Hello Hallstatt!

It’s hard to take a bad photograph in Hallstatt when every corner throws up an enchanting garden, a quaint detail or a breathtaking view. All those European postcard cliches come true in Hallstatt. Snow-touched mountains – check. Colourful old houses – check. Lakeside setting – check. Fountain in the village square – check. Village church – check, and for harmony’s sake, there are even two of them, one Catholic and one Protestant.

For all its prettiness, Hallstatt has some serious historical chutzpah too – one of the oldest salt mines in Europe sits in the mountains above Hallstatt. At first, I was disappointed when the weather reports showed rain in Hallstatt for the two days we were scheduled to be there. But the drizzle, the low-lying clouds and the mist over the water added a sense of drama to the lake and the village. Like I said, it’s hard to take a bad photograph of Hallstatt. Even in the rain.

And that’s why there will be a series of posts on Hallstatt, beginning with this. One post is just not enough to cover it all.

Hallstatt is not easy to get to – and that adds to the charm when you finally get there. We took the night train from Florence to Munich, and then a train to Salzburg where we booked our Sound of Music tour and our return tickets to Salzburg before taking yet another train out to the Salzkammergut. We had to change trains in Attnang Pucheim before we could take the final and last leg to Hallstatt. The Salzkammergut is super picturesque and our cameras were already working hard before we arrived at the tiny station seemingly in the middle of nowhere:

This is where the magic of Hallstatt begins. From here, we walked down a path to the small boathouse where a boat (timed to meet the trains) would ferry us across the lake to Hallstatt. The boat is cutely named The Stefanie. If you drive or take the bus, you could get to Hallstatt via the back road and carpark lot above the town, but that to me is really missing out on half the romance and the fun!

Wet though it was, we stood on the open deck of the boat, busy with the cameras. The mountains rose steeply up from the side of the lake. The clouds hung so low they almost touched the water. Here and there we could see villas and schloss with seemingly no road connections. Talk about being cut off in the nicest way possible. From across the lake, the spire of the Hallstatt’s village churches rose charmingly above the houses. Boat houses stand like suburban garages on water.

We checked into the Gasthof Zauner and were given a room right at the top. No joke to huff and puff up four floors with heavy bags. But the room was simple enough with a tiny balcony overlooking the lake and rooftops. I think we were generally comfortable in Gasthof Zauner but found it a little pricey for a place that is showing its age. The bathroom was dim and drainage was not working well – the bath tray flooded everytime we showered. The ivy-clad building was charming though and offered a really nice breakfast every morning. I guess if you’re looking for a typical old-school type of European pensione/guesthouse – charming but erratically crumbling, this might be what you’re looking for.

It was close to four by the time we checked in and after a full day of traveling, we just wanted to kick back and relax for a bit. Which led to my first apple strudel in Austria:

Stupendously good – probably because I could get wifi there and because this is the nicest setting to have apple strudel in Hallstatt – outdoor and right by the lake at the Seehotel Gruner. The weather was great too – it was cool but not overly cold despite the on-off rain.

Hallstatt’s pretty cobble-stoned town square (below) has a fountain – in a setting so cute that I half-expected a song-and-dance routine from the animated musical Beauty and the Beast to spring to life any minute! The Gasthof Zauner is the ivy-covered building in the centre background.

Hallstatt is built on such a narrow strip of land that the first road was only built in the late 1800s. The result is that most houses hugged the stony walls of the mountains, building upwards rather than expanding the town outwards. This meant lots of stairs, steep gradients, nooks and crannies, unique split level houses and gardens and some creative entry ways. All of which made Hallstatt a joy to wander through and explore.

Here’s what we found that drizzly afternoon:

First off, the ‘schmuck’ signs everywhere intrigued me. The definition of ‘schmuck’ as I know it is not a very polite one to put it mildly! So I was curious to find out what schmuck actually meant. Turns out it means jewelry. So that sign on the left does not mean the Hallstatt village idiot resides in the lake. It just points the way to the nearest jewelry store!

Our walk uphill towards the old Catholic church was a very pretty one. The views over the lake, as we climbed upwards, were beautiful – made more so by the details of wet stone, old wooden benches, graceful swirls on an iron gate, and the flowers – vivid in contrast to the gloomy weather.

Next up: Hallstatt’s Catholic church and cemetery!

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