Published: Nov 7th, 2021 · Nonfiction | Travel
Location: Hallstatt, Austria
Travel Dates: Sep 29th-Oct 5th, 2021
Days Nomadic: 216 · Miles Traveled: 22573
The main train station was a fifteen-minute drive from our apartment. We still had forty-five minutes until our scheduled departure to Hallstatt by way of Linz, so we weren’t in a rush. I shoved my square European-style pillow into my suitcase, closed the sides like a book, then pressed my weight down on top of my bag and zipped it shut.
When we arrived in Frankfurt eight days earlier, Skutull wasn’t a fan of elevators. To him, they were magical contraptions that teleport you to another dimension. Or possibly giant industrial monsters that eat puppies. Every time the elevator moved, he would lay down on the ground and swivel his head back and forth searching for an escape route that didn’t exist.
On this final morning, we piled into the elevator with our luggage as Skutull sauntered in the open door, then turned around and looked at me while wagging his tail. We lowered down the elevator shaft and Skutull sniffed the air. A lingering scent of cologne floated about. The elevator slowed to a stop and Skutull repositioned his nose six inches from the second door on the other side of the compartment, knowing that’s where it would open. When the door slid to the side, Skutull strutted out into the lobby. There were usually people there that knew him.
My friend was manning the front desk—the one who printed me his official list of favorite restaurants. He called a cab for us and requested a dog-friendly car.
“Should be five minutes,” he said.
We said goodbye and told him we were headed to Hallstatt next.
“Do you need me to come with you?” he joked.
Our cab pulled up fifteen minutes later. A large man with ear-length hair that parted in the middle of his head got out and opened the trunk. I loaded our first two pieces of luggage as Shelby opened the door to get in with Skutull.
“Mit hund?!” the man exclaimed. His right eye was wide open staring at me while the left one clenched shut. The corner of his mouth quivered.
“Ya,” I replied.
“No! No, no, no.”
Our friend from the apartment ran out. The taxi driver yelled at him as he pulled our suitcases out of the trunk. Then he got back in his car and sped off.
“I requested dog-friendly, but he was worried about Skutull with his leather seats. I’ll call another.”
A knot started to form in my stomach—we only had 30 minutes until our train departed. If it took another fifteen minutes for the cab to show up and then we had a fifteen minute drive to the train station, we’d show up right as our train was scheduled to depart. And if there’s one thing I knew about train travel in Europe, it’s that the trains show up only a few minutes before departure and take off right at the scheduled time, no exceptions.
Our next cab driver arrived five minutes later. He drove an SUV instead of a car and was fine with Skutull riding as long as he sat in the trunk. Skutull jumped in the back with our luggage. Shelby held his leash from the back seat, pulling him as far forward as she could because she was worried about him leaning against the back hatch.
When we arrived at the train station, we checked our digital tickets for the platform number. There was nothing listed. Then we looked for the arrivals-departures screens that are customary at airports and train stations. Signs covered the displays saying they were down for maintenance. Next we scurried around the platforms looking for anything that told us which trains were departing from where, but found nothing.
We had a few minutes to spare, but not many. Skutull and I waited with our luggage while Shelby got in line at the help desk. It took several agonizing minutes, but she eventually talked with somebody who told us our platform number. It seemed like there were a lot of other people waiting in line to ask the same question.
We walked to our platform and had five minutes until our scheduled train departure. Our original plan was to grab breakfast at the train station. I’d had a banana and the remainder of our oat milk before we left our studio, but Shelby hadn’t eaten anything.
“I’m going to go look for breakfast,” Shelby said.
“You know we have less than five minutes?”
“I know, Zack, but I haven’t eaten anything!”
Shelby scurried off while Skutull and I once again manned the luggage. Several people stopped to pet him. Shelby returned with a cup of porridge right as the train pulled up. We had reserved seats to make sure there was room for Skutull under our feet. Our tickets said we were in car 125, seats 95 and 96. As we strode down the platform looking at each train car to see if it was number 125, a round woman in a conductor’s uniform blew her whistle. That meant the train was about to depart. We hopped in the nearest door, then shimmied down the cars until we found our seats.
Our journey was smooth sailing for a few hours. Shelby and I read while Skutull lay at our feet sleeping. It wasn’t his most comfortable nap ever, but he made do. The train stopped at several stations along the way.
