Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 29, 2023
We and the ÖBB
The story you are about to read is true. Only the names have not been changed because, well, you know who they are anyway.
It was Wednesday, September 20, 2023 - a beautiful blue-sky day in Payerbach, Austria, a village of 2,000 inhabitants about 50 miles southwest of Vienna and nestled in mountains.
Husband Art, friends Deb and Lou, and I had slept in. We had left our homes in Kansas some 40 hours before. Two car trips and three plane flights had taken their toll. But the beautiful old home we rented that once had been the summer place of some well-to-do local rejuvenated our spirits. The surrounding tree-covered hillsides also helped. A sprint to the grocery store followed, then a supper of odds and ends preceded falling into bed to sleep the sleep of the dead.
But 12 hours of rest hadn't completely restored us. What to do? We needed to find something almost effortless, yet satisfying.
Art had a suggestion. Sitting on the balcony the previous afternoon, he had noted a train working its way up the side of the mountain to the west. A little research revealed those rails had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Laid betwenn 1848 and 1854, they were part of the first standard-gauge railroad in all of Europe. The 20 percent grades in a mountain setting might provide some grand views while appealing to my love of history. The price for the one-hour trip to Semmering and back was about $10 per person. We could stop in the village, look about, grab a bite to eat, and then return. It was just the ticket!
We made our way to the Payerbach Bahnhof. The ÖBB - Österreichische Bundesbahnen or Austrian Federal Railway - station was a modern facility and the parking was free. Out front was an old steam engine suitable for picture taking. This adventure just kept getting better!
Until it didn't. The station was "manned" only by a ticket vending machine. It "spoke" English, but with directions that were confusing, to say the least. Our plan was to get on the 13:53 train. As we pondered the machine's confusing propositions, time slipped away and so did the train. We resigned ourselves to buying tickets for the the 15:53 journey.
We passed the time until the later train replenishing our larder at a nearby grocery store.
We returned to the station at 15:48 - 5 minutes before the departure time. As we walked to the platform, our train departed!
Another train pointed in the opposite direction idled before us. Art spoke with the conductor. The young woman tried her best to ignore what had just happened and shouldn't have happened by suggesting we get on her train and ride to Weiner Neustadt. There we could catch another train heading in our desired direction - a train that did not stop in Payerbach.
We had few options. We'd get more ride for the money, but shadows in the valleys come early in the mountains and so the spectacular scenery would be a tad less spectacular.
In Wiener Neustadt, we left the train from Payerbach, crossed to Platform 4, and hopped on the train heading toward Semmering. Its ultimate destination was Graz, 80 miles away.
All went well.
Until it didn't! When we walked to the nearest exit door upon arrival in Semmering, it was partially blocked, so we hustled off to the one at the opposite end of the car. Deb, Lou and I got off, but the door closed with Art still on board. No amount of his pulling the door release lever or pushing the door-opening button had any effect. Deb and I grabbed the lever on the door's outside. No response! The train began to move. It seemed like a movie scene! My stress level shot through the roof.
I thought about texting Art, but while he had activated his phone, I hadn't done mine yet. We - Lou, Deb and I - had been relying on Wi-Fi, but there was no Wi-Fi to connect to. Leaving the station to look for one didn't seem overly wise either. Even if we had connected, what would we say - "Hi! We're here at the station. Where are you?" We knew where he was ... on his way to Graz!
Back on the train, Art was going from car to car, looking for a trainman. He passed an area of small work cubicles, then through the first-class section and finally to the dining car. There he found a young woman minding the kitchen. She informed him the train would be making a stop in Mürzzuschlag before it broke out into its sprint to Graz.
The solution was clear. Get off the train and then catch another ... assuming there was another ... back to Semmering.
The posted schedule at the Mürzzuschlag station revealed there was a train at 18:38 and others at one-hour intervals.
But then he began to worry about what we might do. Would we wait at the station? Would we try to catch a train back to Payerbach, guessing he might do the same?
We too had come to the same conclusion as he had, yet we waited anxiously. Two trains passed through, but they hadn't been scheduled to stop. The hour until the next train he might be on seemed to take forever.
But he was on it. Lou and Deb saw Art waving as the train slowed to a stop.
Art thought we might still want to wander Semmering and take a later train home, but our appetite for additional adventures had evaporated. We boarded his train and headed back to Payerbach, laughing much of the way, the humor prompted by relief.
A nice meal at the Payerbacherhof restaurant accompanied by a wheat beer for Art and some white wine for us gals and once again all was right with the world.
And those are the facts ... just the facts ... of our “stress-free” first day in Austria!
Top (l-r): Art and I in front of a train at the station in Payerbach; old steam engine provides a photo opportunity for me, Deb and Lou; Art, Deb and Lou attempt to secure our tickets; on the train to Wiener Neustadt. Lower-left: the Semmering station is mighty quiet as we wait for Art's return. Deb is at the left. Center: Art returning from his solo trip. Bottom-middle: all together again on the train to Payerbach. Center-right: we return. Lower-right: celebrating our reunion over supper at the Payerbacherhof restaurant.