There are few who manage a trip to Salzburg without being consumed by references to its famous musically inclined residents, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Family von Trapp. Drive an hour or so through the winding thicket of forest outside the Austrian city, however, and you’ll encounter a lesser-known jewel of the region. Keeping watch over the seemingly infinite expanse of its namesake lake, the village of Hallstatt dates back to prehistoric times and is home to what was the world’s first known salt mine – along with a few other ghoulish occupants.
The silence is eerie. All that pierces the quiet is the gentle flutter of snowflakes – more of a presence than a sound. The pristine lake stretches out before me, its surface gently serrated by a breeze caressing its surface. A tiny boat sails idly across the centre, a lone figure dwarfed by the grandeur of nature surrounding it. I feel surprisingly cosy, despite the immensity of the lake, a feeling that perhaps comes from the natural embrace of the forest-clad mountains that line the shore. Their blurred reflections intertwine in fascinating patterns on the lake’s surface, accentuated by wisps of mist that lie delicately upon the water.
A sudden hankering for gingerbread teases my senses and I can’t fathom why. The air is strong with the spice of woodfires rather than anything epicurean, and I see no signs of the sweet delicacy available for sale. After a moment of confusion, I soon realise that my sensorial interest has been piqued by the cluster of wooden houses ascending the hillside, their walls an enticing hue of gingerbread and their rooftops covered in a thick layer of snow much like icing.
The crunch of my footsteps in the snow breaks the silence as I leave the lakeshore and wander into the tiny township. It’s almost as if I’ve stumbled into a fairytale, and I feel as though I might encounter any number of storybook characters while exploring the tiny laneways of the diminutive Austrian hamlet. A lean steeple rises up from the heart of the village, standing tall like a lighthouse on the ocean shore. Behind it Hallstatt rises up the hillside in a intricate maze of laneways, staircases, passageways and plazas. My wanderings lead me to the base of a small stone staircase, partially enclosed as if it could be a secret passage. On either side of the stairs, graduated up the incline, is a collection of small wooden doorways. I feel as if each one could lead me into a different fanciful world, like Alice’s rabbit hole, but I resist the temptation to knock.
The stairs lead me up to a modest church overlooking the village. Surrounding it is a small cemetery with rows of wrought steel and wooden crucifixes draped with tiny roofs thick with snow. Each grave gazes peacefully out across the lake, giving the soul resting within an eternal tranquillity to ponder. Tucked away at the back of the cemetery, a small stone structure catches my eye. I make my way through the lines of graves to get a closer look and, as I peer through the rusted iron grate that guards the door, my heart leaps in surprise. The tiny stone enclave is home to hundreds of skulls, tightly stacked together on a shelf under the gaze of a crucifix. Each skull is delicately painted with a name and a garland – some resembling wreaths of roses, others more akin to the laurel leaves worn by the Ancient Romans. Beneath the shelves of skulls, thousands of bones (most likely belonging to the skulls) are jammed firmly in rows.
Made somewhat jumpy by the eerie quiet of the lakeside village, I feel a light chill run down my spine as I quietly hope that I haven’t stumbled upon some kind of murderous shrine of which I might soon be an occupant. A robust old man, seemingly the cemetery’s caretaker, sees me timidly slinking away and approaches with a smile. He explains that the accurately named Beinhaus (‘bone house’) came about due to the hilltop cemetery’s lack of burial space. In the 1700s, the villagers began digging up the skeletons of those who had been dead for more than ten years, bleaching their bones and then painting their skulls with symbolic decorations that bore the names and dates of birth and death of the dead. They were then stored in the Beinhaus to make room for other burials. While these days the practice is rare, the room of skulls remains an important symbol of Hallstatt’s past.
I thank the caretaker and head off back down into the village to escape the icy breeze that is crescendoing on the hillside. The chill fuels my hunger and I duck into a tiny restaurant on the lake’s shore for a typical Austrian lunch of Kaspressknödel (hearty cheese dumplings bathed in a soul warming broth) and Kaiserschmarrn, a tangle of pancake strips draped in lashings of stewed plums and a sprinkling of icing sugar. Through the window I see the flutter of snowflakes thicken, obscuring the lake from view. Contentedly perched by the fire, I wrap my hands around my steaming hot chocolate and watch the wintery scene unfold.