Take a bunch of super pretty mountains (if you prefer name brand, then pick, say, the Alps), toss with a bunch of super pretty lakes (various sizes and temperatures, to keep it interesting), and then sprinkle on a whole lot of salt. Serve in Northwest Austria.
Welcome to the Salzkammergut!
The Salzkammergut is a mountain/lake region in upper Austria that attracts tourists and locals alike to connect with the great outdoors through hiking, swimming, sailing, cycling, and so much more. Basically, if you have a love of nature and the great outdoors, this is the place to engage it. As we drove into the region, and stayed in the region, Ray spent most of his days pointing at the peaks saying “I want to climb that one. And that one. And that one.” Meanwhile I would drive past rivers and lakes and say “I want to go swim in that one. And that one. And that one.” So needless to say, Ray and I will be headed back at some point, driving lake to lake and peak to peak to experience as the locals would.
And yet, out experience of the region THIS TIME had nothing to do with the mountains or the lakes. I already wrote about Salzburg and Bad Aussee, both of which are in the region, but today I want to write about Hallstatt – the town that is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. The postcard perfect one.
Hallstatt is a lake (check), surrounding by mountains (check) that are great for hiking (check). So it definitely belongs in the region. But it also has the one other thing that the region is well known for. Salt.
And who knew salt could be so interesting?
The entire region of Salzkammergut is based on the salt mines that pepper it (see what I did there. Salt. Pepper. That’s right.) In the centuries before, Salt was known as “White Gold,” and came with tremendous value. It was needed to store meat, and keep food safe. Don’t get me wrong – we still use salt now – but it’s no longer used in the same way, so mining has fallen behind forestry and tourism in the region. Salt mining began in Hallstatt about 7000 years ago – so it’s been around a while. In fact, people first settled in Hallstatt around 5000 BC, making it, by many estimations, the oldest city in Europe. And this town survived as it did (as did the region) because of salt. Salt was (and is) present in the mountains, due to geology (waters dry, mountains rise – if you aren’t super up on the geological process, youtube it – it’s very interesting – to some of us). And salt was mined due to necessity and economy. The salt mines of Europe were in were in their heyday between 800 and 400 BC, and again experienced a surge over centuries of Hasburg rule. They were and continue to be incredibly important to Austria and the Salzkammergut region.
So while we missed out on the swimming and hiking, we did learn a lot about salt.
Hallstatt is a pedestrian only town, so when visiting, you need to park on the outskirts. One of the parking lots is next to the funicular, which heads up to the salt mine. If you are so inclined, you can hike up the hill to get there, but for those of us not interested in starting a vacation with a near death experience, the funicular is a pretty good option. The cost for the funicular + tour of the salt mine is €30,00. I was hesitant at first, but found it worth the money in the end. Let me say, the views of and from the funicular are outstanding. It was our first views of Lake Hallstatt and the town, and it really does take your breath away.
Once you get to the top, there is a short, but uphill walk to the entry of the tour. It’s about 15 minutes in total. We made the mistake of taking the wrong path, which meant we chose the steeper and more painful accent. This was, of course, because I don’t read German and didn’t understand what the signs were saying. Sometimes guessing backfires. Depending on your timeline, you an either enjoy the views first, and THEN go up to the tour, or you can take in the views on the way back down. We did the tour first, but in hindsight I would get up the mountain as early as possible and take in the views before the rest of the tourists arrive, and then tour the mine.
