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Hallstatt, a Prehistoric Salt Capital (3:13)

Hallstatt, Austria

The Austrian village of Hallstatt, perched on a lake, was once one of Europe’s oldest salt-mining centers, dating back centuries before Christ. Take a salt-mine tour to learn about this natural preservative, precious for keeping meats fresh before refrigeration.

Complete Video Script

We're heading two hours southeast of Salzburg to my favorite Salzkammergut town on my favorite Salzkammergut lake. The tiny train station is across Lake Hallstatt from the post card-pretty town by the same name… Hallstatt. Stefanie (a boat) meets each arriving train and glides scenically across the lake into town.

Lovable Hallstatt is a tiny town bullied onto a ledge between a mountain and a swan-ruled lake. Apart from the waterfall, which rips through its middle, Hallstatt is an oasis of peace. With the scarcity of level land, tall homes had their front door on the street level top floor and their water entrance several floors below. The town, which originated as a salt mining center, is one of Europe's oldest, going back centuries before Christ.

There was a Hallstatt before there was a Rome. In fact, because of the salt mining importance here, an entire age — the Hallstatt era, from about 800 BC to 400 BC — is named for this once important spot.

If you dug under these buildings, you'd find Roman and pre-Roman Celtic pavement stones from the ancient and prehistoric salt depot. This cute little village was once the salt-mining namesake of a culture that spread from France to the Black Sea. Back then, salt was so precious because it preserved meat, and Hallstatt was, as its name means, the "place of salt."

A steep funicular runs up the mountain to Hallstatt's salt mine. It’s one of many throughout the region that offer tours.

At the mine, visitors slip into overalls, meet their guide, and hike into the mountain. While this particular tunnel dates only from 1719, Hallstatt's mine claims to be the oldest in the world.

In the tour you'll learn the story of salt. Archaeologists claim that since 7,000 BC, people have come here to get salt. A briny spring sprung here, attracting Bronze Age people. Later, miners dug tunnels to extract the salty rock. They dissolved it into a brine, which flowed through miles of pipes the oldest hewn out of logs to Hallstatt and nearby towns where the brine was — and still is — cooked until only the salt remained.

A highlight is riding miner-style from one floor down to the next… praying for no splinters.

Through the centuries, Hallstatt was busy with the salt trade. Since it had no road access, people came and went by boat. You'll still see the traditional Fuhr boats, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water.

Herr Alfred Lenz makes the town's traditional boats from a two-hundred-year-old design. The oar lock is still made of the gut of a bull. Alfred claims, an hour on the lake is worth a day of vacation.