Graz Austria: Whimsical Humor and Green Ideals
By Max Hartshorne,
“It is not a potato,” said Klaus, our tour guide at the Kunsthaus Graz, the city’s most famous building, that indeed, does look like a giant spud or a spaceship, or a human organ. “It’s just a bubble,” he said, somewhat curtly.
The building is among the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, otherworldly in its almost human shape. It is a symbol of Graz, Austria’s second largest city and capital of the agrarian region of Styria, two and a half hours south of Vienna.
As we made our way inside up the stairless escalator, I would experience the world of Austrian contemporary art, a world one rarely understands but certainly appreciates.
At night, thousands of one-foot tall ‘pixels’ dance across the bulbous blue structure’s plastic skin, programmed by different artists and creating a lively show you can see for miles away.
Graz has more than 285,000 residents and is home to more than 10,000 auto workers. It is a welcoming place to visit.
There are touches of whimsy that make the city a lot of fun, many such as the Kunsthaus were leftovers of 2003 when Graz was declared Europe’s Cultural Capital. Among these are:
- A man-made island in the sparkling river Mur, where you can sip a latte, eat in a fine restaurant, or just cross from one side to the other.
- A glass-enclosed elevator located next to a tall statue of the Madonna, that takes tourists up to get eye-level with the great lady — just for one minute.
- The Kunsthaus, which is a renovated 1850s cast iron building that includes the huge bubble with two floors of weird contemporary art and a needle that provides a walkway to view the river and the Schlossberg castle perched high above the city, and photography and other exhibits that challenge the mind in many ways.In the courtyard of the Jesuit college there stands a little pool and beside it, a realistic looking snowman complete with carrot nose and saucepan for a hat, all made of marble. He’s looking at the clock, the statue is called “looking into permanence.”
Graz is located in the middle of Austria. About 40,000 of the residents are students, who study at six universities here. The city is known as a retirement destination for many musicians, artists, and generals, who all love the southern climate which is milder than other parts of Austria.
Italians too, love to come here and buy the local chanterelle mushrooms, a delicacy that is served widely in Styria in soups and sautéed with egg and parsley.
Ah-nold’s Home town
The most famous person to come from Graz is California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who grew up and trained here. He even proposed to his wife Maria Shriver in a nearby village where he was born. There once was a small museum dedicated to him, but after he came out in favor of capital punishment, some locals wanted to take his name off.
So Arnold finally asked them not to name anything for him if his politics were that much of a problem.
Pumpkin Seed Cure
This region is famous for its productive farmlands, and many of our best meals came straight from the source — local pumpkin seed oil, for example, poured over ice cream, and local beef, massaged and allowed to live the good life in the mountains before becoming boiled beef, called tesserfluggel.
There is a consciousness about the environment and about supporting local agriculture here that we could see when we ventured out early to the local farmer’s market who set up starting at four am behind the city’s opera house. Here along with the many locally produced pumpkin seed oil and homemade schnapps, we sampled trout taken from the clear and unpolluted Mur river as well as berries, kohlrabi, flowers and hams also made right here in Styria.
Second City Friendlier than Vienna
This second city is friendlier, say Austrians, than the more famous Vienna. Rarely do you get the cold shoulder in the cafes that some of my fellow travelers recall from visiting the capital. Here people are friendly and warm and though it’s a large city, there is a small town feel.
The city is laid out with modern trams that can take you where you need to go… and each car has flat monitors that gently chime to remind you of the stops and show the entire route up ahead.
Grand Hotel or Boutique Daniel
In Graz, there are some excellent choices for hotels, from the Grand Hotel Wiesler, a five star, (doubles $280E) to the Hotel Weitzler where we stayed, in a room overlooking the rushing river Mur. (Request a room on the river side; it is wonderful falling asleep to the sound of the rushing river.)
Rates at the Weitzler, owned by the same company as the others started about $89 Euros per night with breakfast. In room Internet is available with a LAN, at the Wiesler, WiFi is available for an additional cost.
Down on the other end of the boulevard is the Hotel Daniel, a 101-room boutique hotel with a sense of humor. In the lobby as you check in, is a coffee bar, so you can order a latte with your $59 e “smart room.”
The hotel features free Wireless throughout the building, snack vending machines so you can grab a bite anytime, and Vespa scooters guests can rent for a day.
The décor is sparse, Ikea comes to mind… and the wall between the bed and the shower in many of the rooms is clear glass. So you can watch your partner lathering up.
In other rooms, presumably, where two business men would be staying, the glass is covered with a decal. These ‘loggia” go for $79 per night and are a little more spacious and have a small balcony.
The Daniel is located right across from the train station, and also connects with the city’s fine tram system, so it’s easy to pop into the center either by walking or the tram.
There is also the Hotel Ibis, on the other side of the station, here rooms of about the same size start at $79 but the wireless isn’t free and there are no Vespas in the lobby to rent.
A Train trip to Kitzbuhel
I traveled from Graz to Kitzbuhel on the train using a Railpass from RailEurope, and the experience was wonderful. The passes get you five days out of 30 in order to travel and they allow you to sit in first class… a nice comfy leather seat and plenty of room to spread out and type, or just snooze while the gorgeous countryside slides by.
By the tracks are factories, in the distance are tall mountains shrouded by clouds. The fields are dotted with grazing black and white Holstein dairy cows, and red-tiled roofs of the chalets nestled low on the mountainsides. My journey is about four hours, enough time to get some writing done.
In the first class car, there are tables and waitress service right at your seat. I didn’t realize this until I made my way up to the restaurant car and later saw my fellow passengers enjoying their sandwiches at their seats. On October 1, a new no-smoking policy was adopted by the railways… and to cushion the blow, there were Nicorette gum packets on every, along with literature and a note explaining the change.
