“The difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is this: A tourist has expectations. Pilgrims accept surprises.” Christa Englinger, who is a “pilgrim guide for beginners“, beams at us. She and her colleague Yvonne Simek, of the Mostviertel Lower Austrian Tourism Board, warmly welcome us to the first stop on our pilgrim journey across the Mostviertel district, the Hödrichsmühle hotel in Hinterbrühl in the Vienna Forests. Full of enthusiasm, she fills us in on the great accounts of the history and tradition of pilgrimage, starting with early Christianity and ending with modern-day pilgrims in the 21st century. Our own goal is fairly ambitious here: In just under four days, my travel blogging colleagues Hubert Mayer, Oliver Zwahlen, Tanja Klindworth, Monika Baum & I want to walk all the way to the famous Austrian pilgrimage site of Mariazell, some 120 kilometres away. Walk, yes walk. Along the Via Sacra, the “holy pilgrim trail” running across the Lower Austrian Mostviertel district, at the foothills of the Alps and way into the mountains at last. To tell you a little bit more about how we all feel about this, please follow the hashtag #BloggerPilgern live on Social Media!
At the beginning there was … the word.
“I wish you lots of clarity”, is what a dear friend and colleague of mine writes to me on the day before starting our pilgrimage. Well, it might not have been “entirely clear” to all of us what the first section of more than 30 kilometres walking would, or could entail. Yes, we would walk it, soaking up the landscape, listening to our very own thoughts about pilgrimage and have a good time chatting and sharing with our friends, most certainly. Says the inner voice in me, positive and bright as usual.
At the end there was … a thought saying, “Are we really able to do this?!”
Yes. In between an euphoric “Let’s do this!” after leaving the Hödrichsmühle hotel at 08.00 in the morning and an equally heartfelt “I can’t do this any longer!” are no miracles, but those very 30 kilometres I have already talked about – involving ten long hours of pilgrimage and some rest in between. Dear readers, what a journey … ! Despite all the blisters on our feet, and limbs screaming in protest towards the end of the day, I shall still say to you: Do it! Embrace it! Take on the surprises along the way!
To become a pilgrim is pure and utter madness. Inside out, it is a profound and astonishing sensation with the potential to change you forever.
To be a pilgrim is great food for thought – and for the soul. Besides the purely physical element of active hiking in the magic Mostviertel alpine upland (and no, dear Tanja, these are no mountains yet 😉 ), a pilgrimage involves so much more. First of all, (spiritual) company and moral support: Where would we have ended, I wonder, without the kind guidance and support provided by our pilgrim guide Ernst, who not only knew where to go and when, but also tell a story or two about the great pilgrimage sites along the way? Only as we urged him to confirm, after some 20 odd kilometres, that it would “not be far, nor too steep anymore”, did he become more quiet: Ernst is just way too polite to tell us that we still had to hold on for a while.! Oh dear. This leads me to another dimension of pilgrimage: Emotional awareness and thoughts about perseverance. To be honest, we are actually “baby pilgrims” here, walking only with a light daypack (the remainder of our luggage being transported from one hotel to the next each day!), yet still we first had to clear many anxious thoughts about becoming active pilgrims. In the morning of the first day, I find myself still chatting away happily with Monika in full physical, mental and spiritual harmony, whereas towards the end of the day we only manage some laughter and great self-irony at our desolate physics. This too though, can become part of the experience – especially if you enjoy laughing full-heartedly and with tears in your eyes! There is nothing left to do anyway, we simply had to continue on our pilgrim trail! This trail that has already been walked by so many pilgrims before us. What have their thoughts been like? Which stories did they carry with them? Setting out as a pilgrim brings you closer to God’s energy, life as I call it in its purest, most beautiful and intense form. I feel honoured, blessed and yes also surprised, by the beauty of walking in this green forest land during the wonderful Austrian summertime.
Right at the end of Pilgrim Day 1 is … A blissful state of peace of mind.
Finally, we do settle into a rhythm, the last section filling us with new energy where we thought none was left. Exhausted, but overcome with happiness and joy, we reach our final destination of Kleinmariazell after 32 extraordinary kilometres. Here, we are welcomed by the team of the Via Sacra Hotel & Restaurant “Kirchenwirt”. Change of clothes, finally. Out of these shoes! Shower. Dinner. So tired. Feeling happy, light and dizzy at the same time. The absence of thoughts is what strikes me the most: Empty, my mind has just been cleared from all its thoughts during this walk. That is a beautiful feeling, and one we have come to appreciate less and less in those busy days and life of ours. Yes, my dear friends, I do see some of that clarity even towards the end of Day 1: When your body sings and your mind finally has nothing left to add, then it is time for the soul to smile and shine bright.
Let’s see what else this pilgrimage will bring – #BloggerPilgern. 😀
Disclaimer: We have been invited by Mostviertel Tourismus to go on this pilgrimage along the Via Sacra to Mariazell. All opinions are my own.