Vienna to Mariazell

A Backroads Drive

Visitors these days can still take the old pilgrimage routes on foot, though it takes a few days. Most modern pilgrims arrive by car, on a scenic, two-hour drive from Vienna. Better still, the trip can be stretched into a relaxed weekend or two-day trip, taking advantage of this lovely part Austria.

As with many good drives, there is as much to see and do en route, as there is at the destination. The centuries old pilgrimage route has been embellished with a number of religious sites and churches that make the drive a pleasure.

Leave Vienna on the A1 and drive to St. Pölten, the capital of Lower Austria. From there take the south exit and drive highway 20 to Lilienfeld, where a lovely 13th-century Benedictine abbey is set in a small valley along the meandering Traisen River. The abbey was founded by the Badenburgs, the royal predecessors to the Habsburgs. Especially attractive is the abbey's church, with its serene Gothic columns and plain white walls providing a muted frame for large, ornate altars made of gilded black marble.

To this point the scenery is not particularly interesting, but after Lilienfeld the countryside, and its history, starts to reveal itself. Here, the traveler begins to see some of the religious shrines that have cropped up. They range from simple columns with stone lanterns on top to small churches and chapels. The first is on the edge of Lilienfeld; a hill with ornate statuary detailing the stations of the cross. Just past Turnitz is a small 18th-century baroque chapel near a sheltered relief carving and a monument with seven fountains. The area is quite scenic: wooded slopes along the river valley rise up and begin to cradle the road before suddenly inclining steeply up to the town of Annaberg.

Perched on a mountain pass, Annaberg gets its name from its 13th century copper-domed church dedicated to the mother of Mary. The interior should be seen, especially the gilded Gothic altar, carved in the 17th century. Also, there is a lovely view of the other side of the pass looking out to the 1893 meter-high ötscher, the largest peak in the area.

After leaving Annaberg, the road continues through a number of small villages. The next pilgrim church is in Joachimsberg, to the left just off Highway 20. You will cross a small stream (you can sometimes see enormous trout sleeping in the clear water under the bridge) and up a steep narrow road to the top of a little hill. Here the tiny wood-shingled church sits amidst a cluster of small houses and across from a horse riding school. The church is not much more than an enclosed apse with a pointy spire but it has an attractive Baroque altar.

The village road will continue through town and back to the main road. The next stop is Josephsberg, with a church of similar size to the previous town, and then Sankt Sebastian, the final spot before Mariazell.

December 2000/January 2001