Via Sacra – Day 6

Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 10th October 2017. Day 6. The second half of Stage 3.

On foot with my backpack. It was 6 hours of spectacular climbs, rushing rivers, scary footbridges, and astonishing views, all in sparkling Autumn surroundings.

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A reminder that this is a spiritual journey.

Route: Türnitz (Gasthaus ‘Goldener Lowe’ where I spent the night and had breakfast), 2.5 hours to Falken Ravine, then Ulreichsberg, Ebenbaueralm, and Annaberg.

‘If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.’ Thich Nhat Hanh.

 

 

 

As I left Türnitz at 8.15am with its prettily decorated houses, I was minded of some early reads which have walking in them and which I still have a clear sense of. My mother read to us and gave us books throughout our childhood, and I am very grateful for the enjoyment she encouraged.  ‘Mary Jones and Her Bible’ was one I often returned to for some reason. Mary (16 December 1784 – 28 December 1864) was a Welsh girl who saved her pennies and then, at the age of fifteen, walked twenty-six miles barefoot across mountainous countryside to buy a copy of the Welsh Bible because she did not have one. I think it was her determination which impressed me, and it was a rare true story of a young girl’s strength.

Then there was ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri. Heidi was another girl with spunk (though fictitious this time), who also lived in the mountains, not in Wales (UK) but in one of Austria’s many adjoining countries, Switzerland, where I was headed at the end of this trip. I had not thought about these tales for many years, but now I wonder what effect they had on me at an impressionable age.

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My first view of the mountains, later in the day, after the climb which was ahead.
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I wore boots for this walk.

I followed the River Traisen out of town and focused on the tiny lovely things around me: a small, darting bird, dark with a white throat; dams and pools with fish just visible in slow motion under the surface; tiny waterfalls; the sun on the back of my neck; a quarry creating a natural bathing pool; the water jostling and stressing in its rush; trunks and stalks blackened from the old year.

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Small streams feeding into the Traisen at intervals.
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A strawberry flower nestling amongst the dry stalks.
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Jade coloured water again and luscious lichen.

I was living a real life folk tale: First traverse the land…

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I had no idea what was to come.

…visit sacred places along the way….

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One of the many wayside shrines.
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Ecce Homo – Behold the Man.

… Ford the river five times (twice the socks and boots had to come off, 3 times it was a matter of balancing precariously on the tips of rocks which weren’t submerged and hoping I would not topple because once I start to go the weight of the rucksack takes me all the way!)

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You can see how fast the water was rushing by the fact that my camera could not get it into focus. A tottering traverse!

Carry your worldly goods on your back looking carefully for signs.

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The wee red and white stripes are not always that easy to locate.

There will be obstacles on your path.

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Many wooden bridges to manage the ravines.
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Some of them slippery from the wet and not a little hairy.

Finally climb the Three Sacred Mountains (this is truely what they are called) and only then will you…. what? Achieve enlightenment / win the heart of your true love / be forgiven?

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My heart sang as I watched the leaves meander to the ground which was itself glowing golden and bronze; as I observed the white waters cascade and crash between dark green rocks.

As I hike, I am constantly reflecting on what I am about, travelling through countries, going on foot wherever I can. Why am I drawn to this life? And I wonder if it might be that it is easier to do this in foreign countries rather than at home; in a place where no-one knows me and I seem to be easily welcomed. In Spain, for example, they said yes when I asked to stay, and let me sleep on the floor and then gave me an apple to take away with me in the morning. Simplicity. Nothing expected from me except human courtesy and attention, although I always offer Shiatsu.

I have an urge to do this, to keep on walking, treading ancient pathways, like The Sisters of Mercy, a non-cloistered institute where the ‘walking nuns’ cared for the poor outside a convent; or the blind practitioners of Anma (Japanese folk massage, linked closely to Shiatsu) ‘who were often nomadic, earning their keep in mobile massage capacities…. in the 19th century’ (ref. Wikipedia). It seems that another woman I read and re-read about in my childhood, Helen Keller, interceded on behalf of these practitioners after they were banned from practicing during the Occupation of Japan after World War II, and managed to overturn that edict.

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Colour, marvellous colours, all around.

