Cheryl and I were on the train to Hallstat at 7:48 having checked out of the lovely Hotel am Stephenplatz and dragged our luggage through the subway to the train station. Hallstat is in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, which is essentially the lake district of Austria that is famous for its picture postcard villages hugging the myriad of lakes in the region.
The train left on time and we had about two hours on the train before we had to switch trains at Attnang-Puchheim for the last hour of the trip. Now the first two hours was a pleasant enough journey through a lot of farm land. However, as we approached Atnang-Puchheim, the landscape changed a bit, became more mountainous and much, much more scenic.
Once we left the train station on the connector train, we found ourselves flying by rivers surrounded by large fir trees and past tyrolian houses with pastures and flowers everywhere. Next came the magnificent Hallstatt Lake, which came into view as we passed through “Bad Ichl”. Two stops later we were dragging our luggage off the train and onto “Stephanie”, the little boat that takes train travelers to the other side of the lake to Hallstat. As luck would have it, the sun was shining and although there were some clouds, it was a warm summerlike day.
We got even luckier to find that our hotel was literally at front of the boat dock. We checked in, found our room was ready and immediately took up residence on the third floor in a fabulous room compelte with deck overlooking the lake.
Now while Hallstat is one of the jewel tourist destinations in Austria, it was originally known for its production of salt dating to prehistoric times. In fact in 1734, villagers discovered the “Man of Salt”, a corpse preserved in salt. The villagers believed the corpse to be 150 years old, but recent dating determined that the corpse dated back more than 3,000 years. At one time, the region was incredibly wealthy because of its abundance of salt. (Until the invention of refrigeration, salt was a primary commidity with a value similar to gold.) Today, Hallstat’s salt mine remains active, but most of its salt is removed by mechanical means although men still work the equipment in the mine. Visitors can tour the mine so that is what we planned for the afternoon.
So, Cheryl and I got situated, put on our hiking boots and set out for a walk to the end of the village towards the tram that would take us up the mountain to the salt mines. But before we could take the path to the tram, we decided a little lunch was in order: beer and of course a sausage dog complete with … curry powder. Tasty, tasty, tasty.
Anyway, with appetite satiated, we continued the one mile walk to the funicular (tram), which took us a few hundred meters up the mountain. After the ride, we had to hike about ten minutes further up the mountain to reach the entrance for the tour. Once inside, we found we only had to wait about ten minutes for the next tour to start.
The tour began with the requisite donning of miners pants and jacket. From there we were given a brief history of the mine (first in German and then in English). After that, we walked to the mine entrance “Chrstine” and began the hike down into the mine single file. Along the way our guide continued to provide a history of the region, the salt trade and of course the story of the Man of Salt.
One of the highlights was the opportunity to slide down two of the miners slide. First came the short slide. We were instructed to straddle the slide, sit down with our legs in the air, tuck our arms in, nudge forward and let gravity do its thing …. weeeeeeeee. It was a blast. The second slide was even longer at 64 meters. Our speed was measured and a picture was taken to commemorate the “ride”. Cheryl clocked in at 31.2 km per hour and I clocked in at 35.2 km per hour, which was the fastest of the tourists and only 0.6 km slower than our guide, who claimed she was always the “fastest” …. oh so close to beating her smugness!
Anyway, the tour wrapped up with a little toy train ride out of the mine. It actually zipped us back up to the surface pretty quickly and you had to make sure to keep your arms and legs in tight while speeding back to the surface. All in all a great time.
After we hiked backed down to the tram station, Cheryl and I wandered over to the lookout point which had a vantage point built of steel that hung far out over the valley. Made for a great picture spot, but I am sure my mother would have had a fit if she had to walk out there.
So after the requisite pics, Cheryl and I walked back to the tram and headed down to Hallstat far below us. The weather was absolutely beautiful so we decided to stop for the standard Austrian mid afternoon snack: apple strudel (Cheryl had cake) and we both had a couple glasses of pressecco. Yummy, yummy afternoon goodness while sitting by the lake.
As we wandered through the village, Cheryl and I were struck by how many Chinese we saw. Now I’m not talking about a couple folks here or there. I am talking about hundreds of Chinese. Quite frankly in all my travels I have never seen anything like it. There were Chinese citizens everyone. I finally found the answer on Google. Apparently someone in the Chinese government liked Hallstatt so much that the government build a replica of Hallstatt down to every last detail and it opened in 2012. The citizenry are now so enamored with the town that they come to visit the real thing in droves. It was absolutely unbelievable the number of Chinese citizens and tour groups we saw.
Anyway, besides all the Chinese citizens, we also saw some lovely local crafts (and an awful lot of kitschy stuff …. the town was a little too touristy for me I am afraid). I did, however, find found a beautiful sweater I wanted to buy so we wandered into the store and I made the purchase. As we wandered out of the store, Cheryl suggested we go back and buy some wine to drink on our deck. So we headed back into the store where I bought the sweater and asked about wine. (By the way, this store was the best store ever … wine, cheese, meats, drug store stuff, clothing and regular groceries. Hallstatt’s very own Costco.) We ended up talking to the proprietor for quite a bit (he had only opened the store in May) and we did a little wine tasting. After selecting a lovely wine, we ended up buying some breads, cheeses and meats and opted for a little picnic on our fabulous deck.
But wait … there’s more. As the sun was setting and dusk fell over the lake, we heard a band strike up on a barge in the middle of the lake. All of a sudden we heard singing and dancing and music and yoddling … we couldn’t figure out what it was all about, but three songs later they wrapped it up and took off. Cheryl used her zoom lens on her camera to take a look and we figured they were shooting a movie because there were all sorts of folks on the barge with lights and poles and what appeared to be cameras. Quite frankly I don’t really care what they were doing out there …. the music turned out to be a great Tyrolian accompaniment to our picnic on the deck.
By 9:00 were called it a night. It had been a long day and we were planning on getting up early the next day to hike up to and through the Dachstein Ice Caves and to take the tram up to the Five Fingers lookout. Yay…. more walking.