Nestled between mountains in the North Styrian Alps lies the small town of Mariazell. With approximately 3000 inhabitants, you may think that having to drive through valleys and around mountains to get to it, the town would be relatively unknown and easy to miss. You would also be wrong.
Mariazell as a settlement probably dates back to the Celtic peoples due to names of local geographical features. Certainly, the Romans were active in this area around the turn of the millennium. The first true mention of a town of Mariazell comes from a document dating to 21 December 1157. It is considered the date of its establishment as a permanent settlement (although it may have been permanently settled at an earlier period and just confirmed on this date). It was this year that monks brought a lime-tree wood statue of the Virgin Mary to Mariazell. They also created the first chapel (hence the name ‘Maria in a cell (monk’s chapel)’ or Mariazell).
Mariazell quickly became a place for pilgrimages. Due to this, it was often the target of invading Ottoman Empire troops who burned down the church and settlement several times. In addition to invading troops (especially the Ottomans and the French during the Coalition Wars), fire has almost completely consumed Mariazell a number of times during its history. The inhabitants rebuilt and modernised every time.
Modern-day Mariazell actually dates from 1983 when most of the town received a facelift; several areas were either completely redesigned or expanded (in the case of parks). This coincided with the visit of Pope John Paul II.
The Mariazell Basilica is the main tourist draw to the town. Originally built as a chapel in 1157, it has gone through many renovations and periods of rebuilding due to fire or destruction by invading troops. Today, Mariazell Basilica stands tall over the town, a combination Gothic-Baroque basilica that dwarfs everything around it.
Why is the Basilica here? The answer actually has three parts steeped in legends. In 1157, when a monk was sent to administrate the area, his path was blocked by a large rock. He set his figurine of Maria down on the rock and the rock broke. Taking this as a sign, he settled nearby, cut a tree down and built a chapel/living quarter building for himself where the Cathedral stands now. The second legend concerns the miracle of Henry Margrave of Moravia and his wife. She had severe gout, made a pilgrimage to Mariazell and built the first stone church around 1200. The last legend is from the Hungarian King Ludwig I and his battle against a larger/superior Turkish army, which he defeated. He saw in a dream that he should build a Gothic church and place riches from his campaign there.
The basilica today is white and red marble stones. Impressive paintings and murals adorn the walls and ceilings and statues occupy the various naves. It is definitely easy to see why the cathedral was expanded; it also is no wonder that the basilica receives over 1 million visitors per year and is one of the most visited sites in Austria.
The basilica still functions as a Catholic church and has services throughout the week. If you want to attend a mass, information is available both at the basilica and on their website.
Pirkers Lebkuchen HQ in Mariazell
The Basilica is not the only thing that Mariazell is known for. One of the most well-known names in the Ginger Bread industry, Pirkers, also has an outpost in Mariazell which produces its famous Lebkuchen for pilgrims to the basilica. Pirkers started in Vienna in 1846 and expanded several times, including to Mariazell in 1970. In 1990 they expanded again in Mariazell, opening a shop and show bakery in the main square in Mariazell. Today many people flock to the café and shop for a respite while visiting Mariazell. Many others also take guided tours (scroll to Prikers guided tours) of the facilities where bakers and makers show visitors how they make their gingerbread, candles and mead.
Another attraction of Mariazell also comes from the 1800s (1883 to be exact). When pilgrims came to the basilica, they would often have health issues; they often wanted to be cured. During their pilgrimage, they would often be malnourished and suffering from a variety ailments of the gastrointestinal tract. Magenlikör (literal translation from German: stomach liquor) is made from 33 herbs. It helped to calm their stomachs. For the past 130 years, Mariazell and Magenlilör have become synonyms; the recipe has not changed for that entire time. Today there are three types of Magenlikör, the original, a sugar-free version, and a lighter version with fewer herbs (and a lighter taste). A tour of the facility is possible for groups of 15 or more but you do have to climb stairs. You can find more information on their website (only in German).
If you visit Austria between the end of November and late December, don’t miss the Christmas Markets! The same is true of Mariazell, which hosts a Christmas market (Austrian: Cristkindlmarkt) boasting lots of wonderful food, including Spätzle (a type of pasta made with eggs with lots cheese and ham/bacon, vegetarian versions remove the ham/bacon), Baumkuchen (a split cake) and Glühwein (mulled wine). You can also buy Christmas present for anyone you haven’t been able to buy for yet! Many of the products are from the valley or its close surroundings and the range means you will find something for someone.
In addition to the stalls that are there every weekend, the Christkindlmarkt also hosts events, such as carol singing from local choirs and candle lighting. More German tradition events include a Krampus run. For the uninitiated, Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon figure who punishes children for misbehaving throughout the entire year (the opposite of St. Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa who rewards good children). In Mariazell over 100 Krampuses run through the crowds with firecrackers, scaring those who are unaware of what is to come. They also (gently) attack members of the crowd (all in good fun of course).
My recommendation for Mariazell, it is definitely a place to visit, especially in December. But don’t just take my word for it; see for yourself!