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Hello from Austria – Arrival and First Impressions

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Hello from Austria – Arrival and First Impressions

Many of you will know that I am originally from Austria, but that I have been living in Toronto for more than 20 years. I left Austria early on, by myself, at the young age of 20 and found a permanent home in Canada’s largest, most multicultural city. I always realized that I originally came from a beautiful country, but somehow the big wide world was calling me and settling in Canada’s most cosmopolitan urban centre has been a great decision.

In the early years I used to go back home every year when my father and grandmother were still alive. My mother had already passed away more than 20 years ago. But from 1995 onwards, after the death of my father and grandmother, I paid very few visits to Austria and thinking of my home country often brought back sad memories of people that had passed away. So for almost 9 years I did not travel back home at all until in 2004 I decided to go back for my 20th high school reunion which in itself was an interesting experience.

Now, almost three years later, there was a big reason to go back to my home town: my brother Ewald’s 50th birthday. This big round birthday of my only sibling was an event I simply couldn’t miss. And in addition, I made the decision to discover my part of Austria through the eyes of a travel writer and really take advantage of the sights and activities that my home town and its surrounding regions have to offer.

So this Thursday I boarded an Air Transat plane to fly from Toronto to Vienna and one hour into it I realized that we also were making a stop in Montreal which added about two hours on to the trip. As an astute traveller, I always try to save money on travel, and Air Transat was about $500 less expensive than going with Air Canada or Austrian Airlines. But I also realized that Air Transat planes are packed in very tightly and there is very little space between seat rows. As a matter of act, when the lady in front of me tilted back her seat rest I almost thought she was going to knock my teeth out.

But never mind, I realized that for a savings of $500 I would have to sacrifice a little bit. Altogether the flight to Vienna was pleasant and I guess I am lucky since I am one of those people who is able to sleep on the plane. So I landed nice and early yesterday at 8:35 at Vienna Airport. I had done extensive searches on the Internet for an inexpensive car rental and I had located one off-airport rental company: http://www.interrent.at was considerably more affordable than all major car rental companies at the airport, but it was located in a business park in the town of Schwechat about 10 minutes from the airport.

So following the advice on their website, I booked a door-to-door delivery service called http://www.airportdriver.at that dropped me off at the front door of Interrent which was located on the second floor of a five-storey office high-rise building. Service was swift and minutes later I had my little Volkswagen Polo, an economical little car, perfect for booting around the foothills of the Austrian Alps. When driving in Europe, fuel efficiency is a major consideration since a litre of gas is going for about Euro 1.15, so a small car that is good on gas is a great choice.

I enjoyed my drive on the A2, the highway that connects Vienna with Graz, the capital of my home province Styria. Apart from some construction work close to Vienna it was a beautiful drive across the Wechsel mountains into the region of Eastern Styria. Along the way I saw various signs pointing to a variety of theatre festivals in the province of Burgenland that are held in various castles and fortresses, a great way to use some of the old medieval buildings that are located all over Austria.

The weather was sunny and very warm and although my car had air conditioning, I had the window open and enjoyed the warm wind blowing in, listening to Ö3, Austria’s modern music radio station. I turned off the highway at Hartberg in eastern Styria, and drove through rolling hills past tiny scenic villages such as Schielleiten, Stubenberg am See, Lebing and Floing to my home town of Weiz. The rolling hills of Eastern Styria are always a pleasant area for a drive.

I have to admit driving along the roads that I used to grow up on was a strange feeling – not much had changed visually since I had left 20 years ago. The same farms and villages, mountains and hills were still there, although most of the buildings were beautifully renovated, mordernized and painted. It was obvious to me that Austria has experienced long periods of prosperity since every little town was clean and the architecture was in near perfect condition. No peeling paint, no run-down buildings, no garbage strewn around anywhere – everything appeared to be in tip-top condition.

Finally at about noon time I arrived in my home town and took a quick spin around the centre. Weiz is a district capital with a population of about 9000 people, and it is located about 25 km from the Graz, Austria’s second largest city. It always amazes me that when I ask North Americans about Austria they all seem to know Vienna and Salzburg, and some of them have heard of Innsbruck, but very few people have actually heard of Graz, even though with a population of about 250,000 people it is Austria’s second largest urban centre.

Weiz in itself is an industrial town that for many years was centred around the ELIN, a manufacturing company that produces electrical equipment such as transformers and generators for hydro electricity production. In recent years, a Canadian company called Magna International, founded by Frank Stronach, a former resident of Weiz, has built several factories in the area. Magna is the largest automotive parts supplier in the world, and Frank Stronach is considered one of Canada’s (and Austria’s) greatest entrepreneurial success stories. Due to these manufacturing jobs, Weiz has become a rather dynamic and prosperous regional centre and many new developments in the downtown area attest to that fact.

