Sunday, October 4, 2015
The coach ride to Graz, once you enter Styria, is undoubtedly one of my favourites. After leaving the Westbahnhof in Vienna, it was a one-way trip to the south-east, where we began weaving in and out of green hills, inside which are hidden the most beautiful small towns you could imagine—something out of a J.K. Rowling novel, set in the quiet villages of Scotland.
The last time I was in the 300,000-strong capital of Styria, it was in the middle of winter, and it was one of four stops during my first ever trip to Austria. I remember the short journey from the small town of Leoben to Graz, and I remember the same valley-dwelling homes, camouflaged in snow.
Like any other city I visit for the first time, the Graz of one and a half years ago was foreign to me, and I to it. But this time around, the walk across the tram tracks at Jakominiplatz conjured up very warm feelings of reunion, reminiscence, and relief. Relief not because I wasn’t enjoying my time in Budapest, but because as soon as I alighted onto the quiet streets of Graz at 7:55 p.m., I knew that there would remain at least one place in Austria for which I would always harbour adoration, no matter the frequency of my visits.
It’s no secret that, as beautiful as it is, I still prefer Austrian cities smaller than Vienna. The capital of Austria is, of course, not the most populous city I’ve been to—the inhabitants of Taipei City proper number nearly one million more, while occupying half the geographical space of Vienna. But it’s not only about the population, it’s also about the significance of the city.
I often describe tourism in Vienna as being “a bit hectic” and “pressure-filled”. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited thus far, but there’s just so much to see. This is not a bad thing; it just means I, or any other, will have to return to Vienna a few more times in order to visit all the “top spots”.
Graz, you see, despite its being the second largest city in Austria, provides a fairly different charm. I could count the number of well-known scenic spots on one hand—so you know that’s not why people visit the city. In fact, proportionally, there are far fewer tourists in Graz than in Vienna (understandably), or Salzburg—where they shot “The Sound of Music” in 1964.
Graz, I would argue, is really just about the people and the small cafes, restaurants, and bars that ooze the addictive, small-town atmosphere. Names such as Tribeka and Backwerk have already, for me, become synonymous with the population of multiculti residents in this giant student city.
Recalled on the Hauptplatz, in front of the Rathaus and the fountain, were memories of February 2014, when I, the Euro-newbie, gawked at the beautiful, synchronous architecture of Austria. I must still be a Euro-newbie, because I am still fixated on the buildings and the alluring side streets, such as Sporgaße, the likes of which I have never seen in such abundance in any other country. I’m certain that will change when I visit Italy. It may just pip Graz for gold in the architectural beauty pageant, and I’m not sure I want that to happen.
As expected, I returned to many of the same places I had been to during my first visit. But this is to be expected of a trip to Graz, and that is just fine with me because I will be going back time and time again without fail.
The last time I went to the cafe on the roof of Kastner & Öhler, the oldest department store in Graz, it was covered in snow and its seating restricted to indoor only. This time, the roof was boisterous, noisy, and bright. I walked to the same small observation deck where I had been last time, and where I heard a piano being played in the attic of the building directly in front of me, across the street. The view was just as breathtaking, albeit not very high—just enough for you to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Styrian capital.
Possibly one of the most noticeable difference was the return of the orange rooftops to Graz, which were sheathed in white snow during my last visit. My line of sight increased as well, without the February fog and chimney smoke to get in the way.
Naturally, I also thoroughly enjoyed the short hike up to the Uhrturm, the clock tower that sits so steadfastly atop Schloßberg—Graz’s Castle Hill, possibly the most beautiful vantage point from which to see the city. The clockface was just as classically comical as I remembered, and the panoramic view of the city just as picturesque. For those who enjoy the coziness and convenience of city life, with the possibility of an occasional escape, the capital of Steiermark may just be the perfect answer.
Now, any visit to Graz would be considered incomplete without a stroll along the Mur river in order to see the Murinsel—the sea-shell-shaped Mur island, designed as a cafe in 2003 when Graz was named the European Capital of Culture.
I remember the island, which is actually a concoction of steel and glass, glowing a hue of purple in the evenings, lighting up the dark waters of the Mur. But by day, its greyish, silvery appearance also stands out against the blue of the Mur and green of the riverbanks.
Come to think of it, I have found a quasi-routine in my trips from Hungary to Austria: after arriving at Erdberg—or as my boss calls it: “the end of the world”—I sit on the high stools at the only bakery in sight and order a cup of coffee and a salami sandwich, getting my satisfactory fill of hyper-inflated €6 meals before heading to Graz via Westbahnhof.
This Autumn visit to Graz was so familiar, I feel almost as if I will one day adopt the title of “Grazer”—someone from Graz, not someone who chews graciously on grass, like a cow.
This awesome visit to Graz has also helped me reaffirm a few things: my enthusiasm for interesting conversations, my fondness for Kürbiskernöl (pumpkin seed oil), and my newfound love of Puntigamer—Styria’s finest.
I look forward to returning to Graz for the Christmas market in December. JSF.
A small album of my trip to Graz can be found here.