This little-know village 30 minutes south of Salzburg has a fine castle and one of the country's best restaurants.
By Mark Honan
Something of an undiscovered secret, this village lies 30 miles south of Salzburg, along the road and rail route to Zell am See and Badgastein.
Rail travelers barely have time to register that there's a sublimely situated castle glowering on a hillock above a cluster of traditional houses, before the train whisks them away down the valley. Even car drivers, who would find it much easier to break their trip for a couple of hours to stroll down the main street and grab a few snapshots, will only scratch the surface of what the village has to offer. To see the best of Werfen, you need to schedule an overnight stop or two.
There's the 16th-century castle itself, Hohenwerfen, a twenty minute hike uphill from the main street, Markt. Its crenelated walls and concave spires soar above a swathe of verdant conifers. Regular tours take visitors through the dingy dungeons, displays of arcane torture equipment and weaponry, the chapel, and the wooden belfry. If you can't follow the German commentary, an audio handset will tell you all you need to know in English. Afterwards, you can move at your own pace through the castles museum collections, which include temporary displays and a permanent falconry exhibit.
The latter should whet your appetite for the falconry show which takes place twice a day in a grassy open-air enclosure within the castle walls. A series of successively larger and larger birds of prey are put through their paces, soaring high into the air or swooping low over the heads of the startled audience. The spectacle is made all the more exciting and dramatic by the stupendous backdrop of the 8,000-foot-high mountain ranges on either side. I won't forget in a hurry the final pass made by the eagle owl, the largest European owl. Its huge orange eyes bored into mine as it dived within inches of my scalp, its beating wings close enough send air currents shivering down the raised hairs on the back of my neck.
The fortress is open from late March until early November, daily except for Mondays in April; closing times range from 4:30pm in spring/fall up to 6pm in July and August. Admission costs $9 for adults.
Even better is Eisriesenwelt, the giant ice caves set high in the Tennengebirge mountain range and an adventure in itself to reach. First, there's a car or minibus trip up an impossibly steep, winding road that claws its way up the mountainside for some four miles. After that, the increasingly precipitous gradient makes road transport impossible. So the next stage is a 15-minute walk up a switchback footpath, before a cable car will whisk you over the stark grey cliffs above the tree line. Then there's a further 15-minute walk to the cave entrance.
Its a long trip, but your perseverance will be highly rewarded. Indeed, you will already have received some of your payback from the magnificent views down to Werfen and across the valley.
The caves are well named. Giant is no exaggeration, for these are the largest accessible ice caves in the world, some 26 miles of passages that open onto huge caverns and elaborate ice sculptures. You'll see shapes that conjure up frozen waterfalls, monstrous prehistoric beasts, and gigantic oriental veils. Your imagination will be prompted in a certain direction when the guide informs you of the names of the structures: ice chapel, ice organ, ice palace, and so on. (Strangely, there's no ice cream!) Yet despite the impression of the presence of a designing hand, all the shapes are entirely naturally formed. To light up the offerings, the guide sets off powerful magnesium flares. The intense but short-lived explosion of illumination greatly adds to the sense of drama and occasion, though it does make impossible detailed appreciation of the structures.
Some words of warning if you plan to visit. Though the sun may be blazing outside, it's usually cold and damp inside, so wear warm clothes and make sure your shoes have a decent grip on their soles. Also, you have to negotiate long stairways inside, and this can be exhausting at an altitude of 5,380 feet. I saw at least two elderly couples, already tired by the long walk to the mouth of the cave, give up and turn back within the first few minutes of the tour.
A visit, including travel time, takes about four hours round trip. If you need to take the minibus, it departs from the car park at the train station (8/$9 round trip). The caves are open from 1st May until 26th October, and tours are daily between 9:30am and 3.30pm (until 4:30pm in July and August). The combined entrance fee for the caves and the cable car is 16 ($18) for adults or 8 ($9) for children. The extremely fit and extremely determined can hike up to the Eisriesenwelt from Werfen in about four hours. But for most people, especially those who have excess Strudels to burn off, I'd recommend instead taking one of the many alternative, less strenuous, but equally rewarding hikes that radiate across the valley from in and around Werfen (the tourist office can supply maps).
Back down in the village, there are also a couple of churches worth peeking inside. The best is the Parish Church in honor of apostle James the Elder, near the tourist office. Built in the mid-17th century, it features a classic Baroque high altar and two early Baroque side altars.
In addition to its own attractions, Werfen is a suitable base from which to visit a number of other sights, not least the myriad top-line draws of Salzburg. Hallein, over halfway towards Salzburg and easy to visit via a 20-minute train ride, is a well-preserved market town with a long history. The biggest attraction here is the salt mines above the town, situated in Bad Dürrnberg. You can reach them via cable car, a bus ride, or even a stiff 40-minute hike up narrow footpaths.
For centuries, salt was crucial to the development and prosperity of the Salzburg region. The mine at Bad Dürrnberg began yielding up its so-called white gold as early as 600 BC. However, in 1989 the mines owners realized that conducting tours of the caverns was even more lucrative than extracting sodium chloride (aka salt). If you take the tour you'll don miners overalls, take a mini train trip, get ferried across a subterranean lake, and view films about the salt extracting process. Best of all, for those who prefer their erudition mixed with a smattering of fairground adrenaline, are the long slides down dark chutes into lower caverns. Riding on your behind on polished wooden banisters, you'll feel a tug of nervousness as you launch yourself into the semi-darkness, though you do reach the bottom before your increasing momentum gets too frightening. The mines are open daily all year, from 11am to 3pm during winter and 9am to 5pm the rest of the year. Admission for adults costs 15.50 ($17). See the website: salzwelten.at/en/.
If your thirst for salt-related matters is not sated by the salt mine, the town reveals more of its secrets at the Keltenmuseum (Celtic Museum), at Pflegerplatz 5, open daily from April to October. At the end of June, Hallein village takes on a carnival air, thanks to the open-air theatre, music and processions that constitute its Stadtfestwoche festival.
Midway between Hallein and Salzburg, the Untersberg mountain is well worth ascending. It's easy to get to the top via cable car, and the elevation of 6,080 feet affords an excellent panorama of the taller Alpine giants in Tyrol and Salzburg province.