26 Jan 2014

Austria's best kept secret: Europe's oldest village

Is it too early to start planning your summer vacation? Certainly not! In fact, the earlier you book, the better the deals you can grab. When I was planning my big fat European holiday last year, I started looking for deals, rooms and experiences in January itself. And it paid off - amongst other things, I managed to get an apartment in Florence for 3/4th its cost and I got a free cooking class in Venice! So get cracking :)

And if Europe is one of your travel destinations for 2014, here is an off-beat destination idea. Hallstatt in Upper Austria is the oldest still-inhabited village in Europe. Home to an ancient salt mine and the site of an eerie burial ritual, it's a perfect day trip from Salzburg. Read on to know more.  

Hallstatt, Austria | Salt of the Earth
In Europe’s oldest inhabited village, spooked by a 3,000-year-old mine and rows of painted skulls

I hopped out of my train and stood at a station with a single platform long enough to accommodate one train coach, next to a lake surrounded by Alpine hills. I walked down a narrow path to the pier, from where a ferry took me across to a village. It was the village of Hallstatt, where time has stood still for far longer than in any other village on earth.


I had been visiting Salzburg, Austria. It had been a cold, rainy morning—and I could see my day’s plans for walking around the city washed out. The landlady at the pensione (guest house) had suggested a day-trip to Hallstatt, about two and a half hours away by train, where the weather, we hoped, would be kinder to us. I’d never heard of the place. But I did a quick online check and was fascinated by what I found. Hallstatt, I read, was a prominent village during the Iron Age (800–400 BC). It is believed to be the oldest inhabited village in Europe, and the oldest salt mine in the world. I had come to Europe to see cities and towns that were centuries old—and here I was, reading about a place that was far more ancient. I had no idea what I could expect to see—but I was hooked by what I had read. Within a few minutes, my husband and I had booked our tickets to Hallstatt.

Hallstatt, it turned out, was a typical one-horse town—a single main street, one market square, two churches, some shops, caf├ęs and restaurants and about 1,000 residents and their homes. In fact, we walked from one end of Hallstatt to the other in less than 10 minutes. The village hadn’t grown too much in size since its early days, it appeared.


I’d never seen a salt mine before, and had no idea what to expect in one—so we headed towards Hallstatt’s salt mine. We donned overalls and hard hats and walked into one of the tunnels. As soon as we entered, I zipped up my jacket, shivering involuntarily. The temperature had dropped. The air was laden with the smell of salt. The closed space made me feel like I had been shut in a box.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Our guide was dressed as “Sepp the Miner” or “Man in Salt”, a well-preserved corpse of a prehistoric miner discovered in 1734. He told us that salt production began here around 2000 BC, when brine was captured in vessels and evaporated to form salt. Later during the Iron Age, salt was mined underground. Salt production continues even today, though now the brine is piped to a treatment plant in nearby Ebersee. While the brine is still evaporated to produce salt, the process is now mechanised.

As we walked through the mine’s subterranean confines, we came upon long wooden slides that connect different levels of the mine. I looked down the incline from the top of the slide, and a tingle of fear ran through me. The slide was 64m long—and I hadn’t slid down one since childhood. Of course, I could take the stairs nearby but I decided it was time to face my fears. Once I started my descent, I couldn’t help but squeal with excitement and exhilaration as I hurtled downward.

Once in the lower levels, we walked through narrow tunnels that led to the prehistoric parts of the mine. Walls closed in from the sides and above, and I had to crouch at several places to make my way through. I shuddered to think of the possibility of being trapped in this underworld, far from the well-lit locales I had spent all my life in. As our netherworld journey ended and we took a ride on a mining train from the bowels of the earth back to the welcome sunlight and open skies, I felt like I had come up for air after a really long time. I had to shield my eyes from the bright sunlight—it took me a moment to get used to it.

The underground mine was not the only dark experience in store for us. After a lakeside lunch, a 2-minute climb up a long flight of stone stairs brought us to a 12th century Roman Catholic Church.


We walked through the church’s main hall and cemetery, but what we were more interested in was the Beinhaus (bone house). The cemetery was small, so families could only lease graves there for a few years. Once the lease was up, the graves were opened, the skulls and bones removed and placed in the ossuary, or bone house (nowadays the bodies are buried for a few years and the remains are then cremated).

The moment I stepped in, I was confronted by rows of skulls arranged on multiple shelves against the walls. In the dim light of the chapel, the 1,200-odd sun-bleached skulls gleamed a dull white as we walked around, reading the names and years of death inscribed on each. I recoiled instinctively but couldn’t help being amazed at the unlikely collection of morbid exhibits.


These skulls were painted by gravediggers at the request of the families. Maltese crosses and garlands of flowers decorated the skulls of women, and wreaths of leaves covered those of men. Some skulls even depicted serpents crawling out of eye sockets. On the lower shelves, large bones were stacked, almost like logs of firewood. As I walked through this relic of a forgotten death ritual, I felt like I had opened a Pandora’s box of forbidden secrets.



The memories of the deathly sights, and the images of darkness I had seen in the morning, stayed with me even as we descended the hill steps and headed back to the lakeside streets of Hallstatt to make our way back to the far tamer surroundings of Salzburg. As I looked out of my train window at the waterfront houses and hills receding in the distance, I felt like a child who had seen a horror movie for the first time—excited by the morbid sights I had just seen, but also wondering if I would be assailed in my sleep by nightmares.

This story was commissioned by Mint Lounge and was published in their edition dated January 25th 2014. Read it here

So will Hallstatt make it to your to-visit list this year (or the next)? Or have you already visited it? Leave me a comment below. And if you'd like more information on the village in particular or on Austria in general, just shoot me an email and I'll be happy to help :) 


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