One cannot imagine Styria, Austria's "green" province, more lovely than in late October when we made the drive from the pilgrimage town of Mariazell along the Salza river to Hieflau. (These are tiny towns; to find them on a map note that Mariazell is straight north of Bruck an der Mur and lies at the center of the triangle formed by Linz, Graz and Vienna. Hieflau is southwest of Mariazell and about 44 kilometers east of Liezen.)
The countryside is quietly spectacular. The river runs so clear that we were able to see fish swimming—from our moving car. (Underground water from this region is gathered and piped to Vienna to be used as the city's drinking water.)
Below the limestone cliffs, eroded into extraordinary formations, the ravine slopes are covered with green conifers and—during our visit—deciduous foliage in fall colors. The reds, browns and yellows among the dark green timber, all standing out in sharp relief from the grey rock, provide wondrous scenery. Where the valley widens it almost seems the farms and grazing cattle are set pieces, carefully chosen and perfectly placed on the broad meadow. The driving itself is not as dramatic. The road is well maintained and, except in one or two spots, not especially narrow or steep.
The drive from Mariazell to Hieflau has a serene quality about it, due no doubt to the lack of traffic and habitation. We traveled at lunchtime and the tiny villages that comprise civilization along this road, Weischelboden, Wildalpen, Palfau and Grossreifling, seemed deserted. No cars or people moved, stores were locked. The feeling was of being far off the beaten track. As we wandered near a small but tidy cemetery by the road we wondered what a week's stay in one of these hamlets would be like. If you find out, let us know.
Regardless of the direction one travels this road, our recommendation is to overnight at Mariazell, either beginning or ending the journey there. The attraction is a quiet little town whose focal point is the Gothic church built in the 14th century, then expanded and refurbished a couple of hundred years later.
Physically and spiritually, the village is built around this church. In the more than 800 years between the founding of a Benedictine priory here in 1157 and Pope John Paul II''s visit and Mass at the Basilica on September 13, 1983, this simple town became one of Europe's most popular destinations for pilgrims. They came to venerate the Madonna of Mariazell.
The Basilica is a lovely country church built on a slope slightly above the town square. Its front steps look toward the Hochswab mountains (the eastern beginnings of the Alps), the Salza Valley and the start of the road to Hieflau. For a better view, a cable car leaves frequently from the center of town to the Bügeralpe.
Inside is the striking Chapel of Miracles, built in the center of the church as a sanctuary for the statue of the Virgin of Mariazell, and its massive silver grill, a gift from Empress Maria Theresa.
Go up one flight of stairs to the Schatzkammer (Treasury) and browse through a most unusual collection of the votive offerings of hundreds of years of pilgrims. These gifts to the Virgin range from simple drawings by children to heirlooms of great value. One offering, a display of three related items, remains in our memory: an old photograph of a smiling girl about six years-old, an x-ray showing a round object lodged in a small stomach and, finally, the actual coin, removed—successfully it is presumed—from the girl's stomach.
Recommended Mariazell Hotel
We are not aware of any luxury accommodations in Mariazell, only plain but comfortable Austrian country hotels. We chose the cozy Brauhaus Mariazell, just off the town square, no more than a couple of hundred yards from the church. The friendly restaurant/tap-room is literally in the "lobby" of this little inn where one can usually find a handful of locals in traditional grey and green Styrian dress, mugs in hand. There are just two sleeping rooms but both are charming and have the necessary conveniences. The "waterbed suite" rents for around $95 per night and the more traditional "brewmaster's room" goes for about $50 double.
The drive is about 50 miles. Allow three hours for sightseeing and picture-taking stops. As with any Yellow Roads drive, you will need a detailed map. Use the Österreich Die Generalkarte #2 with a scale of 1 to 200,000; one centimeter equals two kilometers. These maps carry the official stamp of the Austrian Automobile-Motorcycle Touring Club and can be purchased in Austria for about $6.00 at book-stores and many service stations.
We also recommend the Michelin Green Guide for Austria. It gives this automobile journey two stars. Why they withheld the third is a mystery; perhaps they haven't been there in autumn.
The journey is through some of the most uninhabited country in Austria. In this case, uninhabited is a relative term. Along most country backroads in this part of the world there is a town or village every four or five kilometers. Only in that sense is this area "uninhabited;" it is not uninhabited in the same way as the Texas panhandle. Therefore, you may wish to take one or two simple precautions:
- Fill your fuel tank at Mariazell or Hieflau. There are few places to do so along the way.
- Purchase food and drink for a picnic lunch before setting out. We saw few restaurants, but several lovely spots for picnics.
Though yellow is the color map makers used to mark most of the narrow, country roads of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, this tour is over a road marked in red, meaning a federal road "with priority." We take that to mean a highway repaired and cleared of snow before a federal road "without priority." Nevertheless, the journey from Mariazell to Hieflau in the Austrian province of Styria is unarguably over sleepy backroads.