Austria really isn’t somewhere that’s been on my radar. It’s been a place to drive through, and even then just the thin bit of the far west. It’s a country not on many others’ radar too, as this photo on the right highlights – Austria and Australia are apparently a common confusion among some Americans.
It’s a shame when a country needs to take steps to assert its identity or avoid confusion with others (pity poor Slovenia and Slovakia – similar names, similar flags and two of the same neighbours), but perhaps that makes discovering Austria all the more worthwhile.
I got to see something more than the thin bit in the west last weekend when Nicole and I headed off to Graz to celebrate our first anniversary.
It was a fun journey, heading from Inverness to London on the sleeper, flying out to Austria for three nights, and then returning on the sleeper in time to go back to work on Tuesday morning, a bit bleary-eyed but refreshed nevertheless after a wonderful wee break.
A pretty town of typically Austrian buildings surrounded by spectacular mountains and in the heart of the Gesäuse National Park, the real crown of Admont is a Benedictine monastery dating back to the 11th century.
Although much changed over the centuries, and featuring some quite unspectacular early twentieth century additions, the highlight of the monastery is a breathtaking library (left).
From the optical illusion that is the tiled floor to the ornate ceiling frescoes, the library is truly a wonder. It boasts everything from secret passageways to evocative statues, and of course more than a few books too.
The oldest book in the monastery pre-dated the 1074AD founding, having been brought by the founding monks from their “parent” abbey in Salzberg. It’s a huge encyclopedia, all in Latin, though we had to resort to a slightly younger part of the library’s collection to find any mention of Scotland.
It was an amazing place to see, but more was to come as Nicole and I spent the next day exploring Graz. A pretty place, Graz has all the things a good city should – a nice river bisecting it, trams, and a big hill with a tower overlooking it all. Not to mention lots of gorgeous old buildings, nice cafes and shops, and the whole city coming alive over the course of the quiet Sunday with the Christmas market.
Mind you, the weather was misty, and visibility from the top of the hill (the Schlossberg) was poor, while the city did seem slightly sleepy with the church bells echoing through quiet streets and reminding us of what a place can be like without rampant seven day shopping.
The Schlossberg was the heart of Graz in a way, with the ruins and monuments painting a picture of the city’s history. As you can imagine, war has been a key theme, with the old Austro-Hungarian Empire being one of the major players in European history up until about the First World War; and everyone from Napoleon’s armies to Russian prisoners of war leaving their mark on the city.
Right at the crossroads of Europe, and with eight neighbours (if you count Lichtenstein), it was no surprise to see cars of countless different nationalities on the roads – from Hungary to Turkey and from Slovenia to Belarus. It did, however, surprise me to see a relative lack of (obvious) ethnic diversity among the faces I saw, particularly in the big city of Graz.
It was a short trip, and nowhere near long enough to really get under the skin of this part of Austria, let alone make any improvements to my terrible German. It was long enough, however, to make countless grammatical errors, drink a copious amount of Austrian wine, beer and home made schnapps, eat a ridiculous amount of wonderful food, and decide that I’ll definitely be back to see more.
And we didn’t see a single kangaroo.