Austria, Part Two: Hallstatt, Salzburg, and Admont

Hallstatt

Hallstatt was the only place we went simply because of Rick Steves.  He says in his travel video, if there is one place you must see to get the flavor of an Alpine village, you must visit Hallstatt.  It was on the way to Salzburg, so we planned one night there.

By far, Hallstatt was the most ironically “European-looking” and picturesque places we have visited.  It is such a lovely, breathtakingly beautiful village, nestled at one edge of the small mountain lake called  Hallstätter See! Behind it, the vertical Dachstein mountains stretch to the heavens .  Hallstatt lives up to the official travel guide claim of “the most photographed village, ” and we were there to add to the number of photographers.

We had thought that coming in early October would be the “shoulder season.”  Far from it, it October is China’s National Day, ‘and the commencement of one of its “golden weeks.”  And so, it turns out that we were among thousands of Chinese tourists who were flooding the narrow Hallstatt cobblestone streets, sporting their selfie sticks, trying to capture their image with the majestic Dachstein backdrop.  And, Rebecca commented, we were just two more!

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It was an overcast morning when we set out from Scott and Ulli’s place in St. Nicolai and the skies got progressively darker as we trekked west along the river valleys that lead to the Alps.  By the time we reached the entrance to the west side of Hallstätter See, it was drizzling and getting colder by the minute.

Following my GPS, I turned left into a queue of cars waiting to enter the tiny village’s gate. I had assumed that it was a ticket-type of parking arrangement for the whole city, so as I approached the gate, avoiding hundreds of tourists walking around, someone behind me was honking like crazy.

At this point, I began to wonder if I was in the right lane or if we should find parking elsewhere and walk in.  The honking behind me continued.  When the gate would not provide me with a ticket, I realized that this must be a sort of delivery/local entry only.  Now, I was wedged between the gate and the man behind me, still laying on his horn.  So I got out and walked back to talk to the man in the delivery van.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?” I tried to say.  This only seemed to enrage the driver further.  From his yelling and his gestures, I gathered that I was definitely not in the right place.  So, I tried to gesture that I needed him to back up so that I could back out of the gate entry to let him and the other seven or eight cars in the queue through.  Although that seemed to only increase his ire, he did, eventually, back up a wee bit and I was able to back up our manual 5-speed (still getting re-adjusted to driving a manual for the first time in about 10 years) rental car in a diagonal fashion and nervously made a 7-point turn (in front of the delivery drivers waiting and hundreds of Chinese tourists milling around)  to get back onto the road where we eventually did find a 24 hour parking garage and walk in.  Welcome to Hallstatt.

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Our welcome was further punctuated with a scene at the hotel lobby where a man had  plopped himself down in a chair in front the reception desk and was yelling at the hotel manager demanding that he be allowed to stay at this hotel.

This 30-something was surrounded by what looked like his wife and parents, standing, and he was speaking in broken English with a heavy Chinese accent, saying, “Ok, you don’t give us room at this hotel, we stay right here!” pointing to the floor, his Rolex dangling from his wrist.  It was going to be a standoff and we were in line behind him.

Finally a kind young woman took us aside, apologized, and led us into the bar next door to check us in.  Within a few minutes, we were being escorted out of this hotel up a narrow walkway to a set of  sister rooms on the hill and were checked in to a very nice, large room with (if you go out on the balcony and lean out) a partial view of the lake.

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My initial reaction to Hallstatt was one of disappointment–not because of the rain, but because of the tourists, everywhere, and now we were just two more.     

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We parked in a parking lot about a half mile away and took a shuttle to our hotel.  Our part of the hotel is in a whole separate building, quite a walk from the first.     

We settled in and watched the rain.  Woody wrote and I read about Hallstatt.  

We went to an early dinner at an old establishment–it’s been a hotel/restaurant since the 1500’s.       

We walked back in the rain and decided to get up early and see the town before most of the others get up. It is a pretty town and I can imagine that when people really lived here, it was amazing.     

The rain was much lighter this morning, and we got up and out before 7:30.  Very few people were about, and we wandered the streets much more freely.  The houses are charming with balcony and window boxes.  They don’t have much space for gardens, but they have learned to use what space they have.  They have esplaired their pear trees and grape vines, they plant herbs in window boxes, and cruciferous vegetables in narrow borders next to their doors.  Hanging baskets of yellow baskets and trailing ivy and balcony pots with red geraniums decorate their homes. The houses are built on the steep mountain side with twisting, narrow passages leading from one level down stone steps to the next. Stone walls are made of the mountain rock and over the years have been covered with moss, ivy and wild grape vines.  The town sits on the water’s edge of a lovely Alpine lake where swans swim up to the shore and charmingly wait for crumbs.     

The crowded streets and the man in the reception office stuck with me. Those images reminded me of what used to be called “the ugly American,” the bombastic traveler, the “Nouveau riche” that shouts out entitlement. Others of newfound wealth are taking up that role now, it seems.

