Hallstatt, the one in Austria

You’d know this village is a big deal when the other nation known for its thriving counterfeit culture has spared no cost or effort to ‘clone’ it in its entirety, right down to the littlest details like a church (though non-functioning) and exact replicas of homes. Homes that, in the real Hallstatt, actually have people living in them. Creepy much.

While Hallstatt v2.0 is no more than 5 years in existence, Hallstatt (pronounced ‘hull-shtatt’) is an ancient salt mine village by Hallstatt Lake dating way back, almost 3,000 years ago, and is renowned for its stunning scenery. In the context of this trip of ours, also not a terribly convenient place to insert between our stays in Vienna and Innsbruck: we ended backtracking quite a bit to get to Innsbruck next, something the mister was not mightily pleased over.

I have no regrets (except for not properly working out the sums to check if a Eurail Pass would have been worth investing in), even when no snow fell while we were there (when it should!). In fact, this trip coincided with one of the warmest winters Hallstatt ever saw. But Hallstatt is unlike some cities that can only look more picturesque when blanketed in a fresh layer of clean, white snow – its beauty is evident any time of the year, with or without the white flakes.

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We had a preview of how the Hallstatt’s scenery was going to look like as our train traversed around Austria’s mountainous Salzkammergut region before arriving at our destination. Miles and miles of Alpine houses built near fresh water bodies against the backdrop of rugged mountains (which should have been completely covered in snow) was what greeted us as we entered Salzkammergut. So tranquil and so picturesque… I envied the inhabitants and secretly wished I could live so close to nature, just like they do. On hindsight, I’d probably not last their harsh winters year in, year out though.

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Hallstatt train station is rather non-descript and absolutely not large by any standards. To be exact, it’s just a sheltered hut with one ticket machine and some seats inside. This is of course not where Hallstatt the village is situated. To get there, one has to walk down a steep gravel road to the ferry dock. The ferry schedule across the lake coincides with the train schedule hence it is with absolute certainty that a traveller who just alighted from the train would be able to board the ferry, at 2,50€ per pax, payable to the ferry operator directly. We were tardy (busy taking in the spectacular sight) and were among the last few to board the ferry almost 10 minutes after the train left but it didn’t seem like the ferry was in a hurry to leave. The ferry operator definitely waited till everyone who was supposed to get on the ferry got on before leaving the dock for a short 10-minute odd ride across Hallstatt Lake.

True to what they boast of, Seehotel Gruner Baum is very conveninently located at the market square, and a short easy 3-minute walk from the ferry dock. Unfortunately we were just a little too early for check-in. After depositing our luggage with the hotel, we casually explored the immediate vicinity while specifically searching for a museum that I read houses an impressive collection of historical relics related to Hallstatt.

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This flight of stairs with ‘Time Travel’ inscribed in 11 different languages (yay! I could read 6 of them) led us to the Hallstatt Museum. We entered the museum at a small discount of 7,00€ per pax, thanks to a card the hotel staff provided us with before he waved us along our way. I have to admit we were quite taken aback by the rather high price of the entrance fees. Guess we were thinking it would be a small museum like the Crime Museum in Rottenburg ob der Tauber since the museum did look small from its exterior facade. We couldn’t be more wrong in that estimate.

2015.12.27-Hallstatt-004 2015.12.27-Hallstatt-005The museum runs deep into the building, bringing us upstairs and downstairs. Suffice it to say that it is not a puny museum and it houses a very comprehensive collection of Hallstatt’s impressive history and development from the beginning. Simply put, I spent a very gratifying afternoon understanding the history of this lake village that most people know nothing of beyond its picturesque exterior and salt mining origins. I’d have to admit that I used to fall within that category too. Not anymore. 😀

We strolled back to the hotel after our visit at the museum, excited to check out our room with a balcony facing the lake, in part due to expectation of the view and in part due to how deep we have to dig into our pockets for this 2-night stay. It’s not our style to indulge in luxury accommodation; we prefer to stick with chic and understated boutique hotels or inns. Seehotel Gruner Baum is after all our 2nd Europe accommodation splurge after our apartment splurge at Vernazza, Cinque Terre hence my expectation was running high.

2015.12.27-Hallstatt-006 2015.12.27-Hallstatt-007 2015.12.27-Hallstatt-008And the room did not disappoint at all. A folder on the dressing table briefly explained the history of the hotel – it last went through a thorough refurbishment in 2005 and the hotel apologised if the water heater didn’t work quickly enough for our liking because it, being an old building in a protected area, meant that complete modernisation of the infrastructure wasn’t possible. I had no complaints with the hot water or the bathroom. And I loved everything about the spacious room furnished in old-world charm mixed with modernity.

Curious about the view from the balcony? Hehe. Just hang on a bit. I will touch on it towards the end of this post.
2015.12.27-Hallstatt-009The hotel is also home to Restaurant zum Salzbaron, a restaurant that serves up some really delectable Italian cuisine. I’m sure it also serves up some delish meats and fish, but for the 2 dinners we had while in Hallstatt, we were more interested in having pasta. I was especially pleased with the Pesto Fettucine I had on the second night.

