Innsbruck to Salzburg

On The Road Travel Essays

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Innsbruck to Salzburg

(COURIER: This drive is mainly of scenic rather than historical/anecdotal interest, so let the group enjoy the mountain panoramas. But you might want to perk them up a bit along the way, so use portions of "Introduction to Austria" you haven't already used, plus some of the following little tidbits on the towns that go by.)

General  This part of Austria has always been famous for salt mining. Salzburg, our destination, includes the (German) word "salt" in its very name, and the city's wealth over the centuries was based on the mining of salt. Today, salt mining is only a minor industrial activity, but it used to be otherwise: from prehistoric times up into the 20th century, salt was a precious mineral to be exploited. (Recall that before refrigeration, salting meat was about the only way to keep it from spoiling, and there was always great demand; also, salt could cover up the taste of slightly spoiled meat.) Many towns in this area have the word Salz or Hall incorporated into their names: Salzburg, Solbad Hall, etc. The words mean "salt," "salt works." These mountains you see up on the left are rich in salt, and there are many old mines (now abandoned) and underground shafts crisscrossing under the surface.

How salt is mined. First, miners locate a salt bed underground. Next, a pit is dug into this bed, and the pit is flooded with water. The water dissolves the salt, forming a salty solution. This salty water is then pumped out of the mine and poured into huge vats built on the mountainside. At first, the salt was refined right on the spot, using wood-burning furnaces. But it was difficult and expensive to keep hauling this firewood up the mountain, so instead huge pipelines were built to conduct the salty water miles away to salt refineries. These pipelines were sometimes of wood, sometimes of iron. The longest one ran for 49 miles! Sometimes aqueducts were built to cross over narrow valleys. If you go out into those mountains, you'll see bits of these old pipelines zigzagging up and down the slopes. Footpaths were worn in the mountainside alongside these pipelines, and even where the pipelines have been taken down, the paths remain, and have become popular hiking trails for weekenders. In this area, the salt was transported on river barges, and the Inn River, which we'll be following for awhile, was once dotted with these wooden barges. Today, modern mining and refining techniques have done away with a lot of this, but picturesque old ruins of salt works can still be seen here and there.

"Salty" traditions. Other remnants of the past also survive in the mines of Austria. The salt workers still think of themselves as a kind of "guild," a brotherhood. There are many old words and expressions still used, such as Gluck auf (Good luck); on festival days in local salt-mining towns, the workers wear their traditional uniforms, and exchange tales of gremlins and ghosts which are supposed to haunt certain mines at certain times of the year.

Salt spas. In one respect, salt is still very much "in fashion." Salt springs have always been held to have curative value: for rheumatism, heart ailments, skin rashes, arthritis, even sexual impotency. Europeans are nothing if not great hypochondriacs, and they fuss over themselves as nervously as Americans worry about car payments. Hence, salt spas are popular places for young and old. They bathe in salt water, soak in salty mud, and breathe salt vapors. One of these salt resorts is Solbad Hall.

Solbad Hall (Pop. 11,000) This town was once the "salt capital" of the Inn River Valley. Since salt was a valuable commodity, this gave Solbad Hall great economic importance to the Dukes of the Tyrol. These dukes granted special favors to the town, and came here themselves to frolic and bathe in the salt waters. Hence the long tradition of resort activity in this little city. Salt is still mined in the mountains above the town, but no longer is the salt refined right on the mountainside. Back then, logs were floated down the Inn River to Solbad Hall, then carried up the mountain to stoke the refinery furnaces, and this made the town a kind of river port. Today, the main "industry" is salt spas and tourism.

Schwaz (Pop. 10,000) Salt may once have been the major activity around here, but in this little town, two other mining operations flourished: copper and silver. This was in the 1400's and 1500's. A large population of miners made this town the largest after Innsbruck in the whole Tyrol. Since the town was important economically, the Austrian Emperor took a special interest in it, and granted special privileges, donating money for public building. The famous banking family from Augsburg, the Fuggers, also invested large sums in the town. The former wealth of the town can be gauged from the elaborate decorations of the churches and civic buildings, and from the local legend that claims that the miners from Schwaz used silver nails in their boots, making the cobblestones clink as they walked.

Rattenberg (Pop. 800) We're now at the old frontier between the Tyrol and Bavaria, and this town was in the middle of disputes between the two countries back in the 15th century. In 1505, the Emperor Maximilian annexed this part of the Tyrol to Austria, and brought the squabbling to an end.