As we neared the Austrian border, the train pulled into a larger station. People got off, but not as urgently as other stops we’d made. I heard something on the intercom about this being the final destination, but figured there was a mistake in the translation. Maybe he meant the last stop in Germany before Austria? There was still an hour remaining on our route to Linz.
Shelby and I stayed seated and were reading when a young man across the aisle spoke up, “Where are you going?”
“Linz,” I said.
“The train…” he paused to think, “I don’t know how to say it,” he said, starting with his hands together, then pulling them apart.
A man in a conductor’s uniform marched down the aisle of the train car yelling at us to get off.
“He says it’s the last destination.”
“Our ticket is to Linz, though?”
“You must go to the front. This stays here.”
I jumped out of my seat and pulled our luggage down from the overhead racks. “Thank you,” I told him, “we would have sat here while it left.”
He nodded his head and left.
We jumped out of the train car onto the platform and ran. We weren’t sure which cars of the train would continue on to Linz and which would stay, so we ran all the way to the front car. It was still there. A sense of relief washed over my body as I took a deep breath.
Shelby pressed the button for the door to open, but nothing happened.
A group of employees were standing in a circle smoking nearby. One of them yelled at us to back up. “It’s closed!” she said. The front three train cars pulled away from the rest and rolled into the distance.
One of the other employees smoking took pity on us and approached. He was a middle-aged man with long hair. I’d seen him on our train collecting trash from passengers just before we arrived.
“Go to platform 5,” he said pointing across the track, “and that is your train to Linz.”
He showed us the alternate train route on his phone. We were supposed to have an hour layover in Linz, so we had extra time to catch up and still make our train from Linz to Hallstatt. The new train route used a regional train that made frequent stops. It was scheduled to depart in a few minutes and would take almost the entire hour to make it to Linz. By comparison, if we’d made it to the front of our original train, the remaining travel time would have been fifteen minutes.
It was a tight turnaround, but we made it onto the regional train (which was packed with children coming home from school) and then transferred in Linz to our train in Hallstatt. We didn’t have time to get lunch in Linz like we’d planned to, but we made it to our destination.
The train stopped on the banks of a large lake surrounded by pine-covered mountains. We unloaded and I was surprised to step off onto a trail. The only structure was a small building with a vending machine and an electronic train ticket kiosk.
A small boat picked us up at the docks. The captain of the ship took a liking to Skutull and said that he had a border collie when he was a kid. It’s worth noting that he charged us €6 for this boat ride, but when Shelby and I returned a few days later without Skutull, he charged almost double and was not as friendly. Skutull knows how to put the charm on.
Our hosts met us at the docks in Hallstatt. Our rented house was only a few hundred feet up the hill, but the husband-and-wife duo had the trunk of their car open and ready to shuttle our luggage. We’d sent them a grocery list a few days earlier and they were nice enough to shop for us so that we could arrive to a stocked refrigerator.
“Do you need any bread?” the husband asked us.
We said we could use some bread.
“Ok, I will pick it up. Well, now that I have all of your bags, I can take off,” he joked, extending his flat hand away from his body.
The wife shook her head.
The city of Hallstatt is said to be one of the inspirations for the fictional city of Arendelle in the Disney movie Frozen. I’ll admit that I noticed a striking resemblance. There was a church on the lake with a pointy bell tower. And multi-story houses that rose up the lake cliffs—they looked like they were glued to each other, and if they weren’t painted eclectically, the entire city might look like one big building. It had a Venetian feel to it. Above the town, a waterfall cascaded down the mountain and through the city center.
Our rental house was three stories high and sat on the water overlooking the church. Its street meandered up a hill that extended into the lake, which gave us a great view of the city center below. The interior was decorated with plaster molds of peoples’ butts and pictures of a short-haired woman wearing various extravagant and colorful gowns. This was her house. Her name was Ruth. She was our host’s sister and lived there for several decades before recently passing away.
Our hosts lived in the house next door and checked in on us regularly. One evening they even brought us homemade dinner—lentil stew with dumplings. I’m not sure what kind of dumplings they were, but I loved them. When you’re a nomad, most meals you either cook yourself or eat out. It was nice to eat a home-cooked meal made by somebody else.
