Jul 1, 2016

Hallstatt (Austria): Stuck in a slice of Heaven

Hallstatt is the postcard example of the rustic Austrian mountain life. Despite being highly commercialised with tourism as it's main industry. This little village of less than 900 people still marvels. 


Due to a string of hiccups, misreading of instructions and missing of bus/trains... I arrived around 3+ in the afternoon. If anyone is interested in visiting Hallstatt for a day trip,  I highly recommend heading out as early as 6am to make full use of your day. Public transport out of Hallstatt ends early and if you don't drive, you might end up stranded like me. I'll talk more about the misfortune and miracle when the story gets there!



I messed up my journey and took around 3 hour 45 minutes to reach Hallstatt when in reality, it should only take 2.5 hours or so. The nearest train station is Hallstatt Gosaumühle (Hallstatt, Austria). The saving grace though, was that the journey was accompanied by fairytale like cottages and glorious alpine sceneries so beautiful you can hardly believe they exist out of storybooks. At least to this country bumpkin of an Asian kid!




From here you need to take a €2.5 ferry ticket to enter Hallstatt. Just walk down the only path from the train station and you’ll find yourself in the jetty. Other ways to enter the town is either to drive in or take a bus in. Check out more travel directions at the recommended links below.



The ferry point. Look at how blue the water is!



Entering the town.



Here is a shot of the village after alighting from the ferry. The Heritage Hotel just beside the pier was the only place in Hallstatt that I found free wifi. According to Hallstatt’s tourism website, there are actually quite a number of wifi spots, click here to see the list of them. You can leech the wifi just standing around the entrance hehehe. I didn’t go in for a meal for fear of breaking my budget.


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Just beside the ferry pier is the Protestant church which was built in 1863. The new age protestant movement actually started a few centuries before with many believers amongst the miners. However, due to multiple obliteration attempts from the Catholic church such as burning of the local bridges, homes and forceful re-locating of believers – the protestant population was not allowed to grow until the 19th century.



Walk further down and you’ll find the old market square (Marktplatz) with the famous fountain. It was a little late by the time I arrived so the sunlight was not at it’s best. But it was still absolutely lovely to stroll through this beautiful 7000 years old Alphine village. This village’s existence dates back to the prehistoric times, pretty impressive for such a small town isn’t it?

The market square was a prosperous trading hub in the 14th century where salt and many other items found it’s buyer here. Unfortunately, this part of the town was levelled by a fire in 1750 and most of the buildings have since been rebuilt with stone. Here in Hallstatt, you can judge the age of a building by the material used - if it is built with mainly timber, it’s probably very old. Those that are built fully or partially with stone would have came after.



The statue in the middle of the market square symbolises the Holy Trinity.



Some where near it is a cold water fountain available for you to refill your bottles – one of the best free things I found while travelling europe! The price of bottled mineral water never fails to amaze me in Europe.



One of the first place I checked out was the World Heritage Musuem. Entrance was free and the musuem showcased artefacts all the way from the Iron Age. The exhibit leads you through the history of salt mining in Hallstatt and showcased an array of items excavated from the tombs of Hallstatt. The exhibits bring an insight into the very different way of life back then.



While meandering through the lovely timber houses and sheds, I found a cute swan! And just beside it was the beautiful lake that seperates Hallstatt from the rest of the world.



The water is so clear and beautiful. I wish my photographs could have done the place more justice!



The Cemetery in Hallstatt is a special place to visit. It is adoringly maintained with beautiful offerings of flowers and elaborate decorations unique to each tomb. Beside the cemetery is the catholic parish church of Hallstatt – a small cathedral dating back to the 1181. The cathedral was renovated in 2002, which explains the vibrant paint job.



Despite it’s size, the interior of the church is ornately decorated with gold paint, colourful stained glass and intricate carvings of the bible.



On the other end of the compound was the Hallstatt Charnel House - a small chapel filled with 1200 human skulls.



With Hallstatt’s long history and limited land space, not everyone can be buried in the same area. So when 15 years have passed the bones are exhumed, cleaned and then put on display in the chapel. The skulls are painted for identitifcation and decorative purpose. Due to the increasing acceptance of cremation, this practise has been dying out. The last addition to the Charnel was the skull of a woman in 1983. Entrance to the cemetery is free but the Charnel house cost €1.5



The beauty of Hallstatt, is not in any of it’s attraction but the view it provides. Here is the view from the compounds of the Chapel, isn’t it glorious? My only lament was the lack of strong sunlight to make the colours pop.

