Going Back To My Roots

The story of the immigrant – the recurring tale of people with two identities, their lingering attachment to their birth country and their love for their new homes… For many people immigrating to a new country can be an almost schizophrenic experience.

My experience is a little unique: I left my home country of Austria at the tender age of 20 and will soon be celebrating my 21st anniversary of living in Canada. Any gifted mathematician will tell you that I have spent more than half my life, and virtually my entire adulthood in Canada, my new home country, a country for which I have great respect and love. On the other hand, many people are surprised when they hear me speak in my original Austrian dialect. They can’t believe I have been away from home for more than two decades and I still speak my East Styrian dialect exactly the way I spoke it 20 years ago. You could call me a truly bi-cultural individual.

During my first 10 years in Canada I travelled back to Austria once a year to visit my family – my father, grandmother and brother. Unfortunately my mother had passed away a couple of months after I first arrived in Canada, and I had many sad memories of growing up. Then a significant milestone came to pass in 1995: both my father and grandmother passed away within half a year of one another, an event that affected me deeply for a long time, especially since I had a very small family to begin with (no uncles, no aunts, no other grandparents). After this I took an almost nine year hiatus during which I did not travel back home at all. It was not until 2004, at the occasion of my 20th high school graduation anniversary, that I travelled back home to Austria again.

Since I had started travel writing in 2004 there were so many other places to visit in the last few years, and I have since explored fascinating places like Havana, Mexico City, Sicily, New York City, Chicago, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, and many interesting towns and places across Canada and the United States. So there had not really been an opportunity to travel back to Austria, my native country.

But with the occasion of my brother Ewald’s 50th birthday this year I decided to make a trip back. That was a celebration I simply could not miss. In addition, I had set a deliberate goal to travel back home and to explore my birth region through the eyes of a travel writer and to compare Austria, and more specifically Styria, my home province, with the many other places I have had a chance to visit over the last few years.

So I set off in late July and flew into Vienna, Austria’s famous capital. On a gorgeous day I drove south on the A2 Highway through rolling hills into my home province of Styria. It was as if time had stood still, the quaint villages were still there; the fields, orchards and forests still looked the way I remembered them. One thing I distinctly noticed was the fact that virtually all the houses were beautifully renovated and everything seemed in tip top modern condition.

Upon my arrival and a warm welcome by my sister-in-law Anneliese (my brother was still at work) we went for a little walk through my home town of Weiz, and I had a chance to see some of the new buildings that had gone up since my last visit. After a great reunion with my brother and a restful night recuperating from my jet lag, the following day, a Saturday, was going to be the day of my brother’s birthday dinner.

Ewald is a very talented professional chef, so the three off us set off right away in the morning and started the day with visits to the farmers markets in Gleisdorf and Weiz, my home town. Local produce, meats and baked goods made my salivary glands work overtime and my brother picked up the necessary ingredients. Then he started preparing the feast while he sent Anneliese and me on a brief hike through a portion of the Raab River Gorge, a popular hiking and recreational area close to my home town. I added a little driving tour through the scenic areas surrounding the local Goller and Gösser mountains and explored the old mining village of Arzberg. We spent the evening savouring a multi-course gourmet dinner, admiring my brother’s cooking skills.

Sunday was set aside for a full-day outing: we met with our friends Luis and Isabella (who had already visited us in Toronto in 2005), and drove about an hour into the area of South West Styria, which is a very well-known winegrowing region. We went hiking in a picturesque area of rolling hills that is often referred to as the “Austrian Tuscany”. After all this exercise we enjoyed a scrumptious late lunch in a local winegrower’s restaurant, and in the evening I went for a quick bike ride through town.

The weather did not cooperate the next day and it was drizzling or raining the entire day. This gave me a chance to visit my friend Andrea whose daughter Nina had spent several weeks at our place in Toronto last year. I had not seen Andrea, the older sister of one of my schoolmates, for at least 23 years and the reunion was fabulous. A little round of tennis with my friends Luis and Isabella capped off a low-key day.

A brilliant blue sky and beaming sunshine woke me up on Tuesday and I embarked on my first photo tour of my home town. I checked out the imposing baroque pilgrimage church called Weizbergkirche in my home town, and visited Schloss Thannhausen, a Renaissance castle that is still used for concerts and special events. I then drove through the Weizklamm mountain gorge that features vertically dropping limestone cliffs, a river and a main road that is patched against the rocks. The road is so narrow in some areas that one side of traffic has to wait for the other side to pass, there simply isn’t enough room for two vehicles to get by side by side.

The road took me up into the mountains to a village called St. Kathrein, a picturesque little place with gorgeous mountain views, lots of local bed and breakfasts, hiking trails and a nearby ski area. In the afternoon I connected with Andrea and her family again and together we embarked on a special excursion: a visit to the Katerloch, a well-known limestone cave that features the greatest variety of stalactites and stalagmites in all of Austria.

