I have a bad habit of roaming, especially when in mostly-safe foreign countries. In the early morning or in the evening, if traffic and weather permit, I’ll head out from the hotel or inn pointed in some random direction. Maybe there’s a quasi-castle-like thing I can see at the end of the road, or a church tower peeking out of trees on a ridge. Or I’ll hear an intriguing sound and go wandering around the castle grounds to discover the local aerobatic practice box and sit on a bench among roses and specimen trees watching someone practice for an aerobatic competition. (In a Zlin. It was in the Czech Republic, of course it was a Zlin.) Or I’ll find Roman bits and an intriguing hint about a Hausberg hidden among the trees.
The hotel in Graz was actually outside of the old city, in a newer suburb that had once been a separate town south of the main urban area. It was not a bad place, although the roaming opportunities were a touch limited. The summer heat also put a limit on my meandering. It’s one thing to stroll on a back street or rural road (or sidewalk), poking my nose around corners. It is another to play dodge-car with a cinderblock wall on one side and a busy street on the other, having to cut through parking lots because there’s no sidewalk. With the midsummer sun beating down on you and no wind and humidity of 60%. For normal people, 60% humidity is considered ideal. I tend to wilt.
But, on a day when we’d done more driving than walking, a cold front passed through. It actually blew through while we were in the old city, swirling dust and newspapers and chasing everyone out of the central platz. On the up side it provided a good excuse for spending more time in museums. The front charged across Austria with a goodly head of speed, especially for European weather, and by the evening the temps had dropped to comfortable with a nice breeze and no more thunder. So I decided to go exploring. I headed out the driveway, around a corner, up a block, and then back toward the east, starting a stiff slog up hill. And up, and up, and around, and up, and up.
The hill, actually a seriously tilted ridge, has about a 15 degree slope in spots. The cemetery on the hill is a set of terraces with gravel walks between rows of stone-lidded graves. Across the road was a church that I decided to save for the return trip. After pausing to pant and let a car go by, and to dodge a skateboarder coming around the blind curve, I opted to go along the road behind (above) the cemetery and farther up the ridge, into the woods.
Trees covered the ridge from the level of the cemetery up to the crest. Farther east, the leafy trees crept down until they met hay meadows about half-way up the slope. My east-west ridge intersected a north-south ridge probably a kilometer or two to the east, although I did not get that far. I walked along, panting and listening for cars. The sun had not set yet, but twilight would be underway soon, and I assumed that drivers would not be looking for pedestrians plodding along the edge of the blacktop, lane-and-a-half-wide road. The shade felt good but a bit of breeze would have been even nicer. The trees blocked the wind.
A few hundred meters east of the end of the cemetery, I found a trail crossing the road and a notice board with information about a hiking trail and the ridge. It seems the ridge had been a place of refuge, where everyone had fled and hidden at various points in time. It was the town’s “Hausberg” or community mountain, and there were ruins in the woods and a small chapel on the crest. (I should add that I would find Hausbergs and chapels in other places, including where we stayed near Klagenfurt.) A trail through the wood, with markers, led to the ruins. After a bit of thought, I opted to try the trail.
It was cool and damp in the woods. The heavy green canopy shut out more of the sun, as I discovered, and let the soil stay very nice and moist, even muddy. No, I was not wearing mud shoes. And the trail markers were keyed to a booklet that I did not have. But the hike was pleasant, and quiet, and traced back and forth up the ridge.
However, remember what I said about twilight? I’m in the woods as the sun is going down, without a map or flashlight, in unfamiliar territory, with no one aware of where I am. After almost tripping on tree roots for the third time, I decided to call it a day and worked my way back down the ridge to the church. The site had been a church going back to the 700s or so according to a small sign, although I suspect the actual date is a bit later. The outside of the church was your basic white plastered cruciform with an onion-dome steeple and some bits of Gothic (or Neo-gothic) trim here and there. And Roman funeral plaques stuck on the wall. I stopped, blinked, and peered up at the shapes. Yes, there was a round stone piece with a person on it. The figure, maybe female, wore Roman-style robes. Another plaque had three men on it, again all in Roman dress. I could not see what was left of the inscriptions, but you can imagine that I got excited. According to the guide-book, no Roman stuff had been found in this area. Now, I freely admit that someone could have found the markers farther north or east (or south) and hauled them back for some reason, but I suspect these came from within a few kilometers of the ridge, if not closer. Remember what I said about it being a place of refuge? I would not be the least surprised if, in some archaeological salvage report, there is a description of a Roman villa rustica or road villa. The ridge is not that far from the river and the Amber Road, the ancient trade route from the Baltic to the Adriatic.
The inside of the church was interesting because of the odd bits tucked here and there, including a walled-off doorway on the north side. It looked like what I would call a royal door, one reserved for special occasions and high-ranking individuals (like the one at Worms that caused the mess in the Nibelungenlied). The pews were old-fashioned and hard, and a small organ perched in the loft. The community cared for the church, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly fancy. I sang a few notes to test the acoustics. Not bad, although I suspect the organ would overpower the space. I thought I found another very old bit of stone, but in the dim light I could not tell if it was Roman, Romanesque, or just worn.
By the time I got back to the hotel I had walked off my excess energy, had answered my question, and had caught glimpses of a lovely sunset. It was definitely worth the roam.
I do that from time to time. One very special time for me was when we spent the night in St. Croix de las Rassas, in the Swiss Jura. I woke up early and began walking. There was a light fog along the upper part of the valley, and as I left the hotel, I turned left and walked up the hill. I hadn’t gone very far (100-200 meters) when I entered an apple orchard. It was late May, and the apples were all in bloom. I walked up above the orchard as the fog lifted, and I could see the entire valley below me. Gorgeous in the sunrise!
“For normal people, 60% humidity is considered ideal.”
Maybe at 55 Fahrenheit. Or maybe I’m not normal.