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The Pearl of Austria

Hallstatt, 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.

Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria 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.

Hallstatt, Austria
Hallstatt, Austria 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 information bureau.

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’!

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