Graz, Genau!

Trip Start Dec 16, 2007
Trip End Feb 24, 2008

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

It has been a great 2 days for us in Graz. This little city in Austria has managed to deliver on its promises of a vibrant, different town that is unafraid of change but still holds the good staff, like its UNESCO listed innere stadt and its trams, dear.

With Hotel Daniel charging €9 for breakfast there was no way that we were going to eat there and thus, again, we woke late. Once we got our act together we walked back across to the station and purchased 24 hour public transport tickets from the ÖBB (Austrian Railways) ticket machines as the local public transport authority does not appear to have machines of their own. Unfortunately when we selected 2 tickets the machine printed them on only 1 piece of paper, the only way to denote that it represented 2 tickets being the price printed on it.

There were trams waiting in the Europaplatz at the front of the station so we hopped on the first one and rode down the hill toward the Mur River. This part of town, from the station toward the river was not looking too promising. It appeared as though most of the development had occurred during the 1970s and most shops had the word "Erotik" in the name. At least they complemented the non-stop Kino to the side of the station building, next to our hotel. It wasn't all bad news; around the station was a large shopping precinct with handy supermarkets and bakeries, as well as a large Modellbahn shop down the street toward the river.

As the tram approached and crossed the Mur things started to change. Buildings became much older, more people were around on foot and on bicycles and there was, of course, the famous Graz Kunsthaus. Again for those of you who are uninitiated, I guess it's time for Uncle Tom to give you a quick lesson. The Kunsthaus was built early this century as part of Graz's European Culture Capital 2003 activities. It partly includes an old façade but is mainly an entirely new building, dubbed by the locals "the friendly alien" because of its modern shape and appearance. Belinda thinks it looks like a heart with too many valves, I just think it looks friggin' cool; I guess that's art for ya.

Anyway, we weren't stopping off at the Kunsthaus just yet, instead continuing on the tram 1 more stop to the Hauptplatz. Our goals were breakfast and tourist information but the first thing that caught my eye was Café Sacher. It's an official café of the Hotel Sacher brand, selling official "original" Sacher Torte just as I enjoyed with my parents in Vienna. Almost next door was tourism information, where we picked up general sights, modern architecture and public art tourist guides and maps. It was tempting to buy "No Kangaroos in Austria" shirts to wear the next day (Australia Day) but they weren't the best shirts and we didn't feel like blowing the cash.

Continuing to walk down the main drag we soon found ourselves at Jakominiplatz, the main tram interchange in town, featuring an interesting array of lights and tram electricity poles, which was listed in the modern architecture guide. It was just off the platz that we found our breakfast, in a small bakery with 2 tables where the nice serving lady had never heard of a moccha. It was clear in this bakery that donuts are a local speciality, they are everywhere, but not in the American way. There are only a few varieties and it's all about the filling, not how much they've been fried and the covering.

Since it was Friday and the shops would only be open on Saturday morning Belinda wanted to check out any shopping opportunities sooner rather than later. This was compatible with my desire to walk around the innere stadt to get a feel for the town and explore some of its streets, alleys and squares. Inevitably we ended up in a supermarket, where we found a large amount of Lindt Cuba dark chocolate, which seems to be discontinued. Naturally we stocked up on the chocolate as well as some Wieselburger (Austrian) and Budweiser Budvar (Czech) beer along with 2 bananas and a 6 cent blood orange.

We continued to explore the charming centre of the city for a while before heading back to the hotel to dump our goods. With the hotel's free internet we had the opportunity to check for toy shops in town, where Belinda hoped to find some doll house accessories.

Another tram trip brought us back to the Hauptplatz, a very short walk away from the toy shop we had identified. Belinda was very pleased with this toy shop as it offered the largest selection of doll house accessories in the collection she needed after a shop we had found in Zurich. She ended up purchasing a few small, rare and old items that we haven't seen around the place.

From 1 shop to another; we were headed up toward the Schlossberg and happened along the main department store in Graz. Of course Belinda couldn't resist so in we went, ascending to the top floor, where the toy department can be found. Sadly for Belinda they had no doll house things but for me there was a large model train section to enjoy. An unexpected surprise was the carnivale section, which clearly demonstrated the different way that this season is celebrated in Austria compared to Switzerland. Where the shops in Basel, Lucerne and Zurich were selling scary, silly masks and tons of confetti here in Graz things were far more refined. On sale were ball dresses, ball masks and proper costumes for adults and children.

Not far from the department store was the town end of the Schlossberg, where one can ascend the zig-zag stairs or the lift inside the hill to reach the top. The lift was irresistible with its funky design and lights reflecting off the rocks, so we took it on the way up. From the top we could see the entire city around us but the setting sun prevented us from taking any decent photos. The journey back down was taken on the stairs, providing an ever-changing perspective of the city and nearby Mur River.

Across the road we travelled and then we found ourselves at the bridge down to the MurInsel. Also part of the city's European Capital of Culture activities, the MurInsel is a metal island built in the middle of the river with a café, playground and an amphitheatre. It may sound a bit silly but it really is quite cool and complements the Kunsthaus, adjacent to the river, well. We would've enjoyed some time in the funky playground but a) we're a bit old and b) it's closed over the winter.

We took the bridge across to the Kunsthaus side of the river and from there caught a tram back up to Europaplatz, the station and our hotel. Another quick freshen-up ensued before we once again found ourselves on 1 of the city's newer trams down to the Hauptplatz. The folks at NordSee were kind enough to exchange our money for a nice dinner before we made our way back out to the tram stop.

This time we were on a different tram route, travelling south to the Finanzamt (Finance Department) stop. As can be expected, although only a short way from the centre of town, this part of town was pretty dead after dark but this is the location of the town's English Cinema. I suppose the fact that the city has not only an English only cinema but English bookshops as well is an indication of its trendiness.

