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City of Pristine Chalets : All of Hallstatt Fits Like a Puzzle

November 08, 1987|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan is a La Jolla free-lance writer

HALLSTATT, Austria — The farmer raised his loden green hat and called "Gruss Gott!" as I slowly backed my car down the mountain lane above Annaberg in the Lammertal Valley of Austria.

I smiled and waved to acknowledge his traditional Tirolean greeting, which means "God bless."

His words seemed especially gracious because I had passed his tractor on my way uphill, only to come to a dead end at his barn on an afternoon when streams were running loud and clear and wildflowers choked the slopes.

Lying between jagged peaks south and east of Salzburg, the Lammertal is timber country. Its air is redolent with pine forests and cut logs. Carved wooden signs at the edge of each hamlet use Gruss Gott in welcome, instead of Willkommen.

Village of Chalets

This fairy-tale road is Route 166. I had chosen it as a back way to approach Hallstatt, on the inky-green Hallstatter See.

Hallstatt is a village of shoulder-to-shoulder chalets with gabled roofs, wooden eaves and balconies ornate with hearts. Geraniums sprout from window boxes along the marktplatz, or town square.

At the head of the marktplatz is the Gasthof Zauner, a hideaway whose tidy rooms, extraordinary country fare and cheerful family management make it one of my favorite hostelries.

The furnishings are simple and cozy. Wooden armoires are hand-painted with edelweiss and cornflowers. The pounding waterfall just outside my room--No. 18--did nothing but add to the magic.

The view was of Austria: a weathered barn of russet wood that was hugged by a shawl of vines; pristine chalets from whose broad windows hung red-and-white national banners, but above all, mountains.

My room was at the back of the inn, but I peeked beyond open doors on the morning I left and noted that Room 28, tucked under the eaves, had a lake-and-rooftop view.

The homes and shops and churches of Hallstatt fit together like pieces of a puzzle, filling a narrow ledge between mountain and lake. Parking is limited to the outskirts, and the approach to town is through tunnels or by a one-lane road whose direction is determined by a timed traffic signal. A digital clock marks off every 10 seconds to show how long you must wait.

Yet a native boasted as I sipped a kaffee brauner in the sunshine of the marktplatz that Hallstatt is not just another pretty place. Its history is long and remarkable.

The first settlers arrived 4,500 years ago, he told me; the early Iron Age is known as the Hallstatt Period in recognition of archeological finds in the area. Museums display artifacts from ancient graves and from the depths of what is reputedly the world's oldest salt mine.

I thanked him for the information.

Neither mines nor museums could draw me inside when the sky was a calm dome of blue. I spent hours wandering the maze of footpaths and rowing on the lake. I felt the spray of Alpine cascades and nibbled a dark-chocolate torte.

Hallstatt struck me as a small pocket of immense charm, a place that's as winsome as a rose.

Gruss Gott.

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