An idyllic day in the heavenly town of Hallstatt

So what if Austria’s prettiest town is no secret…

We’ve all either squirmed, shivered or scowled when faced with appalling discrepancies between what we expected and what we found at a dream destination. But sometimes, the story is not gory. Sometimes, the reality outshines the dream. This is that story. Of Hallstatt, a 7000-year old alpine village-town hidden between a serene lake and forested mountain peaks. Where less than 1000 residents live the classic Austrian life in their charming wooden abodes with flower-draped balconies. Blemish-free breathtaking beauty. Exaggeration? Even thinking of that word should be a sin here!

So if you’re 2-4 hours away in the vicinity, don’t you dare skip the glorious opportunity of swooning through the unadulterated utopia that is the Austrian countryside. And if you’re based in neighbouring Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, like us, pick CK Shuttle for a dependable and divine ride.

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The drop-off at the Central Square Marktplatz is something of a sensory explosion. But even the incessant movement of the crowds can’t mar the beauty of this tiny paradise. Quintessential alpine houses embellish the shores of a fjord-like lake valley carved by glaciers and surrounded by mountain peaks rising from the placid waters. Your mind and eyes curiously devour the scene while your footsteps unwittingly follow the human stream along the only main street on the tiny plot of land sandwiched between the steep mountains and the shoreline.

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A photo opportunity at every step of the narrow cobbled streets. A curly haired cherub poised on a pot at an entrance. Pastel colored Baroque buildings adorned with elaborately painted facades. Lovingly preserved timber homes with dark tiled roofs and pretty flower-tub windows. The majestic church steeple of the Lutheran Church peeking through the houses, its grey stone facade making a muted statement against the vivid blue of the clear sky. A lazy wheelbarrow doubling up as a herb planter. A ruby red rose trellis brightening up a peach wall. Little back alleys leading to hidden treasures. 

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A flight of rough stone steps pull you magnetically towards the 800-year old cemetery next to the Catholic Parish of the Assumption Church at a higher level of the town. Wander among the graves adorned with colourful flower beds and unusual birdhouse-shaped tombstones. Wonderful views too. Apparently, the graves are re-occupied after 10 years and the remains of the previous occupant are moved to the ‘Bone House’ in the nearby St. Michael’s Chapel as part of a second funeral. Decorative inscriptions label over 1200 skulls stored here….possibly the largest collection of skulls you may have encountered.

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Surprise! Hallstatt is no longer Austria’s best kept secret. Roughly 600,000 people visit each year. Restaurants are limited and the queues are unbelievable, even at little takeaway stalls, but you will grab a bite somewhere if you have the persistence and the intention. But don’t the touristy element bother you. Fresh grilled fish, authentic apple strudel plus gorgeous views from a lakeside café equals triple whammy! The food is not free, but the visual therapy is. Learn to look through the people. Focus. Immerse.

Stop by the local shops selling salt products and take back a pinch of rich salt history of this UNESCO World Heritage site, which dates back thousands of years. Reflect on the name (Hall=salt, Statt=place) of the oldest still-inhabited village in all of Europe, which even has a period in history named after it (the Hallstatt period lasted from 800-400 BC). If you have a couple of hours in hand, exploring the salt mines is a worthwhile option. If not, indulge with eye-candy. 

The best way to experience the alluring of this alpine village? Escape the hustle-bustle. Choose from 40 different hiking trails of the spectacular Salzkammergut Lake District. Gloat at the world heritage views from the incredible viewing platform of the Hallstatt Skywalk. 12 meters (39 feet) away from the mountainside and 360 meters (1,181 feet) over the town, and pretend to be a drone.

Or follow my league and opt for a boat cruise. Once you start to skim lightly over the tranquil surface of the lake, the townscape slips into the distance and you know why Hallstatt is Hallstatt. Inspite of the crowds. Despite the crowds. The lake is the star here. With its quiet grace, it defines the persona of the entire valley. You wonder how it would appear under the shroud of thick fog or blurred by the ripples of rain on a grey evening. But today, the heavens are smiling down on you, so rejoice with the riot of colors. Brilliant blue sky, emerald waters and gold-ochre-rust speckled hills that seem to rise from the lake. Surrounded by the shadows cast by Salzberg, Mount Plassen and Dachstein, the second largest mountain of Austria, you drift along…tracing the reflections mirrored over the the glassy waters and feeling the crisp mountain air seep into your lungs. An eternal moment in time. Pure as Hallstatt.

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Old-fashioned, flat bottomed fishing boats glide. A couple of swans make ripples.  Boat houses stand on sturdy pilings. Children play on grassy lawns and parents take lazy strolls outside their blissful lakeside homes. The iconic Castle Grub, a 74-acre property built during the Middle Ages and renovated in the 19th century by an ambassador to the Russian Czar appears to float. It would make an apt location for a Agatha Christie murder mystery. Soundless, except for the soft whirr of the boat and the clicking of the cameras. Nothing can disturb the peace. Life is beautiful. This planet is beautiful. Or have you died and gone to heaven?