When you get to the yellow house that acts as the entrance for the tours, you have to put on your miners clothing – some canvas duds that snap up around the ankles and have reinforced bottoms. Because there will be a slide. And I’m sure other reasons that were never explained. The ugly clothing is not optional. Also, bad day to wear a skirt or dress. Just FYI. The tour starts with a 5-10 minutes walk down a cavernous pathways into the mine. Throughout the tour is always a bit of a walk, then talk, using various walls and projections sites to tell the story of the mine. The tour covers the history of this mine, the geology of how it was formed, the science of how salt is extracted, and more. The videos are in German, with subtitles, though the subtitles are but an approximation of the German video (as there was 1 English word for every 2 German sentences). My mother-in-law is fluent in German, and said we were missing out on a lot of the story, but even the part that I did get was interesting and educational. When traveling, I have learned that no country has any requirement of providing me content in my language. I can’t fly to Austria and be upset that they aren’t catering to me. Why should I be upset? It’s their country. It’s my job to learn and adapt. It’s amazing how many tourists will throw a fit because the country they are visiting isn’t accommodating their language or standards to the level they have decided is appropriate. There is nothing more cringe-worthy to me when traveling than entitled tourists – so travel humbly. (I could write a whole post on this alone. Maybe I will one day!)
Twice, as part of the tour, you get to head down deeper into the mine by way of miner’s slides. That’s right. Like giant playground slides. This is where the fancy pants come in. Straddle the slide and go! The first slide was training, but the second one takes your photograph and calculates your speed. Ray and I went down together, at an impressive 30.4 km/hr. It was great fun. It’s easy to pretend you’re too cool for a slide at 35. But you’re not. Give in and laugh. There is a light/laser show at the bottom of the second slide, on top of a crystal clear pool. So crystal clear it felt like an optical illusion. At the end of the tour they show you an amazing….STAIRCASE! but not just any staircase – possibly the oldest in the world. It has been dated back to 1344 BC. Photos welcome. No flash.
By this point you are pretty deep under ground. (Originally I was going to opt out of the tour (which is about 90 minutes long) because I was worried about being claustrophobic – but I didn’t find that an issue.) I was grateful that we didn’t have to hike ourselves back up to the surface. Instead there is a train! You straddle it like a horse, and it takes all the tour members back to the surface, minus one flight of stairs once you make it back outside.
Now, time for views. With the other 500 tourists who arrived while we were exploring the underground. The Hallstatt Skywalk Lookout (or Welterbeblick), is a pointed overview that stretches out towards the lake. For Ray, this means he didn’t want to go anywhere near it, but for the rest of us it makes a great photo op. It would have been better without all the other tourists, but the view is stellar any time of day. I would love to see the views from sunrise and sunset, but the funicular isn’t running at that point, and, well, see previous note about hike = death. There is also a great bridge with views of the lake (though harder to see the town), all of which make this a great place to visit. In addition, if you are hungry, there is a restaurant, though we didn’t eat here, and opted for a cheaper sandwich-and-beer-on-the-go once back into town.
I know, this post is long, and I haven’t even left the salt behind. You can abandon here if you want, but I promise, what’s coming next is pretty.
We went into town after to wander through. Meandering through the small town should be a treat. So let’s cover the pros and cons.
- It’s super cute
- It has stores selling cute stuff
- There is ice cream for sale everywhere
- You can go tasting schnapps
- There is an adorable town square
- You can rent a boat (we didn’t. I got out-voted.)
- There is a creepy ossuary on the hill (one of a kind) – back from when space in the cemetery as at a premium, and the church wasn’t cool with cremation and bones needed to get moved.
- The town is hilly, at least if you want to get up to the waterfall or the ossuary. This is particularly obvious in the heat
- There is a lot of overpriced mediocre restaurants. This means a 3 star meal at 5 star location with 1 star price point.
- People. Not the locals. The tour buses upon tour buses of people coming from Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and one of the bazillion river cruises that run through the region. This means crowds (yuck) and selfie sticks (yuck). I mean, I get it, everyone wants to see the place, but…well…just, but.
But look at the pictures, and judge for yourself.
I would LOVE to go back to Hallstatt in the off-season* (*let me pause here as I once again dream of this mythical time and place). I think it is the perfect example of a magical place that has been sadly overrun. And I understand why. For the time being, I have an idea of what Hallstatt is, and what it has to offer. And I have no doubt there will be a time in the future that I return to experience it once again.