Destinations Magazine

Church Caves of Salzburg

By Monkeys And Mountains Adventure @Laurel_Robbins

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The two church caves in Salzburg overlooking St. Peter's Cemetery.

There are more legends surrounding the Salzburg church caves than there are facts, which makes them even more intriguing.  At the base of Mönchsberg (a mountain named after the Benedictine monks) are two church caves overlooking St. Peter’s Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Salzburg dating back to 1627.   The first church cave, Gertraudiskapelle is more church, less cave with the mountain forming just the back wall of the church that was consecrated in 1178.  The second church cave, Maximushöhle is more cave less church and is built right into the mountain and remarkably dates back to Roman times in the third century.  It  would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.   Today, Maximushöhle is accessible by stairs carved into the mountain but in earlier times was only accessible by a precarious small rock ledge.  We also know that the cave churches have been used since the middle ages for worship and hermitage – perhaps they couldn’t find one of those cheap holidays and had to resort to a stay-cation instead?  But that’s virtually where the facts end and the questions begin.

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The Maximushöhle church cave is very well hidden and built right into the Mönchsberg.

One of the biggest questions is why were the church caves built in the first place?  Was it because it was easier to dig out rock rather than to build a building from scratch?  Perhaps it was because the cliff back wall was sturdier than anything that could have been built?  It’s also curious that the church caves are often referred to as the “Salzburg Catacombs” since  “catacomb” usually refers to a place where many people are buried, of which there are not many buried at the Salzburg Catacombs.  A catacomb is also a place typically used for hiding.   My tour guide of Salzburg clearly stated that the Salzburg Catacombs were used for hiding throughout their long history, while other internet sources dispute this.  From my own personal observation I can’t help but think the Maximushöhle was used as a hiding place.  I mean, just look at it, it’s very well integrated into the mountain and is not meant to stand out, but perhaps this was not the original intention of its design.  Regardless of why the church caves of Salzburg were built they way they were, I find them absolutely fascinating and like that there’s more questions than answers.  I will be in Salzburg again in a couple of weeks and plan to ponder these questions and perhaps develop some of my own theories, adding further to the existing lengends at the nearby St. Peter Stiftskeller, the oldest restaurant in Central Europe dating back to 803.  What can I say, I think better on a full stomach!


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