Wednesday 26 September 2012

What salt and Nazi loot have in common.

We spent five nights at the end of the Summer in a mill in Austria.  Unfortunately the wheel no longer works, but the stream runs and sings - loud and playful - along side it.

We were nestled in the Totes Gebirge - or the Dead Mountains.  Everywhere we looked, we found enchantment, mysteries, and stories.   

The mountains were ever changing as the sun played with shadows and the clouds fell down as mist.

I don't have a great affinity for mountains, but here, there was an eerie beauty which quite captivated me.

The area, known as the Salzkammergut, is famous for its salt mines.

Hallstatt, the most famous site, is also the oldest.  Salt was mined there from seven thousand years ago.  It gives its name to the late Bronze age / early Iron Age Celtic civilization.

We didn't do a tour of the mine there, now defunct.  Instead, we went to a nearby mine at Altaussee where they have been mining since the twelfth century.  One of the mines is still in operation.

We walked 700 meters into the heart of the mountain.

The temperature is a constant 7 degrees and the humidity 60 %.  There's a chapel for the miners with bricks of salt lit from behind.

In this chapel is a 17th century oil painting.  It is in perfect condition and has never been restored.  The colours are rich and vibrant in spite of having been down there for many a year.  

When this was discovered during the years of the Second World War, the Nazis decided to use one of the chambers in the mine to hoard thousands of paintings they had "procured."  

We were amazed to sit in the very room where the pilfered works of Michelangelo, Jan Van Eyck, Vermeer, just to name a few, lay during the war years.  But we were even more amazed when we were told that at the end of the war, the Nazis had decided that it was better the works be destroyed than fall into the hands of the Allies.  So, bombs hidden in crates labeled as marble statuary were brought in and guards were stationed so that the miners wouldn't get wind of what was going on.  Luckily, in the last minute, the plot was uncovered and foiled.  According to the tour guide it was due to the brave and single handed work of the miners, however another source we read states that it was more complex than that, and was due to the intervention of a party official.  Whatever the truth, it makes for a fabulous story. 

Back in the open, we took many hikes.  Past caves with the remnants of fires in them. 

Houses that grew directly from the earth.

Houses with trees growing from their roofs.  

And trees that looked like gigantic chicken's feet.  I thought if I looked up, I'd see Baba Yaga grinning down at me.

The roots of trees gripping rocks, twined together in death.  

Boulders that looked as though they would speak if only I knew the right thing to say to them.

Our mill was near a town and lake called Grundlsee.  It's the first and largest in a chain of three lakes, the other two being the Toplizsee and Kammersee.  As you progress towards the tiny Kammersee, sheer rock cliffs rise on either side ending in a natural cul-de-sac.  There's only one way in and out.  

It was here that many Nazi officials made their holiday homes during the war and retreated to at the end of the war.  To this day, divers have risked - and sometimes lost - their lives attempting to reach the depths of Toplizsee looking for the legendary Nazi gold.  No easy task since the lake is over 100 meters deep, and has a "false bottom" of logs some 50 meters down which is extremely dangerous to pass through.  

The Nazis were known to have used the lake as a test site for various weapons: bombs, torpedoes, and some believe, nuclear devices.  It is also the site where they dumped the counterfeiting plates and crates of phony pound notes, once Operation Bernhard was discovered.  Fake notes have been washing up from time to time ever since.  The stuff of stories.  Perhaps my imagination was tainted by these stories - which I had no idea of before our trip - but when we took a boat ride over the Toplizsee there was the strong sense of the lake being unpleasantly haunted.  


Since returning home, my head's been just about bursting with story inspiration.  But that will have to wait a while.  For now, I'm back to painting and collage.  I'm starting on a series of small collages (15 x 15 cm.) to put up on my Etsy shop soon.  

They are made of fragments of old letters,

painted papers,

Flowers and leaves I pressed this Summer and last Fall. 

They remind me of the past.  Of secrets.  Of impenetrable mysteries.

 The stuff of stories indeed.


  1. a beautiful area. The Hal in Hallstadt is the same as the Hal in Halen...Welsh for salt. These Celts got everywhere!

    good to see your work

  2. Fascinating history there.... ! What layers of stories to walk through on your journey, sounds like it seeded a lot in your imagination. Happy Autumn!

  3. Lynn,this is all so beautiful.The mill house looks straight out of a fairy tale.
    Wonderful that this break has inspired interesting new work,I like the last one.......lovely colours!
    Great photos too! Thanks for sharing the information.


  4. Oh, that's the best kind of holiday ~ both scenic and interesting! And Baba Yaga trees! *grin* As always, I am swayed not just by the images in your collages, but also by the sense of story they evoke!!

  5. Thank you, Sonia. It's such an interesting place, it's almost impossible to take a bad photo!

    Yes, Gwynneth! I'd looked up the name Hallstatt wondering what it meant - in German salt is Salz - which made sense in the name of the city Salzburg so I fascinated to learn the Hal is an old Celtic word for it. Had no idea that it's connected to the Welsh word for salt. Thank you for that!

    So many layers, Valerianna. Being in a different place - even if only a three hour drive from home - is so good for perspective and inspiration. Happy Autumn!

    When we first saw the place, Ruby, that's exactly what we said - that it was out of a fairy tale! The inside was also amazing - all wood and the walls were hung with farming implements as well as a few stuffed birds and animals. All very Austrian, except for the huge and - I think - Balinese full head mask in the foyer.

    Love how you've put that, Velma.

    Thanks, Donna. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the first tree, and then again a few feet later when I saw the other!

    Happy Autumn everyone!

  6. Happy Autumn indeed! I feel as if I have travelled a bit of the way with you ... especially liked the scenes of the chapel all lit up and the green hills giving rise to all sorts of charming architecture/homes. I've been missing your blog and hoped you would come back soon with tales to tell. And so you have ... you never disappoint. ;)

  7. Hi Jan! Isn't that chapel amazing. I wish the tour guide had allowed to stay in it a bit longer - as it was, my husband and I were almost locked in the mine at the end of the tour when we dallied to look at something and were cut off from the rest - including our two hobgoblins.

    I'm hoping to be posting more regularly now - the school holidays and visitors from Canada and my general lazy disposition have been bad for my blogging! Though good for inspiration...

  8. That's not to say that the lazy disposition has been good for inspiration, though you never know...

    1. laughing here because my lazy bone has not been of any use to me ... well, except for those times when I need a well-deserved break ... but how often is that?! lol.

  9. I love the image of the place you stayed.
    Hope you are inspired in your new studio, it looks like an amazing find.

  10. It was a real fairy tale mill, Jane.
    I'm still feeling my way into the new studio - and find it really suits me.

  11. A great combination, your new studio and an inspiring holiday. Your enthusiasm shines through and you can sense the excitement and ideas of your creative mind. It is wonderful to see the photographs and the things that have inspired you from your holiday. Love the hand writing on the letters and your pressed flowers, look forward to seeing the collages.

  12. What an incredible chapel in the mine, just beautiful and somewhat creepy.

  13. That's exactly what it was like, Lois - beautiful and creepy! Something very Hallowe'en like about it in that picture...

  14. Enjoyed a vicarious summer adventure in a magic landscape while the hurricane winds whirl out-of-doors.

    1. Like Dorothy transported!
      Glad you enjoyed it.