After an exhilarating drive on the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, we retired early in preparation for another day of “heavy sightseeing”, for we were to leave Zell am see and drive to Salzburg via Hallstatt, the beautiful lakeside town. Thanks to some poor planning, we couldn’t stay the night in Hallstatt, which turned out to be a really bad move, because a day trip just doesn’t cover the place well enough.
We left Zell am see on a very cloudy morning after a hearty breakfast. The drive through Austria was scenic as could be, with lush green meadows and beautiful mountains around us and with clouds as our constant companions.
The train tracks and a small river ran parallel to us as we drove. I could imagine my friends Neha and Yogesh enjoying the same scenery in their train to Salzburg.
Our spirits were high, we sang along as we drove through the lovely countryside. For a while, we drove on the autobahn, the best bit for the hubby, wherein we came upon the famous Hohenwerfen castle, picturized in the Bond film “Where eagles dare.”
It was a beautiful castle, perched high up, but sadly we didn’t have time for it.
Our drive on the highway was for a short while only, and soon we turned off onto smaller (read: more picturesque) roads. A while later, Google Maps took us off the main road on to a very small and narrow road amidst the forests.
It was very narrow and I was worried about how we’d manage if another car came from the opposite side, but no one came. The road seemed to exist for us alone. Deeper into the forest we drove, surrounded by the tall conifers. A small stream bubbled besides us and every now and then, we crossed over small wooden bridges over it. A few scattered wooden houses dotted the area, pretty as could be.
“What a fabulous place to stay!” I exclaimed, picturing myself resting on a hammock with a book. “It’s scary mum, there’s no one around,” said the kid. She was correct. There were areas with just one house and nothing else for the next 5 kilometers. “The solitude would still be worth it,” I thought. Just before we joined the main road, we passed by a series of houses so beautiful that the hubby and I would happily have given up our jobs and migrated there.
As we drove into Austria’s famed lake district, the Salzkammergut with 76 Alpine lakes, tall mountains, hiking trails and tiny villages, the views got better and better. We drove up and down small hills with trees all around.
The entire Salzkammergut is stunning as we discovered over the next 3 days. But today was set aside for the “Pearl of the Salzkammergut”, Hallstatt. This tiny village is probably the most photographed place in all of Austria. It’s an old settlement, more than 1000 years old, thanks to the salt found deep in the mountains around it. “Salt? In a land-locked country? Where did the sea reach there?” asked the smart hubby. “For that, we have to visit the salt mines,” I answered.
Hallstatt is hemmed in by the tall Dachstein mountains and the area has enough to offer for at least 3 days worth of sightseeing. Since we had 8 hours, we had to pick and choose. We saw just the town of Hallstatt and the salt mines, whilst my brother-in-law chose to take the cable car up the Dachstein mountains to see the aerial view of Hallstatt.
He also visited the ice caves that we didn’t see as we’d already seen the stunning karst caves of Slovenia (Postojna Caves, Slovenia), but he really enjoyed the trip and it will be on my radar for the future.
As we approached the town, we first caught a glimmer of Lake Hallstatt through the trees. The lake is huge (as seen in the aerial picture) and we drove parallel to it for quite a distance before reaching the town.
The main town area is pedestrian only (thankfully) and there are 3 huge parking lots for vehicles. We parked in one near the salt mines, after driving through the tunnel that runs through the Hallstatt mountain.
As soon as we walked outside the parking lot, the magic of Hallstatt seemed to descend. It was a cool and cloudy day, very very pleasant indeed. Beautiful flowers and trees filled the roadside and we didn’t know where to look.
Beautiful gastehaus (guesthouses) lined the roads. Typically made of dark wood with coloured window shutters and flowers at their window sills, I couldn’t stop taking pictures till the hubby gently nudged me and said, “Leave some camera space for the actual town.”
We crossed over a tiny stream, wondering where it came from, wishing we had time to follow it upstream.
We saw that it bubbled away into the lake.
“Gasp, ooh, ahh!” was our state in Hallstatt from the time we got out of the parking lot, to the time we returned. Hallstatt was such a fairytale town that it just belonged within the pages of an Enid Blyton storybook. But first, we had to figure out how salt was mined in Hallstatt.
The salt mines are at an elevation from the town so they can be reached by a steep walk through the forest or a quick funicular. No prizes for guessing what we did.
The funicular was so well designed that we didn’t realise how steep the slope was. And I am so glad that we didn’t walk up or down till the mines as it would have been a crazy long walk, and there was lots more walking up ahead!
The best part about the mines was the view from the top. Looking down to the newer part of Hallstatt, near the mines and the parking lots and trying to identify our car kept us totally busy.
The most amazing view was once we got off at the top and looked out from where we stood. It was so beautiful that we couldn’t tear ourselves away and missed most of the people who were on the funicular with us.
The actual mines were located at a 20 minute walk from the funicular, but we first walked over to the viewing platform “World Heritage View” for the stunning views over the Hallstatt-Dachstein region by crossing over the pretty panorama bridge.
It led us to Rudolfstrum, a restaurant housed in a defense tower built in ancient times to protect the mines, with the Hallstatt skywalk jutting out below it.
The steel platform projects out from the cliff 360 meters above sea level, to provide a vantage viewing point over Hallstatt town, the lake and the mountains.
Unfortunately, it was packed with tourists (as was all of Hallstatt) of a community that believes in clicking 100 selfies at every viewpoint without much concern for others. After waiting patiently in a line with no order and movement, I gave up and walked along the edges of the platform for the same stunning view.
The sunlight seemed to filter through the clouds on to the small town of Obertraun directly opposite Hallstatt, the access point for the cable car to the Dachstein ice caves and the five fingers look out.
The best view however, was that of the main town of Hallstatt from high above.
While I stood there mesmerized, the hubby urged me on, knowing that the entire salt mines tour would take another 3 hours to complete and we needed to reach Salzburg before night. Reluctantly, I left the pretty view for the 20 minute steady uphill climb to the entrance to the mines.
To make the long walk more interesting, there were several boards along the way about the history of the mines and even the body of a mummy preserved in salt. We were mean enough to leave the kid in that scary room and run off, but she’s become smarter now and was expecting it.
All along were posters of the “miner man” pointing out the way. Finally the hubby grew tired of the man.
When we reached the entrance to the caves, we had to deposit our belongings and wear very unflattering miner’s clothes to make us feel like miners and to protect us on the slides and then we reached the entrance to the mines.
Right from the bright sunlight, we entered a dark and narrow tunnel, wide enough for maximum 2 people side by side, with the tracks of the mining wagons below us. The tunnels grew narrower and shorter as we went in deeper and we could only walk in a single file.
As it grew narrower and darker, the kid grew more and more frightened and wanted to leave. But the only way was onwards, deeper into the mountains. There was no turning back. She was so scared that we had to put on the torch-light, but fortunately, the area widened a little ahead and she could relax and look around.
We could see the old salt pipelines that carried the brine and the salt. Salt was considered white gold and it’s discovery led to the rise of Hallstatt as an important town. In fact the era 800 to 400 BC is referred to as the Hallstatt period. But that’s not what we were interested in. We were interested in sliding down the long wooden slides that miners used to enter the mines.
It’s really very simple, you sit on a small wooden area and put both your legs on the side, then gravity does the rest. Naturally everyone was apprehensive at the start. There were steps to climb down and I was thinking about taking them when a couple of brave people took the plunge and then, so did the hubby with the kid. He just grabbed her, plonked her in front of him and kicked off, despite her protests. And from the bottom came a very happy squeal, “Mummy it’s awesome!” So, I got on too and reached the bottom, flying down, screaming at the top of my lungs.
Now that people understood that no one was going to die, the “selfie community” picked up their guts and dashed down the slides, mobiles in hand. We moved on to see some salt crystals and the history of salt mining in Hallstatt.
We reached a large area where they beamed a movie which explained how salt reached this town hundreds of miles away from any ocean or sea. Apparently, way back in the prehistoric age, when the continents were forming and the earth plates moving about, some portion of the sea got trapped below the mountain and then rose with the mountain shelf.
So apparently, salt was mined here as long back as 7000 years ago. Surprising! They showed us several videos about how they discovered the timeline of the mining and lots of ghastly stories about the loads of people who died, when we came upon the best part of the mines, the 64 meter long wooden slide. The hubby and kid, now seasoned, quickly hopped on and slid away.
There was nothing for it. I got on and slid down, so fast, that I started falling off and dumbly, put out my hand to correct my position (despite clear instructions from the guide NOT to do so) and got a wonderful friction burn.
Off the slide, we found ourselves at the edge of a small lake. A lake in the centre of the mountain, with salt at the bottom of it!
They even put up a show with brilliantly coloured images projected over the lake showing the discovery of salt and the start of the mining.
This show and another where they projected the life and times of a typical miner family were the only two entertaining shows. The rest bored me terribly and I was itching to be out in the daylight in the pretty lanes of Hallstatt, instead of listening to this guy drone on.
Yet, they took us deeper and deeper inside and showed us the discovery of the world’s oldest staircase, dated to 13th century BC, that is now kept in a museum at Vienna. It’s been perfectly preserved by the salt.
Finally, the tour ended. I was worried about climbing up lots of stairs as we had descended quite a bit, but luckily, they bundled us onto a miner’s train and took us up and out through narrow tunnels.
Happy to be back out, we walked down a lot faster than on the way up, passing by these pretty rivulets.
Riding the funicular down, I couldn’t help but take another picture of the beautiful town of Hallstatt from up above.
The walk to the car was scenic, but I had to steal a quick look at the lake at the place with the most beautiful view of Hallstatt.
“Wow,” is all I could think. I couldn’t even speak aloud at this moment because I was too spellbound and dumbstruck. But this view is only a teaser of things to come, both when you walk through Hallstatt and when you read the blog.