Salt Mines & Bone Houses

We had an early start the next day as it was our first (and last!) full day to explore Hallstatt. And what better way to wake up then with some freshly baked goods? As you’ve heard me complain before, finding a decent breakfast in Europe is near to impossible, so you can imagine the trouble we had in a place like Hallstatt… The thing that did make it easy is that we literally had only one choice because no where else was open, ha! Cafe Bäckerei Maislinger is a traditional Austrian bakery, with a super friendly staff who are willing to help a bewildered American couple figure out what the best pastry is to eat at 8am on a Saturday whilst half asleep….. We were happy that they did offer lots of options on the savory side as well, and ended up with something like a cheese & bacon scone, a giant pig in a blanket (don’t judge) and a cinnamon roll. Needless to say, it was all delicious.

Our next stop would be the biggest attraction in Hallstatt, Salzwelten, aka the salt mines. As these are located deep in the mountains, there are two ways to access them, either by a strenuous, uphill walk/hike, or by funicular! We obviously opted for the second option at such an ungodly hour, and got there as soon as it opened as we heard the queues can get quite extensive later on in the day. It was a super quick ride in the cable car and once you’re at the top, there are a couple of different things you can do. There is the salt mine museum & tour, they also have a really awesome viewing platform (more on that later), there is a restaurant with expansive views over the See, and in the summer, much of the area is open to hikers.

While we were waiting to begin the salt mine tour, we were each given a pair of what reminded me of nurse scrubs. In order to go down in to the mines, you must wear this protective clothing  to a) not ruin your clothes and b) use the slides! It was pretty hysterical to do a tour with 10 strangers all dressed like morons – imagine trying to fit burgundy scrubs over your bubble coat and being taken seriously…. Anyway, the tour was super interesting. You literally walk down into the old mines, it’s super dark and cold, but awesome to be in the actual caves where this all used to happen. Each stop on the tour gave more info about the history of the oldest salt mine in the world. (Disclaimer: While super informative, it is a little cheesy. I feel like it’s geared towards kids as they apparently get HOARDS of families in the summer. Kind of like the Disney World of salt mines… but in a good way!) I can’t lie that one of our favourite parts was taking the multiple “slides” down to the lower layers of the mine. A plus of wearing your mine suit is that you go really fast. I’m sure you can guess who asked for multiple rounds down the slide… His name rhymes with Moe. We also were shown the subterranean salt lake at the heart of the mine (1300 feet underground!), as well as the oldest wooden staircase in the world which was only discovered here in 2012. Pretty cool stuff. The tour ends with a ride on wooden tram which leads you up and out of the mine. It’s very reminiscent to the It’s a Small World ride 😉 All jokes aside though, the Salzwelten tour is SO interesting and honestly, we appreciated a more laid back, fun and interactive tour. My advice would be to not miss this super exceptional place on a visit to Hallstatt.

Afterwards we walked over to the “Hallstatt Skywalk” – a viewing platform that protrudes from the mountain over the town, with breathtaking views of the village and lake below. We took quite a few pictures, but were a bit disappointed with the results. On almost all of our trips we always have some awesome photo opportunities with crazy views from way high up, but they just never look that way. This was another example! We tried out some different angles so you could see the depth better, but who knows if it actually helped. Oh well! We opted to walk down the mountain this time instead of taking the cable car, which was really nice and also offered impressive views. It leaves you right behind the cemetery of Catholic Church of Hallstatt. As with many of these old European countries, the headstones and graves were so ornately decorated, I couldn’t believe it. (Remember Berlin!?) Beautiful flowers & candles, decorated plates, numerous statues and crosses made of wood or steel. But the best was yet to come… One thing that people may miss here is that there is a small building in the yard that doesn’t look like much of anything except storage. What it actually is, is an ossuary or charnel house aka a bone house. This is a small chapel where the skulls and bones of the deceased are stored. Creepy huh? Well it was seriously one of the COOLEST things we’ve seen since moving to Europe. Turns out, since Hallstatt is such a small village, they are very limited in burial space, therefore back in the day, every 10 years graves were reused for a new burial. The skull and bones of the previous occupier were then moved to the ossuary during a second funeral. To make sure visitors could still “identify” their deceased family or friend, the skulls were decorated with names or initials so that they could easily be found among the crowds (you’ll see what I mean…). St.Michael’s Chapel is the largest and most remarkable collection of painted skulls still in existence. How freaking cool is that?! Although I did read about it, I had no idea how moving it would be – what an unexpected treasure.

The rest of the day was mostly spent strolling around eating, drinking, and taking an unnecessary amount of pictures.  We went to Maik’s Heisse Hutte for a burger and a beer.  Then followed up with a cafe on Marketplatz for another hoppy brew and some incredible people watching. Last stop was the deck of Seehotel Grüner Baum. Situated right on the lake with daybeds (!) we decided to lay here for a while and sip on our drinks while Facetiming some of our friends and fam. We almost never get moments to just chill on these trips, so we really enjoyed this lazy afternoon in the most stunning setting! It actually started to rain which is why we ended up leaving, otherwise we probably could have stayed a couple more hours.

We did a little bit of shopping at some of their local markets and then went back to the room to freshen up before dinner. We knew we wanted a special meal for our last in Hallstatt, so decided on Bräugasthof, a village mainstay and former brewery. This was a dark tavern, lit mostly by large candelabras. It felt extra cozy with the rain pouring down outside which made us want to indulge even more then we should have! We ordered a bottle of red wine and shared a beef and a fish. It was totally delicious and our waitress was so friendly & helpful in guiding us what to order. It was clear we weren’t ready to leave Hallstatt as we were the last people in the restaurant lingering over our last sips of wine. It goes without saying that we will certainly never forget this truly magical place.

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Elizabeth & Joseph right next to each other……… WEIRD!

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