Hallstatt may be the most beautiful place of the Salzkammergut, the lake region of Austria known for its fabulous beauty, but that’s debatable. What’s beyond debate is that this small town is also the most significant and interesting place in the Salzkammergut. Hallstatt has been at the heart of European civilisation for thousands of years, and its wealth of archeological treasures provide insight into ancient cultures.
The small market town sits next to a lake of the same name – Lake Hallstatt, or Hallstaetter See in German. It’s houses are stuck onto a steep hillside like swallows nests, and on calm and clear days, the whole town is reflected in the lake.
Every square foot of build-able real estate is put to use. One row of houses is separated from the one below it by a narrow alley, wide enough for walking, hardly wide enough for a car. Every house has a view. One famous resident (I don’t recall his name) once said that Hallstatt is one of the most dangerous towns for walking home at night, drunk. It’s easy to fall off the street and into your neighbors house. Another said: “if you are in a hurry, make a detour” (Herzmanovsko-Orlando). I presume he meant through a neighbor’s house, and he made his remark at a time when the easiest way to get from one end of town to the other was by boat.
The Hallstaetter See has often been compared to a fjord, and because it is surrounded by towering mountains and has been carved by glaciers, the comparison is appropriate. The lake is narrow, though not particularly long or large. It’s is about 3.7 miles long and 1.4 miles wide, and it reaches a depth of 450 feet.
But its not dimensions that give it character. It’s the mood it casts over the whole valley. It’s frequently shrouded in fog, often pelted by rain, and when the sun shines it reflects blue sky, emerald hills, and white mountain tops. Old fashioned, flat bottomed fishing boats with pointed prows and square sterns still ply its waters as they have done for hundreds of years. Not so long ago, the best way to get in and out of Hallstatt, and around, was by boat. Today, there are still a number of boat houses along the shorelines of the lake. They sit on pilings driven into the lake bottom, their reflections are a characteristic part of Hallstatt’s beauty.
The lake rarely freezes. Even though Hallstatt lies in the shadow of the mountains, and goes for months without sun, the lake is rarely covered with ice. A ferry from the train station across the lake to the landing in Hallstatt can keep its schedule on most days. But it does freeze occasionally. I remember one year when my brother in law, who worked in Hallstatt and commuted from nearby Bad Ischl, walked across the lake to get to work.
Tall mountains rise around the lake. Behind Hallstatt rises the Salzberg and behind that Mount Plassen, the “house mountain” of Hallstatt. A little south the Krippenstein with its foot in the lake reaches to the sky, obscuring the Dachstein behind it. The Dachstein with its glacier is the second largest mountain of Austria, and its massif dominates the entire region, but to see it and appreciate it you have to get out of the valley.
The valley opens to the south where the Traun River exits the lake and begins its journey to the Danube. As I’ll show in later posts, the Traun played an important role in the History and development of Hallstatt.
Hallstatt is a beautiful small town, but even its beauty would leave it at the side roads of history. There are many other pretty towns scattered about the Alps, but they haven’t left their mark on the world like Hallstatt. Because of Hallstatt we have the Salzkammergut, and because of Hallstatt we know quite a bit about an Iron Age culture of the same name – the Hallstatt Culture. The Hallstatt Culture flourished at a time when when Jerusalem was still in its infancy, when Rome was an assemblage of wooden shacks, and when Homer wrote the Odyssey.
I’m not about to suggest Hallstatt is the reason the Hallstatt Culture came into being, the origins of that culture are still a mystery to me, but it’s type locality – a huge necropolis from the early Iron Age – lies in the high valley above Hallstatt near ancient entrances to the salt mines.
Hallstatt, in one form or another, has existed since the beginning of European civilisation. It’s principal commodity, salt, found in the Salzberg behind Hallstatt, was one of the elements that fueled one of the dominant European Culture of the Iron Age.
Then, from the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th century, wealth derived from its white gold – salt – filled the coffers of the Habsburg Empire. I think its fascinating that Hallstatt – little, out of the way Hallstatt – lies at the center of European history.