Euro2008 Tour, Part IX: Seefelder Joch and St Oswald's Church, Austria
A paraglider prepares to leap off the face of Hammelekopf, Seefeld, Austria
A paraglider prepares to leap off the face of Hammelekopf, Seefeld, Austria

After nearly two weeks in the coolness and unsettled weather of Seefeld, our alpine sojourn was nearly over. On our final day in this beautiful community, we decided to ascend the mountains, riding cable cars to the peaks that stand above Seefeld. As I mentioned in an earlier installment of this series, most people ascend the Rosshutte on the funicular railway. Chairlifts also run up the slopes, but these do not operate in the off-season. At the Rosshutte base station, we purchased an “Adventure Pass,” which allows us to ride the funicular to the midway point, and then take cable cars to two separate points: the top of Seefelder Joch, the lowest of the three main peaks, and to the Hammelekopf cable car station.

Although we arrived early, we did not beat the other hikers and sightseers; a crowd poured aboard the funicular rail car, sardine-packing us against the vehicle's tin walls. With a lurch, we crawled into motion, grinding up the slope I'd hiked two days before. A five minute ride and we emerged, blinking in the cooler air of the Rosshutte midway station.

We decided to continue our ascent by taking the cable car to the top of Seefelder Joch. The attraction of Seefelder Joch is that it is the jumping off point for the next highest peak (Seefelder Spitze, elevation 2,220 meters). Mary's infallible guidebook claims that this trail is a short, easy 45 minute walk, suitable for children and blind people with seeing eye dogs. It is always prudent to suffer pain before relaxation, so we chose the climb before visiting Hammelekopf.

Cable car to the top of Seefelder Joch
Cable car to the top of Seefelder Joch

Unfortunately, the red cable car that conveys hikers to Seefelder Joch only accommodated twelve passengers at a time, so we were forced to stand in a line, slow-baking beneath the sun, for thirty minutes as the cable car swung up and down the mountainside. Now here is a question: what is it about humans that makes them expect that the closer they stand to a departure point, the sooner they will go? Simple math would suggest that if you stand in a line, from whose head twelve people are taken at eight minute intervals, you will not board the cable car any quicker if the line is five meters long or spaced out to a comfortable twenty meters. But try to tell this to the great thundering herd. As I stood in the cable car line, overeager tourists pressed against my back, jostling and thumping me for the entire stand. It defies logic and reason.

Ah well, at last our cable car arrived and we soared like a great red condor up the slope, dangling and swaying from a thin, overstretched length of steel cable. It was exhilarating, although some members of the expedition team did not share my exultation.

At the top of Seefelder Joch we took a few minutes to admire the view, and then began the hike south to Seefelder Spitze. The gravel trail was drawn across a ridge that joined the two mountains, occasionally bordered by steep precipices on either side. But, like a troupe of mountain goats, or blind people guided by trusty German Shepherds, we scampered up the slope, stopping only for the occasional photo.

The trail to Seefelder Spitze
The trail to Seefelder Spitze

The guidebook's time estimate proved surprisingly accurate, and soon we were perched at the foot of the cross that marks the summit of Seefelder Spitze. On this bright sunny day, we had good views in every direction, and for the first time on this trip, it felt like summer had arrived. To the south of our position, Reither Spitze, the highest peak in this mountain range, beckoned invitingly. I had half an urge to press on for it, but it was an hour-and-three-quarter walk on a trail that was marked blue and black (difficult) on the map.

A view from the top
A view from the top

We retraced our steps, descending to Seefelder Joch. We soared back down the mountainside on the cable car, and returned to the Rosshutte midway station. It was time for a small refreshment: free cake and coffee (part of our ticket price) in the midway restaurant.

The other cable car crosses to Hammelekopf, a point midway up the side of Reither Spitze. The attraction of this ride is that rather than following a ski slope up (as the first cable car did), the Hammelekopf cable car swings across a great abyss, 200 meters above the Hermannstal valley. It is, as the brochure claims, just like flying.

Flight operations, Hammelekopf
Flight operations, Hammelekopf

We flew over the valley floor, high above the pine trees and ice-shattered rocks below. When we reached Hammelekopf, we found, to our great delight, paragliders setting up and jumping off the cliff. With a thirty minute wait before our return trip, we had ample time to spread out on the grass and watch the flight operations.

A paraglider soars off the face of Hammelekopf
A paraglider soars off the face of Hammelekopf

Back across the valley to the Rosshutte midway station, and then down the funicular to the base station. A quick stop at home for a glass of water, and then on to the second big attraction of the day: the Seefeld Antiques Market. About this, the less said by me, the better. There are two types of people in the world, those who can mill around in the hot sun looking at bits of junk pried out of people's attics, and those who have neither the time nor the patience for this activity. While the rest of the team (persons of the type one persuasion) went off to sort through the treasures, I (person type two) sought refuge in Seefeld's parish church.

