Settled on the shores of a calm, glassy lake is a small little piece of paradise. Majestic mountains rise from valleys and stand tall around the little paradise as if guarding its sanctity, its tranquility. The tree- and snow-covered mountains and centuries-old colorful timber-framed houses built into the steep hillside cast a reflection in the glimmering lake water that’s mostly still but is occasionally ruffled by the gentle wind. Fuhrs (traditional boats), swans, and shuttle boats disrupt the images in the water every once in a while, as they glide peacefully on the lake. Somewhere nearby, a waterfall gushes through mountains and plunges over the edge of a gorge. Everything is breathtakingly beautiful in this haven of peace and tranquility called Hallstatt – a quaint town tucked between the Dachstein mountains in the Austrian Alps and overlooking its namesake lake (the lake is called Hallstatter See in German)… a place you’d believe to exist only in dreams that you don’t want to wake up from. It’s little surprise then that this little town of less than a thousand inhabitants gets a million tourists every year.
There’s a lot more to Hallstatt than its otherworldly beauty though. Located in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, which got its name because of the rich salt deposits under the surface (“Salzkammergut” means field or place of salt), Hallstatt is known for the production of salt. Salt mining in Hallstatt started about 7000 years ago and brought prosperity to this little town. Salt is mined in Hallstatt to date, a tradition that’s has continued since prehistoric times. In 1997, Hallstatt got listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its beautiful landscape and the evidence of early and continuous economic and cultural activity.
I’d dreamed to visit Hallstatt ever since I’d seen the pictures and videos of the idyllic town. The dream to visit it came true during the spring of 2019 when I made a day-trip to the most beautiful Austrian lake town from Salzburg. Kelly, a friend I made in the hostel in Vienna, had visited the place just 3-4 days before the day I’d chosen. It’d been snowing when she visited the town. In the pictures she shared, Hallstatt looked like a beautiful snow-covered fairyland. I couldn’t wait to be there!
From among the options for commute, I chose to take a bus from Salzburg to Bad Ischl, the OBB train from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt train station and then a shuttle boat from the train station. It perhaps wasn’t the fastest way of reaching Hallstatt, but the views of lakes (oh, there are quite a few of those beautiful Alpine lakes on the way!), mountains, meadows, and cozy houses in small towns along the bus route made the journey just as beautiful as the destination itself.
The wait for the train from Bad Ischl seemed too long. It was noon already and I’d started fretting about whether I’d have enough time to enjoy the beauty that Hallstatt has been blessed with. An hour-long wait and half an hour of train journey later, I was finally at my destination.
All through the journey, the weather remained dull despite the forecast indicating that the day was going to be relatively sunny. The clouds refused to budge. The drizzle wouldn’t stop. I followed a few people to the close-by ferry station and boarded the shuttle boat that was waiting to ferry people to the other side of the lake. A group of chatty kids boarded along. As the boat started moving, most people got busy taking pictures of the incredible views of the snow-laden mountains and the lake. I was as awestruck by the views as others but also distracted by the inane banter, silly noises, but extremely contagious laughter of the kids.
I could no longer contain my excitement and anticipation as Stefanie (the shuttle boat) approached the Hallstatt town. Everything around looked pristine. I started walking around in the town after getting off the boat, admiring the surroundings, occasionally stopping to click pictures.
“Excuse me! Move! Move!! Photo… photo…”, a lady wearing bright makeup said to me while I was standing peacefully by the lake. Not a requesting tone, but a commanding one. She was a tourist and was asking her husband to click numerous pictures as she posed… you know, one of those typical poses that seem candid, but actually isn’t! I’d had enough of such people pushing me around so they could click pictures. Rude and inconsiderate, they didn’t think twice before disturbing others repeatedly just to get some of their own pictures. This time, I was in no mood to oblige. I continued to stand where I was without paying any heed. I stood there for some time watching some swans as they swam in the restful lake. Apparently, swans were brought to this lake by the locals sometime in the 19th century when Emperor Franz Josef (of the Habsburg empire that ruled Austria for over 6 centuries) and Empress Sisi decided to make the Salzkammergut region their summer retreat since the empress loved swans (but then who doesn’t?).
