Some Golden Rules for Austrian Sweethearts

Lo Bello is an American author and newspaperman living in Vienna.

Glittering grains of gold are literally lying around waiting for you to pick them up here.

The trick is to learn to squat as you scoop sand from a stream, swiveling and shaking a pan back and forth with a special twist of the wrist.

Until World War II there was a long Austrian tradition of betrothed couples trying their hands at gold panning before they tied them in the marital knot, so that whatever gold they washed could be included in the making of their wedding rings.

For years the Rauris Valley in central Austria has enjoyed great popularity as the center for this adventurous endeavor, even offering courses for the uninitiated. All the ordinary tourist need do is sign up at the "gold digging" office and pay about $11 U.S. ($8 for a child) for the day's excursion, which includes a permit to take home whatever gold you discover, all the borrowed equipment you'll need and a picnic lunch.

It is recommended that you be patient, wait for luck to strike and wear rubber boots, because this is a "wet" outing, despite the sunshine.

Originally called Gaisbach (goat creek), the city of Rauris was given the same name as the wide and wind-protected valley that stretches 18 miles in the Hohe Tauern mountains. Closed on the south by the 10,187-foot Sonnblick peak and reachable only from the north, Rauris is literally the end of the line. No one travels through this town--one travels to it and stays.

Known and worked since Roman times, the region's mines had their heyday in the Middle Ages when this town accounted for about one-tenth of the world's gold production. It lost its opulence in the 19th Century. Hacking dugouts and tunnels into mountainsides more than 6,562 feet high became less and less attractive.

Still visible are the broken-down miners' huts and melting plants and the ruins and dust that are the last witnesses to the battles to win the Tauern gold.

When Rauris-born Ignaz Rojacher bought the mining rights from a Swiss baron in 1880, he not only worked and modernized the mines but also erected the first and highest meteorological observatory in the world (1886) on the top of the towering Sonnblick. Rojacher also installed the first telephone and brought electric light to Rauris.

Sturdy buildings, almost defying age, that housed the mine workers in the old days still stand. In 1986 the Gold Panning World Championship was held here, featuring participants from 14 nations.

The townspeople now make their living from farming and tourism.

Alpine meadows, mountain pastures and the dense forests in Hohe Tauern National Park create the right mood for the tourist seeking the idyllic vacation. Another attraction is the protected wildlife of the valley, especially the white-headed vulture with a wing span of up to 7 1/2 feet. You can see its favorite rock-face resting place from the opposite side of the valley by taking the Hochalons cable car.

You also can join an organized mountain trip into the Sonnblick's glacier region. Go for a day's outing to Europe's highest waterfall (4,777 feet), Krimml Falls, which thunder down in three great leaps, measuring a descent of 1,312 feet. Or take a 2 1/2-hour, round-trip national park tour.

In Rauris there is an elaborate network of well-marked paths that connect the valley with its four neighbors.

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