At this part of the Inn River, the valley narrows into a bottleneck; it was thus through here that all traffic had to pass (on the road and on the river), and the town exercised control over it. But in the 17th century, the mines of the area had been used up, traffic slowed down, and Rattenberg sank into decline. The nice part of this is that the town has been "frozen" in appearance from that day, and thus gives one an idea of what a Renaissance Austrian river town looked like.

(COURIER: There are two routes from here to Salzburg. First, we'll give the scenic route via the Steinpass, then the quick route on the Autobahn.)


Worgl  This town is Austria's newest township; the railroad junction has made it an important market center. But mainly it's the gateway to the Kaisergebirge area, one of Austria's loveliest mountain regions. We'll follow a valley that takes us up to the main valley from which we'll have continuous views of the Kaisergebirge range.

Wilder Kaiser (COURIER: This pertains to the valley extending from the Weissach Ravine to St. Johann in Tiral.) We're traveling along the Weissach River Valley, and on our left (north) is the massive range known as the Kaisergebirge. This limestone massif is on the very fringes of the Northern Limestone Alps. Since it's on the edge, its ranges and peaks stand out distinctly instead of melting into a continuous mass of mountains. The Kaisergebirge actually consists of Two parallel ranges. Farther to our left (we can't see it) is the Zahmer Kaiser (Tame Kaiser, with less rugged peaks. What we see to our left is the Wilder Kaiser (Wild Kaiser), whose peaks are taller; its valleys are actually deep gorges cut out of the mountains over millennia by rivers. This whole area is popular for hikers, and resorts have sprung up in the towns of the valley. In winter, the skiers come, and there are numerous toboggan runs, ski lifts, ski schools, and cable cars.

Spital  This community started out as a small inn for wayfarers making their way over the mountains. A pilgrims' church dates from 1744, and inside it is the only 15th century stained glass in the Tyrol region.

St. Johann in Tirol  We're now at the junction of three major valleys: the Weissach, which we've been on; Kitzbuheler Valley, going south to the ski resort of Kitzbuhel; and the Leukental, the valley we'll follow north. This junction explains how the town of St. Johann grew up — as a road junction for merchants and pilgrims traveling from the Tyrol to Salzburg. Today the town is a market center and also a growing tourist spot for hikers and skiers. Notice the pretty, spotlessly clean Tyrolean houses and inns decorated with paintings on the outside walls. The big peak overlooking the town (to the south) is the Kitzbuhler Horn (about 6000 feet), which can be reached from St. Johann by funicular railroad and chairlift.

Kirchdorf in Tirol  Across the river is the little hamlet of Kirchdorf in Tirol, with its "Teufelsgasse" (curious limestone formation) and a monument to the 1809 rising of the Tyrolese against Napoleon and his Bavarian allies.

Erpfendorf  This valley town is noted mainly for its contemporary church, designed by Clemens Holzmeister, a leading figure in Austrian religious architecture, and finished in 1957.

Waidring  Another valley town. Notice the shingle roofs weighted down by stones for protection against the wind. Imagine how strong the roof beams have to be!

Strub Valley  We're out of the Kaisergebirge by now and running along another range: the Loferer Steinberge. Only 4 miles to the north (our left) is the German border. The Loferer Steinberge is to our right.

Strub Pass: In this narrow defile there occurred bitter fighting between Tyrolese partisans and Napoleon's forces in 1800, 1805, and 1809. Imagine the difficulty of trying to carry on battle activity in such terrain, trying to cross the raging river. The Monument (other side of the river) commemorates the Tyrolese patriots and their sacrifice. Napoleon was not defeated by the Tyrolese, though his forces were given stubborn resistance.

Lofer  Popular summer resort and winter sports center. Unlike many other towns in these valleys, Lofer is free of mist, which often settles on the other towns even in the summer. The peasant houses on the outskirts are often covered with a climbing pear, the local tree. The townspeople enjoy peat-water baths, believed to be curative.

After Lofer: We enter the Saalach River Valley, heading due north to the German (Bavarian) border. You can understand why the Bavarians, with Napoleon's help, would be interested in extending their territory south, to include these mountains as a natural fortification. And you can understand why the Tyrolese were just as anxious to retain the territory. (Passing the hamlets of Au and Hallenstein:) up to our right (east) is the peak of Drei Bruder (Three Brothers), so-called because early settlers saw three points at the top.

