The opening to the underground Altaussee Salt Mines peeks out from the shadow of the mountain called "Loser" in the Salzkammergut. It is the access point of a long tunnel shimmering with glistening mineral crystals that splits and meanders under the earth to form one of Austria's largest active salt mines. If you follow the main tunnel long enough, you'll be able to slide down the miner's slides to the subterranean lake below.
There are almost 67 km of routes through the 18 levels (stories) of mine, of which 24 kilometers are open. The brine production per hour is a stunning 240 cubic meters. This is Austria's largest active salt mine, and it's been around a long, long time.
The mine was first mentioned in documents in 1147 with mining was done by the Rein Monastery near Graz, but there is evidence that salt has been extracted from these mountains since about the 7th century BC. In any case, the next huge event happened during the second world war, when Nazis began stocking their looted art treasures in the caves of the salt mine, over 6500 of them, said to be worth upwards of 3.5 Billion Dollars.
The Hallstatt-Dachstein alpine landscape makes up a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape. And this landscape contains an interesting secret.
The War Years
During the waning days of WWII, diehard Nazis discovered the Salzkammergut region; its Alpine remoteness was the perfect hideout. They built labor camps in nearby Ebensee to work on their secret missile program. Hope sprung eternal in the Salzkammergut.
The Nazis also funneled stolen art into this salt-heavy, pastoral region, including one of Europe's finest art works, Jan van Eyck’s 15th century Ghent Altarpiece, called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which puts focus on the central panel of the 12-panel work. (You can see the most minute details of this painting in The Ghent Altarpiece in 100 Billion Pixels.) The altarpiece had taken a very long journey; sent to the Pyrenees Chateau de Pau for wartime safekeeping, it was stolen by Dr. Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian state museums and transported to Paris, then to Castle Neuschwanstein, where it was treated by a conservator before eventually being sent on to Altaussee.
There it was stored underground in the salt mine with other works by the likes of Michelangelo, Dürer, Rubens, and Vermeer.
With the war winding down and Germany on the wrong side of it all, eight airplane bombs were crammed into the mine shaft to destroy the cache of art. Miners and the Austrian resistance, with the help of a commando team lead by Albrecht Gaiswinkler, managed to thwart the destruction of the works until the Allied Third Army arrived at Altaussee to secure the mine. Monuments Men Robert K. Posey and Lincoln Kirstein began the process of excavating the art, including the Ghent Altarpiece, which Posey personally delivered to Ghent.
This is all documented in the book "Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece."
Visiting the Altaussee Salt Mines
With the opening of the movie Monuments Men, the mine had added additional opening hours and tours, including Wednesday evening tours. See the Salzwelten Altaussee Opening Hours page. A multimedia presentation provides information about the hiding and rescue of the stolen art objects.
The mine is very near the popular tourist destination of Hallstatt, where there is also an interesting salt mine to visit. It's an easy drive between the two places.
For those interested in following along with the last days of the Nazis, when Hitler retreated to the Salzkammergut still clinging to the desperate hope of a Thousand-Year Reich, the nearby lake called Toplitzsee was where the Nazis dumped much of what they'd produced, including the counterfeit currency and equipment they hoped would destabilize the British economy, a story told, with some liberties, by the film called "The Counterfeiters," which garnered an Oscar for best foreign film in 2007.
Rumors of gold having been dumped in the lake have made it a holy grail for treasure hunters.
The Altaussee Salt Mine is not so far from the Kehlsteinhaus, or as we in America call it, the Eagle's Nest, a gift from the Nazi party for Hitler’s 50th birthday. The nest is perched on a mountain summit close to the Bavarian town of Oberberchtesgarden. It's one of the top things to do in Bavaria.
Public Transportation: The closest train station to the salt mine is found at Bad Ausee, a popular winter ski resort town. There are buses from Bad Ausee to Altaussee.
By Car: From Salzburg, take the A10 motorway south to exit 28 and head east towards Hallstatt (tolls), or take the scenic B158 towards Hallstatt.
The closest airport is Salzburg Airport.
To get the lay of the land and see transportation options with estimated prices, see: Altaussee Salt Mines Map and Guide.
The Address of the Altausee mine is Lichtersberg 25, 8992 Altaussee, Austria.
Because of its status as a ski and recreation area, there are many hotels in the region. If you have a car, Hallstatt is a very good place to stay; many of the hotels are on the lakefront.
If you just want to make a stop to see the mine and stay the night, there are Altaussee hotel options as well.