Tuesday 1st June 2010, Hallstatt, near Salzburg
This is the coldest June day either of us can ever recall in all our lives! We are still high in the mountains of Austria and the rain, which was pouring down when we arrived last night, is still falling. The ground is waterlogged and the road along beside the lake lies under a film of water. All night the rain pounded on our roof and this morning we had to bale out the kitchen area which occasionally lets in water from somewhere we've so far failed to discover. We'd come a long way to see this area so, rain or not, we were going to do so. Berghaus jackets, hiking boots, umbrellas, all came into use. By the time we'd walked to the town centre we'd started to lose feeling in our frozen fingers!
Hallstatt is at the centre of the Salzkammergut, an area of particular geological interest, also rich in archaeological finds. It is also a stunningly beautiful area, or so our guide book assures us though it has been too damp and dark to see the landscape properly. The rain and low cloud though do lend a certain charm of their own.
The town is one of wooden houses clustered along the side of the lake and back up the steep hillside behind. It is very picturesque and despite the rain today, there were many Japanese tourists as well as American, French and British ones. Because the area is included on the UnescoWorld Heritage list it is a firm fixture on the tourist trail with coaches arriving no matter how bad the weather. The town, the area, the archaeological finds, the mountain, the caves and the salt workings are all listed. Now there is an attempt, strongly resisted by the inhabitants, to list the residential dwellings in the little town. Protest banners were hanging from the windows of every quaint cottage, claiming the move to be an infringement of their privacy. They own their homes and have always cared for them so where is the need for them to be listed? Any work they might wish to undertake, even inside their own homes, would be subject to official approval. Their argument was forcefully presented.
To reach the town last night we had to drive through a tunnel, several kilometres long. It shot us out right into the heart of Hallstatt clinging to the shore of the lake. Behind it rises the sheer mountainside. The railway line runs along the far shore, so the only way to reach it is to take the boat across the lake to the station.
Above the town a cable car carries visitors in minutes to the top of the mountainside.
The importance of the town is that for seven thousand years salt has been mined deep within the mountain, and indeed is still mined today. Salt, known as white gold, has always had a vital role in food preservation, pharmaceuticals, water treatment, agriculture, road treatment and much more. So this inaccessible area has had strong trading links with its neighbours and beyond. Hallstatt became rich and archaeological finds show evidence of its early trading links across Europe.
Having explored the little shops selling kitsch souvenirs and anything in any way whatsoever related to salt, we found the museum. Here we escaped from the weather for the rest of the morning as we learned just about everything there is to know about salt. The deposits result from a time when seawater covered the area. The landmass rose cutting off a vast area of salt water, forming an immense lake that gradually dried up leaving the crystallised salt behind. Later, due to the rising up of the Alps, the salt was forced up to the top, which explains why the mine is at the summit of the mountain.
In the 19th century, it was discovered that the mountainside around the entrance to the mine was an ancient burial ground with literally thousands of graves. So far only a couple of thousand have been excavated, These have given useful archaeological evidence of the way people lived in the Bronze Age and through to the Iron Age. The graves have also yielded many artefacts that are either in the museum here in Hallstatt or in the state museum in Vienna. The examples we saw in the museum are in an excellent state and range from ceramics to bronzes. There are chased metal dishes, vases and urns, broaches, swords and jewellery. There are also tools used for extracting salt. The earliest was an axe formed from a deer's antler. Even fragments of clothing, material, fur hats and leather shoes from pre-Christian times, have been preserved in the salt.
In addition there were galleries in the museum covering local wildlife and more recent history within the town – domestic life, fashion, wood carving, religion, fishing and more.
When we came out though, the rain was still falling. So we found somewhere for lunch. It was very snugly decorated and full of Austrian ladies who lunch – and very substantially too! Very many Austrians really do wear high green hats with feathers in, even the ladies - who also wear green tweed capes. I find them quite intimidating and assertive as they stride through the streets in "sensible" shoes or peddle along on their bicycles.
The cash machine dispensed us a 100 euro note! That's nearly £90! The bank changed it for us quite willingly but fancy stocking the machine with such a useless denomination.
Deciding we would not be passing this way again and that there was little else to do in the town on a wet afternoon we took the cable car up to the top of the mountain and joined a tour going down into the salt mine. We are probably old and jaded but really such things are not worth the substantial costs involved. The cable car was fun but the views from the top were marred by the weather. The ancient burial ground was atmospheric but really it looked no more than a pretty Alpine meadow.
The trip around the mine was very disappointing with videos at different points to explain matters and a couple of sound and light installations that were unnecessary distractions. Others on the tour showed little interest in either the history, geology or technology involved in extracting the salt and the lady guide did little more than ensure nobody wandered off into the labyrinth of galleries that riddle the inside of the mountain. Perhaps it's just that Austria doesn't do these things very well. I remember feeling angry and critical of the tour around Mozart's birthplace in Salzburg on our earlier travels in Austria. See 30th June 2006I visit because I'm interested and hope to absorb something of the atmosphere. I don't want to be told silly stories or to have somebody's artistic interpretation that I really don't understand, forced upon me.
