The heritage seminar I was invited to in Vienna was done with. After all those conservation discussions, classical concerts and art nouveau walks in the Austrian Capital, I needed a change of scene. “Graz,” suggested my friend Dirk Angelroth over a mélange at Vienna’s imposing Café Central (where, by the way, Trotsky is said to have planned the Russian revolution). “The Viennese like to dismiss it as a backwater, but it’s a lovely, spunky town whose people scoff at Vienna for being paralysed by tradition.”I set off that very evening.
A week later when I returned, I was hugging Dirk for having suggested the Styrian Capital. Not only had I experienced funky architecture, I had also savoured swinging jazz and, not least, culinary flavours that had stamped Styria forever on my tastebuds.
It had been a great time to visit the lively university town where every fifth person is a student. Its colleges and galleries were abuzz with workshops and exhibitions, and its hills richly swathed in reds and yellows. Plus there was chilled sturm and roasted kastanian (young wine and chestnuts) on offer at every street corner. And every eatery boasted of an assortment of pumpkin delicacies.
I can’t recall how many bowls of pumpkin crème soup — garnished with tender little white dumplings of sour cream and bottle-green streaks of fresh pumpkinseed oil — I walloped at those atmospheric ‘gasthauses’ in the Bermuda Dreiecke (yes, Bermuda Triangle), a tight web of cobbled lanes and period buildings in the Old Town. And I can’t forget the splendid meal I had at the Gasthaus Stainzerbauer, opposite the 1430s’ Gothic Cathedral of St Giles.
There, at a candle-lit table under the restaurant’s Renaissance ceiling, I was introduced to Styrian cuisine and culture. Over plates of braised beef in Schilcher sour cream sauce with pumpkin gnocchi and wild mushroom, and glasses of Schilcher rose, the knowledgeable pair brought me up to speed on Graz’s penchant for the avant-garde.
The historic centre has a lovely skyline of domes and towers, but Graz likes to add a splash of the new-fangled and the provocative to its townscape.
The city has for long had one of the best architecture faculties in Europe. Graz started the tradition of drawing rooms back in the 1950s — the state government gave students who could not afford studios, drawing rooms in the technical university where they could design, draw and debate global developments in architecture and urban planning. In 1958, local intellectuals established the Forum Stadtpark as a platform for contemporary art and literature. This modernist ferment, with its anti-bourgeois overtone, gives Graz its savoir vivre.
That style begins at the central railway station, whose walls are designed by Austrian artist Peter Kogler, and ends at the local airport, with its daring New Minimalist architecture and ‘Galerie am Flughafen’ for modern art by Riegler & Riewe. The town in between is highlighted by other contemporary sparklers, notably the post-modern university building, the cylindrical glass houses in the Botanical Garden, the artificial island in the River Mur that rises like a giant clamshell, and the Kunsthaus Graz that is literally over the top — its roof looks like a humungous blue heart with arteries popping out.
The Kunsthaus, designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier to house the city’s collection of modern art, was built after 15 years of debate. Its spectacular exterior holds a rather alienating interior (unlike the Tate Modern in London, which works on all fronts). The gallery spaces are a tad too technological for art, really, and I felt a sense of disconnect.
Volker Giencke’s museum of plants — the trio of glass houses in the Botanical Garden — is more harmonious. Climbing through the converging slanted parabolic cylinders of acrylic glass, I felt like Alice on her exploration — discovering plants from four different climate zones growing inside.
Boldly architectural, too, was the Schulschwestern School dining hall by Gunther Domineg, godfather of the Graz Movement. His neo-Expressionist hall looks like a cute creepy-crawly with multiple slits on its back and sits plonk in the convent’s garden. The slit-windows allow sunshine and the greenery outside to light up and mute the built space.
A solid day’s architecture behind me, I need a sundowner and music. My hostess Margaret Bayer suggested that we “get some Puntigamer at the Bierbaron and some Swing at the Royal Garden Jazz Club.”
At the Bierbaron, we sat next to a bunch of students clearly trying to out-booze one another. I could have followed their example, so good was the Puntigamer. A modest five pints later, we footed it to the 1960s-born Royal Garden, which turned out to be a 16th- century, barrel-vaulted cellar. The affable manager Burschi Wachsmann seemed delighted to see an Indian face. “Namaste!” he said, bringing his palms together. “Stay till the end. It’s not just our band tonight, there’s a brilliant jazz pianist from Budapest.”
Brilliant the pianist was, too. The band, elder gentlemen mainly, was a bit less so — but only a bit. Their bebop swung us high. “Swing’s our thing,” Burschi grinned. “Do you know that ours is one of Austria’s longest-serving traditional jazz bands?”
I did not. Nor did I know that Europe’s first jazz faculty opened in Graz University. It’s a musical city, eclectically so, with strains wafting in from Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. Its west bank is home to many cozy taverns offering live Croat and Turkish folk music. It also has a top-class Opera House, togged up in high baroque.
We caught some Croat folk music too — the tavern was filled with Graz folk clapping along. Tells you something about the place, doesn’t it?