A Driving Tour to the Semmering Mountain and the Pilgrimage Town of Mariazell
We continued on our drive through this remote mountain valley to the town of Mariazell, Austria’s 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 magnificent Basilica of Mariazell
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 Bürgeralpe mountain is a popular ski area which features one of the first cable cars ever built, dating back to 1928.
The main square of Mariazell
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.
Dark clouds loom over the Hochschwab Mountain
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 restaurant’s garden featured mouflons (wild mountain sheep) and colourful ducks; this little zoo kept the tourists entertained.
One of my favourite Austrian dishes: a Wiener Schnitzel
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.
Stone figure above the entrance to the parish church of Aflenz
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.
The medieval castle of Oberkapfenberg
A local historical club uses the fortress to preserve history and knightly traditions in various performances. Annually a Witch’s 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.
Stone steps leading to the castle’s patio
We were unlucky though, because on Mondays the fortress’s 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 Mürz 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 Drachenhöhle bei Mixnitz (the Dragon’s Cave), a place where Paleolithic-age relics have been found. The nearby Bärenschützklamm, a steep rocky gorge featuring steep wooden ladders attached to sheer rocks, is very popular with hikers.
Medieval art inside the castle fortress
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.