Genteel lakeside strolls aside, there is actually plenty to do in the hills above Hallstatt. In summer, you could easily spend at least a week just taking long hikes through meadows, reaching rugged peaks and stunning views you only see in postcards. The best part is, to make hiking a real and appealing possibility for lazy unfit slackers like me, efficient cable cars and funicular railways easily zip from village to mountaintop in mere minutes, giving me the photo ops without the pain. It was a pity we didn’t plan for more time in Hallstatt. As it turned out, we spent our day almost entirely up in the hills – first in one of Europe’s oldest salt mines and then in an ice cave high up into the mountains.
From the western end of Hallstatt, a steep funicular takes you all the way up the hillside. You could also hike up from the village’s back lanes but that would mean half an hour to an hour’s walk uphill. Sane people like me just take the funicular. The combined ticket of return journey via funicular and entry into the salt mine costs €26 per adult.
There was a Korean family in the same cabin heading up. Just an observation, I noticed there was quite a number of Asians in Hallstatt – everywhere we went, we saw Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. There seemed to be fewer Western tourists.
I guess I can understand the appeal for Asians – Hallstatt is so pretty that it fits the bill for every European alpine fantasy – cute houses? Check. Flower-filled meadows? Check. Ice-capped peaks? Swans preening on glassy lakes? Yup.
Speaking of which, that appeal has even been translated into the controversial Chinese version of Hallstatt as they one-upped all other copycats in town by re-creating the ENTIRE town in Guangzhou province. I cannot understand this because while I love Hallstatt, there are numerous other equally old and stunning villages in gorgeous settings back in China. The Hallstatt copycat is not even remotely close to the original in terms of the town’s ambience, setting etc. The culture, traditions, even the details (a fountain spout, a hand-painted sign, a mossy stoop etc) can never be transported wholesale. Hallstatt has the sheen of time, a patina of history that cannot be replicated so easily. The copy just looks plain tacky. In China, I would rather spend time in its own old villages that have stood for hundreds of years rather than seek out a fake version of a European lake town.
But anyway. Up on the hill, once off the funicular, the path leads through meadows to the oldest salt mine in Europe. It’s a short, pleasant walk up past an ancient burial ground, abandoned wood cabins, roadside shrines and lots of wildflowers. The views of course, are magnificent.
The salt mine was a fun ride – literally. To get the look and feel right, you put on these miners’ overalls that give off more of an escaped convict vibe. Then you troop or shuffle , minus the leg shackles, down into the cool corridors of the mine. The old mine had a unique way of moving down to the deeper levels. No elevators, just long wooden slides worn smooth by the passage of many bums. Just straddle the wooden beam, lean back and let go and whee! Speed cameras catch your speed and they are printed on the photographs taken by the speed cams. I didn’t buy the shot that made me look like I was going to give birth right there on the slide, but I’m ashamed to say I posted a really lame speed, far behind even my 69-year-old mother!
The tour took us through a presentation on the history of salt, past large beautifully lit salt crystals that glowed amber, a subterranean lake and finally out of the tunnels via a breezy ride on a miner’s train. That was one morning’s worth of fun.
Across the lake, a 20-minute bus ride away from Hallstatt is the Dachstein range. What was attractive about the Austrian lakes was that the mountains were always easily accessible. You didn’t have to be an avid or seasoned hiker with impressive gear to access the high altitude plateaus and peaks. Just a quick bus ride, a chairlift or cableway up and you’re right there in the middle of alpine splendour.
Even as we were ascending, the views were feast for the eyes. Beyond and shrinking in the distance, the lake looked silver, the skies were briefly blue and a thin waterfall hugged the mountain wall as it made its way down.
We arrived at a plateau where snow still coated the ground. This place alone, had we enough time, would have easily filled a day of alpine hikes and other activities. I was looking forward to testing my limits for vertigo by walking on the exposed platforms of the Five Fingers observation deck which extended out into air, each ‘finger’ designed differently – one had a floor of glass. Unfortunately we could not take the second cable-car up to the highest level where the platform was – real-time video showed windy, misty and cloudy conditions plus the fact that time was just too short, made it impossible. Ah well, that just gives me another reason to come back one day.
We settled for the ice cave instead but did not know, until we had bought the tickets that (1) it was the last tour for the day (2) that the cave was 70m up a STEEP incline and that (3) the tour was scheduled to start in 15minutes! Which explains the faint smirk the guy manning the ticket booth was wearing.
We hustled as best we could but mum was not well. The path up to the cave was a steep zig-zag with 35deg inclines. We were unfit to begin with but to tackle this within a 15minute deadline was just crazy. My sister, broken toe and all, got on with it. I straggled behind. No one could talk – we were too busy wheezing our way up. Halfway through, mum decided to turn back. It was just too hard for her and she was already nursing a chesty cough by this time.
By the time we finally made it to the mouth of the cave we were too winded to even take pictures of the stupendous view. Later, I looked back to see mum doggedly making her way up. She had changed her mind and was determined to catch up. I felt so bad for her. She was going to have a hard time and I didn’t know how to make things easier for her.
Inside, the cave naturally very cold and there were still lots of steps to climb. By the time we exited the cave, we would have ended much higher than our entry point. If she were healthy, this would not present a problem but in her flu-ey condition, this was just asking for trouble.
We took it slow and lagged behind the group which comprised an Asian family that included young children. Artfully lit ice pillars, in tones of pinks, purple and blue from pale turquoise to steel glittered in the light and towered metres over us. We traversed frozen streams, ponds and wended up and around the spires that had formed several thousand years ago. The tiny figure in red at the top of the stairs is mum (below):
We were in one giant popsicle that had romantic names like Parsifal Dome or King Arthur’s Dome. Most of the facts and the stats the guide tossed in his commentary were lost to us who straggled far behind the group, more preoccupied with mum’s progress and taking good pictures. Finally, 50min later, we were out of the cave:
Even then the hurrying did not end. We had to move fast to catch the last cable car down or be stranded on the mountain for the night. It was easier downhill than up and we made good time, leaving the young family behind. In the evening light as we caught the cable car, the clouds rolled in and the Dachstein plateau was once again shrouded in cloud as we descended. The weather, fickle as ever, decided it was time to drizzle. We were just glad it behaved while we were up there.
After all that walking, plus the fact that we missed lunch, meant we deserved to treat ourselves to a stupendous meal back at the inn:
Colourful, pretty and tasted as good as it looked!