And then there was the nasty, impatient delivery man who acted like I had no business being in his town.  Was I the ”ugly American” then?  Hallstatt has become something quite different from what Rick Steves wrote about.  As Joni Mitchell sings, “You pave Paradise; put up a parking lot.

I can see why people want to come here, but my goodness, it’s like living in Disneyland with all these tourists, pushing through the pathways, trying to get to the next photo op, and I realize we are just two more. 

By far, this was the most picturesque and lovely place we had visited.  By far, it was the most expensive lodging. And it was a place we were glad to see, but the place that we were the most anxious to leave.

Salzburg

The drive to Salzburg was only an hour.  Salzburg (literally “salt castle”) was built on the wealth from the salt mines coming out of Hallstatt and other salt mines in the region.  The Salzach River was named not for the salt in the water, but the cargo it carried out of this part of Europe, dating way back to the Celts in the Fifth Century BC. Salt has always been prized, and Salzburg made money charging a tariff on all the valuable salt that passed through this valley for two millennia.  Talk about old money!

Real estate here is gold!  The old town is bounded by a huge castle on a steep hill on the south side and the Salzach River on the north.  The only place we could park our car was in the five story parking garage that had been carved inside the hill.  Apparently, mining comes second nature to the Salzburgers.  A modern tunnel connects the huge parking garage to the old square.

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Coming out to the old part of town, there are beautiful squares with flower and vegetable markets, modern stores built into 18th and19th century buildings, and cathedrals and statues (many in tribute to Mozart), all in the shadow of the great castle and ramparts to the south.  A funicular carries tourists up to the castle and spectacular views above.

The hills are alive with the sound of music, not because of the movie that was filmed in part here, but the glockenspiels that wafting down from the bell towers every 15 minutes.

Rebecca had one desire while here, to hear a Mozart concert, and she had obtained tickets to a dinner/theater, so our first stop was locate the dinner theater near Mozart Plaza.  It turns out the performance is held in the Mirabell Palace, claimed to be the oldest restaurant in Europe.

After we located the building, entrance, we toured the town a bit more.

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We arrived at the venue still too early, but they let us sit in the downstairs restaurant and have a glass of wine.  Our waiter is from Albania, and he gave us some names of places to see when we are there.  We stand in line to enter the dinner hall–Some Americans start talking to each other across the way.  I asked, “Where are you from?” They say California; they are a group of singers so I say we are from California, too.  They tell us they are from Woodland, and we know many people they know–small world!

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New friends from Woodland, CA

We are seated at a table with white table cloths–the chairs have white covers.  The tables are crowded together more than is comfortable. 

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The couple seated at our table is from Christ Church, New Zealand. Alan is a retired school principal and Charlotte was a financial manager for the schools.  We have time to chat as the people are being seated.

We are served the first course of soup–my vegetarian one was not very tasty.  Then the music started.  Two violins, a viola, a cello, and an upright base took the stage (the program didn’t give the musician names), and two singers.  They sang four selections from Don Giovani–they were great!

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Great voices, great costumes, great interplay between them.  Then came the main course.  I had a bowl of risotto.  Also, nothing to write home about.  The second “course” of music was from the Marriage of Figueroa.  I recognized the melody of some  of the songs.

Dessert was a cream parfait with honey and fruit–it had strawberry, so the kind waitress found some cranberry jam–not the best flavor combination bit ok.  

Then came the last music course–Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and then scenes from from the Magic Flute.  Though I was disappointed in my food, I really enjoyed the music and am glad we went.  Later, the next day, we found out the restaurant had been around since 851.  Really?  Oldest restaurant in Europe!

This stopover in Salzburg was one of the cultural highlights for us.  Though it is not really part of the “people not places” focus of this trip for me, Salzburg is a great place to dive into rich European history.  Next stop, Vienna to meet Iulia Pop, a second cousin of mine. But another historic gem was on the way, the Admont Benedictine Abby, a recommendation that was sent to us while we were in Salzburg, and it was not too far out of our way.

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The Abby is a carefully curated museum, and a World Heritage Site.  It is said to be the largest monastic library in the world.  The collection depicts a 16th Century view of philosophy, knowledge, and faith, portrayed in seven ceiling frescoes (each demonstrating a discipline, like astronomy, theology, or history) and various statues that adorn the library.  It displays 200,000 hand bound volumes, some dating back to the Eighth Century.

We had  fantastic weather and wonderfully bucolic scenery on our way out of the foothills of the Alps. I just can’t imagine anything short of Yosemite being any nicer.

We stopped for picnic supplies at a small grocery store in the town of Admont and had  a picnic off of the highway, then headed on to Vienna.

We drove on under warmer, and sunny skies.  The scenery looked like a close cousin to Yosemite Valley, we thought and pulled off to a narrow farm road to take pictures.  There was a walking/biking path following the road, and up ahead a bench.  We decided to eat lunch soaking up the scenery–restful to the eyes and calming to the spirit.  A lovely lunch.  In the field in front of us was some lavender, yarrow, and an orange flower that was unknown to me.

Rebecca said she had an inexplicable  urge to twirl around in the middle of he meadow and sing.

On to Vienna.

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