It was Saint Steven's Day, exactly thirty years after Admonishing Lady first found me, and I intended to ride on a train heading towards where it happened. In fact, the train I was going to catch runs all the way there, but I didn't have time. Being a non-skier travelling with a group of skiers imposes limitations, not least of which was that I needed to be back by five to join them for war stories and the obligatory glühwein. But it seemed appropriate nonetheless, on a day when the skiers were going across the modern-day border in the direction of Admonishing Lady's birthplace, to travel a reasonable distance in the direction of where we first met. There was a famous Madonna to visit, and I would do it in style, in an observation car on a rack railway.
Astute readers will know by now that I'm talking about a place in or near the High Tirol again. I've carefully left out the place names for a reason that will become obvious if you read right to the end, but there's actually enough information between this page and the original Admonishing Lady piece for someone armed with a detailed gazetteer and train timetables to work it out. There's a difference between a tourist and an outsider who takes the trouble to understand.
I also had to leave the hotel at first light, so I had time to kill before my train left. I decided to walk out of town to a hillside chapel I'd found by accident on the first day. It's a fairly easy walk out of town - indeed there's a bus that serves the little village. I walked up through a gentle fall of fine snow turning the village and its surroundings into something so perfect that it belonged on a chocolate box.
Other buildings hide the chapel until the last minute; I only noticed it looking down from a much higher path. When I arrived, the place was deserted apart from an old lady waiting across the road for a bus. There were only a couple of candles in front of the Madonna, so I lit another one to cheer the place up a bit, sat quietly for a few minutes and then left to walk into town for my train. The lady at the bus stop hailed me and I wished her good morning in both local languages. Was I here skiing? She asked. Since I clearly didn't have skis or boots, the question translated roughly as "are you a terrorist or have you come to steal something from our church". As best I could, I reassured her, then her bus arrived and I set off for my train.
This is a hostile environment in the same way as, say, Scottish or Norwegian fishing areas. There's an uneasy mix between the economy depending on tourism and the fierce independence born of generations who had to live off the land. Just as a storm can wipe out three generations of a fishing family, so even today an avalanche can kill a local guide just as surely as an inexperienced walker and occasional rock falls do much worse: since I was last in the area, a whole village is just - not there any longer. In an area like this, it's very easy to be religious.
The observation car which proved to be the right choice. I sat back with my complimentary glass of the local bubbly as we descended about nine hundred meters to the valley floor. Watching the villages and alpine shrines go past, I felt very much at peace. Alone, yes, but much of the journey has been made alone, even when I've been in groups. Much of the journey can only be made alone.
The Madonna was indeed beautiful and I felt a sense of completion, of closure. I wanted to buy a figurine, an interpretation in the local modern woodcarving tradition, but the shop didn't open until long after my train left. I noted the phone number and later had the figurine delivered to my hotel. I was now regretting not taking the train all the way back to the beginning and staying overnight. But there was little time for regrets, and in the peace of the journey back I realised that although it would be nice to go back some day, doing it now would be an indulgence. There was red wine. I saved the bottle as a souvenir.
I'm very fond of alpine hill shrines. They don't carry a denominational message; instead they're reminiscent of memorials for disaster victims. In fact, archaeologists sometimes study the ad hoc shrines that build up when the general public wants to mourn victims of, say, a coach crash. They use them as models for understanding prehistoric burials. The imperative probably hasn't changed since humankind began to take care of the dead and in that context it's easy to imagine that this place is sacred simply because the mountain above it is a widowmaker. Where the long-forgotten spiritual leader of some tribe died crossing the high pass five or six thousand years ago became a cairn as the tribe used the same route year after year, then eventually a shrine and finally, much later, a chapel. A local grave-marker for someone who died in 1941 sums it up. The inscription reads simply "his life remains".
