To commemorate the Smithsonian Presents Travels with Rick Steves magazine — now on sale online, and at newsstands nationwide — Rick is blogging about the 20 top destinations featured in that issue. One of those destinations is Austria’s Lake Hallstatt.
When I think of my favorite places in Europe (other than the great capitals), they are where both nature and culture mix. While big-time resorts with big-time promotional budgets look good on the Web, in reality they’re more concrete than charm, with jammed parking lots and cookie-cutter hotel rooms. I’ll take the offbeat places, where creaky locals walk gingerly on creaky floorboards, where each balcony has a lovingly watered and one-of-a-kind flowerbox, and where swans know just the right time to paddle by for scraps from diners at lakeside dinner tables.
I like to say that the town of Hallstatt, on the lake of Hallstatt (two hours south of Salzburg, in Austria), is “where locals commune with nature.” It’s rare that a town’s charm will get me out of bed early. But there’s something about the glassy waters of Lake Hallstatt viewed from the high end of town: The church spire is mirrored in the tranquil water, and then the shuttle boat from the train station across the lake cuts through — like a knife putting a swirl in the icing on a big cake.
Back in my rented room (Zimmer in German), my hostess is Frau Zimmermann. For years I stayed in her place mainly because I couldn’t get over the idea that her name meant “Mrs. Room-for-rent-man.” Her breakfast room is where I came up with the descriptor “well-antlered.” That means more than just lots of trophies on the wall. A well-antlered place creaks with tradition, from the homemade marmalade to the down-filled comforters, and from the apron that the hostess wears to the fact that you don’t email your credit card number to make a reservation…you just phone her, agree on a date and price for your room, give her your name, and then show up.
As I dine lakeside in Hallstatt, the swans crane their necks for bits of bread. With a generous basket to parcel out, I feel like I’m running an orphanage. As they stretch greedily, reaching for each bit of crust I loft, I think they do it well enough that if they were cranes, they’d be swaning. Free bread makes the once-graceful swans a flailing gaggle of hungry grubbers.
Traditional green felt hats distinguished by jaunty decorative feathers are big in Austria. On my first trip to Europe, when I was just a teenybopper, my Dad and I each bought one of these characteristic hats and had a friendly competition filling it with souvenir pins and fancy feathers. Now, 40 years later, I happen to be in town during the annual feather-in-the-hat party, and local men are all out with their finest Tirolean-type hats — each with a very proud feather sprouting from the rim. Many men have handlebar moustaches to match. Watching them strut around in their lederhosen worn shiny by a lifetime of such rituals, I consider life before tourism here in what would have been a remote community at the deepest point of a long, dead-end lake.
Facing the lake is the home of a man who fills his house with debris he’s collected from bottom of Lake Hallstatt. Of course, the history here goes back literally millennia. But the most fascinating treasure from the lakebed dates from just 65 years ago. It’s the trove of Nazi paraphernalia he’s gathered, including piles of war medallions. As I try to sort this out, his explanation makes perfect sense: When it became clear that Germany would lose World War II, throughout the Third Reich, anyone who had won any honors would chuck them any way they could. Lakes offered a perfect solution. In a post-Nazi world, who wants trophies honoring their heroic contribution to that regime on their wall or bookshelf?
As the swans grab their bread, as Frau Zimmermann hangs her comforters over view balconies to fluff up and air, and as the men display their hat-capping finery, I gaze out at the lake. I imagine a scene two generations earlier, when once-fierce Nazi heroes, now filled with fright, came to the lakeside under cover of darkness, and hurled their treasured medals — evidence of their complicity with Hitler — into Lake Hallstatt…my vote for the most beautiful lake in Austria.