In all of my travels these past eight months, I made one travel mistake. I suppose if I’d gone the whole time without making any mistakes, that wouldn’t have been fair. When I finally messed up, though, it was bad, probably the universe’s way of making up for all of the times things did go according to plan.
I’d intended to take a day trip from Vienna to Hallstatt, a fairy tale lakeside town in northwest Austria, and I did, but whereas I was supposed to have spent seven and half hours on trains round-trip, I spent twelve and a half hours and an additional one hundred euros. I was sleep-deprived, having worked into the wee hours the past two nights, and that plus the facts that I’d bought my tickets far in advance and that they were in German led me to forget that I had a connection to make, even though I’d researched endlessly how to get to Hallstatt and knew there was no direct way there. I simply wasn’t thinking. Actually, I was thinking about sleeping on a train for three hours.
Anyways, I didn’t realize I’d missed my connection until it was what would have been almost time for me to get off the train, at which point there were still another 50 minutes before we would arrive at the next stop. I would go two hours in the wrong direction and was in Germany. I’d spent the whole day on this trip, though, a day I could have otherwise spent in Vienna! I had to go to Hallstatt, and so a sort of customer service conductor, mildly annoyed by my exasperation but also bored enough with her job to help me, looked up train times that I proceeded to write down: there was one trip itinerary left that could still get me to Hallstatt and back to Vienna that day (I had a flight out of Vienna the next morning, so it was imperative that I return before then).
As one might imagine, I saw a lot of the countryside. St. Valentin, a small town outside of Salzburg, was cute. Prettier, though, was the final part of the route, the part after I made the connection I was supposed to have made in the first place. At first I looked out the window to see tiny white flowers in the grass and white-flowering trees; then we came upon a lake, larger than Lake Hallstatt and around which various small towns were perched. This lake was dark gray and blue at once, reflective of the mountains but phosphorescent, too. I believe only the lakes in Germany and Austria look like this.
A bit farther on was the town of Ebensee, which actually appears on a map in a larger-than-microscopic size but is the most village-like small town I’ve seen. As our train passed, a woman on the sidewalk below paused to let us go by. The path on which she walked wandered all through the town, which was composed of pastel and lime-green houses, houses paneled in light and dark wood, magnolia trees, and more white-flowering trees. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a town as tiny as Ebensee, peaceful yet so removed from the rest of the world.
We followed a river tinted green past cyclists and colts in the grass. By the time we had reached Hallstatt Station, the light glowed that misty glow that arrives only with the early morning or early evening, when the sun is preparing either to hoist itself into the sky or to demount, having finished its routine. Across the river, the town of Hallstatt was in shadow, but I could see the iconic steeple of the church and a yellow house on the far right, marking the edge of the town. Light shone through a space between two mountains and onto the water in an inverted fan, white on black water.
Getting to Hallstatt from the train station requires taking a ferry across the lake. It’s a short ferry ride, and I thought it a pretty little introduction to the town. I had one hour in Hallstatt before I had to catch the first of my return trains. Searching for the highest point in town, from which I thought a photo I’d seen had been taken, I passed the town square, ringed in restaurants; a museum; a small crêpe cart and an ice cream shop; and postcard and jewelry shops. I found the spot, but it was the wrong time of day and the wrong time of year to take a photo there of my own.
Instead, I took one from a viewpoint at the far side of the town, close to the yellow house, where one can look across Hallstatt at its houses, cream and red and dark wood, and churches, contouring their figures to the curve of the lake.