Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Seventh Day Of Our Vacation: The Semmering Pass And Graz

We left Vienna at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday morning and headed south and west on the autobahn en route to Graz.

We remained on the autobahn until we reached the exit for the Semmering Highway, where we departed the autobahn and drove the Semmering Highway most of the way to Graz.

The Semmering Highway traverses The Semmering Pass, the easternmost and lowest of all the great passes across The Alps—but also one of the most scenic.

We were pleased that the highway was completely modern (and wide), as we had feared that the drive might make us queasy.

Except when we were in one of the numerous tunnels, our drive was spectacular. The views were unutterably beautiful.

The Semmering Highway gave us the best scenery of the first seven days of our trip (although Friday’s scenery was to prove to be more spectacular still). For us, natives of Oklahoma and Minnesota, where the land is conspicuous for being flat, the drive was a marvel and almost surreal: an ultra-modern highway high in the mountains, with cars and trucks passing like nothing in the least was out of the ordinary, surrounded by some of the world’s most extravagantly-beautiful scenery in all directions.

The Alps are entirely different from The Rocky Mountains in the American West. The Rocky Mountains are not beautiful like The Alps are beautiful. For one thing, The Rocky Mountains are dry and arid, and lack the greenery of The Alps. Of more importance, The Alps are characterized by a beautiful, diffuse light that lends them a sense of mystery and drama. There are no mountains more beautiful than The Alps. They have been the world’s ultimate tourist attraction for hundreds of years.

We remained on the Semmering Highway until we had to exit in order to take another highway that would take us through the Mur Valley and into the city of Graz. The forests, farms and meadowlands of the Mur Valley were almost as beautiful as the scenery along the Semmering Highway.

It was very early afternoon when we arrived in Graz. We located our hotel first thing, parked the car, checked into our hotel, and headed for Hauptplatz, the main square. At Hauptplatz, we were to meet Leopold, a friend of Andrew from Andrew’s school year in Vienna. Leopold, a native of Vienna, now lives and works in Graz (he is a professor at one of Graz’s many universities), and he was to devote the afternoon and evening to escorting us around Graz and showing us the town’s principal sights.

Leopold (his nickname was “Poldie”) was very, very charming. He was very short—he was only 5’6”, I would guess, if even that—and he had the dark hair and dark, flashing eyes of a Gypsy (a very common “type” in Austria) and the urbane, polished, excessively-polite manner of a professional diplomat. He spoke beautiful but heavily-accented English, he gesticulated constantly (but elegantly) with his hands, and he had a winning, even irresistible, smile. We were all captivated by him.

Leopold showed us around the Medieval Quarter of Graz, one of the best-preserved city centers in Europe. The Medieval Quarter is noted for its narrow lanes, ancient buildings, numerous market squares, and many intriguing monuments.

We saw the Rathaus (city hall) and the Landhaus (regional government offices). We saw Landeszeughaus (the ancient provincial arsenal) and Herrengasse, an ancient neighborhood filled with fine residential properties, all built centuries ago.

We saw the exteriors of several museums, a couple of which featured modern architecture. One museum was the Landesmuseum, which houses a group of museums that includes a history museum, a natural history museum and a collection of Old Master paintings. Another museum was the Stadtmuseum, the municipal museum. Another was Neue Gallerie, a museum that displays 19th and 20th Century art. Yet another was the Kunsthaus, Graz’s newest landmark and perhaps the world’s most famous building planned and erected in the 21st Century. The Kunsthaus houses contemporary art.

We visited two ancient churches, Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church), an ancient Gothic church, and Stadtpfarrkirche (Town Parish Church), a Gothic church with a Baroque overlay.

From the Medieval Quarter, we took a funicular to The Castle And Cathedral Quarter, which lies on a fortress-like hill high above the city.

My parents and my brother had never experienced a funicular before, and they were fascinated by the technology used in a funicular.

In The Castle And Cathedral Quarter, we observed the remains of the ancient castle, once home of the Habsburg Monarchy until the capital was moved to Vienna. We saw the elaborate Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II (the last of the Habsburg rulers to be buried in Graz), which is a chapel in all but name, and we visited Graz Cathedral, another Gothic edifice with a Baroque overlay.

From The Castle And Cathedral Quarter, we had an exceptional view of the town below, especially the Kunsthaus. In fact, the Kunsthaus building may best be appreciated by looking down on it from the old castle ramparts.

Once we had seen everything Leopold wanted to show us in The Castle And Cathedral Quarter, we took the funicular back to Graz’s Medieval Quarter.

There we had coffee and cake at an old, graceful café. We had Austrian Coffee, loaded with whipped cream, and Punschkrapfen, a very heavy Austrian cake stuffed with apricot jam and nougat chocolate, then soaked in rum, and finally covered with a thick, pink sugar glaze.

Leopold had selected the café because, he said, it offered the best Punschkrapfen in Graz—and, he told us, he knew how much Andrew loved Punschkrapfen.

The cake was incredibly moist and sweet, with a very strong flavor. I believe it may be addictive. We all decided that we, too, liked Punschkrapfen very much.

After our Austrian Coffee and Punschkrapfen, we spent another couple of hours simply strolling the streets of Graz, a magnificent city for walking and gazing. Leopold served as a veritable fount of information, pointing out interesting buildings with interesting histories, and showing us the former residences of notable persons.

Leopold kept pointing out buildings with musical associations, and he did this for Andrew’s sake. For instance, he pointed out to Andrew a building in which conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was born in Berlin but grew up in Graz, once lived, and he pointed out a building in which conductor Philippe Jordan lived not long ago.

I had had no idea, until we actually set foot in the city, that Graz was such a beautiful and intriguing place, steeped in history and art, with a wealth of museums, churches and historic places of interest. Someday Andrew and I shall have to return to Graz, and spend two weeks exploring the city at leisure.

It was well past 8:00 p.m. when we decided that it was time to have dinner. We continued to allow Leopold to be our guide, and he selected a very fine restaurant situated near the Rathaus (which looked remarkable in the approaching twilight).

The restaurant served nothing but Styrian food. Styrian cuisine, according to Leopold, has been far the best in Austria for hundreds of years and is highly-prized throughout Europe.

The restaurant was excellent, and the food was excellent.

We had five courses.

Our first course was a large wooden platter of meats, cheeses, and garnishes (the garnishes were fresh fruits and vegetables). According to Leopold, such a platter is the traditional Styrian way of starting a meal associated with an important occasion—and, he made clear, our visit to Graz certainly qualified as a special occasion.

Our second course was the salad course: smoked trout mousse accompanied by a goat cheese-apple-cucumber salad and Pumpernickel Bread. This was the only course for which bread accompanied the food.

Our third course was the soup course: pumpkin-cream-corn soup, which was very good (although my father and my brother ordered beef soup with pancake strips).

Between the seven of us, we ordered five different main courses: stewed pork cutlets in a sour cream-mushroom sauce served with fried potatoes; roasted pork served with dumplings and white cabbage salad; butter-fried perch served with parsley potatoes and mixed vegetables; oxen steak cooked in onions served with green beans wrapped in bacon; and venison stew served with red cabbage and dumplings.

For our dessert course, we all accepted Leopold’s recommendation and ordered apple-apricot-nut strudel served with walnut ice cream.

It was quite a dinner!

(There was no gluttony involved on our part—we had, after all, skipped lunch . . .)

After dinner, Leopold escorted us back to our hotel. He had been a delightful and generous guide—Graz would not have been the same without him—and we were sorry to have to part company.

We were immensely pleased to have made not only the acquaintance of Graz but the acquaintance of Leopold as well.

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