About five hours away from our apartment in Pula is a small Austrian town called Hallstatt that you may or may not have heard of.
But even if you haven’t ( Okay, I admit, I hadn’t heard of it) there are many, many people around the world who have. The village has a tiny population of about 800 people, but it has received as many as 10,000 tourist visits a day. And I’ll discuss exactly why in a bit. We recently took a short road trip there for a few days to visit its Christmas market.
Once Upon A Time
The village of Hallstatt sits in a mountain valley on the banks of a large lake, and if you try to imagine the most perfect postcard representation of a tiny Alpine village with 16th-century timbered homes surrounded by mountains and clear mountain streams, this place would pop up in your mind. Even if you took away the village, its church steeple piercing the clean mountain air and its charming houses, the sheer beauty of the mountains and the banks of the lake would help you find solace in this magical place. ￼￼￼ There are swans in the lake, too. I mean, how could you have a fairytale place without a few resident swans?
It was the first week in December when we drove into the World Heritage UNESCO area and the clouds sat low in the valley shrouding Lake Hallstatt and the little town with a veil of white clouds and mist. The winter hues of deep green peat, rust and ochre, the clear water brook that ran through the city, all surrounded by the haze gave the place an ethereal feel that conjured up images of gnomes and fairies.
(Double) Trouble in Paradise
We were given subtle warnings twice about visiting Hallstatt because of how crowded it had become in recent years. Once by a resident of a nearby city in Austria that we met in Pula, and the other from the guy who rented us the Airbnb apartment. According to both, the city is being slowly robbed of its authenticity and small town feel by an alarming amount of Asian and other selfie-taking tourists who had fallen in love with the city.
And they loved it so much, they had taken the old adage, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” a little too seriously. They had built an exact replica of the town piece by piece with exact measurements of town buildings and homes in a city that sits on a lake in the southern Guangdong province in China in 2012. Yes, that’s right, an exact copy of the town. A Chinese billionaire who built the $900 million replica city didn’t even consult Hallstatt’s mayor until the project was well underway, according to the Telegraph news site.
We were told by our Airbnb host that “The Sound of Music” and a South Korean show that had been filmed there had played a part in this popularity in Asia as apparently these movies were very popular in China. Also, the city had supposedly inspired the magical city of “Arendelle” in Disney’s Frozen, which has made it popular in all corners of the world. So there’s that.
What happened next?
The city is presently being inundated with bus loads of Asian tourists at every turn (along with the other international and local guests it was already receiving). They come for short day trips and stop and take selfies everywhere and anywhere they can. Hallstatt’s claim to fame as the most “Instagram-able” town in Austria hasn’t helped matters much.
As of a few days ago, the mayor is even asking people not to visit the town because the town is so overwhelmed, according to the Guardian news site. Imagine having so many tourists you just want them to stay away. Well, Hallstatt, meet Venice and Dubrovnik. Oh, and don’t forget Barcelona, she feels your pain, too.
But Hallstatt is much smaller with a lot less infrastructure than these big cities, so what will the town do? I have to say I’m glad I had booked the trip before I heard that as I would have been hesitant to visit.
There are a few indicators like this sign at a local grocery that is in English and Chinese that some of the locals are taking advantage of opportunities that these foreign tourists and their pocketbooks bring with them. But the town residents aren’t exactly thrilled that people are treating their town like a museum and walking in their backyards and in some cases inside their homes taking selfies and asking to use the restrooms. Would you be?
I have an upcoming blog on overtourism and will focus on that issue more in depth (and the problems it brings with it) but suffice it to say, we really need to be more respectful of people who are living in the places that we go to visit.
Our apartment host told us he caters to his many Asian tourists (even leaves ramen noodles for snacks in his rental kitchens) and says he will continue to take advantage of the tourists who visit him from the Asian hemisphere. He’s a businessman, after all. He is also a resident of a nearby village 4 km away that is not as popular as Hallstatt, so he probably didn’t feel the aggravation of people traipsing about his front yard in wedding dresses or in rented alpine costumes taking photographs.
By the way, it isn’t only the Asian visitors doing this, so don’t get smug, other foreign visitors. I see that selfie stick behind your back.
We had decided to spend one night in Hallstatt, since our friends had to get back home quickly, but most of the guests to the city come by bus from nearby Salzburg, stay for a just a few hours, get their selfies and leave.