Fritz, our guide, took us on a two-hour walking tour and with his dynamic and entertaining speaking style he explained all the features of the cave, including the various rock formations as well as several big caverns with names such as the Hall of Fantasy, the Enchanted Kingdom and the Lake Paradise which features an underground lake 135 m below the cave’s entrance. He also told us about the former owners and explorers of the cave, a deeply religious married couple that discovered and made accessible extensive new sections of the cave in the early to mid 1950s. These two individuals definitely believed that willpower and conviction can move mountains.

Another gorgeous summer day followed which I decided to start off with a hike through the wildest section of the Raabklamm, Austria’s longest gorge and a designated European nature conservation area. My friends Andrea and Herbert set the pace which was enhanced by our Nordic walking poles. I stopped for a couple of Austrian culinary treats at a local restaurant before I continued my excursion to Graz, the capital of Styria and Austria’s second largest city.

Graz is a really underrated destination, the majority of North Americans has never even heard of it. When people think of traveling to Austria, the destinations Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck instantly come to mind. Surprisingly Graz is still mostly flying under the radar as far as North American travelers are concerned.

But what a shame! Graz is an absolutely gorgeous destination: it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because it has one of the most well-preserved late medieval and Renaissance city centres in Europe. It was also designated as the European Cultural Capital in 2003. Graz is known for outstanding architecture, music and various leading edge arts festivals throughout the seasons.

On my way to Graz I made my first stop in Mariatrost to visit the impressive baroque pilgrimage church on the hill. I then stopped my car near the Opera House and walked down the Herrengasse, Graz’ popular shopping promenade and part of the extensive pedestrian area. I admired the Renaissance courtyard of the Landhaus, seat of the Provincial Styrian Government, and made my way to the Hauptplatz, the city’s main square. It is a beautiful public space, anchored by an impressive late 19th century city hall that overlooks stately houses flanking the square.

The view from the Hauptplatz is framed by the Schlossberg, a rock that is located in the middle of the city that once featured an imposing medieval fortress. Most of the fortifications were destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1809, but the citizenry of Graz paid significant ransom money to retain its most beloved landmark: the Uhrturm (“Clock Tower”), the tower with the four oversized clock faces whose hour hand is longer than its minute hand.

This clock tower has for centuries been the symbol of Graz and I enjoyed my view over the city from its terraces after my funicular ride up the mountain. I also took in the afternoon performance of the carillon on the Glockenspielplatz, where since 1905 the music of 24 bells accompanies the mechanical dance of a couple made from wood, entertaining dozens of tourists who congregate to watch.

My brother and sister-in-law had taken the next day off and we were planning an excursion further afield: our destination was a mountain peak called Mangart in Slovenia, located about a three-hour drive from my home town. The beauty of Central Europe is its diversity of landscapes and its small distances, and in just a few hours of driving through the Austrian province of Carinthia we arrived in Val Canale, an area where Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. Incidentally this is also the only area where the Germanic, Romance and Slavic language families come together right next to one another. We passed by the picturesque Predil Lake and continued our climb into the high mountains and crossed the Italian border into Slovenia.

But as it can be with the best laid plans of mice and men, our hiking trip to the Mangart Mountain was not to be: our car overheated and there was no way we were going to make it any further. We had to stop, let the car cool down and turn around to go back down the mountain. Fortunately, our disappointment did not last long since we came up with an alternate plan: we took the cable car up to Monte Lussari whose summit area features a tiny mountain village with a small pilgrimage church. An absolutely stunning 360 degree mountain vista opens up from the top of this mountain and we enjoyed a hearty lunch on the balcony of a rustic restaurant, taking in the phenomenal Alpine panorama.

On our way home we stopped in the town of Tarvisio, a border town that has benefited for a long time from the traffic between Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We stopped at the market, my brother picked up a few Italian delicatessen and we enjoyed our stroll through town. After our return in the late afternoon I embarked on a little local excursion and drove to the Teichalm – Sommeralm area close to my home town.

This region is now marketed as the “Almenland’, which literally means “Alpine meadow country”. The Tourism Region Sommeralm -Teichalm represents the largest contiguous high-altitude alpine meadow area in Europe. It features a lake, many hiking trails, ski lifts and phenomenal views into the surrounding countryside. In addition, the area is used as grazing pastures for hundreds of Alpine oxen, animals whose tender and tasty meat is prized highly by chefs and restaurant owners throughout the entire area.

