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The Austrian Lake District

NEAR THE TOWN OF BOLUO in China’s Guangdong Province, there’s a village by a lake. It has flower-covered houses and bubbling fountains. The squares are swept and the roofs topped with tiles, and a pointy church rises by the lakeshore. The village is called Hallstatt, and it looks too pretty to be true, as though it’s been picked up from the pages of a European fairytale. In a way, it has. In fact, it’s a copy of a much older Hallstatt. The real one can be found on the edge of the Hallstattersee about 40 miles from Salzburg. The story goes that in the early 2000s, some Chinese developers went in search of the perfect Austrian village, and they liked Hallstatt so much, they decided to build their own version. With its cobbled squares, boathouses and timber-framed cottages, the Austrian Hallstatt looks like it’s been designed from scratch to grace the cover of a tourist brochure.

Evangelical Church of Christ
Evangelical Church of Christ

There’s been a village here since prehistoric times, when late Bronze Age settlers mined the surrounding mountains for salt – a valuable commodity in the days before refrigeration, and an industry that has lasted into the 21st century. Salt made the wider Salzkammergut region rich. Stretching from the city of Salzburg eastwards into the Dachstein mountains, most of this area was once the private property of the Habsburgs, governed by its own regional administration known as the Imperial Salt Chamber, which oversaw the running of the salt mines and the vast wealth they generated.

Later, however, the Habsburgs found a different reason to love the Salzkammergut – the newly fashionable pastime of sommerfrische (summer refreshment). With its crystal-clear lakes – 76 in all — the area became one of Emperor Franz Joseph’s favourite spots for a break. Throughout his reign, from 1848 to 1916, he and his wife Elisabeth returned nearly every year to boat on the lakes, stroll the shoreline and hopefully bag an ibex or two while hiking in the surrounding mountains. It sparked a local tourist boom that endures to this day. Hallstatt still seems pickled in time.

It’s enjoyed Unesco protection as a World Heritage site since 1997, and its buildings are as perfectly preserved as museum exhibits. Balconies teeter over the village’s stone streets, festooned with wisteria and geraniums. Smoke puffs from chimneys leaning at improbable angles. Rowboats bob on the edge of the lake, and reflections of peaks shimmer on the glassy surface. Alexander Scheck grew up near the Hallstattersee. He’s one of only two fishermen permitted to catch the lake’s native whitefish, the reinanke – once a delicacy reserved for emperors, but now a common sight on local menus.

Every morning, Alexander chugs his barge across the lake before dawn, gathering in his nets by hand before heading back to sell his catch at the village fish shop. It’s a practice unchanged in centuries, and one that Alexander maintains with pride. ‘We still use the old techniques to fish here,’ he says, heaving in his net and extracting each fish by hand, giving each its final coup de grace against the boat’s gunwale. ‘Hallstatt is a place where nothing ever changes much.’ Today, people flock to the Salzkammergut region to immerse themselves in nature and indulge in sommerfrische for themselves. Some lakes have become playgrounds for wealthy cityfolk from Salzburg and Vienna, while others have kept their traditional character, with cosy inns and waterfront cottages dotted along the shorelines.

Schloss Ort is one of the first sights seen when sailing out of Gmunden – the castle sits on its own tiny island in the Traunsee.
Schloss Ort is one of the first sights seen when sailing out of Gmunden – the castle sits on its own tiny island in the Traunsee.

Manuela Kiesenhofer works fora sailing school based on Traunsee, one of the largest lakes in the area. In summer, she spends every day out on the water, teaching her students the sailing basics: tacking, jibing, how to use the wind and when to trim a sail. ‘I could never sit in an office all day,’ she says, leaning out from the yacht’s starboard side as she hauls on a rope to make the mainsail snap taut. ‘I’d miss the feel of the wind on my face too much.’ She swings behind the helm and plots a course for the town of Gmunden. It’s late afternoon, and the sun is tinting the town’s lakefront houses in ginger, ochre, yellow and auburn: it is almost exactly the same view Emperor Franz Joseph would have enjoyed, and the very essence of sommerfrische.

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