By Susanne Pacher
My first three days in Austria had already been action-packed, full of hiking excursions and culinary delights. My next adventure was going to be a full-day driving tour with my friend Gary, who had also grown up in Austria, but, like me, had emigrated to Canada more than 40 years ago.
Garys native region is Upper Styria, a mountainous and heavily wooded part of my Austrian home province. He came to pick me up in his rental car in my home town of Weiz and we drove past the rolling hills of Eastern Styria through the picturesque villages of Anger and Birkfeld. Driving further up into the mountainous country to stop at the mountain pass of Alpl from where we had a gorgeous view of the high mountain regions of Upper Styria.
On our way down from the mountain pass we drove down into the valley which hosts one of the regions most popular tourist destinations: Peter Roseggers Waldheimatschule, a rural school building that was attended by one of Austrias most famous poets of the 19th and early 20th century, Peter Rosegger. He was almost awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 and to this day remains a popular local hero.
Continuing on our way into the Mrz River Valley we turned right onto the highway that connects Upper Styria with Vienna and drove towards the Semmering, a mountain pass at the border of Styria and Lower Austria. This mountain is most famous for the Semmering Railway that was completed in 1854 and connects Gloggnitz in Lower Austria with the town of Mrzzuschlag in Styria.
The Semmering Railway is in effect the first true mountain railway in the world, and it took six years to construct it. 14 tunnels and 16 viaducts, some of them two stories high, and more than 100 curved stone bridges overcome the challenging mountain terrain, and to this day, railway enthusiasts choose to travel on this still active route. The trains have to deal with an altitude difference of 460 m and a steepness of up to 2.5%. The extreme turning radii and gradients require special locomotives that could handle the challenge. The uniqueness of this mountain railroad was recognized with a UNESCO World Heritage site designation in 1998.
The construction of the railway made the entire Semmering region a popular tourist destination. Numerous large hotels and villas were built in the second half of the 19th century, and even members of the Austro-Hungarian nobility enjoyed the healthy climate of this high-altitude spa town. Well-known Austrian artists and writers of the era also spent their vacations here.
The most stunning example illustrating the heydays of the Semmering Region is the Hotel Panhans, a historic grand hotel dating back to 1888. After an expansion in 1913, the Panhans was considered one of the largest hotels in Europe with more than 400 rooms and offered luxurious amenities to its high-calibre guests. Prior to the collapse of the Austrian monarchy in 1918, celebrity guests included writers, painters and architects such as Peter Altenberg, Gerhard Hauptmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. After the first World War famous guests included the likes of Josephine Baker, Jan Kiepura, and Maria Jeritza.
Today, the region is also a popular winter sport destination. World Cup ski races are held regularly on the adjacent Hirschenkogel mountain. Bikepark Semmering is a mountain biking park and the ski lifts are available to off-road bikers from June to October. The Semmering region is enjoying strong tourism growth for both summer and winter tourism.
Having explored this historic spa town we turned around and drove back towards Mrzzuschlag. From this local district town we headed north into the Mrz River Valley, a deeply cut mountain valley, where we stopped in the village of Neuberg an der Mrz. This little town features a large Cistercian abbey from 1327. The Erzherzog-Johann-Kreuz (Archduke Johann Cross) has been adorning a rock wall above the village since the 1880s.
We continued on our drive through this remote mountain valley to the town of Mariazell, Austrias most important pilgrimage destination. Many miracles have been attributed to the Virgin of Mariazell, a carved wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary that was brought to this village in 1157. The church was later lavishly expanded in the Baroque style in 1644. Pilgrimages took place as early as in the 12th century, and today the Mariazell Basilica is visited by almost a million pilgrims every year. Pope John Paul II visited Mariazell in 1983 and a pilgrimage with 25,000 participants from the former Eastern Block countries took place in 1990 to celebrate the fall of Communism.
The pretty town has a picturesque main square that is surrounded by many historic buildings that today house a variety of restaurants and hotels. Many booths are selling religious trinkets and souvenirs. The surrounding area with the Brgeralpe mountain is a popular ski area which features one of the first cable cars ever built, dating back to 1928.
Heading further south we made our way towards the massive Hochschwab mountain, which dominates the area with its altitude of 2,277 metres. Dark clouds were now moving in on the horizon and soon the rocky limestone mountain was surrounded by an ominous dark sky. Shortly after the sluicegates of heaven opened up and we got caught in a downpour. We decided it was time for lunch and sat down on the outdoor patio of a restaurant which provided us with a great view of this Alpine peak.
Now hungry from our long excursion we had some typically Austrian meals: a Fritattensuppe (pan-cake strip soup), and a Wiener Schnitzel, the crispy breaded filet of pork that has become one of the hallmarks of Austrian cuisine. The restaurants garden featured mouflons (wild mountain sheep) and colourful ducks; this little zoo kept the tourists entertained.
After our hearty meal we continued our drive south into the mountain town of Aflenz, a popular spa town with about 1000 years of recorded history. We stopped briefly for some Austrian pastry at a local Konditorei (pastry shop) and walked into the Gothic-era church. Our drive continued further south to the town of Kapfenberg, a steel manufacturing town with a pretty city centre with a pedestrian zone.
Just above the city on a hill is the Fortress of Oberkapfenberg, a medieval castle that was first mentioned in historical records in the 12th century. The imposing thick-walled fortress underwent reconstructions in the 16th century to incorporate Renaissance architectural elements but started to fall into disrepair several hundred years ago. Finally in the 1950s the old fortress started to be rebuilt and was turned into a hotel. The fortress restaurant was opened in 1994 and today also features a predatory bird demonstration with eagles, vultures and falcons.
A local historical club uses the fortress to preserve history and knightly traditions in various performances. Annually a Witchs Night complete with a witches market, a witches fire and witches dance, clairvoyants and a fiery spectacle evokes medieval times. Various concerts, an arts and crafts market before Christmas and a Knights Festival keep the Middle Ages alive. A knights meal gives visitors a chance to experience medieval cuisine. Guests can even rent historic clothing and sit down in full medieval attire to enjoy the feast.
We were unlucky though, because on Mondays the fortresss restaurant is closed and we could not inspect this unique environment ourselves. The door to the terrace on the west hand side was open though, and we could enjoy a great view over the Mrz River Valley.
It was now getting dark and we had to make our way back to my home town. We chose to drive through the Mur Valley, one of the most important valleys in the Austrian town of Styria. Pretty towns like Pernegg or Frohnleiten are adjoining the river valley and make for popular destinations for local tourists. Other important local sites include the Drachenhhle bei Mixnitz (the Dragons Cave), a place where Paleolithic-age relics have been found. The nearby Brenschtzklamm, a steep rocky gorge featuring steep wooden ladders attached to sheer rocks, is very popular with hikers.
North of the provincial capital of Graz we turned left and drove back to my hometown and arrived just shortly before another thunderstorm started pelting the area with lemon-size hailstones. Exhausted from my full day of explorations I crashed into bed to rest up for another day of regional discoveries.
About the Author: Susanne Pacher is a Travel Journalist specializing in
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