May 31, 2012: Hallstatt and Austria

I was lucky this morning and woke up early, very early, at about five fifty. I decided to get up and get ready for the day – no need to go back to bed and we have a big day ahead of us and normally (on this trip) it is Dominica getting up early to get us ready so I knew that she would appreciate if I was up and ready before she even woke up. If I had time I planned to go down to the lobby and upload more pictures if there was time.

By a little after six, though, Dominica was awake and we decided that since we were awake that there would be no point in sticky to our original “lazy” plan of catching the nine thirty train our of Mϋnchen to Salzburg but we could rush and make the same train schedule but at seven thirty instead – the same train route runs every two hours which is really nice. So even if you miss your train the worst thing is that you have to sit in a nice train station for two hours having some coffee or gelato. Not too bad.

So we were running around like crazy trying to go from asleep to packed and ready to head out the door in about thirty minutes tops. We made it and were out the door at ten after seven which gave us very, very little time to make it to the train station and when we are fully loaded with children and luggage we do not move quickly. So it was a rough haul the eight hundred metres from the hostel to the train station. We were hot and soar by the time that we arrived and we made it by the skin of our teeth for the early train, but made it we did.

I grew up a bit of a train fanatic, my father got me into model railroading at a very young age and being into model railroading introduced me to European passenger rail long before I ever came to Europe for the first time. When I went to Germany in 2009 I was quite excited to be able to ride on DB which I had wanted to ride since I was probably ten years old. From my childhood there were three rail lines that I always wanted to ride: Germany’s DB, Switzerland’s SBB and Austria’s ӦBB. We’ve been riding DB for weeks now and we got to ride SBB, which was awesome, several times while passing through Switzerland. This morning I finally got to ride the last of my childhood fantasy train lines, Austria’s ӦBB.

Not only did we get to ride the Austrian line out of Mϋnchen but as this was the huge Mϋnchen to Vien (Vienna) to Budapest express line this was the ӦBB’s flagship, high end, ultra luxurious high speed RailJet. This is the be all, end all of European passenger lines and puts even the Swiss SBB lines to shame in comfort and style. There is no denying that I was excited when we boarded the RailJet and moved into First Class.

First Class means “at seat” dining, which is awesome. The prices were really good too. So Dominica and I both ordered breakfast since we hadn’t had time to even grab coffee at the train station. Dominica got a yoghurt with fruit and muesli and coffee. I went for the smoked salmon with horseradish, a delicious hot roll and a bottle of wine (only available to passengers sixteen and over, lol.) Breakfast was delicious and service at our seats was very nice. We were lucky enough to get a four seater spot with our own table which is the normal way that we travel if possible.

RailJet also really shines at having great informational displays. I first saw this in Switzerland on the SBB but this was even better. The overhead displays on RailJet also give great information as to upcoming stops, planned and real times of arrival, different map displays showing the position of the train, current speed, etc. It makes travel much more interesting. The only thing that SBB did better in the display department was having a “follow along” Google Earth video going along with the train from time to time.

Getting into Salzburg was very smooth. The train was a few minutes late but our connecting train was the next train on the same track so we didn’t really have to worry about being late since the next train had to wait for us anyway.

The next train was not RailJet but still very nice. In this one we got a private cabin which is our favourite way to travel. A six seater couchette is totally the way to travel with kids. The first class cabins are great and unlike the older DB couchette that we took a few days ago that didn’t have any air conditioning this one had power at every seat, working and adjustable temperature controls per cabin, much more modern appointments and seats that convert into beds. Very cool.

One this that we learned today is that in Europe “first class” does not refer to the first class but is actually a term for second class and second class is what the third class is called. True first class is actually called “business class”. Very confusing. I would have thought that business class would have been an in-between level. Having something above first class makes no sense unless you are thinking of it as the zero class.

The second leg of our trip went without a hitch. This has been a great train travel day. We started early, we had great food, we’ve had awesome trains and the scenery has been just outstanding all day. One thing that we have really noticed is that when traveling in Germany, Switzerland and Austria that it is really noticeable that people really go out of their way to help you. Strangers will get up from their seats, pick up your luggage and help you off of the train – consistently. People hold doors for you. People even help moving luggage and children up and down large flights of stairs at train stations. It’s not that we’ve been anywhere were people were unfriendly, but it is really mentionable that there are places where the “go out of your way to help others” mentality is prevalent in everyday life.

We made our connection to our third and final train for the day, again without a problem. This time we transferred to a little local connector that would take us through all of the little towns on our way down to Hallstatt. While this train was not fancy or exciting as far as the train itself it didn’t need to be – this train took us through the best scenery ever. Words cannot describe how beautiful the Austrian Alps can be. Nothing that we have seen in Switzerland or Germany compared to this. These mountains were bigger and the Alpine lakes and little villages are just magical. This is truly the land of faery tales.

The train station for Hallstatt is really amazing. The train comes along this little tiny spot on the side of a hill and just drops you off on a little dirt path which you walk down and then go down a steep trail down to the boat dock where a little boat ferries you across the most breathtaking lake to the tiny village of Hallstatt.

