The final day of my pilgrimage to Mariazell along the Via Sacra, Austria. Day 9, 13th October 2017.
A pilgrimage is traditionally called a “Wallfahrt” in Austria. I left Mitterbach in an angry mood as a result of something I had witnessed and I had never been so clear that walking allows for time to understand and then let that feeling go.
Watching the way things really are, and learning from that, is advice I often hear in my profession. It is hard! I have been trying while I trek, to notice what is actually happening in the world and not what I think in advance or want it to be. What I want is to be happy and good, but if I am not, then I try to be clear about that, to see things honestly.
I observed someone teaching and realised that my belief is that you do not teach by telling, much less by telling off or ordering, but by example. Making statements about the way you want things to be is not only didactic but useless, unless you just want to control and are prepared to force it. No-one learns like that.
It was a short walk that day, just two hours and 80 metres of climbing. Thus, it allowed me to stop and see ‘the rosary wayside shrines’ (as the leaflet called them) with their mini flower gardens – the rather ugly Stations of the Cross. There were also pine forests and piles of logs, the cutting of which had made some sky space for the light to reach the saplings.
Something about hearing a man speak in that way to a woman he is close to sparked off a very strong reaction in me. It was very unpleasant to witness such treatment, and hard to find the balance between speaking out and respecting the fact that I was a guest and completely outside the relationship. Of course, reflecting on the undertone of their exchanges and my reaction to it, helped me understand more about myself and why I find it so hard to keep quiet. Would that we could all have a voice to speak out against such lack of respect without fear of retribution.
For the first time I came across other hikers on the trail coming in the opposite direction – two unfriendly young women, one jolly red-faced, and panting with her rucksack. Then numerous dog walkers, such that I had to make way for people coming up towards me. It was also loud with the sounds of planes and vehicles from the valley in the distance – quite a contrast to the surrounding peace and the serenity which had once more settled in my mind.
I had one moment of practical difficulty when faced with an electric fence and I flattened myself on the ground to slide underneath. Apparently the threat of electrocution was preferable to going back down the hill to see if I had mistaken my way, only to discover I had been in fact been right and must come back up again!
All roads lead to Mariazell – at least there is a path from all Austrian provinces that leads to the famous pilgrimage site of Mariazell in Styria – in the same way there are caminos all over Spain which lead to Santiago de Compostella. Indeed, it has been described as ‘the quintessential Habsburg place of pilgrimage’ (from this website).
Mariazell was first mentioned in 1266, and in 1907 its church was elevated to a “basilica minor” by Pope Pius X.
Here is the fairy tale cathedral at Mariazell, dedicated to the ‘Magna Mater Austriae’ (the Virgin Mary, ‘kind mother’ and patron saint of Austria).
My pilgrimage ended, I had arrived in the sunshine. It was so busy with tourists, school groups and coach loads shopping at the stalls around the entrance to the cathedral.
When I found the tourist information I was most impressed by the helpful woman there – what a difference from the one in Vienna who had never even heard of the Via Sacra! She made good suggestions, apologised for her colleague, booked me a hostel and printed out bus times. What a star.
I only stayed 2 hours, stocking up on supplies and walking around the back streets to the bus station, chatting with other passengers who were waiting in the hot weather. I would have liked to go on Die Himmelstreppe railway from Mariazell to St Polton (www.mariazellerbahn.at) but it would have been back the way I had come and I wanted to go forwards.
So, I took the bus towards Graz, which went up higher, I guessed, than I had walked. The slopes were all rocky and it got discernibly colder. In fact, yes, these were proper serious mountains: a half bowl of them like a massive satellite dish tilted towards us that may have been the Hochschwab (we stopped at Seewiesen).
I lounged – how relaxing it is to decide where to go, buy a ticket and then be driven!
There were spectacular waterfalls, lakes of dark turquoise, alps with snowy peaks, and more pine forests than you can shake a baton at. We drove past wooden dwellings, livestock on fertile slopes, and logs of course, by the pile – all set against an azure sky.
A tortoiseshell cat sat in the middle of the grass. The bus buzzed each time it prepared to stop. I relished my mini bottle of prosecco as we roller-coasted through the countryside. A tree seemed to be sinking under its apple-weight; there were lots of day-walkers and people with poles.
We passed through Aflenz Kurort, a very attractive place with a book shop, and then I changed buses at Bruck an der Mur. I could have got a train to Graz from Kapfenberg (which is big enough to have a casino, get a tattoo or buy a new car, and where you can also visit a London pub with a red phone box outside!) but it was further to walk from bus to train station the kind lady told me, and I demurred.
Downhill we trundled, into the shade, and past disused, dusty buildings much like the relics of the textile industry near Hebden Bridge in west Yorkshire. A woman got on, smelling very strongly of perfume and flopped into her chair panting from the effort of making it. She picked her nose, wiped the sweat off her lower lip then checked her phone which had a screen saver of her handsome boy.
The bus picked up speed after its sedate earlier pace. Past a field of upstanding maize we went, and then another half cut, where the chickens were pecking away at the stubble. An outdoor croquet game was well attended. Tractors left wakes of sombre grass and there were the same posters for the various political candidates which I now knew by heart. I really did not like the threatening tone: it’s now or never – jetzt oder nie, nor the anti-Muslim ones.
The nice lady whose head was covered in a black and white scarf, part of her traditional costume, told me the names of the places we stopped at so I could follow on the map, and then said goodbye with a smile. I wondered if my leg joints would support me when I stood up after 1.5 hours!
There was a joking man who said I was from the dram country (In Scotland we talk about having a wee dram, a small measure, of whiskey) and, you only make small dogs! I am always impressed when folk can jest in a foreign language.
Bruck had a big station full of backpackers, but I did not get off.
Finally I boarded a hi-tec train with lots of youths on it, and announcements in English as well as German. It was heading to Leibnitz after Graz, and thence to Ljubljana in Slovenia, 190 kms further on. I fancy going there…
Link to the beginning of the Via Sacra blog series
The Graz blog is here