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Intro to the Wolfgangsee for Salzburg College students

AUSTRIA | Saturday, 24 April 2021 | Views [32]

I was asked to give a brief spontaneous introduction to the St. Wolfgang pilgrimage route and church as well as to the Wolfgangsee.  The video ends a bit abruptly and I did misspeak, the line dividing the lake was the silk thread line, not the silver thread line. Sorry about that! Nonetheless, you can see the beauty of the area in the video.



 The following is an excerpt from my book Lessons from the Legends of the Salzkammergut:

The pilgrimage route to St. Wolfgang was a major source of income for an area that didn’t participate in the salt trade. Pilgrims sought out the route between Mondsee and St. Wolfgang, bringing with them votive and monetary offerings.  In 1481 some of these funds were used to pay for a new altar in the church. The Michael Pacher altar in St. Wolfgang is the only remaining fully intact winged altar from this renowned Gothic artist. By the beginning of the next century, however, the Church was in trouble, not just in Rome and Wittenburg, but also throughout Land Salzburg and the Salzkammergut. German miners brought a new faith with them when they came to work, and Protestantism rapidly expanded in Aussee, Mondsee, Ischl, Lauffen and Hallstatt. In 1553 Goisern was the first community to have a Protestant minister. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, signed by Emperor Charles V, allowed local rulers throughout the Holy Roman Empire’s territories to decide the religion of their territories. The Habsburg lands were Catholic, but in 1568 Emperor Maximilian II granted freedom of religion in the Salzkammergut. This changed under Emperor Rudolf II in 1587 when the Counterreformation in the area began in earnest.  The conflicts, often quite bloody, culminated in 1602 when the Catholics, with assistance from the Archbishop of Salzburg, put down a Protestant salt workers rebellion. It wasn’t until the Tolerance Acts of Emperor Josef II that Protestants in the region, specifically those in Gosau and Hallstatt, were once again allowed to practice their religion. During this time, in 1595, the oldest still functioning pipeline in the world was built out of wood to transport salt from the Hallstatt Dachstein mountains to Ebensee on the Traunsee, thereby making the shipments to cities in the north and east, including to the court in Vienna, much easier and quicker.

During the 16th through early 19th centuries, the region was affected by plagues and wars. The War of Austrian Succession from 1741 to 1748 saw Bavarian troops occupying Gmunden and the tensions between the Habsburgs and their neighbors spread to the harassment of the people living in those areas. The French Wars brought Napoleon’s troops, who swept through Austria taking national treasures back to France, where many of those artifacts can be seen today in the Louvre. After the French left, Salzburg and parts of the Salzkammergut were tossed back and forth between the Habsburgs and Bavarians, until 1816, when the entire region including what is today recognized as the Salzkammergut and Land Salzburg became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the only exceptions were the areas around Reichenhall and the ‘German Corner’, which stayed with the Bavarians. Somewhat earlier, by 1809, the devastation wars had inflicted on the population had affected salt production and brought salt trade from the region almost to a standstill. Without that trade, the economy suffered and wide-spread hunger and poverty prevailed. While this state of affairs continued for the next few decades, there were a few highlights during the 1820s and 30s, namely Jakob Buchstein and Georg Kalkschmied’s first ascent of the Dachstein, and the opening of the first spa, the Wirerbad, in Ischl from 1828 to 1831.  The spa business, based on the saline content in the waters, flourished and brought tourists back to the area. In 1846 Johann Georg Ramsauer added another major attraction with his discovery of the Celtic burial grounds in Hallstatt. People from the urban areas, mostly around Vienna, started vacationing in and around Gmunden, Ischl and Aussee. The most famous of whom was Emperor Franz Josef who celebrated his 19th birthday in Ischl and four years later announced his engagement to Elisabeth, Sissi, in the building that today houses the city’s museum.  As a wedding gift, his mother, Empress Sophie, gave the young couple the Kaiservilla, which can be visited on tours, but is still a residence of the Habsburg family. He and many from the Viennese court spent each summer in Ischl, which he called ‘heaven on earth’, from 1854 until he signed the Serbian Ultimatum that initiated WWII in 1914. Both the Emperor and Sissi were avid hikers and many of the paths around Ischl and surrounding mountains are named after them.

The increase in tourism in Ischl and Aussee brought prosperity back to the region. In Aussee, Archduke Rudolph was a favorite adopted son as he fell in love with the postmaster’s daughter, and they were often seen on hikes together throughout the region. Not everyone who came to the region was as enthusiastic about climbing mountains as the Emperor or Archduke, so a cogtrain was constructed in 1893 to take visitors up the Schafberg.  The cogtrain is still in use, although in 2020 an updated version was installed in addition to the original one and new tracks are being laid in 2021.

The period between the two world wars brought a renewed interest in tourism. By 1927 the Feuerkogel above the Traunsee could be accessed by cable car and the magical beauty of the Wolfgangsee reached Berlin with Ralph Benatzky’s operette “Zum weißen Rößl” in 1930. In 1960 this operetta was made into a film with Peter Alexander in the lead role; the popularity of the movie led to a huge surge in film aficionados streaming to the once famous St. Wolfgang pilgrimage village.

During WWII the region was not spared the devastation of war, although farmers were able to continue to harvest enough that those in the rural areas had generally more food and were better off than those in major cities like Vienna.  Early after annexation, in 1939, a concentration camp was established just east of Ebensee. The former salt mines in Aussee were repurposed during the war as safehouses for art works, regardless of whether they were stolen or confiscated.

After the war the entire Salzkammergut and Land Salzburg came under American jurisdiction.  New cable cars on the Dachstein and Zwölferhorn opened up the mountains for a winter season, so that locals weren’t solely reliant on summer tourists.  The ski industry in the region took off, as did an increase in summer tourism. “The Sound of Music” film in 1966 with Julie Andrews became a major success and people all over the English-speaking world flocked to the hills that were, and are, alive with music. War films like Richard Burton and Cliff Eastwood’s “Where Eagles Dare,” which was shot in Ebensee, Hohenwerfen, Lofer, and in locations around Land Salzburg and the Salzkammergut, proved to be a magnet for a different audience. Hallstatt, which until 1966 could only be accessed by boat, was opened up via a set of tunnels on the side of the cliff on the north side of town, and the Hallstatt Museum with its excellent Celtic exhibition was opened in 1969. By 1997 the Dachstein/Hallstatt region was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The third Austrian site so designated after Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna and the Old City of Salzburg. There are now ten such sites throughout the country. The European Union recognized the living cultural aspects of the region by designating Bad Ischl and a number of surrounding villages the 2024 European Capital of Culture.  


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