Hallstatt … salt mines, stunning Salzkammergut views and the Austrian ‘Bone House’

For those who like the morbid and macabre, the thought of visiting a vault full of human remains maybe too tantalising a trip to pass by. The Beinhaus (Bone House) in the Austrian village of Hallstatt however, may leave more sinister-seeking visitors a little disappointed. Yes, it is full of the skulls and bones of generations of Hallstatt villagers, but far from being eerie and creepy, this ossuary/charnel house is a rather charming and lovely place.

Hallstatt lies along the western bank of Hallstätter See (Lake Hallstatt) in the heart of the Salzkammergut. The tiny train station that connects the village to the rest of Austria sits on the eastern bank, two kilometres of water away. Although it is not the only way to get from station to village, the small ferry that meets the daytime trains is certainly the easiest, quickest and most romantic way to reach Hallstatt village… as long as the water’s not too choppy.

The quaint village of Hallstatt (right) and Lahn approximately two kilometres away on the western bank of Hallstätter See, seen from Hallstatt station on the eastern bank

The quaint village of Hallstatt (right) and Lahn approximately two kilometres away on the western bank of Hallstätter See, seen from Hallstatt station on the eastern bank

Approaching Hallstatt by ferry

Approaching Hallstatt by ferry

The postcard shot

The postcard shot

Hallstatt lies along a very thin strip of land, sandwiched between the lake and the salt-rich mountain behind it that has provided the village with its fortune and place in salt-mining history. With land in short supply, the oldest part of the village has always been rather compact.

Squishing it all in: one of the narrow streets of old Hallstatt village

Squishing it all in: one of the narrow streets of old Hallstatt village

Not only have villagers adapted well over the centuries to living in the geographical constraints of Hallstatt, they have also adapted the dying there as well. The old Catholic church of the Ascension of Our Lady is built into the hill and both the living and the dead can enjoy stunning views over the lake from its lofty graveyard. Until recently however, they couldn’t enjoy a permanent resting place there. The problem with a graveyard being up on a hill in a village where land is hard to come by, is its lack of capacity: it was always going to be too small to accommodate the generations of villagers who wished to be laid to rest there.

Hallstatt's Ascension of Our Lady parish church

Hallstatt’s Ascension of Our Lady parish church

A view to die for: the old parish graveyard

A view to die for: the old parish graveyard

So, in the twelfth century the parish came up with a solution: bodies were respectfully buried in the graveyard and given a proper religious ceremony accordingly. Twenty years later the bodies were exhumed freeing the graves up for the next generation of deceased Hallstatt villagers. The skulls and larger bones of the freshly dug up remains were cleaned and carefully laid out in the open for several weeks until all signs of decay had disappeared and the bones had turned a beautiful ivory hue under the heat of the sun. The bones were then finally and permanently laid to rest in the Beinhaus, next to the church.

Hallstatt's time-sharing scheme

Hallstatt’s time-sharing scheme

Underneath this small chapel is Hallstatt's Beinhaus which has stood here since the twelfth century

Underneath this small chapel is Hallstatt’s Beinhaus which has stood here since the twelfth century

Dachstein Salzkammergut, Hallstatt Beinhaus door

Inside the Beinhaus

Inside the Beinhaus

There are 1200 skulls laid to rest inside the Beinhaus

There are 1200 skulls laid to rest inside the Beinhaus

Dachstein Salzkammergut, Hallstatt Beinhaus, front stone close up

In 1720, local undertakers and artists started to chemically treat the bones instead of laying them out in the open, before decorating the skulls with painted flowers and leaves. The painted flowers were seen as a permanent symbol of the love and respect shown when real flowers are laid on a grave. The specific leaves and flowers chosen to adorn the skulls further symbolised one of four ‘triumphs’ over death: Glory (oak leaves), Victory (laurel), Life (ivy) and Love (roses).

Just over half the skulls in Hallstatt's Beinhaus (around 600) have been decorated, named and dated, a tradition that began in the eighteenth century

Just over half the skulls in Hallstatt’s Beinhaus (around 600) have been decorated, named and dated, a tradition that began in the eighteenth century

Glory, victory and life over death are symbolised by the oak, laurel and ivy leaves painted on the skulls

Glory, victory and life over death are symbolised by the oak, laurel and ivy leaves painted on the skulls

...as well as love, symbolised through the use of roses

…as well as love, symbolised through the use of roses

At first I was apprehensive about taking photos inside the Beinhaus. After all, these are the remains of people at rest and I wanted to show respect to the dead. But, the keeper guarding the door actively encouraged visitors to take photos. “Take your photos and celebrate their lives!” he boomed with a beaming smile, waving myself and a handful of other visitors into the vault.

