Hallstatt – where beauty meets adventure

On a cloudy Easter Sunday morning, we began our short drive to Hallstatt. As we drove out of Salzburg, we were met with pouring rain. The snow-speckled alpine mountains surrounding Salzburg were completely hidden from view and dark clouds hung low. Several minutes into our drive, we move off the expressway and pass thru pretty little villages nestled at the foot of lush green hills. We drive past these villages and on to windy roads with the hills on one side and the gushing stream on the other. The rain had slowed down to a drizzle, the clouds were receding and finally, some spring sunshine filters thru the sky as we arrive in Hallstatt.

Our first stop in Hallstatt was the Dachstein Ice Caves and 5 Fingers Lookout. Unfortunately, this was still closed due to the cold weather (Austria was still getting its last snowfall in April!) We were a bit disappointed as the views from the 5 Fingers looked stunning and the ice caves looked simply fascinating from the pictures we’d seen. But, we knew we were not going to be able to explore some of the sights as we were still traveling during the winter period and most of the attractions would reopen only around the end of April. We didn’t despair though as we had quite an exciting adventure waiting for us!

We pulled into the parking area at the Salzwelten Hallstatt and made our way to the funicular that would take us up to the Salzberg (Salt Mountain). It’s a short scenic ride offering beautiful views of the Hallstatt lake and the Alps.

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Once you are off the funicular, you have a few things to do on the Salzberg – head up to the Skywalk or World Heritage View – it’s a viewing platform 350 metres above the Hallstatt village. Take the lookout bridge towards the Rudolf Tower to get to the Skywalk. The views from here are just jaw-dropping. You can see the Hallstatt village right below you and the nearby Obertraun village as well. The Hallstattersee looks quite magnificient from this height. Although we visited on a cloudy day and the alps were mostly hidden from view, the moody clouds added a certain charm to the views.

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And the main attraction on this Salt Mountain is the Salt Mine of course. If you’re feeling peckish before you head on over to the Salt Mine, you can grab a bite at the restaurant in the Rudolf Tower. They have a lovely patio which is right above the Skywalk deck so you can grab a pint and a bite while enjoying the beautiful views. Make sure you head on over to the salt mine in time for your tour. The walk to the Salt Mine is short but beautiful.

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Look back and you can see the Rudolf Tower in the distance..

The Salt Mine tour was the highlight of our Hallstatt trip. This is hands down one of our best tours and most fascinating experiences ever. Not only was it well-organized with informative and friendly guides but it was filled with a lot of high-tech entertainment and adventure! Before we set off on our tour through the oldest salt mine in the world, we had to don a miner’s suit which was just the beginning of making this a very real experience. We then walked thru long tunnels that had been dug up by miners a few thousands of years ago to get to the salt mine.

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And, then, it was time to take a mindblowing ride down a very long, ancient wooden miner’s slide to go further down into the mine. As you can tell from the picture, I was a bit nervous as is usually the case with rides but Steve just loves them! You could take the flight of stairs next to the slide if you don’t feel up to it. But, you really should do the slide – it’s a lot of fun! It’s quite safe for the young and old (just don’t put your arms out and follow the directions given).

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They also capture your embarassing but fun moment to take back as a prized souvenir

Once you’re further down in the mine, you’ll find lots of rock salt – on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere… you can just pinch some off for a taste – it’s delicious!

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The tour guides are great – they give you excellent background on the salt mine and its significance. Here are some tidbits that we remember – Apparently, 250 million years ago, the entire salt mine area was covered by the ocean. The village of Hallstatt came into existence when the salt mine was discovered during the pre-historic times. And today, the Hallstatt salt mine produces 750,000 tonnes of salt per year. It is one of the first known salt mines in the world that helped uncover valuable information on the pre-historic era.

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In the salt mine, you’ll go thru several diferent sections – some like the one above where you’ll find salt blocks and some others where they display valuable finds from the pre-historic times. There’s also a little cinema room – appearing very rustic but built with advanced technology. The tour also includes a few short, interesting videos that take you deeper into the history of the salt mine and the remarkable discoveries that were made including the oldest wooden staircase in Europe and the Man in Salt (the body of a former miner was discovered in an astonishingly well-preserved condition due to all the salt he was buried under!)