With ages before the skiers returned, I retired to the bar I staked out on the first night. It's usually easy to find the locals' bar in places like this. Wait until the ski lifts close and hit the one that's not full of skiers within twenty minutes. I had the usual struggle with the local dialect, but eventually managed to get a tab, a sure sign of acceptance. Everyone speaks English, but they want to see if you'll try. I played the local online lottery, one card every two or three draws. On this day, the only other player was the lady from the bus stop. She had a sequence of interlocking cards on each game, holding certain sets of numbers between draws. I made a small win and bought her a glass of wine. In return I learned that her name is Lisl. She asked me where I'm from. "Britain", I said. "English" she confirmed, winning the game because I didn't have enough local dialect to correct her without risking being rude. I let it pass rather than use English.
After half an hour I'd turned a set of crisp notes into a much smaller quantity of dog-eared small notes and coins. Lisl bought me a glass of the local firewater. I hate it, but drank it anyway. Obviously, this decided something for her.
There are "New Age" shops around here. They have crystal healing, getting in touch with your inner angel, and so on. But where a British or American shop would usually have something about becoming a solitary witch, there's nothing anywhere that Americans or British would recognise as any form of Wicca. Thee doesn't need to be. When the Catholic church arrived out here, it quietly took all the local sacred sites and festivals under its wing, changing almost nothing. That cairn on the high pass is now the official shrine of Our Lady of the Mountains. Tourist guides have a code for it. Occasionally you'll hear (but not see written down) the word "Celtic". It means "Catholic, but not necessarily Christian".
"Did I have an hour to spare?", Lisl asked. This was so unexpected that I had to process it slowly before I got it.
While I was thinking, she continued: "had I found the Ghost Walk?" That stumped me completely; so "no" seemed the safest option. I belatedly realised that the words don't translate exactly. Had I found the Spirit Way? The answer was still "noquot;. "Come.quot; she said. There are just times when it's best to just go with the flow.
We walked out of town. Next to a hotel Lisl turned along a tiny alley. I noticed some steps at the end and she started uphill without looking to see if I was following. We emerged into woodland. More steps, and a beautiful little shrine with various Madonna images all around it.
"No tourists come here" she said, retrieving and opening a plastic lunch-box containing offering candles, matches and a tobacco tin for money. I fumbled in my jacket for change but she beat me to it. ";This one's on me."; she said in idiomatic English. Once again, the test had been whether I was prepared to make the effort. (I later realised that tourists don't come here because the last fifty meters of the path is missing from the tourist maps.)
There was more. We headed up more steps and it turned out that the "Spirit Way" is actually the Stations of the Cross set into the mountainside. By "Jesus Falls for the First Time" I was sweating profusely with a pulse of about one-eighty. Lisl wasn't even breathing hard. At "Jesus is Nailed to the Cross" the land levelled out and Lisl slowed. I can take a hint - I was supposed to find thirteen for myself. Finally I spotted it, nestling against a house.
The Thirteenth Station of the Cross is special. Variously "Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross" or "Jesus' Body is Given to His Mother", the latter is usually an image of Mary holding the body across her lap, sometimes known as the "Pieta". If there's no separate Lady Chapel, there's often a candle-altar in front of this image.
I walked over to it and, embarrassed, reached for the little wine bottle. There were a few drips left, so I scattered them, looking like blood on the snow. Lisl obviously approved, gently pointing me towards the last station. I now realised where I was. We walked past fourteen and turned right between the houses and there was the little chapel. Where there were only a few candles, now the whole altar was ablaze. "My turn", I told her, buying one candle each. With some difficulty we squeezed them in, and left.
Lisl explained that there is a trail of cairns high up in the mountains, which lead to a pilgrim shrine, but the stations also count instead. She pointed to the top of a nearby mountain, then back at "Jesus is Laid in the Tomb" She didn't say "as above, so below". She didn't have to. She waved and disappears somewhere into the village. She knew I could find my way home.
Some parts of the journey must be made alone. But I've been grateful for many wonderful companions along the way.