Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Sunday we drove to Hallstatt, about an hour from Salzburg, where salt has been mined since the Celts settled the region, before the Romans ruled. There is a museum there we understand is very good in reconstructing this history, as well as a tour into the mines. And perhaps next time we go, we’ll visit them. As it was, this was more of a scouting visit, to get a sense of the place and see if we’d like to return for a longer visit.

Which we would. Hallstatt is simply stunning, a fairy-tale beautiful, a picture-postcard Alpine village nestled – I use the word self-consciously, aware of sounding like ad copy for a travel bureau – in a deep valley right on the shore of a large lake, the Hallstätter See.

The road into the village follows the shore and then passes through a single-lane tunnel about a kilometre long. This brings you immediately into the village, but we drove on until we found a small car park near a picnic area.

Standing on the grassy shore, we looked over the lake under grey clouds. The water was very clear and light coloured; we could see the sand and stones in the shallows. Further out, the silver-blue surface mirrored the clouds, and alternating currents reflected light and shade. Across its expanse we could see another shore with a small cluster of buildings. Around us, though, the mountains rose abruptly, very steep, and dense with trees, deep green and brilliant against the grey sky. Gauze-like wisps of clouds hung just overhead, like sheer silk scarves snagged on the mountainsides.

It seemed extraordinarily peaceful. A family group was picnicking just behind us on the slope: they sat around a table while a pair of men attended a portable grill and long-legged teenagers, laughing and calling, played something like tag or keep-away. High on one of the mountains facing us the cars of a funicular railway ascended and descended toward a building high above. They looked like toys, silent and half hidden in the trees.

Back in the village, we walked along a narrow street past a small dock from which a boat tour of the lake departs, but it was late in the day by then, and the last boat had sailed. From the dock, you can see the steeple of a church on the opposite shore, looking quite small. (I assume this is the notorious church containing the ossuary of exhumed bones, a site I don’t feel I need to visit.)

There were a good number of people milling about, some tourists from coaches parked nearby, some strolling couples like us, and some families with children on bikes. We stopped at the rail on one side of the street to watch the lake lap its shore, a few swans and ducks swimming close in, the mountains seeming to plunge directly into its depths. The other side of the street is lined with traditional houses, their ground level rooms given over to souvenir shops selling salt from the mines and soaps, glassware and figurines, overall tending to the kitsch end of the scale. From the upper floors, which are given over to apartments and pensions, voices drifted out to the street.

The houses are of timber weathered to the colour of gingerbread and molasses. Wide carved balconies project from the upstairs stories; deep eaves project even further. Flowers of vivid blues and brilliant reds sprawl up the sides of  walls and burst from flower boxes. Wind chimes, glass balls and metal ornaments dangle from balconies. Stucco is painted intense colours – rust, sienna or pink – and decorated with traditional carved wooded motifs, painted figures and German Gothic script.

After passing the museum, the street eventually opens into a platz, at the bottom of which is the church. Near it is a wide fountain around a column topped with a ecstatic figure in the Baroque manner. The platz is wide, and the surrounding houses are bright with colourful windows and balconies hung with vines. From an open window on an upper floor, a woman in tracht – traditional Austrian dress – leaned out to watch the activity below. It’s a welcoming place, filled with benches and open-air cafes, and I imagined enjoying community life there on a warm day.

Above the platz, the houses rise one by one, a stair-steeping series of steep angled roofs pressed into the flank of the mountain. Although similar in style, each expresses its own individuality in carved surfaces and painted windows and doors. Sunday, the overcast sky deepened the saturation of the colours and enriched the many textures of wood, stone, vines and trees, overwhelming the senses with an almost dream-like intensity.

Before leaving, we took a last look out across the shining lake at the ranks of tree-covered mountain peaks receding into the distance, illuminated by the late afternoon light breaking through the mists. Then we began our drive over another mountain toward home, past rolling green valleys, dense forests, roiling streams and rivers, and wide clear lakes. It is indeed very beautiful here; I am drawn deeper into the magic of the Alps.

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