittersill. Whilst having our Goulash, it began to pour, and the sun was out too. The rainbow added to the beauty around. An hour just flew by. Cutting through Salzac Valley, we reached Innsbruck at 8PM.
We were booked at Hotel Innsbruck, overlooking the river. This would be our home for the next 2 days. The hotel’s garage was pretty compact. Parking the E300 was indeed a challenging test. I passed successfully though.
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