Poor weather returned on Friday, so I spent a quiet day making visits to acquaintances and doing errands. The highlight of the day was a classical concert organized by the local Weiz Lions Club: a charity concert and fundraiser that featured musicians and an orchestra from AIMS, the American Institute of Musical Studies, a Graz-based organization that offers intense summer vocal, piano and music programs to international students, most of whom come from the United States.

We listened to pieces by Mozart, Strauss and Verdi and were thoroughly impressed by the young sopranos, tenors and musicians who put on an outstanding performance. The event even raised 15,000 Euros for the local charity. I interviewed several of the young music students after the concert and they were thoroughly enjoying their international exchange program and sure to return home with memories of a lifetime.

Finally, the sun had returned and my second last day in Austria was going to be gorgeous. My second photo safari through my home town resulted in several encounters with acquaintances whom I had not seen for more than 20 years. Old memories were stirred up even more when I connected with my school friends Klaudia and Doris. During our walk up to the local Weizberg we also had a celebrity connection: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mother, father and brother are buried in the Weiz cemetery. His parents lived in this town for many years, and his father was a local police officer.

Of course we reminisced about our high school adventures and after a scrumptious garden lunch we went to go hiking on the nearby Schöckel mountain. The Schöckel is the largest mountain in the region around Weiz and provides a phenomenal 360 degree panorama over the entire region. Southerly views extend into the Slovenian and Hungarian plains, and northerly vistas feature the high Alpine peaks of Northern Styria. To the east and to the west the scenic Styrian hill country opens up. The three of us climbed up the steepest portion of the mountain, securely equipped with our Nordic walking poles. Several restaurants offer refreshments and hearty Austrian food at the summit area, and high-speed excitement is provided by the summer tobogganing track that runs down the mountain, a nice adrenaline kick I just had to experience.

After our hike back down we stopped off at Doris’ house, a beautiful property in the countryside, that features a brand new pond and large garden. Doris even equipped us with delicious freshly picked peaches from her father’s orchards. Klaudia and I headed back to Weiz and an hour later we met up again for a backyard barbeque at my brother’s place. Klaudia’s entire family, her sister Andrea with daughters Nina and Katja as well as the two grandparents joined us for a delicious dinner that showcased my brother’s culinary skills in a multi-course feast.

My last full day in Austria had arrived and Ewald and Anneliese had planned a special outing: an excursion to one of Austria’s most famous fortresses – the Riegersburg. In existence for more than 850 years and located in the border region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, this impressive fortification has withstood many attacks from the east and was never conquered. It has often been referred to as the “strongest fortification of Christianity”, having successfully defended repeated attacks by Turks and Magyars.

With its numerous fortified gates, its unique location on an extinct volcanic cone, its extensive defensive walls, wooden drawbridges and moats, the Riegersburg is an authentic medieval fortress that has seen architectural additions from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. An exhibition in the fortress explains the historic era of the 16th and 17th century and sheds light on feudalism as well as two fascinating female characters who inhabited this fortress more than four centuries ago: Baroness von Galler and the “flower witch” Katharina Paldauf.

Our East Styrian tour continued through volcano country with a drive to Schloss Kapfenstein, another medieval fortress that has been expanded into a castle and today holds an upscale restaurant and hotel. This castle is also located on the extinct cone of a former volcano. We enjoyed a tasty lunch in the outdoor patio of the castle, against the gorgeous backdrop of the distant Carinthian and Slovenian Mountains.

My last evening in Austria was capped off with a visit to our friends Luis and Isabella, and all five of us enjoyed the late evening sun in their beautiful backyard. Luis even took me on a little motor scooter adventure around town. Back at Ewald’s place we spent a few more hours reminiscing until I had to pack my bags for my departure to the airport in Vienna Monday morning.

These nine days have been one of the most wonderful travel experiences in my life. They were greatly enhanced by my connections with family and friends, but in addition, my eyes were truly opened to travel opportunities in my birth region of Austria.

Styria, with its medieval cities, imposing churches, monasteries and fortresses offers a great variety of destinations to history and architecture lovers. Music, visual and performing arts are ever present, even in small communities. Outdoor lovers will find a whole smorgasbord of activities, from hiking to mountain biking, skiing, horseback riding, mountaineering, hang-gliding, river rafting and many other varied pastimes.

The diverse landscapes featuring fertile plains, rolling hills full of orchards and vineyards, high Alpine peaks and meadows, pristine rivers and scenic lakes enchant at every corner. And food, wine and beer lovers will definitely enjoy the diverse culinary offerings. In addition, Styria offers affordable prices and great value to international travelers. I realized my birth region is right up there at the top of any destinations I have visited in the last few years.

This trip truly opened my eyes to the astounding beauty and variety of the area where I was born, and even though Styria might not be as well known as other regions of Austria, my nine days back home were far too short and I already have a whole list of things to do and see next time I am over in the old country.