If you can travel to or in Austria treat yourself by including its second largest city, Graz, in your tour. Lying about 60 kms southwest of Vienna in the province of Styria, the city of Graz is located in a fertile valley on the banks of the river Mur. On the west and north the Styrian Alps border this valley and offer the visitor a varied and interesting landscape. Not only is this a city worth visiting because of its charm and history, but also because of its UNESCO designation in 1999 as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Designated “The Cultural Capital of Europe 2003,” Graz kicks off a series of attractions and events that will go on throughout this year. New happenings include “Mountain of Memories”, an exhibition within the Schlossberg Hill in Graz; “As Heavy as Heaven: Transformations of Gravity” an exhibition, and the opening of the “Insel” cafe on the island in the Mur. Many, many more exciting events will be ongoing throughout the year.
When we were visiting Graz in 2002, we saw the building of the incredible project created by Vito Acconci : building an Island in the middle of the River Mur. It features a small cafe, an open-air theatre, and a playground for children in a design of organically twisted construction made of various merging shells. This island will hold 300 visitors and opened to mark the beginning of the Graz Designation as the Cultural Capital of Europe 2003.
But whether you go to experience the cultural events of 2003 or in years to come, the first stop in Graz should be the central Office of Tourism in the Old Town Walking Mall at Herrengasse, next to Landhaus/Armory, one of the most interesting and historical buildings in the city, having been an arsenal continually since 1644. This central Office of Tourism has information on all the possible tours, excursions, hotels, restaurants, and points of interest in and around Graz.
A great variety of tours and excursions are available and accomodate almost any type of tourist. There are guided walking tours through the Old Town each morning and a musical walk called “The sounds of Graz,” as well as a tour at night called “Spotlights.” Various bus tours focus on a variety of interests such as “Graz Off the Beaten Path,” which emphasizes the architecture of the city. Other excursions out of town include the South area of the vineyards, the North area of the Lippizzaner horse farms, and an excursion to the Austrian Open Air Museum in Stubing. Our bus tour, the Dengg Springer Tours, (which is from 2:30 to 5:00 pm for about 11 euros) was of the city and surroundings. It includes a one hour guided tour at the Eggenberg Castle: a splendid palace of the Hapsburgs with many of the furnishings from Maria Theresa’s time (mid 1700’s). In three languages our guide did an excellent job of covering all the history and details as well as answering our questions.
The city tour includes the three universities. The Karl Francis University of Graz , founded in 1585 as a Counter Reformation effort to compete with the Jesuit University and the Lutheran University, is where the famed scientist Kepler was a professor. At Graz University there are ultra modern buildings, by world-famous local architects, which stand out among the marvelous old architecture of the past centuries. Surrounding this University are beautiful mansions, now homes and commerical buildings, which were once palaces of the nobility.
We drove by several lovely parks interspersed throughout the city, which offered an abundance of green space and recreation areas for the city residents. Passing the industrial section we saw where Siemens makes bus and subway chassis for the world as well as the large assemby plants for the auto-makers BMW, Chrysler, Mercedes, and even Jeep Cherokees. But we found that the industrial complex of Graz did not intrude on the beauty of the city. The parks, universities, residential areas, and historical buildings retain their uniqueness and separateness from the vibrant commerce that creates a stable economy.
During our bus tour our guide had many points of interest, which she combined with brief history lessons that thoroughly enhanced our overall understanding and appreciation of what we were seeing. Graz was designed and built in the twelfth century. Beginning in the thirteenth century it came under the rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty. A major building program in the fifteenth century was undertaken by Duke Frederick V of Austria. When he later became Emperor Frederick III in 1452-93, he made Graz the court residence during his rule. He rebuilt the town castle and the Gothic Parish Church, which is today’s Cathedral. Upon his death, his son Emperor Maximilian I, continued the construction, and in 1499 built a double winding staircase into a wing of the Graz Burg. After this Medieval period Graz played a major role in resisting the expansion of the Ottoman Empire by the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries. Portions of the ancient city walls and the city fortress endured the invasions from Turks and Hungarians and still remain.
In the Old Town, perched above the city near the busiest center, is a fortress with an immense clock tower. Notice from below the fortress flags of red and green high above. One color was hung to indicate the wine cellar was open and the other color to say the keeper was off duty, so that in ancient times people did not trudge up the hill for naught. If you are able bodied and an enthusiastic historian and purist you can ascend the steep staircase to the clock tower, and experience the original way, or you can be a typical tourist and take the Schlossbergbahn Funicular, an underground modern glass elevator that ascends through the mountain to the top. You can have a coffee, wine, and dine at a lovely restaurant and pub, which protrudes from the cliff over the city and affords beautiful views of the surrounding Cultural Capital of Europe 2003 and the River Mur. It is clear how well the city has juxtaposed the ultra modern of such things as the Funicular while preserving the ancient and historical aspects of the city.
Our stop for a guided tour at the Schloss Eggenberg Palace was almost like a trip to Versailles. This edifice had been a castle in the 16th century, but a series of historic upheavals and wars prevented it being the royal castle for very long. However, around 1700 Hans Eggenberg was made archduke and this was his Duchy, so he constructed his palace around the old castle. Since Hans Eggenberg was a lover of astronomy, the design of the palace is uniquely laid out to follow the changes of the astrological year with windows and rooms marking days, weeks, months, and seasons of the year.
He hired artists trained in Italy for the awesome task of covering walls and ceilings of the many palatial rooms with murals, which have mythological and historical significance. The paintings are incredible in detail, and some of the original wallpaper is still as beautiful as in its early days. The furnishings are exquisite, and especially the game tables, the original clavichord, and the ceramic furnaces in each room.
In addition to the third floor museum of these incredibly furnished palace rooms, there is the old, Gothic part of the castle well preserved, and you can see the beautiful chapel with the iconography in gold and oil paintings. On the second floor of the palace is a marvelous collection of paintings from world famous artists. These are on display as a gallery extension from the downtown Lansmuseum of Art and are really worth an hour or two to see. In the lower floor you’ll view the ancient history museum with a marvelous chariot from 700 BC, which was found in tact in a local farmer’s field.
After the tour we followed the guide’s suggestion and walked the city streets, entering wherever we saw a courtyard or open entrance to an inner part of a building. We had been hesitant but the guide said whenever an entrance is open the owner expects and wants tourists to come in, and some of the most beautiful sights of the city are within these courtyards. In some you’ll find boutiques or restaurants. Graz is a city not to be missed.