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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.