We awoke surprisingly early this morning, so we decided to adjust our plans. Today, we will go see Hallstatt and the salt mines there, then some of Salzburg, and catch a Mozart concert before heading back.
When we made these plans, google said it was a bit over 2 hours from Reit Im Winkl to Hallstatt. When we got into the car, the GPS said more, but we weren't worried, based on our earlier experience. We made a stop for an ATM and picked up some kind of pastry right across the street. We stopped for gas. And the time to get to Hallstatt had gone up by way more than what we had stopped for!
It was raining and the roads were wet and curvy, so I was driving somewhat slower. Also, we got stuck behind some slow vehicles that we couldn't pass for quite some time. Still, it seemed like a mighty long drive to Hallstatt. The scenery was nice, but the rain marred it too much for me to consider it a truly pleasant drive. As we got closer, we noticed that the GPS was taking us the long way around the lake, even though the town was right near us. The GPS had decided that the road was closed, even though all the signs pointed to town and parking. So, we ignored the GPS and avoided a long drive, arriving in town earlier than we expected.
We got tickets to the salt mines and headed up the walkway to them. It's an uphill hike to the entrance, and there were no non-hiking options as far as I could tell. The rain was still falling, but not heavily, so we bundled up and walked it.
The mines have their own free audio tour app (and wifi to download it) so we listened to the audio as we hiked up and passed the various "stations." The audio guide was interesting and explanatory, although each portion was much longer than the amount of time it took to walk from station to station. On a nice sunny day, I probably would have lingered at each station for the full duration of the audio guide, enjoying the amazing view. In the rain though, we skipped about a third of them. The app is on my phone, so I can go back and listen to them later. I really found the information on the archaeological finds there fascinating and want to hear the rest.
The top of the path is marked by a building that is the start of the guided mine tour. Everyone stows their bags and puts a special pajama-like suit over their clothes. They don't fit well on anyone, but are necessary.
Despite already having hiked up to the building, climbing stairs to get to a small museum display and the "gowning room," we still had more up to go. The tour guide introduced herself and then took us to more steps outside that we needed to climb to get into the mine itself.
mine entrance tunnel
We entered single file, walking down a long tunnel, tight enough that we needed to walk single file, and some taller folks had to duck a bit. Eventually, the tunnel widened out to a chamber where we could all stand and hear the tour guide. The tour guide was fun and not as dry and robotic as the castle tour guides yesterday. But most of the information about the mine came from a few videos and light shows that played at various stations. I also noticed audioguide numbers, although there wasn't really time to stop and listen, so again, I'll listen later.
We learned how the salt deposit was formed, how the precious salt shaped the lives of the locals for millennia, a bit more about what the archaeologists found here (including the oldest wooden staircase in all of Europe), extraction techniques, and the activities of the mine today. (It still employs miners and produces salt.)
Europe's oldest wooden staircase
The really fun part was sliding down the miners' slides though. These large wooden slides are how miners got from horizontal to horizontal (floor to floor) within the mine. I think the reason we wore the pajama suits was so that we could slide smoothly down these slides and not catch on anything. Riding them feels a bit like riding an amusement park ride, just without the safety harness. The second slide has a camera and speedometer to take your picture and tell you how fast you were going. While some people only reached 15 km per hour, we reached 34. That's faster than bike fast!
On the way out, we had to climb a bunch of stairs to make up for all the sliding we had done though. But there was also another amusement-park-style ride: a "miner's train." Again, there were no seatbelts, but this was much slower, more like a kiddie park ride.
The rain had stopped at some point while we were in the mine, and the sun was shining over the mountains and lake. We walked back down the mountain to where the audio tour started, this time stopping to see the "UNESCO world heritage viewpoint." In the rain, the scenery is impressive. In the sun, it's amazing! We admired the quaint little villages dotting the smooth lake, the thick green forests covering the mountains, and the snowy mountain tops.
Across the lake, I spotted a castle. Actually, many of the small towns that we drove through had their own castles of varying magnificence. I'm wondering if the reason that Neuschwanstein is so famous is just because Disney modeled Cinderella's castle based on it, or just because it's accessible to the public, or if there is something inherently special about that specific castle over all others. I would imagine that many of these other castles are probably just as opulent inside (although maybe I'm wrong).
We tried to eat at the restaurant to enjoy the view longer, but they had run out of about a third of the menu- pretty much all the good stuff- so instead we took the funicular down to the town and hunted for food there.
We found a map of the town and headed towards the ossuary I wanted to see, although really, there is one main street in town, so you can't get that lost anyway.
All of the residential buildings in town shared the same architectural style- wooden houses with decorative windows and balconies. Several had posted signs in German, English, and Chinese telling tourists to be quiet because people lived here. They started with "Hallstatt is no museum..." Except, it sort of is. The houses certainly belong in one. The old town square does. They're just lucky to live in a museum. Although I have no issues with tourists also recognizing that people live here and keeping the volume down.
Town square of tourists
The town was quite alive- with tourists roaming the streets. I didn't see too many people that didn't have their cameras out except shopkeepers. Tourists laughed as swans in the lake snapped up tossed bread pieces. Tourists strolled the streets. A lot of women were dressed as brides and getting what appeared to be their bridal photos done.
feeding the swans
The town almost felt more like a movie set than a real place where people lived. The town square just added to that feeling. Small quaint restaurants lined the square. We stopped in one for lunch, getting the daily specials- goulash and curry rice.
