Graz – and a few other Austrian cities

It’s been in my mind for a while that I’d like to spend more time in Austria – I work on two hiking trips that finish in Innsbruck, but hardly ever go further east (in the 1990s I used to pass through Vienna (Wien) quite often on my way to Romania, but I didn’t often linger). And I did find myself in Innsbruck recently, with a week free – it wasn’t the time to head into the hills and hike, and I was going to Vienna, to see a friend and catch up on the art. Innsbruck is great, and maybe I’ll write it about when I’m not just there for work; Salzburg is a massive tourist trap (hotel prices are double those elsewhere in Austria), wonderfully photogenic but overwhelmed by overweening Baroque piles and of course the Mozart industry. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever been to Graz, capital of Styria and Austria’s second city (but everywhere is tiny compared to Vienna), and it’s a city that many people recommend, so that’s where I went, by one of the world’s slowest express trains (see below).

 There’s no Mozart, and no ski industry, which makes it quieter and much better value than some Austrian cities; but it does have strong links to Italy and the Balkans, both historically and nowadays, which makes it more interesting. It’s quite a young people’s town, with relatively speaking a lot of smoking, tattoos, and cycling (see below), and the cultural scene is lively too, notably since the arrival of ‘the friendly alien’, aka the Kunsthaus (Art House), which sits by the river opposite the old town (it looks more like a sea squirt than an alien, but maybe that’s just me). It’s smaller than I expected, but the architecture is definitely a bit radical, although everyone seems to love it now. Housing temporary shows of contemporary art, as you might expect, it’s part of the excellent Joanneum system (established in 1811 by Archduke Johann of Austria), which now has no fewer than nineteen museums and the zoo under its umbrella. A 24-hour ticket is available, and presumably if you buy it at 10.15 you could pop into one at 10.10 the next morning and stay all day – I was visiting the museums on a Sunday, and they’re all closed on Mondays, so I couldn’t put it to the test.

 What did make sense for me was to walk out to Schloss Eggenberg (trams come fairly close) before 10.00 and start there – it took me an hour to see the Alte Galerie, and then the 11.00 tour of the State Rooms (in English) was covered by the 24-hour ticket. The gallery houses a beautifully displayed collection of medieval German art, much of it as a chronological progression through Christ’s life, which is an unusual but clever approach. This is followed by paintings by Cranach and a wide range of Flemish artists (due to the Habsburgs’ historic links with the Low Countries). I was also interested by the Angelika Kaufmann portrait of (probably) James Boswell.

 The palace was built from 1625 (by Pietro de Pomis, who I’d never heard of until I saw various portraits by him in the Alte Galerie downstairs) for Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg (1568-1634), chief advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, and from 1625 governor of Inner Austria, covering Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, including parts of what are now Slovenia and Italy, and with its capital in his hometown of Graz.

 The building has 365 windows (for the days of the year), and the 24 State Rooms (for the hours of the day) have 52 windows (for the weeks of the year), or 60 (for the number of seconds in a minute and the minutes in a hour) if the eight windows of the Planetary Hall are included. The lower floors have 31 windows each, for the maximum number of days in a month. This rigid numerology was apparently a response to the chaos of the times, with the Little Ice Age and the Thirty Years War (or Thirteen Years War, as guides here seem to pronounce it) bringing widespread hardship and devastation.

 Don’t miss the tour of the very ornate State Rooms on the second floor or piano nobile, some featuring Japanese paintings and porcelain; the amount of gambling the family and their guests indulged in is pretty striking too. The highlight is the Planetary Hall (1678-85), meant to be the entrance hall to the State Rooms but completed fifty years after them. Through the rows of low chandeliers, you’ll see the last of the cycle of about 600 ceiling paintings throughout the State Rooms commissioned by Hans Ulrich’s grandson from the Baroque artist Hans Adam Weissenkircher in 1678. Portraying the planets, the zodiac and elements, with members of the House of Eggenberg shown as gods, it’s an allegory of the supposed Golden Age under their rule.

 When the male line of the Eggenbergs died out in 1717, the State Rooms were shuttered up and left that way until 1939, when the palace and park were bought by the state of Styria. Thus they escaped the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century modernisations of the rest of the palace and have needed very little restoration.

 Don’t miss the tiny Gothic chapel (free access), built c1470 as part of the original mansion of Balthasar Eggenberger, financier to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, and its splendid winged altar. The gardens are glorious, and tucked away in the far corner is the Archeological Museum, a small modern building with a good collection of local finds, most notably the Strettweg Kultwagen or ritual vehicle, which looks like a steampunk invention but actually dates from the end of the seventh century BCE. There are also Roman mosaics, carvings and a fine cup, as well as Greek ceramics and three Egyptian mummy cases and ushebti figurines. Captions are in German only, but it’s definitely worth a look.

