We left the windy, chilly Orkney Islands with its fascinating history that spanned from Neolithic times to the tragic 20th century wars for the gilded age of 19th century central Europe.
After a two-week family break in London and Friedrichshafen, Germany, we traveled via Deutsche Bahn and OBB (Austrian national rail) to Graz in southern Austria near the Hungarian and Slovenian borders.
The all day journey took us through the rural country side of Baden Wurttemberg to Ravensburg and Ulm with stops in Munich in Bavaria and Salzburg at the Austrian border. From Salzburg, we traveled south through the Austrian alps. The views were spectacular, steep mountains with walls of granite and dense pine and cedar forests. Coming around a bend, we’d view a valley with dairy farms and pastures, cross over a bridge spanning a river, before turning into another scenic valley.
Graz in European History
Graz had been recommended by a family member in Friedrichshafen as a better Austrian experience than Vienna, Salzburg, or Innsbruck. The choice was excellent for several reasons. Graz was less crowded than Vienna or Salzburg which was swarming with tourists during a one night visit we made later. The climate of southern Austria was more Mediterranean, being south of the Alps which block cooler Atlantic weather.
Graz, like Vienna, has a central European ambiance, resplendent with baroque architecture, large parks, monuments, and fountains. We especially enjoyed musicians playing accordions and violins in the Aldstadt and large city parks with shade trees, pathways, and benches to enjoy the serenity. The ruins of a 13th century Schlossberg castle looks down from the highest peak in the city, and the Mur River flows through the capital city of the Styrian state.
Graz was named the European Cultural Center in 2003 in recognition of its fusion of modern art and architecture with old European Gothic architecture. Two of the most modern structures are the futuristic Kunsthaus and a modern, glass-domed clam shell in the Mur River with walkways to both sides of the river.
Our hotel was a fifteen minute bus ride across the Mur River to Jakominoplatz station in the center city. From here, it was a short walk to the Opern Platz, the Aldstadt, the Hauptplatz, and the base of Schlossberg castle a short tram ride away.
The narrow, cobble stoned streets of Graz’s Altstadt were designed for strollers and horse carriages. Quaint cafes, pubs, restaurants offered a range of ethic choices. Around nearly every bend were delights: a sunny piazza with outdoor cafes with umbrellas, a narrow passageway along a wall from the old city, a park with benches, fountains, statues, and monuments. Pastel colored stucco apartments had plaques of famous musicians, artists, scientists who once resided in Graz.
Graz has been famous for its many universities, especially in science and mathematics. Nikola Tesla studied electrical engineering at the University of Graz, Johannas Kepler was an astronomy professor at the University of Graz, and Nobel prize laureate Erwin Schrodinger taught quantum physics at the University.
Our first lunch in the Altstadt was under an umbrella at a cafe beneath the three centuries old Glockenspiel tower. On Glockenspielplatz, of course. On the quarter-hour, the glockenspiel chimed; every three hours, a tower door opened and a puppet in peasant dress came out and swung a mallet to ring the bell.
On the square in front of the Rathaus (City Hall), students, musicians, skate boarders, and tourists gathered around a fountain to eat ice cream, drink beer, listen to music, or to have lunch at a cafe around the Hauptplatz (Main city square). It was all very charming, imagining what life was like a century or two ago in old Europe.
We took the Schlossbergbahn funicular to the top of Schlossberg (Castle on the Rock), 1500 feet above Graz. All that remains of the 13th century castle are ruins, stone walls, a bell tower, chapel, and clock tower. Inside the walls, workmen were setting up for a George Benson concert that night in what used to be the dungeon. Cells in the stone walls are now loge seating.
We had a light lunch at the Schlossberg wall looking out over Graz, the Rathaus on the Hauptplatz, and the Mur valley. I enjoyed a wheat beer Schnee Weise (snow wheat) from a local brewery.
The Schlossberg Castle was the seat of the 15th century Hapsburgs, but became a near impregnable fortress. It was never penetrated by Ottoman Turks or the Hungarian armies until Styrian troops surrendered to Napoleon’s army in 1809. The fortress was largely destroyed except for the chapel, bell tower, and clock tower which were allowed to remain fearing major damage to the city below if they were blown up.
After lunch and a tour of the ruins, we descended a winding path to the clock tower (Uhrterm), then down a staircase of some 300 stone steps carved from granite walls. The staircase had more switchbacks than Squaw Valley ski resort at Lake Tahoe. Views from the staircase were impressive, looking over the red-tiled roofs, churches, and plazas.
On the street below the Schlossberg, we went into the Stadtmuseum to view a modern art exhibition. At the entrance, a stone plaque commemorates the building as the birthplace of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, precipitating the beginning of the Great War.
Graz was named City of Culinary Delights in 2008. It is famous for dishes combining the cuisines of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece. We enjoyed dinner at a Greek restaurant one night where I had shashlik with fish, lamb, and veal, calamari, rice, grilled vegetables, and sour yoghurt dressing. And another Weitzenbier.
DOM, Mausoleum, and Landhaus
On the highest point in the Aldtadt are three historic buildings; the 13th century Gothic Cathedral (Dom), the Landhaus, (Graz Palace), and the Mausoleum of Hapsburg monarch Ferdinand II who died in 1637, and his wife Maria.
During his reign, Ferdinand II was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, and King of Bohemia. He was a staunch Catholic who ruled during the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War that embroiled and devastated much of Europe from 1618 – 1648.
The mausoleum resembled a gothic church with three chapels, altars, and statues of Christ, the apostles, angels, and saints. A narrow stone staircase lead to the crypt, a red marble sarcophagus. Mirrors on the wall offered a view of the top of the sarcophagus
In the chapel above the crypt, an opening in the floor offered a view of the sarcophagus, the marble figures of Ferdinand II and Maria laying in repose, arms crossed over chests. Bizarre.
Early Hapsburg monarchs ruled from the Landhaus palace until they moved the capital to Vienna in 1619. Remaining sections of the Landhaus serve as the offices of the Styrian provincial government.
Walking through the courtyard, we discovered an interesting feature mentioned in a guidebook, a double winding staircase constructed in 16th century. Worn stone steps rise on both sides to a platform where climbers would meet and ascend the stairs, left and right. We climbed four levels to the top with a view of a courtyard.
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Next destination: Adriach
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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