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No, this isn’t him – this is just Sepp, a miner who tells the story of the Man in Salt

At the last level in the mine, you are 400 metres underground and there is a mysterious little lake that reflects an amazing light show – spectacular effects and very nicely done! The light show depicts pre-historic times and a day in the life of the miners.

And, finally, it’s time for the last ride through the mine… We hop on a miner’s railway and take another exhilirating ride thru the narrow tunnels of the mine.

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The Hallstatt Salt Mine is a sensational experience – filled with non-stop adventure from start to finish. We highy recommend a visit to the Salzberg / Salt Mountain – it takes about 3 hours to do the salt mine tour and the skywalk. If there’s only one thing you have time for in Hallstatt, do this. It’s an unforgettable, thrilling adventure! If you have more time to spare and love a hike, Salzberg offers a couple of lovely hiking options as well.

We had just a couple more hours to spare in Hallstatt and decided to ride the funicular back down and check out the little village.

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We took a stroll thru the village market place. (See how deserted it is? Definitely one of the greatest advantages of traveling off-season is to be able to explore a place without bumping shoulder to shoulder. It is just the kind of holiday we like.)

The Hallstatt village center is filled with colorful little buildings and the Evangelical Church dominates most of this little center.

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It has an impressive spire
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This other church you see perched on the hill is Hallstatt’s catholic church – St. Michael’s Chapel

This 12th century church is most popular for its Charnel House (or Bone House). The Ossuary boasts a collection of over 600 skulls, all adorned with artistic designs. Unfortunately, we got there only to find that we’d arrived a few minutes too late. The place had just been closed!

We took a walk around the lovely little cemetery at the back of the church. Much like the rest of Austria, the graves are beautifully decorated with personal effects adorning the graves. The view from the top of the church is lovely.

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We then walked up to the classic village viewpoint at the Gosaumühlstraße. This is where you can get the famous postcard view of Hallstatt.

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Although it was about 7 PM, there was still plenty of daylight and we headed down to the lake for a stroll. The views of the Hallstätter See are just delightful. We grabbed a coupla beers, plonked down on one of the benches by the lake, and sat admiring the alpine wonder that surrounds this little Austrian village.

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Of course you could do a boat tour as well and get up close to these gorgeous mountains
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It was nearing sundown and we were just content to sit there and watch the swans swim by..

There’s unbelievable beauty everywhere in this little village!

Although it can get quite crowded, just take a walk thru the village and its surounding area and you can find a cosy quiet little spot to admire the beauty that this small place packs in.

We spent a short day in Hallstatt. If you do choose to stay overnight, you could stay at the nearby, less touristy Gosau or Obertraun. They are just 10 minutes away from Hallstatt. We spent a short while in Obertraun – it’s a tiny village on the other side of this bridge.

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With it being Easter sunday, the locals were nowhere to be seen and the tourists were thronging little Hallstatt. We seemed to be the only souls in this sleepy village and it was lovely to walk through the quiet little lanes and sit by the lake.

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The beauty of Austria is in its little alpine villages – each one as breathtaking as the next. We had visited St. Gilgen and Mondsee the previous day and continued to be amazed by this incredibly beautiful country. The Salzkammergut region where all these little villages are has some of Austria’s prettiest lakes and most charming villages, all surrounded by the majestic Alps.

We plan on going back to Austria again, maybe in winter – we’d love to try some skiing and snowboarding!

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While we dream of that day and hope it comes sooner than later, here’s the ‘Salt Man’ wishing you Glück Auf or Good Luck for your Hallstatt trip!

St. Gilgen and the Wolfgangsee – pure wonder

Surrounded by beautiful blue lakes and stunning alpine panorama, this picturesque Austrian village will steal your heart.

We made our way to St. Gilgen on the second day of our German-Austrian alpine road trip. Situated on the northern shore of the Wolfgangsee, St. Gilgen is one of the most scenic little towns in the popular Salzkammergut region in Austria.

We had a late start to St. Gilgen after our delightful visit to Lake Chiemsee the previous day. But, located just 25 kilometers away from Salzburg, we were in this charming little town in less than 30 minutes.

