Category Archives: Austria

• City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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Graz – Austria’s second largest city – sits 150 km southwest of the capital. We travelled between the two via the Semmering Railway and spent one night in Graz after three nights in Vienna. After checking into a hotel near the centre of town we caught one of the city’s many trams to the suburbs, amongst which is located the Schloss Eggenberg.

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Although I had timed our visit to fall just after the building reopened for the spring its interior was unfortunately closed off because of an inconsiderate film crew. Graz is on the UNESCO list for its Baroque buildings, of which Eggenberg is apparently an example. It is described as the finest residence in Styria, the second largest of Austria’s nine states. But, as I say, we weren’t able to go inside and see what all the fuss was about.

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So we caught the tram back into the centre just as the heavens opened and the city was deluged with rain. Lacking umbrellas, we just rode until the downpour stopped, which meant a slightly longer-than-expected walk back to our hotel.

IMG_2347It meant we got to see more of Graz’s historic centre with its ornately-decorated medieval buildings. On reflection, it reminds me of three previously-visited World Heritage Sites:

  • The rebuilt historic centre of Warsaw – for the decorated buildings in what I’m going to describe as ‘autumnal’ colours
  • The city of Luxembourg – for its rapid changes in elevation and its prominent sleepy river adding to a pervasive sense of dampness.
  • Bern – for its squat pillars and arches – as in the ‘Swarovski’ building, above. And for being a fellow four-letter city.

About that elevation: the city is built on mostly flat ground around the river, but there is a steep promontory rising high in the centre. At the top is a clock tower, so the following morning we climbed the many steps to get a look at the view.

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The alien blob in the picture above is in fact not an apparition but a hyper-modernist arts centre. It looks hideously out of place, but I rather like it. Graz has always been an architecturally adventurous city, and it has clearly decided not to preserve itself in aspic – as is understandably (and rightly) the temptation at many World Heritage Sites.

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Shortly before leaving for the return journey I tracked down a local sight: this unusual double-spiral staircase in the regional government building, the Burg. There isn’t any practical purpose to building a staircase like this but it was a good way to show off the area’s wealth and impress visitors. We were certainly impressed by it, but were soon out of time. A relaxing trip on the Semmering Railway returned us to Vienna, where we stopped at the Belvedere Palace en route to the airport, and then home.

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• Semmering Railway

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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The Semmering Railway is one of a handful of railways listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first one I have had the pleasure to ride upon. Travelling between the Austrian cities of Vienna and Graz we felt like Michael Portillo on a Great Continental Railway Journey.

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The railway made it on to the list because it is regarded as one of the greatest feats of engineering from the early days of steam. Built over a six year period in the mid-19th century, it is a mountain railway whose purpose was to cross the Austrian foothills of the Alps.

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The Semmering Railway winds for 41km across 145 bridges and through 14 tunnels. This was of course a time before tunnel-boring machines, so each of them had to be excavated with picks and explosives – sometimes at great cost in terms of lives.

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It isn’t cheap to travel on. We paid something like €120 for two return tickets, which was far more than I had been quoted online. So this is probably the most expensive WHS I have ever visited, though to be fair the journey did take two hours each way, in total.

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There are 57 railwaymen’s houses at intervals beside the track, formerly inhabited by signallers. These have been preserved in order to keep some of the original character of the railway. The trains, however, are not original – the Semmering is a mainline route served by modern rolling stock. Since there is little signage and no passenger announcements, most people would be oblivious to the fact that they are travelling along a WHS.

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In terms of similarities, this WHS can be viewed as an symbolising an evolution from the transportation method represented by Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales – built prior to the introduction of the railway, in 1805, when canals were at the cutting edge method of cargo distribution. Since railways can handle a moderate incline they were far more practical for getting around in hilly terrain, and the Austro-Hungarian economy was able to benefit as a result.

• Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn

Visit: 3rd April 2017

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Schönbrunn, located in southwest Vienna, is a former royal palace used by the Habsburg emperors. The German language has the word Gesamtkunstwerk, which means a ‘total work of art’, or something that uses a number of different art forms to make up an overall experience. The term is commonly associated with Wagner, but it is also applied to the palace, gardens and zoo here at Schönbrunn. The colour of the palace is called ‘Maria Theresa yellow’ after the only female ruler the empire ever had.

