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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.