We walked around the village the first evening we were there, and fortunately it really wasn’t crazy crowded because it was low season and evening time. There definitely were not 10,000 visitors at this time, maybe not even 1,000, so I can’t imagine what the city feels like with that many people. We were told most guests come in the spring and summer times thankfully or during the day and leave.
We had an extremely delicious meal at the Seehotel Restaurant Gruner Baum, which I highly recommend if you visit the town. And then later had glühwein and waffles and bought a few ornaments at the Christmas market. There was a little oompah style band playing Christmas music on a balcony in the city square.
Still it felt like a very superficial experience to all of us, kind of like visiting Disneyworld. It was very nice, but not extremely meaningful like a lot of tourism is these days. We went back to the apartment happy but kind of flummoxed that we hadn’t enjoyed it more and then watched a really bad movie on Netflix. Fortunately for us we decided to spend the night because the next day’s activities made me fall in love with the place and here’s why:
The Rich History of Salt Mining in Hallstatt
Many people forget that before refrigeration, salt was the main means of preserving food, especially meat and fish. In ancient times, salt was an intrinsic part of survival, so it’s no wonder that people would go through extraordinary lengths to find and produce this “white gold.”
Hallstatt (Hall means salt in the Celtic language) has a truly a mind-boggling history in salt mining and in my opinion, this is the real reason people should be visiting the town, not for selfies.
The tiny town of Hallstatt has the world’s oldest salt mining in its vicinity, which has been in continuous operation for 7,000 years! And we were able to visit the part of the mine itself, known as Hallstatt Salzwelten, which is at least 3000 years old. Yes, you can walk down into the mine and see where the salt is mined from as far back as the Neolithic era. How cool is that?
To get to the mine, we rode a funicular up a mountain, which was a beautiful ride in itself, and were able to take a tour of the area where people 7000 years ago had worked and lived and died mining the precious mineral. There is a ancient graveyard on the mountainside (discovered in the 1800s) where archeologists are still recovering important artifacts from centuries past.
From the Salzwelten Hallstatt mine’s website:
“People were already living in the upland valley above Hallstatt in around 5000 BC, something impressively documented by a variety of archaeological finds – such as an adze* made of deer antler, presumably used in salt mining. In other words, the beginnings of salt mining were about 7,000 years ago. Organized mining activity began later, in the Bronze Age, with prehistoric mining reaching its heyday during the so-called Hallstatt Period during the earlier Iron Age between 800 and ca. 400 BC. Even back then, people were penetrating as deep as 200 meters into the mountain, carving out tunnels by hand, battling meter by meter through the naked rock in order to reach a true treasure: the so-called “white gold”.
*An adze is a cutting tool similar to an axe.
The tour guide above was so informative (and pretty funny as well) and took us on the walking tour down into the mine. We walked through some sections and slid through others, then took a tiny train out of the mine at the end of the tour. The two wooden slides in the tunnels that visitors go down to get further into the mine were quite thrilling in an unexpected way as was the light show on the underground lake down in the mine. For a virtual ride on the slide, see the video below.
Am I the only one who screamed? – the wimpy tourist who shall remain nameless. 🤦🏻♀️
The section of tunnels we walked through were established in 1719, but what the people excavating found was what makes this place an archeologist’s goldmine. In 1734 the body of an ancient miner called the “Man In Salt” was found perfectly preserved (in salt, of course) in the mine. Then later in the 1800s the oldest and best preserved wooden staircase dating from 1344 BC (more than 3,000 years old) was discovered there as well. At the end of the tour, they unveil the stairs for you to see.
Walking and sliding through the salt mine as the guide explained all of the history and showed us an underground lake (with a light show) was truly an enlightening (and slightly scary if you are a wee bit claustrophobic) experience. The mine is well lit, but I kept imagining prehistoric miners with torches digging and walking down into the mines and how frightening that would have been for them. But a necessary part of their existence.
Glück Auf. Um, what?
Looking out of the building that led to the funicular and the mine, I saw the phrase above, “Glück Auf ,” as we were entering the area of the salt mines. Not knowing any German, I thought, well, that doesn’t sound very nice to say to your guests. Wow, this town really doesn’t want tourists to visit.
However, in actuality the phrase is not a curse, but a German greeting of luck and good fortune that originated in the 16th century, according to the International Mining Water Association’s (IMWA) website. Miners used to say this to fellow miners as they went into the tunnels to search for salt and other minerals knowing how dangerous the job was and they may not return, the site states.
So I say to you in whatever your quest is in this brand new year and new decade: “Glück Auf, my friends.”
Oh, and please be mindful of the residents in the places you visit.