On a visit to Salzburg we went on a train journey and visited the village of Hallstatt, which claims to be the most attractive place in all of Austria. We were delighted to find that the carriage was one with individual compartments because these are our favourites and we settled in for the ride. There were only six seats in the compartment and there were seven of us but this didn’t matter and we took it in turns to either sit or stand in the corridor to enjoy the view of the countryside.
At the town of Attnang-Puchheim we left the express train and changed to a slow, stop at all stations, variety that travelled in a southerly direction into the mountains and towards our destination (or so we thought). The lady at the train ticket office in Salzburg had thoughtfully provided us with a timetable that included an explanation that the final part of the journey would be by bus because the line was closed for repairs but as it was in German we hadn’t fully understood the significance of this until it was explained to us by the ticket collector (also in German of course, which didn’t exactly make it a great deal clearer).
The first stop was at a place with the unfortunate name of Wankham and this reminded me that place names in Germany and Austria can be a bit of a challenge and it can be difficult grappling with places that might possibly have been named by somebody suffering from tourettes syndrome; places like Wolfswinkel, Alpfahrt and Koch (all genuine I assure you).
The scenery was spectacular now and as we moved further into the Salzkammergut (see what I mean about a challenge?) the railway line followed the western shore of Lake Traunsee and then the River Traun into the Alps. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty that stretches from Salzburg to the Dachstein mountain range and spans the federal states of Upper Austria, Salzburg, and Styria. The name Salzkammergut means ‘Estate of the Salt Chamber’ and derives from the name of the state authority that managed the precious salt mines here in the time of the Habsburg Empire.
The journey came to an end at the spa town of Bad Ischl, which is where the Emperor of Austria-Hungary Franz Josef had his summer residence and here we were decanted with some confusion onto a bus for the remainder of the journey. As the bus was replacing a train it did not go directly to Hallstatt but had to detour several times to stations along the way so this journey took longer than might have been reasonably expected.
Finally Lake Halstättersee came into view and it was delightful with a calm, glass like surface and deep shimmering reflections of the autumnal mountains dancing on the water. It was only a narrow road because until as recently as the late nineteenth century it was only possible to reach Hallstatt by boat or by narrow trails. The land between the lake and mountains is sparse and precious and the town itself has exhausted every free patch of it and the first road to Hallstatt was only built in 1890. The bus arrived in the village through tunnels blasted out of the rocks and dropped us off at the southern end of the village. The village was thoroughly charming and I was immediately prepared to accept its most attractive village in Austria claim.
The village is set on piles driven into the lake with an intricate system of intersecting timber ramps, butresses and ascending terraces like hanging gardens creating an air of mystery and the eeriness of mirage, a village that seems to be almost lost in the middle-mist of folklore and fable. The mountain flanks rise sheer from the lake, leaving no room for a road and all but the smallest of vehicles are prohibited from entering the centre of the village.
We walked through streets with houses sometimes built into the mountain, sometimes hanging on to the mountain and at other times on top of the mountain and on the other side they were built right up to the edge of the lake.
The walk into the village along the water’s edge took us past some modern art sculptures floating on the lake that were interesting but seemed out of place and I was pleased that they were only temporary and then we began to climb towards the centre of the village. It seemed quiet and deserted but as we reached the central square it became busier, mostly with children on school visits. It was lunchtime so we were all getting hungry so we choose a café and stopped for some refreshment. After soup and cakes we returned to the streets where it started to spit with rain but it blew over quite quickly and the skies started to clear and then we saw the first of the sun beginning to poke through.
Although this was October there were still flowers growing in the gardens and by the side of the road but we didn’t see any Lentropodium Alpinium because this is a summer flowering plant.
Well, that is Edelweiss to you and me and is considered to be something special in Austria. So special in fact that it is a protected species and picking of Edelweiss is a crime and can result in an on the spot fine if caught. The most reliable place to see it is on the reverse side of the Austrian two-cent euro coin.
By the time we returned to the bus stop the sun was shining and there were some great views of the village sitting next to its reflection at the side of the lake and we were all sorry to leave. We boarded the bus that had plenty of spare seats and set off back to Bad Ischl but then at the first stop were ordered off the bus onto another with no spare seats and full of teenage children on the way home. None of had really expected to have to take a ride on a school bus as a part of our excursion today and we were glad when we arrived back at the station.
The train was waiting for the bus connection and as soon as everyone was on board it left quickly with some time to make up if it was to make the connection at Attnang-Puchheim. It was a bit late but the Austrian railway system seemed to have all of this under control and the departure of the train for Salzburg was held back for ten minutes so that those who needed to could make the connection.