I made my way out of the village to find the classic village view point. As an avid photography enthusiasts, I wasn’t going to allow 300 meters of walking get in the way of acquiring the quintessential Hallstatt memory. The beautiful houses along the way makes the stroll interesting as you marvel at the timber works and imagine a peaceful life in this rustic alpine village.



This hotel is just beside the lake and guests staying with them can be seen swimming in the lake. Swimming in those clear waters must be have been amazing! I hope I can return to this quiet village and stay a night there some day.



The most iconic and statement angle of the village with the protestant church and ferry pier in full view. This is probably the angle you see in almost every single Hallstatt tourism catalogue.



However the Welterbeblick World Heritage View is the best vantage point of Hallstatt that I've had the chance to see though it is not as iconic nor as representative as the photo above. But it grants you a panoramic view of the grand mountains and a large stretch of the incredibly blue lake.



Every shade of blue could be seen in the lake and in the distant mountain ranges. With the noon sun beaming ever so strongly on the lake, it almost looked like a mirror that reminds you that the world is good and beautiful.



The Rudolph’s tower and skywalk came after the funicular and walking across the lookout bridge was a great chance to admired the blue lakes and mountains. Before walking the skywalk though, we visited the Salt mine. I believe an adult entrance with a return trip on the funicular cost €30.

The salt mine (Salzwelten) in Hallstatt has been around since the Neolithic Age. Apparently a miner found a pick made of stag horn in the early 19th century that dates it back to 5000 B.C! In short, Hallstatt’s salt mine has been around for 7000 years, making it the oldest salt mine in the world.

The salt preserved many valuable items and archaeologists were able to carbon date them accordingly. The salt mine features the famous " Man in Salt" and the oldest staircase in europe. The “Man in Salt” is the body of a miner that had died and was perfectly preserved in salt. It was discovered in a middle of a salt deposit and was badly flattened in 1734. They intially thought it was a fellow colleague but turns out the man had died many centuries before. His clothes and shoes belonged to an entirely different period. 

Viewing of the salt mine is only possible via a guided tour and the tour runs 2 hour long. We were all required to wear protective tops and bottoms like this.




The tour lining up to enter the mine . Don’t mind my guffaws because this scene coupled with the prison-like scrubs looks as if we were lining up to enter prison or something!



I didn't understand why we had to wear this but I soon found out. It was to prepare our butts for the long mine slides! The salt mine features a 64m wooden slide and is the longest slide in Europe. Much to my surprise, It was actually really fun and exciting to slide down at an average of 29km/hr haha. I know because the last slide took our photographs and other than our intense face, it also captured the speed we were going.



The tour consisted of projection videos telling the story of how salt were formed, how the people before us mined,  processed salt and a light show with the salt crystals. A little vial of salt was given at the end of the tour as souvenir. 



These are illuminated salt blocks! Don’t they look like precious gems haha?



Beautiful light shows were put up within the salt quarry.



The oldest wooden staircase in europe – perfectly preserved by salt.



The tour ended with a ride out of the mine on a long wooden vehicle – which I have no name for. If any of you know what it should be called, leave a comment and let me know !



After coming out from the salt mine and parking the car, we found ourselves on the fringe of Hallstatt, near the Hallstatt Bus stop (Hallstatt Lahn). The scenery here is a sight to behold as a panoramic view of the village fringing the water with the alpine mountain on the right, sandwich you on both side. There were even swans to be seen in the lake!

Apparently introduced into the lake by the Austrian King Franz Josef in the 1860s. These elegant creatures were icing on the cake of a glorious vista.   



I mentioned above that I was stuck in hallstatt, now let me share that tale.

The sun was high in the sky and I was surrounded by joyful travellers who didn’t seemed the least anxious or worried and it was 6:40pm. Silly me hadn’t thought about checking the last ferry and bus timings out of Hallstatt and by the time I decided to return to , it was too late.

I bought a pack of fries from the Fast Food stall near the ferry pier and took the chance to ask about transport back. They told me politely that now, the only way is via a taxi. I asked the taxi driver if i could take a train at the next train station and he gave me an ambiguous reply. Left with no choice, I soon found myself on a taxi towards Obertauern – a nearby mountain village. The 10 minute ride cost me €18 and I was dropped at the Obertauern Train Station. I tried to buy a ticket from the machine but it wouldn't take my money so I seeked help from the train station master. He told me the last train towards salzburg left 20 minutes ago oTL.

