Text: Žikica Milošević
The Salzkammergut is something like the Lake District in Britain, or simply, „the Caribbean“ in the mountains; a place where Austrians go on vacation to rest from the hustle and bustle of Vienna, even though Vienna is like a walk in a park compared to New York. At its centre sits the biggest gem in its crown, Hallstatt.
THE ORIGINAL HALLSTATT
It is really bizarre to think that someone is copying entire cities, in the way one’s copies brands of shoes, clothes or watches, but it does happen, only to the best though, like Hallstatt. In China, someone was so fascinated with Hallstatt that they made a replica of the entire city just to enjoy its beauty without bothering to pay for expensive tickets to Austria, and to avoid being pushed around with a horde of tourists from all over the world, since Hallstatt is one of the places affected by the so-called “overtourism”. Or rather it was affected and probably will be.
The root of the word “Salzkammergut” is obviously “salz” (“salt” in German), and when translated into English, it means “Salt Demesne”. The word Kammergut is a German word for the territories ruled by the princes and princesses of the Habsburg Empire. The Kammergut we are writing about has been linked to salt since the Celtic era. Namely, Hallstatt is a Germanic-Celtic combination of words, literally meaning “salt city”, because “hall” in the Celtic language means salt. It is fun to note that, in East Germany, we come across the same word game – the city of Halle on the Saale River means the Salt City (in Celtic) on the salt river. That Hallstatt was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, and the size of the place will definitely deceive you.
Hallstatt has a population of only 1,000 but is visited by 600,000 tourists a year, which means that literally, every person living here meets 600 tourists a year whom they have never seen before. It is no wonder that the city has been struggling with excessive tourism for years, and that it literally lives off visitors. The coronavirus pandemic did bring a hiatus in tourist activity here but soon enough, the people of Hallstatt would want to see big crowds again. Or maybe not. We’ll see. It is safe to say that tourists already miss Hallstatt, and since it is the most photographed place in Austria, it is quite clear how much they miss it. In May, all the traffic in Hallstatt stops and the whole city becomes a pedestrian zone until October, making it one-of-a-kind in the world.
Yes, why did this place, small and charming like many others, become so overcrowded by people who are trying to escape overcrowdedness of cities? Well, there are several reasons. Some are historical. Halstatt was the site of the first salt mine in Europe, which was exploited by people who came here before the Celts. Although lonely and inhospitable, this area is considered one of the first to be inhabited by humans. The reason is the rich deposits of natural salt, which have been mined for thousands of years. Some of the oldest finds, such as the stone axe, date back to around 5,000 BC. In 1846, Johann Georg Ramsauer discovered a large prehistoric cemetery near the present location of Hallstatt, where one of the first blacksmith’s sites was discovered. The developed commerce and the wealth that it brought facilitated the development of a culture, which, after the finding at Salzburghohtal, was called the Hallstatt Culture and lasted from about 800 to 400 BC. Of course, since salt was terribly precious and food without it was bland, the people from this area amassed a tremendous amount of wealth, so the high technology and great art here do not come as a surprise. If you want, you can also get to the mine by cable car, enjoy the beautiful view from the vista overlooking the town that it looks as if it was made with Lego bricks, and take a perfect picture for your Instagram profile. While you are there, you can have the Austrian sausage in the restaurant, drink Hallstatter Bier, and top it all off with apple strudel, vanilla cream and cinnamon. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in Hallstatt, do as the Hallstattians do.
WAITING FOR THE NEW BEGINNING
As we await tourism to resume and hopefully, this time around we are going to be more considerate and smarter towards nature and each other, let us remind ourselves that this is the place where Lake Hallstatt, the Protestant Church Pfarrkirche and the Catholic Church Christuskirche melt into a uniquely beautiful sight that looks like a fairytale in winter, is soothing in autumn, and full of magical colours in spring and summer. There is no good time to visit Hallstatt, a jewel in the bosom of Austria. Any time is a good time.