As I climb higher, there are the deep blue mountains in the distance. I take one of those  videos entitled ‘here’s some of my silence!’

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The pilgrimage church sanctified to St. Anna, 1217.

It was a steep descent out of the forest  and then a climb back up to Annaberg, perched high on a mountain of its own, where a funeral procession was reaching the Pilgrim’s church. In 1985 I arrived in a Sicilian mountain village by bus (many years before my walking days) in the middle of a wedding, and in Naples a week before I had almost interrupted an ordination ceremony for bishops in the only open venue due to the Holy holiday. However, this was the first funeral.

Most bars and cafes were closed for the village event and people were in traditional Austrian dress playing folk music. After a cup of green tea and a slice of cake, I made my way down the other side taking one of my short-cuts to save my tired back which meant crawling through undergrowth and squeezing under barbed wire – a bad idea which I do not recommend.

The Junges Hotel did not seem to have the booking. Strange. Until it transpired that I was not at the youth hostel, but at a much more expensive establishment next to the ski lift. As always I was treated with immense kindness. I was bundled into a van, and driven up the way I had just come, past the church again, and down (in fact only a small way from my original forest exit earlier) to the right place.

What a setting! Green slopes, grand trees, spire towering above in Annaberg.

There was no-one at reception although crowds of children played behind the building. I sat and waited and was eventually assigned my bed. The kitchens were full of preparations for the evening meal so I could not use them (although one kind man did pass me a flask of hot water over the counter). The wifi was intermittent, and what a lot of energy such large school groups create. As I was the only solo adult traveller and, moreover, in a dormitory of my own, they did not know I was there so in the end I had to ask them to quieten down in the corridor (2am), but they were very well mannered and friendly in response.

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Annaberg and its Catholic Church, from the youth hostel, taken the next morning.

 

If you want the youth hostel, be careful not to go here by mistake: Junges Hotel, Annaberg. https://www.annaberg.info/beherberger/a-junges-hotel-annaberg

 

Via Sacra – Day 4

Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 8th October 2017. Day 4. On foot with my backpack. The second half of Stage 2.

My route: Starting just outside Sankt (Saint) Veit an der Gölsen, Staff (approx. 800 metres), Wiesenbach (approx. 600 metres), Vordereben, Lilienfeld Stift / Monastery.

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Not bad weather for starting day 4 of my walk.

I wanted to be clear about my reason for this pilgrimage before I started and it surprised me to realise that I was doing it to ‘develop my soul and atone for my sins’. At least, these were the words I heard in my head when I asked myself the question. I am not religious (although I was bought up firmly in the Christian faith) but this language definitely comes from that tradition. It is now understood that terminology and ideas laid down in infancy are prevalent through life, tricky to shake off. Whilst I subscribe to some Church of England core beliefs such as kindness, the notion of being born a sinner is one I struggle with. That gave me something to ponder as I wandered.

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The first three days had been quite hard in terms of terrain, blisters, wind and rain. I got lost a lot, but the landscape I was walking through was so beautiful I forgot all about those tribulations. Given my aim in walking, it was fitting that I was to find myself at the door of not one but two monasteries (see day one) where I attended a number of Masses, sitting quietly, interested in the ritual, and absorbing the atmosphere.

Today was a grand day.

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River Gölsen.

After a good breakfast, and having recovered from the previous day’s struggles, I made my way back down into Sankt Veit an der Gölsen where I had failed to find accommodation the evening before. My plan was to visit the Austrian market which the kind people who had helped me (see Via Sacra, Day 3), had been setting up their stalls. I had been promised traditional dress and local food.

I was close to the central square and stopped to ask the way from a woman with a dog. She spoke some English and asked me what I was up to, what with my backpack and all. Then she offered to walk with me towards Mariazell, so I changed direction and set off up the steep hill with her. (I am getting better at being spontaneous and accepting the invitations as they present themselves!).  We had a lovely conversation and she told me stories about her two sons and said, ‘getting a dog was best thing I ever did to avoid a nervous break down!’ It gave her an excuse to get out of the house on a Sunday morning, she said, and walk in the beautiful countryside.

