After two weeks of climbing in the mountains, we switch bare rock and high altitudes for some urban atmosphere to visit Graz, the capital city of Styria. Graz is not only a convenient traffic hub for our return journey to Berlin but also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage for its well-preserved Renaissance Old Town.
A Southern European flair
From the tramway window, we look out onto pleasant outdoor seating areas, where people are already leisurely enjoying wine and aperitifs. The scene has a distinct Southern European flair – Graz is, after all, not so far from Italy. We get off a few stops later at the main square (Hauptplatz), the centre of the Old Town of Graz. Apart from tramways, busses and taxis, no motorised transport is allowed in the whole Old Town area. The square is surrounded by 500 year-old houses with intricately decorated facades, Renaissance arcades and high, red-tiled roofs. Cobbled streets lead away onto the castle hill or into the mediaeval maze of alleys around the Franciscan church.
We wander some streets, marvelling at the beautiful houses and interior courtyards and inspecting some restaurant menus: mostly pizza and pasta. Eventually we chance upon a traditional tavern hidden in a pleasant courtyard that serves typical Styrian food: salads made with pumpkin seed oil, and mushrooms cooked “goulash style” with spicy peppers and pretzel-dumplings.
The next day we explore the UNESCO city more vigorously, armed with guidebooks, city maps and leaflets. We take in the “west bank” with the “friendly alien” art museum, the church of the Friars Minor, and the modern, purpose-built island in the river. Next we follow the main arteries of the Old Town from the town hall to the provincial parliament. That sounds bland, but it is a veritable Renaissance palace showing the burgher’s affluence and pride, and also their protestant self-righteousness versus the old Catholic elites.
Alleys of the Old Town of Graz
Most alleys of the Graz Old Town lead up the slopes of the small Castle Hill (Schlossberg), so we need some pumpkin seed ice cream (very delicious) for stamina before we can continue our sightseeing. Several palaces of private citizens or of the Teutonic Knights are closed to visitors. But there’s also a magnificent cathedral and the old (lower) castle which today houses administrative offices. Nevertheless, the castle holds a tourist attraction – an unusual “double spiral” staircase, in gothic sandstone design. You can get quite dizzy walking up and down.
We are about to call it a day and go for some wine tasting, but then decide to walk all the way up to the castle hill anyway. It’s such a fine day! Some of the 16th century fortifications as well as a clock and a bell tower are still standing, but mainly, locals nowadays use the steep hill in the town centre as a park and recreational area. Both a cable car and an elevator inside the rock bring visitors to the top (about 100 m above town). That makes the restaurants and beer gardens a popular after-work hangout for both locals and tourists. And the view over the historical red-tiled roofs of Graz is quite beautiful.
In the morning, we are glad that we already went up the castle hill. After all, the weather forecast unexpectedly warns of summer thunderstorms later in the day. But for the morning, we pack our climbing gear and head out to Weinzödl, Graz’s local sports climbing crag, for a few easy routes. On a pleasant summer day, it is well-visited by local climbers and a nice non-touristy thing to do.
That afternoon we head to the Eggenberg Palace on the outskirts of Graz.
Japan in Graz
The Eggenberg family were local noblemen who gained influence and wealth from the late middle ages. They used their money to build a huge residence near Graz. In the early 17th century, Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg had a new and representative palace built. His grandson Johan Seyfried later decorated the place in splendid Baroque style. Various members of the Eggenberg family appear in the ceiling frescoes of the “hall of planets” – each in the pose of a Roman god or goddess symbolising one of the seven planets known at that time (including sun and moon).
Luckily for posterity, the family died out soon after, and the palace remained unused for centuries. When the province of Styria bought the property, it was even possible to restore a number of rooms with their original furniture. Later, the conservators even discovered panels of a Japanese byôbu screen with a rare illustration of Hideyoshi’s Osaka castle. Unfortunately no pictures inside the castle!
After an extensive and interesting guided tour through the palace, we realise that no thunderstorm has built up, after all, and that it’s a beautiful late-afternoon, just about fitting for that wine tasting in the Old Town …
Why visit Graz?
We have visited most of the bigger cities in Austria, like Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt. All of them are nice – but Graz definitely is the most picturesque of them.
How to visit Graz – practicalities
We stayed at the A&O Hostel behind the station. It was convenient to visit Graz as we had a lot of luggage, but it is about 2 km away from the Old Town. A clean small double room was 44 € per night (without breakfast). The Old Town of Graz is small enough to walk – but a day ticket for public transport (including the Schlossberg cable car) is only 5.50 €. 2 days were enough to see the main sights and get a feel of the city.