There were some good fun bits too though. We all had to dress up in overalls before going round. The reason was unclear until we realised we had to move between the levels in the mine by sliding down long, steep shafts. The overalls ensured we didn't burn arms and legs on the wood as we rocketed down the longest and steepest slides we've ever encountered! Everybody loved that and there were whoops of delight once we all overcame our anxiety on the first slide. I never imagined retirement would include hurtling down slides in a salt mine hidden deep within an Austrian mountain! At the end of the visit we exited travelling on a tiny wooden train for a couple of kilometres along a narrow shaft.
It was still raining when we left. It's still raining now. Tomorrow we move on. Hopefully the rest of Europe cannot be this soggy!
Wednesday 2nd June 2010, Obernberg am Inn
We are still in Austria – just. It is also still raining. It began several days ago before we reached Austria and it has not stopped, day or night, since. While we were up in the mountains we were able to accept it more readily, but today we moved north and descended down to the plains, north of the Alps, where we have found it just as wet.
This morning Ian sought the advice of the camp-site lady explaining that we wished to visit Linz, Austria's third city but did not wish to drive there. She recommended a small town on the River Inn from where we could take the train. Seeking the station in the rain we were helped by a delightful lady on her bicycle. She not only explained how to find the station, she directed us to somewhere we could park Modestine for free before taking the train. On our previous visits to Austria we have been very impressed with how reasonable prices have been. Not so this time. Linz was a 45 minute ride in and the same back again. The fare was 22 euros each. That makes it something like twice the cost of Britain for a similar distance. Still, the train took us right into the heart of Linz and having snacked before hand, we were able to devote all our time to exploring from under our umbrellas rather than stopping for a coffee.
Linz is a very pleasant town but seen through the rain, its charms were not always apparent. It was enjoyable to walk around the streets of the old town though it was awash with water and spray from passing vehicles. Linz is on the banks of the river Danube. (Like the Rhine and the Rhone we encounter the Danube time and again as we travel around Europe.)
In particular I found it very pleasurable to wander through a big, modern, spotless city with its fashionable shops and covered arcades. Everywhere was bustling with activity while the façades of the buildings were ornately decorated, looking more like something from a wedding cake that the town hall or the council offices.
Having explored the main streets we inevitably drifted towards the churches with their onion domes and over exuberant baroque interiors. Personally I prefer the more sober gothic style with its high vaulting, towering columns and stained glass windows, but in moderation baroque can certainly be fun. The interior of the old Cathedral of Linz is very much in the baroque style but the huge new one is neo-gothic, constructed in the 1860s. In particular we were impressed with the stained glass windows, many depicting figures of city dignitaries wearing contemporary costume mingling with angels, saints and biblical scenes.
Inside the baroque Stadtpfarrkirche we discovered a couple of metal urns containing holy water. One had been blessed by the priests while a medallion of St. Ingatius was suspended into it. The containers were left in the church for people to help themselves. Drinking it apparently eased liver complaints, assisted pregnancies, prevented miscarriages and did lots of other wonderful things as well. While we were there a little old lady with a terrible hacking cough came in with her bottle which she filled from the St. Ignatius container before toddling off home through the downpour. We sincerely hope it worked for her cough – she was certainly past needing it to help with pregnancy.
Ian insisted on walking up to the centre of the bridge across the Danube in torrents of rain to take photos back towards the old town. When he had finally knocked off everything in his guidebook he discovered the town boasted a Mozart house so off we set again! Eventually we found it, marked by a plaque on the wall and a public "listening station". Thus we took shelter from the weather under the entrance to the building listening to Mozart's Linz Symphony. It seems the composer was invited to stay in the house by the local count who then asked him to play a piece of music at a forthcoming concert. Not having anything with him, Mozart simply wrote a symphony in a couple of days, dedicated it to the town and conducted it at the concert venue!
The afternoon passed quickly despite the persistent rain and as we had no idea where we would be spending the night, around 5pm we took the train back to Attnang-Puchheim where we had left Modestine. None of our books indicated a campsite anywhere in the area but one was marked about 12 kilometres away on our road map. By now the rain was torrential and the roads flooding so the journey was horrible, despite the courtesy of Austrian drivers. In the village we discovered the campsite no longer existed! Hardly able to see through the windscreen we were obliged to drive another thirty miles to the next site which we feared would be flooded out as it is near the river Inn (as in Innsbruck). It is right on the border between Austria and Germany. To our untold relief we found it open. There appear to be no other tourists here tonight. All the staff came to the door in disbelief as we arrived. They have been wonderfully kind. Most of the site is flooded, the drains cannot cope and if we get onto the grass we probably won't get off again. So the owners have given us their undercover parking space and run electricity out from their house for us! Even Modestine is snug tonight, which is just as well as the rain is continuing to pour down, bouncing off the flooded tarmac, all the little lakes it has formed around the campsite gradually flowing into one huge one. We have been told to expect the same again tomorrow! Everybody says it's freak weather, but that's what we've been hearing so often on our travels. Our shoes, umbrellas and coats are hanging in the centrally heated shower room to dry and we have to take off our shoes to go outside as a lake has developed right outside our rear door.
Near here is the border town of Braunau. It sits just inside Austria on the River Inn. It was here that Adolph Hitler was born. Personally I'd not realised he was Austrian by birth. We are curious to see whether there is any public recognition of him in the town, or indeed any evidence of anybody else with the same family name in the churchyard. It's probably something to keep quiet about. So unless the weather prevents it, we will pass that way when we move on from here tomorrow.