Schöckel : a not so sober ride...
Since the Labska Louka trip some 2 years ago, I thought there was no other such possible trip, but it happened. This time, it was neither in Poland or the neighbouring Czech republic, neither with their famous lagers brewed in the Sudetes. The story takes place in Southern Austria, in the Styria region, close to Graz, where my wife and I were invited by her former school friend Magda, Polish expatriate in the country of Mozart, her native husband Josef and their little girl, same age than Nicolas who came too.
By some coincidence, Josef is also keen in cycling, and despite he's rather focused on cyclotouring, I brought my bike as our wives strongly suggested that we should cycle together and him to show me the places around. So the Tomac got his place at the front seat of the car, Dorota and Nicolas sitting at the back as usual. The day before going, having a glance on Google maps, I asked by random on Skype if "Schöckel", the most prominent hill near where they live was a good ride or not, to Magda who was on Skype at this moment, but she didn't know much the area.
Two days and 700km later, we all were sitting at the table on the sunny terrace, enjoying great Polish-prepared Austrian food with French red wine, while watching the kids playing. Just after the desert, Josef suddenly disappeared and popped back in cycling outfit, saying "So Eric let's go ! Your Schöckel idea is indeed great, I have never been there, only other hills around, I think it must be interesting !". Knowing that the afternoon was well started and the place was some 20km far, I got promptly dressed too and we left the house, girls and kids, while heading to the green hills of the pre-Alps of this region "Grazer Bergland". The beginning of the ride was great, as we used for a while a beautiful track following a photogenic river, the Raab.
Later on, we joined back a small road, then a main road, and Josef appologized : "We must follow it for a while". It's OK, don't worry, I replied. Josef also kept apologizing for his modest physical condition, and occasionally step off the bike during some steep ascents. The dome of Schöckel was getting nearer and nearer, while we kept going on the narrow main road, overtaken by Austrian bolides who occasionally beeped of anger to us. Once near the hill, we took a secondary road that seemed to elevate in its direction, but Josef asked a couple of people - including a beautiful girl - for the direction. "I haven't taken a map and haven't been here for ages ! Sorry Eric if I don't remember perfectly !". For me it was "ganz egal"; I was the guest, and whatever the ride was going to be, it was a great occasion to see the country around and take photos of beautiful landscapes. "You'll see, it's sausage !" he kept repeating; a local expression ("Es ist Würst !") which means "it's a piece of cake".
As the steep part of the mountain was coming, Josef was stepping down more and more often, and I could see he was not really enjoying it because of his lack of condition, but he kept going and pretending feeling allright, not to disappoint me. I was feeling kind of guilty, because of this stupid idea of mine from Google maps. At one point, few hundred meters under the top, we passed a pleasant open-air bar, based in what used to be a beautiful wooden farm, in the typical Styrian style. A lot of people, some with bikes, were sitting and enjoying the warm weather of this beautiful spring day, while watching some men in local costumes, setting up a Maypole, according to the Austrian tradition for the first week-end of May. I saw his eyes lurking at the place, and I suggested a break, which would be certainly a more pleasant time for both of us than follwing my egoist idea while making him suffer more. "Yes, that's great, I was going to suggest the same !", he replied immediately, with eyes shining of excitation. "I'm going to show you something, a very local drink, very refreshing. We call it Welschriesling and it's white sparkling wine mixed with water".
Few minutes later, there were no less than four empty pints of Welschriesling on the table. Some other cyclers sat nearby and somehow joined us. We were talking enthusiastically about many things, like Poland, France, Austria, cycling trip, our respective kids, his sailing trips to Croatia. "You know, I don't feel Austrian", he confessed. "They are too stiff. I am rather the meridional style, you know !", while he ordered two extra pints of Welschriesling. I noticed that the sun was going down a bit in the sky, and that the sunny terrace was now in the shadow, and suggested him that we should leave not too late to cycle back the 20km on the main road - thus despite most of it would go down. "Don't worry ! I have lamps !" he reassured, despite this idea didn't please me much: Austrian rules are very strict: you can loose your driving licence, spend a night in jail, and pay a horrible fine just by cycling drunk !
Instead of that, 2 small glasses of the local Schnapps landed to the table, while the eyes of my friend Josef were wandering on the waitress. "I must also show you a special local kind of cider !" he said. But he did a mistake in the name while ordering, and instead of cider we got another kind of wine. To repair it, he ordered once more the cider, which was right this time, but didn't ask the waitress for removing the wrong wine. After all, I don't have fun very often, I told to myself. Nevermind if the wives are in bad mood after we return late. I'm enjoying it too after all !
Josef was going to order some more Welschriesling when I told him to sit on the bike as it was getting dark. I convinced him and few seconds after, we were riding down Schöckel all schuss.
The trip started to go twisted when I noticed we passed a junction from where we came from. "Josef, it was on the left !!" I shouted, but he was already far downside, hairs floating in the wind with speed. We went downside, until a point where anywhere we would go, it would be uphill again. "Don't worry, it's my native region, I know everything by heart, it's sausage !", he said, eyes full of sparkles. "We're going to catch back somehow !". While we cycled up I noticed he was slower than ever, and quickly step off again, as I expected. I step off too, feeling better like this as well after so much drink, and we walked along the little road till it became really dark and I suggested him to put on these lights he told about, as we passed some parking lane on the right.
