Styria, or Steiermark, is rich in attractions and its capital, Graz, is Austria’s second-largest city. The west of the province offers excellent winter sports facilities; in the north lie the beautiful Mur and Mürz valleys, and many lakes. The quiet, agricultural southeast is covered with vineyards. Special sights are the National Austrian Open-Air Museum in Stübing, the Lipizzaner stud in Piber, and the Mariazell Basilica, the country’s largest Marian sanctuary.
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Almost entirely surrounded by mountains, Graz is Austria’s second-largest city. During the Middle Ages, its importance rivaled that of Vienna. In the late 14th century, the Habsburg Duke Leopold III chose Graz as his base, and in the following century, the town played a vital strategic role in the war against the invading Turks. The city is dominated by the Schlossberg, the huge hill on which the town’s medieval defenses were built. During the Napoleonic Wars, Graz was occupied by French troops, who blew up most of the fortifications in 1809. Among the ruins visible today are a 92 ft high clock tower, the Uhrturm, dating from 1561, and the Glockenturm (bell tower), from 1588. The former houses the Schlossbergmuseum, with exhibits illustrating the history of Graz. From the summit of the hill, there are splendid views. At the foot of the Schlossberg lies the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The medieval Burg (fortress) was built in several stages and completed in 1500. To the south are the late-Gothic Cathedral of St. Ägydius, with its striking Baroque interior, and the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II, designed by the Italian Pietro de Pomis in the late 17th century. The Universalmuseum Joanneum includes the Neue Galerie (New Gallery), previously housed in the Herberstein Palace, and the Natural History Museum. The Alte Galerie (Old Gallery) at Schloss Eggenberg houses the Archaeology Museum and a notable coin collection. Also of interest is the Landeszeughaus, with its impressive array of over 30,000 weapons and pieces of armor.
In the Styrian village of Stübing, just outside Graz, is the Österreichische Freilichtmuseum (Austrian Open-Air Museum). Covering 24 acres of picturesque woodland, this collection of buildings, representing Austria’s regional architecture through the ages, was transported here from almost every part of the country. Each building, reconstructed and preserved with original furnishings, tools, and decor, presents a unique insight into the everyday life of its former inhabitants, as well as contributing to a fascinating overview of how working life has changed throughout the years.
On a steep basaltic rock high above the Grazbach stream stands Riegersburg Castle, a mighty medieval fortress that was once Styria’s most easterly outpost against raiders from Hungary, then Turkey, and, more recently, a German stronghold during World War II. The present castle dates from the 17th century. The fortress is surrounded and defended by a 2-mile-long wall with eleven bastions, seven gates, and two moats, and can only be approached by a long steep climb. A good handful of the castle’s rooms serve as a museum. One section is dedicated to an extensive collection of armor and armory. Dating from the Middle Ages to the 17th century, the weapons include swords, pistols, and rifles, and range from those used during warfare to those kept for hunting. Several rooms explore the lives of the Liechtenstein family, now owners of the castle, who played an important role in the turbulent history of Austria and Europe. The Witches’ Museum looks at the Styrian witch trials of the 17th century; it features gruesome instruments of torture and grim tales of persecution. In the castle’s first courtyard stands a monument to soldiers killed during World War II. Beyond the second moat, in the inner courtyard, you will find a well surrounded by an intricate wrought-iron enclosure featuring a horseshoe. Is it said that those who succeed in tracing the horseshoe among the intricate decorations may count on good luck.
Much of southern Styria is given over to vineyards, with vines planted on steep, south-facing slopes. The roads along the foot of the hills run through fields of maize, the region’s second crop. The third crop is pumpkins, and pumpkin seeds are used to make Kürbiskernöl, a popular salad oil. Visitors following the Styrian wine routes will find many pleasant places to stop for a meal, but more importantly, a chance to sample the local wine and learn about the grape varieties that cloak the gardens of the restaurants.
Piber is the location of the Piber Federal Stud, the breeding farm for Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. When the town of Lipizza was incorporated into Slovenia after World War I, it was in a former castle in Piber, a small Styrian village, that the famous Lipizzaner horses found a new home. The horses are a complex mixture of six different breeds. Born dark-chestnut or black, they acquire their famous white color between the ages of four and ten. In Piber, the initial selection of 5 out of 40 stallions takes place: they are assessed for their suitability and stage talents before five years of training at the Spanish Riding School. Those with a keen passion for horses can purchase one of the stallions here.
Murau sprang up in the 13th century at a crossroads of trading routes on the scenic Mur river and became a local center for commerce and industry. The historic town center of Murau lies on the left bank of the Mur river. Its Renaissance houses are dominated by the Gothic Matthäuskirche, the church of St Matthew, consecrated in the 13th century and later altered in the Baroque style. The church contains some interesting tombs of the Liechtenstein family but its star attraction is the main altar (1655), a magnificent work by local Baroque masters, incorporating a Gothic painting of the Crucifixion (c.1500). Also worth seeing are the medieval frescoes of St Anthony in the transept, and the Entombment of Christ and Annunciation in the main nave. The castle behind the church, Schloss Murau, was founded by the Liechtenstein family and later passed into the hands of the Schwarzenbergs. It has an interesting museum of metallurgy. In the vaults of Elisabethkirche, at No. 4 Marktgasse, is a Diocesan Protestant Museum that holds documents relating to the events around the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in this part of Austria.
The small town of Schladming lies at the foot of the Niedere (Lower) Tauern that extend along the Enns valley. Rising to 9,200 ft, their gentle slopes provide excellent conditions for downhill skiers, from the beginner to the professional. The scenery is superb, excellent for walking in summer, with an efficient bus network, cable cars and ski lifts in winter. If you are looking for more of a challenge, you can find this in the Dachstein massif close by. But for a relaxing break, it is still worth going down to Schladming, with its tempting restaurants and cozy cafés lining the broad promenade.
At the center of the village of Admont stands a Benedictine Abbey whose importance once reached far beyond the region. Built in the 11th century and often rebuilt, it burned down in 1865, but the fire spared its priceless collection: with nearly 160,000 volumes, it is said to hold the world’s largest monastic library. The library’s magnificent Rococo interior, dating from 1773, was designed by the Viennese architect Josef Hueber. The large hall holding two-story cabinets is 236 ft long. The ceiling frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte show vast allegorical scenes of the arts, the natural sciences, and religion. The abbey’s south wing has been converted into a museum showcasing both historic treasures and modern art.
The small Salza river, a tributary of the upper Enns, cuts its way across the eastern end of the High Limestone Alps. A journey along the Salza valley is an expedition through a thinly populated area of entrancing beauty. The trail leads along the foothills of the Hochschwab massif, beside wild mountain streams, small barrier lakes, and through dense woodlands. The river flows through virgin mountain terrains and its waters are so crystal clear that you can see every detail reflected in it.
The earliest records of a church devoted to the Birth of the Virgin Mary date from 1243, but it is believed to have been established in 1157 and its 850th anniversary was celebrated in 2007. Mariazell is the main pilgrimage center for the Roman Catholic population in this part of Europe. Pilgrims arrive all year, but high points are Assumption (15 Aug) and the Birth of the Virgin (8 Sep). Mariazell became famous in the 14th century when King Louis of Hungary founded the Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Mercy) to give thanks for his victory over the Turks.