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We set aside a day on our Austria trip to visit the site, catching a bus across town from our hotel. Entry is quite steep, at something like €18 per person for a self-guided audio tour. The palace was built in the 18th century in the Baroque style on the site of a hunting lodge that had been destroyed in the final Turkish siege of Vienna. This was as far as the Ottomans ever got to invading northern Europe – which was worryingly close for comfort to those in Germany and France.

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Most of the rooms were preserved living quarters, with only one room (the Great Gallery, above) really impressing us aesthetically. Here Mozart used to entertain the royal court, and it was also the site of the Congress of Vienna – in which Europe’s new borders were decided at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. After seeing something like 17 rooms our tour ended and we headed out into the grounds. Although nicely landscaped, they could do more with the gardens which, as you can see in the top photo, are not exactly bursting with colour. Also, the fountain was completely dry!

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We had been long looking forward to visiting the world’s oldest zoo, which sits in the grounds of Schönbrunn. Entry is not included with the palace ticket, but was reasonable at around €12. The zoo retains some of the old enclosures that were used in the past but which are not considered suitable for animals today. They stand next to the more modern enclosures and the contrast is notable. Below is a bear cage used from the 1890s to 1930s.

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The most exciting animals in our opinion were the rhinos, polar bears and sea lions. There is also an interesting giant ant colony installation in which a food source is separated from the nest by several metres of perspex piping, allowing visitors to see the ants travelling back and forth to collect leaves.

• Historic Centre of Vienna

Visit: 2nd, 3rd, 5th April 2017

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Vienna had stood out for a long time as a major European city I wanted to visit. The Easter break afforded Natalie and me an opportunity to spend a couple of nights abroad, so I decided to plan a four day trip to Austria. The idea was to visit Vienna and travel to the southern city of Graz for a night before returning to the capital for the flight home.

We arrived on a Sunday morning at a gleaming Flughafen Wien and took a bus into town, followed by a long, long walk (punctuated by pilsner) to our hotel. Our first action was to catch a tram into the centre of town and seek out one of Vienna’s main sights, the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

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This museum is one of Europe’s most important, and it did not disappoint. It has, I think, the finest collection of paintings by the Flemish painter Pieter Breugel – including many of his most famous works such as ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’. One of the other highlights was the grand entrance staircase, leading to one of the more impressive cafés I have seen.

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After the KHM we walked towards Vienna’s centre as the evening drew in. I was impressed with its grandeur – it definitely has the aura of an imperial city, as befits the capital of the former Habsburg Empire. All around are imposing state buildings and Classical statues. Bill Bryson once wrote that if aliens were to land on Earth and seek out its capital they would surely assume it was Vienna.

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Vienna is not a crowded place, which feels odd coming from London. It is also not extortionately expensive to eat in. Since we were trying to keep the budget down we ate exclusively in Gasthauses, or Germanic taverns serving beer and food. The cuisine in this country isn’t haute, so you can find some of the best food at very reasonable prices. Dishes we ate included fried liver, schnitzel and goulash.

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Vienna Town Hall

The city’s cathedral, or Domkirche, is a masterpiece of the Gothic, with a spire that puts me in mind of the Sagrada Familia. Inside, most of the church was weirdly fenced off so we couldn’t get a proper look around.

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One of our main destinations during our time in Vienna was the Schönbrunn Palace, in the city’s southwest. But because that is a World Heritage Site in its own right it gets a separate post. Also covered separately is our one-night excursion along the Semmering Railway to Graz. When we came back to Vienna on the Thursday afternoon we had a little time to spare in the vicinity of the city’s main railway station. Fortunately one of Vienna’s major sites, the Belvedere palace, is within ten minutes’ walking distance.

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Located on a high point, the palace’s gardens decline gently into the distance toward a vista of the rest of the city. I preferred this palace’s exterior to that of Schönbrunn, probably because of its far more ornate Baroque styling. If I one day come back to this beautiful city on the Danube I shall have to give it a proper visit.

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