UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt is reflected so perfectly in the lake that it is often described as one of Europe’s most beautiful villages. The Chinese admire it so much they’ve built an exact replica. But it is just one of many “screensaver worthy” scenes in Austria’s Lakes District.
Set between the foothills and the Alps, this region, called Salzkammergut in German, is about 300 kilometers west of Vienna and just an hour’s drive southeast of Salzburg. With 76 lakes and soaring limestone mountains, the Salzkammergut offers exquisite scenery and water sports not to mention hiking, biking and fishing.
It is difficult to believe there are so many different blues, but each lake lays claim to its own unique shade. Centuries-old, flower-decked wooden holiday houses, simple lakeside cottages, and rustic boat sheds adorn each lake shore. Wildflowers carpet rolling fields; woodpiles are stacked with designer precision (Austria wins Olympic gold for wood stacking); small boats tootle on the waters; huge trout and arctic char slither underneath; walkers and cyclists breathe the clear mountain air.
The name Salzkammergut refers to the area’s lucrative salt mines. People have been sourcing this white gold since the Bronze Age. It was in the Altaussee salt mines that the Nazis stashed some of Europe’s most precious art works and you can still visit the site today. Stolen art aside, the lakes have long been a summer muse for artists and musicians alike.
Our introduction to Hallstattsee (“see”, by the way, means “lake”) is on the Steegwirt Gasthaus deck overlooking the Traun River as it feeds out of the lake. Over hearty beef dumpling soup washed down with the Gasthaus’ very own Hallstatt beer we watch ducks waddle, bicyclists zip, and a goat herder leading her flock across the bridge.
In Hallstatt we walk the entire village in ten minutes. Plaques explain how salt miners discovered a prehistoric cemetery here with more than 1000 burial sites. You can take the near-vertical funicular behind the village to tour the world’s oldest salt mine but more intriguing is the Charnel House set in the flower-filled cemetery of the 12th century Catholic Church. Here, because space was limited, 1200 skulls are carefully preserved, many painted with flowers as a sign of love.
The best time to explore Hallstatt is in the early morning. Sheer mountains draped in wisps of cloud plunge directly into the indigo depths of the lake. we explore the village’s narrow streets, dotted with neatly stacked wood and window boxes of bright geraniums, savoring the calm before the arrival of the boat crammed with tourists. The mustard, peach and cream houses are packed together along the lake’s edge like pastries in a dessert cart.
We take a ferry across the lake to see Hallstatt from the other side then ride a gondola up the sheer-sided Dachstein Mountains for an eagle’s eye view of the village hemmed between rock and water. There is a five-fingered viewing platform that thrusts out over a 400-meter drop but we prefer hiking amidst the wildflowers and exploring the impressive ice cave.
Aquamarine Attersee, the largest of the Salzkammergut lakes, is where Gustav Klimt found his “sommerfrische” a lovely word meaning “summer freshness.” Viennese still love to come here to swim and sail on its clear waters. Attersee’s easterly “breeze of the roses” imbues the lake with the smell of roses from a castle garden.
We discover exquisite vistas right out of a Klimt canvas along the bike trail across from Unterach. Klimt painted 45 light-infused impressions of Attersee. On a tour of the lake with the Klimt Centre in Schörfling, the guide shows how Klimt used a small cardboard stencil to frame small sections of the landscape in order to change his perspective, flatten the picture plane, raise the horizon line and fill his canvasses with unbridled nature.
From Grundlsee, we walk past neat farmhouses and along a field of flowers craning our heads to see the top of sheer limestone cliffs. A horse and buggy passes as we reach the khaki-coloured Toplitzsee, its outlet stream bulging with trout. A punt offers a lake tour that includes a walk to the tiny round lake of Kammersee that forms the source of the Traun River, which runs through the entire Lakes District on its way to join the Danube.
The atmosphere of Toplitzsee is spooky, understandably so because the Nazis tested explosives in its dark waters and dumped millions of counterfeit sterling notes here in one of their many macabre plots. Families lunching at tables on the terrace of the Fisherman’s Hut restaurant, dotted with whimsical wood nymph sculptures, create a much happier scene.
Wolfgangsee wins the turquoise color prize. We drink in vistas of the lake from the 14th century pilgrim church of St. Wolfgang whose huge carved gothic altarpiece is worth a trip in itself. At the small emerald Gosausee, spectacularly framed with peaks of the Dachstein Mountains, we enjoy roast pork at the pretty Gasthof Gosausee as mud-splattered riders in Austria’s biggest mountain bike race go by in a blur.
Of all the lakes, though, we lose our hearts to the cobalt Altaussee, a tucked-away gem that has long been a retreat for Austrian intellectuals. We spy her from afar on the road from Bad Aussee (where we stop for obligatory pictures in front of the town sign) then get even better vistas along the zigzag Panoramic Road up Loser Mountain. The views so inspired Richard Strauss that he composed his Alpine Symphony after hiking here in 1910.
Lakeside, we walk Johannes Brahms Way to the jolly waterfront Strand Cafe, passing women young and old dressed in dirndls out walking with their families. No tourist dross here, the wearing and the walking are both unaffected national pastimes.
After feasting on lake trout and chanterelle gnocchi we continue our circumnavigation of the lake. A punt-like platte boat (ed: two dots required on top of the “a”) barely ripples the water’s surface. We glimpse it between fir fronds framing the reflected mountains.
As the forest clears, the path meanders through wildflowers to the rustic geranium-bedecked Jagdhaus Seewiese, a hunting-lodge-turned-restaurant. A fiddler plays “Summertime” with an exquisite Austrian flourish. Hikers savour homemade apple and berry strudel on the wooden deck. Lederhosen-clad waiters serve beer steins at tables under umbrellas as kids play in the fields. Just another perfect summer’s afternoon in the Austrian Lakes District really…
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