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Mariazell to Hieflau

Maps: Österreich Die Generalkarte #2-scale 1:200,000.

From the pilgrimage town of Mariazell (about 65 km south of the Vienna-Salzburg Autobahn, exit St. Pölten), along the Salza river southwest to Hieflau, this peaceful drive is through Austria's least populated region.

The countryside is quietly spectacular. The road runs beneath limestone cliffs eroded into extraordinary formations and the ravine slopes are covered with green conifers and deciduous foliage that make this drive especially attractive in the fall. In places where the valley widens, the farms and grazing cattle seem like set pieces, perfectly placed on the broad meadow. The river runs so clear that, if you look closely, you will be able to see fish swimming from your moving car.

The few villages that comprise civilization along this road, such Weischelboden, Wildalpen, Palfau and Grossreifling are tiny and very quiet.

Though the drive is not at all difficult or dangerous, it is still a good idea to depart with a full fuel tank. And, as there are few restaurants along the way, but several lovely spots for picnics, you might also want to take your own food. With stops for sight-seeing and the picnic, figure on about three hours.

Mariazell, where you may wish to overnight, is where a Benedictine priory was founded in 1157 and Pope John Paul II said Mass on September 13, 1983. Inside the Basilica see the striking Chapel of Miracles and the Schatzkammer (Treasury) with its collection of the votive offerings of hundreds of years of pilgrims, from simple drawings by children to heirlooms of great value.