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When Graz Is Calling, Why Think of Vienna?

May 11, 1986|HANK KOVELL | Kovell is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

GRAZ, Austria — When we think of Austria, the first city name that comes to mind is probably Vienna, although skiers may think of Innsbruck or Kitzbuehel and music lovers will recall Salzburg, the hometown of Mozart.

Who, then, is going to think of Graz--and why should they?

It's not the birthplace of any great historic figure nor the ancestral home of a great painter or musician.

Unlike so many European cities that claim to have been a strategic crossroads at some time in history, Graz has no such pretensions. It does surprise some people to learn that it's Austria's second-largest city (after Vienna), with a population of about a quarter million.

Bypassed by Battlers

Graz (rhymes with slots) is the capital of the Austrian state of Styria but is closer to Yugoslavia (30 miles) and Hungary (40 miles) than it is to Vienna. It was founded 900 years ago and because it was spared the ravages of battle during most of Europe's frequent territorial and religious conflicts, the picturesque old city is almost completely preserved.

So all that Graz and environs have going for them are charm, beauty, peaceful neighborhoods, parks filled with shrubs, flowers and trees, scenic mountains and a wandering river, plus an ample supply of pastoral and historic sites that can be reached on foot from the city center.

As a bonus, Graz is populated by warm, open and friendly people, a surprising number of whom speak passable to excellent English.

Although it seldom had to defend itself against invaders, there was always a threat from Turkish forces in the 16th Century who made frequent incursions into the surrounding countryside.

Defensive Architecture

As a protective measure the ruling monarch of the period, Emperor Ferdinand I, engaged a team of Italian architects to draw plans for construction that would shore up the defenses of the city. This, contrasting with previous and subsequent architectural styles, resulted in a curious mix of structures that contributes to the color and interest of the attractive city.

For a city that seldom saw much combat action during the turbulent years when the Turks were doing their best to overrun Central Europe, Graz nonetheless had the good sense to prepare for mobilization in the event it became necessary to defend itself.

The result of that prudent preparation can be seen in the stunning four-story Armory, standing as it was constructed from 1642 to 1645 and holding a collection of 32,000 implements of war. They include complete suits of armor for both men and horses, muskets and pistols, coats of mail, helmets, swords, lances, harnesses, shields and breastplates.

21st-Century Hype

Notwithstanding an illustrious history dating from the 10th Century, the theme that the city has adopted to promote itself is a fine example of 21st-Century hype. The slogan is "Graz Hat's!" (pronounced "Grotz Hots") and it means "Graz has it!"

The catch-phrase, with appropriate artwork, is being widely distributed on thousands of key chains, match books, cigarette lighters and other souvenir giveaways, and is also appearing in travel publication advertising.

The Old Quarter of Graz, the center of attraction for the visitor, can best be seen on a walking tour because many of the buildings and their facades should be viewed at length and motor vehicles are not permitted on most streets.

Nine centuries of architecture, early apartment buildings, churches, a cathedral, a mausoleum, a theater, an opera house, government houses and palaces are at every turn, most marked with green information tablets. Free maps are provided through the local tourist office.

Four Faces of Time

Looming above the city on a high hill is the Uhrturm or clock tower, part of a long-gone fort. Each of the four clock faces is 17 feet in diameter and a gallery on one side offers a fine view into the heart of the old city. More than three dozen historic places of interest are in the valley of Graz.

The fine arts in this sprightly city are well-nourished, centered in the 1,200-seat Opera House, site of classical and contemporary musical performances, operas, musicals and ballets. Several smaller theaters present plays and musical programs.

The Musical Society of Styria sponsors serious music programs in the town's Convention Centre Theatre, which seats 1,025 and is one of Austria's acoustically precise theaters.

A large number of smaller musical organizations also present programs, including jazz concerts, throughout the year in less pretentious halls and theaters, including some in historic buildings in the Old Quarter.

Several museums and galleries offer views of the history and life style of the city, both contemporary and from the past, as well as temporary exhibitions in conjunction with the three major universities in Graz. The major college, Karl-Franzens Universitat, was founded in the 16th Century and has operated continuously ever since, except for a 40-year period of religious turmoil in the early 19th Century.

The Technical University hosts many foreign students in its schools of chemistry, computer sciences and modern research centers for present-day technology. Graz also hosts a popular School of Music and Acting.

The thousands of students at these three major colleges contribute in large part to the cosmopolitan and youthful posture that's typical of the residents of this charming Austrian city.

It must be admitted that the sales blitz being mounted by Graz for more tourism does have some substance in declaring itself as a tourist attraction. As the ads say, Graz does, indeed, have it.

For information on Graz, write to the Austrian National Tourist Office, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 906, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010.

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