Unlike other European cities, Graz feels like a “lived-in” town. On any given day, you might run into people sprinting to catch the morning tram, anemic university boys drinking white wine, or women in hijabs babysitting tow-headed children. On the morning of the Corpus Christi Procession, I heard the Ride of the Valkyries blasting from an open window.
Modern art crops up in the most unexpected places in Graz.
The avant garde Augarten Hotel Art & Design may not be in the flossiest of locations, but it has friendly staff, intriguing garden sculptures, and the best restaurant in Graz. Magnolia is open Monday to Friday, 12 – 2 p.m. and 6 – 10 p.m. Special menus can run to 4-5 courses + “gifts from the kitchen”. Reservations are required.
The forest-farmer poet of Styria, Peter Rosegger was the eldest son of a large peasant family in the village of Alpl (present-day Krieglach). Life in a 19th century Austrian farming community was beautiful but tough. Prone to illness and limited to the lessons of a wandering teacher, Rosegger was forced to apprentice himself to a traveling tailor at the age of 17.
But he could still read, write, and submit his work. Recognizing Rosegger’s homespun talent, a publisher sponsored the young man to attend the Akademie für Handel und Industrie (“Academy for Trade and Industries”) in Graz. Instead of studying, he used the time to gain friends and sponsors, eventually producing a variety of poems and books on his beloved Styria.
Over the course of his career, Rosegger became an honorary citizen of Graz and Vienna, an honorary doctor of numerous universities, and the recipient of the Franz-Joseph-medal. His near-miss with the Nobel Price for Literature in 1913 (Rabindranath Tagore won) still rankles with some Austrians. Rosegger died in the last year of World War One amongst the woods of the Styrian Alps.
Extract from The Forest Farm
“I always say that the world is becoming too small. There is no room left for hermits.
“I frequently receive enquiries, from correspondents abroad, for cool summer resorts,—for nature resorts. Would I please—so runs the request—suggest a corner in the Alps where they will find clean rooms and good food in a farm-house kept by simple, kindly people.
“Added conditions: no railway, no telegraph, no post, no newspapers. A place where they can feel safe from meeting English people or people from Berlin and—forgive the imputation—Vienna. They want to have nothing but woods and fields around them, and, oblivious of all town luxuries and refinements, at least for a few weeks to bathe body and soul in the dew of a primitive life. This is the wish which—O curious sign of the times!—grows ever louder and louder. Is the return to nature, yearned for by the poets, at last beginning in earnest?
“If only the company-promoters do not seize upon this need and found a colony for hermits! It is not so easy to recover nature once wantonly deserted. Our alps contain no valley, however secluded, into which artificial wines and brandy and American meat-extracts and cigars have not by this time made their way, in which the fences are bare of railway timetables and mineral-water posters and upon which some News of the Day or other does not force its huge weekly doses of ‘culture’ and ‘information.'”
Auch der andre, der bist du (The Other, Too, Is You)
Was die Erde mir geliehen,
Fordert sie schon jetzt zurück.
Naht sich, mir vom Leib zu ziehen
Sanft entwindend Stück für Stück.
What the Earth to me entrusted
she’s already urging back;
draws in close to wrest withdrawals,
gently claiming bit by bit.
Like the Hungarian State Opera House, Graz’s Opernhaus (“Opera House”) was built at the tail end of the 19th century – a time when the strains of the Blue Danube saturated every café in town.
But while the Hungarians indulged in Renaissance excess, Graz plumped for Austrian values. The city instructed the firm of Fellner & Helmer to create a theater that was in keeping with the work of the Baroque master, Fischer von Erlach. Although Fischer von Erlach’s work in his hometown was limited to decorating the interior of the Mausoleum, he was still a hometown hero who had made it big in Vienna.
Fellner & Helmer toed the line, and the Neo-Baroque building opened in 1899 with a production of Schiller’s drama, Wilhelm Tell. This was quickly followed by Wagner’s Lohengrin. Gradually, plays moved to venues such as the Schauspielhaus and music stayed behind.
The Opernhaus was hit by bombs in World War Two, and lost its original portico and façade. The interior was spared. It was repaired, re-opened, and – eventually – updated. Today, it is the second largest opera house in Austria (after the Staatsoper in Vienna) and seats 1,800 patrons. Some of whom, I can only assume, are Andrew Lloyd Webber fans.