A Visit To Graz

I continued my drive into the centre of Graz and parked my vehicle in the underground garage next to the Graz Opera – at more than 20 Euros not exactly an inexpensive way to see the city, but affordable parking is difficult to find in downtown Graz. My first stop was the Graz Opera House, a neo-baroque building that was opened in 1899 and damaged during an air strike in World War II. A few steps further west I reached the Herrengasse, the main shopping street of Graz, framed by dozens of high-end retailers and restaurants with outdoor patios. A line of the Graz streetcar system continues all along the length of this major street.

The west side of the Herrengasse features two major sights: the Landeszeughaus (Armory), a weapons museum with roughly 32,000 exhibits including harnesses, helmets, armours, rifles and pistols, as well as the Landhaus, seat of the Styrian Provincial Government. One of Central Europe’s most stunning Renaissance structures, this palace was built in the first half of the 16th century according to plans of the famous architect Domenico dell’Allio. The three level arcaded courtyard is a true architectural gem, and on the southern end of the square visitors can relax in the historic Landhauskeller restaurant which features an attractive courtyard patio.

On the other side of the Herrengasse is the “Gemaltes Haus” – also called the “Herzogshof” (Painted House or Duke’s Estate), a painted house whose baroque frescoes were created in 1742 by Johann Mayer and illustrate the gods of Roman-Greek mythology. Just steps northwards from there I reached the “Grazer Hauptplatz”, or Graz’ main square. This extensive essentially triangular square is framed on two sides by five and six story stately houses painted in a variety of intense baroque colours such as salmon, ochre, brick red, and many feature detailed façade ornamentations.

The south side of the square is taken up by the “Rathaus” – the flamboyant historicist late 19th century palace of the Graz’ City Hall. Just in front of it is the Erzherzog-Johann-Brunnen (Archduke Johann Fountain) which is surrounded by numerous adjacent fast food and retail stands that sell typical Austrian sausages, French fries, flowers and magazines as well as roasted chestnuts in the fall. The northeast side of the Hauptplatz features a view of Graz’ most famous landmark: the “Uhrturm” (Clock Tower), located on the Schlossberg hill that overlooks the city.

I continued my walk northwards through this pedestrian zone along the historic Sackstrasse and walked into a truly historic restaurant: the “Krebsenkeller” (Crawfish Cellar) has been a restaurant here since 1538 and its inner courtyard was full of culinary fans. Across the street is the famous Hotel Erzherzog Johann which is also a restaurant since 1852. Just steps further north I walked into another historic building whose courtyard was adorned with a metal sculpture that surprisingly featured all sorts of American footballs.

Metres away is the so-called Schlossbergplatz, a square framed by various bourgeois houses and historic restaurants that features stairs up to the Schlossberg. I then crossed the road and walked southwards alongside the Mur River to one of the newest landmarks of Graz: the “Murinsel” (Mur Island) was built in 2003 when Graz was the European Cultural Capital. The New York designer Vito Acconci created a design for an artificial island that connects the eastern and western banks of the Mur and is supposed to resemble a sea-shell. The interior of the island holds an amphitheatre, a restaurant and a playground for children.

Now I needed to explore the city’s most prominent elevation: the Schlossberg (literally “Castle Hill”). I did that by taking the Schlossbergbahn funicular which is part of the Graz public transport system. The original steam-operated funicular was opened in November 1894 and was in operation until 1960. After an extensive renovation and rebuilding of the steep rails, the funicular started operating again in 1961 until it closed its doors in February of 2004.

The third generation of this funicular was initiated in early 2004 and cost about 2.5 million Euros. The new generation of vehicles is more spacious and features fully glass-enclosed roofs and windows which provide a great view of the city as you ascend up the mountain. It takes just over two minutes to go from the base station up 123 m in altitude to the upper station and at a cost of 1.70 Euro it is an affordable and interesting way of getting up to Graz’ famous hill.

At the top I stepped out onto the outdoor patio of a restaurant that offers a phenomenal view over Graz and the surrounding mountains. Steps away I saw the Glockenturm (“Bell Tower”), a historic building from 1588 which still houses a bell that weighs 4200 kg and is referred to as Liesl. The Schlossberg used to feature a medieval castle from the 1500s (therefore the name “Castle Hill”) that was ordered to be destroyed by Napoleon in 1809. Only the Bell Tower and Graz’ famous landmark, the Uhrturm, were allowed to remain of the fortress. The local residents had paid a considerable ransom to the French troops to hold on to their beloved landmarks.