The views were beautiful despite the dull weather but I wished for the overcast sky to clear up and weather to be brighter. I wondered what the lake would look like if and when the skies cleared up. Hadn’t the weather forecast indicated that the day was going to be sunny?
After a bit of vainly wandering around in the town, I entered the Evangelische Pfarrkirche (Protestant parish church) that’s right at the lakefront. The church is a result of the humble resources and efforts pooled in by some 500 salt miners (a Protestant community) to build the church, after Emperor Franz Josef allowed Protestants to practice their religion in Hallstatt, giving them equal religious rights as the Catholics. The church isn’t too difficult to spot even for someone who has only seen Hallstatt in pictures. The slender spire of the church towers above the rest of the town and enhances its beauty.
Not too far from the Evangelische Pfarrkirche are the Katholische Pfarrkirche (Catholic parish church), the cemetery of Hallstatt and the Beinhaus (Also called Bone House, Charnel House, or Ossuary). Since Hallstatt is a small town, the place for burial is limited too. Therefore, in the 1700s, the tradition of exhuming bodies that were buried in the cemetery started and the remains were stacked inside the charnel house. Later, the tradition of painting the skulls began. The charnel house has hundreds of painted skulls. As pretty and important as these places are said to be, the sight of graveyard and skulls and bones was not what I fancied much and I decided to skip those and continued to wander.
By late noon, the curtains of clouds started shifting. Soon enough the Tuscany-blue sky painted the lake in a matching shade. The town suddenly seemed brighter, happier. With renewed enthusiasm, I followed the entire stretch again, walking from one end of the town to the other (which takes not more than half an hour) and returning to the Market Square, at the heart of the town and right next to the Protestant church. The Holy Trinity statue at the center, some of the bright-colored buildings with overflowing flower boxes and cozy cafés made the Market Square or Marketplatz a pretty sight. In 1750, the entire place was burnt to ashes in a massive fire. Though many of today’s buildings look quite different than in former times, the physical structure of the Hallstatt Market Square has survived in essence as it was.
I had been too busy appreciating the beauty of the town to realize that I hadn’t eaten much since morning at all. I didn’t have to look too far to fulfill my wish of having lunch by the lakeside and I had a wholesome lunch at the Braugasthof restaurant by the lakeside and spent some relaxing time, enjoying the views of the lake.
Kelly, my friend who had visited Hallstatt 3-4 days before I did, had highly recommended going to the “Top of Hallstatt” for the most beautiful views of the town. Could anything get any better than what I’d just seen? I decided to check it and so I took a funicular ride up the Salzberg (the salt mountain). Just two minutes of a walk took me to the World Heritage View – the Hallstatt Skywalk, a viewing platform perched 360 meters above Hallstatt town. The breath-taking panorama of the mountains, the lake and the village that looked like a small collection of card houses next to the lake was truly the most beautiful view I’d seen.
Besides the panoramic view, at the top of the mountain is the world’s oldest salt mine. The oldest wooden staircase found in Europe is also there in the salt mine in Hallstatt. If knowing the history of salt mining in closed surroundings is your kind of thing, then this place is a must for you. I didn’t want to rush to be there for the last two-hour-long tours of the salt mine. Besides, for me, the idea of enjoying the beautiful views in the open, fresh air was far more appealing. I walked along the only road on the mountain, following the boards that provided insights into the history of Hallstatt and soaking in the beauty around.
It was past 5 p.m. and it was time for me to head back to Salzburg. I took the funicular ride down the hill. The bus station was nearby. Standing at Halstatt’s main bus station, Hallstatt Lahn, I took one last look at the town and bid adieu. One of my millions of long-standing dreams had come true. the heart was overwhelmed with gratitude. The eyes were contented by the beauty they had witnessed. The images that they’d captured will remain permanently etched in the memory.