I find it amusing that German/Austrian culture has really embraced curry and the British haven't. Curry rice, currywurst, curry sauce are all now "traditional" foods here, but the Brits are still making everything "traditional" without spices. They're like drug dealers- get everyone else hooked on your goods, but don't ever use them yourself.
After our meal, we continued on to the church. The graveyard is small but beautiful, with dense floral arrangements on each grave. According to what I watched before the trip, the people here pay rent for the grave sites, up to 10 years at a time. When the rent stops being paid, out you go. So, if you have somebody paying rent, they're sure to keep the grave nice and pretty.
Once evicted, some people's bones end up in the church ossuary. Somebody paints the person's name and some symbols on the skull, and it gets added to the collection.
On the way back to the car, we picked up dessert. From a food stand, we got some sort of pastry that tasted like a croissant stuffed with marshmallow fluff, and from the grocery store, a chocolate cherry ice cream pop. Both were absolutely delicious.
The drive to Salzburg was a nice and sunny drive, but as we neared, we needed to stop for directions. It is not possible to drive to the fortress, and also not possible to drive directly to the funicular that you have to take to the fortress. We parked nearby old city with the intention of getting directions from a tourist information center for how to get the funicular up to the fortress.
In the end, we ended up hiking uphill the whole way to the fortress instead. This isn't the first time I accidentally hiked a mountain, and I'm sure it won't be the last. And, even with all the uphill and stairs we've done in the past couple of days, I'm pretty sure it's still fewer stairs and less uphill than I did in San Marino. At the entrance, the ticket lady asked us if we knew that our concert tickets included the funicular ride. Yes, we knew, but we couldn't find the bottom funicular station and were given bad directions. She gave us a round-trip ticket for the funicular anyway.
We wandered the castle a bit, quickly realizing that we had a lot more time before the concert than we could spend in the fortress. We used half of our round trip ticket to descend, making note of where the bottom side of the funicular was. I do not want to get sweaty climbing this mountain again just before the concert.
view from the fortress
In the city, we ducked inside a really neat cathedral. This one was covered in religious art, like any cathedral, but it was also very different. The artwork was outlined in such a way to almost seem like a cartoon or drawing. I loved the uniqueness of the style.
While a lot of the architecture and statues were intricate and interesting, I particularly loved one fountain near the church. Merhorses spouted water that filled the basin below. I suppose that it's just as reasonable to have merhorses as merpeople. Although now I want to see statues of mercats, merdogs, merrabbits, and other merpets.
For dinner, we stopped at what appeared to be a local burger chain. They had a very interesting "apple" barbecue sauce that tasted strongly of cinnamon and tasty food, but generally nothing super special.
The rain had restarted while we ate, so we took the fastest way back to the funicular and rode it back up to the fortress. The concert was on one of the higher floors, requiring more steps, as if I hadn't already done enough uphill over the past couple of days. When I saw a sign indicating that the bathroom was a floor lower than the concert, I made sure to use it before going up to the ticket area. I was not going to do more steps than I had to.
The concert space is somewhat intimate. It looked to be an old dining hall or ballroom that was converted into a concert space. The orchestra sat up on a small platform while the audience sat only a few feet away. I suppose that when there are more people, they add more audience chairs, but for tonight, there was some open space around the comfortably-spaced chairs.
The orchestra of 8 was half violins. The instrumentalists were all about 30-70 years old and each had their own style, making the concert somewhat visually interesting as well as auditorially. Some of the musicians were clearly concentrating on their music. Others looked like they were really enjoying themselves. One violinist was almost dancing with her violin. And the cellist looked like he was falling asleep whenever it wasn't his turn to play. The pianist came on for a couple songs and was playing really fast. I bet he could type at least 150 words per minute.
All in all, they seemed professional and like they had been playing for a long time, which I'm sure they had been. I enjoyed the music, and it was cool to hear Mozart performed in the city he wrote some of it in.
The sun went down during the first few Mozart songs, changing the concert backdrop. It also signaled to my brain that it was bedtime. Having hiked so much uphill during the day, my body was ready for sleep. The darkness outside and soft lamplight inside didn't help me stay awake. And while some of the music is a bit upbeat, most of it is what I would classify as "lullaby music." I didn't doze off at any point, although it took some effort.
Fortunately, I was able to doze a bit on the ride back since it wasn't my turn to drive. When I awoke, we were out of Salzburg and back on the country roads towards Reit im Winkl. The sky was pitch-black. In many places along the road, out headlights were the only break in the darkness.
This is actually why we had picked this location instead of staying more central to the activities and sights. This area is a dark sky zone. When planning the trip, I had figured that we'd stay here the 2 nights that they do dark sky tours. Even if it was a bit cloudy for one of them, surely it would be clearer on the other and we'd get to see tons of stars with our bare eyes.
Alas, it was not to be. Both nights had intermittent rain and plenty of cloud cover, preventing star gazing of any sort. We could only enjoy the darkness as there were no streetlights or industrial lights pointed upwards to reflect on the clouds.