The hills are alive with the sound of … cow bells.
I am often asked how I choose my holiday destinations. More often than not they are well known places that I have read about or places friends have already visited. But recently, a new trend seems to have formed thanks to the power of social media (Instagram in particular, although the Earth Pics twitter account also has a lot to answer for). This trend involves me simply seeing an amazing photo of an amazing place and thinking ‘Where IS that?’ and ‘Can I feasibly go there?’ and for this reason alone, a trip to the village of Hallstatt – a UNESCO World Heritage site was organised.
Hallstatt is located in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, about an hour’s drive south east of Salzburg, which is the airport that we flew into.
Hallstatt seemed like a destination which was good for a couple of days, so I needed to extend the trip by looking for a nearby place that we could stay and explore beforehand. After a lot of researching, I stumbled across a lovely looking little guesthouse on the shores of Lake Gosau.
Lake Gosau, or Vorderer Gosausee as it is known locally lies about half an hour west of Hallstatt, and a lovely little detour off the main route from the airport. There is only one accommodation option here (at lake level) – Gasthof Gosausee. A family run hotel on the edge of the lake, surrounded by the towering Dachstein-West mountain range, it has several rooms, a lake side patio, a snack kiosk, a gift shop and a lovely restaurant offering great local dishes (and huge portions). Staff are friendly and welcoming and it becomes a perfect base for day trippers visiting the lake, hikers starting on their treks or visitors of the gondola to the mountains, which is located behind the hotel.
We stayed here for two nights – the first night we were the only guests staying at the hotel. So peaceful and serene, apart from the relaxing sounds of cowbells from the nearby meadows.
It is fair to say that the main selling point for the hotel is the view. Make sure you book a lake view room, as you will certainly not be disappointed. Looking out onto the crystal clear, calm water giving a mirrored view of the mountains and glacier is a beautiful thing.
Predominantly a skiing destination in the winter, and a hiking destination in the summer there is the conveniently located Gosaukammbahn cable car just behind the hotel, which will transport you up to the alpine meadows of the Zweiselalm, offering miles of hiking trails, 360 degree views and plenty of alpine huts for your rest stops. We spent a few hours up here wandering the trails, and stopping off every now and again for a break at a mountain hut. The nearest hut to the mountain cable car station is the Gablonzer Hutte offering great food, accommodation and most importantly, refreshing continental beers! Be sure to stop off before heading back down to the lake. By the way, you don’t have to take the cable car – you can hike down if you have a couple of hours to spare.
Before I go any further, let me tell you that I am not a true hiker. I don’t like to be out for hours on end away from my creature comforts, and I am also not a fan of any particularly risky hiking activities or locations. Walking on safe trails, offering great views for a couple of hours (give or take) is good for me.
Another great hike and suitable for the likes of me, is a hike around the lake. This takes approximately an hour, is relatively flat and again offers fabulous views from pretty much any point along the trail. The reflections on the lake are something else.
There is an extended option however, which is definitely worth an extra couple of hours. At the very back of Vorderer Gosausee, another trail will lead you further up towards the glacier to another lake called the Hinterer Gosausee. This hike takes roughly an extra hour each way, but the views that greet you along the way make it unmissable. It’s fairly hilly in sections, but nothing too taxing.
Once you arrive at the far end of the Hinterer Gosausee, you will be pleased to hear that there was another alpine hut, Hozmeisteralm, which was ideal for a lunch stop before the trek back to the hotel.
The walk back, with a few welcome downhill sections, and a return around the opposite side of the lake offered more amazing views and we arrived back to the hotel just before a thunderstorm hit, which was spectacular to watch from the safety and shelter of the hotel.
After a couple of days at Gosausee, it was time to move on to Hallstatt – the main reason why we had travelled to Austria.
Hallstatt is a spectacularly beautiful village on the shores of (unsurprisingly) Lake Hallstatt. The traditional Austrian architecture set to a backdrop of towering mountains is so dramatic it left me feeling lost for words.
The centre of Hallstatt is a traffic free zone. When you arrive (and if you are staying in the village), road signs direct you to a car park on the outskirts of the town, from where you are then shuttled into town.
We opted to stay at the Seewirt Zauner hotel, which was located in the main square. Looking very traditional on the outside, the hotel actually turned out to be very modern. We chose a room on the top floor with a balcony, which gave a nice (if slightly restricted) view over the village and lake. Great location with plenty of restaurants and cafes nearby during the day.
So what is there to do? Well, we started off with a boat trip. No point in staying at a lakeside village without taking a trip out on to the lake! There were a few cruises available and we opted for a shorter cruise which was a round trip between the villages of Hallstatt and Obertraun on the opposite side of the lake. Lasting about an hour, we had fantastic views of the surrounding areas.
Another thing worth doing is taking a ride on the funicular railway which takes you onto the Salzberg mountain. While you are there you can visit the salt mine or the Rudolfstrum restaurant, which has a panoramic terrace overlooking the lake. If you are feeling brave and have a head for heights, why not check out the ‘World Heritage Skywalk’ – a viewing platform that juts out from the mountain 350 metres above Hallstatt.
There are plenty of other attractions in the area, but we were fairly limited by time and rainy weather to do some of the other things.
So, what are my thoughts on Hallstatt?
Well, it is as beautiful as every photo makes it look and a lovely place to spend some time. However, being so beautiful it attracts hordes of tourists. Every hour from 9am to 5pm coaches arrive and drop off hundreds of people onto the narrow streets. The Chinese love Hallstatt so much that they have built a replica of the village in China, I kid you not. It does not make for a relaxing time strolling around. I found it quite stressful at times. The coaches stop for a limited time, meaning that everyone is literally clambering around to try and see as much as they can in their designated time slots. Then, come 6pm when the last of the coaches leave, the village becomes a ghost town, the cafes and restaurants shut and you are pretty much limited to the hotels for entertainment and dining.
In hindsight, if I were to return I would likely stay across the lake in Obertraun and jump on the ferry to Hallstatt for a visit. Or stay at Gasthof Gosausee and travel in for a few hours. Funnily enough as we were checking out of the Gasthof the owner asked where we were going to next. On mentioning Hallstatt, he knowingly smirked and nodded, saying ‘OK, well we may well be seeing you back here in the next few days if you need some peace and quiet.’ It honestly was quite tempting!