The historic city of Graz, in south-eastern Austria, was designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 1999 for having “the best preserved city center of Central Europe”. It combines renaissance, gothic, baroque, and also modern architecture, and has some wonderful natural beauty nearby as well. I recently spent four days exploring this fascinating city and its surroundings, combining culture and nature with a lot of walking.
After an enjoyable train ride from Vienna to Graz, going through some beautiful mountain areas, I had the rest of the afternoon to walk around the old town of Graz, including its Schlossberg, a little hill right in the middle of the city. More than 1000 years ago there was a small fort on top of this hill, from which the city derives its name. Stemming from the Slavic word “Gradec”, Graz means “little castle”. After 1544, this fort was extended into a large renaissance fortress, which remained uncaptured by various invading forces, including Napoleon. However, in 1809, after Napoleon had occupied Vienna and threatened to destroy the Austrian capital, Graz finally surrendered. Most of the fortifications on the Schlossberg were destroyed at that time, but thanks to a spontaneous initiative by the locals who paid a ransom (out of their own pockets), the famous clock tower (from around 1560) and bell tower (built in 1588) were saved, and can still be admired today.
The old town of Graz, just below the Schlossberg, contains many historical buildings, some of which even date back to the 13th century. For example, there are the town hall on the main square, the 15th-century cathedral, the mausoleum of Kaiser Ferdinand II, the opera house, the Mariahilferkirche, and many more. And if you prefer modern architecture, you may enjoy the Kunsthaus and Murinsel (both built in 2003). The city also has four universities, the oldest one (the Karl-Franzens University) founded back in 1585. All in all, plenty of culture and history to digest here.
The next day was rather cold and cloudy, so I decided to have a subterranean adventure. Just 20km north of Graz you can find the Lurgrotte Peggau, a system of limestone caves. These caves contain many impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and other dripstone formations, and are also populated by a colony of bats. With a constant temperature of 10°C inside, it’s an easy and pleasant walk through the cave to see this surreal underground world. The caves can be reached from Graz by car or a 20min train ride.
That night it snowed quite a bit, but the next morning it was bright and sunny again, making for a gorgeous winter’s day. In other words, perfect conditions for a bit more of a real hike. First I visited the Eggenberg palace on the western outskirts of the city. This baroque palace was built by Prince von Eggenberg, starting in 1625, and is surrounded by a beautiful park. The palace, together with the historic Graz city center, is part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage site. It also contains an art gallery, a museum, and a gift shop.
Behind the palace is a big hill named Plabutsch. It’s an almost 400m climb up along forest roads and hiking trails, but the reward is the observation tower at the very top. From here you have a fantastic panoramic view of the entire area, including the Schlossberg in the center of Graz, and some of the Alps to the north. The fresh snow on the ground and in the trees made this an especially enjoyable hike.
After taking in the views, I walked down on the other side of the hill, ending up in Gösting, a suburb in the north-west of Graz. From there, a trail leads up another hill towards the Gösting castle ruins. This castle was originally built in the 11th century, and was continuously expanded up until the 15th century. However, a large part of the castle burned down in 1723, and was not rebuilt after that. Currently the ruins are maintained by a foundation, and can be visited for free, but are only accessible on foot.
On my fourth (and last) day in Graz I did a short & sweet hike through the Rettenbachklamm. This is a small but surprisingly pretty canyon in the Mariatrost district of Graz. And with still some snow left from two nights before, it was even more beautiful. The start of the hike is reached by taking tram 1 (direction Mariatrost) to the Waldhof stop. From there, follow the yellow signs into and through the canyon. It’s a short hike, but on uneven and rocky terrain, crossing the Rettenbach creek several times (i.e., sturdy shoes and good balance recommended).
An additional reward at the end of the hike is a nice view of the baroque Mariatrost basilica on top of a small hill. If you still have some energy left, you can walk up the many steps to the church itself, which is certainly worth a visit. This hill originally had a small chapel, built in 1636, which was replaced by the current church, built between 1714 and 1746. It is still used for weekly Catholic services, but is open for viewing as well.
Taking the tram back into the city center, I then hopped on the next train back to Vienna, once again enjoying the beautiful mountain views. This certainly was a worthwhile trip, encountering impressive castles, canyons, and caves. A good way to end 2016, and look forward to many more hikes and travels in 2017. A happy new year from beautiful Austria!