By Jim Ferri
Hallstatt, Austria is the only town that I know of that’s given its name to a period in history – the Hallstatt period (800 – 400 BC). Ironically, though, that’s not its claim to fame.
Today many people know Hallstatt as the prettiest lakeside village in Austria. And even that’s selling it short.
I wanted to go the Hallstatt for some time, and when I was in Austria a few months ago I made certain that I traveled there from Salzburg. The 1½-hour drive took me through the Salzkammergut, the stunning Lake District in western Austria, which is probably best known to Americans for its meadows and mountains in the opening scenes of the “Sound of Music.”
When you see Hallstatt for the first time you just want to stare for a few minutes. Clinging to the shoreline of the five-mile long Hallstättersee, it almost looks like something out of a fairytale. Surrounded by towering mountains, it’s a charming little place stuck in time.
Adding to its charm is how quiet it all is since there are so few cars here. Even at 9 o’clock in the morning the only things you hear are the swish of shopkeeper’s brooms or people chatting over coffee as they sit on their hotel balconies.
If you arrive by car you have to park outside of town and walk in. It’s at that same little parking lot where the buses drop most tourists off, and late in the morning lines of them come wandering in. Many take a leisurely walk around town before descending upon the little waterside cafés for lunch.
It’s well worth spending at least one night here, though, since it’s before the buses arrive in the late morning and after they leave in the afternoon, that Hallstatt is at its most charming. That’s also the time to just sit in Market Square and admire its 16th century buildings, or to stroll up the little steps and lanes that connect it with the next street up on the hillside.
Wandering around these little streets one afternoon I heard the sound of rushing water. I followed my ears and found a small stream running right through the middle of the tiny village. All around me potted chrysanthemums and geraniums tumbling out of window boxes gave a blast of bright color to the dark, weathered wood houses.
At the end of one lane I came to the parish church, which is surrounded by a small cemetery. Next to it is the Chapel of St. Michael, a charnel house containing one of the most macabre sights I’ve ever seen in Austria. All around, stacked neatly, were hundreds of skulls that had been painted and numbered. They were from bodies dug up outside the church in the 18th century to make room when the little cemetery ran out of space. As for the painting, I can only guess someone had a little too much free time on his hands.
I left the church and walked back over to my hotel, the Hallstatt Hotel, a comfortable place right by the village dock. Next to it, at Hallstatt–Schmuck, you could rent electric boats to take you out on the lake, either €12 or €15 per hour depending upon the size of the motor.
As I walked about I had been looking for place to have dinner and decided on the Gasthof Zauner, only because TripAdvisor had given it the highest rating of the nine restaurants in Hallstatt, plus I knew it was open. TA suggested reservations and since I hadn’t made any I went at 6 o’clock.
When I arrived I was the first in the restaurant although, amazingly, by 6:10 PM all of the tables were taken. Since I had seen TA reviews about Zauner’s pork Wiener Schnitzel being the best in town I ordered it, but found it somewhat disappointing considering all the hype I had read. The fantastic salad I had to as an appetizer, however, more than compensated for it.
When I left the restaurant at 7:30 PM I was surprised to find the little Market Square totally empty. There were no people or any noise. It was as if I had the whole village to myself as I walked back to my hotel.
After breakfast the next morning I set out for the Salzwelten, the town’s famous salt mine in the mountain behind the village. You reach the mine via a funicular on the western edge of the village and the ride to the top provides a spectacular view of the entire valley and lake. The only way to visit the mine is on a guided tour, which at first seemed a bit expensive at $35 per adult, but I’m really glad I took it.
Walking about the mine through the ancient caverns is incredibly interesting, made even more so by a very good audiovisual production along the way. You must don overalls for the tour and at one point, where you slide down a long wooden slide to another level, you understand why. The trip ends with a ride back to the entrance on a little mining train used for transporting workers. Down in the village the Prähistorisches Museum contains Iron Age artifacts found in the area.
On my tour I met some people who were going to continue on by bus to the Dachstein Ice Caves, another local geologic spectacle. The caves remain at about 30° even in the summer months and contains frozen waterfalls. I would have liked to have seen them but time was a factor and I wanted to spend more time walking around Hallstatt itself.
Walking back into town, as I passed the Maislinger Konditorei the sight of pastries drew me in. I spied some sandwiches in the display case and when I asked about them the woman said “these are from yesterday so I’m selling them for half price.” After I picked a ham and cheese sandwich she asked whether I wanted to eat there or take it away. When I looked at two tables outside she said, “Oh no, back here – I have a coffee shop” and took me back into another room.
“Here,” she said, placing the plate with my sandwich on a table. “You can sit at the long table since there is no one else here.”
I soon discovered my ham and cheese also had a little bit of hard-boiled egg, salami, cucumber and tomato hidden inside. But I ate it slowly as I sat there looking about at the beamed ceiling and tiled walls, feeling as if I had been brought back into another century.
Both the sandwich and the scene were delicious, and I sat back thinking “you never really know where a doorway will take you.” Especially in the prettiest lakeside village in Austria.
My visit to Hallstatt was partially sponsored by the Austrian Tourist Office. As always, however, all of the views and opinions expressed are strictly my own – J.F.
If you go:
Austrian Tourist Office
120 W 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tel: (212) 944-6880
Heritage Hotel Hallstatt
Tel: +43 (О) 6134 – 200-36