Friday, July 31, 2009

Hellbrunn Palace and Stone Theatre Austria

Cari Amici (Dear Friends),

Schloss Hellbrunn aka Hellbrunn Palace lies just about a 10- or 15-minute drive south of Salzburg, Austria. Known for the Wasserspiele trick fountains (keep your cameras hidden!), Hellbrunn was built in the early 1600s by Prince-Archbishop Markus Sitticus, who loved to play pranks on his visitors. It is fun to sit outside in the park and listen to the squeals of delighted children as they get squirted from unexpected places in the fun house. Most of the grounds are free, but if you want to see the tricks and the art inside the palace, you must pay an entrance fee of about eight euros.

You will also find in the Palace Park the pavilion in which Liesl and Franz met in the film “The Sound of Music.” I can sheepishly admit to loving to sing songs from this musical that I grew up watching at least once every year.

I wanted to see the stone theatre, if for no other reason than to leave the beautiful and orderly sculpted gardens for the wilds of the mountains. I was delighted to see the sun shining through the trees and we went up the stairs on the path. It seemed magical to me.

I do believe my Austrian friend was delighted as I turned the corner at the top of the stairs and exclaimed, “I feel a bit like Indiana Jones!” The light was gorgeous and I imagined the sound of voices filling the stone arch above the theatre.

And then I explored the stage doors and enjoyed the shadows. The first performance in the Steintheater (stone theatre) occurred on 31 August 1617. It would have been so cool to have witnessed that!

And finally, here is an image of me pretending that I can sing nearly as well as my niece Alexis. I think the Steintheater was my favorite part of all of Hellbrunn.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Celtic History Austria

Cari Amici (Dear Friends),

As I mentioned in my last post, the KeltenMuseums (Celtic Heritage Museum) in Hallein, Austria, was created with a lot of heart and soul. As we entered the museum, I was thrilled to catch this wonderful image of a young boy interacting with a plastic skeleton. I loved the boy’s gesture, the lighting in this room, and the overall composition of objects. So I simply wanted to share this image with you.

The Celtic people who settled this region in Austria centuries ago and began mining salt rocks were very creative people. The museum had a display recreating a home, in which a loom helped the Celts weave fabric. Also on exhibit were beautifully constructed metal vases, jewelry, and tools. I was most impressed with the elaborate keys, the largest of which was probably about twelve inches in one direction.

These hand-made items were not only functional, but also artistic. You may see here some of the purely decorative elements added to many of the items. The museum staff has also created an attractive display that shows the relative location of items found in one of the actual gravesites at the architectural dig site.

Some of the items, such as these sculptured metal pins, are still a mystery to scientists. But based on their location inside the graves (usually near the shoulders), they believe they were created to clasp clothing together. The pins are very stylishly designed animal sculptures and quite beautiful. It seemed clear to me that sculpture was important to the Celtic people, even if only created in relatively small sizes. That may have had more to do with the complicated process of shaping metal than any other reason.

There is a young Austrian couple working at the museum who have made this place incredibly interesting. The kids loved the interactive displays. Before Sylvia and I left, the husband showed us a new puppet that the wife had created. When we had arrived, he had been photographing children popping their heads into some science display near the skeletons. Despite being such a small community, this struck me as a top-notch museum.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Celtic Heritage Museum Hallein Austria

Cari Amici (Dear Friends),

In Austria, the Celtic people were extracting “white gold” (otherwise known as ‘salt’) as early as 600 years before Christ. The city Salzburg derives its name from combining “Salz” (salt) and “Burg” (castle). About 20 kilometers south of Salzburg is Hallein, with the prefix “hal” meaning ‘salt’ in the ancient Celtic language.
Hallein is a charming village located near the famous Dürrnberg salt mines.