IMG_20171008_113755 (480x640)We traversed the pine forest which turned to beech and that was where we parted company. The pine part is a dark olive/seaweedy type of green, whereas the beech trees are a brighter spring green and they let more light through. As we came to the edge of the darker section it was like standing back-stage in the wings, looking onto the lit stage. It was interesting to note the inadvertent change in mood as I moved from one to the other.

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My thoughts turned to memories of a previous shared hike, the delights and problems, acknowledging my part in the relationship difficulties: my bad habit of unhappily holding on to slights, not finding it easy to let them go. I found myself turning these things over and over with my footsteps, ‘maybe if…’, ‘perhaps if…’, but then caught myself at it, drew my attention back to the present, one step at a time, heel, toe, heel toe, heel … and that allowed me to see more of my surroundings.

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A harebell photo for my mum.

I was making my way along flat paths which stretched into the distance. The wind was strong and it was cold, but fine. In fact as the hours went by, it was decidedly good and I was not lost – hooray.

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The Gutenstein Alps are a mountain range in the Eastern Alps of Austria, and the northeasternmost part of the Northern Limestone Alps, reaching heights over 1,000 metres.

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Slightly blurred set of good direction signs. I had given up looking for the Via Sacra ones and clocked that the red bars were more efficient.

Downhill from Staff then up again to Weisenbach I went, taking the steeper option described in the leaflet as ‘a very rewarding mountain trail with two successive ascents’. I followed the effective red and white markers towards Lilienfeld Monastery, my destination. The leaves shone, the wild cyclamen peeped out from between tree roots, and there was peaceful thinking time. Autumn leaves drifted all around and I had the luxury of making very slow progress because the stage was short.

Suddenly in the middle of nowhere (11.15am) were the first two Via Sacra signs of the day, 2 hrs after leaving Wiesland.

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It started to spit with rain and I stopped to cover my belongings. A dream from a few days ago flitted into my mind: A man and I settled down with our children (his and mine, 2 families together) to sleep. When the baby cried I left her. I tried not to anlayse it.

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Fascination with the diverse types of funghi hidden in the fallen leaves.

The recent fantastic bodywork I had exchanged with Alice Whieldon at the Shiatsu congress in Vienna slid into my mind. Walking gives me time, you see, to ponder and remember important things, to mull them over and observe them from different angles.

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Pink quartz in a box?

For two days I had been unable to wear my shorts but it was a shade warmer and that meant air around my legs. It also resulted in scratches but it was worth it.

Some of the wild flowers were familiar from British hedgerows, and others we have in our gardens. The geology was interesting: striations reminiscent of herring; and the sheer size of one huge crag was awe inspiring (too dark for a photo).

The path wound through a seemingly abandoned settlement where a zimmer frame stood at an angle in the middle of the farmyard as if a UFO had just dematerialised its owner and left it standing – a curiously poignant image. Then a car drove in – it was the first person I had seen in three hours.

On I calmly traipsed until the need to stop to search for the next sign. A great squarking and squeaking gave me quite a surprise.

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Taken with a zoom as I did not want to get too close to these disgruntled geese.

I gobbled a quick sandwich in the drizzle, in the silence, and watched a single bird of prey swooping over the landscape. There was a chill meaning the trousers had to go back on.

Note to self: Add a thermos to the luggage if walking in October anywhere east of Lyon.

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Traditional Austrian architecture.

It was 3.5 hours to Wiesenbach Gasthaus. I was feeling very quiet after my silent walking and people could not hear my soft voice. I tiptoed through. It was very slow service and the truth was that I did not want to talk to anyone. I felt peaceful inside myself and welcomed a seat in the warm with a cup of green tea and yummy zucchini (courgette) cake. The smoking and fried food caused stinging eyes. Ah! of course the smells were all about Sunday lunch – they serve very large portions with lots of carbs in these places.

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Once back in the fresh air I was completely surrounded by steep wooded slopes and it was all very pleasant indeed.

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In fact towards the end of the walk I did get a trifle lost and chose to roll with the backpack, under two make-shift fences which I had previously tested for electricity. Then I made my way down the slope and got to a farm, stooped to pick up a windfall apple and promptly got a shock. The farmer pointed down the road and there was a Via Sacra sign which took me to my destination.