Hallstatt is this tiny village sitting at the base of a tremendous mountain sitting on a pristine lake surrounded by massive Alpine peaks. There are a few villages on the lake with Hallstatt being the only famous one but the others being far more accessible. Even having seen many pictures of Hallstatt there was no way to do it justice. The town is just so beautiful. Both the town and the setting are so impressive. Either would be amazing on their own. Putting them together is just not fair.

The boat approach to Hallstatt is probably the best way to come in to town although the other option is driving by car through the tunnel in the mountain, parking in a parking lot at the top of a steep cliff overlooking town, getting a crazy view down onto town and then descending stairways down into the back alleys so that you meander through places where it feels like you don’t belong and that are lost in time just to pop out onto the main square. So both approaches have their merits. It is hard to say which is really better for the first timer but the boat approach is the traditional one that has been used for thousands of years so I like it best. It is something to think about all of the Romans and Celts before them catching a boat from the same location to go to Hallstatt thousands of years ago.
The town itself is highlighted by two churches. One with a tall spire sitting in the middle of the “ground floor” of town right off of the main square. The other is a less vertical but far more expansive complex sitting on a cliff above town and commanding a powerful view of the village. The main square is the only real open area in town and is quite small. Almost all of town itself consists of tiny alleys, tightly packed houses from the 1500s and later and steps leading heaven only knows where. Every inch of town is old, pristine and gorgeous.

Halstatt currently has a population of only one thousand people in a village that once upon a time had twice that many inhabitants. Now have of the space in town is dedicated to rentable rooms and the town is a purely tourist town but one of the few tourist towns really worth visiting. Even being completely driven by tourism and inhabited fifty-fifty residents to tourists the local culture seems to remain and thrive.

Hallstatt is a very little town but of immense historical importantance. Hallstatt is an UNESCO World Heritage site. As the locals like to say – before there was Rome, there was Hallstatt. Hallstatt was a thriving salt mining town by around 800 B.C. and has been so important a center in Celtic history that the Hallstatt Era is named for it (800 B.C. – 400 B.C.) Hallstatt was first Celtic, then Roman and finally a Germanic town. Almost three thousand years of known continuous inhabitation that is well known and around seven thousand years believed. One of the stores in town has a live archeological site with Roman and Celtic remains beneath it that you can see while shopping.

On our train ride to Hallstatt we met two sisters from Vermont who then rode the boat over with us (everyone from the bus had to ride the boat together – there is nothing else to do if you get off at Hallstatt) that we talked to a bit. We ended up running into them in town several times today which highlights just what a tiny little town this is. We quickly got to know several people like this that we would meet someplace and then see in town over and over again.

We went right to the main market which is quite small but really pretty. There are a few cafes and hotels on the market square. Hallstatt is really interesting because the town is what I like to call “three dimensional” as it is a vertical as well as horizontal city. You have to make your way to different layers to find everything.

We didn’t know where our hotel was so we did some exploring and found the tourist information office – it is pretty easy to find most everything as there is just one main road that is pretty obvious and it starts at the boat dock and winds past the main square and runs down by the lake going past nearly all of the businesses. There are some side roads and hidden alleys and such but mostly they are for the residents and not the tourists so there isn’t too much need to go into them while looking for food or a hotel.

We ended up getting simple directions from the tourist office and were able to walk right to the hotel. It only takes about ten minutes to walk the entire length of time. It is crazy how small this down is.

We got checked in. The hotel is quite nice – our room is huge and they had a baby bed already in the room and ready for Luciana. She is very happy about that. Going the last three nights without a baby bed has been really stressful for us. Luciana needs a baby bed, it really is not discretionary for us. Our room also has a giant window that completely opens and we have a great view of the mountains. Our hotel is directly adjacent to the salt mine museum entrance and our window looks straight out onto it so we can look out and gauge the crowds pretty easily.

The one really bad thing about our hotel is that there is no Internet access. We had been pretty sure that this was the case and it is not a tragedy but after being basically without any the last three days and none the two days before that we are getting a little edgy without it. It would be awfully nice to be able to, at the very least, update the pictures from Switzerland. We are now two countries behind on pictures and videos. I only got about half of the Luzern pictures posted before getting out of Mϋnchen.

After getting settled into the hotel we set out to return to town and get some food. We looked at the Rick Steves’ guide in The Best of Europe as Hallstatt is one of his big recommendations and he has done a lot to make the town famous but when we checked out some of his recommendations one was completely closed (forever, as far as I could tell) and one was apparently open but didn’t have any patrons or workers about so we looked around a bit and moved on to somewhere else.

Before we actually made it out of the hotel some storm clouds rolled up over the mountains and the bright, sunny day went quickly dark and we got to see an awesome Alpine rain shower. There was some slight, distant thunder but it was really just rain and it was beautiful. The temperature dropped dramatically too. This might be the best place every to watch rain – big mountains, glassy lake and lots of trees with those great rain textures of ancient buildings plus lots of little streams in town, the sound of a waterfall – all in one place.