My life was simple and relaxing in Hallstatt. We booked a week in this small, mountain town to recuperate. I’m glad we did because the rest was needed. I knew moving to Europe was going to be stressful and a lot of work, but I didn’t realize how much it came to consume our lives in the months leading up to our departure from Washington, DC. It almost felt like we had retired from a job or graduated from college.
The bakery in town made an assortment of breads and pastries, but we formed a monogamous relationship with their Orangenlebkuchen—soft, iced gingerbread cookies topped with a slice of candied orange. They weren’t too sweet, which I liked. I think the cookie itself had little to no sugar. The chewy candied orange slice on top paired nicely with the soft cookie and also gave it a hint of sweetness. We went through many Orangenlebkuchen during our stay. Many, but not too many.
Our house had a two-tiered back patio, the bottom level of which sat on the lake and had grated metal steps that descended into the water. There was a grill and dinner table on this level. Our hosts taught me how to use their charcoal grill. I’d only used gas grills before. I lit the charcoal and let it heat, then dispersed the red coals under the grates. The clouds started to drizzle while I was grilling, but I didn’t care. I cooked fresh trout from the lake and broccoli.
Skutull loved the patio and always sat by the gate that led into the water, begging for a chance to swim. We let him swim many times, but not as often as he would have liked. The most challenging part was finding a stick. There weren’t many trees in town, and even nearby spots that had trees were spotless—it was obvious the ground was frequently cleared of debris.
I started collecting sticks on our hikes and we built up a decent stash by the time we left. The lake brought us nothing but joy except for the time Skutull got his toe nail stuck in the metal staircase that descended from the patio into the water. He yelped, but resumed swimming as soon as Shelby pulled his foot free. She later rolled Skutull on his back and compared the angles of his toenails on each foot, worried that the one that got stuck had broken off. In the end, he made it through unscathed—all his toe nail angles cleared inspection.
We hiked a lot in Hallstatt. One morning our host drove us to a neighboring town so we could ride the cable car up the mountain and hike above treeline. The cable car was three stages and climbed nearly 4,000 feet. At each stage, we squeezed ourselves into the compartment with a few dozen other people. The quarters were tight and the rules required Skutull to wear a muzzle.
To say that he was not a fan of the muzzle would be an understatement. We are pretty sure he had a panic attack when we put it on his face and he could no longer open his mouth. At first, he pawed at the muzzle trying to rip it off, but when we told him to leave it on, he listened (for the most part). He appeared to grow woozie and less responsive and just wanted to lay down. On the third section of the cable car, he laid down on a stranger’s feet. I pulled his leash up to get him to move, but he was limp and didn’t budge.
“You can just take it off, he doesn’t need it,” one of the other passengers told us. We agreed that he didn’t need it. Skutull has never once been in a dog fight or bitten a person. But we wanted to follow the rules, so we left his muzzle on.
Shelby misses our Colorado mountains, so this hike was cathartic for her. Skutull had a great time once we arrived at the top and took the muzzle off. He ran back and forth across the trail showing off his favorite sticks. One of his nicknames is “The Mulch Maker” because he likes to play with sticks for a few minutes, then break them into tiny pieces. The sticks here were especially fun because they were dry and made a satisfying snap when they broke.
The trails were empty, which didn’t quite make sense given how many people were packed into our cable car, but we didn’t complain. Summer was still lingering down in the mountain valleys, but autumn was in full swing in the high country. Stratus clouds watercolored the sky white as golden light shone through onto the yellowing grass and wilting flower petals hanging from drying stems. There was no wind and no sound and no people. Just us, in the mountains.
On our way back down the cable car, we learned why there is a muzzle rule for dogs. A middle-aged woman with a large rottweiler was in line a few people ahead of us. When her dog saw Skutull, it growled and pulled on the leash. She was not strong enough to hold the dog back. It drug her a few feet toward us before she stumbled to a stop and heaved backward with both arms on the lead. The dog’s back legs remained planted as it’s head and front feet rose in the air, leaning all of its weight onto its studded collar. The dog’s muzzle was dangling from her backpack and I wished she’d put it on.
