Hallstatt, Pearl of the Salzkammergut - Part I
Hallstatt is many things: Supposedly the prettiest village in the entire Salzkammergut (so they say, but what is beauty…); the oldest town of Austria (even more arguable…); a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site (or at least part of it); and one of Austria′s premier tourist attractions (and for a very good reason, it′s one hell of a fantastic place!). The belly button of the Salzkammergut is located by the Lake Hallstättersee, itself among the most beautiful lakes of Austria, with steep, forested mountains rising on its sides.
Impressions from Hallstatt - note the vast crowds of tourists everywhere, despite of the horrible weather.
The mighty Mount Dachstein is visible from the lake and the Sechserkogel range makes you understand that you are properly within an alpine landscape. If you arrive to Hallstatt by train, you will experience first hand why the historic town is so special: Due to the steep cliffs, the town is squeezed onto a tiny line of land with no space for the railway leading to it. The station is on the opposite shore and travellers are taken to the town itself by ferry. This is essentially the situation in which Hallstatt has been for millennia: A bizarre settlement cut off any kind of transportation that could not be maintained via boats.
If you have read my articles on the history of Austria, you will already know that Hallstatt was the centre of a Neolithic culture that derived its success from the nearby salt mines. This culture, named "Hallstatt Culture" after the town, dominated the area north of the Alps until the arrival of Celtic tribes. Their artefacts have been found outside of today′s Austria, in Hungary and the Mediterranean.
Hallstatt: Neolithic Past & Attractive Present
Thereby, they provide evidence that these seemingly primitive communities had trade relationships with far-away civilisations. The prime time of Neolithic Hallstatt lied in the three centuries between 800 and 500 BC. However, the success of the city continued to flourish after a possible low during Roman and early medieval times. Later in the Middle Ages, Hallstatt became once again one of the most important centres of salt mining and trade in Central Europe.
Hallstatt had one significant problem, though: it was awfully difficult to access. Until well into the 19th century, no major roads led to the village and visits from outside were rare. The first road to Hallstatt was built only in 1890! The narrow ground between cliffs and lake supported only a small community, and the lack of space gave rise to some very specific attractions.
The most important one is the 16th century "Beinhaus" or "bone house" of the Catholic parish church. Due to the lack of space for an extensive cemetery, graves had to be recycled frequently. Once a body was somewhat decomposed, it was dug up again and the bones were transferred to the Beinhaus. The skulls were often neatly decorated with paint and ornaments. The ornaments differ according to the sex of the person: Men are decorated with ivy and oak leaves, whereas female skulls bear floral designs. The name of the person was often added, too, and sometimes symbols that indicated the cause of the death. Today, the Beinhaus (located just next to the parish church) is open to visitors.