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The traveler: An expected journey This time it's the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden & Norway before England again for several weeks and on to Croatia.

Return to Austria (October)

AUSTRIA | Sunday, 24 April 2016 | Views [270]

In the Austrian Alps lies a small village on the edge of a lake. This place called Hallstatt was one of the few spots I'd wanted to visit in Europe before I left. With a plane leaving from Munich in just a few days, inconvenient train schedules, and hotels that were mostly booked (despite the fact that it was October) it seemed unlikely that I'd actually get there. Then at the last minute I was able to find a room for one night. So from Italy I left for the Austrian boarder town of Villach as a stop over for the night. My Italian friend had told me this was a popular gambling town because it is just over the boarder. However the little I saw of it was very quiet.
By this time of year the weather was definitely beginning to change; the skies were grey and the layovers at train stations rather cold. When I finally arrived at the lake side platform across from Hallstatt though the sun had decided to show its face. A small group of us waited for the ferry to make its way across to us while we took photos of our picturesque surroundings. The village appeared so tranquil from the water, yet as we disembarked from the little ferry we were soon amid dozens of bustling tourists.
Given the time of year and the fact that none of the European people I'd spoken to had known about Hallstatt I was expecting rather a smaller number of visitors in addition to myself. However Hallstatt is apparently well known in Asia. I was constantly surprised on my trip by the number of Asian tourists in well known places. In Hallstatt though there seemed to be tourist from nowhere else. Given that 80 - 90 % of the people in Hallstatt seemed to be tourists I felt as though I'd stepped into an odd combination of Austrian village in Asia.
Time seemed to stand still for me in Hallstatt. I knew I only had 24 hours there, so I decided to make the most of it and forget about everything else: where I was going next, and what I needed to arrange. After dropping off my bag I started off down the main street with the lake on one side and the hotels and shops with overflowing flower boxes on the other against the mountainside. Along the way I found what I considered a unique little salt shop beautifully decked out in everything from bath salts to dozens of seasoned cooking salts. I left with two surprisingly heavy bags of salt, but hey I only had one more week to carry my backpack!
Leisurely I continued my walk along the edge of the lake and left the touristy half of Hallstatt behind. As I walked along the quiet roads of the local part the skies turned grey again. I found myself passing a small wooden building near a beautiful blue-green creek. Someone headed into the building with a metal pail and the light flicked on. I'm sure they were heading in to milk, and if I'd spoken more than a dozen words of German I probably would've asked. It was such a unique and lovely little barn between the creek and the small road, and just across the street from several cozy houses.
As it began to rain I headed back. Since I didn't really want to just sit in my room I stopped in at one of the lakeside restaurants. By this time I'd caught on to the restaurant customs in Europe, so while a couple other tourist looked around form the door way I found a little table with a view out the window and sat down. Sure enough along came a waitress with a menu. With a warm bowl of creamy soup I watched the rain coming down outside on the lake.
Before long it was not only wet outside, but dark as well. The night was still young though, so in my rain jacket, which was with me practically every day, I wondered around the quiet wet streets. I found a narrow set of steps leading up at the edge of town. From the top I had a wonderful view of the rain descending on the lake and the lights of the town beaming dimly into the night.
Eventually I decided to look for somewhere a bit more sheltered. Climbing another different set of steps beneath a covered arch I came up to the church above the town. I hadn't known how to reach it earlier, but now that it was closed I'd found it! The small grave yard had lanterns glowing over the graves. It was half a little unnerving, and at the same time very peaceful. Given the extremely limited space in Hallstatt people are apparently buried for a handful of years, then the bones dug up, decorated and placed in the church.
With a few things to take care of before bed I decided to return to the hotel. Eventually just an Asian couple and I were left downstairs. The last lady at the hotel closed up for the night, and then turned the lights out on us! After she shut the door behind her I went looking for the light switch. The other couple pointed out the correct one once I'd tried a few and we got the lights back on. They offered me one of their snacks, and though I declined as I was not hungry, that unspoken, mutual agreement of ignoring each other was broken.
The next morning I started out relatively early to the base of the mountain that I'd scouted out the day before as the boarding point for the funicular train that took people to the ancient salt mine above. I spent a relaxing time wandering around a few paths, reading about the history, and taking photos while waiting for the next tour of the mine. A small viewing platform had been built on the edge of the mountain with an incredible view of the lake below, with tiny Hallstatt on it's edge. From the tops of the mountains around came hang gliders floating through the air. How inviting it looked on that bright sunny day!
While I was standing there another single girl approached me to take a photo of her. By the time we'd switched places and then continued on our separate ways I'd lost the rest of my resentment about all the Asian tourists. With even the simplest interaction with someone else, by doing a favor, you can see them as just like you, even when you don't speak the same language.
It seemed there were always the same two language choices: the national language, and English. So for the salt mine this meant that the tour was presented in German and English, though half of the group spoke German and the other half I'm guessing Chinese. Then of course there was me, probably the only native English speaker in the group! I admire all of the tourist from Asia who come to the German speaking area, not speaking German and perhaps only a tiny bit of English, but who come anyway and somehow manage to get around. I certainly was very grateful on numerous occasions that my language could be understood.
Once we were all suited up with blue over clothing, none too flattering, we set off into the mine. Luckily I'd known ahead of time the dramatic temperature difference in the mine, and despite the nice day I'd come in my jacket. As we walked down between the tracks the air got colder and colder. It is easy to imagine times long ago as you walk through the mining tunnels, just tall enough to pass through, and wide enough for a cart. Despite the definite touristy aspects of the tour such as the light show on the underground wall, it was enjoyable. I learned more of the history of the ancient salt mining region, where everyone from children to men and women worked in processing the valuable salt. To this day salt is still mined in the mountains, though with much less labour intensive and dangerous work.
Thousands of years ago there was a giant rockslide in the area. Rather than spend the time digging out their old tunnels, the miners simply dug news ones. Recently an old passageway was excavated and inside they found the remains of a wooden staircase from the 13th century BC, the oldest known in Europe. They are, I believe in the process of moving it, but through the glass we had the chance to see it: log above log, only half a dozen or so inches apart.
Like a fire pole in a fire station there were two places in the mine where wooden slides led down a level. This I think was the true reason for our heavy duty suits. It was great fun to sit down, lean back and whoosh down the narrow wooden slides. Fortunately perhaps they were not a quick as they looked from the top. When our tour was complete we were taken back out into the sunny day by means of a small train of wooden seats. It certainly isn't for the claustrophobic, but it must have been the best part of the day for the not too distant miners.
It wasn't long before I was back on the edge of the edge of the water waiting for the ferry with a considerable crowd of people. My 24 hours in Hallstatt were up.
By evening I was in Salzburg from which I'd figured out I could get to Munich in time for my flight the next day. I found my hotel for the night with the help of a young woman, who was very happy to practice her English as she and I figured out which end of the street I was looking for. My place for the night appeared in fact to be part accommodation for visitors, and part place of worship, though the two seemed to function entirely separately. I was on the edge of the older portion of down town as far as I could tell so I spent my evening strolling down a few streets, and wondering which castle I was looking at across the river. For dinner I choose a table outside where I could watch the people walking by as well as the splashing water display. Darkness had fallen, but before turning in I walked down one last street in which I found one of many windows celebrating Mozart. The musical shaped pastries though I thought were quite outstanding!

