Associate Editor Bruce Woelfel reports on the lakeside village of Hallstatt in Austria, inhabited for more than 3,000 years and often referred to as a "Cradle of Civilization." He visits ancient salt mines, is locked out of his hotel and finds several inexpensive lodgings.
The unique lakeside city of Hallstatt doesn't seem to fit the resort mold. It is a tourist town whose hotels have no elevators; a mountain retreat without ski trails. It is traversed by one narrow road - restricted to residents and delivery vehicles - which is regulated by five-minute stoplights at each end of town. And its train station is on the opposite shore of a large lake.
But Hallstatt's charm overcomes all. Consider my first approach to the town. After climbing down with three other passengers from a local train, we found no platform, only a small building, a stationmaster and a gravel path down a green hillside. Enclosed by trees, we descended the hill until we reached a small boat landing where suddenly were revealed pine covered, white-tipped mountains rising steeply from all sides of a blue-green lake. A mile across, a little storybook-like town spread along the shore. Two large churches and a few hotels stood out against the mountainous terrain.
Soon a white launch appeared, rippling the glassy surface. A dog of mixed breed charged off, barking, smelled us and was rewarded with petting. I paid the mate 30 schillings as we headed across, the dog nuzzling, the captain warning him to behave. As we came closer the town was even more picturesque, hugging the narrow shoreline.
An amazing place: Hallstatt's striking element is its closeness to the precipitous mountain and the alpine-style houses, hotels, and a large church clinging to it; buildings literally climbing vertical rock walls, tight against the cliff. My first thought was that I didn't know how people endure walking up the many steps every time they come home (and most houses, I learned later, are heated with wood, thus requiring the portage of heavy logs in addition to groceries).
This is a very small town, only 1,000 full time residents, although 500 students take up some of the off-season slack. Near the cobblestoned main square, enclosed by several rustic inns, are a bar, grocery store, souvenir shops, bank, tourist office, post office, and a boat hire service, as well as a couple of small parking lots. The dominant sound is from a waterfall flowing down the mountainside in back of the buildings and out through a rock-lined channel to the Lake. Engine noises from approaching cars herald themselves minutes in advance. Sitting at a terraced restaurant facing the lake and sipping a glass of wine, I am enveloped by a deep sense of peace. Nearby, white swans and electric boats ply slowly back and forth. The late sun illuminates the mountains, white snow glistens on their tops.
Later I explore. The town is traversed by only one 10-12 foot wide road and there is little traffic except between 6 and 10 a.m. when a few delivery trucks enter. There are many spaces seemingly too small for vehicles of normal size. Next morning I watched a beverage delivery truck barely squeeze through a narrow alley underneath overhanging balconies, only inches to spare on all sides.
To the north for a kilometer or so the road is lined with guest houses and restaurants overlooking the lake, including a pizzeria and a bakery (the only place in town for early coffee). Beyond is a gated barrier with a stoplight allowing five minutes for traffic in each direction and displaying the remaining time before the next light change. Entry is limited to residents and guests who have already arranged for rooms or who do so by using the nearby phone. The main highway bypasses Hallstatt, plunging into two one-lane tunnels which emerge at the other end of town.
South of the main square the road passes between houses clinging to slopes above and terraced down to the lake below. Space for new buildings is scarce. On the upslope side I looked at an addition being carved into the hill. New stone walls enclosed a circular flight of stone steps built against a wall of vertical rock. The living space gained was tiny, only a small room two floors above. Nearby, a huge stone church sat 100 feet higher than the road, more steps leading up to it.
Few speak English fluently. Some know a few words here and there, others none at all. When I sat down on the terrace of a lakeside restaurant, a young waiter appeared and my German vocabulary (minuscule under the best conditions) deserted me. "Vino? Vin? Wine? Every language except German. He looked blank (perhaps he was from Turkey?) and left, returning with the owner who listened to my request: "I would like a glass of white wine." "Okay," he said and returned a couple of minutes later with a glass of red wine. But it didn't matter, because this is a unique and charming place.
