Austria 2016

Day 1

With several time critical connections ahead of us, an hour’s delay at Stansted felt as if it would influence the whole journey , but such is Austrian efficiency that we did in fact catch the intended train, and in the end our journey of car, aeroplane, trolley bus, 2 trains and a ferry all went like clockwork. And so we left at home in Kent a Whitsun holiday just confirmed as colder than Christmas, and arrived in Hallstatt.. in the rain!!

The single track railway between Attnam Puccheim and Hallstatt is terrific, hugging lakesides and river banks as it snakes between the mountains, some snow capped, ambling between quintessential Austrian Alpine villages, all impeccably neat and tidy.

And so we come to Hallstatt by boat across the lake, just as the heavens open. We are forced inside the little ferry, and thunder rolls around. We are the T shirts amongst the coats.

But despite the weather there is no denying the amazing scenery as the ferry chugs from railway station across to the town.

Hallstatt nestles between the Dachstein mountain range and the lake, and is very very quaint, though tourism makes its mark here, clearly. Unusually for a remote location, the place is full of Japanese, more cameras and selfie sticks per square metre than we’ve ever seen!!

Now though we sit here on our first evening, most of the Japanese vanished, the flat calm lake peaceful, the Alps towering above us, local beers in our hands.

With a week’s exploration ahead of us…

Day 2

img_1993 Today’s dominant word turns out to be …rain. We had read before we travelled of extensive flooding round here, so much so that we had emailed ahead to check all was ok, only to receive a rather nonplussed response from both hotels, along the “what flooding?” line. So far we have seen no evidence other than the fact the young fast flowing mountain rivers seem rather full…..oh, and the fact that it keeps raining.

We start today intent on a trek along the lake shoreline , but the drizzle starts the moment we leave our Gasthof after breakfast, and so we delay the trek and instead dive in to a few shops to give the rain a chance to pass through. We emerge, only to find the rain is now much heavier, and so we disappear into a coffee shop until it passes through. We emerge, only to find it is now teeming down, so the museum is our next refuge.

Actually the museum turns out to be fascinating. Hallstatt has two major places in history; one as a major site of geological significance, the other a long history of salt mining which has brought wealth to the region for centuries. The mix of ancient artefacts and the use of modern technology is spot on, and as a result the museum is stimulating and informative in equal measure.

Back outside, the Japanese are braving what is now just a drizzle again, and we start our walk through an eye level obstacle course of brollies, zoom lenses and selfie sticks. And suddenly we are alone, surrounded by tall pines, edging around the lake and even the greyness of the day could not mask the beauty of this place. The waters are still and clear, the vegetation lush and green, the mountains towering above, pockets of snow still nestling in numerous gulleys high above us and, strangest of all, candy floss clouds hanging impossibly low down the mountainside, giving the appearance of giant smoke plumes, bellowing from roaring log fires from the chimneys of these picturesque houses, an eerie and atmospheric cloak drifting just above the tree tops.

With great fortune, the serious rain arrives just after we’ve stopped for a beer at Obertraun. Torrential, heaving rain obliterating the view across the lake. Hallstatt vanished in the murk as the weather completely closed in and swallowed everything. Time for lunch, then train and boat home; no point walking in weather this bad.

This evening we meet Sharron, an English lady running a shop in the village. She tells us that a leading light of the community passed away last week and there is to be a big funeral party on Wednesday. She also gives us a copy of her first novel, published just recently.

We learnt last night that Hallstatt is not a late night place; restaurants stop taking orders around 8.30 and an hour later the town has fallen in to silence. Our early dinner is good traditional local fayre, trout from the lake and braised beef with hot horseradish.

Day 3

After such an early night we wake at first light to see sunlight tinting the mountain tops orange; then wake again to find the mountains vanished behind thick cloud once more; then finally to clear blue sky and glorious sunshine. Promising!!

Hallstatt isn’t the first occasion we have developed an opinion on the rudeness of Japanese tourists, and our opinions are, well, less than complimentary. Except this time we are embarrassed by our own ignorance as it turns out the people here are all Chinese and not Japanese at all! And there is a bizzarre story behind their presence. Apparently, having discovered and fallen in love with Hallstatt some years ago, the Chinese people have built an exact replica town in China, the whole town recreated somewhere deep in their own country! Such was the publicity over in China which surrounded this bizzarre creation of a mirror town, that masses of Chinese have since its creation wanted to come and visit the original setting, and as a result there are more than 200,000 overnight stays by Chinese visitors each year, here in this remote Austrian corner. All slightly bizarre!!

After breakfast we head first up to the salt mine via the very steep funicular railway, we feel high above the town when we arrive, though it is nothing compared to what is to follow. We donned our protective clothing and, looking a bit like convicts on the chain gang, we hurtled down the wooden slide the miners used to use, to the mineshafts below. Salt has been mined here for an incredible 7,000 years, and some of the finds here have shaped our knowledge of the history of mankind. Such is the importance of the discoveries here that there is a period of geological history simply called the “Hallstatt Period”. Like the museum yesterday, this is all quite fascinating.