The overall feel of the town had stayed the same so after satisfying my initial curiosity I drove to my brother’s house on the outskirts of town where my sister-in-law Anneliese welcomed me; my brother Ewald was still at work. It was great to see her again even though we had just recently seen each other in November of 2006 on the island of Tenerife where my husband and I had gone on a joint vacation with my brother and sister-in-law. After settling in and unpacking my suitcase we went for a quick walk downtown to do some shopping and got caught in a major thunderstorm. So we sat down in a little café in Weiz’ pedestrian zone called “Weberhaus” and waited out the downpour.

In the evening I had a reunion with my brother as well and we started catching up on all the news. Around 11 pm I got a bit tired and jetlag started hitting me so I headed off to bed to rest up for today since we had early plans. Bright and early at 8 am Ewald, Anneliese and I left to do some shopping in the nearby town of Gleisdorf, the second largest town in the district of Weiz. We went for a nice walk with the dog and strolled through the farmer’s market where I admired all sorts of locally grown fruits, vegetables, home-made breads, and a typical Austrian specialty: smoked pork meat.

Austria has a long-rooted agricultural tradition, and farming, although only providing about 5% of the employment in the country, is still an important tradition, particularly in the extremely fertile area of Eastern Styria. People go shopping every few days and many of them actually try to buy local produce and meat in the local weekly markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Big supermarkets and TV dinners are by far not as popular as in North America, and many people still prepare home-made food from scratch, using and actively seeking out local ingredients. And my brother is a chef, and today was his birthday dinner, so he was on the hunt for some special fresh ingredients.

After Gleisdorf we also checked out the farmers market in my hometown of Weiz which was a bit smaller. I took the opportunity to shoot some video clips of the main square of my home town and the surrounding buildings which go back to the 17th century. The old church, the so-called Taborkirche, even dates back to the 1100s, was built in the Romanesque style and is dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. Some ancient Roman gravestones are on display in the church yard, an indication that this area was already settled about two millennia ago by the Romans, and nearby excavations even prove that there was human settlement here in the Pre-Roman times. Other excavations in the province of Styria have unearthed proof that there were human settlements here dating back many tens of thousands of years ago. An area with a lot of history…

We had successfully finished our shopping trip and my brother started the cooking while Anneliese and I decided to go on a local hike to the so-called Kleine Raabklamm (Small Raab Gorge) and the Bärental (Bear Valley). Like most of Austria, Eastern Styria with its rolling hills, forests, rivers and brooks is just predestined for hiking, and we enjoyed our 1.5 hour hike from Mitterdorf through the valley of the Raab River. The Raab is a major river in the area that eventually flows into the Danube and into the Black Sea. A beautiful hiking / biking trail took us through forests and lush green meadows to the valley of another tributary – the Bärental, which may indicate that this valley was inhabited at some point by bears.

The interesting thing about this area is that there are a variety of wayside shrines, and one in particular is supposed to mark the grave site of hundreds of people that died during the late 1400s of the Black Plague. Ever since I was a child, this dark forested area that was supposed to be the final resting place of hundreds of people from more than 500 years ago has fascinated me, and even today visiting this place sent shivers up my spine.

Our serene hike continued and shortly after we had reached an elevated ridge on the southwestern side of Weiz from where we had a great view of the entire region. Weiz’ most prominent building is the Weizbergkirche, a baroque church on the Weizberg hill that can be seen for kilometers while the town spreads out in the valley below. The entire scene is framed by an amphitheatre of mountains with an elevation of about 800 to 1000 metres.

There was still a bit of time left before our dinner plans, so I hopped into my little rental car for a country driving tour. I went past the village of Gutenberg and the Goller Mountain to the mining village of Arzberg that used to be a location for silver and zinc mining. Today a mining educational trail displaying local minerals and a mining tunnel introduce the public to the mining history of this little town. Arzberg is also one of the entry points to the Raabklamm (the Raab River Gorge), the longest river gorge of Austria. I returned to Weiz via the mountain road on the east side of the river, next to the limestone cliffs of the Gösser mountain.

After a refreshing shower it was time for our small birthday party, and our friends Luis and Isabella had arrived. Together with my brother and sister-in-law this couple had visited us in 2005 and I reported extensively from our Toronto adventures. Anneliese’s niece’s husband and son also joined us and we got ready for a beautiful five-course dinner prepared by my brother Ewald, the expert chef.

Everybody enjoyed the amazing meal and we sat together until about 10:30, laughing, exchanging stories. The little boy and my brother’s dog became friends on the couch and we all had a fabulous time. A long night of discussions until 2:30 am followed since I had to catch up on everything with Ewald. But then it was time to go to sleep since tomorrow (well, actually today), we are planning another hiking trip and I definitely will need to get some rest.

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