In Austria when you arrive somewhere or pass friendly people on the path, they say Grüss Gott meaning good day or more literally, may God be with you. (Thanks Sabine for clarifying).

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The grand front door of Lilienfeld Monastery.

I arrived at the Cistercian Abbey at 4pm for the night. The monks reside in long, low stone buildings with port-hole type windows, one per cell, opposite square pools of water.

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I was initially told that there was no room. You can imagine my heart sank, but I said I was a pilgrim and they gave me a bed in a 3-person room with a beige velour sofa and access to a toilet/shower room 5 minutes walk away (a long journey in the night).

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The Monastery is situated at the foot of the hill making for stunning views.

Vespers was in the Baroque chapel. The nine monks dressed in white habits were joined by a smaller man in black who came in late. Most were elderly looking with tonsures except the one younger man with a skinhead of Scottish red hair. He continually adjusted his neck and wore Vans (trendy trainers). Another sported a sweat band around the perimeter of his bald head, had specs and a beard, and rested his hands comfortably on his belly.

There was no Gregorian chant as at Heiligenkreutz; it was mostly spoken in Latin with some German, and there were periods of silence. They turned in unison to face the altar, a ritual back and forth, sitting and standing, bowing and straightening, and every now and then one turned the pages of a huge prayer book. They took it in turns with call and response.

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A highly decorated church with a beautifully simple Baroque ceiling. Golden orbs, putti, adult angels, black marble pillars with golden heads and feet, and a multitude of golden figures above the choir stalls. Amidst all this ornamentation, a grey stone Christ, bowed and be-staffed.
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 Statues line the outside walls.

 

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Pink roses in a courtyard for contemplation.
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Scottish heather for sale.

For 8.80 euros I was served a cheese toastie with an egg on top, a small red wine, cake and peppermint tea. It was a very early night as the monks rise in the small hours for worship.

 

 

Via Sacra – Day 3

Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 7th October 2017. Day 3. Starting just outside Kaumberg and walking to Sankt (Saint) Veit an der Golsen, Austria. On foot with my backpack. The first half of Stage 2.

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‘All good things come to those who walk. Walking is a recreational pastime that Austrian’s themselves are passionate about, and it’s obvious why.’ From http://www.touchingnature.co.uk/austria-walking-carinthia.htm

My overnight accommodation in a secondary building separate from the main house was cold and dirty. Having arranged for breakfast at 7am, I braved the cold morning across the small yard and attempted to enter via the backdoor. It was locked. When I looked up, all the upstairs curtains were closed and the house silent. I scoured the perimeter and discovered there was no way out. There were some huge rabbits in stacks of tiny cubes, a series of hutches with wire fronts; a great deal of rubbish and minor farm machinery; and the back of the gates which I knew opened onto the road. I had no choice but to return to my dormitory, wrap myself in my sleeping bag and wait. On the third attempt the door opened and I was welcomed into a completely contrasting environment: a warm, clean and bright pub bar with many large wooden tables (I was the only guest) and served with a wondrous breakfast of hot bread rolls, homemade jam, yummy butter, tea, juice and then a boiled egg! Both the lady and gentleman of the house were friendly and kind and with a full tummy I was ready to leave at 8.40am.

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Church on the hill, Kaumberg.

It was a very short dander to the town and I arrived at almost the same moment that crowds of walkers were collecting, it being a Saturday morning. Not one of them appeared to speak English or understand my German, and all were too taken up with greeting friends to be helpful. However, I did eventually find a helpful woman behind a stall who pointed me in the right direction and, at the top of a steep flight of steps, I came across the town church with beautiful views.

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Mariazeller Pilgerverein Mauer – Mariazell (the place of pilgrimage I was walking to) Pilgrim Club Wall.

IMG_20171007_100557 (480x640)The hiking crowds were ahead of me, lively and chattering with a guide (reluctantly indicating with a shrug of a shoulder where I should be going), and there followed a long steep climb, arduous both physically and mentally. A cold, cold wind invaded my layers and some spitting rain wetted me as we wound our way through farm land. As I skirted a field I watched kids at play while their mum worked at fencing. It was soggy and muddy underfoot but not too bad.

