In one of the most jaw-drop, gorgeous scenic landscapes anywhere in the world, you will find one of the most bizarre mortuaries.
The tiny town of Hallstatt (population 1,000) lies precariously perched on the side of a mountain. Little A-frame houses cling to the hillside as if magically suspended or stuck on with Velcro. Main Street rests at the base, along the shores of a shimmering blueberry colored lake resembling a fjord. A stone church with a tall pointed steeple seems to teeter on the edge.
Walk along Main Street which runs up and down like a staircase throughout the village (cars are not permitted during the day). Climb up to the Roman Catholic Church with a 16th-century gold altarpiece and cemetery with an eerie bone chapel. Compared to the Capuchin Cemetery in Rome (see my previous blog), the Hallstatt bone chapel is more a one room schoolhouse. Called a Beinhaus or charnel house, it crams in 1,200 skulls painted with floral designs and in some cases the name, date and cause of death.
You see, shortage of space in the graveyard limited the number of burial plots, so bodies were removed after decomposing for ten years to make room for the new. The practice makes sense when you see the territorial constraints. The bone chapel becomes a sacred place holding the history of the close-knit residents.
Most tourists come to Hallstatt to see the beauty of the setting and visit the salt mines. A nearby funicular whisks guests up to observation point with a storybook view. Then, they hike up a path to the mine entrance and don pajama-like jumpsuits. Group tours enter a tunnel and then progress deeper underground via fast wooden slides. This makes a fun adventure and eventually, you exit by straddling a small train.
Hallstatt rightfully calls itself Austria’s oldest town with evidence dating back to 400 BC. The name derives from the Celtic word “hall” meaning salt. Salt mines near the village have always provided the livelihood for the region, noted as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Another fascinating attraction in the area is the Dachstein ice cave. To get to the cave, ride the gondola, then hike about twenty minutes to reach the tour entrance. Wildflowers abound, often creeping out of rocky ledges on the walkway. The alpine scene rates as truly spectacular and certainly worth the effort. Be forewarned: even in summer the temperature in the caves is cool enough to require a jacket.
Absolutely don’t miss the Reinanke trout fresh from the lake. The local fish is served on a slab and tastes luscious and buttery. In fact I’ll make a bold statement– Reinanke is the best fish I have ever eaten. I devoured it both nights we stayed in the Salzkammergut region.
After touring Vienna, the rustic outdoorsy charm of the area invigorated the soul and stimulated the senses. My family loved visiting Hallstatt in June. Can’t quite imagine stopping by the little hamlet in winter. Well, after all, I do live in Florida. But, if you know me, and given the chance, I’d go–wrapped in the warmest parka I could find.