Hallstatt, Austria

Well by this time, it was mid December in Vienna and I was, sad to say, at the end of my tether. Work had worn me down to the point where I felt my time was entirely devoted to meeting deadlines, and when I did have free time the last thing I wanted to do was write.

Vienna was cold, bitterly cold, though there was no snow, but it is very pretty at Christmas time. I’ll have to write about that too.

Still, it was a few days before I was due to fly home for the first time, and lessons had ended for the Christmas break, so decided to take myself off on a trip to Hallstatt, an Austrian village nestled within the Alps.

Just to give you an idea of how busy I had been, it had been over three months since I’d arrived in Vienna and this was the first time I’d left the city limits. It was a horrifying thought considering back in Bangor I’d be driving in and all around Snowdonia typically.

I went with a bus tour known as Erasbus, which caters to Erasmus students, so the entire tour was done in English. We left Vienna at five in the morning, amidst grey skies and heavy fog. The journey itself matched my mindset at the time, bland and grey. But then, just as we reached Upper Austria, the cloud broke apart and mountains reared up. Mountains!! My first sight of them since coming to Austria and the Alps did not disappoint. These monoliths of stone and granite rose up over crystal clear lakes, while low, white clouds coiled around their midriff like a belt.

And then we got to Hallstatt…

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It was pretty stunning to say the least.

Hallstatt, a village of some 900 people, is quintessentially Austrian. When people think of   Austria, I can guarantee that Hallstatt is what comes to mind. Wooden chalets, mountain views, snow dusted roofs, winding streets, clocktowers….

In fact Hallstatt’s image and it’s effective status as the tourist face of Austria, is so well known that an entire replica of it has been built in China, many of whom now flock to see the original.

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The Hattstatter See, with the Alps behind

We commenced our trip with a tour of the area which included learning about the local history. The Hallstatt area has been inhabited since 1500 BC, and plays host to the world’s very first salt mines. Salt has long provided the village with great wealth, and today the the remains of Hallstatt’s salt mines constitute a UNSECO World Heritage site. In later centuries the area served as the favourite holiday destination of several Hapsburg monarchs.

Due to the massive amounts of Neolithic graves discovered in the area Hallstatt also lends it’s name to the Hallstatt Culture, which had been the predominate Celtic culture of central and western Europe between 800-500BC.

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Exploring the very narrow streets
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Lots of colours

Today though, it primarily serves as a tourist destination and it doesn’t take a genius to see why. By this time, the village was fully prepped for Christmas, with strings of lights crossing the rooftops and a large Christmas tree inhabiting the main square. Our tour concluded at the old Protestant church. There, we were treated to a rather fascinating experience.

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Christmas is in town
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Looking out over the Protestant Church
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The church’s entrance is marked with this fresco

You see, isolated among the mountains, the people of Hallstatt have developed their own cultural fashions. The most infamous of these being that, upon death, a Hallstatt local’s body was typically decapitated and their skull was left to bleach within the church. The deceased’s name and date of death was then painted onto the skull. In the olden days, these skulls were then put on display in the church, though now they are sealed away in the nearby catacomb, and this process is now optional rather than obligatory. However, for those special tour groups, who’ve paid a fee I’m sure, you can visit the catacomb.

It was quite an eerie sight to enter a room packed high with actual human skulls. It is even stranger to think that the people of Hallstatt once had these displayed in the church, they were practically put on show. And if you think this is a dead practice, they I’m afraid your wrong. The earliest skull that I could see was from the 1400s while the most recent was as late as 1996.

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Following our tour we had a few hours to walk around on our own. Fortunately Hallstatt is only a small village so a few hours is all you need to see everything the village has to offer. Acquiring some gingerbread, I headed up to some local waterfalls. Trekking up the mountain path it was doubly horrified to find how strenuous a task it was. This was, in all honestly, the first proper bit of exercise that I had done since arriving in Austria, and for someone who once enjoyed regularly hiking through the hills of Snowdonia without any trouble, this was rather disturbing. Still I made it and I was able to happily reap the beautiful sights while enjoying some delicious Austrian gingerbread, which is more like ginger cake really.

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A monastery lies across the lake
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Activate super zoom lens!

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Hallstatt’s falls

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All too soon though, the day grew dark and I had to walk back to the quay where the bus was due to pick as all up, though I did snap some lovely pics as the sun set and colours seeped into the mountainside.

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Evening descends

In the end, Hallstatt was just what I needed to put me in the holiday mood and I was relieved to have actually traveled outside of Vienna this term. At this point I had been feeling incredibly low, as Vienna had not been what I’d expected or what it had been advertised when I signed up for this International Experience Year. But Hallstatt reminded me that there was still good times to be had and that there were many amazing sights just a few hours outside of Vienna. The city didn’t have to be my prison.

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For more pictures, check out my Instagram page

And if you want to know more about Hallstatt or are interested in visiting, check out this site for more information. 

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3 Comments

  1. I know what you mean when you say that the experience was turning out “not as advertised.” I feel that way with regards to my Master’s degree in Germany a lot. It’s obviously not a study abroad semester, but I still expected there to be more support to help with adjustment, studying, and exploring. I have had to spend a lot of time figuring things out on my own. It may be a German-speaking country thing that makes it extra-hard on us English native-speakers. But thankfully, there are Christmas markets and occassional travel luck to bring things back into perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, unfortunately, besides one induction talk, I was left pretty much to my own devices and there was little in the way of support. A big differences from my tiny, close-knit Welsh Uni. Also. I struggled a lot adapting to living in a city for the first time. I’ll probably talk about it all in another post, but I think it’s important to talk about the good stuff first. Besides I’ve got a lot of pictures to share.

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      1. I can understand the city-living conundrum. My hometown is only about 200 people and basically every city I’ve moved to has been a bit of a shock, especially in terms of noise and how crowded I feel.

        Luckily, I made friends over time here, but the friendships that I built up in Northern Ireland are so much deeper than any other friendships I’ve ever had. I think a big part of it was that we had a whole week of orientation there and the international student community was really fantastic that semester. The support system we gave each other was a big part of why that semester was so great for me.

        When you get through your story-telling posts, you should think about writing a reflective post on your experience. I found it to be a really good exercise for me mentally at the end of each of my other two study abroad experiences. You might find it helpful, even if you don’t decide to publish what you write.

        Looking forward to your pictures by the way. You’ve shared some really nice ones so far.

        Liked by 1 person

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