Night life is limited: in some of the hotels during summer there are rock groups and folkloric dancing. Various activities may be enjoyed during the day. Besides the electric boats, there are 1 1/2 hour round trips on a motor boat for 70 AS ($6.5). The water is cool for swimming (maximum 65 degrees Fahrenheit), but with the use of a wet-suit scuba diving is an option. A diving school in a building near the main square also rents rooms and maintains a restaurant. The lake waters are very clear (all waste is piped far away). In the past, archaeological treasures and some post World War II relics have been retrieved, including a large amount of five-pound sterling notes expertly counterfeited by the Nazis in preparation for their projected invasion of Britain.
The small, town museum has some fascinating remains of Hallstatt's prehistoric past, during the Bronze Age, more than 1000 years before Christ: chisels, ornaments and knives and evidence of salt-trading in that time. Also bones and mining implements plus a leather hat and jewelry from the "Hallstatt Period" 800-400 B.C. Some of these treasures were taken from the lake, others from the salt mines above, where more than 2000 graves were found and recorded in the late 19th century.
Salt Mine Excursion
My visit to the salt mines, operated since 1100 B.C., was a memorable experience. The tour lasts close to two hours and costs about $15 (half that with a coupon obtainable by hotel guests). Don't attempt it unless you are prepared for some rather strenuous exercise (as well as a considerable amount of fun).
After a 10-minute walk outside the north barrier, I reached the funicular and ascended 1000 feet up the mountain. From here I walked five minutes up a steep path to a building where, after buying my ticket, about 30 young and middle-aged, mostly German-speaking, tourists and I were shown into a sort of locker room where we donned cloth trousers and coats over our clothes. Although there were various sizes, nothing fit properly and everyone enjoyed a laugh at the results.
Valuables checked, but retaining my folding umbrella (it poured all day), we walked uphill to the mine entrance. With much joking and more laughter everybody straddled a wooden train, legs and torso tight against the person in front, and we were powered for 10 minutes through the narrow tunnel, heads down and legs close together to avoid being bumped. This was followed by a walk through a narrower shaft lit by electric lanterns, the taller members of our party (including myself) ducking and bowing to keep heads intact.
Next, in a sitting position, we slid down a wooden slide, everyone having a joyous time, to a room where guides lectured in German and Italian about the mines history (one hopes that during tourist season the lecture will include English). Then, we ascended circular stairs along more shaft, to a theater-like space where a video (earphones with English spoken) described modern salt mining methods.
We were then shown an underground lake 1/4 mile in diameter which gleamed blackly in the dim light, reflecting the uneven ceiling. The lights were then turned off momentarily so that we could enjoy the total darkness. Then more steps, a long circular stairway up to a display of miners from 1100-400 B.C.: a tall Celt with platinum blond hair and a very tired looking smaller man from a later period lugging rock salt chopped out of the mine, which was then carried down the mountain by women and floated away by barge to the Danube river. A very precious material salt; over the years forests have been cut to obtain it and wars fought over it.
The tour ended with more walks through passageways, another straddle-train, and out again to doff our "mining clothes" and return to town.
Hotels & Guest Houses
None of Hallstatt's hotels have elevators, although assistance with luggage is usually available to those who request it. High season is July 15-September 15. Prices are about 10% lower at other times of the year. Visitors may call in from the barriers at either end of town, obtain a room and get permission to bring in a car. There is some parking in the tunnel, some in the town proper and some at the barriers. Hotels give out a card for half-price admission to the salt mine and caves.
Hotel Grüner Baum
This is the best hotel, the friendliest and also the most expensive. It has the nicest rooms, including the only bathtubs in town (the others have showers). Except for Grüner Baum, guesthouses don't take major credit cards. Karin Jungmair, the owner, will provide money on Visa and other cards to meet bills at other guest houses when the bank is closed. Room Number two, a double with two separate beds, has a huge tub and a balcony with a lake view. Number 23 is a large double corner room with lakeview on two sides, large bathroom with huge tub, European beds (two mattresses, one headboard). Number 32 is a family apartment, two connected rooms and a lakeside terrace, with sofa and easy chairs in living room, suitable for four persons. Number five, a single, has its own terrace.
* Address: Hotel Grüner Baum, Marktplatz 104, A-4830 Hallstatt
* Phone: 06134/263
* Fax: 06134/420
* Location: On main square
* Rooms: 20 doubles, two singles
* Proprietor: Karin Jungmair
* Prices: Singles 750-850 AS ($71-$81), doubles 1500-1700 AS ($143-$162). Doubles rented as singles cost 850 AS ($81).