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Back on the shore, loiter as long as you can before you hit reality again. Because a few hours are not enough for this pretty piece of paradise. Venture into undiscovered corners. Slip in and out of quaint streets. Gaze at the lake from different angles. Again. And again till you feel the image is burnt onto your brain forever. The swarm of day trippers thins away slowly. So, as you wait for your shuttle, set your sights on the silhouette of the adorable town dominated by the church spire. Watch unblinkingly as it changes complexion with the falling dusk and the twinkling lights dancing over the lake grow brighter by the minute.

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Literally, all shutters are down by 7 pm, even the supermarket and the cafes pack up. The shuttle is delayed and takes another hour. The chill in the air pushes you to take refuge in a bank’s ATM area…at least its warm inside. When you finally drive off in the shuttle, the only movement that remains behind you is the soft rustling of the leaves and the gentle ruffling on the waves. Quietude has been restored to Hallstatt. At least till tomorrow.

 

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An idyllic day in the heavenly town of Hallstatt

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Who is the winner in the great Art Nouveau face-off? 

Klimt versus Mucha…

European neighbour countries Austria and Czech Republic have a lot in common, when it comes to culture. Including art. Especially art. Think two 19th-century artists, one from Vienna, the other from Prague. Contemporary, modern, both equally scandalous for their times. Challenging traditions as their ladder to fame. Branded as their home country’s most celebrated artists for posterity. Curiosity piqued yet? Here’s the Art Nouveau’ masters in a face-off…my way. Feel free to take sides.

Captivated by Klimt

Vienna is a little less Viennese without mention of this symbolist painter (1862 – 1918), Gustav Klimt. No understatement to say that Klimt’s individualistic, quirky style has, in fact, become synonymous with Austrian art itself. Judge for yourself.

Limelight on Klimt: Vienna’s 18th-century Belvedere Palace houses one of the city’s most impressive state museums and the largest collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. There are 24 artworks in all, one more spectacular than the other! Prepare to be dazzled.

Claims to fame: Even if you try, you can’t possibly erase the images of Klimt’s most famous works from your mind’s eye, especially‘The Kiss’, that iconic canvas with an embracing couple dressed in elaborate robes. Or his famous portrait of Viennese art patron and socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer, stolen by the Nazis and recovered by American art collector in 2006 for $135 million, making it the expensive art ever bought at an auction. That shimmering ‘Woman in Gold’ (called the ‘Viennese Mona Lisa’), the bold and striking antithesis of the demure and modest Da Vinci portrait.

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Not so cryptic clues: All you need to see one Klimt and you’ll recognise his signature style among a thousand painters. Oil paint with layers of metallic gold leaf. Big on ornamentation with definite Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian influences. Small geometric motifs. Flat, linear, biomorphic forms. Warm colors. An overarching symbolic and subtly erotic theme. Impossible to confuse him with any other, right?

There never was and there never will be another Klimt. His mind-boggling masterpieces literally scream for attention among a million different artworks. Yet, there is a curious subtlety in his bold style that grows on you as you stare at his work, and slowly find yourself drawn into the pigmented depths of his canvas. For me, Klimt’s characteristic genius lies in the ease with which he blends real with abstract. What do you think?

So I took Klimt home: The streets of Vienna overflow with Klimt prints and souvenirs literally overflow everywhere you look. My choice? A solid heavy glass paper weight. Adele smiles at me enigmatically everyday from her spot on the corner table of my living room. A piece of Klimt is mine. For keeps.

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Mesmerized by Mucha

Ironically, Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha, who is called the father of Art Nouveau (1860 – 1939) is said have disagreed with the term, as he believed that that art was eternal, hence labelling it as ‘nouveau’ was unfair. Mucha is credited with creating not just an appealing design style, but a revolution of sorts in the field of art. His work, like him was liberal, unconventional and free. Prague is prettier because of Mucha. (Read my previous post on Art Nouveau in Prague here)

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Limelight on Mucha: Mucha Museum is the only gallery dedicated to the works of Mucha in the world is housed in a small building near Wenceslas Square, Prague. Exhibits include paintings, drawings, pastels, sculptures, photographs, sketches and memorabilia of his trademark beautiful women with flowing hair. Each depiction more picture-perfect than the other. Stay engrossed for hours poring over the fine details on every wall. Wide-eyed with wonder, as you try to decipher the moods and emotions of every lady up there…you could swear that one just toss her hair slightly, and did that one just raise an eyebrow?

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Claims to fame: Mucha created a striking poster as an advertisement for the Job cigarette company. No surprise…the subject was a stunning woman with a lighted cigarette. Ooohh!! Scandalous for the times, since respectable women did not smoke in public. Outrageous because women wore their hair tied up and loose hair was a sign of a seductive temptress, wilful and wild. Mucha dared to be different and he made the grade. His other masterpiece is Seasons (1896), the first of his inspirational decorative panels, showing four seasonal maidens, each against a different backdrop, conveying the mood of each season.

