The Styrian countryside, in Austria's "green province" is known for its unspoiled nature, scenic roads, and good food. This month we sample a little of each.
When the Pope John Paul II traveled to Austria in 1983, he visited only two places: Vienna and Mariazell. While everyone knows Austria's capital city, not many have heard about this little town in the Styrian mountains. So, what does the pope know that others don't?
Actually, Mariazell has been a magnet for travelers since the 14th century, when it gained a reputation as a pilgrimage site, an inspirational function that it still serves today.
Founded in 1157 by Monk Magnus of the Benedictine order of St. Lambrecht, Mariazell was originally just a wooden hut sheltering a small limewood statue of the Virgin Mary and Child. Legend says that on his way to building this hut in the middle of nowhere, Magnus came upon a large rock blocking his path through the narrow mountain pass. He prayed to Virgin Mary and suddenly the rock split open, enabling him to continue. When he arrived at what is now Mariazell, he built his hut and began to minister to shepherds in the region. The years went on and the little hut somehow grew to a full-fledged pilgrimage site, attracting even the region's royalty, among them, King Louis I of Hungary and Margrave Henry of Moravia.
Louis I made a pilgrimage to Mariazell after a vision of Mary helped him defeat a Turkish army twice the size of his own. Henry of Moravia had a more personal problem—gout. In a dream he was visited by the Bohemian King Wenceslaus of Christmas song fame. The Good King told Henry he would be cured if he asked Mary for help. If she did then Henry was to promise to make a pilgrimage to Mariazell and build a church in her honor. Henry's gout was cured and, as promised, he departed for Mariazell. Unfortunately, he forgot to bring a map and got lost. Ever the Good King, Wenceslaus appeared again and showed him the way. Once in Mariazell, he donated money and plans for a basilica.
With the good word and gratitude of the Hungarian and Czech nobles, the reputation of Mariazell spread over the Danube region. Even today, one hears visitors speaking almost as much Hungarian, Polish, Czech or Slovak, as German. Some of the side chapels inside the church are especially revered by the former lands of Imperial Austria.
The most famous of these is the Laudislav chapel, not because of the saint, but because it once held the grave of Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, a resolute anti-Nazi and anti-communist. The cardinal was the primate of Hungary from 1945 to 1975. He had the distinction of being imprisoned by the both the Nazis and the Communists, but was finally released during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, after which he fled abroad. He lived in exile until his death in 1975 when, according to his wishes, he was buried here in this chapel, awaiting the day when "the red star of Moscow" no longer flew over his own country. In 1991, Mindszenty's body was transferred to its final resting place in the cathedral in Esztergom, Hungary.
The focal and spiritual center of the basilica remains the small limewood statue of the Virgin Mary and Child that Monk Magnus brought almost a millennium ago. This modest icon is dressed in ornate clothing for all but two days in the year and is housed in an elaborate gold and silver chapel donated by Empress Maria Theresa, thanking Mary for blessing her and her husband with 16 children (thereby making possible a vast number of wedding alliances).
The basilica itself is an attractive and somewhat eclectic building, with two onion-domed baroque towers respectfully flanking a commanding Gothic spire. Market stalls ring the exterior gates, hawking religious and tourist items—worthy descendants of their centuries-old predecessors.
Besides the basilica, Mariazell is famous for its gingerbread, mead and an assortment of Schnapps. When the bees aren't making honey for the mead or gingerbread, they also make wax for candles and religious relief sculptures. The best-known company is Pirker, whose products can be purchased all over town, though the best place is their store in the Mariazellerhof on Grazer Strasse.
Pirker also has an attractive turn-of-the-19th-century coffeehouse, which serves good food (from light snacks to large Schnitzels) and desserts. Original offerings include the beer mixed with mead. You can also watch - and smell - the gingerbread being made in the glass walled kitchen. It comes in an incredible assortment: cookies, cakes, heart-shaped, dipped in chocolate, frosted—the list could go on and on.
Pilgrims and wayfaring strangers have a number of hotels to choose from, but friendly service and an historical atmosphere make this one of our two top choices in Mariazell.
