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With its lake-mirrored mountains and mist-cloaked villages, Austria is a country brimming with enchantment.  Although Salzburg, Vienna, and Innsbruck are must-see cities for a first visit, traveling off the beaten path is the most enjoyable way to explore Austria. Try to leave yourself a few days to see the small old-world charm and cozy ambiance of the small villages. It is truly rewarding to experience the quiet lives of the locals, such as listening to the peaceful, watery echoes during a boat ride on Lake Hallstatt or the footfalls on a narrow cobblestone lane.

A short side trip south east of Salzburg led me to the most beautiful, picturesque village of Austria: Hallstatt.  The cloud-swathed Dachstein Mountains lend an ethereal atmosphere to this lakeside village. Quaint old houses perch against the steep hillside, which drops abruptly into the lake.  A church stands at the water front; its tall, pointed steeple punctuates the thin Alpine mountain air, creating an ideal composition for a perfect postcard-quality photograph.  It’s easy to see why this village gave the composer Richard Wagner the inspiration for several operas.

Amusing surprises abound in small villages like this. I stayed in Hallstatt for only one night, but the next morning proved to be quite lucky for me. At precisely six-in-the morning, I was awoken by several booming noises.  This series of extremely loud, thunderous sounds repeated every thirty minutes. I ran to the waterfront and immediately saw villagers firing a cannon from a wooden boat in the lake.  I later learned from a local that the cannon shots were in honor of it being a very special day. It was a Catholic festival called “Fronleichnam”, which translates to “The Feast of Corpus Christi”.  Later the village priest held Mass in the town square and then continued on to a boat to give another mass onboard, done especially for the people lining up on the shore and in small, surrounding boats.