In Hallein, not too far from the Salzach (Salt River) is the KeltenMuseums (Celtic Heritage Museum). Now, I have been inside enough small town museums in my life to be able to say that most show what kind of budget they are working with and they can often be cheesy. I thought this even when I was a kid. However, The Celtic Heritage Museum is not one of those. Although I was only able to spend about forty-five minutes inside before they closed, the love and thoughtfulness and care, as well as educational value was quite apparent.

I never cease to be amazed at the perseverance of the first person(s) who figured out how to do so many of our complicated processes: from bronze casting and patination to various chemistry mixes (including making paint and even cooking food) to knitting sweaters from the hair of sheep and extracting salt from rocks. I mean, really, who would have thought that salt in rocks COULD have even be used to keep meat in a safe condition for eating for a long time? Where do people get their ideas and know how many ways to try something before finding a solution? My mind boggles . . . gratefully.

When one first enters the Celtic Heritage Museum, one sees the many varieties of shapes and even color of salt stones (called Salgemma in Italian!). I include several here. There is a reproduction of what a salt mine looks like in the mountains, as well as the reproduction of a skull of some unfortunate miner that was found in a rather tight space underground. The actual archeological site of a Celtic settlement is not too far from Hallein.

The top floor, which I only had five minutes to breeze through, exhibited paintings in a folk art style depicting the process of mining the salt rocks, extracting the salt, and pushing the salt into tall tapering pillars. These pillars were then stacked onto boats. Other boats were loaded up with horses. Together these went down river to their various destinations, the horses being needed for transport once they landed ashore. They also had an actual oven for extracting the salt and I was surprised at how ornate the decoration and paint job was (the one I saw was green with white patterns).

An aside: Michael Jackson died while I was still in Florence, Italy, but his funeral occurred while I was in Austria. My friend Sylvia wanted to watch it. During the ceremony someone referred to the entertainer as being “salt of the earth.” I had forgotten this expression, most often hearing it among the religious people in the south USA. But I happily told Sylvia that in the US, at least, this is considered a high compliment to a person’s character. White gold.

I did not realize how funny that last tie was until I reread my blog entry! Oh well, my brain does think that everything is connected.

Another aside: Hallein is also the birthplace and the grave site of Franz Gruber, the composer of the Christmas carol “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”).

Happy Birthday, Peggy! Celebrate well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Austria Cemeteries Beinhaus Hallstatt

Cari Amici (Dear Friends),

I am not sure why I have always liked to visit cemeteries, but there it is. And I must say that Austrian cemeteries struck me at the most beloved. Every single grave that I saw had fresh colorful flowers and most had candles going. I would not have said that there seemed to be a competition going on who kept the loveliest site, it just did not feel that way.

When I asked if the churches did all of that work, my friend Sylvia told me that no, at least in her village, it was up to the family members who were alive to do the caring. In her case, she tends to the graves of her loved ones almost every day. It helps that she lives in a small village and the church is close by, but still: ALL of the graves are well tended in every cemetery that I saw.

In a Gothic church in Hallstatt, there is a small stone room called the Beinhaus (The Bone House) in the Michaelskapelle (St Michael Chapel). It contains the bones of many that were buried in this village. In this very vertical mountainous region, space is at a premium and at some point in history these bones were moved from their graves to make room for other bodies. Then the bones were stacked neatly all together, with the skulls aligned on top for remembrance. Many skulls were painted with leaves or family crests. The names and life dates of each person were painted onto the skulls.

Although the small ossuary was filled with tourists snapping flash images, Sylvia asked me to have some respect and take no photos. Instead, she bought me a postcard that they had for sale at the entrance, where a woman charged either 3 or 6 euros per person to enter the Beinhaus. I noticed that the skulls inside in front of the cross were different from the ones on the postcard, so I became curious about how often remains were added or rearranged. It seemed to me that as small as this village may have appeared, there should be more bones than what were here.

If you would like to know more about the Beinhaus or Hallstatt (a LOVELY, lovely village and a World Heritage Site), please visit: