This hike lies west of the ancient thermal baths that were once the touristic focal point of the region but were recently closed. Despite the closure, the baths still shape the image of the area. In addition to the present-day anonymous apartment buildings, there are also workers’ barracks from the Nazi era, as well as ramshackle accommodations from earlier eras which clues you into just how bleak the conditions of the region were in past centuries. Many buildings have been empty for years and melancholically paint a picture of decline. An elegant counter-point to this desolation is the castle-like former mansion (Theresienhof) of mining baron Franz Ritter von Jacomini, built in 1800. The mansion was later occupied by the Holenia family. Another cultural monument is the Protestant church that was built in 1773 as a temple of tolerance. In the 19th century it received its own steeple despite heavy resistance from Catholics. The four cast-steel bells from 1856 are among the oldest of their kind.
In the western district of the Bleiberg Upper Valley, hikers arrive at an intense intersection of history and the mining culture of Bleiberg. It is impossible to miss a giant hammer 51 meters off the ground or the Tower of Antoni and the old engine house at its feet. Nearby is the Terra Mystica, a public underground mine with a powerful lean-to roof near the entrance. Take a detour through the mine to experience an incredible underground world. Here you can see the longest mining chute in all of Europe, which you can take on a bumpy ride through a multi-media show with water and smoke effects. This is especially recommended for kids. Finally, take a lift shaft up to the miner’s museum where you can see the oldest miner’s flag in the world. This was a flag captured from the Turks and given to the citizens of Bleiberg for their assistance in the 1717 Siege of Belgrade.
Less elaborate than the Terra Mystica but more intimate is the recently-opened „Tunnel-Hike“ which takes you on a tour of the hardships of miners and mining’s effects on the landscape. The idealists at the Mining Cultural Association designed the trail which takes you through 25 different tunnels which were painstakingly drilled by hand over the centuries. The main attractions are two accessible tunnels which now have metal staircases and electric lighting. The trail is marked by white signs- the entire hike is gorgeous and offers well-designed rest places.
If you decide to stay in the area for a longer time, you should certainly visit the Tunnel of Mary’s Hope (Maria-Hoffnung-Stollen) in Bleiberg-Kreuth. The mouth of the tunnel is left of the evangelical cemetery. The tunnel was created 400 years ago and has the aura of a work of art. Barely as tall as a man, and only shoulder-width, it was painstakingly carved by hand, with only 1 or 2 centimeters carved per day. There is also a museum nearby.
Those who decide to leave the trail descend down from the wooded slopes of the Erzberg mines to the valley floor, finding a main road with a string of old industrial buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Particularly striking is the Schafferhaus gut or office of the mines, which has a small clock tower and forms a castle-like ensemble with the Antoni Mine-House next door. The building is now used mostly for cultural purposes, mostly for maintaining the Bleiberg mining culture, and was named UNESCO cultural heritage site for Austria in 2010. It is also worth checking out the Heinrich hut, the last surviving smelting house in the region. Nearby is the far less modest Khevenhueller hunting lodge with its striking domed roof that has been around since the 16th century.
Erlachgraben und Bauernschaft
West of Bleiberg-Kreuth the valley widens and the landscape gradually changes its character. Here, the mining has left little trace except for a few old miners’ dwellings. These are primitive homes made of wood. Despite the small size, up to 20 people would have lived under one roof in destitution. In this area the farmers fared better which can be seen in this region still. However, agriculture no longer plays a large role in the region. The meadows and pastures near the Mason Court (southwest) are particularly harmonic, and the southeastern fishing hubs are extremely idyllic. Situated high above in the valley, this is one of the most beautiful spots on the entire Dobratsch hike.
At first glance this spot would be difficult to describe as scenic- the inhomogeneous center coupled with urban sprawl. But if you look closer you will find remnants from the days when this was just a simple peasant village affected by periodic flooding. When the Gail overflowed, the whole valley floor might be covered with water. However, the river has long been tamed and a channel runs lazily through the village.
The stream is still used today as an energy source for both a small power plant and the Wiegele Bakery, which operates the oldest water-powered mill in southern Carinthia and preserves old forms of baking. The soul of the family operation (which has been kicking since 1876) is Hermione Wiegele who also manages the adjacent birthplace of Franz Wiegele next door, a castle-like building. This is also the site of the Nötsch Museum, dedicated to the artists Sebastian Isepp (1884-1954), Anton Kolig (1886-1950), Franz Wiegele (1887-1944) and Anton Mahringer (1902-1974), who made great contributions to Austrian expressionism in the early to middle 20 th century. As the museum does not have its own collection, the annual exhibits are made possible by loans. Behind the main building is the artist’s former studio, which was destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid. Franz Wiegele, his mother, his sister and their adopted daughter were also killed in the raid. There is a small chapel in the garden, dedicated to the tragedy.
A path leads from the museum in the footsteps of the Nötscher circle to the elementary school, a building from the Nazi era, where Anton Kolig had his final studio. The path then leads further to the late-Gothic parish church, whose southern façade was beautifully frescoed in 1929. Nearby is also the grave of the Melchior family which is adorned with a statue of Mary, child and four naked, winged angels. Because of protests, the angels were eventually fitted with loincloths. The adjacent mural was created in 1500 and is called “Feiertags-Christus,” or Holiday Christ. The tools in the background symbolize all the activities Christians were forbidden to do on Sundays and holidays. Contemporary art is available in the mortuary with “The Dance of Death” created by Helga Druml in 1996.
In addition to its significant cultural heritage, Nötsch also contains cultural-historical treasures. This is the district of Saak which was built in the 18 th century and has barely changed since. In its urban style, the former peasant and artisan houses line the steep village road and widen into the Sanger Triangle at the bottom. The two-story buildings have been carefully renovated as to keep their original form. Particularly exemplary is house number 20 with its repaired annex buildings. You can find the “Old Forge of Saak” here. In the old blacksmith shop there is a small but impressive exhibition called “metal in the park.”
High above the village lies the Wasserleonburg Castle, a splendid building from the renaissance, which has undergone several renovations over the centuries. The Italian influence is particularly evident in the arcade, the atmospheric garden and the old horse stables, with their Tuscan pillars and elaborate vaults. The castle was owned by various noble families who contained colorful personalities such as Anna Neumann, who went through five husbands and was accused of being a witch. The castle was later possessed by mining barons from Bleiberg like Romuald Holenia whose daughter was poisoned to death in 1917. In 1937 the abdicated King Edward VIII spent his honeymoon at the castle. You can only tour the castle by appointment.