As the train got further into Tirol, the mountainsides became steeper and the train followed a valley through the hills. The houses here were made of dark cedar, and still had the familiar flower boxes brimming with reds and yellow colored flowers.
A stream meandered past the tracks, fast flowing and clear. Some of the hillsides bore the scars of clear cutting, and along the tracks there were many piles of logs, it was sad to see these scarred mountains as it was in neighboring Hungary where I remember seeing swatches of denuded mountainsides, huge patches where there were no trees left, and none had been planted to replace those taken.
Walking and Biking
Along most rivers in Austria are paths for walking and biking. It’s another of the ways the citizens here live so well, since health and wellness is at the top of the government priorities. Even the menu on the train extolled the virtues of eating leafy greens, citing their vitamin value.
It’s like they want you to eat your vegetables but won’t give you a hard time if you wash them down with their beers and also eat some of their fine beef.
Foolishly, one of the first things I did in Vienna airport was to change $60.00 into Euros, resulting in only E44, a lousy rate of 74 cents each. Using the ATM later the rate improved to.84 per dollar.
But I just didn’t want to be caught without any euros as the rest of my trip unfolded, remembering so many times when I would wait and then be stuck with no money and begging my fellow travelers for change.
Besides the aforementioned bubble, the city also has a museum dedicated to armaments, most of which were used to defend against the marauding Turks in the 1640s. At the Armoury, part of the Landesmuseum, you can view row upon row of antique muskets that were used to defend castles.
There are also thousands of pointy helmets, and pistols, bayonets, and Picards. On the third floor stands a magnificent set of horse armor, covering the entire beast including the ears. Imagine wearing that and carrying a similarly-outfitted knight! That’s one tired horse.
Schloss Eggenberg Palace
The third museum in Graz is of a more traditional variety, at the Schloss Eggenberg palace, religious art through the centuries is on view. It begins with the 1200s, with depictions of the Madonna and Jesus, and as you move through the centuries you see images of the Crucifixion, the life of Mary and Joseph, and the 30-year war between Catholics and Protestants.
One striking painting was by Jan Brueghel, called “Triumph des Todes” depicting skeletons rounding up everyone, including the emperor, taking them to their deaths, showing how no one gets out of here alive.
The last room of the museum ends with Rococo, more cheerful without the messages about our imminent departure from this earth.
Like many cities in Austria, there is a dark side to Graz’ whimsy, and it has to do with Jews. Before 1938, there were 2500 Jewish residents here. But shortly after Hitler’s rise to power and annexation, Graz earned distinction for becoming the first Jew Free city in Austria.
The synagogue was torn down and life went on. In 1983, a builder discovered that the bricks from this building had been used to build a garage. The city’s Jewish community tore that building down and reconstructed a new synagog using many of these old bricks, and today a small community of about 200 Jews lives in Graz.
Dining in Graz
We enjoyed the lighter fare of Styria more than we did the heavier dumping and noodle heavy food of Tirol. One excellent choice both for the wines and the fare is Aiola, located at the top of Schlossberg mountain where the fort once stood that defended the city. (It was demolished by Napolean in the 1800s).
Along with the panoramic view of the surrounding city, and outside tables, the food is crisp and clean and reasonably priced. These same folks operate the café on the island in the Mur. Prices between $7 and 9.50 euros, 5-7 euros for appetizers. I loved my entrée of rabbit, all of the main dishes came with generous portions of side vegetables and noodles or rice.
The Famous Stallions
We made our way out of town into the Styrian countryside where kurbiskeroil, or pumpkin seed oil, is the king crop. We visited the farm where the famous Lippizaner Stallions are bred and retired from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
Here at Welt Piber, you can watch farriers shoe horses, see the magnificent beasts train and pat the noses of recently retired steeds. In nearby Stainz, (about 45 minutes outside of Graz) we enjoyed an al fresco lunch at a wonderful outdoor Buschenschank, Weingut Langmann.
By law, these outdoor restaurants are not allowed to serve hot food but instead offer a bounteous buffet of cold meats, cheeses, smoked fish, brown crusty bread, local veggies and of course the strawberry tinged young Schilcher Sturm wine that the area is famous for. It comes in a big glass and the Austrians chug this week-old wine like lemonade — but it’s got a kick, so you might want to take it easy if you’re getting back on the winding mountain roads. (www.l-l.at).
The Bottle Train
Another fun excursion is the rolling bar that is the Steinzet train, which takes you slowly through the countryside powered by a steam engine. It’s the FlaScherZug Stainz, or bottle train, which was once owned by a local doctor whose patients took the train carrying urine samples in bottles.
It’s a two-hour excursion, up and back at a slow speed, passing farms and small villages — but we got off early to visit the kurbiskeroil expert named Olmuhle in the village of Herbersdorf. This friendly septuagenarian has won many awards for his creation, Styria’s ‘black gold,’ the oil derived from pressing pumpkin seeds in a press.
Health Benefits Extolled
He extolled us about the health benefits of the oil, and I stocked up when I heard it was great for prostate health with so much vitamin E and how it chases away free radicals.
A tour of his factory, a glass of their Sturm plus a plate of eggs with a liberal pour of kurbiskeroil costs 7.80, and is taken in their low-ceilinged cellar below the small factory.
This trip made me realize how much I enjoy the Austrians and cities like Graz, where the emphasis is on the things that really matter — organic food, pleasant common spaces, city-funded art and culture, jazz, and preservation of the city’s historical and natural beauty.