by Jennifer Crawford

One of the many glorious perks of living in Europe and dating an international pilot is the opportunity to fly to interesting, exotic, or even never-heard-of locales on a moment’s notice (and, of course, at a fraction of the regular price). Recognizing that thousands of travel addicts around the world would die to be in my shoes, this is a situation I take most seriously.

Most recently, my beau called me between flights and said “Hey babe, what do you think about Graz?” I paused for a moment, scrambling for my mental map of Europe, and replied hesitantly, “Um, you mean the Graz in…uh…Switzerland?”

“Honey, you think everything is in Switzerland. It’s in Austria.”

“Oh, you mean that Graz. Right, right. Never been there.”

“Well it’s a beautiful city and I have a day off there between flights. The airline puts us up at a five-star hotel in the center of town. Would you like to join me?”

The next thing he heard was the sound of the phone hitting the floor and the zipper of my overnight bag being ripped open…

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In my brief flurry of Graz due-diligence, I learned that none other than Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of my home state of California, was born in Graz (okay, ten kilometers away…but close enough!) I therefore imagined Graz to be a town of big, muscular Austrian bodybuilders wearing dark sunglasses. This wasn’t quite what I found.

What I did find was just about the most charm per square meter in all of Europe. Maximum charm, minimum walking-that’s my kind of town! As an added bonus, we discovered that old town Graz is itself a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.

My sources tell me that when Arnold is in town, he stays at the deluxe, five-star Grand Hotel Wiesler, located on the river Mur near old town. We enjoyed his good taste in our deluxe corner room. I particularly appreciated the excellent photographic exhibits lining the hotel hallways, the fluffy down comforters, and the dark chocolate on my pillow.

Being the high-altitude guy that he is, my other half suggested a trip to the top of the Schlossberg, the small mountain plopped right in the center of town. Rather than tackle the 260-step stairway, we opted for the foot-saving funicular that takes visitors straight to the top. An outdoor café on the ramparts was a perfect place for lunch, where we chose pumpkin crème soup and an array of local Styrian meats and cheeses (Styria being the province in which Graz is located), admiring the view over the famous red roofs of the city. A short stroll took us to the Belltower and the eye-catching Clocktower, which apparently has been around since the 1200s. We learned that Napoleon wanted to blow up both the towers during his rampage through Austria, but the good citizens of Graz smartly ransomed them for a pretty penny.

A spookily lit, James Bond-like glass elevator took us through a small rock-blasted vertical corridor back down to ground level, but we were still in the heart of the mountain. We had to run surreptitiously through about one hundred yards through dark tunnel, wearing our head-to-toe, black Mission Impossible outfits and night-vision goggles, rappelling off walls with tension ropes before we emerged back into the daylight. I was then happy to put away my momentary spy outfit and start on some serious shopping.

Sackstraße is Graz’s main shopping street, with art galleries, restaurants, jewelers, clothing boutiques, antique and junk stores (including a peculiar store which seems to sell nothing but ancient electrical components). In addition to window-shopping, we checked out some mysterious passageways and casually trespassed into private courtyards. My shopping bags quickly became weighted down with Mozartkugel chocolates, a chic corduroy jacket, a bottle of Styrian rosé, and a few other odds and ends.

We emerged on the über-charming main square of Graz, Hauptplatz, which is filled with food stalls selling, among other things, God’s gift to gourmets: pumpkinseed oil. I can assure you, this stuff takes salads from “yum” to “orgasmic” in about one teaspoon. You can bet I have my own bottle now…

No trip to Graz would be complete without a visit to the royal bakery, Hofbäckerei Edegger Tax. I was duly impressed with the fancy neo-baroque exterior, but was more interested in the pastries. There was a bowl of Sissibusserls on the counter, little chocolate hazelnut cookies with marmalade, to which I helped myself to a big handful. Turns out they weren’t samples, and the lady behind the counter quickly whisked them away. I must have looked disappointed, because she suggested that we sit at one of the café tables and order something to eat.

One Graz peculiarity that caught our attention was the large number of Scots around the city. How did we know they were Scottish? Because they were fully decked in kilts, feathered caps, and the occasion bugle. Our curiosity was intensified when we strolled by a side street that practically exploded of loud music, beer, and Scottish people. Further inquiry alerted us that a soccer game between Austria & Scotland that night had prompted the kilted invasion. (Post-game report: It was a tie.)

From an architectural standpoint, the history and quaintness of Graz is loudly confronted by some recent additions to the city. Our eyes were first assailed by a decidedly un-quaint, gigantic amorphous structure, which turned out to be the very contemporary Kunsthaus, or art museum. It seems to resemble a giant blue human heart with arteries popping out on top. We were also startled to spot a silver, fish-like structure “floating” in the center of the Mur river, attached to each bank by a walking bridge. Apparently this “island” was built as an outdoor amphitheatre during the city’s Cultural Festival in 2003. To its credit, I learned that it houses a totally chic underwater restaurant and bar.

We enjoyed our evening meal at my beau’s favorite local restaurant, the Altsteirische Schmankerlstubn (don’t ask me to pronounce that), in its cozy, geranium-lined courtyard. The menu was full of Styrian specialties, from which I selected the very popular pan-fried trout. Even with a prior warning, I still was somewhat alarmed to find a whole fish on my plate. (Haven’t we heard of filets?) Yes, yes, I know, it’s a big specialty, fried with polenta and herbs. But it was looking at me! I decapitated it, then set about with the time-consuming dissection. That proved to be loads of fun, and it tasted really great too.

I found myself full of Graz-induced euphoria right up until the four a.m. wakeup call the next morning. But I suppose that is the price you pay for enjoying five stars on someone else’s dime. It was worth every minute!

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Graz Information

Grand Hotel Wiesler

Grieskai 4-8

t +43.316.7066.0

f +43.316.7066.76

Schlossberg Restaurant (at the top of the funicular)

Schlossberg 7

t +43.316.83.0417

Altsteirische Schmankerlstubn

Sackstrasse 10

t +43.316.83.3211

Aiola Island (underwater bar and restaurant)

Mur 1

t +43.316.82.2660

Alles Käse Nussbaumer (cheese/wine shop)

Paradeisgasse 1

t +43.316.82.9162

Graz Tourism Information