Stopping in staggeringly beautiful Mondsee on our way to France
Stopping in staggeringly beautiful Mondsee on our way to France
Why is it that everytime we are in Austria we always tend to sing “The hills are alive” of Julie Andrews? There is something in this country that blows us away even if it’s only a cattle farming community such as Spital am Pyrhn. Literally means “village in the mountains”, Spital am Pyrhn is set in a picturesque landscape famous as a skiing resort in the winter and an equally popular hiking paradise the rest of the year. What makes it attractive for nature lovers is that, it is the gateway to the Kalkalpen National Park, the largest forest region in Central Europe, which boasts of hidden gorges, untouched mountain streams, caves, fantastic flora and fauna, among others.
If only we had more time, we would have loved to explore the forest and Charlie would have the ball of his life. Oh well, we might just go back, after all, it’s not too far away from where we live..
“You’re becoming a B&B geek.” my husband tells me as he drives the van out of Villa Elizabeth.
Indeed, another exceptional experience we gained staying in the guesthouse of our dreams that night.
Move over chain hotels! Five-star or Budget, we are definitely sticking to the more personal touch of beautiful homes, generous breakfast and charming hosts who treat us as treasured guests rather than customers. Even better than that, like long-lost friends, for which hotel in the world whose owner or staff would give us the French bisous (a kiss on each cheek) while saying our goodbyes? No, this simply doesn’t happen in chain hotels but we have experienced these in some B&Bs in France and Italy but Austria beats them both as the owner, Anna Maria, went all the way as to thrust cereal bars taken out of the buffet counter, into my hands, to sustain us on our drive to our destination. Such kindness.
Villa Elizabeth, so-named because the owner adores the Empress of Austria of same name, is an elegant house transformed into a 5-star luxury B&B (with spa and pool) in Admont, a small town sitting at the foot of the Austrian Alps where verdant and undulating landscape make you sing Julie Andrews’ Sound of Music signature song “The hills are alive…” through and through.
Anna Maria made us feel so special, offered us chilled local beer in our room, where chocolates are neatly spread out on all of the beds and flowers adorn every corner.
“I’ll give you the most beautiful room in the house.” she told us as we were coming in and truly so, we were just blown away by its size. It’ss more than a bedroom, it’s more of a Presidential suite with an extra room for two more people and the huge bathroom prides itself with not only a polygonal bath at the far end but also a window showing a postcard view of the town dominated by the church and the mountains in the background.
The town of Admont as seen from the bedroom terrace
The elegant lounge which made me almost teary-eyed with joy. I felt so privileged to be in there. Every room of the villa is a work of art!
Still the lounge, with its palatial chandelier, and the adjoining room on the left.
The adjoining room on the right of the lounge
The sumptuous buffet breakfast corner
Our dining table which is located in the glass conservatory that overlooks the gardens.
There are three tables here, the longest one was occupied by four other Austrians guests who were on holiday.
We always believe that staying in small family-run guesthouses is part of the joy of travelling for we get to experience true local hospitality, listen to some history, meet and make friends, gain valuable ideas, the list is endless…
And Villa Elizabeth satisfies each of all these points. We are definitely going back bringing our friends and family so they, too, can experience a memorable stay in this charming place that bespeaks the legendary Austrian hospitality.
Paradiesstraße 86, 8911 Admont, Austria
60 euros/night, double room
We needed a break. H and I have been toiling relentlessly at home and in the garden for weeks since we got back from Siracusa and we were close to burning out.
Well, I should say, we are desperate for a change of scenery. Not that we are complaining about our own. The endless blooms in the garden, the warm biscuits and tarts coming out of the oven, the new shelves DIY’d by H in the kitchen, office and walk-in wardrobe make for good tinkling of glasses of wine every end of the day, revelling at the fruits of our own labour and at each other’s sense of accomplishment….
But we are missing TRAVEL! Oh how we get deliriously transformed everytime we hop into the car looking forward to discovering a new place, its people, its food and everything different from what we are used to.
And we chose Graz.
This second biggest city of Austria, after Vienna, is only 1.5 hours drive from where we live. H and I frequently talked about going there one day, and it happened last weekend.
But first, we had to figure out what to do with Charlie (the dog) because we were intent to explore this city all to ourselves.
Saturday, 12 noon
We dropped Charlie at a hundepension (dog hotel) in Austria, 20euros a night, not far from Graz. His board includes food and a run in the hotel garden. It’s about time he takes his own holiday, we thought.