When we emerge, the weather is still glorious and so we start our long trek up the mountain. It is truly fabulous, though some of the climbs are tough going, we rise higher and higher above the lake, through Alpine meadows and pine forests, sometimes rocky, sometimes incongruous marshy areas way up the mountain. We are close to the snowy caps, the air is cold though the sun is still hot. The last climb to the summit of Scheidkogel was seriously hard, but we made it, and stood, 1,552 metres up, right on the rocky summit, looking down at the lake, so so far below. Absolutely exhilarating! Wonderful views, the lake way below, the snow line opposite. Fabulous. And well worth the effort- views like this are why you climb a mountain!!

We end the day with a couple of scruffy beers and make it home just before the next thunder storm comes raging through the valley, and the heavens open once more…..

Day 4

Time to discuss beer and food. We’ve started each evening at Marktbeisl zur Ruth, partly because it’s a locals’ bar right in the Market square, partly because it seems to be the only actual “bar” in Hallstatt! Like in Germany, smoking in bars is still the norm here. The beers consumed so far have been the rather amusingly named “Hallstatt – Das Bier” ( Hallstatt – The Beer), Zipfer, Gosser, Attersee and then Stiegl beer from Salzburg. Apart from Zipfer, they aren’t as gassy as German beers, and Hallstatt Das Bier in particular is pretty good.

The food here is hearty, good and fresh but very repetitive, meat or fish, with a mound of potatoes, very little veg. In fact, it is very hard to get your 5 a day. Unless you mean 5 types of sausage of course.
After yesterday’s climb, and another one tomorrow, our plan today is an easy flat walk around the Northern half of the lake – well, probably two thirds rather than half. It’s hot all day, the sun never once goes behind clouds, and the temperatures soar. It is, simply, a beautiful day. The lakeside walk is beautiful too, though a bit longer than we’d allowed for, and sunshine snoozes on the grass are on the agenda, as is lunch at a lakeside Gasthof. Having intended taking it easy, we are pretty shattered by the end of what turns out to be a more than 6 hour trek.

We were told this morning that today will be the best weather of the week; well, we made the most of it and enjoyed a long day in the sun, even though we ache a bit now.

Day 5

We are greeted by another beautiful morning and call in first at the Beinhaus, next to the Catholic church. Its geography means that Halstatt has limited space, even in the graveyard. So for decades the bodies were only buried for a short time; they were then disinterred and the skulls first painted with the deceased’s name and date of death, then stored here in the Beinhaus. The result is a bizzarre collection of row upon row of grinning eyeless skulls, sorted in family order.

 

We take the ferry, then walk to Obertraun, meaning we’ve now walked the perimeter of the entire lake, and on up to Wasserfallwald, not by any means our biggest climb, but fabulous views of the lake looking directly North from the Southern tip. Obertraun was like a model railway set way down below.

Over a great lunch (goulash, frankfurters, radishes), we watch an utterly charming natural scene as a mother duck teaches her nine chicks how to dive, how to climb out the lake, how to preen. She leads, they follow. It’s utterly endearing to watch.

 A boat back to Hallstatt, its 4pm and we head to market bar for a well earned beer. Today is the day of the funeral which Sharron told us about. The bar is full of people waiting. The church bells ring out, everyone disappears leaving us in an eerie silence with the lady in charge of the bar. Silence is broken, a brass band appear in the main square; we stand outside the bar in silent respect and watch the event unfold, music and a never ending trail of mourners following the meadow flower covered coffin , they disappear into the church. The bar lady is sobbing next to us. We go to the cafe across the square for coffee. The congregation re-appear, and the priest offers more words out in the square. The square itself is full of people, black suits next to men dressed in lederhosen, women in national dress, alpine hats adorned with feathers as they queue to lay a flower in the hearse and pay last respects, so atmospheric, so emotional. More people than can possibly live here, many in tears. She was the local GP. She was 57. We both shed a tear. You can’t help it. And tonight, after dinner we are in the bar with the locals as they raise a toast.

Day 6

We have read Sharron’s story; the lady who gave us her book on Monday. It’s autobiographical, taking us through a terrible life experience she has endured; Sharron needs to share it, not least because her life is still in danger from the predators who for a while took over her life. The more people who know her story, the more that threat is reduced. It’s “Spiked” by Sharron Gold if you want to know more.

Our hotelier told us in advance that the weather would not be so good today so we have made plans, but boy is it a bad day. It was pouring when we woke up, it’s pouring now just before dinner, and it hasn’t stopped once in between. The clouds have been like fog all day, enveloping the town and obliterating all views, and now, after so much rain, the Hallstatt waterfall, the ever present backdrop to this picturesque place, is crashing through the village with considerable force, and noise. It’s all you can hear, anywhere in the village.

