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Hello from Austria – A Hike through the Raabklamm and a Visit to Graz – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Hello from Austria – A Hike through the Raabklamm and a Visit to Graz – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Inspired from my cave adventure yesterday, I met my friends Andrea and Herbert early this morning to go on a hike through the Raabklamm (Raab River Gorge), which is surrounded by limestone mountains that hold more than 700 caves, including the famous Katerloch and the Grasshöhle, two publicly accessible caves and major tourist attractions in the Weiz area.

Again, we drove through the rolling hills of Göttelsberg, Haselbach, Leska and Dürntal to park our car near an entrance point of the Raab Gorge. Andrea had given me a couple of Nordic Walking poles which I was about to try out for the first time. Nordic Walking, also referred to as “pole walking” or “fitness walking” is a sport that consists of walking with modified ski poles. Originally popular in Finland and Scandinavia, Nordic Walking has become extremely popular throughout Europe, although it hasn’t quite caught on yet in North America.

I was initially a little skeptical about the concept, but once I tried the walking poles, I realized that walking uphill and downhill both became a lot easier since the poles provide additional support and balance. And the continuous arm motion burns up to 40{4962d8e2c73ee88aad7125033d5658fd247043cd5a624d71ac5e800504586b0b} more calories than walking alone and facilitates quicker movement, even on flat terrain. The additional benefit of Nordic walking is that a portion of one’s weight is distributed to the poles, which reduces the pressure on the back as well as the knee and hip joints.

Now convinced of the benfits of pole walking, we started our descent into the Raab River Valley on a first gently, then steeply sloping forest path. The Raabklamm is Austria’s longest gorge and divided into the “Grosse Raabklamm” (large Raab Gorge) with a length of about 10 km, and the “Kleine Raabklamm” (small Raab Gorge, about 7 km long). We were headed straight towards the Grosse Raabklamm which is the wilder of the two stretches, characterized by vertical limestone cliffs, wooden bridges, suspension bridges, walks beside the river as well as sections of the trail that veer away from the water and take you along an elevated section of the slopes. I had already explored the Kleine Raabklamm earlier last Saturday with my sister-in-law Anneliese.

The Raabklamm itself has remained very natural and undeveloped and is home to a very diverse group of animals such as foxes, badgers as well as moufflons, a species of wild sheep that is also referred to as “goat antelopes”. Amphibians such as fire salamanders and a diverse selection of predatory birds have contributed to the Raabklamm’s designation as a protected “Natura 2000” area, a Europe-wide nature conservation area. Plant life along the steep limestone cliffs also includes remainders of ancient pine forests and a variety of alpine plants.

We only covered a section of the entire Grosse Raabklamm and occasionally hiked next to the river, and at other times we hiked away from the river along the slopes of the gorge. My friend Herbert used a couple of the suspension bridges to demonstrate the laws of physics and started shaking the contraption while Andrea and I were walking across. Fortunately the suspension bridges are quite sturdy and all the trails and ladders are well-maintained. After an hour and a half of hiking we arrived at the hydro dam that is part of the local hydro electricity generating system. This area of Austria was electrified in the late 1800s, primarily at the initiative of local electricity pioneer Franz Pichler.To this day hydro-electric power delivers about two thirds of all electricity used in Austria and my home town of Weiz was one of the centres of early hydro power generation.

After admiring some fairly ancient looking hydro generating equipment we hiked back up to the local country road and drove back in my car, which we had parked earlier, to our point of origin. Andrea and Herbert had to leave and I was planning to continue my excursion to Graz, the provincial capital. But before that I had to nurture my appetite, and I was just a minute away from a well-known local restaurant whose Austrian delicacies were certain to hit the spot. Gasthaus Reisinger is one of the restaurants located next to the Raabklamm. Actually the Austrian concept of “Gasthaus” is a good deal more rustic and down-to-earth than the North American “restaurant”. A Gasthaus (literally translated: “guest house”) will usually serve solid traditional Austrian food; frequently it will also feature an outdoor patio since eating in the fresh air is very popular in Austria; and many Gasthäuser also offer overnight accommodation with breakfast.

This is indeed the case with Gasthaus Reisinger which does not only offer Austrian cuisine and a beautiful patio, but also functions as a bed and breakfast, mostly for guests from places like Vienna or other more urban parts of Austria and Germany. I sat down to admire the lengthy menu and decided on two local specialties: a “Fritattensuppe” (pancake strip soup), an item that I always have to eat several times when I am back home, as well as a “Mulbratlbrot” – a piece of Austrian rye bread, covered with a thin layer of butter and thin slices of a special tender cut of smoked pork, topped with horseradish.

Rye bread covered by a variety of different cold cuts or smoked meats is a typical in-between meal in Austria, and they are also a popular snack for hikers and visitors of a “Buschenschank” (a restaurant serving rustic local foods owned and operated by a local wine farmer). On this perfect day the sun was shining down and I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful and serene rolling hills of Eastern Styria. Once again I realized that the area I grew up in was a truly beautiful neck of the woods. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Reisinger, brought me my meal and we started chatting a bit about the fact that I was actually a local who had emigrated to Canada more than 20 years ago. He on the other hand used to work full-time in maintenance in a local wood processing plant until a few years ago when his elderly parents started to require full-time care. Since that time he has been running his hospitality establishment full-time together with his wife and children, a typical Austrian family-based business.

The meal was delicious and after picking up an icecream for dessert I was perfectly prepared for my next destination: Graz, the capital of Styria and the second-largest city in Austria. Just minutes from the restaurant I stopped my car to have a look back at these rolling hills, one of my favourite areas when I grew up, and to chat with some cows that were lounging around a large pasture.

Much of Austria’s cattle industry is still based on free-range methods, and adds a significant contribution to the country’s economy. Roughly 80,000 cattle farms own about 2.1 million cattle, of which about 800,000 are dairy cows. Only 5.5{4962d8e2c73ee88aad7125033d5658fd247043cd5a624d71ac5e800504586b0b} of Austrian cattle farms have more than 100 animals, and the small size of the farms ensures a close connection between the farmer and his/her animals. These cows were obviously enjoying their carefree lifestyle and their unrestricted ability to roam on the hilly pastures.

I continued my drive along 25 km of rolling country roads into Styria’s largest urban centre. With a population of about 250,000 Graz is the second largest city in Austria. Although it is a significant regional and industrial centre, Graz is not as well known as smaller cities like Salzburg and Innsbruck. Due to its impeccably maintained architectural heritage, Graz was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and became the European Cultural Capital in 2003. Its name is derived from the Slovenian term “Gradec” which literally means “little fortress”.

At the eastern entrance of the city there is a suburban area called Mariatrost which is crowned by the large pilgrimage church of Mariatrost. I stopped at the top of the Purberg hill, parked my car and walked past a large restaurant to the front of the church. The Basilica of Mariatrost (Maria Consolation) was built between 1714 and 1724 in baroque style.

The ceiling frescoes in the interior of the church are particularly noteworthy. Two massive 61 m high towers anchor the church and cupola at the eastern end of the structure and can be seen from far away. The front of the church is accessed through a set of stairs called the Angelus Steps. To this day the Basilica of Mariatrost is the second most important pilgrimage church (after Mariazell) in the Austrian province of Styria.

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.

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!