It's a destination that mobilises travellers through the power of one photo, from one particular angle.
Do a Google image search of "Hallstatt" and you'll notice that it's one particular perspective, looking long across the length of the slender village, strung along a shoe-string peninsula, pricked by lofty church spires, that sings out loud.
Wedged between the edge of Lake Hallstatt and the towering Dachstein mountains, Austria's oldest — and arguably most photographed village — hovered like a mirage, as I neared it.
It is quaint, achingly beautiful and home to just 800 residents. High above Hallstatt, in the upper valley, one of the greatest eye-openers was to take a journey back in time to the origin of salt production.
Salzwelten is situated high above the town on the 1030-metre-tall Salzberg (Salt Mountain). You can access this remarkable attraction aboard a funicular.
My first stop was at Rudolf's Tower, which serves up dreamy views from this old fortification, built over 700 years ago to defend the mines against invaders. It's been joined by the Sky Walk, built four years ago, consisting of a sprawling platform that juts off the mountainside, with a sheer drop to the rooftops of Hallstatt, directly below. The star attraction, however, is the 7000-year-old salt mine itself — the world's oldest.
By 800BC, miners were penetrating as deep as 200 metres into the mountain, carving out tunnels by hand, to reach the "white gold". The greatest discovery to date was the Man in Salt, the corpse of an ancient miner, mummified in salt, who is believed to have perished in 1000BC. His preserved body was found in 1734 and he was laid to rest in the local graveyard, 2700 years after dying.
Within the mine, I marvelled over the magnificently preserved wooden staircase that was built in 1344BC! As you'd expect, this ancient salt mine is separated into different levels. The tourist experience takes you through two levels, using the wooden 64-metre-long slides the miners actually used on the job.
Back down in town, I paid to visit to St Michael's Chapel's Bone House.
Dating back to the 12th century, the rather macabre draw is the hundreds of artistically painted skulls on display. Hallstatt's shortage of available land meant the graveyard was always in hot demand and after several years, an existing grave was reused for a new burial.
The skull and bones were transferred to St Michael's for storage and the identity of the deceased family member was preserved by decorative paintings and inscriptions. Over 30,000 entries have been logged in the church death registry.
On the alpine trail
Given Hallstatt's glorious sense of alpine isolation, the area is ripe with outdoorsy opportunities.
Backdropped by the Dachstein mountains, the peaks play host to skiers in winter and hikers in the warmer months.
Some will take you up close to glaciers, including the stunning nature walk on the Echerntal Trail, which many a romantic poet and painter have swooned over.
The mountains are also famous for the spectacular Dachstein Caves, a network of caverns nearly 1200 metres deep. Highlights include the Giant Ice Cave with its wondrous caverns and frozen waterfalls, and the Mammoth Cave (consisting of huge pipe-shaped galleries formed by an ancient underground river.
Other highlights are the panoramic viewing platforms, like 5 Fingers and the Stairway to Nothingness, jutting out from over the rock face with alpine vistas.
At ground level, the World Heritage circular trail, wrapped around the shoreline of Lake Hallstatt, is pure bliss.
Getting to Hallstatt takes some effort, but if you're staying in Vienna or Salzburg, take the two hour train ride from either destination. The pint-sized station above the lake is like a scene out of a storybook and after alighting from the train, a waiting ferry will whisk you across the glassy waters to the village, for just 5 Euro ($8.40) return. What a way to serenade your arrival into this true Austrian gem.
I tootled my way around Europe with a Eurail Flexi-pass. Book tickets or a rail pass to suit with Rail Plus. Ph 09-377-5415 or visit www.railplus.co.nz
I tripped to Europe with Cathay Pacific which operates ultra-contemporary A350-900s, the newest aircraft in the world, from both Auckland and Christchurch. The cabin air quality is decidedly better, I experienced minimal jet-lag. For best fares and seats to suit, visit cathaypacific.com
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