Graz, in southeastern Austria, is what tourists expect of Europe

February 28, 1993|By Colleen Ballard Hayes | Colleen Ballard Hayes,New York Times News ServiceContributing Writer

Graz, Styria, is what Americans expect Europe to be. The capital of Austria's second-largest province -- founded in 1128 -- is a far cry from tourist-crowded European meccas.

In the Old Town's maze of side streets and cobbled alleyways, you'll stumble upon quiet outdoor cafes, where you can bask in the sun as you sip a glass of Styrian Schilcher wine and enjoy the hospitality of the locals.

When I arrived in late September, gentle southern breezes and constant sun streaming on sidewalk cafes made this town in southeastern Austria seem almost Mediterranean.

Graz is a heady mix of nationalities, including Slavic, German and Scandinavian. Hungary is about 45 minutes by car, and Slovenia is so close that guided tours to this newly formed republic leave Graz daily. In addition, Graz has its share of 70,000 Bosnian refugees who have streamed into Austria, fleeing the Yugoslavian civil war.

The city's modern-day contribution to the world is Arnold Schwarzenegger, but earlier Grazers include astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler and emperors of the Hapsburg dynasty who ruled Austria and much of Europe between 1278 and 1918. Another native, Franz Ferdinand II, heir-apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in 1914 at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. His birthplace, Graz's Khuenburg Palace, is now a museum.

Other Hapsburgian monuments are reminders of the town's splendid past, such as Graz's Gothic cathedral, built from 1438 to 1462 by Emperor Frederick III. Frederick also built the Burg, a palace enlarged by his son, Emperor Maximil ian I, whose architectural masterpiece -- a Gothic double (and dizzyingly) spiral staircase -- is one of the few in Europe today.

From my window at the historic Grand Hotel Wiesler, I could see the mammoth Clock Tower floating above the Old Town like a fairy-tale apparition. Graz's 92-foot-high landmark and the bell tower are almost all that remain from the medieval Schlossberg fortress that soars 300 feet above the Old Town.

It's a 25-minute climb to the top via stone steps (three minutes by funicular), where paths wind through an enchanting natural park. While sipping melange mit schlag (coffee with whipped cream) at the Schlossberg Cafe, you can enjoy a bird's-eye view of Graz.

The Schlossberg was never taken by storm -- not even by Napoleon Bonaparte. But after an abortive siege by French troops in 1809, Napoleon -- furious because he failed to conquer the fortress -- ordered it demolished. Only by paying Napoleon's general extravagant sums of money did local merchants save the tower and part of the fortress (today, the site of a garrison museum). Open-air theater and opera are performed on a stage built into the casements.

In Graz, the glacial waters of the River Mur, originating in the Alps, cut a beautiful silver swath through the Old Town. It was along the Mur that the Ottoman Turks, during the 15th and 17th centuries, wound their way northwest to Graz, where the Schlossberg stopped their push to Vienna.

"Part of the Styrians' independence and toughness is due to Styria's location as an eastern bulwark against Turkish invaders," our guide informed us.

"Graz against the Turks" runs like a thread through the rich fabric of Old Town. High above spiraling Sporgasse ("spur-makers lane"), the carved statue of a Turk, brandishing sword and shield, looks down on passers-by from an opening in the roof of Saurai Palace.

Coffee and pastry

Also, the Turkish invaders, who fled Austria after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, left behind bags of coffee beans and were responsible for the crescent shape of Austria's internationally known pastry, the kipferl -- predecessor of the croissant. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that to devour the symbol of one's enemy (Islam's crescent moon) would help defeat him in battle.

Across from Saurau Palace, you can sample kipferls, filled with raisins and walnuts, along with Turkischer (black coffee boiled in a copper pot) at Zur Goldenen Pastete (the Golden Pie). This Renaissance house was built in the 1570s by a Protestant barrel seller, who led a revolt against an edict of Catholic Archduke Charles II forbidding children to attend Graz's Lutheran Foundation School. (In its hallowed halls, the great Johannes Kepler taught during the time he discovered two of his laws of planetary motion.)

Nearby, on the walls outside Graz's Cathedral, are painted gruesome scenes from the Turks' invasion in 1480 -- houses in flames, beheadings, rapes and torture of Styrians. Called "The Scourges of God," the paintings, from 1485, are among the best examples of late-medieval paintings north of the Alps. The frescoes are duplicated inside Emperor Ferdinand II's Baroque mausoleum on an altar in St. Catherine's Church. Both church and imperial crypt are masterpieces of Baroque stucco work partly created by J. B. Fischer von Erlach, the main architect of Vienna's Schoenbrunn Place and a Graz native.

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