Hello From Austria – Going Back To My Roots (Part II)
My brother and sister-in-law had taken the next day off and we were planning an excursion further afield: our destination was a mountain peak called Mangart in Slovenia, located about a three-hour drive from my home town. The beauty of Central Europe is its diversity of landscapes and its small distances, and in just a few hours of driving through the Austrian province of Carinthia we arrived in Val Canale, an area where Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. Incidentally this is also the only area where the Germanic, Romance and Slavic language families come together right next to one another. We passed by the picturesque Predil Lake and continued our climb into the high mountains and crossed the Italian border into Slovenia.
But as it can be with the best laid plans of mice and men, our hiking trip to the Mangart Mountain was not to be: our car overheated and there was no way we were going to make it any further. We had to stop, let the car cool down and turn around to go back down the mountain. Fortunately, our disappointment did not last long since we came up with an alternate plan: we took the cable car up to Monte Lussari whose summit area features a tiny mountain village with a small pilgrimage church. An absolutely stunning 360 degree mountain vista opens up from the top of this mountain and we enjoyed a hearty lunch on the balcony of a rustic restaurant, taking in the phenomenal Alpine panorama.
On our way home we stopped in the town of Tarvisio, a border town that has benefited for a long time from the traffic between Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We stopped at the market, my brother picked up a few Italian delicatessen and we enjoyed our stroll through town. After our return in the late afternoon I embarked on a little local excursion and drove to the Teichalm – Sommeralm area close to my home town.
This region is now marketed as the “Almenland’, which literally means “Alpine meadow country”. The Tourism Region Sommeralm -Teichalm represents the largest contiguous high-altitude alpine meadow area in Europe. It features a lake, many hiking trails, ski lifts and phenomenal views into the surrounding countryside. In addition, the area is used as grazing pastures for hundreds of Alpine oxen, animals whose tender and tasty meat is prized highly by chefs and restaurant owners throughout the entire area.
Poor weather returned on Friday, so I spent a quiet day making visits to acquaintances and doing errands. The highlight of the day was a classical concert organized by the local Weiz Lions Club: a charity concert and fundraiser that featured musicians and an orchestra from AIMS, the American Institute of Musical Studies, a Graz-based organization that offers intense summer vocal, piano and music programs to international students, most of whom come from the United States.
We listened to pieces by Mozart, Strauss and Verdi and were thoroughly impressed by the young sopranos, tenors and musicians who put on an outstanding performance. The event even raised 15,000 Euros for the local charity. I interviewed several of the young music students after the concert and they were thoroughly enjoying their international exchange program and sure to return home with memories of a lifetime.
Finally, the sun had returned and my second last day in Austria was going to be gorgeous. My second photo safari through my home town resulted in several encounters with acquaintances whom I had not seen for more than 20 years. Old memories were stirred up even more when I connected with my school friends Klaudia and Doris. During our walk up to the local Weizberg we also had a celebrity connection: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mother, father and brother are buried in the Weiz cemetery. His parents lived in this town for many years, and his father was a local police officer.
Of course we reminisced about our high school adventures and after a scrumptious garden lunch we went to go hiking on the nearby Schöckel mountain. The Schöckel is the largest mountain in the region around Weiz and provides a phenomenal 360 degree panorama over the entire region. Southerly views extend into the Slovenian and Hungarian plains, and northerly vistas feature the high Alpine peaks of Northern Styria. To the east and to the west the scenic Styrian hill country opens up. The three of us climbed up the steepest portion of the mountain, securely equipped with our Nordic walking poles. Several restaurants offer refreshments and hearty Austrian food at the summit area, and high-speed excitement is provided by the summer tobogganing track that runs down the mountain, a nice adrenaline kick I just had to experience.
After our hike back down we stopped off at Doris’ house, a beautiful property in the countryside, that features a brand new pond and large garden. Doris even equipped us with delicious freshly picked peaches from her father’s orchards. Klaudia and I headed back to Weiz and an hour later we met up again for a backyard barbeque at my brother’s place. Klaudia’s entire family, her sister Andrea with daughters Nina and Katja as well as the two grandparents joined us for a delicious dinner that showcased my brother’s culinary skills in a multi-course feast.
My last full day in Austria had arrived and Ewald and Anneliese had planned a special outing: an excursion to one of Austria’s most famous fortresses – the Riegersburg. In existence for more than 850 years and located in the border region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, this impressive fortification has withstood many attacks from the east and was never conquered. It has often been referred to as the “strongest fortification of Christianity”, having successfully defended repeated attacks by Turks and Magyars.
With its numerous fortified gates, its unique location on an extinct volcanic cone, its extensive defensive walls, wooden drawbridges and moats, the Riegersburg is an authentic medieval fortress that has seen architectural additions from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. An exhibition in the fortress explains the historic era of the 16th and 17th century and sheds light on feudalism as well as two fascinating female characters who inhabited this fortress more than four centuries ago: Baroness von Galler and the “flower witch” Katharina Paldauf.
Our East Styrian tour continued through volcano country with a drive to Schloss Kapfenstein, another medieval fortress that has been expanded into a castle and today holds an upscale restaurant and hotel. This castle is also located on the extinct cone of a former volcano. We enjoyed a tasty lunch in the outdoor patio of the castle, against the gorgeous backdrop of the distant Carinthian and Slovenian Mountains.
My last evening in Austria was capped off with a visit to our friends Luis and Isabella, and all five of us enjoyed the late evening sun in their beautiful backyard. Luis even took me on a little motor scooter adventure around town. Back at Ewald’s place we spent a few more hours reminiscing until I had to pack my bags for my departure to the airport in Vienna Monday morning.
These nine days have been one of the most wonderful travel experiences in my life. They were greatly enhanced by my connections with family and friends, but in addition, my eyes were truly opened to travel opportunities in my birth region of Austria.
Styria, with its medieval cities, imposing churches, monasteries and fortresses offers a great variety of destinations to history and architecture lovers. Music, visual and performing arts are ever present, even in small communities. Outdoor lovers will find a whole smorgasbord of activities, from hiking to mountain biking, skiing, horseback riding, mountaineering, hang-gliding, river rafting and many other varied pastimes.
The diverse landscapes featuring fertile plains, rolling hills full of orchards and vineyards, high Alpine peaks and meadows, pristine rivers and scenic lakes enchant at every corner. And food, wine and beer lovers will definitely enjoy the diverse culinary offerings. In addition, Styria offers affordable prices and great value to international travelers. I realized my birth region is right up there at the top of any destinations I have visited in the last few years.
This trip truly opened my eyes to the astounding beauty and variety of the area where I was born, and even though Styria might not be as well known as other regions of Austria, my nine days back home were far too short and I already have a whole list of things to do and see next time I am over in the old country.