We arrived in Graz on a scorching afternoon, too hot to do any serious sightseeing so we decided to take a rest and go out at 6pm when it gets cooler. The hotel is 15-minute walk to the center so we ambled our way following the map. It was a pleasant walk – lovely architecture that is more Italian than Austrian, and since this is late Spring, the season of roses, we feasted our eyes on the different floral varieties we saw on every corner. This one on the photo is a rose garden behind the Opera house.
Not long afterwards, we came across this maze of squares and alleys filled with cafés and restaurants. The Mediterranean feel is so strong, it reminds me of Nice in the south of France.
It’s Saturday evening (past 7pm) so customers are brimming everywhere. Some are only too happy to pose for my camera!
We noticed the prevalence of religious artworks – painted or sculpted – infront of buildings. The facades are colourful, too.
The “Painted House” is the name given to this building in Herrengasse street (few steps from the Rathaus) because it is covered with frescoes depicting Greek and Roman gods. It was painted in 1742 by Baroque artist Johann Mayer. This was the official residence of the Habsburgs as princes of Styria up until the second half of the 15th century.
While browsing for Graz’ Things-to’do, I read so much about its magical courtyards located in the historic center so I became obsessed searching for open gates or doorways to gain access. I was not the only one though. These two gentlemen are also courtyard-spotters!
Here, I am standing at the courtyard of the Landhaus (where the Styrian Parliament convenes in the Assembly Hall). The arcaded inner courtyard is a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance and this is where festivities, concerts, theatersare regularly held.
A courtyard bicycle parking to die for –
Probably the most photographed street in Graz is the Sporgasse. It is also the oldest, pre-dating the city itself and the most picturesque. For architectural buffs like me, there are plenty of architectural wonders waiting to be discovered ..
The awe-inspiring Luegghouse building with its stucco facade is the first building that stands at Sporgasse (corner Hauptplatz square)
A city of bicycles and a city of universities. Both.
Graz is Austria’s cycling capital. It is also the country’s no. 1 “Student City” as one in every 6 inhabitants is a student. The city is proud of its six universities.
What is that? A sea monster? The locals call it the “Friendly Alien” – the Kunsthaus Graz (Graz Art Museum). It was built during the 2003 European Capital of Culture celebrations and became a landmark of the city.
A floating shell, an artificial island, a ship – it acts as a bridge over the Mur while serving as an amphitheater, café (with children’s rope climbing net, my favorite!). Also built for t he 2003 European Capital of Culture.
This is the stairway to Castle Hill all at 260 steps! Called The Schloßbergsteig (Stairs of the Schloßberg), it was built between 1914 and 1918 by Austrian pioneers and Russian prisoners which is why they were named Russeinsteig (or Russian steps) or more familiarly Kriegsteig (or war steps) as they were built during World War 1.
We were already knackered to climb it so we promised ourselves to do it first thing tomorrow.
The monumental statue of Francis I, Emperor of Austria, at Freiheitsplatz or Freedom Square.
It was from a balcony of the Schauspielhaus theater in the square, in 1918, where it was proclaimed that Austria would henceforth be a republic. It has become a popular meeting place for students.
Turning towards Sporgasse again, we finally saw the neo-Baroque oak portal of what probably is the oldest bakery in Graz. Though the building dates from 1569, it became a bakery in 1850.
It could easily be said that the national pastime of Graz residents is window-shopping – what with a plethora of designer boutiques, antique and miscellaneous shops even food stores displaying their items in such stylish and delicious manner.
Sunday, 09:35 am
Craving for an authentic café atmosphere, we skipped the hotel’s breakfast and went searching for a coffee shop . We were distracted, of course, by this antique market (Grazer Trödelmarkt @Petersgasse) so huge and welcoming. This is the sofa that we wanted to take home – but our wallet simply won’t let us!
…. and this is the trendy café we chose to have our capuccino and viennoiserie while soaking in the lovely morning sun. What I enjoyed most about this place is the free-flowing refreshing pitcher of water infused with leaves of mint and slices of oranges. I give them a mark of 9.5!
We already noticed this square yesterday as we were approaching the Opera House. It was surrounded by kiosks but they were all closed except for a couple of biergartens where some students and/or young urban professionals were enjoying their Saturday afternoon over cocktails. We passed by it again this morning and still closed. I later found out that this is where the biggest Farmers’ Market in Graz takes place every day except Sunday. Shame. This is the bane of going sightseeing on a weekend, we miss the true colors of a city.