Walking southwards of the Glockenturm I arrived at the Stallbastei (“Stable Bastion”), a fortification that features 20 metre high and 6 metre thick walls whose construction began in 1544. Today there are various cannons that adorn the bastion and at the open front of the building there is a beautiful view overlooking the city. Just below the bastion is the “Türkenbrunnen” (Turkish Well), a 94 metre deep well that taps into the groundwater level of the Mur River. Its intention was to provide water, even during extended periods of besiegement.

The Uhrturm itself, known far and wide as the symbol of Graz, is one of the oldest buildings of the city. The core of the tower is assumed to date back to the 13th century and was already mentioned in historic records in 1265. Its present appearance dates from 1560. Four large clock faces adorn the four sides of the tower, and the interesting thing to note is that the hour hand is smaller than the minute hand.

Originally, the tower only featured a very large hour hand, and the minute hands that were installed later had to be designed smaller so people would be able to distinguish one from the other. Fortunately, due to the ransom paid in 1809, the tower has survived and we are still able to admire it today while the remainder of the fortification was razed. The tower was also used as a fire alarm bell, as a the “Bell of Poor Sinners” that was rung during executions, and as the bell that announced the closing hours for the local hospitality establishments.

Just below the Uhrturm is a small garden surrounded by flowers which offers a gorgeous view over the city and its Main Square. I started to make my way down from the Schlossberg along the serpentine-like paths in the park and stopped by the entrance to the Schlossbergstollen (Schlossberg Tunnel), part of the tunnel system that is built into the mountain and was used as air raid shelters during the air attacks of World War II. Today you can cross the base of the mountain through this tunnel. At the base I reached the Karmeliterplatz Square. One of the buildings on the north side of the adjacent Sporgasse also features a stunning inner courtyard and I wished I had had more time to explore the hidden treasures of Graz’ secret courtyards.

I turned left into a street called Hofgasse and stopped at a very unusual building: the Edegger-Tax Bakery, a so-called royal bakery, the oldest such establishment in Graz that dates back to 1569. It stunning 1896 carved wooden portal sets it apart from the surrounding stuccoed houses and during the late 1800 this bakery became an official supplier of Austria’s ruling royal families.

My walk continued to the Freiheitsplatz (“Liberty Square”) which is the location of Graz’ theatre. Across the street from the Schauspielhaus theatre is the Grazer Dom, a cathedral that dates back to 1438. The south side of this late-Gothic church is adorned with a painting of the three scourges: the Black Plage, war and locusts. Austrian imperial coats of arms as well as those of Styria and Portugal point to the historic aristocratic connections.

Right next to the Dom is the Mausoleum of Austrian emperor Francis Ferdinand II, one of Austria’s most important structures of Mannerism and Early Baroque. Designed in the late 1600 it is the last resting place of Francis Ferdinand as well as a variety of other Habsburg rulers.

I continued my walk down the Bürgergasse and turned into the small Abraham a Santa Clara side street until I arrived at the Glockenspielplatz (“Carillon Square”), aptly named for the carillon built in 1905 that enchants crowds of onlookers three times a day at 11 am, 3 and 6 pm. A wooden couple dressed in traditional Styrian outfits, and the male with a raised wine glass, dance to the old melodies of 24 bells.

This entire area is part of the Bermuda-Dreieck (“Bermuda Triangle”), Graz’s most popular entertainment area that is centred around the Mehlplatz, Prokopigasse and Färberplatz. Dozens of hospitality establishments, most with outdoor patios, entice locals and travelers alike to explore the culinary and entertainment opportunities that Graz has to offer.

The Erzherzog-Johann Brunnen (fountain) on Graz’ Main Square

Through one of the tiny passageways I ended up back on the Main Square and took another tiny alleyway, full of bars, restaurants and small retail stores to the back of the Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church). From the front of the church there is a perfect view across the Mur River of the “Kunsthaus”, Graz’ Museum of Modern Art that was completed in 2003 and resembles a rounded spaceship. The entire downtown of Graz is chock full of bars and restaurants and all the squares and side streets are full of “Schanigärten” (outdoor patios) that entice you to sit down, rest and enjoy some hearty Austrian food and drink.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my exploration of Graz, and drove home to relax with my brother and sister-in-law and to reflect on a day full of discoveries. There would have been so much more to see in Graz, but I would have to leave some destinations for my next visit. After a nice pizza dinner in a local restaurant in Weiz I headed to bed early since tomorrow we are going to go on a major excursion: a trip to the mountains of Slovenia and Italy!