24 November 2008

Winter in Hallstatt

In the afternoon on Friday I boarded a train and headed to Salzburg, Austria in order to visit my friend Dylan. The city lies just beyond the southeastern border of Germany and is a four-hour train ride from Eichstätt. The visit was actually my third time in this Austrian toy town, and I documented another of those trips on Fire at Will during the first year in Eichstätt. Though Salzburg is currently entering the Christmas season and its Christmas market has opened, the concentration for my stay was in another Austrian town by the name of Hallstatt.

Dylan and I boarded a bus Saturday morning in the center of Salzburg and began our journey to the Salzkammergut, Austria's lake district perched in the Alps. Several wide and deep bodies of water fill the valleys between the steep mountains. The villages and towns that spread along the shores of these lakes remind travelers of a time when these communities were isolated and protected by the mountains and water that separate them. After an hour and half we got off our bus and transfered to a train that continued to bring us through the beautiful landscape and into that Austria that exists in one's imagination. We hopped off a half hour later at the only platform of Hallstatt's train station and found ourselves on a bluff overlooking the Hallstätter See, or the Hallstätter Lake. Our journey was not at an end. One finds the actual town on the other side of the lake, by the train station are only trees and a steep, rocky cliff; we stepped onto a ferry that soon pushed off and puttered into the fog. In the view below you can see the path that leads from the train station to the ferry.

Hallstatt came into view as we crossed the lake. The small town of nearly 1,000 does not merely rest on the lake's shore; it clings to it. The following pictures from a few viewpoints in town attest to this fact.

Apparently human settlement has existed in and near the current Hallstatt for around 6,000 years, millennia before anything close to an Austria existed. Hallstatt's original boom centuries ago owes its happening to the natural salt found in the region. The mineral, which was very valuable in the past, was carried from the mines around Hallstatt and spread across Europe. To understand the importance of these salt mines, and their influence on the town, consider that the name of a cultural period in European history is known as Hallstatt. Today, the town is known more for its scenic setting than salt.

As we slept Friday night, winter arrived in central Europe. Snow fell on much of Austria and southern Germany, and, as you have seen, Hallstatt was no exception. As some of the pictures below show, the snow came quick and unexpectedly. The precipitation blanketed colorful berries and flowers. Icicles hung like daggers from gutters. The people of Hallstatt awoke to find their homes covered in the snow. In spite of the cold, however, some town residents didn't mind going for a swim in the lake.

After we arrived in town, Dylan and I walked through the narrow streets and up to the parish church overlooking Hallstatt and the lake. Due to the lack of developable land on which to build, buildings seem to rest on top of one another. On the shoreside of a house one might face the building's first floor, but on the next lane behind the house one could be looking into a third- or fourth-floor window. In the small land around the church is a cemetery, a photograph of which you can find below.

In the past, because of the lack of land in Hallstatt, deceased residents could only rest in the cemetery for ten years. After this time the remains were exhumed and the plot prepared for another occupant. Of course, simply disposing of the remains was not an option. Instead, families cleaned and decorated the skulls and other bones of their loved ones, and then laid them to rest in the Beinhaus (Bone House) of the church. In the first following picture you can see a view of this Bone House, and in the second a closer look at the some of the skulls. The tradition may continue today for those who request it, though with access to land beyond Hallstatt and modern cremation methods it is not as common.

We continued to wander around the quiet town and soon assumed that most residents must have been remaining indoors. At points in the town when the mountain slope became steep, walkways led to tunnels through houses and other buildings. The snow started to fall more heavily and quickly collected on our coats and hats. Eventually, we did come across some of the locals. After the following picture that showes Dylan walking through the swirling snow, you can see exactly how we interacted with these two representatives of Hallstatt, and, furthermore, you are able to see it with a media format new to Fire at Will: video.

After our snowball fight, we found lunch at what appeared to be the only open restaurant in town. Some relaxing time of warm food and drink later, we returned to the streets of Hallstatt for our last look around town.

We soon headed back to the dock and boarded the ferry that brought us back across the lake. The weather conditions on our day of travel may have been cold and cloudy, but dramatic scenary of towering mountiains, lapping waves of clear lake water, and centuries-old buildings covered in snow helped me, at least, to overlook that frosty fact. We boarded the train and made our way out of Austria's picturesque lake district. At around seven o'clock in the evening we were in Salzburg again.

That night, Dylan and I strolled through the Salzburg Christmas market, but our timing could have been better as the stalls closed soon after our arrival. I said goodbye to Dylan on Sunday afternoon and rode the trains to Eichstätt. Reaching the town I discovered that snow had also fallen here over the weekend, and it continues to do so.
In other news, my classes last week went well. For those who sent me ideas about American customs and traditions, thank you. I think most of the students found the day's topics interesting.
I'm not yet exactly sure how this coming weekend will play out, but I don't intend to stay put in Eichstätt.
For my American readers, have an enjoyable Thanksgiving. I know that I will miss some of the great home cooking that I can usually find on this day of the year.


Anonymous said...


I think you need to invest in some water proof boots / maybe a nice Christmas present. So who started the snow ball fight? So we have Christmas markets going up before Thanksgiving in Europe too!

Lieben sie sie

Nick O. said...

Vati-O: Shoes would be nice, but so would a jacket made for exploring the Arctic.
Dylan threw the first snowball, but the kids were already fighting between themselves and seemed eager for us to join in.
Yes, I suppose you could say that Europe decorates for Christmas before Thanksgiving, but, then again, Thanksgiving doesn't exist in Europe. There are no other major holidays here to stall the beginning of the Christmas season.

Anonymous said...

Nick, Hallstatt is quite beautiful and it was both touching and eerie to see the paintings on the sculls. Next time be sure to get in the video yourself...it would be good to see you in action. Although I enjoyed hearing the laughing in the background.
Take care, mom

Nick O. said...

Mom: Yes, I had some mixed-feelings about the skulls as well. I'll see if can't get myself in the next video.