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Austria Underground

February 14, 1988|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is a free-lance writer living in Vienna

HINTERBRUHL, Austria — If you're the kind of tourist who's been almost everywhere, you may want to try something quite different.

Try leaving the charms of Vienna for a morning or afternoon side trip to this tiny, sleepy village curled up comfortably in the leafy generous bosom of the Vienna Woods, some 17 kilometers south of the city. It's here that you go beneath the earth, guest of the local authorities, and take in one of the most interesting and best discoveries around.

It's the largest, non-Mother Nature underground lake in the world, where the pitch-black waters make for a colorful experience, capped off by a boat ride into the spooky darkness with a tour guide at the helm telling you when to look right, left, up or down.

Actually, there are two lakes down here, one on top of each other. You'll be able to see the top one as you walk downhill to the lower lake where you take your boat ride.

The incredible under-the-earth wonder, called Seegrotte, was first opened to tourists in 1932. Lying 60 meters below the surface, it has an area of 6,200 square meters and at its deepest point goes down 12 meters.

Except for the extended walk when you first enter as you follow your guide downward the highlight of the tour is the ride aboard a long electric boat that seats 25 people facing each other.

Enchanting Reflections

During this smooth and soundless glide over the jet-black waters, you see lights strung on the rock walls that provide some enchanting reflections on the water, giving truth to a German saying: "Under the Earth is the realm of fairy."

Although the subterranean waters you travel over are inky--or so it seems--there is one cave known as "The Blue Lake," where the color blue swells over you almost like a magic stage spotlight.

Bafflingly, it starts from the water and goes upward and outward. Though you're allowed to photograph along the way as much as you want, to capture the Blue Lake in all its amazing splendor may well be the camera challenge of all time. No problem for the human eyeballs, however.

When you go to Hinterbruhl, which is a few minutes past Modling (a town with a special significance for Austria because it was where Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand committed suicide in a hunting lodge with his commoner girl friend), make sure you bring along an extra sweater, no matter how hot it is above.

The temperature at Seegrotte stays a constant 69 degrees all the time. Tours are given every day of the year; they start when at least 25 people have lined up. Since the attraction is a popular one, you hardly ever have to wait long before a group is ready.

This man-made marvel--which gives the impression of being a gigantic underground castle that has been hacked out of stone by cavemen--had its birth in 1848 when miners began to extract lime that would be pulverized and sold as fertilizer.

As one big chamber after another was cut out of the rock, the galleries expanded in both directions from the central shaft. Then in 1912, an explosion cracked the rock enough to cause an underground reservoir in the water table, flooding all the chambers.

Underground Factory

So work stopped and the mine was closed. But during World War II, the Nazis pumped out the cavernous chambers, put in a heating system that kept the temperature at a comfortable level and installed an airplane factory to make Heinkel fighters.

In one chamber you'll see a model of the HE-162 fighter plane and parts of a wreckage of one of the Dusenflugzeugs that was shot down. The Allies bombed the impenetrable subterranean airplane factory several times without success.

Another sight that will be pointed out is the stable where the mine's work horses were kept. All of these horses were deliberately blinded--so they could get used to never seeing daylight--and were made to turn the hoisting apparatus and pull the long cartloads of gray and red gypsum to the exits.

A replica of one faithful horse with its eyes covered is on view, a horse that did its work every day for 20 years before old age stopped him.

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