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Water, Marble and Magic: an afternoon on the Untersberg

The Untersberg is one of Salzburg’s local mountains – though it’s far more than just a giant lump of rock. That’s why we explored the legends of this majestic edifice, marveled at Untersberg marble, tasted its crystal-clear water and, if it’s even possible, fell even more deeply in love with this mountain of so many different faces.

Majestic and imposing, the Untersberg towers above the beautiful countryside just a few kilometers south of our city of Mozart. If you happen to be a geology buff, you’ll be interested to know that it is part of the Northern Limestone Alps and straddles the border between Austria and Bavaria. The highest point on the Salzburg side is the Hochthron, elevation 1853 m. You can get all the way up there in barely 9 minutes if you opt for a gondola ride, or, if you prefer to place your trust in the power of your own two feet – and depending on the route you choose as well as your stamina – you’ll be there 3 ½ hours after hitting the trail. Today, we decide to take the lift and are immediately rewarded with magical panoramas. Once at the top, our eyes are able to roam freely across surrounding landscapes that take your breath away. And in the valley far below – like a glistening, sparkling carpet – the city of Salzburg itself.

Of speedy water riders and marble beauty

Perhaps surprisingly, the Untersberg is quite ubiquitous even when you are back in the city. In the form of Untersberg marble which you encounter at Schloss Mirabell, the facade of Salzburg Cathedral, and those curious characters that populate the aptly named Dwarf Garden. All of this and a whole lot more was created from the exquisite marble donated by the Untersberg, marble which continues to be quarried from the northern face of the Untersberg to this very day. But in addition to the marble, the water from the Untersberg is every bit as famous. Its crystal-clear spring water has been flowing from taps in Salzburg for countless generations and meets roughly 90% of the city’s water needs. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to top up a drinking glass with Untersberg water is already well aware: The water quality is outstanding. Something which the prince-archbishops “back in the day” were already clued into. In fact, doing what rich people are inclined to do, in the 15th century they had their mounted “water riders” deliver the spring water fresh to their banquet table each and every day.

Rare Easter roses and shy white-headed vultures

It is questionable whether the water riders could afford the luxury of pausing to “smell the roses”, so to speak. Not an issue for us, of course. That said, we take a short walk, consciously absorbing the Untersberg’s rugged beauty. Actually, even below the surface this mountain is quite impressive as well: concealing at least 350 different caves. In the warmer months, the mountain draws visitors with its beautiful hiking paths and numerous botanical highlights. Watchful hikers will catch sight of Easter roses and cyclamen, while gentian bloom on the high pastures. If you are lucky you might glimpse one of the most famous representatives of Untersberg fauna, namely the white-headed vulture. In autumn and in winter, the Untersberg shows us a different, but no less magical face. The darker months also happen to be when the legends that swirl around the Untersberg take on a life of their own.

The “Wild Hunt” descends from the Untersberg

When, on the evening of the second Thursday in Advent, odd noises can be heard outside of windows and strange voices mingle with the howling of the wind, it is fair to assume that the “Wild Hunt” is roaming the countryside. This ancient tradition from the Untersberg region is one of the cornerstones of Salzburg folklore. Vorpercht, Moosweiberl and Riese Abfalter – the main protagonists in this Untersberg legend – make their way from house to house in order to scare away the evil spirits. Precisely where they will show up varies from year to year and is a fiercely guarded secret, meaning they might pop up when and where you least expect it.

Wild women, dwarfs and Emperor Charlemagne

Which brings us to the dwarfs. They are said to play mischievous pranks on unsuspecting hikers and even lead them down the wrong path, or so it is said. Supposedly, the Unterberg is also home to the so-called “wild women”, who are known to seduce farmers, and to giants who hurl rocks down onto the Salzburg plain. As you might guess, the Untersberg is one of the most fabled mountains in the German-speaking world – with many of these traditions going all the way back to Celtic times. Thanks to the “German Legends” collected by the Brothers Grimm, many of these tales ultimately found their way into children’s bedrooms around the world. One of the most famous of these involves the Emperor Charlemagne. It claims that Charlemagne, together with his most loyal knights and a posse of dwarfs, took refuge in the heart of the Untersberg. It is there that he sleeps in a subterranean throne room, his beard now grown so long it is wrapped three times around the marble table. When he reawakens, he will fight mankind’s final battle – Good versus Evil.

The Untersberg is ubiquitous

Perhaps it is its mighty, precipitous figure and multifaceted rugged rock formations that make the Untersberg such a popular focal point for legends, myths and fairytales of every kind. Though perhaps it is also its special aura – not without reason is the Untersberg venerated as a source of immense natural power. No less a figure than the Dalai Lama, who visited Salzburg in 1992, even described the Untersberg as the “heart chakra of Europe”. Often, the Untersberg wraps itself in mysterious cloud constellations, perfectly underscoring its mystique. For our part, we now make our way back down to the valley. As we stand at the foot of the Untersberg gondola and stare back up, Salzburg’s celebrated mountain is set against a radiantly blue and clear autumn sky. Though even now, there is a certain mystery about it that is very difficult to capture in words. What is really hidden in those numerous mysterious ice caves and rocky grottoes? Dwarfs, wild women, giants, or an emperor waiting for Judgment Day? Who’s to say. We finally turn our backs on this very special mountain and set off for home. The next time we stroll through the historical district or turn on the tap, we will definitely spare a few thoughts for the Untersberg once again.