June 1, 2012: Hallstatt

We are really becoming the go to bed early, get up early family.  In bed by ten last night and up after “sleeping in” significantly this morning at seven.  And it is Liesl, of all of us, who is consistently up first.  Every morning she wakes up and slaps me until I get up.  Day after day.  It is exhausting.

It wasn’t raining when I went to bed last night but it had rained on and off yesterday.  Pretty early on in the night the rain started and it came down hard all night and was still going this morning.  It was a ton of rain but made for really nice sleep with our huge four foot by four foot window wide open.  No screen, of course, because this is Europe.  They don’t do screens here.  We were a bit damp but very glad to have finally had a cool night for a change.  It has been a while since we were not too warm to sleep well.

This morning we got up and went down to the breakfast that is included with our hotel.  I am liking how these European hotels do a dedicated table just for us and have the girls all set up before we get there.  It is a really nice touch.  We were the first ones to breakfast this morning and were concerned that we were there too early because no one else was there but I have a feeling that this is a “sleep in” kind of town.

After breakfast we hit the only grocery store in town which happens to be effectively next door to our hotel.  We picked up some essentials and took a gander at our first Austrian grocery store.  Nothing surprising after France and Germany but interesting, nonetheless.  We are getting good at foreign grocery stores.

Then returned to the room for about an hour and then headed out to hit the town.  Our first stop was a quick one into the sports store to see about buying hats.  With all of the rain it would be helpful to have nice travel hats.  Dominica and I found matching Jack Wolfskin lightweight hats that we liked so we each got one.  I found a jacket that I really liked but it was two hundred and fifty Euros so I decided against that.

Our most important stop was to do the Hallstatt Museum.  That was our one, family must-do activity and we got there before there were any crowds.  Actually, we think that there might never be any crowds.  The people descending on Hallstatt appear to be more of the souvenir and knick-knack crowd than anything else.

We enjoyed the museum and, most importantly, Liesl really enjoyed the museum.  It covers most the history of the Hallstatt region which, of course, is a really big deal as that is what is important about town.  But it has some displays on the local flora and fauna, artwork, politics, etc.  We were quite surprised that Liesl had such a good time.

About halfway through the museum we had a Liesl bathroom emergency and had to leave.  Liesl was terribly upset that we couldn’t finish the museum.  But we found her a restroom and the museum was kind enough to let us back in so we went and finished all of the displays.  We were really glad that we did the museum as there are not that many activities that really make Liesl happy.  She has been a great traveler but the bulk of the trip is her putting up with stuff that we want to do so this was a special treat that it turned out to be something for her too.  We all liked the museum and recommend it.

It was still raining when we left the museum.  The storm drains are backed up and there is standing water on top of them.  The lake appears to be several inches higher than it was yesterday and things that were above water yesterday are not today like some docks are now underwater.  I wonder how often this happens or if this is something really unusual.

We stopped by the bakery on the outskirts of the main part of town and grabbed sandwiches for lunch and some pastries.  The sandwiches, just tomato and cheese affairs, turned out to be amazing as did the cream filled pasty horns.  Liesl got a donut (with sprinkles, of course) which she devoured.  Luciana loved the sandwiches.  What a palette she has already.

We have been trying to figure out what to do about the salt mine tours because we cannot take the girls on them.  We were contemplating going separately, just Dominica while I watched the girls then just me while she did.  I tried to get Dominica to go but she wanted me to go first to see how it was.  So at around five till one I set out for the salt mine tour, which is the only attraction in town other than the museum, which is directly adjacent to our hotel.

The mine tour is twenty-two Euros with our hotel discount and starts with an excellent funicular ride up the mountain side with amazing views of town and the lake.  It runs every fifteen minutes so you don’t have to wait very long.  I rode up on the quarter after one load with maybe six other people.

Of course I failed to bring a spare camera battery and my Nikon battery died the instant that I passed the turnstyle!  Argh. So no good pictures from the salt mine trip.  I took a few with the phone but it is not the same.

At the top of the mountain (this is an Alpine peak, I am talking about) the funicular drops you off and you walk a trail that takes probably ten to fifteen minutes to complete.  Before you start the trail there is a restaurant with amazing views and a high scenic bridge built only to use to get an incredible view of the lake.  There are a few “stops” along the way where you read a little sign telling you some piece of the history that happened there.  The coolest part of the walk is when you walk through the high Alpine meadow where they believe five thousand early Hallstatt settlers from the pre-Roman era are buried.  Fifteen hundred of these have been discovered already and they believe thirty five hundred remain in the ground.

It was a nice walk high in the mountains in a forest with a soft rain coming down.  A good place to walk alone and contemplate the history that has happened right here under my feet.  Amazing stuff.  When Greece was just thinking about becoming important Halstatt was already important, rich and powerful.

I really enjoyed this part of the mine tour – but you can do this portion without actually doing the mine tour.  Which, in reality, is what I recommend doing.  Don’t miss this part with the funicular, the views and the history walk.  If you really want to save money, you can hike up the mountain for free and get some exercise, but for most people just pay for the funicular.

I got to the mine tour station and the next tour was at two.  That means waiting around for twenty five minutes with nothing to do.  They have a little snack shop and a gift shop up there and hope that you will spend a fortune while you are stuck waiting for a mine tour to begin as there is absolutely nothing else to do and your cell phone isn’t going to work up there either.