We headed straight to the Zwölferhorn Cable Car station. Zwölferhorn is part of the Salzkammergut mountain range of the Eastern Alps. The eastern part of the Alps, although not as high as the western range, is blessed with plenty of lakes, most of which are in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. This is quite evident when you stand atop the Zwölferhorn. You are surrounded by numerous deep blue lakes including the Wolfgangsee, Mondsee, Fuschlsee and Attersee. It’s a pretty spectacular view!

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Wolfgangsee, the big lake at the front and Mondsee, at the back

The Zwölferhorn cable car is said to have begun operations over 65 years ago. It’s a short 15-minute breathtaking ride to the top.

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View of the magnificent Austrian Alps as we make our ascent to Zwölferhorn

Once you get to the top, there are a whole bunch of viewpoints you can walk up to, in just about 10 minutes. You get strikingly different views from each side.

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Despite a cloudy day, the beautiful mountains and valleys of Salzkammergut make for a great view
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Wolfgangsee narrows down as it flows towards the southern side

The top of Zwolferhorn is simply a little paradise. The views are insanely good. We grabbed one of these benches and just sat there, hand in hand, admiring the beauty of Austria.

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We were missing something though…

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Brew with a view

A delicious pint of one of Austria’s fine beers completes the delightful experience! Stiegl is one of Austria’s most popular, revered beers. Unfortunately, they just brew a lager style offering no ales. But, the beer is worth trying. It’s quite a refreshing easy-drinking not-too-hoppy lager. (More on our beer travels in Austria coming soon in a separate post!)

Despite the somewhat warmer temperatures, there was still some snow around. But the weather was pleasant. And, the place wasn’t too packed with tourists – one of the biggest advantages of traveling during the off-season. We found a cozy little spot and sat sipping our beers and basking in the spring sunshine – the perfect recipe for a great day!

The Salzkammergut mountain range is quite impressive. Dachstein is one of the tallest and most popular mountains in Salzkammergut and is known for its fascinating ice caves and glaciers.

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Some of the mountains of Salzkammergut

We’d planned on visiting Dachstein as well on this trip but hit some bad weather and decided to save this for our next Austrian trip. The views of the Austrian Alps from Dachstein look mind-blowing and you should definitely make it part of your itinerary if you can!

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The large mountain you see is Schafberg

Schafberg is another popular mountain around the Wolfgangsee and at the foothills of this mountain is St. Wolfgang, another charming little village. Schafberg is well-known for its historic steam cog railway that has been offering rides up the steep mountain for over 120 years! [Fun fact: The train has also featured in the hugely famous movie ‘Sound of Music’. Most of the movie was actually filmed in and around the Salzkammergut area.] The Schafbergbahn was sadly not operational in early April and we missed this exciting ride.

There’s so much to do around the Wolfgangsee and so much beauty!

But, we first needed some food! We decided to head back down to St. Gilgen and grab a bite in one of those lovely lakeside restaurants.

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The Wolfgangsee Schiffahrt takes you on a beautiful ride across the lake, meandering through crystal clear blue waters. Apart from St. Gilgen and St. Wolfgang, there are a few other little villages by the Wolfgangsee you can visit if you’d like.

Having happily stuffed ourselves with some delicious food and ales at the Fischer Wirt restaurant, we decided to wander around little St. Gilgen.

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Hidden alleyways are the best place to start
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Just love how trees look in early spring – still blossoming with the littlest of green leaves

St. Gilgen is a small village with lovely little houses dotting the lakefront. It is also sometimes referred to as Abersee. But is popularly known as ‘Mozart village’. Although Mozart never visited the place, a few of his family members lived here and there’s a Mozarthaus to commemorate the great composer and his family.

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Not too far away from the Mozarthaus is a lovely statue of Mozart himself in front of the Rathaus (town hall).

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St. Gilgen Mozartplatz

It’s not just music but wonderful art as well that adorns this quaint little village.

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A fountain dedicated to Mozart’s mother who was born here

Our last stop was the parish church of Saint Aegidius, aka Saint Giles, after whom the village gets its name.

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It is a small church done up in baroque style. While the interior of the church was splendid, the little cemetery at the back of the church was heart-warmingly beautiful. It was so endearing to see the little notes on the tombstones, the fresh bouquets of flowers, the candles and the photographs on the graves.

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It got us thinking about our own loved ones we lost in this sometimes difficult journey that is life. Our spirits weren’t dampened though. If anything, this town filled us with an overwhelming sense of love and appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us.