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Not so cryptic clues: Mucha is Mucha and you can distinguish him anywhere, once you learn to focus on his genre. Delicate, pale women with long wavy, silky hair, large eyes and seductive forms. Painted in water colors for a vivid, yet soft touch. The figures melting into the background of the canvas, yet standing out distinctly because of a dark ink outline. It is said that Mucha made his models pose against a solid black curtain and added fantasy landscapes later from his imagination.

So I took Mucha home: The museum shop is a treasure trove of Mucha souvenirs. I picked a wooden wall hanging with a sturdy rope string. Mucha’s delicate Slavic lady inspires me every morning when I sip my cup of coffee in my library.

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Do you think Klimt and Mucha would have personally known women in such avatars…women who would break the mould, stray off the beaten path, be themselves in a world full of restrictions and stereotypes? And more that that, do you wonder how they would paint women if they returned with a brand new canvas today…

 

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Which of the art nouveau masters wins? Klimt or Mucha?

4 big reasons why I won’t like to travel full-time?

And still be a full-time travel writer…

Blog after blog celebrates the bravado of smashing the shackles of the safety net to ‘live the dream’. Admire it or envy it…most people just keep wondering what it’s like to travel full-time. Calls for more than just an adrenaline-junkie spirit go all the way, few can actually take the leap of faith. 

Reality interferes…family life, children, work or finances are always higher up in priority. If travel was your true calling, it would make the list no matter what, wouldn’t it? Isn’t there’s always a choice? Don’t we consciously pick what suits us, one way or the other. If something else is more important, that’s just what it is…something else IS more important! Simple.

For the more mainstream of us, travel is not a future ambition, but a parallel existence. High points of our lives are defined by the presence of long weekends in new year’s calendars. Trip planning is an endless agenda which fills our bookshelves, our weekends, our social media news feed, all the nooks and crannies of our cerebellum folds and nearly all our significant conversations with important people in our lives. Travel is a much-awaited escape ritual, a gateway to intensely enriching experiences, that defines the pinnacle, even the objective of our lives. Yet, I pass the opportunity to travel full-time? Why? Why? Why? And why? Four reasons. Good as gold.

1. I did not quit one rat race to join another

Running after targets, chasing deadlines, pursuing ambitions, tracking goals and shadowboxing competition. Been there, done that in the corporate world and in the media world. The problem is even if you win, you don’t really win. Right? Because you’re out of breath from all that puffing and panting. And wondering…was it worth all the heartache? What about all the ‘journey matters more than the destination’ jazz? That’s the station I’m tuned into right now. Living my dream, my way.

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2. I’m selfish. I travel for ‘me’ 

They say travel is the only investment which makes you rich. By broadening your horizons, widening your perspectives and enriching you with varied experiences and sights. Hey, the key word is ‘you’, remember? Then why crowd your itinerary with museums even if you are more activity-driven? Why worry about not having visited the ‘most-recommended’ destinations of the year, even if they don’t whisper soft-nothings to your heart? Why not just go with the natural flow of what attracts you most? Not sure? Try this. If there was no one to see your pictures or hear your stories, what would you be happiest doing and where in the world? Bingo!

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3) Math and I were ‘anti-buddies’ at school

Number of countries in the world could have been 150 yesterday and may be 240 tomorrow, but I’m not keeping count. At least not from the point of view of getting visas ticked off. I don’t want to pressure myself into counting destinations for the sake of making or breaking records. Math and I were ‘anti-buddies’ at school. We just didn’t see eye-to-eye. And never will. I would rather spend a few weeks delving into the soul of one amazing country / continent till I get goosebumps poring over its heritage monuments, restless feet watching its lively folk dances and a lump in my throat waving it goodbye.

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4) I’m the worst multi-tasker ever born 

Life is one big journey, granted. Not meant to be spent rooted to one place. Agreed. But, while some people prefer to keep moving. Home sweet home for some rest, reflection and reminiscence. Respite from travel, to travel again! I need to neutralise my senses to be ‘wow-ed’ again. Like smelling coffee beans between sniffs of ten different perfumes. To get over the travel fatigue caused by the unending whirlwind of images casting a greying cloud, dulling my senses, diminishing my capacity to appreciate and slowing my impulses to imbibe. What is it like to never go home? It wouldn’t be a trip anymore…just regular life, with the inevitable saturation. The charm lies in the unattained…something undone, something yet unachieved, to aspire for. Always a little untravelled?

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As part-time travellers, our hands are in both pies, we have the best of both worlds. Revelling in the happiness of each trip while we’re on it, and revelling in the hangover of that happiness while waiting for the next trip…again and again and again. It’s a full circle! And if that doesn’t feel like heaven, tell me what does?

 

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Four reasons why I pass the opportunity to travel full-time