Thankfully, no one felt the need to take a selfie with any of the skulls.

The two skulls at the foot of the Cross are painted with a snake - the symbol of Death. The snake painted skull on the right is that of a woman who died in 1983 and is the last skull to date to be laid to rest in the Beinhaus. Her gold tooth is still intact

The two skulls at the foot of the Cross are painted with a snake – the symbol of Death. The snake painted skull on the right is that of a woman who died in 1983 and is the last skull to date to be laid to rest in the Beinhaus. Her gold tooth is still intact

The skulls sitting on the bibles either side of the Cross are those of local priests

The skulls sitting on the bibles either side of the Cross are those of local priests

With the growing popularity, legalisation and papal relaxation on the act of cremation in Austria, the necessity to reuse graves in Hallstatt and place the remains in the Beinhaus is no longer required. Remains are now only placed in the Beinhaus on a villager’s request.

Dachstein Salzkammergut, Hallstatt Beinhaus, door detail

Visiting a building full of bones no matter how touching the sentiment may be, is understandably not to everyone’s taste. Most visitors to Hallstatt come because of the village’s architectural cuteness – if Hallstatt had a pair of cheeks there would be a never-ending queue of people waiting to take turns to pinch them – and because of the village’s historical importance in salt-mining.

The Hallstatt Salt Mine has been producing salt as far back as the eighth century BC. Archeologists found evidence of one of the first Celtic settlements in Europe close to the salt mine and as a result the village is regarded as the type site for this early Iron Age people’s way of life known – in honour of the village – as Celtic Hallstatt culture. The mine is now a museum and is open to the public during the Summer months. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit it, but I did enjoy the stunning views from both the modern funicular that carries visitors up the hill to the mouth of the mine, and the hilltop viewing platform over the lake.

One could hike up the hill overlooking Hallstatt to reach the salt mine and enjoy the views over the lake, but the funicular is so much more easier on the knees

One could hike up the hill overlooking Hallstatt to reach the salt mine and enjoy the views over the lake, but the funicular is so much more easier on the knees

One of the best views over Hallstätter See from the viewing platform at the top of the hill overlooking Hallstatt. The village seen across the lake is Obertraun

One of the best views over Hallstätter See from the viewing platform at the top of the hill overlooking Hallstatt. The village seen across the lake is Obertraun

Dachstein Salzkammergut, Hallstatt, viewing platform

Hallstatt old village below, showing just how compact it is. The train line can be seen snaking around the mountain across on the other side of the lake, towards Obertraun village

Hallstatt old village below, showing just how compact it is. The train line can be seen snaking around the mountain across on the other side of the lake, towards Obertraun village

The Hallstatt Salt Mine deep in the mountain

The Hallstatt Salt Mine deep in the mountain

 

Useful information

Hallstatt can be reached by bus or train via Bad Ischl. The journey takes around twenty minutes and there are a number of trains and buses daily. Signs from Hallstatt’s train station platforms lead down to the bankside where the ferry can be picked up to go across the lake to the village. This journey costs a little extra – just a few Euros – and tickets can be bought on board. The journey takes around ten minutes. More details on how to get there can be found on this Hallstatt villager’s website here.

The Beinhaus is opened from 10am to 6pm daily during the Spring and Summer months. Entrance is €1.50 (2016). It is reasonably well sign posted from Hallstatt Markt, but I’d advise popping into the tourist information centre by the bus station in neighbouring Hallstatt Lahn and pick up a free map of the village to ensure you don’t get lost.

The Hallstatt Salt Mine is also open daily during the Summer months. More details can be found on the official website here.

A combined ticket for the Salt Mine and the funicular is available, but a funicular-only ticket can also be bought. Ticket prices and timetables for the funicular can be found on the Salt Mine website here.

TLT x


 

I don't know who looks more proud

Breaking Bad Ischl: crystal clear waters and meth-od in the madness of a gung ho emperor holidaying in this happy-go-lucky Salzkammergut town

 

 

 


Dachstein Salzkammergut, Krippenstein Dachstein Shark, people beside sharkDachstein-Krippenstein … ice caves, 5fingers and the  Dachstein Shark

 

 

 

 

 

 


Walking Catacombes de Paris, Paris Catacombs, barrel style monument, sidethrough a city of bones underneath the City of Love: the remains of over six million bodies laid to rest in the Catacombs of Paris

 

 

 

 

 


 

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1 Response to Hallstatt … salt mines, stunning Salzkammergut views and the Austrian ‘Bone House’

  1. Anne Guy says:

    A bone chilling tale indeed! Like the funicular railway pity you didn’t see the views!

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