There was a pile of dead branches, and Josef sat on it, making a sigh of satisfaction, feeling it so comfortable, and started looking slowly in his bag. He gave me the front light, but surprisingly with no attach system for the handlebar. Nevermind, I told myself, at the speed we go I can handle it in my hand. I got worried when by looking for the rear light, he opened two boxes which each contained an inner tube, but no light. "Don't worry ! It's sausage !". We walked again and I heard the sound of his mobile phone - certainly Madga going for news - but he didn't reply. "Don't worry !" We're so close that it's pointless to reply, we'll be there in a minute, he asserted me. My worried increasead as I noticed he was not only walking slow, but making zigzags on the empty road.
In a country like Austria, such situation can turn really bad if a police car pops from nowhere, and I decided it was high time to take control of the situation : We were just lost in Austrian hills, my friend had no map, no light and was drunk, unable to remind the road ! Not to mention he didn't own a helmet. We reached a bus stop and I ordered him to sit there and give me his bag, in which I found the mobile. I found Magda's number and called. She was visibly very anxious, and I told her everything was allright, just that we had some bike issue and Josef was not able to ride any further. I told her the name of the village, written on the bus stop : "Niederschöckl", which I thought was easy enough to catch, as it just means "under Schöckel", the place we went. Josef kept repeating me that I shouldn't worry, and started to tell about some sailing trip in Greece where he and his friends got lost too, and that adventure is part of the fun. True, I said, while watching the road, waiting to see Magda's car arriving in a minute.
Time passed and instead of arriving, the phone, which I carefully kept in my hand, rang back. Magda's map was not precise enough, and she didn't have much sense of orientation too. She was kind of surprised that it was me on Josef's phone each time, and asked me to pass him to explain the road. I got quite embarassed because of my previous lie, and told "you know, Josef is not completely feeling well. Nothing grave, but...". "Give me Josef !" she ordered. Josef started to talk very quickly in german, quite unusual as they tend to use english together. "You know, he said, that's easy to find ! Just take the old road going to Graz and it's somewhere there !". I couldn't listen to what she was saying, but understood she was not satified with the explanation. We waited another 30mn and I started to feel the situation was more and more urging : despite the warm day, we reached 9pm and the air started to get chilly. We both left only with shorts and Tshirts on ! I called back Madga and told her to go home, we would order a taxi.
There was something like a restaurant a couple of hundred meters above, and I headed there, leaving Josef in the bus stop. The restaurant was something like the most Austrian they could have in Austria : people drinking beer and talking loudly with a lot of "Ja ! Ja !" in a wide room decorated like some hunting inn. A couple of guys, sweating of drinking beer, came to me, but instead of listening, welcomed me loudly to join in ("Wilkommen ! Kommt hier "), so pleased to see a stranger. As I was struggling with my remains of German from school, another guy came and understood I had other concerns : "My freund ist not sehr gut, wir brauchen ein Taxi bitte!". The guy immediately understood and a couple of seconds later a taxi was flying to the restaurant.
I thanked them and went to look for Josef. He was head lying down, snorring under the bus shelter, the bag fallen on the floor. He woke up when I came and said "No, it's OK, ! Take it easy, I was just philosophing !". I ordered him to stand up and walk behind me till the restaurant. By the time we reached it, the taxi was there. The driver was kind of moaning that we didn't order a bigger taxi for packing the bikes, which an ordinary Austrian would have certainly refused until we had called a bigger vehicle. But our saviour was a Tunisian guy who worked there, and who consequently spoke french. Immediately the french touch made it work and we packed the bikes, while I explained the situation in french. The guy was a bit surprised to know that I came from Poland and asked if my friend was also french. No he's Austrian ! I replied, and the driver was listening to the account of our adventure with a big smile. I was watching in the same time the rest of the road and realized how far we were indeed.
Josef woke up in time to explain the driver how to get to the house. Dorota and Magda were waiting on the door, with the cat. The kids were sleeping long ago. Magda's face was not very proud and enthusiastic but I could see a slight smile on the one of my wife, who understood more or less what went on. I entered first, starting to explain a gentle version of the real story, and how Josef suddenly started to feel bad. But my story was shortened as Josef poppen in behind me, joyful, and said loudly : "Come on, we were not so far indeed ! It was piece of sausage !".
Soon Josef was installed in bed and I was sitting with the two girls. I thanked Magda to have been looking for us so long unsuccessfully, and apologized for the situation, explaining how I had to manage the situation with Josef out of control. The only possible explanation I could find was his little resistance to alcohool, which was true indeed, but I recognized I could have avoided it more and I had a part of responsability.
Fortunately Madga is not the rancorous kind of person, and it was quickly forgiven to both of us. It made a pleasant anecdote to joke about during all the rest of our stay, and certainly for much more time !