* Daily Rates: Singles 500-750 ATS ($32-$49), doubles 800-1300 ATS ($52-$85).
* Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
Gemütlichkeit's first visit to the cozy Brauhaus Mariazell (formerly Zum Alten Brauhaus) located just off the town square, no more than a couple of hundred yards from the church was in 1986. Then we paid $39 for our double room with bath and $11 each for an excellent dinner of Jägerrostbraten (pan-fried beef), soup and dessert. The place is a better bargain now than it was 14 years ago.
There are just three rooms but all have the necessary conveniences. The best of them is the "brewmaster's room" which rents for from 410 to 550 ATS ($27-$36) per person. The Girrer's offer a weekend package for this room which includes all meals, a tour of the little brewery and all the beer you can drink for 1985 ATS ($129) per person.
The simple restaurant which specializes in hearty Styrian dishes attracts many locals and the made-on-the-premises beer is very good. Little English is spoken, but the Girrer family couldn't be more accommodating.
* Daily Rates: Singles 410 to 550 ATS ($27-$36), doubles 820 to 1100 ($54-$72) per person
* Contact: Brauhaus Mariazell, Wienerstraße 5, A-8630 Mariazell, tel. +43/03882/2523, fax 2523 8.
* Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
In addition to the Brauhaus Mariazell, a good place to eat is the Golden Löwe (Wienerstrasse 1). The Goldene Krone (Grazer Strasse 1) also has a good reputation for authentic Styrian cuisine. Recommended dishes include anything with pumpkin or the Wurzelfleisch—boiled pork with root vegetables and topped with shredded horseradish. For pastries and coffee, try Mariazellerhof (Grazer Strasse 10).
As charming and historic as it is, there are a several good reasons for continuing your trip, as I did, beyond Mariazell to the small town of Turnau, about 22 miles south on highway 20. First, there is Wirtshaus Steirereck, a country restaurant considered the best in Styria and a bargain to boot. Another reason might be to spend the night in one of several farmhouses that are part of a program called Urlaub ins Bauerhof, an association of Austrian farmhouse hotels. And, of course, there is the dramatic scenery along the way.
After Mariazell, highway 20 winds through a pleasant river valley before starting up a short climb and then cresting over the dramatic slopes of the Hochschwab mountain. Then it switches steeply downward until finally alighting on the Seegraben river valley, 200 meters below.
Turnau is on a "yellow road" just east of highway 20 and Steirereck is located on a pretty wooded hill outside of town, in a village called Pogusch, though I didn't see any other buildings except the restaurant and a neighboring farmhouse. The restaurant itself is quite a sight: a cluster of traditional farm buildings joined together and surrounded by a rustic breakfast shed and a welter of barns housing chickens, goats, cows, and pigs.
However, the most distinctive characteristic of the Wirtshaus is hyper-reality. This is no rural restaurant hidden in a simple farmhouse. Instead, it is an ersatz farmhouse masking an energetic and slightly over-the-top gourmet restaurant. In many ways, it reminded of a Thomas Hart Benton painting: exaggerated rural elements that are part fun-house and part art.
Its success can be measured even from the parking lot; a sea of BMWs and Mercedes from all corners of Austria. An entranceway poster promotes the most dramatic way to arrive - in a rented helicopter from Bad Vslau near Vienna.
Wirtshaus Steirereck was opened by the Reitbauers, the same family that owns Vienna's much-acclaimed Restairamt Steirereck. The country operation is more of a family affair, where the owners are seen organizing tables and seating guests. Another pleasant difference is that prices are half what one pays in Vienna, where a four-course menu is 980 ATS ($64) vs. 480 ATS ($31) here.
One of the first things a visitor notices is that the Wirtshaus seems to scatter its wine cellar throughout the dining rooms. Bottles line tables in every nook and cranny, and guests are encouraged to wander around and pick their own. The extensive selection encompasses the world, providing an interesting diversion whether or not you are waiting for your table. There is also a selection of eight open wines, four reds and four whites, served by the glass, and a small pamphlet listing an abundant selection of schnapps, complete with ratings.
