Tales from the Road – Hallstatt: The Place of Salt
To scholars of the Iron Age there are two places that inspire awe and wonder. Places of beginnings. Of the earliest cultures that for many years have been termed ‘Celtic’ (although that word does seem to have become a little more problematic over the years). These places are Hallstatt in Austria, and La Tene in Switzerland. I’ve been visiting Austria for around 6 years now, playing an annual concert in that great city of culture Vienna. Always a pleasure to go there, and always a lovely experience. We stay with a good friend who is also a qualified tour guide so we are never short of places to visit, but this year we did something different – we got on a train and headed out in to the mountains to finally visit one of those places, Hallstatt.
A four hour train ride from Vienna, through glorious scenery and we were at the tiny station. To get to the town you have to then take a boat ride across Hallstatt lake. Once the train had moved on the first thing you notice is the peacefulness. No sounds of cars or other modern life. We hopped onto the boat and soon we were heading across the lake. About halfway across the true beauty of the town is revealed. It’s a chocolate box town, almost unreal. If Disney had decided to create the perfect Austrian mountain town resort it would be Hallstatt (in fact I soon discovered that a replica of the town has been built in China!).
Our boat landed and we soon found our hotel. A little way out of town with a balcony overlooking the lake. Very few cars are allowed into Hallstatt so the peace and quiet continues. We sat on the balcony just absorbing the sights, the mountains, the lake, the tranquility. I could write forever about that moment, but better to try to keep this post relatively short so just imagine us there for an hour or so.
What’s the first thing to do the next morning? A way to get to know the landscape, the lake? Hire a boat and get out there.
The boats are all electric, so even they don’t add anything to the noise and general ambiance of the place. It took us two and a half hours to go around the entire lake. A few times we just cut the electric engine and just floated in the silence. It was magical. I love being on boats anyway (I’m sure I’ve had a past-life connection with Tall Ships) so this was heaven to me. The mountain scenery changed with the place and the weather. Clouds that were high soon drifted down and hugged the sides of the mountain.
So this is all very well, but what about the history? Hallstatt literally means ‘Place of Salt’ and was the site of a thriving salt industry in the late bronze age/early iron age. They named it White Gold. Such a precious commodity, it’s hard to understand, but salt could literally save lives buy preserving meat for the tribes. Now it’s mainly for our fish and chips but back then it was priceless and Hallstatt salt was traded all over the known world. Then around 400 BCE there was a catastrophic landslide and the village and salt mines were destroyed. Was that the end? No. The Romans came and began the work again, and that continued, pretty much uninterrupted to this day. The modern salt miners had no idea of its antiquity, until two things happened. Firstly, in the 1700s a body fell out of the salt. So well preserved that people thought it was only a recent death, but since has been found to have been a victim of the landslide over 2000 years before! The second was a miner who found graves on the mountainside. These graves were part of a huge ancient cemetery that covered the whole area – over 1500 graves, complete with grave goods. This was before modern archaeology, but this man was skilled in art, and he thankfully recorded each grave as he found them – an amazing gift for the future. As each grave was exhumed they found the jewellery and pottery that gave rise to the term Hallstatt Culture.
Along with the lake and the salt mines there is also a wonderful museum, and just along the way there is a cable car that takes you up to two caves. An ice cave, and what they call the Mammoth cave. I went to the Ice cave. A cave so cold that there are mountains of ice within.
There is also the Hallstatt Bone House. A chapel filled with the bones of people from the village who have died and asked for their bones to be placed there. So you see the skulls of generations together. I really like that. The body is buried for 10 years, then exhumed, the skull given to surviving relatives who paint it, then it’s placed in the Bone Room. What an amazing place. If I lived in Hallstatt that’s where I’d go for sure.
We were in Hallstatt for 4 days. I won’t tell you about the meals and beer, but the break away from the rest of the world was much needed and sowed the seeds for a few changes that I know I need to make in my life.