We simply fell in love with St. Gilgen. It is just a tiny place in the vast land of Austria but it is one of the prettiest places in this remarkable country. We made a silent promise to come back to this enchanting little village.

Füssen and Schwangau – a little piece of heaven

Two little picturesque German towns surrounded by the mighty, stunning Alps.

There’s nothing like the Alps to fill you with child-like glee and make you squeal with delight at every little sight of them. We just cannot seem to get enough of them and have been very fortunate to see the extensive, breath-taking range of the German, Austrian and Swiss Alps.

Füssen and Schwangau are located in the midst of the Allgäu Alps – which extend across Bavaria in south Germany and Tyrol & Vorarlberg in Austria. The little town is about an hour from where we live (in Ulm). After an exhilarating drive, we arrived at our Scottish/Irish themed hotel where we had a fabulous night of whisky tasting. It had been so long since we had drunk good whiskies in this beer-famed land. We lost count of how many whiskies we’d had – each one better than the last. They had SUCH an amazing collection of whiskies from all around the world! This was our primary motivation to book this hotel of course. The hotel itself was quite nice – friendly staff and located very close to the Hopfen am see, one of the many lakes in the region.

The lake was frozen of course, considering the sub-zero temperatures we’d been having through January. And, in just a minute we were away from the hotel and on the lake, taking a walk on the ice sheets. We were just blown away by the beauty that surrounds this small town.

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Hopfen am See, Füssen

It was our first time walking on a frozen lake and we weren’t sure how far out we should venture especially considering there were some sizable cracks across the lake and we were the only souls on the lake!

We then headed over to the Tegelberg mountain in Schwangau. This was just a few kilometers out from Füssen. Tegelberg is known for its winter sports and you can find a whole bunch of people skiing including teeny kids. They all row up in their groups, all padded up and carrying their ski gear, looking super excited with no trace of fear – ah, they were such fun to watch!

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Foothills of Tegelberg, Schwangau

We took the Tegelbergbahn or cable car up the mountain. It was a beautiful but somewhat suffocating a ride. The little cable car fills up nearly 45 people standing shoulder to shoulder with their noses almost touching the glass door! It was such a surreal experience compared to our cable car rides in Switzerland. But when we got out of the car, the views took over everything else. The Alps oh, the gorgeous alps .. they were everywhere.

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Meet the Allgäu Alps

We decide to hike up the snow-covered Telgelberg mountain to get to a higher point. It was a steep, slippery climb but with the prettiest views all along the way.

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All we could feel was a deep sense of bliss and contentment

We make way for skiers, young and old.. we also make way for a dog, a cute labrador that climbed up the hill so effortlessly wagging its tail ever so cutely.

Huffing and puffing, we make it up to the top, and are rewarded with breath-taking views. And, excited to take a peek down the big mountain, I take a few steps dangerously close to the edge.. and I am washed over with the sweetest rush of fear and joy.

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We could have stood here forever…

We just stand there in amazement with all the other guys that made the climb.. just soaking in all this wondrous beauty. After a bit, we make the descent. Going downhill is always tricky and going down a snow-trodden mountain is even more tricky.. keeping our balance and taking small careful steps, we make it down to the restaurant. We get some grub and beer and sit down to have our lunch by this gorgeous view.

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Brew with a view

Reluctantly, we make our way back to the cable car and down to Schwangau. We then drive over to Füssen.

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Hello beautiful

Füssen is such a pretty little town. It is known for the Neuschwanstein castle which technically is actually in Schwangau.. People stay at Füssen when visiting the castle and are just rushing through to their next destination and barely explore this gem of a little city. Not only is it picturesque with the lovely Lech river flowing through and with the Alps in the background, it is rooted deep in history and tradition and was luckily untouched by the world war destruction.

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Füssen has a little castle of its own – Hohes Schloss

We got to the Hohes Schloss / High Castle a little late and we couldn’t check out the inside but were able to walk around the inner courtyard and admire the unique art decor of the castle.

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Courtyard of the Hohes Schloss – this unique artwork is replicated all over the little town

On the way to the castle is the Basilika St. Mang – the interiors and ceiling art of this abbey church is simply beautiful. And, they have the most embellished church organ I have ever seen. And we were in love with their cherub pulpit – so intricate and unique! Simply loved the church. Germany has some of the most beautiful churches.

