Lovable Hallstatt is a tiny town bullied onto a ledge between a mountain and a swan-ruled lake. Apart from the waterfall, which rips through its middle, Hallstatt is an oasis of peace. With the scarcity of level land, tall homes had their front door on the street level top floor and their water entrance several floors below. The town, which originated as a salt mining center, is one of Europe's oldest, going back centuries before Christ.
 There was a Hallstatt before there was a Rome. In fact, because of the importance of salt mining here, an entire age — the Hallstatt era, from about 800 BC to 400 BC — is named for this once important spot.
 If you dug under these buildings, you'd find Roman and pre-Roman Celtic pavement stones from the ancient and prehistoric salt depot. This cute little village was once the salt-mining namesake of a culture that spread from France to the Black Sea. Back then, salt was so precious because it preserved meat, and Hallstatt was, as its name means, the "place of salt."
 A steep funicular runs up the mountain to Hallstatts' salt mine, one of many throughout the region that offer tours.
 At the mine, visitors slip into over-alls, meet their guide, and hike into the mountain. While this particular tunnel dates only from 1719, Hallstatt's mine claims to be the oldest in the world.
 In the tour you'll learn the story of salt. Archaeologists claim that since 7,000 BC, people have come here to get salt. A briny spring sprung here, attracting Bronze Age people. Later, miners dug tunnels to extract the salty rock. They dissolved it into a brine, which flowed through miles of pipes the oldest hewn out of logs to Hallstatt and nearby towns where the brine was — and still is — cooked until only the salt remained.
 A highlight is riding miner-style from one floor to the next...praying for no splinters.
 Through the centuries, Hallstatt was busy with the salt trade. Since it had no road access, people came and went by boat. You'll still see the traditional Fuhr boats, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water.
 Herr Alfred Lenz makes the town's traditional boats from a two hundred year old design. The oar lock is still made of the gut of a bull. Alfred claims, an hour on the lake is worth a day of vacation.
 And he's not the only one with that idea. The lake is a playground for visitors in rental boats which come with two speeds: slow and stop.
 Even though Hallstatt's actual sights are subtle, wandering through town is a treat. Pop into the fishery — two men have a licence to harvest the lake of its plankton-fed Reineke fish — much prized by local restaurants. The decorative woodwork, a tradition which dates back centuries, reflects the wealth salt brought. While fires have been a recurrent problem, many houses go way back. This one dates from 1597.
 The Catholic Church overlooks the town from above. Its 500-year-old altars and frescoes feature Hallstatt's two favorite saints: St. Barbara (patron of miners) and St. Catherine (patron of foresters — lots of wood was needed to fortify the many miles of tunnels and boil the brine to distil out the salt).
 Space in Hallstatt's well-tended graveyard was so limited that bones had only about 12 peaceful, buried years here before making way for the freshly dead. Many of the dug-up bones and skulls ended up in the bone chapel. Each of the several hundred painted skulls has been lovingly named, dated, and decorated. The skulls resting on Bibles are those of the town's priests.
 While the bone house is fascinating...there's more life...is down on the town square. For generations, the traditional salt miners' band has entertained their town. Donate to the band, and a maiden gives you a shot of schnapps.
 Restaurant Bräugasthof, lakeside and under a grand chestnut tree, is just the place to try some of Lake Hallstatt's prized fish. They're cooked up fresh and simple and served with a nice Austrian dry white wine.
 And while you await your strudel, you can feed the swans.
 Swans patrol the lake like they own it. They're reminders of the 1800s, when the first Romantic Age poets and painters discovered this region. Back then Vienna's Hapsburg royalty made it their annual holiday retreat and today it remains as delightful as ever.
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