On May 11th we took a train from Vienna to Graz, Austria.
The train left early in the morning so Bill grabbed a quick breakfast at the McDonald’s at the train station. In keeping with their conservation agenda and “going green”, they gave him a wooden knife and fork instead of plastic. We had booked tickets ahead of time but no reserved seats. We had no trouble finding nice seats together and the train set off right on time for the two hour trip. Trains in Europe are very punctual. It was a beautiful scenic ride over the Semmering Pass, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed as “one of the greatest feats of civil engineering during the pioneering phase of railway building”. We crossed the River Schwartz, passing through many tunnels and viaducts with small villages nestled in the hillsides. With such a scenic landscape, the time passed quickly.
We arrived in Graz (pop 332,000) and though it was early, they let us check into our room. Even though it is Austria’s second largest city, Graz receives a small number of tourists compared to Vienna or Salzburg.
Graz, located on the River Mur, doesn’t have the grandeur of Vienna, but it definitely has charm and beauty. It is said to be one of the best preserved historic cities in Europe. We learned that 20% of the population are students, 150 languages are spoken here and the city council is run by a communist mayor, evidently a surprise from the last election. Sixty percent of the city is green spaces with a strong emphasis on sustainability and ecology. The city uses new emission free hydrogen buses.
Along with its World Heritage status for its Medieval Old Town in 1999, in 2003 Graz was crowned the European Capital of Culture. In 2011 an additional UNESCO award was bestowed as a City of Design for its design schools, forward thinking architecture and embrace of modern urban design. Graz is only the second city in Europe to hold two UNESCO titles. Berlin is the other. Graz is also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Unfortunately when we reached Graz there began a week long chilly, rainy spell that followed us to two other cities. On top of that I came down with a bad cold.
We walked from our hotel to the train station where we bought a day pass that included both the city tram and bus. We walked to a tunnel next to the train station and caught a tram into the city center.
From the top of the Schlossberg hill, in spite of the clouds, we had a nice view of Graz with its many red tiled roofs. With our daily pass we were able to ride the Schlossberg Funicular to the top and came down using the Schlossberg Lift. The Funicular ascends at an incline of 61% and has been in operation for the last 100 years. The Lift has glass walls that give you a clear view of the rock lined elevator shaft.
At the top of the hills are the remains of the old fortification which in 1544 was a huge Renaissance fortress, now listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the strongest fortification of all time. Even Napoleon found it impossible to capture at the beginning of the 19th century. However in 1809 when Napoleon occupied, and was threatening to destroy Vienna, Graz surrendered. The fortress was dismantled after the Treaty of Vienna in 1809. The Hackher Lion is a monument to Major Hackher, the last defender of the fortress.
Also at the top of Schlossberg is the famous Clock Tower.
Napoleon’s troops destroyed the Schlossberg fortress, the residents all came together to pay a ransom to save their beloved clock tower from destruction. The clock tower is unique with its large wooden balconies and clock face where the hour and minute hands are reversed in size since the minute hand was added later. It has struck the hour precisely since 1712.
As we used the Schlossberg Lift to descend, we then walked in a tunnel through the hillside to ground level. It was once part of an extensive system of tunnels that was built in the Second World War as a shelter for the people of Graz during aerial bombing. The tunnels were part of a four mile long system with 20 entrances that could hold up to 40,000 during an air raid.
In the Old Town’s main square, Hauptplatz, is the Town Hall, built in 1893, with its neoclassical design.
The Graz Cathedral is the city’s most important place of worship. It was built between 1438-1462. The cathedral has a Gothic exterior and a Baroque interior with a vaulted ceiling over the altar.
Next door was the Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II, built in 1614. It is thought to be one of the most beautiful mausoleums in Europe.
The Franciscan Church has the tallest towers in Graz.
Murinsel is a quirky ultra modern design structure floating in the Mur River. It is an island constructed in 2003 in honor of the city’s European Capital of Culture award. It is shaped like an upside down seashell and is made of steel and glass. It is used as an open air amphitheater, has a cafe and children’s play area. Two pedestrian bridges tether it to the riverbanks.
Nearby is the Parish Church Graz-Mariahilf, 1607.
Another modern structure built in 2003 was the Kunsthaus Graz, or the Graz Art Museum. The roof is made of acrylic and the locals have nicknamed the structure “the Friendly Alien”. At night the building lights up like a spaceship.
The Glockenspiel is a structure with 24 bells that ring out on the hour. Three times each day the two wooden doors open and two little figures in traditional costume come out and dance to Alpine folk tunes. Unfortunately we missed that by 18 minutes.
We saw the Kaiser-Josef-Markt farmers’ market open each day except Sunday. The rain didn’t seem to bother the shoppers. So many European towns have these daily fresh markets.
Across the street from the market was the Opera House.
Also on this corner is the Evangelical Church of Graz-Heilandskirche, 1824.
We really enjoyed Graz, in spite of the chilly rain!
Next up: A train ride and 3threedays in Ljubljana, Slovenia