While we were elated to have had such delicious pasta, we were less than delighted by the serving time. The kitchen seem overwhelmed on the first night, and we had to wait well over 30 minutes for our simple order of Schnitzel and Pasta, causing me to lose some precious photography time during the Blue Hour. For an amateur DSLR photographer who just discovered the function of bulb mode prior to the trip, it was disconcerting that I was left with lesser time to experiment with the most suitable camera setting for the mandatory night shot from the photo point to the northern end of the village. Good thing then, that I had the foresight to schedule a 2-night stay. 😆

As I foresaw, the pictures taken on the first night were not to my satisfaction for a variety of reasons: we were quite late and thus did not get my choice spots to set up the tripod during the short optimum time I could have captured the sky in deep blue hue. Trying again the next day was imperative then.
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The next morning, we left the vicinity of the market square to explore the rest of Hallstatt. Since it was winter, we couldn’t visit the salt mine, viewing platform or the ossuary. The first two I already knew will be closed before we embarked on this trip, but macabre as it sounds, I truly wished to see the crypt for myself. Bitterly disappointed that it was closed for the season too. If the opportunity ever presents itself again, it will not take much to convince me to revisit in warmer weather.

As a UNESCO Heritage Site, Hallstatt reminds me a lot of Cinque Terre. Especially the part where vehicular traffic is severely limited from entering. It wouldn’t take us more than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other end of the village but our stroll was interrupted multiple times when we stopped ever so oft to take pictures of the charming village at various angles. As it wasn’t peak tourist season the visitors strolling about was at a comfortable number, and not too obstrusive for the purpose of scenery photography. That was about to change, shortly. By the time we walked to the tourist centre at the southern side of the village, we saw the large parking space where several tour buses were dropping day visitors off. My jaw dropped; indeed I had underestimated the appeal, charm and fame of Hallstatt.

Good thing then, that we were headed in the opposite direction, towards the waterfall. Except that we didn’t quite make it in the end. We walked for an awfully long time through a quiet residential area towards the mountains, meeting no one along the way. It got visibly colder as we pushed on, till we finally spotted a sign and were glad that the waterfall is reachable in 30 minutes. But true to my whiny nature, it was not long before I started complaining and questioning the accuracy of a sign like this – time taken is dependent on length of strides, pace etc. and will be inaccurate in winter when movement would be severely impeded due to snow, slush or ice. In spite of my grouses, we walked on for a further 45 minutes but did not hear any sound that indicated there was a waterfall nearby. It was also getting too cold for comfort. The mister made a call for us to turn back. He thought the waterfall might have froze over during winter; I didn’t think it was possible but it was a fact we couldn’t hear anything, and waterfalls are supposed to be notoriously loud. We retraced our steps and proceeded northwards once again, towards the market square and beyond to the photo point.

After taking some day shots at the photopoint, we climbed upwards to the Catholic parish church and were once again dismayed to confirm that the famous Bone House was closed for the season. Wanting to ascend further for a vantage view of Hallstatt from the top, we followed the same trail that led us up to the church, not exactly knowing where the upward trail would eventually lead to. Nevertheless, we pressed on since our wandering feet were not contented with calling it a day. And we were rewarded with a different scenic view of Hallstatt:

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After the refreshing – and somewhat treacherous at some spots – walk, we were ready to take the pace down a notch. We wound down at a cafe steps away from the ferry dock before returning to the room to freshen up. It was going to be a long night at the photo point.

We make a good partnership, the mister and I. Whilst I possess much of the technical know-hows on how to operate a DSLR and take a good picture, I sometimes get too overhwelmed by all the ‘rules’ that I tend to forget a keen eye is first and foremost the most important aspect of a good photograph. I’ve also noticed that more often that not, the first shot that I take based on instincts tend to turn out the best despite repeated attempts to ‘better’ the first short. Truth is, to a certain extent, a good eye (and good luck to be at the right place at the right time) trumps even the most sophisticated image-capturing gadget in existence. The mister, on the other hand, possesses a very keen eye for good shots. Our great partnership was put to good use at the photo point during dusk.

After numerous tries using different settings while freezing our asses off, we managed some great shots. The struggle is very real.

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Back in the room later in the night after a late dinner, I set up the tripod in our balcony and attempted a time-laspsed shot of the starry night sky. Since Hallstatt is relatively dark in the night with no ambient light from the ground to pollute the picture, I supposed it was a good time to try taking star trails.

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The result simply blew me over. My naked eye could see some stars in the dark sky, but not so much as captured in the shot. Goes to show that there are so many things our eyes do see, but actually cannot quite resolve. I went to sleep early that night, very contented with new photography knowledge I acquired on the trip.

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We woke up early the next morning, hoping the catch the sunrise that didn’t happen the previous morning because it was too cloudy. For some reason or another, we couldn’t catch the sunrise again. From the balcony in our room, I took a parting shot of Hallstatt to the north when the ferry was docked. And then we departed early in order to catch the train that would bring us to Innsbruck with just one change at Attnang-Puchheim, instead of two changes. We arranged for check-out from the hotel the night before, settling the bills. Upon hearing that we would be leaving without breakfast, the hotel staff very kindly told us he would instruct the kitchen to prepare some food for us. Aww… that was really nice of them. If we ever do visit Hallstatt again, I will for certain opt to stay in Seehotel Gruner Baum once more.

The ferry arrived at the dock before the train arrived at the train station. Remember the steep gravel slope I mentioned earlier? While it was working in our favour when we arrived, it was now working against us as we raced against time to get to the ticket machine. Alas, the queue was way too long: only the first or second in the queue managed to get their train tickets before the train arrived. Knowing that the train only stops at the station for several minutes, we were left with little choice but to board the train and buy the tickets from the train inspector directly. This is possible in Europe so do not miss your intended train if you did not have enough time to secure a ticket prior.

From there, it was a 4-hour transit to Innsbruck, a city in Western Austria famous for winter sports.

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