We woke up at our farmhouse in St. Gilgen admiring the view of the lake and mountains.
We had an early start to finalize our plan for the day (yes, we do leave some things flexible till the end). It felt like a plan with a lot of dependencies but we decided to go ahead with it anyway.
After a quick breakfast, we got on the 9:10am bus to Bad Ischl. Bad Ischl is a beautiful town with a long legacy of royalty. It is more famous for being the place where Emperor Franz Joseph used to live and the place where he signed the declaration of war on Serbia (which set in motion the events leading to World War I).
We walked to the train station and bought 2 sets of tickets – one from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt and the other from Obertraun to Bad Ischl. Our train to Hallstatt arrived at 10:20am – it went along the river and then the banks of Hallstattersee. We reached the tiny station at Hallstatt right on time for the 11am ferry which would take us across the lake and to the town.
The lake had a lot of swans and ducks floating around and it was a beautiful sight. We were given a heads-up by a local earlier in the day that Hallstatt would be full to the brim with Chinese tourists – apparently they were so obsessed with Hallstatt that they made a copy of the town in China! He was right! As we approached the town, we saw the iconic postcard view of the village from the ferry.
We wandered around the town for a while – there were steps leading up to small pathways between the houses. After a few hundred steps, we realised that we were not headed anywhere in particular and decided to find the path to the salt mines (before the other tourists could get there).
It was tough to pull away from just standing and admiring the beauty of the town – cute houses with blooming flowers and small balconies. The houses on the lake had garages in the water for boats to park in. But we kept moving and were right on time for the 11:30am funicular which would take us up to the salt mines.
The view from up top was beautiful – we could see Hallstatt, the lake and Obertraun (another small town) on the other side.
While we walk towards the salt mines, you can subscribe to the blog and get notified when we post our new blogs.
We hiked up the path to the entrance of the mines. On the way, we saw a few signboards – the green fields we could see around us were actually graveyards from more than 3000 years ago – over 1500 graves of the salt mining community. We also saw a pre-historic meat factory where over 150 pigs could be cured at once!
We were given a coat and pants to wear before entering the mines.
Our guide, Lukas, led the way and off we went into the narrow tunnel. The hole grew narrow and colder – we could see the salt crystals sparkling all around us. There we were – dressed somewhat like miners and several metres below ground level inside those ancient mines. The mine was divided into many horizontals with slides connecting them.
Along the way, we saw videos explaining how sea salt ended up inside the Alps in Hallstatt – an effect of continental shifts and receding seas. Around 7000 years ago, people noticed animals drinking water from the mountain and tasted the salt – and they loved the flavour! They started digging towards the salt deposits – initially with animal horns and over the years, improving to iron and bronze when the respective Ages came in. In the modern era, liquid methods are used to extract salt instead of breaking into the sides of mountains.
The salt in the hills has also helped preserve fabrics, tools and wood from this time. We saw a wooden staircase from the Bronze Age – one of the oldest well-preserved wooden structures from that period.
We were nearing the end of the tour and went down the longest slide yet – we reached a speed of 25 kmph (and got a photo as well!). We exited the mine in a small train (the kind you see in adventure movies). As we exited, we collected our souvenirs – a free box of salt! The overall tour took about 2 hours.
Now, we had to rush – we took the 2:15pm funicular down to the town. As per our calculation, we would have just missed the bus to Dachstein. Luckily, that particular day, the bus was at 2:24pm and we walked in just as the driver was preparing to leave. The drive to Dachstein Seilbahn took about 10 mins. We bought our tickets for the cable car and the ice cave (Eishohle). The 2:45pm cable car took us to the top. We then hiked up the hill – it was a beautiful forested area – thick woods with just this narrow path curving through.
We could see snow at the next level of the cable car – sadly we didn’t have time to go there. The 15-min walk brought us to the entrance of the cave – there were about 10 people waiting to enter as part of the next batch.
The temperature plunged the moment we entered the cave – from sweating after the steep hike in the sun to shivering! As we walked into the cave, it felt like a scene from a movie – a dark cave with a bunch of people going deeper into it. The temperature kept dropping and got to around 0 degrees celsius. We saw the grave of a bear which was found by the early explorers who had discovered the ice cave in 1910. The next level was full of ice! We were awestruck – it looked like water had been flowing through here and somebody just snapped their fingers and turned it to ice – the currents were literally etched on the ice and it was smooth and shiny.
It was amazing how the ice remained even though it was so hot outside. Our guide told us that there was a tunnel effect which kept it so cold inside.
The cave was made of limestone – and here, unplanned, we crossed out a bucket-list item. Stalagmites and Stalactites! Ever since we had read about them at school, we both wanted to see them in real life – and here we were – in a frozen cave hidden among the forests in a remote part of Austria. Some of these were covered with ice shards and looked like the dangerous traps in video games which would fall down when someone is passing below. On other levels, we saw imposing ice structures over 30m tall and waterfalls that had frozen over! We then climbed up to the upper chambers where we could hear the sound of water gushing. This was the point where water would enter the mountain and freeze as it reached the lower levels. During the rainy season, the force of the water would melt some of the ice but freeze again to form additional layers – as the layers were compressed due to the pressure, it was difficult to melt. In fact, the deepest layers of ice could be up to hundreds of years old! It was really an amazing sight! We reached the exit door and our guide asked us to stay back. He had hardly unlocked it when the door went flying out due to the pressure difference!
We took the cable car back down and were right on time for the 5:20pm bus back to Hallstatt. We walked through the town, took some more pics and got on the 6:15pm ferry. The train from the Hallstatt station was at 6:32pm. We reached Bad Ischl at 7pm. Thanks to the long days, we could still explore the town in sunlight. We walked around the town and saw the river, the Kaiservilla and some of the famous hot baths.
The streets were beautiful and quite cute! We saw a burger stand (Borni Burger) where we ate some burgers and walked back to the bus station. We took the 8:24pm bus to St. Gilgen – this was the last bus in that direction which had a stop at St. Gilgen! It was almost empty – just three people including the two of us.
We generally plan things well during our trips but this one has to be the most precise we’ve ever been. And there was a lot of luck involved too. We managed to visit Hallstatt, the salt mines and the ice caves in Dachstein (and even found time to hike around a bit!). Everything fell in place so well that we managed to travel on the exact buses and trains that we had planned. It is also testament to the amazing accuracy of the Austrian transportation networks. Would we have loved to spend more time at each of the places we went? Yes, of course! But with the time we had, I believe we were able to make the most of it.
Once back at St. Gilgen, we sat out on our balcony and watched the sunset. The moon was also rising in the clear sky full of stars – it was one of the most beautiful moonrises we’d ever seen – the moon climbing up behind the mountains with its reflection in the lake. We left our curtains open and slept watching the moon and stars.
The next morning, we woke up early, said goodbye to the beautiful lake town of St. Gilgen and headed onto our next destination – Vienna. We took a bus to Salzburg and then the train to Vienna. The train was unusually late – the 8:08 train was coming in at 8:28 – something that would be considered very normal in India. This gave us time to pick up a quick breakfast of sandwiches and croissants from the nearby Spar. We boarded our Railjet train to Vienna Hauptbahnhof and off we went! Check out our entire Austria itinerary here.
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