On our 2005 trip to Switzerland, we discovered the joys of ‘civilized’ hiking! By that, we mean, a ride to the top of a mountain via a funicular or gondola, and hiking around, to the next valley and down another train …. but not before wandering across a quaint hut selling yoghurt or absolutely the freshest cheese imaginable, or coming ‘round the bend to find a full-scale restaurant, or sitting down to peach cake and beer in a guesthouse plopped right in the middle of a meadow.
Friends here in Austria had told us of places like this in Austria (that is, in most of the country) where huts for food and resting were available in the alms (or meadows) of the high peaks. (Hiking ways and guesthouses are also available in the areas that are necessarily mountainous.) We had hoped to be able to do a real trek to one of these higher destinations, or between several, but have simply run out of time! So, one weekend, we did the next best thing: we went to the Schöckl, a popular recreational peak 1400 m. above sea level, and about a half-hour away from Graz (ele. 365 m.). It is known, somewhat jokingly, as Graz’ ‘Hausberg’.
If really good maps of the area exist we couldn’t find any, but downloaded something from the internet. Our plan was to take the funicular up and hike down. After a bus ride from Graz to St. Radegund bei Graz, we found ourselves at the funicular station. Everyone disembarked and immediately headed to the bakery counter in the lobby where they loaded up on honey buns and cinnamon rolls. We decided to wait to get something at the top!
Three restaurants appeared at the top along with a playground, a bobsled-like ride, communication towers, and gorgeous scenery. We figured we’d hike around the top and then try to find the correct route down. There were several routes – one basically straight down, and others that ran more around the mountain. The latter is what we were aiming for – not too steep but not too long a hike, either, plus we wanted to end up in the same town where we started.
At the top we found a curious structure, a wooden platform of some kind. We asked some other hikers about this (auf Deutsch) and they explained (in English) that it was the take-off platform for the hang-gliders. Now that we know something about, except if this were in the US, it would be surrounded with big “danger” signs, or maybe a locked fence. We could hardly believe how close some of the hikers (and their children) came to the edge!
We struck up a conversation with the men. As with every Austrian we have met, they were interested in what we were doing here, (assuming we were on holiday). We, of course, were interested right back in finding out about them! They wondered if we wanted to have a bite to eat or drink in one of the small seasonal huts. Naturlich! This hut was not an ‘established’ restaurant, but the family who ran it had permission to operate because they also summered their cattle on the mountain.
We shared the table with the people already inside, who were having cold ‘buschenshank’ type food, or toasts, or cake. Our new friends ordered hot tea with schnapps, which was another new experience for us!
At the end of our snack, Florian and Rudolf asked if we wanted to walk down with them and catch a ride back to Graz. It was, they said, only a hike of about 1 ½ hours. (point to note: these men were quite physically fit!) For most of the way, it was basically straight down, over rocky terrain, or through woods.
I am not sure we ever would have found whatever trail we had intended to take, as there were a lot of signs pointing in many directions, but to us, the numbering system was not all that clear. On the way down, we had a great discussion of Austrian and US politics, school systems, and the general state of affairs in the world. Both Florian and his dad were articulate and well-traveled, with a good deal of knowledge of current events beyond their own borders! We find this often in Europe and wonder how many Americans can claim the same? We learned more about how the forests in Austria are managed: and that while there is ‘state’ ownership, a great deal is privately owned, by individual farmers, or ‘clubs’ and the Roman Catholic church! This conversation was also great because it took my mind off the fact that my left big toe was being hammered against my hiking boot. (yes, I am going to lose the nail, now. Time for new hiking boots!)
Our flat was on the way to theirs but the first stop was a rural guesthouse not too far from us, that we didn’t know existed. It was Father’s Day in Austria (a week before the USA celebration of the same) so they stopped to pick up some “to-go” desserts from the guesthouse bakery. Naturally we had to do the same! The best part of that? The warm vanilla cream sauce sent home in a jar! Most often you see vanilliesauce served with apfelstrudel, but they gave us so much we ended up using for days on every possible food we ate!
One of the pleasures of our Austrian sojourn has been seeing the beautiful scenery – the villages tucked away in lush valleys and surrounded by towering peaks. But even more memorable are the connections we’ve made – heart to heart and mind to mind – and the generous, spontaneous hospitality of the Austrian people.
I hope that one day, as Arnold said, ‘we’ll be back.’