Thursday, August 5, 2010

Love and Death: Hallstatt continued

We spent the weekend in Hallstatt, the village I wrote about some weeks back. Part of the Dachstein-Hallstatt Salzkammergut World Heritage site, Hallstatt is a pretty village that sits perched at the edge of Lake Hallstättersee, a large glacial lake. If you’re planning a visit to the Salzburg region, I recomment making time to spend a night or two in Hallstatt. You’ll not only get a taste of a charming alpine village, you can use it as a base to explore the Dachstein peaks, riding the cable car from a station a few minutes’ drive away.

The houses of Hallstatt are crowded together at the base of the mountain that soars steeply behind them. In summer, their already colourful facades are even brighter, with flowers tumbling from window boxes and courtyards blooming with trees and fruit. It was a hot afternoon, and at the harbour we found a jeweller who rents electric boats for €16 an hour. Cruising the lake’s calm waters, we see could the houses clustered at the shore and rising in ranks up the green forested mountainside. At shore level stands the small Protestant church with its slender graceful steeple. Above it, literally caved from the mountain, the 16th century Catholic church, Maria Himmelfahrt (Assumption of Mary), stands on a small outcropping. It’s best seen from the water; on our previous visit, we hadn’t even noticed it, so entranced were we by the buildings clustered around the market square.

We trawled lazily around the lake, taking in the village and the towering peaks cradling the steep valley. We could just make out the slender sails of para gliders riding the thermal streams thousands of metres over our heads. Directly across the lake, the white towers of the bahnhof stand near water’s edge. Every 10 or 15 minutes the red cars of the train were reflected in the waters as it passed on its way toward Obertraun, another resort village further along the opposite shore. In fact, because parking in the village is very limited, the train is a good way to arrive in Hallstatt. A boat is available for the short journey across the lake.

Back on shore we began exploring on foot, following the roar of rushing water to where an old mill once stood, powered by a waterfall from high on the mountain. From there, a narrow street wound up the mountain; turning, we saw the lake spread blue and placid beyond us. A few steps more, and we came to the church, home of a pair of exquisite late Gothic winged altarpieces. Standing over two metres high, these intricately carved, gilded triptychs date from about 1515. By Leonhard Gmundner Aist, they depict scenes from the life of Mary and from the Passion of Christ. Even more moving are the life-size polychrome statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and St John, also by Leonhard Aist, that stand just inside the church door. Mary’s face is a study of restrained grief; John, seeming to gaze inward, looks utterly bereft.

Carved from the mountain as it was, and standing on a very narrow cliff, the church offers extremely limited room for burials. So for hundreds of years, the dead were buried in its tiny graveyard, only to be exhumed after some years had passed so the graves could be re-used. The exhumed remains were then placed in a charnel house – the Beinhaus – at the back of the churchyard. The painted, some elaborately, skulls are on display there. It was as well that the charnel house was closed when we visited; I can think of few things I'd less want to see.

However, we wandered the churchyard in the late afternoon light. In the quiet, a man raked the walkways, and a woman in a blue apron filled a green water can to water the flowers. With the soaring mountains and the blue-green lake as backdrop, the churchyard is bright and calm. Like the St Peter’s churchyard, famous in Salzburg, it is filled with tidy graves lying close together, each planted with colourful flowers, each identified by decorative iron or timber markers, the wooden ones carved, the iron one painted. It's a lovely place, a peaceful garden set against a dramatic view of lake and mountains.

Back on the Marktplatz below, we had beers on the terrace of the Grüner Baum, an old hotel that’s been recently refurbished. In the quiet half light, it was beginning to be cool, and the waitress offered me a bright peach-coloured blanket. Wrapped against the chill, we sat quietly, watching as the lake reflected the gold of the setting sun in the paling sky. Finishing our beers, we wandered on. I stopped to look at reproductions of Hallstatt Culture artefacts in a shop window, but Himself, hearing music a little farther along kept walking. When I caught up with him, he was standing next to an open terrace, at the edge of the harbour, from which the music came.

‘Can we eat here?’

I remembered passing the place on our way in a few hours earlier. In a small space, next to an open shed that housed a couple of cars, what looked like a private party was in progress. A few dozen people sat at tables shaded by a tree while trays of food and bottles of wine were passed. Now, looking more closely, I could see that waiters were bringing food from the Brauhaus Lobisser, just across the way. The party, gathered around the musicians, took up but part of the terrace; the rest of the dining area was still open to the public. We found a table directly on the water’s edge, just few feet away from the party, and ordered. On the other side of the low balustrade, a few ducks bobbed on the water, undoubtedly used to receiving scraps.

It was a small party, a wedding celebration, as it turned out, of about forty or fifty people. Children, some of them wearing traditional clothing, others simply in dress clothes, ran laughing between the tables while their parents and grandparents relaxed. The bride, a slender handsome blonde woman wearing an elegant low-backed dress of deep Prussian blue, moved among the guests, smiling. The groom, tall, handsome, with blond hair to his ears, wore bundhosen with a frilled white shirt. A pale pink rose was pinned to his braces. We remarked on the importance of lederhosen in festive life here. Like kilts in Scotland, or Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii, they are worn on formal or ceremonial occasions even though they are not, strictly speaking, formal attire.

The band continued to play as bride and groom visited with their guests, danced, posed for pictures and embraced, all with the easy grace of the self-assured. Musicians and guests were gathered under the wide canopy of a horse chestnut tree, its twisted, bulging branches and knotted roots attesting to its long years of service. Globes covered in orange cloth illuminated from within hung from its branches. They were suspended around a single, much larger, white globe that shone like a low-hanging moon as the evening progressed. The band’s violinist, accompanied by a guitar, upright bass and accordion, started out with popular and traditional songs then, improvising, transformed the familiar airs into lively polkas and waltzes.

The sun, now out of sight, still cast gold on the fissured limestone faces of the mountains and on the soft, undulating waves. Slowly the light faded. As the bridal party danced, we – along with other diners, all apparently tourists – celebrated with them, lingering over beer and apricot schnapps. At length the mountains were dark silhouettes against a paler blue, glowing sky. From the tallest peak – Dachstein – a single bright light shone. Under the white globe, the bassist began singing, in English, Brown-Eyed Girl.

‘Do you remember when we used to sing,
Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.’

The wedding guests danced, while we, an uninvited audience, bobbed back and forth in our seats, dancing with them.


And then the musicians put away their instruments. The bride stood and thanked them and her guests, inviting them into the gasthaus across the way. Himself thought he heard the word ‘Disco’.

‘We could always gatecrash that,’ he said.

But we didn’t. We paid the bill and walked through the quiet narrow streets and through the now-deserted Marktplatz to our hotel, let ourselves in the front door and crept up the dark stairs to our bed.

‘Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.’


  1. Beautiful! Weddings are so different here, often casual, low key yet festive...

    Lederhosen used to be the everyday attire of young boys until the mid seventies or so. My mom loved them for my brother because they did not need washing, just wiping down with a damp cloth and because they were virtually indestructible. No worn knees, no torn seats.

  2. It was wonderful to witness the celebration, festive yet natural. A lovely day altogether.