Communing with Nature in Hallstatt
By Rick Steves
With the longest life span and one of the shortest work weeks in Europe, Austrians spend their ample free time focusing on the fine points of life: music, a stroll, pastry, and a good cup of coffee. Austrians specialize in good living and Gemütlichkeit — a warm, cozy, friendly, focus-on-the-moment feeling. Even tourists catch on in the Salzkammergut Lake District, where big-city Austrians go to relax.
Far from the urban rat race, though just two hours by train from Salzburg, this is the perfect place to commune with nature, Austrian-style. The Salzkammergut is a lushly forested playground dotted with cottages. Trains, buses, and boats lead the traveler through gentle mountains and shy lakes, winding from relaxed village to relaxed village.
The Salzkammergut's pride and joy is the town of Hallstatt. The minute it popped into view, I knew Hallstatt was my alpine Oz. It's just the right size (1,000 people), wonderfully remote, and almost traffic-free. A tiny ferry takes you from the nearest train station, across the fjordlike lake, and drops you off on the town's storybook square.
Bullied onto its lakeside ledge by a selfish mountain, Hallstatt seems tinier than it is. Its pint-size square is surrounded by ivy-covered guest houses and cobbled lanes. It's a toy town. You can tour it on foot in about 15 minutes. Except in August, when tourist crowds trample most of Hallstatt's charm, there's no shortage of pleasant Gästezimmer (bed-and-breakfast places).
Three thousand years ago this area was the salt-mining capital of Europe. An economic and cultural boom put it on the map back in Flintstone times. In fact, an entire 1,000-year chapter in the story of Europe is called "The Hallstatt Period." A museum next to the tourist office shows off Hallstatt's salty past. For a better look, you can tour the world's first salt mine, located a thrilling funicular ride above downtown Hallstatt. You'll dress up in an old miner's outfit, ride trains into the mountain where the salt was mined, cruise subterranean lakes, scream down long, sliver-free banisters, and read brief and dry English explanations while entertaining guides tell the fascinating story in German. You can return to Hallstatt by funicular, but the scenic 40-minute hike back into town is (with strong knees) a joy.
Hallstatt outgrew its little ledge, and many of its buildings climb the mountainside, with the street level on one side being three floors above the street level on the other. Land is limited-so limited that in the church cemetery, bones received only 12 years of peaceful subterranean darkness before making way for the newly dead. The result is a fascinating chapel (Beinhaus) of decorated bones. Each of the more than 600 skulls is lovingly named, dated, and decorated with ivy and rose motifs. This practice was stopped in the 1960s, about the time the Catholic Church began permitting cremation.
Passing time in and around Hallstatt is easy. The little tourist office will recommend a hike — the 9,000-foot Mount Dachstein looms overhead — or a peaceful cruise in a rented canoe. Most people go to Hallstatt simply to relax, eat, shop, and stroll. To cloak yourself in the Gemütlichkeit, flowers, and cobblestones of Austria's Salzkammergut Lake District, visit Hallstatt.