For a starter, I chose the pumpkin ravioli with sautéed goose liver (148 ATS); pureed pumpkin drizzled over large, butterfly pasta as opposed to stuffed inside, with seared, slightly dry, goose liver arranged throughout. As one of the restaurant's signature dishes, it was a little disappointing, good but not great.
A main course of rolled venison steaks in a reduction sauce laced with Sanddorn berries and a separate serving of gnocci (188 ATS), however, was very good, especially the tender, succulent inner part of the roll, which contrasted well with the mildly sour berries.
Dessert consisted of roasted pears filled with caramel sauce, spiked with a vanilla bean and served with a dollop of elderberry sorbet (78 ATS/$5).
A second meal the following day, eaten at the spacious glass-covered bar, which provides a food-lovers vantage point from which one can see all the creations coming from the kitchen, and even glimpses of the kitchen itself, was much more successful. Goose soup, served with a slice of crisp toast spread with pate and perched on three pear cubes, was a fine beginning. A main course of oxen steak with red and black peppercorns and caramelized onions on a bed of sliced pumpkin was elevated by the slightly sweet and utterly delicious reduction sauce.
Those not in the mood for a big dessert might instead choose a cappuccino which, according to the extremely talky menu, is made from the finest dark-roasted Arabica beans from India, Brazil and Indonesia.
Our bottom line on Steirereck is that it offers a charmingly relaxed food-lovers atmosphere, excellent prices and food that is a little better than we first thought.
* Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
This charming rural hotel is located on a little slope below a church. It consists of a cluster of small bungalows next to an attractive timbered building lined with balconies and sprays of geraniums. The best rooms are Number 2 and Number 12. The first is compact and traditional, shaped by the slope of the roof, and complete with a small balcony and kitchenette. Number 12 is referred to as the "romantic room," with a wooden canopied bed, sleek furnishings and modern luxuries such as a whirlpool bath and CD player.
* Daily Rates: Singles 295-325 ATS ($19-$21), doubles 590-650 ATS ($38-$42) with breakfast; the romantic room is 1300 ATS ($85) for two.
* Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
Located at the end of the quiet road that passes through the pastoral, prosaically-named valley of Thal (which means "valley" in German), this farmhouse offers two "romantic rooms" similar to those at the pension listed above, although the furnishings here were made by the owner's son, who is a carpenter.
Regular rooms are also nice, with balconies, parquet floors and sparkling baths—more like a three or four-star hotel—than a rural farmhouse. There is also a barn full of animals, wonderful views (especially from the romantic rooms), a small museum of farm implements, and a playground for children. Book in advance as the 11 rooms are generally filled on weekends.
* Daily Rates: Single 230-300 ATS, double 460-600 ATS with breakfast; the romantic room is 1000 ATS for two.
* Contact: Pichler-Hof, Margarete and Willibald Rechberger, Thal 22, tel/fax +43/03863/2394.
* Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
A good alternative if the Pichler-Hof is full.
* Daily Rates: Single 220-300 ATS, 440-600 double ATS with breakfast.
* Contact: Johann and Silvia Illmaier, Thal 11, tel/fax +43/03863/2392
* Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Notes on Turnau
With the opening of the restaurant, and the subsequent deluge of wealthy visitors, the town has gone to great lengths to give its well-heeled guests something to do while not eating. One popular activity is the Bründlweg, a circular 3.5 hour hiking trail that passes farmhouses selling home-made natural products such as schnapps, apple juice, and meats. Turnau also has a pretty church, on a hill overlooking town.
Travelers from Turnau heading north on Highway 20 toward Mariazell may want to stop at the Dullwitz Seethal, a valley in the Hochswab, near Seewiesen. I had not felt like hiking with the ostentatious on the Bründlweg and had heard that this was a nice hiking valley at the foot of the range. The rocky peaks were lovely, especially after such a pleasurable meal. The trail is long enough to hike for a full day, but is rewarding enough from the beginning, so you can walk just as long as you want to.
By Douglas Linton