St Oswald's Parish Church, Seefeld, Austria
St Oswald's Parish Church, Seefeld, Austria

This was incredibly fortuitous; had I not been dodging the junk-sifting expedition, I might have missed a fascinating bit of history, one that I had overlooked for two weeks. Evidently, the parish church, St Oswald's, was the site of the Miracle of the Host. In 1384, a local knight named Oswald Milser approached the priest after Mass with a strange request. He wanted the priest to give him the large, consecrated host (bread) that is usually reserved for the priest and clergy, rather than the small portions of the host normally offered to the laity. Milser was an arrogant young man, and he felt that sharing the same host as the townspeople was beneath him. When the priest refused, Milser drew his sword and threatened to speed the poor cleric's passage to the next world.

The priest, quaking in his cassock, handed over the larger host. But when Oswald put it in his mouth, the ground beneath his feet liquefied and he began to sink into the floor. Terror-stricken, he grabbed the altar which became soft, like wax. His clutching, desperate fingers sank into the surface of the stone, leaving imprints that can still be seen to this day. As he slowly slipped into the floor, he begged the priest to remove the bread from his mouth. When the priest extracted the blood-stained host from his mouth, the floor and altar reverted to stone and Oswald was able to clamber out of the hole.

Interior, St Oswald's Church, Seefeld, Austria
Interior, St Oswald's Church, Seefeld, Austria

The chastened Oswald checked himself into the monastery of Stams, where he spent his last years offering penitence for his impudent pride. On his death, he was buried outside the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. News of the miraculous event spread quickly, and the church became a popular pilgrimage site.

St Oswald's church was not named after the proud knight, Oswald Milser, but rather, the British (Northumbrian) King Oswald. I have been thinking a lot about St Oswald recently, as he played an important part in the early history of British Christianity. King Oswald was the monarch who brought St Aidan from Iona to establish a missionary outpost on the island of Lindisfarne. This Oswald, who, by all rights should be the patron saint of England, never received as much honor at home as he did abroad, as suggested by the presence of a church dedicated to him here on the Seefeldian plain.

St Oswald's is a beautiful Roman Catholic church, which mixes bare stretches of whitewashed simplicity with pockets of golden opulence. I was particularly impressed by the high altar, which glows at the eastern end of the church, radiating light from parallel rows of stained glass windows.

The miraculous altar sits in front of the high altar. At first I was unable to find Oswald's hand print. There are two distinct elements to the altar: a short conglomerate of mixed stone, and a new, modern altar built over the top of it. Once I realized that the grating in the floor covered a pit (where Oswald sank), the rest became self-explanatory. The hand print is not in the side of the old altar (where I had been searching) but on the top of it (which is partially covered by the altar cloth hanging from the newer altar). Sure enough, indentations that appear to have come from a hand are pressed into the stone surface. I wanted to take a picture of it, but decided that moving things around on the altar might earn the ire of the ladies arranging flowers at the front of the church. Consequently, gentle reader, you will just have to believe me when I report that there are marks pressed into the top of the old altar.

The miraculous altar, St Oswald's Church, Seefeld, Austria
The miraculous altar, St Oswald's Church, Seefeld, Austria

The sacred host itself, still bloodstained from Oswald's mouth, is kept in a monstrance in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, up a flight of stairs from the main level of the church. Once again a great iron grating blocked the entrance to the chapel, so I pushed my lens into the enclosure and fired off a couple of shots. This was not successful. I could not see the monstrance from where I stood, but I have no reason to believe it is not there somewhere.

St Oswald's is a lovely church and well worth a visit. I am surprised that I left it so late in our stay. It was one of those places that I kept intending to visit, feeling that I still had time left to enjoy it. But I was wrong. We were out of time in Seefeld, and we spent our last evening inside. We washed clothes, attempted to decipher Austrian TV, and mentally girded ourselves for the next ten days on bicycles, our trip down the Danube to Vienna.

Seefeld has been good to us and we have been good in Seefeld. In the past two weeks we've been able to make a break from the routines of our old life. We've had the chance to spend hours each day together (rather than minutes) and, having stripped away all the external distractions (friends, work, outside activities), we are coming together as a unit of four. This sort of trip is a bit like joining a monastic order: the hardest thing is learning to live in close contact with your brothers, sixteen hours a day, for the rest of your life. Both monasteries and three month expeditions offer nowhere to hide.

Two weeks of hiking and unaccustomed exertion at altitude have also toughened us up a bit. Just as European football teams train in the higher altitude of Seefeld, we too have become a little fitter. Hopefully this “training” will benefit us all as we head off on bicycles, and then just push on through hot weather and what may prove to be rather taxing travel.

So I am very grateful for this lovely two week interlude in Seefeld, a wonderful place. I leave it as they say, with tears in my eyes. Perhaps someday we shall return.

Seefeld, Austria
Seefeld, Austria
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Copyright, 2017 Richard J. Goodrich