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Basilika St. Mang, Füssen

Not too far from the town is the Lech Falls. This is just the prettiest little falls ever in the midst of surreal alpine beauty. The gorgeous emerald waters of the Lech river fall down and flow around the city of Füssen.

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We just walked around the area of the Lech Falls taking in all the beauty.. Slowly, we make our way back to the town centre – Altstadt.

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Pretty little streets of Füssen lighting up as dusk approaches

We make a short stop to pick up some Schneeballs  a delicious local pastry that has been around for 300 years or so! It’s available in a multitude of flavors and being coffee lovers, we went for one in a cappuccino flavor.

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After a few more strolls around the little town and a couple of local beers, we arrive at the Schlossbrauhaus in Schwangau. The two little towns are just a few kilometers apart and we sure did some back and forth in this one day.

This seemed to be a popular brewery in this neck of the woods and they claimed to serve some craft beer as well. Now that definitely got our attention and we were excited to try out their beers. Unfortunately, we were quite disappointed in their so-called “craft beers” which were really just the traditional German Pils and Weizens. We don’t mind the traditional German beers especially the wheat beers but their beers were a disappointing version of the traditional beers even. That said, it wasn’t all wasted time as they served some finger-licking local food! And, they had some sort of a local event that day and there was a whole bunch of locals dressed as kings, queens, soldiers etc. and it was fun just watching these finely dressed people gather around a few beers. We were just minutes away from the famed Neuschwanstein castle and no wonder we had royalty flocking the bar.

If you’d like a good pint in the area, you should visit the Allgäuer Stüberl or Hotel Hirsch (both serve some delicious Bavarian brews and lip-smacking local food). Not being a huge fan of the Pils, we usually stick to the Weizens when it comes to traditional beer in Germany.

The next morning, we visited the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. So, to be honest, it was our last item on the things to do in Füssen. The Neuschwanstein is a pretty looking castle, inside out. But, the insane crowds that throng to it even during the coldest of winters and take a trip all the way here just to see the castle is beyond our understanding. Blame it on Walt Disney for making this “Sleeping Beauty” castle such an obsession with tourists visiting Germany. And no, this is not all that this beautiful country is about. Well, nevertheless, it is a beautiful castle with splendid architecture and is worth a visit if you’re in the area. And do take the short trek to the Marienbrücke, a little bridge not too far from the castle that offers a full view of the castle and some beautiful views of the surrounding area.

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View from the Marienbrücke

Note that visiting the castle has to be carefully planned. You simply cannot be late for your reserved time slot – if you do, you will not be allowed to enter at all. We reserved our tickets online (we took the king’s ticket) and skipped the long queues to purchase the tickets. We took an English guided tour; the guide was friendly and did a decent job of recounting the life of King Ludwig II (known as the mad king). King Ludwig led a fascinating although lonely life and died under mysterious circumstances. He was obsessed with castles and swans among other things. The Neuschwanstein (new swan stone) castle has lavish and beautiful interiors and the art that adorns the walls are spectacular. The castle tour itself felt way too short and rushed; well, it had to be this way so it could accommodate the crowds that visit the castle everyday.

Our guide for the Hohenschwangau castle was more impressive, giving us some interesting, humorous anecdotes of King Ludwig II and his family. The interiors of this castle is just as lovely, may not be as extravagant and rich in its decorations but quite exquisite nonetheless. The artwork and the Turkish inspired designs are admirable. The Hohenschwangau stands on the ruins of the old Schwanstein castle and the  Neuschwanstein stands on the ruins of the original Hohenschwangau. They sure mixed the heck out of these castle names!

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The new Hohenschwangau

The castles are close to the Alpsee which like the other lakes in the area was frozen. There were many more people out walking on this lake (some were even running and jumping) and this time around we ventured farther into the lake and had the most wonderful time.

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Headed to the Alps – one slow step at a time on the Alpsee

For us, the castles were definitely not the highlight of Füssen and Schwangau. They are worth a visit for sure but you’d be missing out on SO much if you do not check out the sights in and around Füssen.

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The dreamy Bavarian countryside where time stands still

Füssen and Schwangau are fairy tale towns even without the castles and we have some of our most cherished travel memories from these two little towns.