We shimmied onto the cable car and tried to position ourselves as far away from the woman and her dog as possible, but the other people boarding pushed us toward them. Someone yelled at me to flip my backpack around to my chest to make more room, but I was too worried about the aggressive dog to care. It made a vicious growl at Skutull and a few of the people on the cable car gasped. A man next to me clicked his tongue and shook his head in disapproval. It took about half an hour, but all made it down the three-stage cable car in one piece.
There were also hiking options outside our front doorstep. We climbed to the salt mine above the city a few times. I initially dismissed the historical authenticity of the mine like I dismissed the Frankfurt green sauce and Apfelwein. I think I’ve been scarred by a lifetime of disappointing analogous experiences in the US—largest ball of yarn museums, colonial exhibits with cheesy actors who are dressed up and talk constantly about how amazing George Washington is, and “historic downtowns” filled with Kilwin’s Chocolate shops and tavern-style restaurants that serve over-priced burgers with fries.
It turns out that this salt mine is a big deal. In fact, there is an entire historical time period named after the city of Hallstatt. According to Wikipedia, “The Hallstatt culture was the predominant Western and Central European culture of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Europe.” That spans roughly 700 years (1200-500 BC). The salt mine itself has existed for 7,000 years!
The mine is still operational today and has only ever encountered one major hiccup. The mining product is brine (not crystalized salt) and fire is needed to turn the brine into salt by evaporating the water out. After thousands of years of continuous operation, the forest surrounding Hallstatt became depleted, inhibiting the production of salt. So in 1595, the Hallstatt inhabitants built a 40km pipeline made of hollowed logs that transported the salt brine from the mine to the neighboring town of Ebensee where there was an abundance of fuel. This is the oldest industrial pipeline in the world.
One sunny afternoon, our hosts asked us if we’d like to go for a ride on the lake in their traditional wooden boat. We told them we’d love to, and they insisted we bring Skutull along, too.
The boat was long and slender. The husband stood at the back of the boat and paddled with a long oar. It was similar to a Venetian gondola. Skutull boarded willingly, but was convinced for the first five minutes that it would be fun to jump into the water for a swim. We talked him down and eventually he relaxed and enjoyed the ride. He liked to stick his nose out the side of the boat and sniff the crisp air as we coasted by.
We pushed the boat ashore on the other side of the lake and got out to have lunch. Unbeknownst to us, the wife packed us cucumber sandwiches. She put black pepper on them, which was a nice touch I’ve never had. The husband opened a bottle of cider for us to share. Skutull fetched sticks in the lake. They don’t have a dog, but they loved Skutull. He was the first dog they had hosted, and when we arrived, they had two bags of food, a can of special wet food, two treats, a dog bed, his own blanket and towel, and a set of bowls waiting for him.
“This is nice,” the husband said, “You go for a ride on the boat, you enjoy the weather, you open wine.”
We agreed and asked them where they like to travel. They told us they’d been to Oman seven or eight times, they couldn’t remember for sure how many times.
“It is very expensive there,” the wife said.
“Everything is?” I asked.
“The wine,” the husband said.
“How much is a nice bottle?”
He thought about it for a minute, “Maybe at least €80. But, you have a nice meal, you open a bottle of wine. These are nice things.”
“You have to spend your money somewhere,” I said.
“Yes, you can either do this or die a rich man,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
He took a sip of his drink and looked across the lake at Hallstatt with a smile on his face.
On our trip back, we skirted along the edge of the lake, coasting by the bustling town. I asked our hosts if they were from Hallstatt. The husband said that he was born there, as was his mother who is “100 years old.”
The wife chimed in, “She’s only 99.”
The husband laughed and asked if we were married. When I said yes, he said, "Huh, then it's too late for you, too."
The wife told us about the history of their houses while the husband paddled. She said that the house we were staying in was built in the 1400s and that the sauna in the basement was historically important, but she couldn’t think of the right word to describe what it was.
"It's where the gangsters lived," she said.
My mind raced. "The hood?" "Their crib?" "Compton!?"
“Jail!” she remembered, “Our sauna was the old city jail.”
We enjoyed the sauna several times during our stay. There was a small room on the bottom level of our house with nothing inside but a latched door on the ground. If you opened that door and descended a set of steep stairs, you came upon a brick-walled room with a lone, tiny window looking out over the lake—this was the sauna/jail. All in all, not a bad place to be locked up. The view was pretty nice.
