The photographs below were taken in November of 2007. The italicised passage at the end is the opening paragraph of an e-mail which I began, but never finished, shortly after this trip to Austria. When I stumbled upon it this morning, I decided to write the following.
The rain turned to snow at around two in the afternoon. The windows of the coach, once streaked with chilly rivulets, were now spattered with sticky flakes. The dark and bristling silhouettes of the fir trees slowly lightened as snow collected on the branches. Every so often I wiped a fresh porthole in the frosted window, pressing my cheek against the glass and imagining the flakes falling on my face.
The winding descent through forest, in thick, primordial mist, grew steeper as we neared the lake. Hallstätter See, cupped in the palm of a hand of mountains, on the road between Salzburg and Graz, appeared through the whitening trees. It might have been endless in the close, damp air; streaked by snow and stretching under the fog until it vanished in the clammy distance.
The Schiff station, where the small ferry waited, was utterly quiet.
Only one other passenger stepped off with me, and we spoke not a word to each other. The silence that comes with snow and cold was here enhanced by the solemn beauty of the lake and mountains. All I heard was the muffled scuff of my own feet as I approached the ticket window. I was drowsy and warmly wrapped, and the air, rather than bringing exhilaration, instead brought a raw contentment. The sense of loneliness was acute, but it was the very thing I was after. Solitude seems all the more welcome when the landscape is heroic.
As the boat crossed the lake, the snow intensified. It sliced through the cloying mist and carved neat diagonals across my compositions.
The lake proved not to be so large after all, and, approaching the shore opposite, I noticed that the quaint and quintessentially alpine houses had no snow on their roofs.
It was early November and the winter had not yet locked in. Perhaps this now was the beginning, and soon all would be dressed for a season in white.
From the small concrete dock, I walked along the wet streets. The wooden houses, seeping human warmth, kept the snow from accumulating. It seemed, however, that it would not be long before the whiteness swallowed everything. Behind the buildings, the mountain rose sharply, cloaked in fir trees. Throughout this dark expanse were patches of silver, gold and bronze, the needles hued with autumn.
The tall slopes dwarfed the proud, upright buildings, lending them the air of dollhouses. As my nose slowly froze and my face tingled, I smiled broadly at the loveliness of the place. As an Australian, used to a hot, if temperate climate, true winter will always remain exotic and romantic.
It was a Saturday afternoon, just after four, and I was concerned that nothing would be open. When I strolled past a general store and saw the light was on, I didn’t hesitate to pop in a buy supplies; bread, butter, ham, fruit, milk and yoghurt. With a population of under a thousand and only a very few restaurants, I’d heard the town tended to hibernate throughout the winter and didn’t want to get caught short.
My hotel was some distance from the centre of the town, which hugged the lake at the foot of a mountain. I set off for the hotel immediately, aware that it would soon be dark. I followed the town around the lake until reaching the turn off.
The road followed a river in the valley between two peaks, and the spaces between the houses grew gradually wider. I passed several farm buildings and woodsheds on which the snow was now beginning to settle in. Indeed, once the land opened up in flat stretches either side of the river, the land became increasingly white. With the heaviness and relentlessness of the downfall, it seemed certain that the entire locale would be covered entirely by snow come morning.
After a kilometre or so I caught sight of my hotel. It was now very nearly night, and the outline of the building was barely visible. It seemed to be the last place in town, though the road continued beyond into misty shadow. The sight was very welcome indeed, for the cold had broken through my defences and my fingers were stiff and stinging.
Like everything else in Hallstatt, the place was eerily quiet. I entered the hotel to find no one at reception, and eventually had to wander into the kitchens to find the manager. She was very warm and welcoming once she realised I was there, and immediately showed me up to my room.
“We are not very busy,” she told me, “so I have given you a nicer room.”
I was appropriately thankful for this and was very pleased to check into the upstairs suite, with a separate lounge and bedroom and a small balcony. It was clean and cosy and the shower was blisteringly hot.
That evening I was too hungry to wait for dinner and ate the provisions I’d bought earlier in my room. At around seven I decided to head out into town with my tripod to try to get some good night shots of the town in the falling snow.
I made it all the way back to the centre, noticing only one open restaurant and bar. I stayed out on the street and focussed my attention on the architecture. The conditions were extremely difficult as the snow kept sticking to my lens and I struggled to position my tripod, manipulate the camera and hold the shabby umbrella I’d bought in Salzburg. Eventually, it proved too much, and, with aching fingers, fearful of the wet and damp to which my camera was being exposed, I decided to quit early and head home. The snow continued to fall. Warmed, after another shower, I watched it for a couple of hours whilst listening to the BBC; too sleepy to get out of the chair and into bed.
By morning, it was winter in Hallstatt. Throughout the night the snow had covered everything.
The steep roofs, the road, the fields, the firs; the thick white snow capping the conifers offset their metallic hues.
The river now stood out stark; a darkly shining wash through the blanket snow. The ducks waddled and swam, unperturbed.
At breakfast I learned what the manager had meant when she said the hotel was quiet – I was the only guest. Little wonder then that I had been given the luxury suite for a mere forty Euros. I had only planned to spend one night in Hallstatt, so after breakfast I took my pack with me and left.
The road into town was lined with arresting vignettes.
The woodpiles and colourful houses, the river and farm buildings, were – what the Baroque Minstrel would once have called – “ludicrously picturesque.”
I embarked upon what was to become one of my favourite shooting sprees and three hours later, found myself shivering on the docks.
I’m still not sure if anyone else survived. So far as I know I was the only one who made it out. I escaped across the lake on the train-station Schiff, ferried by two daring men who, though fully cognisant of the danger, had the sense of duty to return to see if any others might also require passage. As I sat in the warmth of the waiting room at Hallstatt station, the only would-be passenger, watching the heavy snow weigh on the bronze and black-green firs, I thought of all those poor souls stuck across the lake, soon to be interred beneath a mountain of snow. It fell no less thickly on this side of the lake, yet I would soon be on the train heading south, away from the Salzkammergut and into the relative warmth of Styria.
Some extras from Hallstat: