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Hello from Austria – A Country Drive and How Determination and Willpower Can Move Mountains
Finally, after the rather rainy day yesterday I opened my curtains to an absolutely gorgeous day today. The lush green Alpine foothills and mountains surrounding Weiz were competing with the brilliant blue sky to catch my attention and naturally I had to get out on the road and explore. I started with a visit to the large pilgrimage church in my home town of Weiz. It is assumed that a church, more specifically a Roman basilica, was located on the hill above Weiz already around the middle of the 11th century. Due to poor lighting conditions inside the church, this building was remodeled several times, until in the mid 1700s a decision was finally made to replace the church with a new building. Construction on the new baroque style church began in 1757 and was finally completed in 1776.
The Weizbergkirche is a very imposing house of worship and was a well-known pilgrimage church, as early as the 12th century. It became a very popular pilgrimage destination in the 17th century, but since then the number of pilgrims has dropped substantially. It is the largest church in the district capital of Weiz, and a landmark that can be seen on virtually every postcard of my home town. I was particularly amazed when I walked inside the church and saw the renovated 18th century frescoes that are once again impressing visitors with their astounding colours and details since their recent renovation.
Directly in front of the church is an elevated plateau from where there is a great view over the town and the surrounding area. A sculpture called the “Balance Beam” reminds people of the transience of life. On the southern slopes of this hill is the cemetery of Weiz which features many graves going back several hundred years. One of the most famous graves in this cemetery belongs to Aurelia Schwarzenegger, mother of that most famous Austrian export: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I then hopped into my car and drove up to the next higher hill, the so-called “Landscha”, which also overlooks the town and has been a very popular residential area for decades due to its great views. The top of the plateau features a forest and agricultural fields and is a popular destination for joggers and bicyclists. From here I drove into the forest and turned eastwards into a mountain valley called Ponigl.
Just a few minutes outside of town, this area is nevertheless very rural, remote and agricultural. Various farms, some centuries old, are dotted throughout the countryside and still actively involved in agriculture, be it growing corn or raising cattle. The valley ends in a dead end and only forest roads and hiking trails will take you up into the surrounding mountains. One area close by is known as the “Galgenwald” (Gallow’s Forest), an area where local criminals were hanged until a couple of centuries ago. Many legends surround this area and to this day there is an area that features three stone columns that were used a long time ago for executions by the regional court.
Past the quaint village of Oberdorf I continued to my next destination: Schloss Thannhausen (the Castle of Thannhausen), an extensive country estate that was originally mentioned as early as 1177. The current version of the castle was constructed in Renaissance style in the 1500s and features a stunning inner courtyard with rounded-arch arcades. On a regular basis this courtyard is used for concerts and provides a perfect backdrop for musical enjoyment.
After a quick drive back and through the town I headed into the “Weizklamm” (the Weiz River Gorge), a steep incision into the surrounding limestone rocks that drop vertically down to the Weizbach. Interestingly, a main regional road has been built into the rocks and is so narrow in some parts that is impossible for two vehicles to pass each other.
I filmed the entire 2.5 km drive through the Weizklamm and quite often I had to stop and let one of the many transport trucks that frequent this road pass. Mirrors in the corners help drivers see whether there is traffic approaching, and the locals are very used to driving on this narrow road in between the rocks. On top of the rock cliffs there is a hiking trail called the “Jägersteig” (Hunter’s Trail) which provides great views over the surrounding mountains and the gorge.
Past the gorge there is a fork in the road: on the left side you will reach the country village of Passail, and on the right side you continue beside the river to a small hamlet called Schmied in der Weiz. I turned right and decided to take a steep country road up to the mountain village of St. Kathrein am Offenegg, a popular tourist destination with several hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts.
St. Kathrein offers many hiking trails, an educational forest trail, a publicly accessible herb garden as well as skiing in the winter. Settled already in Celtic-Nordic times, German settlers moved into the area in the 11th century. A church was mentioned as early as 1295 and the current church was modified and enlarged several times over the centuries. I walked around and into this small country church which is surrounded by a cemetery and offers a beautiful view westwards towards the Passail Basin.
After a lovely lunch at my friend Andrea’s place, her whole family and I embarked on another adventure: a guided tour of the “Katerloch”, a limestone cave that features the largest number of dripstones in all of Austria. Following a beautiful 15 minute drive through serene rolling hills surrounding the hamlet of Dürntal we arrived at the entrance of the cave.
A group of about 20 or 25 people was already waiting, and the owner of the cave, a young man by the name of Fritz Geissler, was ready to take us on our guided tour. At 30 Euros, the guided tour is not exactly an inexpensive venture, but Fritz explained to us that the upkeep of the cave is costly and the price acts as an important filter that keeps out undesirable visitors who might not have a real interest in this natural wonder. His concerns are justified since over the last decades visitors have done considerable damage to the cave and broken off dripstones to take home as a souvenir.
We started to congregate at the entrance of the cave and Fritz explained that the name of the cave “Katerloch” is composed of the term “Eulenkater” (a male owl) and “Loch” (hole), indicating that owls inhabit this cavern and regularly fly in and out of the cave, particularly from fall to spring. Right at the entrance we saw a limestone stone column that measured 22 meters in height with a circumference of 46 meters. Fritz would lead the way and the crowd would follow single file on the narrow pathways and steep metal ladders that connect the different sections of the cave.
Fritz explained that the former owners and explorers of the cave were a married couple by the name of Hermann and Regine Hofer. The couple had arrived from out of town at the cave in 1951 after an extended honeymoon and settled to modernize another limestone cave nearby – the “Grasslhöhle”. With admission revenues from the other cave, Hermann and Regine Hofer were able to pay for the exploration of their beloved Katerloch which became their life-long project. Between the years 1952 and 1955 the couple discovered different portions of the cave, started to excavate tunnels and connection points and initiated the electrification of the cave.
Fritz told us about the tedious, backbreaking and cumbersome work that was involved in making this cave accessible to the public. Each of the 400 concrete steps leading 135 metres down into the mountain had to be hand-built and the cement had to be carried in by the bucket through narrow passageways. New openings into other caverns were detected by means of candlelight whose flickering indicated that there was air movement and a potential connection into another, as yet undiscovered part of the cave.
The cave consists of several portions: right beside the entrance is the so-called “Marteldome”, a 45 m deep vertical shaft that the couple initially used to access the cave. Another large cavernous space is the “Fantasiehalle” (Hall of Phantasy), a space with a length of 120 metes, a width of 85 metres and a height of 15 metres, which features a great variety of interestingly shaped dripstones. Fritz Geissler pointed out limestone corals; delicate white and coloured limestone curtains, and stalagmites and stalactites that were in various stages of growing together until they form fully connected columns.
He explained that the age of the stones varies widely, some of the younger ones could be tens of thousands of years old, while the older massive columns would date back many millions of years. Fritz Geissler mentioned that Hermann Hofer often said that “1000 human years are but a single second in the life of this cave”, a comment that will certainly put our daily human concerns and worries into a broader perspective. Our guide also pointed out bones of a cave bear, an extinct mammal species about 30% bigger than the Brown Bear which became extinct after the last ice age about 20,000 years ago. Large colonies of bats still inhabit this cave.
In 1955 Hermann and Regine Hofer finally discovered the “Zauberreich” (Enchanted Kingdom), a cavern that features an entire selection of magical royalty-inspired limestone structures, including a king, a queen, some knights and even a royal lapdog. Not far away is a huge ice-cream shaped limestone cone whose story is also fascinating: Fritz Geissler elaborated that a wealthy American man once wanted to buy the mighty dripstone, proposed to pay a huge sum of money for it and to drill a vertical tunnel straight through the mountain to extricate the dripstone. But the cave’s owners, Hermann and Regine Hofer, both deeply religious and modest people, not surprisingly rejected the generous offer out of hand. The integrity of the cave was more important to them than material gain.
We still continued our walk downwards and finally reached the deepest part of the publicly accessible portion of the cave: the “Seenparadies” (Lake Paradise), an underground lake and a truly magical sight. A turquoise-green iridescent water surface is punctuated by alabaster-white stalagmites and stalactites, surrounded by stunning vertical walls. Our entire group stopped to take in this breathtaking subterranean lake paradise. We had reached the deepest part of the tour, 135 m below the cave’s entrance and after absorbing this enchanted environment we made our way back up to the surface the same way we came in.
Our underground adventure had taken about two hours, and on the way up Fritz Geissler told us more about the eccentric yet determined couple that explored this cave and made it accessible to the public. The key phrase he used was that “determination and willpower can literally move mountains”, and Hermann and Regine Hofer’s tenacity led to the discovery of new sections of the cave and it was only their backbreaking excavation work and their construction of the ladders and pathways that made it possible for regular people to visit and enjoy the cave.
The Hofers provided public tours of the cave from the 1960s to the 1980s but then closed the cave since visitors were causing so much damage. Fritz Geissler had been one of the visitors of the cave and offered his help to Hermann Hofer in maintaining the cave. His mentor accepted his help and from this point forward Fritz Geissler became Hermann Hofer’s apprentice. In his later years (Hermann Hofer passed away in 2003 at the age of 95), he was looked after by our guide Fritz Geissler and decided to pass his life’s passion, the Katerloch, on to the much younger man who was honoured to continue the legacy.
After extensive renovations in 2004 the Katerloch was finally opened to the public again, and Fritz Geissler’s indepth knowledge and highly developed speaking skills have been making his cave tours a special attraction in the whole region. I had a chance to interview this remarkable young man afterwards and he also mentioned that he is now offering a mental strength training program that integrates the cave experience into the training sessions. Our entire group was quite taken with our cave adventure and the enthusiastic and informative presentation of our guide, and many people lingered for a while to chat and connect.
The visit to the Katerloch was the perfect introduction to my planned hike tomorrow: a hike though the adjoining Raabklamm, a deep river gorge which is framed by the very mountains that hold these caves. So after a tasty barbecue at my friends Andrea and Herbert’s place that featured delicious pork chops and a young kitten chasing a pet rabbit, I rested up for a big hiking tour tomorrow.
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