The absence of light is not necessarily the only thing
that can keep one in the dark on a mine visit, former
ODT reporter Marjorie Cook discovers.
I stopped in Klausen (Chiusa in Italian) beside the Eisack
(Isarco) River for four days.
I am not entirely sure one needs four days in this
Italian-Austrian border town, although it is pretty. But an
idea had formed in my head that I should look inside the
Elisabeth Stollen (tunnel) of the Erlebnis Bergwerk at
Villanders (Villandro), which is about 5km up the hill from
I arrived on a Thursday night and when I discovered the mine
was only open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and
Sundays, I decided to wait, happily filling in my time with
walking the hills, swimming in the public pool and eating
apple strudel and ice cream.
Klausen/Chiusa was once an important mining area, providing
silver, lead, zinc and many other minerals for all manner of
trades. The Villanders mine is now closed but operated for
about eight centuries. While Tyrolean folk were carving out
the insides of these mountains, Aotearoa was only just being
discovered by the earliest Polynesian explorers.
To be perfectly honest, going on a tour exclusively spoken in
German was always going to be slightly frustrating but the
only other option was Italian, which I also do not
understand. I decided I didn't care and would immerse myself
in German and pay the 8 entry fee. Herr Guide was an older
man, perhaps in his 60s, and established a grandfatherly
rapport with some of the children on the tour. He did not
Despite whinging (probably about the cold) to their mothers,
the children were distracted by his stories and became
fascinated with the elements he was pointing out with his
torch and walking stick. They loved it when he set some
sulphur on fire and watched in awe as flaming bubbles drifted
away in a small stream of chilly water.
Listening to Herr Guide's voice, I decided he was obviously a
very knowledgeable chap, a good story-teller and had a sense
of humour. It helped that his bunch of German tourists were
giggling and making asides to each other.
Elisabeth Stollen is 1670m long and full of twists and turns.
For two hours we walked with torches through narrow, freezing
tunnels dripping with fresh, snow-cold water. I think we
travelled for at least 1km underground but it felt like six.
Elisabeth Stollen (1300masl) connects to a maze of other
tunnels and shafts and I believe the entire complex totals
about 16.5km. Tall men had to stoop but it was a perfect fit
for me, at 163cm tall. There were some smaller side-tunnels
for the children to explore but I felt gnawing worms of
anxiety in my stomach as I pondered how easily I could get
lost in the dark labyrinth.
I could not fall back on previous studies in geology to
understand much about what I was looking at, but I could
apply my imagination to the facts in front of me. I imagined
Tolkien could have used this tunnel to describe his
goblin-haunted Misty Mountains or the Mines of Moria. I
considered how easy it would be for Gollum to become bitter
and twisted as he hid from civilisation for an age in a
grotty mine. I understood how such an environment would make
goblins hideous by nature and deed. I wondered why Tolkien's
dwarfs were such merry men and had such a poetic love for the
inside of mountains. I looked at the silver and pink and
white and blue and green and black minerals dripping, sliding
and oozing down the chiselled rock walls and realised they
were the same colour as the pigments decorating Italian
cathedral walls and ceilings. I studied the gardens of fungi
flowering with gossamer-like fragility and tenacious
determination, slowly smothering ancient sturdy wooden beams
with underground edelweiss and snowflakes.
It must have been a bitterly harsh life as an alpine miner in
the Middle Ages and I pondered the nature of emperors, kings,
popes and bishops, lords, landowners and merchants and why
they had the need or greed for so much gold, silver and
copper and other minerals.
Did they actually care about the misery that would have been
impossibly unavoidable for those gathering precious materials
to make cathedral pieces and weapons of war, alongside the
more necessary domestic equipment? Were the miners slaves?
Were they paid, and if so, how much? Was it a living wage?
