Lonely Planet describes Hallstatt’s beauty as bordering on the surreal and the sublime. Ordinarily it may be just like that but, prior to our arriving, it had been raining heavily and the mountains were covered in filthy clouds and the lake looked dark, cold and uninviting. That’s not nice, let alone surreal and sublime.
No matter the village, with it’s 800 inhabitants, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997; is one of the most photographed little towns in all Austria and; receives one million plus visitors every year (mostly from China). Indeed, the Chinese have been sufficiently impressed with Hallstatt to have built an exact scale copy of the old town at Luoyang in Guangdong Province. If that isn’t enough, it wasn’t raining as we arrived – so, we parked the Van and set off to look at the place for ourselves. We had no trouble parking despite it being a public holiday weekend in Austria and I’m not sure if that was because of the poor weather or Covid or both. Certainly, there were no Chinese while we were there.
Squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the western bank of what is often described as a looking glass lake (fairly big too at over 7 km long, 2 km wide and up to 125 metres deep) the old town with it’s picturesque pastel coloured buildings is undeniably pretty. The market square with it’s Holy Trinity statue, shops, cafes and small houses is the best part of the town but the two churches must also be seen.
In most photographs of the town it is the spire of the Evangelical Church of Christ which is most prominent. Ironically, the town’s protestants weren’t granted the freedom to practise their own faith until well into the 19th century and the church itself wasn’t built until 1863. Call me a cynic but is it simply a coincidence that the protestant church sits directly beneath the Catholic Church?
I’ll tell you something. It is a nice place but you will not catch me here while it is being overrun with tourists.
Bad Ischl is a spa town with saline, iodine and sulphur springs which sits under Mount Katrin on the Traun River. It is some 30 miles east of Salzburg and just 10 miles east from Gschwand where we parked.
Our friend Gerhard was staying in Bad Ischl for a few weeks and a visit there gave us a chance to catch up with him and complete a number of routine tasks that were long overdue (find a jeweller capable of fixing some watches, stock up on dog food, general shopping before Austria’s forthcoming National Day weekend and, most important, find Vanya some winter clothing which she had not brought along – hardly surprising since we had originally planned to be back in the UK some weeks ago). So it was that we set off to Bad Ischl.
It is a lovely little town full of old Imperial Grandeur. The Austrian Emperor (and King of Hungary), Franz Josef I was given a palace in Bad Ischl by his mother as a wedding gift when he married Elizabeth of Bavaria in 1854. This palace, subsequently named the Kaiservilla, became his summer residence and was used as such for the next 60 years. It was at the Kaiservilla on 28 July 1914 he wrote that fateful letter declaring war on Serbia which in turn started World War I- His letter has the Bad Ischl postmark on it. The Emperor left Bad Ischl the next day and never returned.
Enough history – Gerhard introduced us to a good jeweller (with whom we left our watches) and then took us on a whistle stop tour of the town…
Austria has a strong coffee house culture and, while Gerhard went off to attend to some business for a short while, Vanya and I took time out to visit the world famous Cafe-Restaurant Zauner for coffee and cakes. Established in 1832, the Konditorei Zauner was a great favourite of the Emperor Franz-Josef. It has since won numerous awards for both coffee and cakes and has even been immortalised on an Austrian postage stamp. The chocolate torte was wonderful.
We enjoyed a good Chinese meal that evening at the Asia Restaurant (with Tsingtao Beer and a glass of Gruner Veltliner) and agreed to return to Bad Ischl the next day for a further tour. Thanks Gerhard!
The next day, the weather was overcast and poor visibility precluded our ascending Mount Katrin in the cable car – not that Vanya could ever have been persuaded to make that particular 15 minute journey. Instead, we walked up the Siriuskogl (on the south side of Bad Ischl and just 20 minutes or so from the town centre) to an old wooden watchtower which provided good views down over the town but, more important, has an excellent little restaurant where we could get lunch.
After lunch it was time to move on. We were off on a short drive to beautiful Halstatt although, with the weather as it was, I wasn’t convinced we would see it at its best.
A factoid: The author Roger Lewis lives in Bad Ischl. Amongst other things Roger Lewis writes biographies – “The Life and Death of Peter Sellars” (no prizes for guessing who that was about”, “The Man Who was Private Widdle” (a biography of Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films), “Anthony Burgess – A Biography” (about he who wrote A Clockwork Orange) and “The Real Life Of Laurence Olivier (I don’t need to explain who Olivier is).
Saint Gilgen (Saint Giles in English) is a small town of less than 4,000 people at the Salzburg end of the Wolfgangsee, some 3 miles from where we were camped at Gschwand. Vanya wanted a rest day and I decided to walk the path besides the lake to Saint Gilgen for a look-see.
Saint Gilgen is really all about boat trips up and down the lake to St Wolfgang although the town also operates a cable car which for 28 euros will take you on a 16 minute ride up the Zwolferhorn Mountain. At 1,522 metres there ought to be some fine views from the summit over the Salzkammergut and it’s many lakes but I can’t say for sure because they had not long taken the old cable car out of operation and were testing a new one. I was advised it should be operational within the week. Timing is everything. Sadly, I didn’t have time for the boat trip either because we had arranged to meet our friend, Gerhard, for dinner but; there was enough time to explore the town and enjoy a glass or two of Gruner Veltliner in one of the local bars.
The town is small and is focussed around two places; the pier (where the boats depart for St Wolfgang) and the Mozart Platz. Mozart’s grandfather lived in St Gilgen, as did his mother (she was born there) and his sister (Maria Anna, better known as Nannerl). Wolfgang Amadeus never actually visited the place but the connection is plain to see and the town proudly celebrates the man and his works.
Time to get back to the Van for a shower. Wiener Schnitzel tonight.
Arrived at a site, Paradiescamping Birkenstrand, at (G)Schwand on the Wolfgangsee (about 3 miles outside of Sankt Gilgen) which is amongst the best we have seen throughout the tour. It sits right on the lake and is clean and modern with everything you could want including a toilet block with underfloor heating… and all for 20 Euros.
Since Gerhard is currently staying in Bad Ischl just 15 kms away (and we hope to see him and Clare over the weekend) we have decided to stay on at Schwand and take in Sankt Gilgen, Bad Ischl and perhaps even Hallstatt. This latter town is reputedly the most beautiful village in Austria.
We arrived at Schwand late in the afternoon and had just enough time to quickly explore the local area before Gerhard joined us and took us to a fine restaurant in Gschwendt where we enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel, the local beer and a nice Gruner Veltliner. We’ll be buying a great deal more of the latter before we leave Austria.