We were planning to see the other exhibition: “Legendary Riegersburg – Legendary Women”. Two very colourful female characters are associated with the history of this fortress. The first one was Baroness Elisabeth Katharina von Galler (1607 to 1672) who was the lady of the castle from 1648 to 1672. In a time of very traditional male-female role expectations the “Galllerin” was a very unconventional character and strayed from the usual norms. Women, even aristocratic women, were not allowed to own property at the time, and Elisabeth, as the sole heiress of the fortress, would have had to relinquish any property ownership to her husband, but she refused to comply. Even in her prenuptial agreement she ensured the right to decide over her property herself.
Baroness Elisabeth von Galler initiated a complete reconstruction of the fortress which included the stunning baroque White Hall as well as the construction of the numerous bastions, gates and the extensive walls surrounding the castle. Several inscriptions above different gates point out that she spent a lot of money on this construction work. Her husband incurred major debt and in 1649 she paid him out with a substantial sum of money and got rid of him. Altogether Baroness von Galler was married three times and involved in several legal battles with her husbands, and local clergy.
The other interesting female character featured in the “Legendary Women” exhibition is Katharina Paldauf who was an employee of Baroness von Galler for whom she started working at 20 years of age. From 1673 to 1675 she got embroiled in the Feldbach Witch Trial and was accused of having manipulated weather and participated in witch Sabbaths.The legends also say that she was able to grow roses in winter, a talent that earned her the moniker “the flower witch”. For her supernatural powers to grow flowers in the off-season she was accused being a witch and was presumably executed in 1675.
Various displays in the exhibition also shed light on the historical background of the 16th and 17th centuries. Servitude and feudalism characterized the power structures during the Middle Ages, and peasants had a very difficult life while aristocrats formed a hereditary elite that was entitled to hold lands and exercise far-reaching powers over the common people. The mostly agrarian economy at the time obligated peasants to deliver a substantial share of their production to the local lords and noblemen who in turn promised them protection during periods of war. This was an era of extensive exploitation and lords had the right to use peasants’ land as they pleased. Often a peasant would require the permission of a lord when he intended to marry, and onerous taxes were imposed on the peasant class. These harsh conditions actually led to many peasant rebellions throughout Central Europe in the 16h century.
The noblemen on the other hand lived a lavish lifestyle. An inscription at the entrance of the fortress indicates that an excessive feast during the 1600s resulted in 21 days of binge eating and drinking. The opulently decorated Knights Hall was the location of many such bouts and a wooden bridge connecting it with another hall was used for relieving oneself after all this carousing and is commonly referred to as the “vomiting bridge”. Even today the figure of a man bent over adorns the bridge, reminding people of its original purpose.
We were awed by the lavish detailing in the former living quarters of the Riegersburg, in particular by the Hall of Knights with its coffered ceiling and the opulently decorated baroque White Hall. When we walked through the premises, the White Hall still featured table decorations and leftovers from a wedding that had been held a few days earlier at the fortress. The castle today is owned by the Liechtenstein family, an aristocratic family that has been living at this castle since 1972. One of the family members had just recently gotten married. The beautiful flower decorations and wedding menus gave us an idea of what some of these historic feasts must have looked like.
We had enjoyed our first-hand history lesson and were ready to keep exploring so we walked down the long basaltic road into the town of Riegersburg that sprawls at the foot of the fortress. A baroque church and several restaurants anchor the picturesque main square of the village and there is a large pond on the outskirts of the village that features a resort with beach volleyball, a water slide, tennis and eateries.
We then continued our big country drive to our next destination: the Castle of Kapfenstein, about 20 minutes from the Riegersburg, is also located on an extinct volcano close to the Hungarian and Slovenian borders. Its recorded history dates back to 1065 and it was one of the fortresses that protected Austria from attacks by the Magyars and Turks. The castle was owned by different noble families until it came into the possession of the Winkler-Hermaden family in 1898.
Today the castle holds a 15-room upscale hotel as well as a restaurant with extensive outdoor patios that provide a stunning view into the surrounding countryside. We picked a beautiful spot on the terrace and started perusing the menu. A wedding had obviously just happened at the castle hotel because the bride and the groom were still carrying presents out to their vehicles. We decided to taste some local delicacies, and I enjoyed my mushroom soup with roasted buckwheat and a cheese platter with a broad assortment of Austrian specialty cheeses.
Our late lunch had stretched into the mid-afternoon and it was now time to continue our journey. But before moving on we took a little 15 minute stroll through a forest and some vineyards to a small chapel on the plateau next to the Castle of Kapfenstein. From here we had a perfect view northwards and through a magnifying viewer we were able to see our previous destination, the volcanic cone of the Riegersburg.
It was time to return so we started our drive back to Weiz. We had made arrangements with our friends Luis and Isabella to join them for a little backyard get-together on my last evening in Austria. Both my friends are avid motor scooter riders and Luis allowed me to hop on one of their two-wheeled machines and accompanied me on a little test drive. I had ridden a motor scooter for the first and so far only time in my life on the island of Ibiza and was exhilarated to have another go at it. After some initial balancing problems and after getting used to adjusting the gas on the handlebar grip we finally got off to a decent start on our little adventure and took an exciting spin on the local country roads.
Twenty minutes later we returned and sat down in their beautiful garden, admiring the large pond that the two of them had created. We all reminisced a bit about the time in 2005 when my brother, my sister-in-law and these two friends had come to Toronto for a visit. This was the first time that I saw my friends again, this time on their home turf. We were even thinking that one of these years we should do a joint skiing vacation in Schladming in Upper Styria, a phenomenal skiing region that is often the location world cup ski races and a place where my friends go skiing on a regular basis.
The sun was starting to set and it was time for me to get back to brother’s place and to start packing my suitcase. I said goodbye to my friends and invited them to come for another visit to Toronto. Ewald, Anneliese and I spent another nice few hours at their home as I got ready for my departure, feeling rather sad about the impending end of my trip.
Without a doubt this has been my best visit since I left my home town 21 years ago. Nine days just wasn’t long enough to even explore the sights of my immediate area. In addition to the wonderful connections with my family and some good friends, I had learned during the last few days that Styria, the region I was born into, was certainly on par with many other tourism areas that I have visited throughout North America and Europe.
Styria’s beautiful landscapes, the extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation, the architecture, history, music, culture, and last but not least, the delicious cuisine will definitely make me come back again.