Buzzing along the glassy surface of a glacial lake, feeling the bright summer sun on my face and the wind in my hair, I suddenly realize I’m enjoying my favorite moment of this trip so far.
I’m in — or, actually, bobbing in a plastic boat just offshore from — the tiny town of Hallstatt, in Austria’s famed Salzkammergut Lake District. Before me, the pointy Protestant church spire stands like the town flag, proudly staking its claim on the narrow ledge of land that Hallstatt occupies. With sheer cliffs on one side, the deep waters of the Hallstättersee on the other, and a mighty waterfall surging through the heart of town, Hallstatt is one of those improbable settlements that makes you wonder: What possessed someone to build a village here?
The answer is salt. Specifically, the salt deposits deep inside the mountain just above, all rolled up in a chunky granite wrapper by millions of years of tectonic activity. “Hall” comes from an old Celtic word for “salt,” making Hallstatt the “place of salt.”
But today, salt is the farthest thing from my mind. The weather is glorious, and I’ve followed the Rick Steves guidebook‘s advice and rented an electric boat. Motorized watercraft are outlawed on the lake, so rather than worry about dodging speedboats and jetskis, I just need to keep an eye on a few big, plodding paddleboats shaped like the lake’s resident swans.
My boat has two speeds — “stop” and “go.” It’s an easy way to get out on the water — and, at just €10 for up to four people to take a 30-minute ride (long enough for a scenic loop from one end of town to the other), it’s a screamin’ deal…cheaper than four rides on a Vienna tram. For the next edition of our guidebook, this tip will rocket from “consider” to “a must in good weather.”
Back on land, I stroll through wee Hallstatt. It’s a 30-second walk from the boat dock to the main square, which feels like a movie set. The gurgling fountain is ringed by an amphitheater of cozy, colorful housefronts.
At the bottom corner of the square stands a hot-pink house, peeking between two bigger buildings like an eager kid sister elbowing her way in for the view. This is Gasthof Simony, where I stayed the first time I came to Hallstatt, as a backpacker in 1999.
Well, that’s not entirely true: At first, I’d booked a room at a cheap pension on the hillside. Back then — traveling with what was one big, sprawling guidebook called Rick Steves’ Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and Oh By the Way Did We Mention It Also Includes Prague for Some Reason? — my standard procedure was to call the cheapest place in Rick’s book that had a single room. (I slept poorly in hostel dorms, but Rick always listed one or two dirt-cheap, old-school pensions where I could get a single with a shared bath for just a few schillings more.) My strategy worked great — until I hit Hallstatt and checked into my room, which simply wasn’t up to snuff. So I politely bailed out and walked down the hill to knock on Gasthof Simony’s door.
Sweet old Frau Scheutz answered, and warmly offered me a good deal on her budget single. Rick described her as “grandmotherly,” and sure enough, she helped me feel at home partway through a long journey. I still remember reading Rick’s description of the hotel as “stocking-feet-tidy.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but it felt just right…and I remember distinctly enjoying being in stocking feet, once in my room.
Gasthof Simony is still there, with its flashy new paint job. But Frau Scheutz retired several years back. And, based on my inspection, the place is still creaky and traditional, but no longer “grandmotherly” or “stocking-feet tidy.” It’s being run as an afterthought by another hotel in town.
Standing in front of the guesthouse, feeling nostalgic, I’m suddenly recognized by a fellow traveler who’s seen my picture on Rick’s website and books. (Trust me, this does not happen often.) He had his mother are on an epic journey through Eastern Europe — pausing for just a night here on their way between Český Krumlov and Slovenia’s Lake Bled. He tells me that, like me, he stood in this very spot 20 years ago. And he’s stuck at how similar things still are. “Except there used to be cars parked all along this square,” he says.
Bidding farewell to my one and only fan, I think a bout how Hallstatt hasn’t changed…and how it has. Yes, on the surface it’s still the same wonderful old place. But overall, I sense a creeping corporatization of Hallstatt. Three of the classic old hotels on this square have been purchased and remodeled by big-city investors. Updating the hotels for our guidebook, I grow concerned when I’m told that jolly old Herr Zauner — who always wore lederhosen like pant were never invented — has passed the management of his hotel on to his son. The rooms have been modernized, and the prices raised accordingly. As I probe for more details, the receptionist reassures me: “Oh, don’t worry, Herr Zauner still hangs out here at dinnertime. And he still loves telling all of his old mountaineering stories.”
I’m glad Herr Zauner still makes an occasional appearance. And he’s certainly earned a restful retirement. But the glamification of Hallstatt concerns me. Yes, the town’s rehabbed hotels are able to more efficiently process the tour groups that pour through town. And for some travelers — who appreciate reliable plumbing, speedy Wi-Fi, and room service — that’s a good thing. But for me, it’s at least as much a loss as it is a gain. I worry that Hallstatt is no longer a locally owned town of quirky villagers who run creaky old guest houses on the side. It’s a tourism machine with a veneer of quaint.
Seeking the Hallstatt of yore, I stroll toward the far end of town — and quickly find it. I’m lost in a rustic world of wooden lakefront houses. Hallstatt has a special smell: damp, moss-covered rocks and heavy timbers. Like summer camp.
Lost in an olfactory flashback, I pop out at Hallstatt’s postcard viewpoint: a little gap in the houses with perfect views back on the town and its mammoth mountain backdrop. I snap the same picture I take every time I’m here (but this time, with a better camera).
On my way back to town, I detour to the Catholic Church up on the ridge, with its lovingly tended, fresh-flower-bedecked cemetery. This tiny hamlet has only so much space for graves, so traditionally, after a certain period of time the dead were “evicted” and their bones neatly stacked in a chapel. Each skull is lovingly painted with the name of the person who once filled it.
Surveying the macabre but strangely touching scene, I notice clusters of shared family names: Steiner. Kierchschlager. Heuschober. Binder. All still together, beyond death. (Hope you like your in-laws.) It’s a poignant — and eerily tangible — chronicle of a tight-knit community that’s changing faster than these people would ever have imagined.
Stepping outside, I see a crew digging a fresh grave at a centuries-old headstone. And as I walk through the tombstones, I notice several death dates in the last few years. I begin to wonder whether some of the people I met back on that first visit might be permanent residents here now. At first, the thought makes me sad. But then, looking at the sweeping views over the church tower, the glassy lake, and the glorious Alps, I realize that if that’s the case, then that’s exactly as it should be.
Change though Hallstatt may, old traditions die hard. And — tourists and big-city investors be damned — the people of Hallstatt will always belong to the soil of their hometown, enjoying this gorgeous panorama, for eternity…or, at least, until they’re dug up to make way for the next generation.