I just had to see for myself how this double spiral staircase looks like, and I was not disappointed. Located at the Burg, the seat of the Styrian regional parliament, this masterpiece of stone masonry dates from the end of the Gothic period. If you find this image a bit bizarre, that’s because I have photographed it from below the stairs.
It’s time to climb the 260 steps by foot. Good exercise, says H, but I was puffing and huffing and I thought I was going to collapse midway! But everytime I look down below and see the staggering view of Graz’ rooftops, my energy seems to pick up quickly.
A city of a thousand spires, they say of Vienna, but Graz definitely comes second!
The Castle Hill gardens – a postcard beauty.
It must be romantic up in the Castle Hill for we stumbled upon many couples in love. This couple chose the Chinese Pavilion as witness to their everlasting love.
Speaking of romance, you don’t only feel it up the Castle Hill, they’re everywhere!
This is the view of Graz and the river Mur seen from the Pavilion
After more huffing and puffing – as the Castle Hill seems to be a never- ending climb (but it’s all worth it, mind you), thank goodness we didn’t have to walk down anymore. This cable car, or I prefer to call it funicular, is quite an experience in itself. Imagine the 61degree gradient, practically taking a vertical descent but you get to see more views of the city plus getting the chance to photograph the other funicular coming from the opposite direction. Ticket costs 2.10 euros one-way and includes transfer to the lift (a breezy way of reaching the Castle Hill), tram or bus and valid for one hour.
One of the many photogenic subjects of the city is the ornate wrought iron shop signs. They are not as many as Salzburg (where you find a single street seemingly competing for the most-gilded or the most ornate) but there are still aplenty scattered everywhere. The one above hangs over a shop selling Austrian costumes.
This is Sackstrasse, the street of arts, where you will find antique shops, galleries, museums including the K&O (left), the most beautiful department store not only in Graz but in the whole of Austria.
It’s been a long and hot day and we needed to pick up Charlie at 5pm so we decided to have lunch at one of the courtyard restaurants before calling it a day. This one in Sackstrasse is a very popular place, customers coming non-stop, not only for the great food but the charming setting. Tables and chairs sandwich the doors belonging to different tenants and two cars parked at the end wall. Very interesting set up but it sure works in Graz!
In one of our shortcut walks, we got to see this inner courtyard of Landhaus …
… which exits to another charming pedestrian street called the Schmiedgasse. Lovely shopfronts and cafés vying for the trendiest style – and this one might have won our hearts. Wooden pallets are very popular upcycled items these days!
Bye lovely Graz! We shall return!
(Already, I read that they hold Christmas markets in December. Another reason to go back!)
Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss and of course the city-favourite Mozart! They all became the most sought after musicians in Vienna, they all died in Vienna and after their death, they were recognized as the greatest in the history of music. So it’s only fair that the City gave them the highest honour, posthumously, by putting them together in one of the world’s largest and famous cemetery.
And since I was in Vienna last week, I took the opportunity to visit their resting place at the Zentralfriedhof. I may not have seen them in their lifetime, but I already feel honored to be able to see and touch their graves!
Ludwig van Beethoven – Bonn, Germany
Baptised 17 December 1770– 26 March 1827
He moved to Vienna in 1792 and lived there until his death at the age of 57.
Beethoven became deaf at nearly the height of his career but he managed to keep playing the piano by listening to its vibrations.
Franz Schubert, Vienna, Austria
January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828
With only a short life of 31 years, he ranked among the greatest composers of the early Romantic era, becoming one of the most frequently performed composers of the early nineteenth century.
Johannes Brahms – Hamburg, Germany
May 7, 1833 – April 3, 1897
Brahms made his first visit to Vienna at the age of 27, held a number of posts in the Musical field and even directed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for three seasons.
It was said that he seemed to fall in love easily and had strings of relationships but he never married.
Johann Strauss II – St Ulrich, Austria
October 25, 1825 – June 3, 1899
The famous composer of The Blue Danube died in Vienna, at the age of 73. At the time of his death, he was still composing his ballet, Aschenbrödel.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Salzburg, Austria
27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791
Already a child prodigy at the age six, Mozart enthralled the imperial family with a command performance at Schönbrunn Palace.
When he died at the age of 35, he had already composed over 600 works. It was only immediately after his death that his fame rose substantially.
Although he is not buried in this cemetery, the City put up this memorial as the central point of all the other musicians’ resting place.
The tombs of some of the World’s greatest musicians can be found in one spot at the Zentralfriedhof (Vienna Central Cemetery)