Done Vienna? Now head for Graz, where ancient and modern rub shoulders here: craggy castles and leading-edge museums, Renaissance houses and funky contemporary jazz
“Graz is a bit of a puzzle,” says my wife, as we sip a glass of Schilcher, an acid, pink local wine. We are sitting in a Buschenschank, a tavern in the vineyards of Styria, a green, rural province in southeastern Austria. It’s not just that none of our friends has heard of Graz – even though it is Austria’s second largest city and was European City of Culture in 2003. “It’s puzzling because it has some of the most glorious buildings I have ever seen – and some of the funkiest new architecture, too.”
She’s right. Close to the borders with Italy, Hungary and Slovenia, Graz straddles the River Mur. Almost always in view is the Schlossberg, a 470m-high jagged rock, topped with a clock tower and bell tower. But these are no ordinary towers. Three times a day, the bell rings out 101 times and on the clock face, the big hand points to the hours, and the little hand points to the quarters.
We were going to take the 100-year-old funicular to the top, but a local suggested an even better way: walking into the hollowed-out hillside and gliding up to the top in the glass lift. Either way, the view from the top is spectacular. Below is the carefully-preserved city centre, where cars are banned and a tram line whirs quietly past ornate buildings. And what glorious buildings they are: decorated with stucco and statues, painted in elegant yellows and greens, blues and creams. Each city block is built round a courtyard, a Renaissance courtyard at that. Think arcades that protect from rain and sun. Among the cafés and boutiques, we spot a chemist shop that opened in 1570, buy cakes from the Strehly Konditorei that opened in 1596, poke our noises into Edegger-Tax, where they have been baking bread for well over 400 years. No wonder this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On a guided walk from the tourist office, we realise that this is a part of Europe that is blanked out of British history books: archdukes and kaisers clashed, invaders arrived from Turkey and France (it was Napoleon who knocked down the castle on the Schlossberg). Yet this crossroads has survived remarkably well, perhaps aided by the pikes and swords, guns and helmets, some 30,000 of them, that are on show at the Armoury Museum. The biggest collection of medieval weapons and armour in the world, it includes some of the nastiest ways of hacking and spearing we have ever seen.
But the city is no living museum. “Graz rocks,” one of the 40,000 students in town tells us. Outstanding university faculties include architecture and music. “The first jazz faculty in Europe opened here over 40 years ago,” a musician tells us during a gig at the Royal Garden Jazz Club. A real jazz cellar if ever there was one, this underground room dates back to the 15th century. But jazz and modern music are everywhere here, with bands formed by students from all over the world.
Then there is the modern architecture, some carefully wedged between the ancient houses, some added boldly in the past decade. We have coffee and cake in the M1 Café Bar, a glass box overlooking tiled rooftops and church spires. And we take photos of two structures that are fun as well as functional. The Mur Island was designed for the 2003 European Capital of Culture celebrations. Linked to the shore by steel and glass gangplanks, the Vito Acconci-designed combo of performance space and restaurant floats like a boat on the river. Like the London Eye, it was a temporary structure; also like the Eye, it is here to stay. Then, on the far bank is the Mattress or the Alien – just two of the nicknames for the Kunsthaus, the art gallery designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier. At its best at night, when the lights twinkle through the acrylic skin, the gallery seems to float like a tethered balloon. As for the shows, they are just as edgy as the building.
Sitting outside the tavern in the vineyards, we look back over our visit. We have been to Piber, the village whose stud farm breeds the prancing white Lipizzaners for Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. We have seen the lake, near Thal, where Arnold Schwarzenegger was born and later proposed to Maria Shriver. (Yes, that Terminator.) We have shopped at the market, where a jolly farmer explains that Kürbiskernöl, or pumpkin seed oil, “ is what we call Styrian Viagra.” And, we have been out to Schloss Eggenberg.
At the end of the No 1 tram line, the 400-year-old Eggenberg Palace is a mathematician’s dream, with 365 windows, 24 state rooms, 52 doors and a tower topping each of the four corners. “Graz is one of those cities where past and present co-exist perfectly,” my wife muses. “Everything looks so traditional, so Austrian.” She takes another sip of wine and munches on some more dried ham. “I like puzzles,” she says. “And I like Graz.”
Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Graz.
Where to stay
The four-star Erzherzog Johann Hotel is central, grand and 150 years old.
Grand Hotel Wiesler: on the banks of the River Mur, this traditional hotel has hosted politicians, film stars and singers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mick Jagger and Kylie Minogue.
Where to eat
M1 Café Bar (Färberplatz 1) is open all day for stylish snacks (platters of prosciutto, salami, ham, cheeses and olives) and wicked cocktails...with stunning views over the city.