Follow by Email

Monday, June 13, 2016

Austria+ ~ May 2016

On May 3rd we left from Budapest to Szombathely, 2 ½ hours west on the M1 and M86. We arrived a bit after one to the Park Hotel Pelikán. It is quirky property, a modern glass entrance stuck onto a 1900’s building; the rooms were in need of refurbishment.
We had been to this north-western city in the past. It has a Roman history from 43 CE as an important staging area for the amber trade from the Baltics to Italy. After World War I and the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost much of its western territories to Austria. This placed Szombathely only ten kilometers from the new state border, so it ceased to be the center of Western Hungary. To make matters worse, during World War II, the city had strategic value because of its rail infrastructure and aerodrome. It was thus bombed heavily by the Allied forces, seriously damaged and slow to recover.

Still, we visited the very picturesque Szombathely Cathedral and Fó ter, the main square of the city. But our main reason for this re-visit was to further investigate my wife Judith’s short history
St Márton's Cemetery
with this place – she lived here when she was two years old, perhaps for a year or a bit more. Judith also returned for a month after the Hungarian Revolution in the summer of 1957.
Our scouting found the house that she lived in on Hunyadi János ut. Miraculously, we also discovered the grave site of her grandfather and grandmother on her father’s side, as well as a great uncle and an aunt in the historic St. Márton’s Cemetery. These were emotional days to say the least; many more mysteries remain in her intricate family puzzle.

So it was a productive two days, and after breakfast we checked out of the Park Hotel Pelikán and were off to Graz.

Graz, the capital of the Styria region, is two hours and 125 kilometers west of Szombathely. We checked into Hotel Schlossberg, a well situated, nice property facing the River Mur which bisects the city on a north-south axis.  Like most European cities with roots in the Middle Ages, Graz is dominated by an easily defended promontory. Known here as the Schlossburg; its steep hillsides rise 400 meters above the Mur and the old town, the Altstadt.

After unpacking we took the modern funicular, the Schlossbergbahn, to the leafy Schlossberg, with its pleasant pathways and wonderful views. A nice lunch was had at Restaurant Schlossberg – tuna carpaccio with Asian spiced vegetable rolls. It was then off to explore; visiting the 1588 Bell
Clock Tower
Tower, the Hacker Lion and Graz’s traditional landmark, it’s Clock Tower, constructed in the 1500’s. We walked back to Altstadt down the Schlossbergstiege, 260 steps traversing the hillside to the Schlossbergplatz. As you may have noticed, there are many places and things named Schlossberg plus “something or other.”

Dinner was at Gasthhaus Stainzerbauer on Bürgergasse, 4; well prepared veal with white asparagus – perfectly in season. A leisurely stroll home, a nightcap at the bar and we were to sleep.

Up to a sunny morning, it was out to see the rest of the city. Graz’s old town spreads south
Graz's Town Hall
from the Schlossberg on the east site of the Mur. It is an impressively clean, regal and lively city. Slackstraße brings you to the main square, the triangular Hauptplatz. Wonderful buildings ring its periphery including the dominating 1850 neo-Renaissance town hall, the beautiful Baroque façade of the Haus am Luegg, Graz’s oldest pharmacy; and in the centre, the fountain of Archduke Johann – its four main female figures represent Styria’s four main rivers: the Mur, Enns, Drau and Sann.
Hauptplatz empties south onto the wide boulevard of Herrengasse. Turning right one enters Landhausgasse and the Landhaus, a masterpiece Italian Renaissance building that hosts the regional parliament. The inner courtyards, open to the public, are a tranquil oasis of round arches and arcades. Lunch was here at the Café Sacher Graz – very relaxed.

After lunch we continued touring by backtracking through Hauptplatz and heading uphill on Sporgasse to another wide pedestrian street, Hofgasse. Right at its entrance there is a splendid wooden shop façade housing a delicious confectionary, Hofbäkerei Edegger-Tax. Further on is the
Cathedral, a former castle church constructed between 1439 – 64. Although some older architecture is visible, including one gothic fresco, most decoration is an explosion of baroque. Adjacent is the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II (1587 – 1637) in the Austrian Mannerist style; another eruption of sculpture and color – cherubs falling all over each other.

Double Spiral Staircase

We continued on to see the impressive engineering of a stone double spiral staircase, built in 1499 in Gothic style, for Maximilian I. Further along is the peaceful Stadpark and Burggarten. Finally, we sat for a drink in Glockenspeilplatz, with Graz’s famous glockenspiel; a sweet maiden and hearty lad clad in traditional costume pirouette three times a day up in a gable of a building on this namesake square - 24 bells play three pleasant tunes.

The timeless beauty of the eastern bank of the Mur is starkly in contrast to the west. Two postmodern structures, in my opinion, jolt the cityscape. I’m sure city planners and their architects had the best intensions. The first, Murinsel, installed in the river in 2003, is the work of New Yorker Vito Acconci. It is like a
floating shell of steel with footbridges to the riverbanks that lead to an amphitheatre and café. It hasn’t aged well to say the least.  The second is the Kunsthaus, also installed in 2003, which houses temporary exhibitions and a restaurant. To me it looks like a dead blue beetle rolled on its back. Some say the contrast between tradition and avant-garde is exhilarating – I do not share this view.  To add to the chaos of the senses, a half new age, half grunge band was playing outside in the Mariahilferplatz; conjuring up the disorder, smells and rubbish of a Euro-Woodstock. We soon escaped back to the peace of the Altstadt.
Dinner was at Welscher Stubn, Schmiedgasse, 5-7; good food but so-so service. We strolled back to the hotel on the now quiet streets, had a quick glass of wine at the bar and were off to bed.

