The Pearl of Austria
The village of Hallstatt describes itself as ‘the pearl of
Austria’ because it’s such a beautiful and unique place. It’s in the
mountainous, south-eastern corner of the country in the area known as the
‘Salzkammergut’ – roughly, ‘the good salt cellar’. The area is so-called
because for centuries salt was mined here.
You can reach Hallstatt by road, driving south from a starting point such as
Salzburg through a series of tunnels cut through the rock of the mountains. But
without doubt the best way to travel to the village is by train, south from Bad
Ischl, off the Vienna/Salzburg main line. This is because probably one of the
most dramatic and memorable aspects of a visit to Hallstatt is simply arriving.
The village is on the western side of a long lake, the Hallstattersee, nestling
on a narrow strip of land between the water and the mountains that rise steeply
above it. There is direct road access to the village through a tunnel, but no
room for a rail station. The station is on the far side of the lake. When you
get off, you and your luggage will be ushered aboard a ferry to take you across
to Hallstatt proper.
It’s a wonderful trip across the lake. Hallstatt is a
picture-postcard alpine village, unspoiled in ever sense. The sharp spire of
the church sticks up like a flagpole from the crowded mass of houses, their low
wooden eaves, balconies and terraces jutting out over the lake. The ferry lands
you at a large jetty right by the church, adjacent to the village square and
its fountain. There are several great cafés in the square which will be happy
to serve you a traditional Austrian midday snack of kaffee und küche (coffee
and cakes) if you feel the need for some refreshment after your train journey.
The tourist information bureau is also in the square.
One of the great strengths of Hallstatt from a traveler’s point
of view is its pensions – small bed and breakfast establishments usually run by
families. There are hotels in the village, but taking a bed and breakfast room
can be a far better way of sampling authentic Austrian village life. You
shouldn’t need to book too far in advance to secure a good room, although if
you’d like one with a balcony and a lake view it’s probably worthwhile making
some phone calls a week or so in advance.
There are lots of interesting things to do in Hallstatt. The village is famous
as the site of a prehistoric settlement that was rediscovered in the nineteenth
century. Bronze Age people settled in the area because of the abundance of
salt, and they left behind them evidence of their lives which has survived down
the centuries. You can see some of the archaeological excavations that are
taking place underneath Janu, a small sports shop in the village. Information
about opening times and accessibility can be obtained from the tourist
While you’re in the village you might be interested to find out
a little more about the priceless substance that brought people here in the
first place – salt. Salt’s a lot more interesting than you might think: a
dispute over salt-mining rights in this region led to war between local nobles
in the thirteenth century. The Hallstatt Salt Worlds museum takes you deep
underground into the old mine workings. If you have kids to entertain and you
think that sounds dull, think again. One option for accessing the lower levels
of the mine is to slide down the super-smooth wooden miners’ slide. Once you’re
down there you can see a fantastic subterranean lake illuminated by atmospheric
lighting, plus all kinds of interesting exhibits and displays explaining what
it was like to work as a salt miner.
All that has probably left you pretty hungry! There are several
great eating venues in Hallstatt village, all of them serving superb
traditional Austrian food with local wine and beer. Owing to the village’s
relative closeness to the Italian, German and Swiss borders, the influence of
these nation’s cooking can be noticed - especially in the form of pasta. One or
two restaurants offer terraced seating next to the lake. However, if you can
cope with eating inside, probably the best dining experience in the village is
the Bråugasthof Lobisser – a family-run business which offers a range of
exquisitely-prepared tradition Austrian dishes.
Hallstatt is one of the most beautiful villages in the world,
and one that has been relatively unspoiled by the tourist trade. The locals are
exceptionally proud of the place. If you ever visit you’ll see why. With such a
wonderful setting you’ll remember Hallstatt for ever, and probably want to keep
coming back to ‘the pearl of Austria’!