When you prepare to leave for a destination that people you know have already visited, you tend to be beleaguered with a slew of ‘to-dos’ and ‘must-sees’ and generally sky-high expectations for what’s to come. What people recall from their own travels is always a series of silver lined images of the most moving and transforming moments, and they often forget to tell you all of the mundane, frustrating, or un-magically logistical moments that fill in the gaps. As such there is an adjustment period between expectation and your experienced reality in which you feel (even in its tiniest measure) disappointment. In time, you create your own unforgettable moments and you will recommend the place with just as much fervor when you are away from it again, but that fervor will take time to cultivate and conclude.
It is, then, something of a delight in the midst of your travels to encounter a place you previously knew absolutely nothing of and find it enchanting. I have had this experience before, first with the tiny Italian town of Todi, a place that was beautifully still and seemed to be locked in a different time. It was the first time I’d seen Europe look the way that it looks in the street paintings and romantic movies, and we ended up so lost in the magic of it that we never did make it up to Florence, our original destination. It’s amazing how much the expectations instilled in you by the people around you can mess with your mind. It has affected everything from what movies I end up actually enjoying to how I perceive my entire high school experience. Would that all of life could present itself to you organically without being spoiled by falsely-elevated expectation.
Hallstatt, Austria was a place that I took in unfettered by preconceived notions. I didn’t know a single thing about the place beforehand, and I found it to be one of the most charming, well-appointed, postcard-worthy towns of my acquaintance. It is a tiny patchwork of little homes peeking out from a blanket of tree-covered mountains and all on the shores of a glistening lake. Turn your head to the left and you see the entire city and to your right the same, only this time reflected in the stillness of aquatic glass.
In our first afternoon in this place we hiked a little ways above the town church and just sat on a bench, musing away the minutes in a way only this type of splendor inspires you to do. After a moment I pointed out that the view before us looked like a postcard and yet felt nothing like one. I asked my travel companions what they thought was different about sitting here personally that could not be experienced or achieved from striking photographs alone. They began to tell me of the sounds, the lapping of the lake, and the gentle hum of stirring leaves around us. They mentioned the smell, it smelled fresh and should you breathe deeply, the air felt cleaner to the bottom of your lungs. It was the other senses, they concluded, that made the difference. Seeing a picture left out the other four senses.
I’m about as tactile a personality as there is. I could not deny that they had a point about the earthy moisture of the bench we sat on should your fingers graze over it. Those primary senses are important in experiencing the reality of a place, rather than merely imagining it, but somehow that answer seemed inadequate to me. There appears to be a sixth sense that my Hallstatt stimulated, something more. There are some exclusively spiritual receptors inside of me that found themselves reinvigorated and replenished by my short visit to this tiny town. In its exquisite vistas and the mystical shimmer of its waters, Hallstatt taught me something about the sublime.
Hallstatt is home to the oldest salt mine in the world. We suited up in miner outfit and slid through the different levels of the mine learning, about its history and secretly wanting to lick the wall to see if it was salty (or maybe that was just me). It struck me as sort of comical that this place would be known for its salt, for that spiritual effect it had on me brought with it vivid reminders of the experiences that have flavored my life.
I have learned acutely the power of a painful moment in opening the Pandora’s box of remembered painful moments waiting to affect you. So, there is a rare-refined delight in the ability of the natural magnificence of a place to pry open the box of beautiful feelings and reverence for life that you didn’t know that you had. In looking upon this place, I briefly awakened every comparable lovely feeling or memory I had stored away and in that moment I rejoiced. You know what the worst part is? I’ve just given you those expectations whose absence made this place what it was for me. Would that you find your own place and your own peace.