I don’t know if it is due to my mother coming from a mining area, visiting underground mines or caves at a young age, or my own technical work experience gained at mines in Germany and Mongolia, but I like going underground. Caverns, mines, tunnels...you name it! Some of these trips have been pretty spectacular and well worth a visit. Here are my top 5 subterranean tourist attractions:
Freiberg Visitor Mine (Saxony, Germany) Official Site
I spent the summer of 2010 working at Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg - the oldest university of mining and metallurgy in the world (the chemical elements indium and germanium were also discovered there). Silver (and later other minerals) have been mined in Freiberg for centuries, with the 850th anniversary of the “Silberstadt” being celebrated this coming weekend. The main mine, while no longer productive (though rising metal prices may make production once again favourable), has over 1000km of tunnels running under the small city, however only 20km of these are accessible as the lower levels of the mine were flooded when production ceased.
Various mine tours can be arranged – however tours in English usually need to be arranged in advance with a minimum of 8 people. Alternatively take someone with you to translate the tour – many Freiberg students will be familiar with the mine which is still used today for teaching. They can be found in most bars in the town centre singing the traditional German mining song “Das Steigerleid”. There is also a kind of bar located in the mine itself, over 100m underground, where rock concerts are sometimes performed and can also be hired out for parties and other events.
Another mining-related attraction is Terra-Mineralia, a geological museum located in Schloss Freudenstein in the town centre. The museum has interesting rock samples from all over the world, as well as Freiberg and the Erzgebirge (“Ore Mountains”), and even outer space!
Freiberg is best visited over the last weekend in June, during what is known as “Bergstadtfest” – a celebration of the town’s mining heritage, with street stalls, a funfair, fireworks, beer, beer and more beer, culminating in a miner’s parade from the Dom on the Sunday morning. Even outside of Bergstadtfest, Freiberg can still be a pleasant day out if you are staying in the vicinity of Dresden or Leipzig.
Cruachan – the Hollow Mountain (Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland) Official Site
Short and sweet, but still very interesting, Cruachan is a pumped-hydro power station. That is, during periods of surplus electricity, water is pumped to the top of the mountain (Ben Cruachan) and stored in a reservoir. When energy demand increases e.g. at breakfast time when everyone is making coffee, the water is flowed back down the mountain and used to generate electricity. The humidity and temperature in the underground tunnels is significant enough to allow tropical plants to be grown in artificial sunlight. The tour gives a deeper explanation of the process, the history of the power station, and shows the inner workings of the mountain. Cruachan is an interesting stop for anyone with an engineering background, or simply anyone who wants to know a bit more about where our electricity comes from.
The Cruachan visitor centre is pleasant rest stop on the way up to Oban, Fort William or the Western Isles, and visitors arriving by public transport or bike gain free entry (Falls of Cruachan railway station is only 200m walk). The scenery on the way is your stereotypical Scotland, and can be enjoyed whatever mode of transportation you take. Those of the outdoor persuasion can also hike up to the corrie (known to the English as a tarn) on Ben Cruachan where the storage reservoir can be found – though be prepared for the rain!
St Michael’s Cave (Gibraltar) Official Site
I visited this one several times during my childhood. The British overseas territory, Gibraltar largely consists of a large formation of Jurassic limestone known as the Rock of Gibraltar (or simply the Rock), containing over 150 caves. St Michael’s cave is the largest and most visited of these, being one of Gibraltar’s leading tourist attractions. Entry also includes entry to the Siege Tunnels and the Moorish Castle. Taking the Lower St. Michael's Cave tour is strongly recommended by the locals, but must be booked 3 days in advance minimum and children under 10 are not allowed (For more info, see the link above, under the option "Tours").
The cave can be reached by road, cable car or on foot – taking the cable car up and walking back down is particularly pleasant and allows you to get up close to the Barbary apes that inhabit the Rock. It is thought that the apes first reached the Rock from Morocco through the network of caves long ago. Another legend is that the ancient Greeks thought the cave to be the gateway to the underworld of Hades.
Eisriesenwelt (Upper Austria, Austria) Official Site
This one is pretty spectacular. Located 1641m above sea level in the Austrian Alps 40km south of Salzburg, Eisriesenwelt is the largest ice cave in the world with the network stretching over 42km. To access the cave you drive to the visitor centre, take a 20 minute walk to the cable car station, and after a vertigo-inducing trip in the cable car (the faint of heart can take a 90 minute trek by foot), take another 20 minute walk to the mouth of the cave. The pressure differential due to the temperatures inside and outside the cave causes a blast of ice cold wind that can reach up to 100km/h when the cave doors are opened – when this happens you can easily see why the cave was once thought to be (another) gateway to hell. Once inside the cave the air is still again, and you are guided up and down 700 steps with your path lit by old-fashioned lamps, and the impressive ice formations illuminated by magnesium tapers.
One thing I will emphasise: this is an ICE cave. As the name suggests it is filled with ICE – come prepared for spending up to an hour in temperatures below freezing. That means come prepared with sensible shoes such as boots or trainers, thick socks, trousers, long sleeves, thick jumpers, hat, gloves, scarf...no matter how warm it is outside. On my tour around the cave a poor newlywed couple from the Middle East enjoying their honeymoon underestimated how cold it would be and didn’t even bring pullovers. The husband begged the tour guide to hurry through the cave - before we had even been inside two minutes! They hadn’t expected to be so cold for so long, not having any experience of sub-zero temperatures, and coming from a place where you only ever saw ice in your drink. Even me, in true Scottish style, prepared for all weathers and able to wrap up warm, found my toes getting a little cold towards the end (canvas pumps are a bad idea!).
Eisriesenwelt is a good day trip from Salzburg, with many tour companies organising bus trips. Salzburg itself is very cultural, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with several palaces and historic churches, as well as being the famed birthplace of Mozart (there is always a busker to be found playing his music). There’s also the whole “Sound of Music” experience to found too. Finally if your hunger for all things subterranean hasn’t been sated, there is also a salt mine and museum in the nearby town of Hallein, which features among other things underground slides!
Licking salt from the walls is perfectly
acceptable - in fact, permission to take up
to 1kg of salt is included in the tour price!
Wieliczka Salt Mine (Krakow, Poland) UNESCO Site
This one is a subterranean MUST SEE!
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mine contains over 3km of tunnel accessible to the public – but this is only a very small percentage of the tunnel network. Also contained within the mine are several chapels, fine sculptures and even chandeliers – all of which are formed out of salt. Also present is are salt lakes and many massive chambers carved out of the rock salt – one so high as to have been the location of both the world’s first underground bungee jump and underground hot air balloon flight. Tours are available in several languages and very reasonably priced, and the mine is easily reached by bus from Krakow city centre, meaning there is no excuse to miss out on this. In one word: SPECTACULAR!
Krakow itself has all the charms of any historic European city, and with an excellent night life to boot (a trip down the salt mine will also help clear up a moderate hangover, should you overdo it). Did I also mention that Krakow is cheap? – I went out for 5 days with the same amount of money I spent in Oslo in a weekend (around £100), and still came back with plenty to spare. I recommend visiting in December when there is a good Christmas market to be found in the main square.