Though invaded by tourists in summer but with a permanent population of less than a thousand, Hallstatt is an idyllic and picturesque Austrian village sandwiched on a small wedge of land between towering mountains and a chilly, peaceful lake – a typical Austrian travel wonder. The nearby salt mines have bought people to this area for over 4,500 years including Iron Age folks and the Romans.
Only one narrow through road and a handful of steep pedestrian paths give access to the limited space of the village. From the elegant mountain lake, the wooden houses appear to cling grimly to the foreshore leaning back into the steep lush cliffs so as to not topple over. Vivid red flowers blossom from the window boxes decorating the wooden houses and celebrating the warm summer months.
The houses are built like sideways pyramids with multiple stories facing the lake but only a single floor at the back, such is the steepness of the surrounding mountains. Boat garages litter the edge of the lake, there is more parking for boats than cars in this village.
Space is so valuable in Hallstatt that until the recent introduction of cremation, grave sites could only be occupied for around ten years. After this, the remains were exhumed, dried in the sun and moved to the somewhat eerie ossuary or Beinhaus (bone house).
Today several hundred painted skulls rest in the Hallstatt ossuary along with stacks of arm and leg bones.
The skulls were ornately decorated with the skills of a calligrapher with the name, birth and death dates, profession and floral symbol – typically leaves for men and floral garlands for women – and stacked neatly in family groups.
Being able to view these relics in the vivid natural beauty of Hallstatt reminds you of the transience of life.