Then our conversation shifted to life in Hallstatt. Sheby and I were both surprised by how few people there were in the city. There were still plenty of tourists, but we came expecting it to be like Disney World. I asked if there are normally more people.
“Oh yes,” she said, “We have over-tourism.”
They told us that the reason they started renting the house we were staying in was because they want to set an example of what good tourism in Hallstatt can look like. They told us that there have always been tourists, and people in the town liked that there were visitors. The tourists originally stayed down by the city center where the shops and restaurants are and didn’t venture up the hill to the residential area. Then about ten years ago somebody marked the spot on the street just outside their house as a “Scenic Viewpoint” on Google, and their lives have never been the same.
“The street by our house,” the husband said, speaking up, “will have thousands of people shoulder to shoulder all the way through the city. We cannot back up our car from the driveway.”
We saw evidence of what they were talking about even though we were there at an unusually quiet time during the pandemic. From our bedroom deck, we saw dozens of people lining up at all hours of the day to take the exact same picture of the city center across the lake set against a mountain backdrop.
“The drones fly over,” the husband said, waving his hand over his head, “We have glass above our bed for viewing stars.”
“It’s the buses,” the wife added, “There are 100 buses per day and the city just approved another parking lot to be built.”
“The people come for an hour. They take a picture. They buy a snack. They leave,” the husband declared.
They told us that they want people to visit Hallstatt, but not on tour buses. During peak season, the buses drop off 5,000 or more people per day into the city of 750 inhabitants, and it’s destroying their community. They want people to come and get to know the city. That’s why they rent their house with a three-night minimum stay, take all their guests out on the boat to share their culture, and grocery shop for their guests so they don’t have to bring more cars into the city.
Our week relaxing in Hallstatt went by too quickly. I spent a lot of time writing when I wasn’t hiking, scarfing down Orangenlebkuchen, or lying naked in the sauna reading my book. On our final night, our hosts stopped by for a visit. They asked us where on our trip we were going next. We told them Ljubljana.
“And you’re doing this for one year?” the husband asked, his arms crossed against his chest and his chin resting thoughtfully against his right hand.
“That’s the plan,” I replied.
“So far away from home. You’re just so young,” the wife said, “You’re younger than our daughter.”
She told us that while we are in Europe they want to be our “helicopter hosts.” Then she walked over to the coffee table and grabbed a statue of an Elk wrapped in decorative fabrics. I’d asked her a few days earlier where she purchased it, hoping it was at a shop in Hallstatt so I could pick one up. I was disappointed when she said that she got it in Linz at an arts festival.
“I can do this for you,” she said, picking up the elk and placing it in my arms.
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said smiling.
They offered to drive us to a train station a few towns over in the morning so we wouldn’t have to take the boat across the lake, which we accepted. Then they offered to hold onto the elk statue and a few other souvenirs we’d acquired and drop them off in Vienna when we’re there in December, which we also accepted.
It was raining the morning of our departure. We had another long day of train travel to get to Ljubljana and I was already worrying about how we’d know if the train was going to split in two at a station. The wife waved goodbye from their balcony while the husband helped me load the car. He dropped us off at the train station and escorted us to the platform.
While we were waiting for the train to arrive, he gave us a recommendation for a restaurant to eat at in Salzburg, where we had a three-hour layover before continuing on to Ljubljana. We asked if Skutull was allowed inside since the weather forecast was for rain all day. He said he thought Skutull would be allowed. “Most allow dogs,” he said.
I told him that in the US even if a restaurant wanted to allow dogs, they couldn’t because it would be a health code violation. He looked at me, scrunching his eyebrows, “Really?”
The train pulled up and we hopped on board, waving goodbye to our host.
“We will see you in Vienna,” he said.
And then we were off.
As the train rolled down the tracks, I thought back to what the wife said when we told her about our nomadic lifestyle. She was right—we are a long way from home. The lack of community we experience as nomads can be lonely. Sometimes I’m surrounded by hordes of people, yet I feel isolated.
My nomadic life is a forced life of non-attachment. I cannot dwell or possess many things. What’s constant for most people is ephemeral for me.
Somehow in a tiny mountain village that sees 10,000 tourists per day, I found community, comfort, and connection.
And now I must let it go.