The waters of Hellbrunn

  • Written by  Hazel Southam
  • Published in Cultures
The waters of Hellbrunn Anibal Trejo
17 Dec
Hazel Southam investigates how a 17th century practical joke in Austria, led to a 19th century water sustainability project that’s still going strong today

I’m sitting at a giant marble table in the grounds of a baroque palace in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Though it’s a sunny day, I’m surrounded by water. It’s spraying up around the table, behind my seat, running down the centre of the table, and even (embarrassingly for the other guests) spurting up through their chairs – all part of an elaborate joke played by Archbishop Markus Sittikus in 1600.

Archbishops ruled Salzburg. But in a break from the formality of daily ecclesiastical life, Sittikus established the 63-acre Hellbrunn Gardens. It is a place of slapstick jokes, played out in water. There are some 500 jet sprays just waiting to get you, not only at the dining table, but through grottos, along footpaths, in doorways and even, in one instance, out of the wall-mounted antlers of a deer.

On peak days, when there are lots of visitors to soak, it carries 100m3 of water. This may all sound frivolous (and to an extent it was, part of Sittikus’ power was being able to show off that he was rich enough to do this), but Salzburg as a whole has traditionally had a very sustainable attitude towards water.

shutterstock 111645440 SASIMOTOThe waters at Hellbrunn (Image: SASIMOTO)

The river Salzach runs through the city, bringing glacial flood water down from the Alps. It’s always been prone to flooding and so in the 1800s work began on shoring up the river banks and creating flood protection. That work still goes on to this day.

The people of Salzburg wanted to make sure that they were not just dependent on the river and could survive if attacked. So back in the eighth century they started work on the almkanal, the oldest canal system in central Europe. We’d think of it less as a canal, more as an underground pipe system for water.

Serious work on the 18km route was started in 1137 and completed in 1143 and the system works to this day meaning that should this UNESCO World Heritage Site fall victim to attack, the people of Salzburg will always have enough water to live on.

It was traditionally used to clean out the streets after markets were held on a Saturday, leaving them clean for church services the following day. Today, you can still see a water mill powered by the canal system in Kapitelplatz. The air conditioning of both the Festival Hall and the Salzburg Museum run off water from the almkanal.

shutterstock 87551275 hofhauserHellbrunn’s scenic gardens (Image: ‘Hofhauser’)

Today it runs three hydropower plants. The Austrians get their priorities right as the first two are for breweries and the third one is to maintain hospitals during emergencies. While Sittikus may have looked profligate in his use of water, you’ve got to give the people of Salzburg top marks for water usage.

And while Hellbrunn’s prop comedy may look as if it’s throwing water about, again, it’s highly sustainable. Ground water is used, and then once it’s been through the fountains, it runs back to the Hellbrunner Bach (the local stream) through a system of rills. The stream flows into the Salzach and so it goes round.

At Hellbrunn, the shrieks of people being caught out by the occasional jet fill the air. You don’t have to get wet, of course. You can watch out for the tell-tale wet patches on the pathways and opt not to take a guided tour, which involves regular soakings.

But this summer Salzburg had a scorching season with temperatures regularly reaching 39oC, so generally more people opted for a soaking than not in order to get some relief. A little bit of frivolity goes a long way.

Railbookers offer tailor made holidays by rail to Europe and beyond. Its five-night holiday costs £649 per person and includes flights between London Stanstead and Salzburg and London Gatwick and Vienna as well as train fares connecting the cities. For more information call: call 020 3780 2253 or visit

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