 Back in the city centre, the Joanneumsviertel is a group of buildings linked by a modern underground entry hall like IM Pei’s Louvre pyramid or the new Museum Island complex in Berlin; this links the Neue Galerie Graz (with temporary art exhibitions from its own collection and elsewhere), the BRUSEUM (dedicated to the local artist Günter Brus, born in 1938), the Natural History Museum and CoSA (the Centre of Science Activities). With a 24-hour ticket you could scamper round these, and then head a short way north to the History Museum (in the Palais Herberstein, built in 1602, remodelled in the Baroque style then decorated with Viennese Rococo stucco). The museum’s centrepiece is the Schaudepot or Display Store, in which over 2,000 items are displayed on shelves, without captions (although there are good booklets in German and English) – they include Venetian mirrors, Urbino majolica, Archduke Johann’s draisine (one of the earliest prototypes of the bicycle, dating from around 1820) and a penny-farthing, guild tankards and yellow plastic shoes by Zaha Hadid! They all add up to tell something of the city’s story. There’s also a cinema display – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Klaus Maria Brandauer were both from Styria.

 Almost next door is the Graz Museum (not part of the Joanneum system, although a discount is available if you have a 24-hour ticket, and not closed on Mondays), in another fine townhouse. This is the real city history museum, with a complex account of the city’s changing urban morphology. One thing that caught my eye was the city’s status as Austria’s cycling capital. It all began in the 1880s with the founding of various cycling clubs (including continental Europe’s first ladies’ club, in 1893), and then the Slovene Janez Puh becoming Johann Puch and founding the Puch bicycle factory, which lasted from 1889 until the 1960s and was followed by many others. More recently, cycling activism started in the 1970s and has not let up – traffic calming and a pedestrian zone appeared in 1972, plans for a north-south motorway through Eggenburg were dropped in 1973 after a petition picked up over 37,000 signatures, and in 1980 the first pop-up or ‘illegal’ cycle path was created. Now 20% of people cycle regularly, there are 160km of cycle paths, and the city’s Radoffensive (Cycle Offensive) promises to spend €10 million a year until 2030 to further boost cycle levels. One thing to watch out for is that cars turn right (fairly carefully) when pedestrian/cyclist crossings have their green phase.

 I saw much more, the cathedral (alongside the huge Mausoleum of Ferdinand III, built by de Ponis in 1614 with internal decor by Fischer von Erlach, whose work I’m familiar with across the former Habsburg territories of Central Europe, and whose home town this was), the Schloss, the Burg (not to be confused), but I think that’s enough detail for now.

Wien und Salzburg

Vienna is too big to give a quick overview of, and I really only stopped to see some art, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Leopold Collection, and to see an old friend – I did sample one café, not one of the famous ones on the Ring but a fairly authentic workers’ place near the Hauptbahnhof, the Café Goldegg. We also went to the Siebenstern brewpub, where I enjoyed some Märzen, derived from the original Vienna Lager developed in 1841 by Anton Dreher – the first bottom-fermented beer, and the lightest and clearest beer anyone had seen at the time (although it seems pretty amber to modern eyes), and malty rather than hoppy. Now it only really exists in the US and Mexico, oddly. Märzen was traditionally a stronger beer, brewed in March (whence the name), as brewing was banned from April to September due to the risk of fire, and kept in cold cellars, preferably with ice, until Oktoberfest. It’s good stuff, not at all what you might expect a ‘lager’ to taste like.

 I also spent a night in Salzburg, which really is a massive tourist trap. The riverside setting is stunning, the old town lovely in parts, but it’s overwhelmed by heavy Baroque piles such as the cathedral and the Residenz, and by the sheer number of visitors. No wonder Mozart was desperate to get away.

Go slowly

The Glacier Express, from Zermatt to St Moritz, proudly labels itself as the world’s slowest express train, but it does have the excuse that it runs on metre-gauge tracks, and it only gets really slow at its eastern end where it doubles as a local service – but the Transalpin from Zürich to Graz, which I took from Innsbruck to Graz, rivals it, in my opinion. It’s a normal electrically hauled standard-gauge train but it runs on a very curvaceous route and has a lot of stops, some only a couple of minutes apart. As so often, it’s worth looking at services via the capital, even if it’s the long way round – in Britain it’s worth doing almost anything to avoid Cross-Country trains, and with advance booking it’ll be cheaper via London. Now that really was a bit of a detour, but it’s free advice!

 Trains from Graz to Wien run over the wonderful Semmering Pass, a feat of engineering that’s now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List – there are lots of very tight curves so it’s not fast either, but it doesn’t take six hours to cover 300 kilometres, like the Transalpin. The Austrians are now copying the Swiss in building base tunnels under the original alpine railways – the Semmering Base Tunnel should open in 2030 (only six years late) and will bring Graz within two hours of Wien. The historic route will then become a delightful touristic route, like the old Gotthard and Lötschberg lines.

 From Wien west to Salzburg is largely on a new 200km/h line that tunnels under the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) and other obstacles, so it takes just under two and a half hours to reach Mozart Central. The Austrian state railways (ÖBB) operate services from Wien via Salzburg to Innsbruck and beyond with their very very nice and modern Railjet trains (also on Wien-Graz and other main routes) – but the Wien-Salzburg service has been taken over by a private operation called WESTbahn which essentially provides a semi-fast service, with lots of stops, but some very cheap advance fares. ÖBB uses the new Wien Hauptbahnhof interchange and has largely vacated Wien Westbahnhof, leaving plenty of space there for WESTbahn’s two trains per hour to Salzburg.