So from the time I got to the base of the mountain until the tour itself started took an entire hour.  That’s a long time to “wait in line.”  We had guessed that this entire tour would only be forty minutes so Dominica was already expecting me back at any moment.  Boy is she going to be surprised.

The tour started and the tour group, which was pretty large with sixty-six people in my group, started by getting suited up in protective gear and then going through a really tiny little museum thing that lead to the mine entrance.  Our tour guide, Lisa, got us started after about fifteen minutes.

The mine tour was interesting only because it gave you a chance to go into a real salt mine and because this is the world’s oldest salt mine and is believed to be in continuous operation for seven thousand years.  That’s pretty amazing.  The tour itself was boring and uninformative.  I understand that there isn’t that much to tell about salt mining on a tour but this was pretty lame which is pretty much what Rick Steves had said about it.

The tour does include two descents via slides which are kind of cool but take a long time with a big crows.  The longest one in 64 metres  long, if I remember correctly.  It is a long way to slide down on your butt, that is for sure.  It is fun but I can see it being pretty scary for a lot of people.  You can hit around thirty kilometres per hour on the slide.  I only did twenty but there were people going much faster than me.

Most of the tour was painfully boring and there is a lot of walking underground.  There are really slippery spots too and a good deal of the tour is very much in the dark so it is easy to fall in the darkness and the ground and walls are exceptionally hard.  There were a couple of awful videos during the tour which gave no new information that you don’t already know from just being in town.  At the end there is a pretend laser light show (as in, line drawings like a laser show but done using a normal projector – extra points for over the top lame there) by which time you really wish that you could just leave.  The entire underground portion takes around an hour and a half, maybe just a touch more.

At the end of the tour the highlight is mounting onto a real mining train and getting driven out of the mine.  That part was genuinely a lot of fun.  I really liked that part, it was something unique.

At the end of the tour they drop you back off in the gift shop and you have that ten to fifteen minute walk back again.  Then the funicular down the mountain.  If you take a while getting out of the gift shop, which is easy to happen as, at least for me, it was completely packed and I had to fight my way out, and if you walk slowly and don’t hit the funicular just right it can easily take you forty-five minutes to an hour to get back from the tour.

I fought my way out of the shop and walked very briskly and sometimes jogged to get back to the funicular which I did way ahead of the rest of the tour.  I was the only person riding down on my trip down the mountain.  I easily beat most everyone back by thirty minutes at least.

By the time that I made it back to the hotel (which was directly next to the tour – the building right next door) it was a full three hours.  Way too long for how uninteresting the tour was and how expensive it was.  Not something that I would recommend again and Dominica obviously decided that it was not for her.  She was glad that she sent me in as a Guinea pig on this one.

Dominica was ready to go out again after I had returned and the girls had had naps so we went back out again and hit the bakery one more time and got strudel to eat along the lake side.  Then we hit the rubber ducky and dirndl shop to rent a really cute dirndl for Liesl for an hour, from five until six.  Liesl was so adorable in the dirndl.  Unbelievable.

So we walked around town for an hour taking tons and tons of pictures of her in the costume.  She did so well.  She really put up with a lot.  An hour of modeling is a long time for a three year old and she was a trooper.  I can’t wait until we can get these uploaded.

Liesl was so adorable that some tourists even stopped and asked if they could get their picture taken with Liesl.  Liesl did a great job posing for them as well.

We dropped off Liesl’s dirndl, bought some cards with pictures from town on them for our walls at home and then headed off to dinner at one of the fancy places in town at the top of the square so that we could try out a real Halstatt fish dinner for which the town is so famous.

After dinner it was back to the hotel so that Dominica could pack and the girls could go to bed. Once Luciana was asleep and Liesl was happily watching Lady and the Tramp on the iPad I set off to find some Internet access so that we could get some updates posted and pictures uploaded.

We had tested earlier and there is free, public WiFi in the center of town at the tourist information center so, if necessary, I could sit outside on the steps and get some things done. It was cold even if the rain had stopped but the rain could potentially start again so I opted to instead make an attempt at the Heritage Hotel which, I had heard, offered free WiFi for people at the café.

The Heritage has a very nice café down by the water. I got there around nine and there was one couple left there and otherwise the place was deserted. Unbelievable that any town can have so many people and so few people out and about. This place is a ghost town.

I settled in for some coffee and got busy uploading updates and pictures and writing as much as I could. I put in nearly two hours at the Heritage, most of the time completely alone. They were really nice to let me stay for so long as the only customer and not a guest in the hotel. Eventually they needed me to move out to the lobby as they needed to shut down and clean the restaurant and café but they didn’t completely kick me out. They were great. I’d likely use them the next time that I come to Hallstatt. Seems like a really nice place.

I made good progress, getting all of the pics from Switzerland and Germany uploaded, two SGL updates and one Kidding Around Europe update uploaded. I went through three double espressos while sitting there.

I got back to our hotel on the far side of town a little after eleven. It was a very quiet and dark walk through town. Except for the street lights glowing along the lake road there were pretty much no lights anywhere. Even looking out across the lake at the other towns there was very little light. There were some crazy teenagers driving like maniacs through the streets still, however. Hallstatt is a very dangerous town lacking necessary traffic controls.

Tomorrow morning we are catching the ten thirty train headed to Vienna. We have enough time to relax a bit and get breakfast in the hotel before we leave. Hopefully it will not be too stressful of a travel day.

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