24 Hours in Graz

Way, way back on January 6th, I spent about 24 hours in Graz, a city in Steiermark in the southeast of Austria. It was a last minute decision, brought on by an unexpected Monday off (Austria has a LOT of holidays, y’all). Also, brand new for 2014, there’s a direct train from Linz to Graz, which makes the journey an easy three hour ride right down the middle of the country. I headed off on Sunday afternoon and came back on Monday night.

When I arrived in Graz, it was cold and pouring rain. It was the kind of weather that makes you want to lie in bed and watch The Cosby Show. Or something. So I was really excited to arrive at the A&O Hostel in Graz, which had a snack bar right in the lobby. I ate pizza, read a book, and hung out in my nice and clean dorm room, which was, by some miracle, completely empty except for me. This is hostel bliss.

But the next morning I got up bright and early, armed with a brochure entitled “A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Historic Graz” (actually, I just made that title up, but it was something like that). The free brochure had three different walks around town, full of information about the history and architecture of Graz. It was especially perfect, considering that almost everything was closed that day for the holiday.

Unlike the day before, the weather was beautiful as I headed over toward the river and the historic Altstadt (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the way, and the 20th that I have seen). But first I saw this building…Graz’s “friendly alien.”

ImageActually, this crazy structure, built in 2003, houses Graz’s modern art museum. I visited it later in the afternoon, and loved the way the exhibitions worked with the unique space.

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ImageThe old part of the city was as lovely as I hoped, if completely deserted. The cafe by the main theater was open, and I jumped at the chance to try an Austrian take on your classic British breakfast. It had most of the right ingredients, and I enjoyed it, but, suffice to say, I had not discovered little Britain in the south of Austria.

ImageNext, I headed uphill to Graz’s architectural icon: the Uhrturm (clock tower). It was a steep walk up, but the view was absolutely worth it.

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Rather than walking down, I decided to take the glass elevator, which runs straight through the mountain. It was really cool to watch the rock walls zipping past me during the descent. Then, I made my way over the mechanical clock, with its dancing figures. For the holiday season, it was playing Ihr Kinderlein kommet, one of my new favorite Christmas carols auf Deutsch. 

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I wandered around some more, had lunch, and then spent a pleasant afternoon in the modern art museum. Fellow Disney World fans, can you tell what the inside of the building reminded me of? 😉

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This installation is part of a thought-provoking exhibit titled “Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners,” by artist Romuald Hazoume. This artist from Benin interrogates European assumptions about Africa through both his art and his organization, which collects donations from Beninese for impoverished people in Europe. Part of the exhibit was a documentary, which followed one of his organization members collecting donations. A typical exchange was: “I’m collecting donations for white people who need help.” (Incredulous laughter) “White people? They own everything. Am I supposed to give money to white people?”  “There are many poor white people in Europe, and we are sending them money.” (Nods, members of group exchanging glances.) “Well, we are all human. So I’ll give them something.” (Places coins in donation bucket).

There is a lot to unpack here, and I am not qualified to do it, but the documentary, and the rest of the exhibit, made me reflect on the idea of “developed” vs. “developing” countries, global wealth, “aid,” and, of course, the effects of colonialism. I found this installation fascinating:

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The Goddess of Love: “Alongside the suits of armour from the world-famous Graz Armoury, which are reminiscent of the wars Austria fought against the warriors of the former Ottoman empire…she underpins global aspects of spiritual penetration as well as the collision of quite different cultural traditions.” (from the exhibition guide)

As well as this one, in which a boat constructed of gasoline canisters bring to mind masks associated with Benin (and found in the artist’s previous work).

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“The rat, it seems literally leaves the boat first. What or whom it represents–corrupt government leaders, a resigning pope, global oil economy or unsolved refugee problems–is left to one’s imagination.”

Ultimately, my day in Graz was a lovely mixture of culture, history, and art, in a cool city that both embraces its past and looks toward the future. I’m sure I didn’t make a complete picture of Austria’s second largest city, but I saw enough to know that I would like to return, and to be excited by the many different ideas I encountered.

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