I expected much from a town called Halle an der Saale. After all, Halle is derived from the Celtic word for salt; Saale, coincidentally the name of the river that runs through the city, is derived from the German word for salt. No surprise then, that the town’s history is intimately intertwined with the harvesting of salt. A local industry that can trace its origins to the Bronze Age. Salt made Halle rich and important, so a museum dedicated to telling that history must be worth its salt?
I arrived in Halle late on a Friday evening. The long and uninspiring walk from the train station led me into the medieval Marktplatz, where I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the illuminated Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen, the Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the Roter Turm, or Red Tower. These two 16th century structures give the city its nickname, City of the Five Towers. The expansive central square includes a statue of the city’s favourite son, Georg Friedrich Händel.
It was late, so after grabbing something to eat I found my hotel, my introduction to the city whetting my appetite for more exploration in the morning. First on my list was the Salinemuseum. A geologic fault beneath the modern-day town led to numerous saline springs appearing in the area. Boiling the saline solution produced salt crystals and an industry was born. In an era of salt abundance, it’s easy to forget how precious salt was. There’s a reason it was called ‘white gold’.
I once read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, a fascinating tale of humankind’s relationship with salt. As a commodity it’s been central to human history, acting as a currency in some cultures. Its importance is underlined by the aphorisms and proverbs salt has inspired. I was keen to learn more from a museum housed in the former Royal Prussian Saline Works, which were founded in 1721 and only closed in 1964. Sadly, it was a case of rubbing salt into the wound.
The museum still produces small amounts of salt, and offers demonstrations, but I was out of luck. This, coupled with the fact that all the explanations in the small museum were only in German, meant that I learned next to nothing of Halle’s salty history. This wouldn’t be the only disappointment of my trip. The Moritzburg Palace museum and art gallery was closed for a whole month. I took this setback with a pinch of salt and set off to discover what else Halle had to offer.
The Salinemuseum sits on an island where the River Saale splits in two. Along the river banks, there are kilometres of parkland stretching to Giebichenstein Castle. The walk was lovely on a hot early autumn day, and I was even able to squeeze in a visit to a beer garden next to the river. I eventually found myself face-to-face with a massive horse at Giebichenstein Bridge. One of a pair of sculptures, the horse represents the vibrant life of the city; on the other side, an equally huge cow represents the countryside.
I made my way to the castle on the other side of the bridge, and clambered upwards to get views over the city. The castle was built in the 10th century, in part to protect the salt monopoly of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. There is little left but ruins today, although a far newer part of the complex has been turned into a school for fine arts. I could see sculptures in the grounds, but it wasn’t open to the public. From up here, I spotted the City of the Five Towers and my route back.
* Yesterday, Halle found itself at the centre of an atrocity. Two people were murdered by far-right terrorists espousing extremist ideology. An attack on Halle’s synagogue was timed with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The attacker was unable to enter the building where a congregation was at prayer, but he killed a woman passerby and a man in a nearby kebab shop. I can imagine that the sense of shock in this typically quiet town is profound.