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Published: August 16th 2019
Today is my first ever visit to Graz, despite spending so much time in Austria. It is the the country’s second largest city and also the capital of the province of Steiermark (Styria). After another great breakfast buffet I check out, leave my case with reception and do the easy 15-minute walk into the centre. We don’t have a guide lined up for Graz yet so I am doing this visit simply to get a feel for the city and to see the main sights. I know I am going to see some outstanding architecture of all styles in a very small concentrated area - from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Graz was added to the list of World Cultural Heritage sites in 1999 as the “best preserved city centre in Central Europe”; it was European Capital of Culture in 2003 and received the title City of Design in 2011.
I cross over the attractive River Mur via the Archduke Johann bridge. You come across Archduke Johann at every turn in Graz. He was active here for 50 years of his life promoting the material and spiritual culture of the city. I find my way to
the Herrengasse. This is the real focal point of public life in Graz, and is dotted with many beautiful palaces, squares and magnificent buildings. No cars are allowed here - only pedestrians, cyclists and trams. It is also the main shopping street. I arrive in the Hauptplatz (main square) just as the local dignitaries are making speeches about the new buses that will run on hydrogen. Graz, like the rest of Austria, is very green.
The Hauptplatz and town hall are at the heart of the city. In the centre of the square stands the Archduke Johann fountain, built in honour of the “Styrian Prince.” The Styrian regional parliament convenes in the Landhaus which has a magnificent arcaded courtyard. Next to the Landhaus is the armoury. This was once the most important arsenal in Austria and now houses the largest historical collection of weapons in the world, containing over 30,000 exhibits.
I only have a vague plan and would rather explore so I move away from the main streets. Exploring on foot as I do and simply wandering without a fixed plan is most enjoyable, and I see lots of lovely buildings, wonderful small
courtyards and fountains everywhere. I walk down a tiny street near to the cathedral simply because I like its name - Abraham-a-Santa-Clara-Gasse. By chance I wander into the small Glockenspielplatz shortly before 11.00 and notice a few people gazing up at the clock. I do the same thing. At 11.00 as the bells chime (for ages) two windows open high up in the tower and two carved wooden figures in traditional costume emerge and dance to the sound of the Glockenspiel. I always love things like this. Munich has something similar too. I stay to the end because it is lovely.
Here I am close to the cathedral which is closed for the rest of the year for renovations. Next to the cathedral is the imposing Mausoleum which is the most significant Habsburg tomb in terms of art history. I walk from here round to the Graz Opera House on the Opernring where you can see a brilliant mix of tradition and modernism. Halmut Skerbisch’s steel “Lichtschwert” sculpture (sword of light) - a symbol of openness and tolerance forms a stunning contrast to the opera house.
The weather is lovely now. It had conveniently
rained in the night, leaving everything looking sparkling. By this time I have clocked up a considerable number of steps and it feels like coffee time. Sue has suggested a couple of places for coffee. One of these suggestions is the 6th-floor terrace restaurant of the rather upmarket department store, Kastner & Öhler in Sackgasse as this has amazing views over the city. I head up here and despite the fact that the restaurant is very busy, I manage to grab a table with the very best view. I take lots of photos whilst waiting for the waitress to take my coffee order, and wait and wait……When I hear the couple next to me grumbling about their wait, I decide to leave and head across the road to the other place that Sue recommended - the Altsteierische Schmankerlstüberl, where locals go. This is a delightful courtyard restaurant. I have a delicious coffee in the shade and continue exploring.
Next stop for me is the Schlossberg. This is the fabulous 473-metre high hill right in the heart of Graz, covered in trees and footpaths. From the top of Schlossberg there is the most fabulous view over the city’s
red-tiled roofscape to the hills and mountains in the distance. There are several ways to get up here - via the funicular, in the glass lift that ascends inside the mountain or on foot up the Schlossbergstiege steps (290). This year they have opened a new slide inside the mountain so you can go up with the lift and down via the slide. It sounds brilliant - a bit like an elongated version of a helter skelter that goes through some pitch-black areas. You have to put your feet in a sack and grab hold of handles before whizzing down. I have a wonderful picture in my head of bringing the American guests to this slide next year. Generally they are older than me (many of them much older!!). I think they would talk about it for ever!! I take the steps this time. There used to stand a huge Renaissance fortress up here, 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. It was only in 1809, when he had occupied Vienna and was threatening to destroy the Austrian capital,
that Graz surrendered. Almost all of the fortifications were razed to the ground. Only the bell tower and clock tower were allowed to remain, ransomed by the citizens of Graz and so spared. The clock tower is the traditional landmark of the city, and from here you get fantastic views over the city. I could stay up here for ages as it is truly lovely but Bratislava is calling and I reluctantly make my way down from this wonderful spot - on foot. I shall save the slide experience until next year!
After popping into the tourist information office to pick up maps for next year, I walk quickly back to hotel and collect my case. The train to Vienna is the nicest train so far - a Raljet. It’s very quiet, clean and comfortable in the second class quiet zone. The train follows the river Mur through stunning scenery. Two and a half hours later I change trains in Vienna and head towards Bratislava. This trip takes just one hour, and I stroll ten minutes to the Hotel Loft. I am pleasantly surprised by my room which is spacious, modern and comfortable. It really
exceeds expectations. There is a free mini bar!! And also a voucher for a glass of house wine in the bar downstairs. I have a quick beer as I am pretty thirsty, then walk down to the Old Town. I want to locate tomorrow’s meeting spot with the local guide, Martin. I pass some lovely gardens as I go and decide to wander through them. These turn out to be the palace grounds which are open to the public (imagine being able to mooch around or play footie in Buckingham Palace gardens!!). It is great to see lots of people using these gardens - some are playing football, some families are using the delightful children’s play area and a group is doing an outdoors Tai Chi type of session.
It is really easy to find my way through the Old Town to the Carlton Hotel, which is my meeting point tomorrow at 0900 with Martin Sloboda. He is our guide in Bratislava, and has also written some guide books. My friends from the US will all know of Rick Steves, the travel guide book author. He is a personal friend of Martin, who provides him
with his information for Bratislava and rest of Slovakia. There is a very attractive cafe outside the Carlton Hotel called the Corso. I park myself here for a light supper and glass of house red. Soon a band sets up in from of me on the wonderful square, and it appears that I have one of the best tables in town! I can tell that a German couple has just been told there are no tables available. I was planning on leaving shortly anyway, so I offer my table to them. They are delighted and we end up chatting for ages, listening to the great live music and drinking Aperol Spritzer together. We finally part company - they are staying in their camper van just outside the town, and I wander back to the hotel. I round off a very pleasant evening with a glass of red wine, cashing in my voucher.
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