Austria, I have written about the largest city in a previous post, the visceral way that your senses are assaulted by the landscape surrounding, the sights, smells, sounds. Rural Austria is different, you move from the cities into sleepiness, into houses and towns perched precariously on mountaintops that seem impossibly steep and you wonder at the sanity of those who build there. Castles crop up on mountaintops, growing from the hillside like ancient sentries keeping watch on the valley below.
We spend our time exploring old cities, castles, hikes.
We are camped in a valley near the town of Marau, a small old town which we wander through one sunny afternoon. Walking along the river we come across a statue of a woman with two cat heads. She is called “Queen of the Cat’s” and we have to laugh as T dressed as Queen of all the kitty cats for halloween. T’s excitement at seeing this statue, personification of what T wants to be, delighted T and the day was spent in joy.
We see huts staggered up the hillside, their journey cumulating at a church at the top. We decide to investigate further and discover it is a stations of the cross hike and we hike the trail answering Z’s barrage of religious questions. Religion, which doesn’t play a role in our lives, fascinates Z and we are steeped in reminders of it in Europe. Roadside Jesus, shrines to Mary, stations of the cross, cathedrals, churches, crosses everywhere. Europe’s Christian history assaults us from all side and we respectfully answer Z’s questions, trying to avoid our biases in the process to allow her to form her own thoughts. Derek sings “roadside Jesus” every time we pass a roadside shrine and it has become like a game of who can spot the shrines as we drive along.
The city park in Marau is amazing, with a full ropes course and waterworks set up for the children to play in. This is a city park, free, we have only seen such wonderful play area’s in for cost children’s museums in the States. The kids are thrilled and we spend a couple hours playing in the park.
We spend a day in Vienna, and the next day the rain descends on the valley. We mull what to do and hop in the car, hoping to stumble on something interesting. Entering a small town, we see signs for a rock museum, right up our alley, and we stop. We enter what seems to be someone’s basement below a restaurant. Pictures line the walls of rock hunting in Brazil and we pay a meagre amount to enter. The rocks are interesting, and as always, it is great to see rocks in raw form as it helps us identify them in the field. We chat with one of the owners and she shows us the garden outback. It is filled with gemstones on pedestals, a rock pool to wade in, and different textured paths to walk barefoot. She practices energetic healing and we chat a bit about that. In her museum we had spotted large garnets, and we asked about where to find them, she mentions a local mountain and we head off in the pouring rain. We get soaked looking, and find nothing but oversized snails and the damp cold of the mountainside.
Moving on to our next campsite, it is busier, a little more run down. When I try to picture it in my mind, it draws a blank, it is the only place we have stayed which I can’t visualize when I try, and I wonder why that is? We are near the border with Germany and we wish to see a medieval silver mine, Neuschwanstein Castle and do some hiking while here.
We had read about the silver mine in Schwaz before leaving. It is a medieval silver mine made in the 1500’s to mine silver and copper out of the mountain. This is one of the coolest things we have done. You are taken into the mountain on a train which you are warned not to lean out of or move in once moving, we soon find out why as the train whisks us deep underground! The tunnel narrows around us so tight on all sides, that I feel I must duck. There is no chance of photos as we are whisked along, as pulling out the camera would result in a shattered arm. Eventually we stop in a chamber and climb out to participate in a wonderful tour of the mines. We leave Schwaz after the tour and spend the rest of the day exploring the town of Innsbruck, drinking coffee and eating icecream in the square.
Neuschwanstein is a new castle, built in the 1800’s, not really my style. I like castles old, decrepit and falling into ruin among the trees and grasses of a mountainside. This day I’m to experience both, to see the contrast of old and new. We visit the new castle, and there is not much to say about it other than it was beautiful inside, and the king who built it was insane and died under suspicious circumstances (Ludwig II). We leave via horse and carriage which makes Z feel like a princess in a fairy tale.
On the way in we had spotted some castles high on a hillside with a long suspension bridge connecting them. I just had to stop, the castles called to me, the suspension bridge called to me… though in hindsight I’m not sure what I was thinking, as I’m afraid of heights. We climbed the steep mountainside to Ehrenburg castle and explored ruins signed with “Explore at your own risk! Danger!” which made T squeal with delight at the danger of it all.
The worlds largest pedestrian suspension bridge connects Ehrenburg with Fort Claudia and the kids are jumping in excitement to cross. I get to the entrance and pause, remembering my deathly fear of heights. T takes my hand and starts across “Where did her fear of heights go?” I wonder, as it seems to have disappeared. I feel faint and nauseous and try not to pass out as I cross. I leave Z and Derek far behind in my rush to get off the bridge and debate hiking down instead of recrossing at the end. Z meanwhile is laying on the bridge on her tummy taking pictures of the cars on the highway zooming far below. We explore Fort Claudia and I find some hidden courage and recross with the rest of my family, it wasn’t as bad the second time!
We decide to hike the very steep trail up to the last fort which is situated high on a mountain. We only brought one water bottle and we are out of water, it is hot, Z protests at being made to hike further, but we persist and head up the steep narrow trail. She whines the whole way as T gallops ahead like a goat. Reaching the top Derek finds a drink vending machine among the ruins and we laugh at the absurdity of it and with relief. We are relieved when he finds a 2 E coin among his change and share a drink. Z is now delighted by the view and forgets the misery of the climb as she scampers among the ruins and looks at the valley below.
The next day, our 27 degree sunshine has disappeared, we again awake to cold rain. The temperature has dropped to 7 and we don warm clothes in order to hike a gorge fitted with a catwalk. After much searching through the mountains we find a trailhead and gear up under the shelter of a roadside Jesus. We are grateful for the shelter the shrine provides us. Scampering down the cliffside we find a catwalk hanging precariously off the sides of the gorge above a raging torrent below. I am not afraid, somehow, the nearness to the cliff face affords some secret security that dangling in midair above a highway did not and I am fine walking along the gorge face. We find that the trails in Germany and Austria are often adorned with things that make them more interesting for children, this hike was no different. Signs with fables litter the trail and activities such as a gong that echoes down the canyon when rung and a mirror that reflects the light down the canyon are every few hundred meters. The kids rush ahead to see what they can find on the trail. A spirit of the gorge hoots out of a cave as we pass, and T spends much time sitting outside the cave trying to figure out what is making the hooting sound. We are soaked when we return to the car and roadside Jesus, we huddle under the shelter and change into dry clothes as cars drive past.
Austria is wonderful, magical, beautiful. The scenery imprints on my mind and I am reminded of places at home and in North America; however, at home there are no castles, the hillsides are more tame and the magic which we find in these valleys and mountainsides, exists in a different way, or not at all. I am left wishing we had more time here, and it is a place I know I will return. There is much undiscovered which I wish to see and someday I will be back again.