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Styria, the green heart of Austria

(Steiermark, das grüne Herz Österreichs)

September 2016

The story of this trip to Austria begins in a garden in Berlin in May 2014. On that occasion, Karin Weiss, then President of Bad Godesberg, had had the idea (in addition to the annual exchanges between groups) of inviting a number of ladies from each circle to join her, an ex-Berlin resident, in discovering her home city. There were 30 ladies in all, from all the different groups. Such fun was had that, on the last evening, it was clear that Karin’s example had inspired others…

And so it came to pass that Gertrude, ex-President of the Salzburg group, made her own plan to do something similar and just over two years later (in September of this year) invited ladies from all the groups to join her in discovering her home territory, the province of Styria in south-east Austria including Graz, Austria’s second city, where we were to be based. In all, 24 of us from the six different groups set off from Salzburg on a five-day trip which Gertrude had called Unknown Austria - as were venturing into a part of Austria that is not on the normal tourist trail.

Our coach raced through the stunningly beautiful Austrian Lake District, the Salzkammergut, former home of the current Austrian President, Renate, and she told us all we didn’t have time for that, which became something of a catchphrase for the trip as it was jam-packed with activity. The weather was unbelievably kind to us, sunny and hot (25 to 30 degrees) right until our last evening back in Salzburg when we were treated to an amazing thunderstorm and downpour.

In Admont we visited a beautiful Baroque library completed in 1776, a vision in white. This was adorned with ceiling frescoes, sculptures and hidden doors. It is attached to a Benedictine monastery and is the largest monastic library in the world at 70 metres long. I have brought along a few guide-books for you to look at, including one on Admont.

We stopped in Gertrude’s home-town of Judenburg, where one of her old school-friends showed us around the 16th century Stadtturm, a tower 75 metres high. No-one could decide what use to put it to in the modern age until some local people came up with the bright idea of converting it into a planetarium.

Graz itself is a lively university town with red roofs and a historical town centre and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is famous for its 16th century clock-tower from which there is a great view of the city, its connections with the Hapsburgs and the 16th century Landhaus which resembles a Venetian palazzo, but also for some daring modern architecture in the shape of the Kunsthaus or art gallery built by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, known locally as the “friendly alien”, and the Murinsel, a modern bridge with a small island in the middle used to host events and lit up at night. Also forming part of the UNESCO World Heritage site is nearby Schloss Eggenberg.

This was completed in 1625 for Prince Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg and was designed as a harmonious structure in contrast to the chaos of the 16th century. It has 365 windows, 31 rooms on each floor, 24 state rooms with 52 doors and, in all, 60 windows, 4 corner towers - all allusions to time, to the seasons, to weeks, days, hours, minutes.

One day, we drove through south-east Styria, which is known as the Tuscany of Austria for its rolling hills, steep valleys and stunning vineyards. Styrian wine is reputed to be some of the best in Austria but very little is exported. It is consumed mainly in Buschenschenken, inns which serve wine from their own vineyards and magnificent cold plates of home-cured ham and locally-made cheese.

We also visited the Genussregal, a rather splendid farm-shop, where we were introduced to local produce including capons. Here the castration process using a herb called Mönchskraut was explained to us. Of which more later. Another Styrian product is pumpkin-seed oil. Later we visited a mill making this black gold of Styria. Unfortunately, 2016 had seen a terrible hailstorm which had destroyed large parts of the pumpkin crop as well as many grapes. Some of the pumpkins looked as if they had bullet-holes in them.

Other highlights included Schloss Riegersburg, a medieval castle situated on a dormant volcano housing a thought-provoking exhibition on witch-hunts, a glass-blowing demonstration and the conversion of an ordinary village church into a spectacular example of the work of unconventional Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser – wacky would perhaps be the best description here, all curved lines, bright colours and golden domes.

Our final stop on our way back was at the Lippizaner stud, where the famous horses from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna are bred and where they are put out to grass in their declining years. The foals were a delight but the most splendid character was an ex-star of the School, Neapolitano Nima, a 37-year old born in 1979….clearly top horse, as within the stallions’ stable his was the only office with a window.

But of course, as with the exchanges, it was not all about the sights, but about the camaraderie, the shared moments and jokes, the joy of spending time together with women from five other countries with whom we have so much in common. An added bonus for me on this trip was that my 23-year old daughter Laura accompanied us as she had been working in Salzburg for a year and knew several of the Austrian ladies. She was soon put to work as an interpreter when not all the English-speaking guides materialised.

She and I composed a little poem of thanks which we recited together at the farewell dinner. Without Gertrude’s hard work and determination, this fantastic trip would never have taken place. Our poem was called  Unknown Austria, An Ode to Gertrude!

 

Jeannette Jennings

October 2016

 

 

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