We settled on a café on the main square and the rain had stopped just before we got there. We sat outside and ate, oh my mother would be so proud of me, asparagus strudel! Asparagus is like the official vegetable of the region. All through Germany, Switzerland and Austria asparagus is sold in quantities like nothing I have ever seen. In the US even seeing it in a grocery store is somewhat rare and seeing it on restaurant menus is not too common but here nearly every stand in every farmer’s market sells it, no food is more advertised, and nearly every restaurant sells a variety of asparagus dishes, often with them being highlighted. The strudel was excellent, we both really liked it. Liesl got the local variation on kase spӓtzle which is potato noodles actually made from cheese which she really liked.

After lunch the girls ended up at a knick-knack shop and Luciana convinced Dominica to buy her another stuffed lamb. Liesl then leveraged Luciana getting something into getting a package of eight small plastic frogs.

After lunch we did the Rick Steves’ walking tour of town which takes almost no time at all. He estimates fifteen minutes to see the sights and he isn’t kidding. For tomorrow we have a couple of things planned. The big one is seeing the local museum. The next big one is the salt mine museum which is going to be a challenge because both Dominica and I want to see it but kids under four are not permitted so we have to do it separately while the other one watches the kids for an hour or two. That is going to be a big undertaking. Then there is the ice museum or something like that that is supposed to be pretty cool (ha ha, get it?) If we can fit those three things in tomorrow, we will be all set for Hallstatt. Most people, we think, only do one night in Hallstatt so by doing two nights we really have some time to really get everything in without working too hard at it.

The tour done and our bellies full we walked back to the hotel. We were feeling good still so we walked on to see the part of town that is not historic and where most of the “real” people live. This is technically the next town over but it is all extremely close. We found the village park and took the girls there to play for a while. That worked out great. Liesl loves the sit on bouncing things that all of the parks here seem to have. These were popular in Letchworth State Park when I was very little but I haven’t seen many in the states in decades now. Liesl also had a lot of fun trying a long cable run and we got a great video of Dominica trying it as well.

Once the girls were tired it was back to the hotel. We hung out in the hotel for a while, maybe two hours. Then Dominica decided to send me out looking for food. Everything (and I do mean everything) in Hallstatt closes really early, normally by around five. So if you wait at all to get food there is nothing that you can do. I’m not sure how this is possible but no one seems ready to capitalize on the town full of tourists who are trapped with no activities and no access to food for nearly eighteen hours a day.

So the girls stayed in the room and I went out to forage. The rain had returned so I was under an umbrella most of the time but it was not that heavy and I do love a good rain. I searched high and low and did an extensive walking tour of town hitting all of the back streets, climbing all of the hidden stairways, etc. It was really cool and I found some outstanding viewpoints. I walked the cemetery in the church yard high on the hill, I found the village parking lot carved from the mountain side, I looked into the recently bored tunnels through the mountain – a little off the beaten path is really interesting here. I got some great pictures. Hopefully I get to upload them someday.

While I was out looking for food I stumbled on a shop that was amazingly still open that rents dirndls (the traditional trachten of Alpine and Bavarian girls) that has sizes that will fit Liesl. We have been talking since being in Bavaria that we might need to get a dirndl for Liesl so that we can take pictures of her in it. So this might just be ideal. I picked up the brochure. They also sell, of all things, Austrian themed rubber ducks which, of course, are one of Liesl’s favourites. So I bought her Franz, the lederhosen wearing rubber duck. She will love that. Talk about a weird shop and one that is so perfect just for Liesl. It should have been called the Liesl shop.

I finally found us some pizza from a back alley, up on a hillside pizza bar where it would seem only the locals hang out. I got that and walked it back across town for Dominica. I asked at the hotel lobby if there was anyplace still selling coffee and she said no. Nothing open past five. That is just crazy.

After we ate Dominica was still hungry so she sent me out again. No rain this time. There is a little street vendor not far from us that is surprisingly still open but it is really just a bar with like five food items. No “real” food for us there, but they did have desserts so I got a couple things and brought them back for Dominica. They had coffee there, actually, but no take away cups so no luck. Dominica tried getting coffee from the coffee dispenser in the hotel which is one Euro for a cup and when she used it it was out of cups and took her Euro and threw her coffee away – charging her and then mocking her for wanting coffee. That wasn’t very nice.

The girls played, rather rambunctiously, around the hotel room for about two hours before finally calming down and going to bed around nine thirty. It is easy to go to bed early in a town where we have no Internet access, there is effectively no television and everything in town is closed. It is rather like camping without the campfire.

I worked on SGL until ten but in a silent town it is nice to go to bed early. And there is a wide open window with the soft glow of an Alpine peak at night calling to me. I hope that we get more rain during the night.

Tomorrow we will be focused on the standard tourist activities in Hallstatt. Then we will be off to Vienna. Austria is our sixth country on this trip. Only three more to go after this. Tonight, according to my dad, is the halfway point of our trip. I can’t believe that our huge trip is halfway done. Time is flying by. It still feels like we just got here. I don’t ever want to have to leave. I just wish that Oreo could be here with us. It is terribly sad knowing that he is far away, missing us. Liesl mentioned him today and was very sad that he was not here too. She misses and worries about him.

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