A Mountain Top Blessing

“Father Miroslav waved an arm over the peaks and pointed out how Creation really was a ‘jolly good thing’”

At Almmesse, traditional music is played in tradition garb, accompanied by wrap-around sunglasses | Photo: Christian Cummins

“How happy we are that we are here!” called out Father Miroslav. With his arms spread wide above the mountain-top altar he looked like a mountain eagle coasting on the alpine thermals. His rather beaky face made the image perfect, while his soft voice and Polish accent made the word ‘happy’ sound even happier.

And indeed the good priest was quite right! I was feeling thoroughly glücklich to be there on a sun-drenched expanse of Alpine pasture with several hundred other probably more pious souls at this so-called Almmesse – an improvised al fresco church service somewhere on border between Lower Austria and Styria.

However, I suspect dear Father Miroslav would have be shocked to know how distinctly unhappy I was feeling earlier that very day when my prospective in-laws dragged me out of bed at an hour that belonged more properly to ‘last night’. An Almmesse was apparently a ‘must see’ event that I would ‘certainly enjoy’. But even the cockerels must have been still soundly asleep, and I was sure that my summer cold was turning into something much more sinister and perhaps even newsworthy. I went as far as describing the hour of the departure as an ‘ungodly’ one.

My icy sulk slightly melted as the first sunbeams began lighting up the winding Ybbs valley. Slanting in at dramatically low angles, they highlighted the slates on the pointy red roofs of the Carthusian monastery at Gaming, they gave the dewy meadows a silvery glint and they brought out all the corrugated-intricacy of the eroded rock faces.

Still, I was determined not to enjoy myself. Slouching on the back-seat of car as the river Ybbs kept bustling away and we kept curving towards its source, I made sure everyone could hear as I rustled away with my packet of paracetamol pain-killers. I even kept up my efforts at grumpy indignation as we passed a series of exquisite wooden chalets whose carved balconies were exploding with geraniums. These, it was explained, were the lodges originally built by the Rothschilds, when a Habsburg Emperor gifted this land to the Jewish banking family in lieu of paying back the money he had borrowed to make unsuccessful wars.

And then, suddenly, the car swung around another curve to reveal Lake Erlach bathed in its early morning coat of mist. Half submerged under the vapor, a man was out rowing – either arriving from or heading to another world. It could well have been King Arthur busy pulling swords out of rocks. I forgot myself momentarily and let out a brief smile, and my girlfriend pinched me mockingly.

I wasn’t smiling when I realised that the car journey was to be followed by a 5km hike up a mountain track to our outdoor church. As this was the ‘real countryside,’ there were no chair-lifts in sight, and, sweating in the frosty morning air, I was by now absolutely sure that I had a fever. If (as everyone insisted) it couldn’t possibly be swine-flu, then it had to be something much worse. I informed my prospective family that I might well be needing that priest at the top of the hill.

But it was old people – legions of them in fact – all marching cheerfully up the switch-backed forest track who shamed me into good humour. I, a supposed endurance athlete, couldn’t let them overtake me, with or without H1N1!

The cows of the upper Alpine region | Photos: Christian Cummins

And no wonder they were cheerful! As veterans of many an Almmesse, the old folk must have known what lay around the next bend: the mountain rescue. Just as I felt near to collapse, we were confronted by a smiling ‘Bergrettung’ team which was finally living up to the true meaning of its name and handing around refreshing breakfast beers. True, I was at death’s door and might have abstained, but I reasoned that if these pensioners could drink it and climb mountains at dawn, then beer must have previously overlooked medicinal quality.

The boost pushed me onwards and upwards, eventually bursting out of the shade of the forest and into the warming glare of the sun-soaked pastureland, our destination, where the serene world of rural mountain-top tranquillity had exploded into a vivacious Alpine circus.

Everywhere you looked there were women in dirndls busily ‘Grüss Gott’ing with men in Alpine ‘Lederhosen’ trousers and impressive beards. A man with his hat at a jaunty angle was showing off with a six-foot long horn – boys will be boys. Beyond him a full brass band played music that managed somehow to be jolly and foreboding at the same time. The young ones looked incongruous in traditional garb and wrap-around sunglasses. Behind them, and not to be out-done, the cattle rang their bells; one of them forgetting this was a holy day and lewdly mounting a bovine friend.

This was fun! But there were tedious speeches to be got through, in which local mayors and politicians listed, in great detail, the amount of trees and fields and cows in the local area and then thanked each other long-windedly. I went to grab another medicinal beer and a restorative sausage from the tents that had been erected behind the congregation and when I came back a very little boy was ringing a very big cow bell to signal that Father Miroslav was ready to begin his service.

The priest was standing behind a simple folding-legged table and in front of a cross made of two branches, still in proud possession of their bark, tied together with bailing-string. It was easily the prettiest church I’ve ever seen.

The service was equally appealing: Father Miroslav waved an arm over the peaks of the Eastern Alps beyond the meadow and pointed out that basically Creation really was a jolly good thing, that we should endeavor to respect and look after it, that we really ought to be very grateful to be up here enjoying it, but we should keep in our minds that some people weren’t so unfortunate. Hear! Hear! Since the last time I had been in church, the vicar had given us a long exposé of the ills of the oil industry, big business and, in particular, the current government. I was all for the unaffected Father Miroslav and his recognition of the dividing line between church and state. I was also in favour of more apple-cheeked boys ringing giant cow bells in the ecclesiastical system.

The liturgy was broken up alternately by an earnest quartet of elderly bushy-browed men, who sang in moving harmonies, and by a troupe of tanned young women who sang to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Their low-cut, short-armed dirndl-dresses might have looked altogether too racy for a dour church down in the valley, I suppose, but up on the mountain top they looked like just another celebration of nature and the joy of sunshine.

And then it was over and we all shook hands and, post-blessing, you no longer had to get your beer surreptitiously but could now troop down with everyone else to the tents that were now overflowing with people and beer and Most (that potent drink of fermented pears that gave the region its name) and roast pork and sausages. The band now played music that was jolly without being foreboding and a thin-faced man enthusiastically danced pirouettes on the sloping ground with a hearty-looking woman who looked less enthusiastic while unsure how to stop this spinning now that she had started.

I decided that I probably wasn’t suffering from swine-flu, after all. Against all my better judgement, I was having a marvelous time.

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