Kniepass  A bottleneck that does indeed feel like a "knee" bending around sharp curves, with the Saalach River foaming close to the road. This valley was carved out eons ago by glaciers working their way north, clearing out rocks, soil, and trees, and depositing them on either side. This is in contrast to, say, the Leukental and Strubtal — valleys formed by the cutting action of rivers. For this reason, the Leukental and Strubtal are narrower and sharper, created more "surgically" than the Saalach Valley we're in now, which is relatively broader and more open, especially in the stretch farther to the south of us.

Steinpass  This brings us to the Bavarian border. We will go through about 8 miles of Bavaria before re-entering Austria. It's a curious arrangement until you get out a map and see that Bavaria juts into Austria, creating a "parrot's beak" about 20 miles long. Because of this into-Germany-and-out-again, the river valley we've been following has never developed into a major transportation route, which it would probably have been otherwise, since it's a perfect opening through the Northern Limestone Alps. Incidentally, this German parrot's beak is full of gorgeous mountain scenery and some famous spots, including Berchtesgaden.

Bad Reichenall  Here the last traces of the Saalach Valley disappear and we find ourselves out in the open. Bad Reichenall is a "salt spa," as the word "Bad" (bath) indicates. Its salt-water baths, pools and treatment centers draw people suffering from respiratory ailments and hordes of others who simply enjoy their hypochondria. Salt working in the town goes back into prehistory: the town has the highest concentration of salt in its underground water (24%) in Europe. The salt water bubbles up from springs, and for centuries the townspeople have experimented with various ways to pump it most efficiently and extract the salt most cheaply. The Old Salt Works in the town date from the 1830's, and consist of pumps powered by water wheels. The new walt works (Neue Saline) were completed in 1958. Underground salt water is a peculiarity of this part of Europe, both here in Bavaria and over the Austrian border in Salzburg. That's why we'll be hearing about salt mining and the wealth it created as we explore the heritage of Salzburg. (Salz = salt)


Kufstein (Pop. 11,000) This is the last Austrian town on the Inn River. Beyond the town, the Inn crosses into Germany, flowing north, and finally flows into the Danube at the German town of Passau. As this town, like Rattenberg, is near the border between Germany and Austria, it had to defend itself from invading armies. Up on the rocky height is a massive castle surviving from those days. Today, Kufstein is busy with tourists and (in winter) skiers making their way to the Kaisergebirge mountain range.

(Once over the German border:)

Oberaudorf (Pop. 2,500) A winter sports center and health resort, at the foot of Brunnstein mountain (5000 ft.). Several toboggan-runs from peaks around the town draw many sportsmen. Some of the mountain scenes from the James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" were filmed in the hills outside of town.

(We lose sight of the Inn River for awhile, then we get onto the fast Autobahn running from Munich to Salzburg, and soon the Autobahn crosses the Inn again—our last view.)

Chiemsee  This lake is the largest body of water in Bavaria. It was created at the same time as the mountains to our right. One of the glaciers that pushed the earth along, forming the mountains, also scooped out the lake bottom. The depth in places reaches over 400 feet. It's a very popular place for people from Munich to come to on vacations. Fishermen enjoy its trout, salmon, and carp. Sailing enthusiasts make use of the steady breezes coming in off the mountains. Painters too have settled along the shore, inspired by the strange light that plays on the waters. The lake is popularly called the "Bavarian Sea."

Ludwig's "Versailles": Two islands stand in the lake. One of them has an old abbey. The other island, called the Herreninsel ("Lord's Island"), was a favorite resort place of Bavaria's "mad" king Ludwig II, who built Neuschwanstein castle. Ludwig was a dreamer, with visions of glory. Wanting to outdo all his royal predecessors of the past, he conceived the idea of building a splendid palace on this island, which would imitate the palace of Versailles on a smaller scale. The palace has its own "Hall of Mirrors" containing 33 chandeliers and 32 candelabras, capable of holding 2,600 candles. The formal gardens are in the French style, as are the fountains. Ludwig spent over 20 million marks on the building (1878-85), exhausting his treasury. For all the time and money, Ludwig spent only a week in the palace, until he was deposed and drowned in the lake of Starnberger.

(To the right are the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, often overhung with dark rain clouds.)


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