* A family apartment for four is 2000 AS ($175) including buffet breakfast
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: Writing room, outdoor terrace
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: November 1-Dec 22
* Parking: Outdoor adjacent to building. No charge
* Rating: Above Average 14/20
An old building with restaurant, built in 1472. Present management took over in 1850, ran it as a brewery until 1917, then converted it to a hotel. Average sized doubles with toilet and shower 700-760 AS ($67-$72) including breakfast. European beds, small windows looking out on lake, chairs, no desk. Renovated old furniture.
The restaurant, which is closed in winter, is typical of Hallstatt in style and price. A meal consisting of asparagus cream soup, pork cutlet, potatoes, mixed salad and fresh fruit was 145 AS ($14). Ravioli in gorgonzola cheese with salad was 115 AS ($11). Steak with potatoes cost 125 AS ($12). A daily special of pork cutlet, veal sausage, noodles and sauerkraut was 125 AS ($12).
* Address: Bräu Gasthof, Seestrasse 120, A-4830 Hallstatt
* Phone: 061 34/221
* Location: Near main square
* Rooms: 10 doubles
* Proprietor: Familie Lobisser
* Prices: 700-760 AS ($67-$72) including breakfast
* Meals: All available in restaurant with outside lake terrace.
* Facilities: Meeting room for 200
* Credit cards: Not accepted
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: November-April
* Parking: Outside spaces available at no charge
* Rating: Average 10/20
Originally a theater and partially destroyed in a fire in 1750, then rebuilt. Became a hotel in 1880. Last renovated in 1979 and full of antiques. Rather dark rooms. Some have doors of head bumping height. Average sized doubles with windows facing lake 500 to 800 AS ($48-$76). Less expensive doubles, like Number 12, have a toilet and shower shared by two rooms. Number two, a double for 600 AS ($57) has shower and toilet down the hall but a good lake view. Number nine, a corner double for 750 AS ($71) has toilet and shower, a view of the town square, and four beds.
* Address: Gasthof Simony, Markt 105, A-4830 Hallstatt
* Phone: 061 34/231
* Location: Near the main square
* Rooms: Two singles, 10 doubles
* Proprietor: Familie Scheutz
* Prices: Singles 300 AS ($29), doubles 500-800 AS ($48-$76) with breakfast
* Meals: All available but restaurant under separate management
* Facilities: Common room
* Credit cards: None
* Parking: Free public garage, five-minute walk from hotel
* Rating: Average 9/20
This excellent pension is Gemütlichkeit's pick as the place to stay in Hallstatt. A private house more than 100 years old, it was extensively renovated and became a guest house in 1936. A continental breakfast is served on the lowest floor in a room facing the lake and an outdoor patio from which a diving board projects over the water.
Number 14 is a lovely lakeside double of average size with a balcony with chairs and table. The bathroom has a small "sitz bath" tub with shower. Rates are 280 AS ($27) single and 560 ($53) double. Number seven, another nice double, priced at 200 AS ($19) single and 400 AS ($38) double, also has a balcony with lake view, though the bath is down the hall. The shared bathrooms are exceptionally clean and nice. Upon arrival by car, contact Frau Fisher by phone.
* Address: Haus Sarstein, A-4830 Hallstatt 83
* Phone: 06134/217
* Location: On the main road near the main square
* Rooms: One single, 12 doubles, three with bath
* Proprietor: Frau Fisher
* Prices: Single 280 AS ($27), doubles 400-560 AS ($38-$53) with breakfast
* Meals: Breakfast only
* Facilities: Outdoor terrace on lake
* Credit cards: Not accepted
* Disabled: Not suitable
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Public garage, a 10-minute walk from hotel
* Rating: Above average 14/20 G $
Not recommended without changes. Amazing as it may seem, the hotel is routinely closed from 3 to 5 p.m. When I got there, though I had reserved ahead and informed the hotel of my approximate arrival time, the Zauner was locked. I searched for a way to get in. One entrance led up a flight of stairs to two locked doors appearing to be a kitchen and a restaurant. On the ground floor was a locked "reception room." The only unlocked door led to a toilet. After a wait of half an hour, during which I made futile inquires in a nearby grocery store as to the whereabouts of the hotel's manager, a man finally appeared and asked, "You want room?" I was led up two flights of stairs to an 8' x 10' single room so small my opened suitcase nearly blocked its entrance. The room's best feature was a balcony overlooking the lake. It also had a small desk, bed and small bath with shower. The reading light was poor, and there was no hot water the last night when I wished to shower. Breakfast is not served until 8 a.m., inconvenient for early risers.
