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Leaving for Austria

Old Graz

Old Graz

Kathy Arnold - 2003-03-01

Where was the first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play outside the British Isles and during the Bard's lifetime? Give up? It was The Merchant of Venice, a hit when it was produced in Graz back in 1608. This is just one of the fascinating facts that Kathy Arnold learned on a walking tour of Old Graz.

When it comes to commemorating victories in battle, some cities put up monuments, others name railway stations. In Graz, they created a special chocolate. The Schlossbergkugel, a mini 'canon ball' of dark chocolate, truffle cream and marzipan, recalls the successful defence of the city against the invading Turks back in 1532. Standing at the crossroads of history, Austria's second-largest city has been prey to other invaders. From the east came the Magyars, who called the spot Gradec, or 'little castle'; from the west came the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. A price of their victory was the destruction of the fortress on the hill; only the name, Schlossberg, remains. Below, the Old Town is a pot pourri of Renaissance elegance, baroque embellishment and Imperial grandeur. Off the main streets, cobbled lanes twist into handsome squares and hidden courtyards.

Nowhere is a better reminder of the city's strategic importance than the 17th century Zeughaus (armoury). As forbidding as ever, it is now home to the world's largest armoury museum. This is the very opposite of a 'hands-on' museum; instead of hi-tech trickery, there is row upon row of identical sabres, pistols and pikes, plus piles of shields and stacks of helmets. Every piece in the 32,000 strong collection is cleaned and polished, ready to be handed out to soldiers. We learn that today's military salute dates back to the days when a knight would flip open his visor to reveal his identity to a superior. We watch as a guide demonstrates how a 16th century flintlock functions, from loading the shot to the moment a real spark flies out. Around us, small children stare open-mouthed at the massive horse armour, while older children are intrigued to hear that the invading Turks 'invented' the stirrup.

A reminder that Graz was an important city in the Habsburg Empire is the cathedral. Built as the court chapel in the late 15th century, the private balconies allowed the royals to attend services well away from the ordinary folk clustered below. During renovations a century ago, 500 year-old frescoes of St Christopher were uncovered. According to legend, anyone who looked on them would not die that day; no doubt attendance at services was regular! We peered at the 500-year-old, intricately carved ebony chests, inlaid with ivory. Originally marriage chests (like a bride's bottom drawer), these were later converted into reliquaries to hold the bones of martyrs and saints.

Today, Graz is the capital of Steiermark, or Styria, and across the street from the cathedral are the provincial government headquarters, where computers hum behind the granite walls of the medieval fortress. In the courtyard, we pause at the base of the Doppelwendeltreppe, solid stone twin spiral staircases. Built in 1499, the craftsmanship is perfect. My husband climbs one; I climb the other; we meet again on the next two landings and argue over which nickname is more appropriate. The 'stairway of reconciliation' or the 'stairway of kisses'?

Some old buildings are part of everyday life, such as the show-off shopfront of the Edegger-Tax bakery in Hofgasse. As the family has been baking bread and making cakes and biscuits for over 440 years, a little pride is understandable. The façade, with its carved walnut and intricate inlay, is a reminder that a century ago, a forebear was the official baker to the Emperor. Their Panthertatzen, little green biscuits dotted with pumpkin seeds, make a tasty souvenir.

Getting around Graz is easy. The centre is walkable and there are plenty of trams. Our guide insists that we see Schloss Eggenberg, so we hop on the Route 1 tram and ride it to the end of the line. A short walk away is the 17th century palace, looking like something out of a fairy tale, with lavish baroque and rococo interiors. More intriguing is the symbolism of the alchemist who built the palace with 4 towers (for the four winds), 24 rooms (hours of the day), 52 doors (weeks of the year), 365 windows (days in a year).
Practical information
Walking tours of the Old Town (in English): Tues, Weds, Fri, Sat, Sun: 14:30. 2 hours. 7.5 euros, children 3.75 euros.
Start at the tourist office, 16 Herrengasse.
Tel: 00 43 316 80750, www.visitgraz.com

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