The 6:15pm session of National Treasure: Book of Secrets was somewhat confusing because the titles and text were all in German, but the soundtrack was thankfully in English. I was impressed with the movie and would have to say that I enjoyed its suspension-of-disbelief storyline and humour more than the first instalment. The cinema itself would probably be the largest English auditorium that I've been to in a non-English speaking country, besides in Paris. The beers purchased earlier in the day helped us with the blog update and watch a few of our current favourite shows on MTV before bed.

Graz is one of only a few places in the Wickaublich! (Belinda and I made-up this term as a cross between Wicked! and unglaublich) segment of the trip where I'm spending more than 2 nights so we were graced with another full day in the city. Again, we indulged ourselves with another late start and breakfast consisted of bananas purchased the previous day.

Before getting any substantial food in the centre of the city we made a stop halfway to pop into the 2 storey model train shop that we had seen earlier. It was a nice setup, more oriented to 2nd hand sales, repairs and generally servicing the local community rather than selling new factory-made models, although they had a lot of that as well. The shop would be a great resource for local model train people; I guess I could live here!

Once back in the centre of Graz we briefly considered having our brunch at the Café Sacher but discounted this idea due to the prices and business of the café at the time. After a bit of walking we found a nice bakery with a large café area upstairs and out the back, where I had some lasagne and Bel had some vegetarian Spätzle. I couldn't resist the offer of beer with lunch so this would have to be the earliest in the day that I can remember having alcohol; I'm so European! Ha ha.

Depending on which way you look at it this can be a good or a bad thing: the take-away counter at the entry to the café got the best of us. We couldn't resist the yummy looking snacks behind the glass so as we left Belinda picked up some of the local donut fare while I hit it up with the local pastry scroll speciality. These snacks last intact for a while but were eaten soon enough, as we engaged in the following activities....

With the idea of trying the view from the Schlossberg with the Sun in at a different angle we headed on the tram straight to the Schlossbergbahn, a funicular that runs up the far side of the hill. Our public transport day ticket covered this as well but we did need to show it to the ticket officer so that we could be issued with barcodes for the turnstiles and gain admission to the platform. The ride up the hill was thoroughly enjoyable, especially with the new (2004) cars that have glass rooves to better appreciate the view. This system is so steep that without a glass roof you would not be able to see much, the roof is more like the wall of a lift than the roof of a traditional train wagon.

We arrived atop the berg at the opposite end to that of the lift and so we did a combination of the scenic walks around the old complex and through the gardens, travelling via the area we had visited the day prior. Unfortunately the main sights of Graz are to the north of the Schlossberg so in the winter the sun is never really at an angle that is conducive to good photography. Undeterred by this we simply snapped away, trying our best to block direct sunlight with our hands. For our descent on the funicular the ticket lady was initially less than inclined to believe that our single piece of paper was indeed 2 tickets until we had argued with her for a while.

It was finally time to visit, to go inside the Kunsthaus, just across the Mur and a bit down from the bottom of the Schlossberg. The building is as cool inside as it is out, taking concrete construction from boring straight lines and hard surfaces to flowing, semi-freeform shapes. Guests enter in the lobby, where there is the ticket desk, shop and restaurant. Underground are the toilets and lockers while above are 3 levels, each its own space for separate exhibitions.

It seems as though they cycle through their exhibitions quickly and on the day of our visit only 1 space was being used, showing some weird black and white audio visual works made already this year and late last year. To access this space we rode the travelator from the lobby, gliding up into this dark hole in the ceiling; very cool way to transition from normality to a random exhibition space.

The top space was being transformed for the next exhibition but we did get to see the inside of those famous "valves" from the walkway, over the side of this space to the "Spike". This is a long glass hall on the side of the alien, offering uninterrupted views over the Mur and toward the centre of Graz, which made for a nice escape from the art world, an oasis of normality. We were also able to see the skin of the building up close from here, which just added to our appreciation.

In the old façade section at the end of the Kunsthaus one can find Camera Austria, a little photography exhibition space. During our visit they had some photos taken around South Africa, depicting various aspects of daily life for fringe groups, often near the border with Zimbabwe. This kind of thing doesn't really float my boat but on this occasion I was able to appreciate the photos for the South African train carriages, with which I am familiar thanks to Hotham Valley Railway, in them. Personal connections and being able to relate to subject matter really do make a difference!

From the Kunsthaus we made our way across the river on foot and went down to the Stadt Museum. These things are a hit-or-miss affair, sometimes they're really interesting and offer a good insight into how the city/town ended up the way it is (Vienna) while other times they're bizarre, random and stale (Marianske Lazne). Unfortunately for Graz its museum falls into the latter category. The entire city managed to get its act together for the Capital of Culture gig in 2003 and it shows, but somehow this museum was left behind.

There was a section with portraits and sculptures of well dead people that were in some way related to Graz, another displaying postcards of the city from the last 100 years and the last was an exhibition on some Formula 1 car driver from the area. None of these exhibits had any English text or explanations. The best bit was the postcard display because they were arranged in date order and physically depending on the perspective of the Schlossberg. One could walk around the room as if they were walking around the Schlossberg. It was fun to then move into the middle and look at the views out from the Schlossberg to the city.

Walking out from the museum we found ourselves once again over the river near the Kunsthaus, waiting to catch the tram back to the hotel. A child with a zeppelin balloon sparked a debate about the word "blimp" that lasted the entire trip back in the growing darkness. We rested in the hotel, preparing for the following day of travel; feeling satisfied that we have achieved our goals in Graz and ready to hit a new city.
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