So today our destination to avoid the rain is underground, exploring the caves deep inside the Dachstein massif. It’s a good choice, first the ice cave with its incredible natural ice sculptures, which is stunning, and the history is awe inspiring; these caves were formed millions of years ago when the seas were thousands of feet higher than today. And next the “Mammuthhohle”, one of the most extensive labyrinth cave networks in the World. It is an amazing place to visit, like stepping into a different world. We are reminded of “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth” all those years ago. Fascinating. Educational. Cold. Dry!!!

The cable car ride up to the caves is notable for only one reason; in just seconds we are into the low hanging cloud and we can see…..nothing!! And we mean nothing!!

img_2012Now tonight we are sheltering in the bar in the old mill house, by the raging stream, just us and six local blokes on the beer. We are given a free sample of the local firewater, we assume its a schnapps but we are just told it’s “medicine”, it’s alright though.

It’s just after 8 as we go for dinner. Culture round here is odd, it’s 8.15 on a Thursday night and just about everywhere is closed, there is literally a choice between one restaurant and the hot dog van!! But at least the one open restaurant is good, and the meal is excellent. And now it’s dark but the cloud has lifted, the waters of the lake are inky black and dead still. The rain has, at last, gone.

And so ends our last day in Hallstatt, we move on to the beautiful city of Salzburg tomorrow

Day 7

Summer returns to Hallstatt from first light and this lovely village and emerald lake are swathed in warm sunshine as we head up to the waterfall for our last walk. And it’s well worth it, the water is fierce from yesterday’s downpour as it cascades hundreds of feet down the mountain, and the views from the top are spectacular, especially on a day like this.

We say goodbye and auf wiedersehen to Sharron and the lady in the bar (we never did ask her name), and board the ferry. We have to admit that wanderlust has set in and, lovely as Hallstatt is, we are ready to leave.

The train journey is again spectacular as we trundle through the mountains, past the lakes, across the meadows, and then, on the Inter City, speed smoothly into Salzburg.

Laiden with our backpacks we soon found our hotel, very central and then began our first tour of Salzburg. Phil had said it was beautiful and very soon I could see why. Historic houses at every turn, the Hohensalzburg castle dominating the city perched high on a rock, a backdrop of hilly meadows. And then the music, beautiful classical music filling the streets and the chimes of bells from the numerous churches filling the air. This is truly a beautiful and atmospheric place and these first impressions would inspire anyone. It’s a beautiful, cultural city and its history dominated by Mozart gives it a unique character.

Can’t wait to find out more.


Day 8

Earlier in the week, in Hallstatt, we enjoyed a starter of trout’s liver; last night’s restaurant had an entire section of menu entitled “innards for connoisseurs “, from which Michaela chose beef heart as her main dish. Before and after the meal we unearth some of Salzburg’s great bars, including the rustic bar at the Hotel Stadtkrug and a fabulous tiny cramped blues/rock bar run by an eccentric and manic Greek guy. We watch as he dims the lights, turns the music down, and tells the crowd outside he’s closing; once they are gone, the music and the lights are back up and the booze starts flowing again and the handful of us left in the bar start to forget the outside World! Now and again he comes and kisses Michaela on the cheek. It’s the best night of the holiday, by far!

And now a day to explore this wonderful city. We walk around the Mirabell gardens, the scent from the rose gardens filling the air adding to the romance of the city; the view towards the fortress fantastic. Surely Captain von Trapp and Maria will appear any minute…

We cross the fast flowing Salzach and climb to the Hohensalzburg fortress, pausing on the way to experience a special Salzburg moment as the multiple churches chime their midday chimes, we just stand and look across this beautiful city and let the unique sound wash over us. This really is a very romantic place.

The fortress is truly enchanting, perched on top of an Alpine foothill, dominating the surroundings and providing the ideal defence for the city. Salzburg has been a wealthy city since salt was first mined here,and therefore has long since needed protection, and the Hohensalzburg certainly provided it. The fortress is well preserved and is a fascinating tour. We lap up every minute, also true of the beer house and dining room in the shadow of the fortress where we take our lunch…

Austria must be one of the only, if not THE only country of the World where the traditional national costume is still worn as a matter of course; without fail you see ladies in dirndl dresses and men in lederhosen every day, young and old alike, just dressed that way going about their everyday life. It’s rather endearing.

img_2018Its our last night here, we are in a fantastic traditional restaurant, food is good and the buzz of the Salzburgers is deafening. If you can find one of these traditional dining rooms, they really are the best places to be if you want to get Austria. It’s all good.

Salzburg is a truly beautiful city, with so much to offer. It is charming, romantic, and kind of magical. It is a joy to be here.

And another trip now comes to a close…