About a year ago I saw a picture on Instagram of Hallstatt, Austria. A picturesque town on a small lake and surrounded by towering mountains. Caught up in the whimsy I immediately added it to my mental list of places I wanted to go, a list that is constantly growing. Later that year Patrick was placed on an exciting project in Germany and I initially remained in Houston. To get through the stress of being in a long distance relationship (though we never actually called it that) and on a 7 hour time difference for communicating, we constantly reminded ourselves of the big silver lining of our situation – a european vacation together! I started to plan my first visit to Munich for a week last May. I was still enchanted with this town and tried to work it into our itinerary, but it just didn’t make sense. Hallstatt would take a few hours by bus/train to get to from Salzburg, but the logistics were confusing and the town wasn’t directly en route to another place we wanted to go. It would be a huge detour and time sucker, so we ended up on the common Munich/Prague/Vienna/Budapest train circle instead. I say common not because I knew it was common at the time, but because since returning from our trip I have seen more and more people take advantage of the same train routes on their own European adventures. Trains are great.
Fast forward a few months and I live in Germany too, trying to get the most out of the days left on my tourist visa (90 days for every 180 days)! Patrick’s friend also happened to be working outside of Copenhagen and was looking for a weekend getaway. After not much pushing, I convinced everyone that we should see Hallstatt. There were cheap flights for Aaron to get to Munich and after more investigation, I realized that driving to Hallstatt may be the easiest, cheapest, and quickest option. Win, Win, Win! There was even an Avis location .2 miles away. Bonus points to the experience because the agent spoke great English.
Aaron arrived late Friday night and the three of us rallied early in the morning for a four mile run around Munich. We ran by Odeonsplatz, through the museum district, and turned around at Königsplatz – a square where Nazi rallies were held and blocks away from the old headquarters of the Nazi party. Now the area is a cultural hub and has many museums and cafes, but I just know it as the place with the giant arch and cobblestone streets, which my feet still painfully remember from the Munich Marathon. Regretfully (or maybe not) I didn’t bring my phone to capture one of the prettiest sunrises. I only got to enjoy it with my own eyes this time… Looking back on this particular run I am reminded of how much better the sport is when you can share it with other people. We weren’t doing a training run or shooting for any time or pace. We just wanted to go on a run, see the city before most other people would, and catch up without the distractions of technology. Something in the air told me that the day would be a good one. And that something may have been that it was in the low 40’s, the sun was shining, and the colors of fall were everywhere. There was little room for disappointment.
With coffees in hand, we were on our way to Hallstatt just after 10AM on Saturday morning. My google maps had us en route for a 2.5 hour drive, just in time for lunch! Or that was the plan. The autobahn leading us out of Munich was smooth and filled with only the finest cars made by Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Audi. Though I wasn’t driving, I saw speed limit signs, so it wasn’t the free-for-all driving experience you think of when you hear “autobahn.” With less than an hour to go, we approached a road at the base of a mountain to turn right. And the road was blocked. The other option was to start making our way up the mountain. My google maps kept telling us to turn right, down small grassy roads to get us back to the base of the mountain to the blocked road. At one point we ended up down a road and at a barricade and had to reverse uphill in order to turn around. The original blocked road would’ve been a straight shot to Hallstatt, avoiding the mountain range and saving time. Not entirely confident in our maps anymore we continued up the mountain, paid a 10 euro toll fee at a ranger station of some sort, and enjoyed the views. The roads were small and windy, but we kept going up and up and up. At one particularly scenic stretch we saw a car pulled off to the side and an older man standing nearby, staring into the valley below. He wasn’t taking this for granted. It was just that beautiful, you had to stop. We found our own stopping ground with plenty of flat space to pull over, without risking being on an incline or narrow road, where my imagination had convinced me we would easily tumble off the mountain. We walked around, taking in the nature. Patrick and Aaron climbed up the side of the mountain, while I walked down the road to get a better look out. If this is the best that the day gets, then today is amazing I thought.
**Click on image below to see full gallery**
The detour was annoying and added an additional hour to our total trip time, but we got to see more of the country side. We drove past a ski lodge and over small streams with crystal blue water. We went through some really small towns and felt like we were almost in the middle of nowhere. Arguably, nowhere is much more special then somewhere.
When we drove into Hallstatt it was just past 2PM. There were tourists everywhere, if this town was a secret, it’s not well kept. We parked in a lot (there is no driving in the actual town) and walked down to the lake to join the masses of other people taking the same picture perfect photo. Worried that the sun would fall behind the mountain before we finished eating lunch, we got out our iPhones and snapped away. About 50 meters into the town, we sat down outside at a restaurant overlooking the lake. We didn’t bother to shop around for other restaurants, we were all starving at this point and wanted to order as soon as possible. We were originally sitting in the shade, in 40 something weather, still bundled in our jackets and hats, when a table in the sun opened up and the waitress forced us to move to stay warm! It was definitely an upgrade in terms of seating, but I think all of us didn’t want to make a fuss or cause confusion if we moved after ordering, so it was really nice that the waitress took it upon herself to move us. Some beers, German food, Cappuccinos, and Apple Strudel later we were some happy campers.
The lunch was long and we enjoyed the view. The bill was surprisingly reasonable, considering we all insisted on our own apple strudels and were overlooking a land that could have inspired Walt Disney himself. We walked through the town, peaked into a few shops, saw the main church, and admired the German houses – all of which appear to be B&B’s.
It was almost 5PM and we decided it was time to head home. There is also a cable car you could take up the mountain to a “Five Finger Lookout” or to take a tour of some ice caves, but we had already fulfilled our Hallstatt craving. The way home was much easier driving wise than the way there. After taking an alternative route home, we had returned the car and were warm in our apartment by 8PM.
The evening was topped off with a visit to Hofbräuhaus and then a venture into the Schwabing bar scene area. Ironically, our apartment is about 100 meters from Hofbräuhaus, but this was everyone’s first time going inside for a beer. While the beerhall definitely does a good job of mimicking Oktoberfest and showcasing the German culture, the waiters are way too accommodating to tourists for this to be anything close to authentic. If your waiter offers to take a picture of you with your maß beers, then you haven’t gotten the real experience! Though we still got our picture taken.
There is something to be said about seizing the day and continuing to explore outside of your home city. As an American living in Europe, I am constantly excited to go to new countries and new cities, because they feel like they are so close and so different. And many of them are just a short drive or train ride away, but many other places would be a 1 to 3 hour flight. One thing I have taken for granted in America is the diversity and cultural differences throughout our country. There are a lot of unique places that I have yet to see and many of these places aren’t actually that difficult to get to. Traveling Europe sounds sexy and glamorous, and while I have loved every moment of it, I have come to realize how many more places there are to see coming from my hometown in Houston. And those places will all speak a language I can understand. And those places will likely accept your credit card. I think the conclusion I have been slowly arriving at, is that while it is an exciting challenge to travel abroad and there are certainly experiences you can’t get anywhere else, you also don’t need to be in Europe to explore.