The shiny wooden slide in front of us dropped away suddenly and most dramatically, vertically almost. Or so it seemed.
And when the tour guide at the Hallstatt Salt Mine in Austria's Salzkammergut admonished our tiny band of tourists to "keep zose 'ands and foots close to zee body," we knew instinctively that it was time to "suck it up," as the saying goes nowadays.
It's not as if we'd never faced dangerous-looking situations before. Hadn't we, after all, swung, swayed, and swooped high above valleys of pines on skinny ski lifts, and spun out of control on a rubber raft among the boulders of a rain-swollen river in Alaska, snorkeled with the big ones over sharp-edged coral on the Great Barrier Reef, and white-knuckled our way through rush hour traffic in Paris and London.
But that was then, and this was now.
Not wanting to be the first of our group to wimp out and take the stair option, we hitched up our full-body canvassy overalls (to keep out splinters, we supposed) and climbed aboard the slide. Then, leaning back as instructed, we closed our eyes, mumbled a quick prayer, and rocketed in tandem down the chute, arriving nanoseconds later at the bottom in a slurry of arms and legs.
With that bit of rutschenspass (sliding fun) behind us, - don't you love the German language? - our guide continued her somewhat tortured explanation of the wonders of the "white gold" that has been mined continuously in this particular mountain for more than 7,000 years.
Techniques have changed a tad since the Bronze and Iron Ages, of course, when rock salt was gathered with pick and shovel and basket. Now it's all about solution and injection mining and computer controls. But 48 miners still do carry regular shifts here, making Hallstatt the oldest working salt mine in the world.
Then it was time to descend again. Down to another level. More rutschenspass - but this time aboard Europe's longest slide!
Almost professionals now, we climbed on the slide without much ado and shot through the radar trap at a blistering 22.6 kilometers an hour - about 14 mph! Not quite the quickest in the group. But not the slowest either.
After some further tunnel traipsing, and a look at a vast subterranean salt lake, we finally rode out of the workings on a miners' train and ended up on the veranda of the nearby Rudolphsturm Restaurant, which offers staggering panoramic views out over snow-covered peaks, across the brooding but beautiful Lake Hallstatt, and down onto the tiny town of Hallstatt cut into the rock face some 3,000 feet below.
With composure sufficiently recovered - thanks to a couple of tall, cold, frothy ones (mining can be such thirsty work, can't it?) - we passed up the cable car and made the 30-minute hike back down the mountainside.
With or without the salt mine, Hallstatt makes a perfect day trip from Salzburg. Trains bound for Vienna connect every hour at Attnang-Puchheim for a stunning ride through the Salzkammergut Lake District to the tiny railway station, where a ferry takes passengers across the lake to the village itself.
Chances are you've seen many a photo of Hallstatt - it's one of the most photographed places in Austria. And for good reason. The hamlet stretches out along a minuscule piece of land wedged between towering mountains and a pristine alpine lake.
Have a leisurely lunch lakeside, visit the World Heritage Hallstatt Museum, look in the Parish Church with its gruesome Bone Chapel, take a boat trip on the lake, and then settle down for a coffee in the Market Square while you wait for the return ferry.
IN LAST WEEK'S column we grumped a bit about the service we had received at the Hotel Wandl in Vienna, and we've since received both corroboration of our findings and recommendations from several readers for friendly pensions and small hotels in the city. They've all been noted, with thanks.
WHICH BRINGS US to our own model for the perfect family run hotel/pension.
It's the Hotel Struber in Salzburg (www.struber.at), by far the most amiable and gastfreundlich hostelry we know - anywhere. And we've been staying there, happily, since we first discovered it on a Christmas visit almost 20 years ago.
Owned and run by the gentle and genteel Illmer family, the Struber is everything you could possibly want from a small hotel. Quiet. Immaculate. Convenient. Unpretentious. And invariably positive.
There's chicken soup delivered to your bedside should you fall sick. Family bikes to peddle for a countryside picnic. Baskets of fruit in our bedroom on arrival. Grand views from every balcony. A fresh cooked and sumptuous breakfast buffet. And always a card or gift at Christmas.
Now that's a hotel to love. And we do!
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