So I tried pressing all the buttons that I could but to no avail. I walked to the nearest bus stop and tried asking the locals but the bus had already ended. Left with no choice, I set out to find a room for the night. The helpful train station master gave me a locality map and helped me identify the establishments which are hotels/hostels. I soon learnt that it was hard to seek help in a quiet and seemingly barren village because you hardly meet anyone. I walked to the furthest end of the town, knocked on every door that says "Zimmer" (Rooms) and asked as many people as I could.

At some point I felt like I was bordering on trespassing as it was difficult to tell which lawn belonged to which house and most of the private hostels didn’t have a reception counter like you’d expect. I’d step into gateless lawns, knock on unlocked doors, peek my head into empty corridors and said hello to silence in a beautifully decorated timber room. I’d fearfully walk up a flight of wooden stairs, make as much noise as I can while chirping ‘Hello!’ as loudly and as sweetly as my nervous mouth would allow. The disquietude that I may have accidentally stepped into a private residence and scared the local granny shrieked within my head. And then I’d finally meet someone who seemed to be in the midst of making dinner and inquired with faked enthusiasm if a room was available for rent.



I never felt more brave and more lost than I was that evening.

I thanked God that the sun don't set till 9:30pm in summer and the day itself had generally been warm. Comforting myself that if I indeed had to camp outside, it would at least not be freezing. After walking around for an hour or so  while asking an elderly resident if he knew any hotels around with free rooms, 2 Taiwanese boys on bike saw me and started conversations with me. That was probably the first and only time I felt my distinctively Asian features was of any benefit in Europe.

They had thought I was lost but when I explained my plight to them, they chivalrously offered to bike up to the faraway hotel to help me find a free room. They were so incredibly kind they even accompanied me to look for a place the rest of the evening; I was amazed by their kindness. The only thing that amazed me even more was that despite the touristic town being filled to the brim with hostels, apartments, chalets and rooms.... NONE of them were free. Not even 1 room!

I prayed really hard to God to help me tide through this. I tried my best to solve my predicament - walking and proactively asking everywhere for a room. But if there's no room, there's no room and there's nothing I can do about it. I told myself that whatever happens will be God's plan for me and I should offer it up to Him to bring me out of my circumstances. 

Before I met Brian and Bo Quan, sleeping in the public square or the public toilet was something I was prepared to do if all else fails. But God made the impossible, possible. He allowed me to meet 2 amazingly chivalrous Taiwanese boys who not only accompanied me to look for rooms but when all else failed, allowed me to bunk with them. They were travelling as a family and had a family suite. They had found the room to be a squeeze that same morning so they ordered an extra bed. And guess who ended up sleeping on it?! I would have been more than grateful to just have a corner but no, I got a comfortable bed to myself instead! What a surprising turn of event!

Not only that, their mom even fed me dinner! We had spent the entire evening searching for rooms we ended up missing dinner. The next morning their mom took me to the Hotel’s breakfast and took the time to understand me. I felt so bad for intruding on them and tried to pay them for the night but they firmly refused. How insanely blessed can I be?! I won’t lie, it was a frightening evening but everything turned out so miraculously in the end. I managed to make new friends, learn new things about Taiwan and strengthened my faith in humanity!



This is the view from their room, beautiful isn’t it? They were staying at SeeHotel.



On the other side of the hotel was a lake where you can swim and paddle in a swan boat. The mountains reflecting on the lake with lush green and grey is amazing!



We went to the Salt mine in Hallstatt together and then lunched at the fast food stall before I waved them goodbye and hop onto the ferry back to Salzburg.



This is my 2nd encounter with friendly Taiwanese and is by far, my most incredible travel experience to date. I can't wait to find a chance to meet them again and repay the kindness they gave me. I guess now I have reasons to visit Taiwan again!

This encounter has taught me humility, selflessness and the importance of kindness. I am sure life would have been easier for them if they had left me in the lurch and let me figure my situation out myself – like majority of the people I met. But they made the selfless choice to help this lone traveller who had nothing to offer. They warmly welcomed me and assimilated me into their group with respect, kindness and understanding. They might forget this deed in years to come but I’ll never forget the kindness this group of total strangers rendered me. I can only hope that one day, when the need arise, I can be the one extending the helping hand.

I am also thankful to have witnessed the amazing grace of God who can overturn any situation despite how dire it might seems. With such an almighty God, what more can I ask for =)?


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