We were up to a pleasant morning for our 2 ½ hours’ drive northwest to the Salzkammergut Lakes region, about 20 kilometres east of Salzberg. It is a picturesque area with over 70 lakes, quaint

Terrace - Schloss Fuschl
villages and breath taking scenery.  Our home for the next few days is at Schloss Fuschl on the southern shore of Fuschlsee. This hotel castle is an exquisite property consisting of 110 rooms, suites and guest cottages with a full range of amenities, including an excellent spa. The walls are adorned with old masters that would make any museum jealous. We settled into our room, number 111, and afterwards had a relaxing lunch on the terrace.
After lunch we were back in the car to explore along route 158; our first stop was St. Gilgen on the south eastern shore of the St. Wolfgangsee. A quick visit and we were off to the northern shore and St. Wolfgang. This village is known for its beautiful 15th century pilgrimage church of its
Michael Pacher's Altar - St. Wolfgang 
namesake St. Wolfgang. Michael Pacher’s high altar is acclaimed as one of the most stunning works of the late Gothic era. The town is delightful.
We were back to the hotel late afternoon and settled on the courtyard terrace for a glass of wine. As we were finishing, a fast moving storm barrelled through; typical of this area. Dinner was in the inside restaurant but still facing the lake. The food was typically Austrian and not too inspiring; we were annoyed by a very spoiled and misbehaved Russian girl a nearby table; grumbling parents oblivious. After a nightcap in the bar, we were off to sleep.

On our second day we drove again on Route 158 south and then east on 145 to reach the village of Hallstätt on Hallstättersee; the Dashstein massif providing a beautiful backdrop. The blue sky and cumulus
clouds presented us a postcard view. Our first stop was to the funicular that travels up over 500 meters to perhaps the oldest known salt mine in the world, dating to 3000 BCE. There have been many Iron Age finds here, so much so that this Celtic period (800 – 400 BCE) is sometimes referred to as the Hallstatt civilization.
The town below grips tenuously to the cliff side, some streets are only accessible from the lakeside. We walked the pretty web of lanes, visiting the Pfarrkirchea 15th century church with a wonderful altarpiece sometimes compared to Pacher’s in St. Wolfgang. After a quick break, we were off to Bad Ischl.

Pfarrkirche -  Hallstätt 

Bad Ischl is known for its saltwater springs. The rivers Traun and Ischl come together here; the riverbanks blend seamlessly into the town. In the 1800s Archduchess Sophie seemingly cured her infertility because of the treatments at Bad Ischl; her most famous offspring was Franz Joseph I. He spent holidays with this wife Elizabeth at their residence here, Kaiservilla, now a museum.
Juxtaposed against the healing powers of its spas, Bad Ischl is also where the declaration of war against Serbia was signed on August 1, 1914 – thus unleashing the death and destruction of World War One; a strange historical footnote.

After some cakes at Café Pfarrgrasse we were back off to Schloss Fuschl, arriving late afternoon. We reviewed our day over a bottle of wine on the sunny courtyard terrace. Dinner was at the hotel; tonight largely abandoned except for ourselves.

We were up to a nice day and got an early start to Linz, 1 ½ hours northeast of Fuschlsee, and checked into Park Inn – Radisson. After a quick unpack, we were out to explore. In a few words, Linz isn’t worth the trip. We were a short walk to Landstrasse and the city’s main square, Hauptplatz. Everything here seemed bland and tired; the churches, monuments; even the city hall. The Baroque Plague Column center stage in the Hautplatz was an appropriate image for the state of Linz.
We had a nondescript lunch and continued our walk to the Danube, and then returned to the hotel late afternoon. Dinner was at the Radisson.

Český Krumlov Castle

The following morning after a proletariat breakfast of which Lenin would be pround, were out and on our way to Český Krumlov, a short hour’s drive north into the Czech Republic. This well preserved Medieval town was founded in the 13th century under the Rožmberk Dynasty, which ruled here until the 1600s.
A UNESCO site since 1992, the town is knotted inside the snaking path of the Vltava River, with the castle set upon the promitory. The second largest in the Republic
Český Krumlov
after Prague, it consists of five main complexes that tier upward from the main gate to the castle gardens. The architecture veers between flashy and gloomy, etched in typical Bohemian sgraffito, but the overall effect is pleasing. There are even bears wandering in the moat. Unfortunately, many of the rooms were closed for a film shoot. Leaving the castle, we stopped at the nearby Latrán area and the Minorite Monastery.
It was then over one of the many wooden bridges to the old town, Vnitřni Mĕsto, and its
Námĕsti Svornosti
immense market square, Námĕsti Svornosti. It is ringed with Gothic and Renaissance façades and in its the center, the “mandatory” plague column with fountain. Neighboring the square is the Church of St. Vitus, whose lofty towers seem to counterbalance the Krumlov Castle above. A triple-aisled Gothic edifice of imposing height, it is one of the oldest examples of net vaulting in Europe.
After a late lunch on the balcony of Hotel Ruže, originally a 16th century Jesuit college, we dragged ourselves back to the car and to Linz. At dinner we decided to cut our stay in Linz by a day and head back to Budapest.

We checked out early from the Radisson and resolved to make one more stop on the way home. St. Florian is only 30 minutes south of Linz and not much out of our way. A magnificent
Augustine abbey and church were built on this site in the 11th century to honor the martyrdom of St. Florian in 304. A complex of buildings, each a Baroque masterpiece, surround a large courtyard. Highlights of our well-presented tour were the library, with its collection of 140,000 volumes; designed by the renowned Jakob Prandtauer, the Marble Hall, and the abbey church with its Anton Bruckner organ and airy stained glass. Words cannot begin to describe the beauty here.
Anton Bruckner Organ
Marble Hall Ceiling

By early afternoon we were back to the car. It was an uneventful four hour drive back to Budapest as we savored our week of memories.