Worse, the Zauner wasn't particularly friendly (although they arranged to get money from my Visa when I left). The young waitress in the breakfast room was sulky and grim. Initially, she told me where to sit but then moved me twice and never once smiled. When I left early in the morning no one was around and the front door was again locked. After a moment of panic, I used my room key to escape.
The restaurant is reputed to be the best in town, but my dinner was mediocre. "Gypsy brochette" was liver, bacon and sausage on a skewer with rice and a spicy red sauce. The rolls were good and the meal cheap, 110 AS ($10).
Single rooms rent for 490-560 AS ($47-$53) and doubles for 980-1020 AS ($93-$97).
* Gasthof Zauner
* Hotel Rating: Unacceptable 3/20
* Restaurant Rating: Adequate 6/20
Gasthaus zur Mühle (Youth Hostel)
An attractive, inexpensive hostel. It has a typical Austrian restaurant with plenty of good food: pasta dishes $6-$7, soups $2.50-$3.50, pizzas $6-$8.50 (bacon and onions), mixed grill $10 and roast venison $11.50.
Rooms can be rented with from three to 20 beds.
* Address: Gasthaus zur Mühle, Kirchenweg 36, A-4830 Hallstatt
* Phone: 06134/318
* Location: Close to the main square
* Rooms: 60 Beds
* Proprietor: Family Toro
* Prices: 110 AS/bed ($10) plus $3 extra for sheets and blankets, $3.50 for breakfast.
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: Restaurant
* Credit Cards: Not accepted
* Parking: Call from gate for instructions
* Hotel Rating: Adequate 7/20 $
* Restaurant Rating: Average 9/20 $
Altitude: 1,677 feet
Hallstatt Lake: 1,667 feet above sea level, 5 miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 684 meters deep. Clear mountain water - abundant fish stocks.
Approximate rail distance and travel times from:
* Graz 205 km - 128 mi 6.0 hrs
* Innsbruck 332 km - 207 mi 4.5 hrs
* Salzburg 136 km - 85 mi 2.0 hrs
* Vienna 311 km - 194 mi 4.0 hrs
* Munich 289 km - 180 mi 3.5 hrs
* Frankfurt 747 km - 465 mi 7.0 hrs
* Zürich 607 km - 378 mi 8.5 hrs
* Postfach 7
* A-4830 Hallstatt, Austria
* Telephone 6134-352
* 1000-500 B.C. - The "Hallstatt Period." Artifacts from this time are on display in the town's museum of prehistory.
* 1284 - The Rudolfsturm, named after the first Hapsburg, Rudolf I, was built by his son, Albrecht, as a defense tower to protect the Hallstatt salt mine. One of the oldest buildings of the Hapsburg reign.
* 1311 - Hallstatt salt mine reopened and new salt laws approved after the death of Albrecht. On the 21st of January, 1311, the citizens of Hallstatt were granted market privileges.
* 1504 - Emperor Maximilian I traveled through the Salzkammergut visiting the Hallstatt salt mines and the Rudolfsturm. Today an inscription commemorating this visit can be seen on the "inscribed stone," which is on the path to the mines.
* 1854 - On the 19th of September a number of graves in the old Hallstatt graveyard, especially rich in artifacts of the "Hallstatt Period," were opened in the presence of Emperor Franz Josef I and the Empress.
Places of Special Interest
* The Evangelical church and the Catholic parish church (with its magnificent carved Pacher-Astl Altar which is similar to the one in St. Wolfgang) in the idyllic surroundings of the Mountain Cemetery.
* The Prehistoric and Local Culture Museums with many finds from the Hallstatt Period.
* A visit to the oldest salt mine in the world (reached via the funicular railway to the Rudolfsturm and a 15 minute walk in the upper valley). You'll pass the historic Hallstatt graveyard.
* Jewelry shop with copies of "Hallstatt Period" jewelry.. Kunstgewerbe und Bootsverleih, Alois Riedler, Gosaumühlstrasse 98 (near the main square). Telephone 06134/320.