Graz Serves Up a Grand Design
The Hotel Weisler grabbed my attention from the moment I entered. On one side of the lobby, a hotel guest was leafing through vintage vinyl records stacked together in old wine crates. On the other side, a couple of Dutch-style bicycles stood together in classical elegance like an art installation. In between, an intimate reception desk was waiting for me to check-in.
In opposite corners of the foyer, the breakfast room and the restaurant Speisesaal face each other; the former has an art-nouveau style and the latter a contemporary brasserie ambiance. Both feature intriguing wall paintings: Leopold Forstner’s Spring – an original art-nouveau piece – is in contrast to street artist Josef Wurm’s creation made using wallpaper and spray paint.
Retro, minimalist, shabby-chic, recycled – call it what you will – all these differing genres combine to create a stylish hotel that remains true to its early 20th century origins.
My guestroom featured another recycled treasure from yesteryear, forming the showpiece of the space – a barber’s chair. Swivelling 360 degrees within the bay window, and complete with binoculars perched on its arm, it was a perfect place to watch the ebb and flow of Graz daily life along the River Mur.
The Hotel Weisler, I was to discover, is a microcosm of the city in which it lives: somewhat understated, but brimming with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, local delicacies, and people. Graz, the capital of the Styria region, is known as Austria’s delicatessen, so a culinary tour seemed the ideal way to discover many of the best sights.
Graz on a plate
The farmers market on Kaiser-Josef-Platz was a veritable smorgasbord of local produce offered for sale by farmers in the region, much of which would find its way onto our plates as we moved across the city.
Market stalls groaned under a colourful array of Styrian produce: pyramids of apples from local orchards, raw horseradish, “Kaferbohne” (a variety of large bean), and the darkly refined pumpkin seed oil that is the finishing touch in many a Grazer dish. Fringing the market were gastro cafés enticing weary shoppers to take a moment away from the bustle of the tightly packed stalls.
A number of the city’s restaurants proudly carry the “Genuss Region” logo. Spot the emblem next to the doorway and one can be sure that all ingredients are sourced from local suppliers, and, as importantly, keep alive the long traditions in the cultivation of regional delicacies.
The restaurant Der Steirer, a hotspot to indulge in typical Grazer dishes, was one such eatery to carry the logo, and was to serve our appetizer. Kicking-off our gastronomic exploration was a medley of Styrian tapas dishes ranging from sheep’s cheese on toast to bacon with balsamic onions, matched with a sparkling rosé wine from Silberberg. Der Steirer sits on the modern right riverbank of the city, from where we would cross to the ancient left.
Graz is bisected by the fast flowing River Mur. While crossing over the Erzherzog-Johann Bridge, towards the labyrinthine alleyways of the old town, it is worth stopping to admire the design of the Murinsel (Mur Island). This modern, shell-like structure connects to both sides of the river and appears to hover above the water. Vito Acconi’s designer island includes one of the most popular cafés in the city.
The Erzherzog-Johann Bridge itself is adorned by hundreds of padlocks symbolising everlasting love and reflecting Graz’s sizeable population of young and trendy students.
The Old Town
The narrow and cobbled streets mainly feed into the magnificent Hauptplatz (Main Square) – an amalgam of Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder in varying pastel shades. These form the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Altstadt (old town). In the square stands the statue of the Styrian Archduke Johann, with four female figures representing the four principal rivers of the province.
Nearby the main square is the architecturally renowned Landhaus, the seat of the state parliament and government. Its main wing was built by Domenico dell’Allio, a native of Lugano in Italy. The Landhaus courtyard, with its Renaissance arcades and wrought iron fountain, is arguably the finest of the 40 remaining in Graz. The world’s largest collection of historical weaponry adjoins the Landhaus within the Armoury museum and rather poetically sits next to the 400-year-old Landhaus-keller, a restaurant whose 16th century wine cellar boasts a current inventory of 20,000 bottles.
A thread of Italian influence runs as strongly through Graz as the River Mur. In the 16th century, the Leopoldine Hapsburgs invited the finest Italian architects of the time to design a city befitting its stature. This was particularly evident as we walked through the Glockenspielplatz and on towards our main course at the Eckstein Restaurant. The square is home to a small community of Italian cafes and restaurants, and a definite feeling of “La Dolce Vita”, something the Eckstein takes full advantage of with al-fresco dining.
Nestled in an area known as the Bernudadreieck (Bermuda Triangle), the restaurant offered a seasonal plate of veal, sitting on a bed of Kaferbohne beans with polenta, complemented by a local Chardonnay from one of the main vineyards. The mild climate of the region is the primary ingredient that creates the fertile environment for Styrian products to flourish. As one grazer I met said, “The unique ‘Terroir’ means even neighbouring vineyards can produce markedly different wines.”
Our dessert course was a vertiginous funicular ride away, upon the summit of Graz’s green lung, Schlossberg Park. The mostly wooded hill was once crowned by a large castle-fortress (the Schlossberg), but all that remains today is the ‘Clock Tower’ – the most recognisable city landmark. Some remaining sections of the ramparts form an open-air concert venue; the rest was destroyed in the Napoleonic siege of 1809.
The modernist Aiola Upstairs restaurant is perched on the hill beneath the leafy canopy of the Schlossberg gardens, capturing the romance of the city through its floor to ceiling windows. The dessert was a Mousse of Mantscha-joghurt with strawberries sitting in a chocolate cradle. It tasted even better against a backdrop of Graz’s spires, domes, and rolling countryside, often described as Austria’s Tuscany.
The descent was as spectacular as our ascent. The stone stairway zigzagged from the clock tower down the hillside, bringing the terracotta roofs of the Altstadt to eye level. A “free runner” would be tempted to just step onto one of the pitched roofs and hop straight across to the über modern Kunsthaus museum of modern art, before sliding down its acrylic glass skin.
Built and designed by two British architects, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, in preparation for the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture 2003, the “friendly alien”, as it’s called by locals, challenges every other building in the centre of Graz.
The Kunsthaus is shaped like a beach pebble with arterial ventricles pointing skyward, except for one that points directly to the historic clock tower – a direct link between the future and past, just as the building integrates the façade of the 1847 iron house. Internally, the museum is a showcase for contemporary art from all over Austria.
As the evening skies enveloped Graz, and the Kunsthaus radiated and pulsated with fluorescent light, our final stop was the Frankowitsch Bar & Delicatessen to digest all of the day’s courses. We had just enough time to purchase a bottle of pumpkin seed oil, the secret ingredient to health and well-being, and a fitting souvenir of a great gastronomic weekend getaway.
For more information go to www.visitgraz.at
Ramy Salameh is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in London and member of the National Union of Journalists.
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