After an early breakfast I walked back to the train station where the soldiers and tents of the evening before were unsurprisingly still in place. Everything was calm, and there were no crowds, yet I'd known right away when I stepped off the train the day before it was all there because of the refugees spilling in. After failing to see my train listed under the platform display I went to the help desk.

"That train is not running. We haven't had a train from here to Munich in 3 weeks," was the answer with an implied "Where have you been?"
I'd been too preoccupied keeping up with everything day to day and making sure I had a bed the following night to have any extra time for the news. The little bits I had heard came from other people. However that did not change the fact that I had a plane to catch in about 3 hours.

The man at the next desk I went to was more helpful. Following his advise I went outside to the taxis after taking more money from the ATM. (I'd planed my time so perfectly that I had hardly any change left.) When we got to what I assume was the Austrian-German boarder my taxi was stopped. The guard peered inside. Seeing that I was not Middle-Eastern he quickly waved the driver past. It was the first time I understood what it might be like crossing into another country with the hope of being able to stay.
I arrived at the train station in Germany with plenty of time for the train itself, but even if it arrived on time at the airport I'd only have 1 hour before my flight left Munich. As luck would have it the train left the station exceedingly late.
I spent half of the trip anxiously looking at the estimated arrival time on the screen in the train. The trains from Munich left for the airport every 20 minutes. I watched the screen, calculating that I would miss the first train....then the next. At last I gave up completely and realized I would simply have to figure out what to do about my missed flight when I got there.
Then suddenly we pulled into the Munich station, and it was indeed the right one. For some reason the arrival screen in the train had been completely off. For the next 10 minutes or so I went running back and forth between platforms trying to figure out the most complicated notice boards I'd yet seen. Eventually I ended up on a train that was indeed the next one leaving for the airport, though by the signs it looked like there could've been three of them. I relaxed a bit seeing a laid-back family on board with suitcases, who I figured out were also going to Heathrow. Amazingly I did indeed get to the airport 45 minutes before my flight, and even made it through a very sparse security line with time to spare before boarding.

 

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