5th October 2017 Day 1 Hinterbrühl to Heiligenkreuz, Austria. On foot, 5.5 hours.
The wonderful Sabine drove me from Andlersdorf to Hinterbrühl through Viennese traffic jams and what threatened to be an endless search for the start of my pilgrimage.
After asking several people it turns out that the yellow sign was like a street one at the crossroads, and that confusion over signage was to be the order of the day.
It started well with a downhill hike. A gentle man spotted me minus a boot and administering a plaster. He sympthised with my blister condition (though I was reminded at every turn, by the wayside Christ figures, that any suffering of mine was minor).
I was continually returned to my Spanish caminos, what with barking dogs, and chestnut hulls littering the paths with familiar earthy smells as they start to decompose. There were Harebells and Chinese lanterns in the woods as I began to climb steeply, and golden and tan beech leaves in heaps by the paths.
It was very hot at the top when I eventually emerged from the trees, and I passed a few people along the way who did not know about the path I was searching for. I had followed yellow signs but they were different ones!
The forest was absolutely beautiful. The next day a monk was glad for me to have taken this route, pointing out that much of the way is otherwise by the main road.
If I had been so inclined I could have dined and drunk to my heart’s content at the two large ‘gasthaus’ in the middle of the forest.
I had departed at 9 am and finally arrived in Gaaden at 12 having taken a wrong turn early on it transpired, and and after adding 2.5hrs and 600 metres of very steep climb up and totter down.
Carrying my hefty back pack like that used up most of the day’s energy. I managed a little further after a 20 minute lunch break, but on getting lost again my spirits plumetted.
Once more in a forest without the requisite arrows, I sought advice from walkers with a big bag. They were mushroom hunters returning to their car with a grand haul, all smiles. Luckily for me they offered me a lift to the next village and I gratefully accepted as I was at the end of myself.
We passed the famous Heiligenkreuz Monastery and I asked to be put down there. As I entered for a look I wondered if they might allow pilgrims to stay, and once again I was lucky.
I rested in the sun beside the trickling fountain until 5.30, then attended both 6pm vespers and 7.50pm ‘komplet’ or compline. Traditionally the same three psalms are prayed each night: 4, 90 and 133. They contain clear references to the night, going to rest, dwelling in the shelter of the Most High, protection of the angels, etc., and so are perfect for the end of the day.
The Heiligenkreuz monks are renowned for their Gregorian chanting and so I was happy to hear them. Dressed in their white robes, half on one side and half on the other of the wooden choir stalls which were exactly the same colour as the beech leaves in the woods, their sound is both haunting and eerie.
The final service of the day consists of them first lighting candles, then extinguishing the altar lights. At the end the bells toll for five minutes, rolling through the valley, and the candles are blown out leaving us in near darkness while the Fathers begin their silent period 20.00 hours until 05.00 the next morning when we reconvened for the first prayers of the day.
I took a brief dusk walk beside the deer to find the full moon and commune with my sisters, but it was not to be seen behind the rain clouds. Instead I climbed along the path of the Twelve Stations of the Cross and watched the remnants of the sun turn the sky a bruised orange.
Private accommodation in a simple room with two beds and sink cost 26 euros including evening meal, lunch, breakfast and copious mugs of tea to rehydrate myself before a very early night.