Hallstatt Heaven

It’s a destination that magnetises travellers through the power of one photo, from one particular angle. Do a Google image search of “Hallstatt” and you’ll notice that it’s one particular perspective, looking long across the length of the slender village, strung along a shoe-string peninsula, pricked by lofty church spires, that sings out loud. Wedged between the edge of Hallstatter See (Lake Hallstatt) and the towering Dachstein mountains, Austria’s oldest – and arguably most photographed village – hovered like a mirage, as I neared it. It is insanely quaint, achingly beautiful. So much that China, the world’s proven pros at the imitation game, have constructed a full-scale replica of Hallstatt village, complete with churches and frothing fountains, in Guangdong Province. Bless.

If you want to join the Instagram tribe and #bragtag about your visit to Hallstatt, by snapping that sought after money shot, it’s a surprisingly easy to jaunt to the specific location. The famous photo point is in the Römisches district, just a short ten minute walk away from the historic Market Square. After getting my pixel-fix for postcard-view perfection, I was equally transfixed by the flower-laden terraced cafes and 16th century Alpine houses, wrapped around the village lanes, that ensure no photo in Hallstatt is a poor one. Idyllically positioned on the southwest shore of glassy Lake Hallstatt and dwarfed by giant mountain ranges, this forbidding environment accentuates the supreme sense of seclusion. The village is home to just 800 residents. High above Hallstatt, in the upper valley, one of the greatest eye-openers was to take a journey back in time to the origin of salt production at Salzwelten.

Hallstatt Salt World is situated high above the town on the 1,030-metre-tall Salzberg (Salt Mountain). You can access this remarkable attraction aboard a funicular. My first stop was at Rudolf’s Tower (Rudolfsturm), which serves up dreamy views from this old fortification, built over 700 years ago to defend the mines against invaders. It’s been joined by the Sky Walk, built 4 years ago, consisting of a sprawling platform that juts off the mountainside, with a sheer drop to the rooftops of Hallstatt, 350 metres directly below. The star attraction, however, is the 7,000-year-old salt mine itself. Yes, you read right. 7000 years! And it’s believed to be the world’s oldest salt mine, with archaeological evidence proving they were mining the salt from this mountain in 5000BC. Since salt is such an excellent preservative many of the early miner’s tools like pick axes and ladders, found within the mine, have withstood the ravages of time.

The earliest picks were made from deer antlers, which meant the salt was originally mined in the shape of hearts. By 800BC, the hardy miners were penetrating as deep as 200 metres into the mountain, carving out tunnels by hand, to reach the vast deposits of “white gold.” The greatest discovery to date was the ‘Man in Salt”, the corpse of an ancient miner, mummified in salt, who is believed to have perished during a major workplace accident in 1000BC. His preserved body was found in 1734 and he was laid to rest in the local graveyard, 2700 years after dying. Within the mine, I marvelled over the magnificently preserved wooden staircase that was built in 1344 BC! As you’d expect, this ancient salt mine is separated into different levels. The tourist experience takes you through two levels, using the wooden slides that the miners actually used on the job. Riding these 64-metre-long slides must have been the fun part to their daily toil.

Back down in town, I paid to visit to St. Michael’s Chapel’s Bone House. Dating back to the 12th century, the rather macabre draw is the hundreds of artistically painted skulls on display. Skull painting was a quirky regional fad that became all the rage a couple of hundred years ago. The salt mine certainly ensured Hallstatt became a wealthy town, but the shortage of available land meant the graveyard was always in hot demand and after several years, an existing grave was reused for a new burial. The skull and bones were transferred to St. Michael’s for storage and the identity of the deceased family member was preserved by decorative paintings and inscriptions. Over 30,000 entries in the church death registry had been logged by 1900.

Given Hallstatt’s glorious sense of alpine isolation, the area is ripe with outdoorsy opportunities, if the weather is behaving. Backdropped by the Dachstein mountains, which is technically a massif, the peaks play host to skiers in winter and hikers in the warmer months. Some will take you up close to glaciers, including the stunning nature walk on the Echerntal Trail, which many a romantic poet and painter have swooned over. The mountains are also famous for the spectacular Dachstein Caves, a network of caverns up to 1,174 meters deep – some of the most impressive in the Eastern Alps. Highlights include the Giant Ice Cave with its wondrous caverns and frozen waterfalls (try to visit during one of its regular underground music concerts), and the Mammoth Cave (consisting of huge pipe-shaped galleries formed by an ancient underground river.

Other highlights are the panoramic viewing platforms, like 5 Fingers and the Stairway to Nothingness, jutting out from the rock face over with alpine vistas. At ground level, the World Heritage circular trail, wrapped around the shoreline of Lake Hallstatt is pure bliss. Getting to Hallstatt does take some effort, but if you’re staying in Vienna or Salzburg, even a quick day-trip is doable. It’s a two hour train ride from either destination. You can travel by bus, Postbus is the main operator, but the train ride is the better bet, because the pint-sized station above the lake is like a scene out of a storybook. And after alighting from the train, a waiting ferry will whisk you across the glassy waters to the mirage-like village, for just 5 Euro return. What a way to serenade your arrival into this true Austrian gem. www.raileurope.co.nz

By Mike Yardley.

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