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Araburg in the distance – it does not look too high does it? But it is a steep ascent.
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Nearly there.

Araburg Aussichtstrum  (observation tower) sits at 799 metres and was built in the 12th century. It continued to expand into the 17th century and during the first Turkish siege of 1529 it was a refuge for the local population. Araburg also played a role in the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In 1683 it was destroyed during the second Turkish siege and since then has been ruin. It is a hostel and although the shop and cafe were open, the accommodation was not. I was glad to climb staircase after rickety ladder for the view from the top, but it was vertigo-inducing and impossible with a rucksack so I left it with my poles at the midway point. Half an hour later I had to retrace my steps to find the said poles which I had forgotten in the toilet.

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Made to look attractive and full of tourists (there was a car park on the opposite side).

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A misty vista from the top.

As I continued (no need for a cafe stop an hour and a half after breakfast), I passed people who did not look at me or say ‘hello’- a great contrast from previous pilgrimages. In my notes I wrote that it was the ‘hardest climb I have ever done’. Day 3 of a walk can be the hardest and today was challenging in various ways: the path was not clear, the weather gloomy, and the thoughts and memories sad. Sometimes, I reflected, you just have to sit down and weep. As I rested at the foot of the hill there was an extremely loud wailing siren sounding for I knew-not-what reason, but it mirrored my inner state of mind.

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If you happen to have a similar sort of a day, and arrive in Ramsau (a pretty stone village further along the Golsen river down at 470 metres) at lunchtime as I did, perhaps you will also need to eat ‘apfel strudel’ to cheer you up. Maybe you will also then slowly recover and dry out with the aid of hot tea. If you are as lucky as me, you could be seated by 3 generations of sweet males sitting at the next table: one in his highchair who will offer you his book to read and the others who speak English, recommend a hiking app to help you find the way, and eventually the world will seem a better place again.

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One of Austria’s vast network of cycle tracks…

And so I set off feeling somewhat brighter and the sun came out and I meandered along a cycle path with the chain-saw-sound of forestry around me.

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…with Autumn colours in the afternoon sunshine.

The leaflet I was following states six hours of trekking to Stankt Veit an der Golsen (371 metres) and suggests you go on a further four but that is too far for me in one day, so once again I divided that stage into two.

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There are many notice boards with signs and maps along the way. You can see Araburg and then the mountains below, a seriously steep climb.
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The River Golsen.

I arrived in Sankt Veit with very little energy to spare, only to discover that the single place to stay at this time of year was unexpectedly shut due to bereavement. I was in the middle of another adventure – it was nearly dark and I was stuck. Time for some deep breaths.

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Colourful houses.

I spotted some people outside a cafe and stopped to ask them where I might stay for the night. They were setting up for a special Sunday Austrian market the next morning. Within minutes they were bringing me a free half pint of wine and were all on their mobile phones searching for me.

After a few sips I remembered that I had stopped at a bar the day before and a very willing woman had taken the time to print out a list of bed and breakfasts. I handed this over to my new-found friends and by the time I had enjoyed my drink in the evening sun, which helped to calm my perturbed spirit, I begun to trust that all would indeed be well.

Not long afterwards I was bundled into a car with a young woman and her little brother, driven out of town (up a hill which I honestly do not think I could have climbed, I was that tired), introduced to the inn owner, and received a translation of the breakfast and room details (it was very expensive by my normal standards at 35 euros but I was immensely grateful for a roof over my head). Once again I had ‘landed on my feet’ or, as the Americans say, ‘lucked out’. Oh, the kindness of strangers!

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My room – considerably more comfortable and smarter than the previous one.

Via Sacra pdf leaflet to download but do not rely on this alone. Make sure you also use other maps and more detailed information about the to avoid getting lost. http://brochures.austria.info/en_US/brochures/show/6006-Via-Sacra-and-the-Vienna-Pilgrimage-Trail

Austrian tourist information including Araburg. https://travel.sygic.com/en/list/top-tourist-attractions-in-lower-austria-region:636

Araburg Castle https://www.spottinghistory.com/view/6718/araburg-castle/

Note: There should be an umlaut over the o in Golsen but after extensive search I cannot work out how to do this on my Windows laptop.