The German-language website, www.bergwerk.it, discusses the
Erlesbnis mine. The day before I visited it, I used my
German-English dictionary, the Lonely Planet German phrase
book, Google Translator, and the small bits of knowledge I
had gleaned from language lessons provided by friends to
cobble together my own interpretation of the mine pamphlet.
Through the ages, there
were conflicts between various rich landowners over the mine
but I couldn't decipher enough information to learn about the
miners. I am still wondering about the domestic details of
working in such a hellhole. Did the workers volunteer? Were
they proud to be miners? Did mothers cry as their boys left
home to work under ice-cold water with hard hammers and
spikes made from mine products? Did they caution their sons
to dress warmly? Did the boys arrive on their first day of
work bright-eyed with curiosity and how long did it take for
them to be subdued? Did they want to run away and were they
induced or forced to stay? What were their bosses like? Were
they allowed home at night or did they stay underground,
hammering away in muffled silence, for days, weeks or months
Early in the tour, Herr Guide stopped at a point where I
think he was saying the miners cooked meals and rested. He
poured us an ice-cold dram of whisky from a wooden fitting
attached to the wall. It slid down easily and began its
internal warming magic. So perhaps there were small comforts
in here, after all.
When we got back to the cloakroom later, Herr Guide enclosed
my freezing, bloodless, lifeless fingers in his warm hands
and exclaimed ''Kalt! Kalt''. I was cold. Herr Guide had
acclimatised to the environment long ago but I needed a
45-minute brisk walk in blazing sun and 25degC back to the
village of Villanders before I could take my wool jersey and
windbreaker off. MORE research was possible.
Another 60km or so up the road towards the Brenner Pass is
the town of Sterzing-Vipiteno, and about 15km up a hill from
Sterzing is a mine town called Schneeberg. At about 2000m, it
is one of the highest mines in Europe. The mine closed in
1985 and the Bergbaumuseum commemorates 800 years of mining
activity. Entry to the museum is free but this time I
declined the tour, again guided exclusively in German or
The Schneeberg mine was even larger than the Villanders mine.
In the 16th century, more than 1000 miners lived in the
nearby village of St Martin, knocking out rocks in 70 tunnels
between 2000m and 2650m. While the Bergbaumuseum contains
tools used from the 13th century up to the modern era and was
filled with drawings of gnome-like people hammering at and
measuring rocks, it still didn't answer - at least in English
- all my questions about mining in the Middle Ages.
But there were lots of photographs from over the past 150
years, showing how more modern miners and their families
lived and worked. I could see life was harsh, even in more
recent times. If it was cold inside, it was also cold
outside. Negotiating snow between the village and the mine
was a fact of life. Before the 20th century, an extensive and
difficult haulage system up and down steep mountain tracks
was used, using horses and manpower.
When cable systems were introduced, men rode unsecured on
high-wires, balancing on items being hauled up the hills. The
miners drank beer after work, smoked long pipes, belonged to
orchestras, music and sports groups, had families, were
visited by priests and took part in religious festivals and
From what I could make out, the miners definitely wore
woollen garments. And among them lived the tallest woman in
the world at that time, Maria Fassnauer of Ridnaun, known in
1900 as the Tyrolean Giantess. She became a bit of a
celebrity circus oddity and was feted around Europe. In all
the photographs of her exploitation, she looked sad, wearing
a Mona Lisa-like, not-quite smile, while her parents just
looked bewildered. They certainly didn't look rich.
I left the mines feeling a tour exclusively in another
language is challenging but worthwhile. It can be
disappointing not to get full value for money but you could
argue education is supposed to be an ongoing thing. Stuff
will not always be fully laid on for you, in any case.
I am guessing that when I get around to doing my follow-up
research, even if it has to wait until I get home, it will
only add value to my memories and photographs. And there are
other ways to comprehend. Listen to the rise and fall of
voices. Watch the faces of the people around you, including
children. Touch your surroundings. Breathe in through your
nose. Use your imagination. Apply what you already know,
question yourself and wonder about life.