First impressions can be persuasive. But during the minute I’ve spent gazing at its glass facade, I’m not sure what the Ars Electronica Center is trying to say. Is it declaring itself to be a nightclub? An art installation? An architectural embodiment of the rainbow? With its walls changing shade every few seconds — flitting between blue, purple, pink, red, green and yellow — and with pounding breakbeats blaring from speakers for the Thursday-night crowd outside, all three options seem feasible.
In fact, the Center is a museum of science, technology and digital media, perched on the north bank of the Danube. The contrast between the timeless flow of one of Europe’s most noble rivers and this, literally, flashy upstart is stark. And the Center’s bounce and brightness certainly feels at odds with the 17th-century church of St Josef, which lurks, stocky and pale, on the other side of the adjacent Kirchengasse square.
Austria’s third largest city has been engulfed in artiness since it strode forth as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2009. Special events fill its diary throughout the year: the street-performance bonanza of Pflasterspektakel (July); the cinematic showcase of the Crossing Europe Film Festival (April); the Ars Electronica Festival (September), which is tied to the annual Prix Ars Electronica, Linz’s prestigious series of awards for innovation in fields such as music, animation and the internet (previous winners have varied as widely as Aphex Twin, Peter Gabriel and WikiLeaks). My visit coincides with the arrival, in 10 prominent locations, of sculptures by the German artist Robert Schad — angular constructions of rusted iron that will stay in position until March 2014. These metallic doodles straddle the city’s mix of urban cool and riverside prettiness.
Linz is in the north of Austria, 20 miles south of the Czech border — nestled amid the hills of the state of Upper Austria (Oberösterreich), of which it is the capital. The Danube has defined it since it was conceived as the Roman settlement of Lentia. In this era, it trembled on the edge of empire, an outpost on a river that separated ‘civilisation’ from the ‘barbarian’ realms to the north. This situation would be echoed between 1945 and 1953, when, in the toxic aftermath of the Second World War, the same waterway formed part of the line between the Soviet-controlled East and the Allied West — barbed wire bristling around the checkpoints stationed on the main Nibelungen Bridge.
In easier times, the Danube has fuelled Linz’s trade, wealth and accessibility. Indeed, the city is keen to stress it’s not just a cultural bastion but also an industrial powerhouse. This much is clear when I wander into the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) — open to all on the central Hauptplatz square — and find myself treading on rooftops. The ground level of this bureaucratic space is given over to a giant satellite-image floor map, revealing the colossal chimneys of the steel and chemical plants squatting on Linz’s east flank, where the Danube curves south — invisible from the centre, but the city’s lifeblood nonetheless.
The Ars Electronica Center is the most striking of Linz’s many museums. One exhibit, Password Hacker Station, features a computer that tests the strength of those little letters and numbers that supposedly safeguard your online existence (disturbingly, the programme takes an average of just 48 seconds to crack any security code). Then there’s the ‘Deep Space’ auditorium, which delivers intriguing snapshots of our planet, including the continents revealed by light pollution (Europe ablaze; Africa lost in shadow).
There’s competition, though, from the Lentos Kunstmuseum — home to two Warhol portraits (Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong), plus pieces by Austrian artists such as Gottfried Helnwein (whose Sleep 9, where a young girl stares beseechingly at the viewer, is quietly disturbing). Tabakfabrik Linz straddles the decades; the brick shell of this onetime cigarette factory re-energised as an exhibition hall. Even the Schlossmuseum — which shelters a collection of paintings and antique furniture inside a 16th-century castle — has a knowing dash of the now. The palace’s south wing, destroyed by fire in 1800, was rebuilt for the 2009 party as a deliberately incongruous metal-and-glass corridor.
Modernity leaps out, too, from new opera house Musiktheater. It’s a temple to acoustics, elegant cuisine and accessibility (seat-back touchscreens explaining plot and lyrics help to make an often impenetrable medium more digestible for the uninitiated).
This isn’t to say that Linz doesn’t dispense nuggets of the traditional Austria. There are plenty: the soaring spire of the Mariendom — the country’s biggest cathedral; the cafes and ice cream booths grouped on the west side of Hauptplatz; the patisserie icon of Jindrak on Herrenstrasse, where you can eat the city’s sugary signature, Linzer torte — a lattice-top honey-and-almond tart — next to silver-haired matriarchs.
But there’s also a 21st-century chicness that surfaces on many corners. If it’s shopping, this might be Madame Wu, a tea store whose oriental decor and Vietnamese brews seem daringly out of step with the pastel houses of the Altstadt (the city’s medieval core) and Austria’s coffee obsession. If it’s nightlife, this might be Sky Garden, a cocktail bar atop the otherwise unremarkable Passage shopping mall — or Cafe Strom, a hang-out alongside the Ars Electronica Center where DJs spin records. If it’s dinner, this might be Alte Metzgerei — based in a white-tiled former butcher shop — or Cubus, the Ars Electronica Center’s eatery, where I watch the museum’s light show from within, over schweinefilet gepfeffert (peppered pork fillet).
The whole picture comes together on the south bank of the Danube, where more metal sculptures are scattered across the Donaupark. They provide a dramatic backdrop to the summer-evening interactions of Linz’s young (the city has a sizeable university population), who congregate here to cycle, jog, drink, smoke and flirt. Ambling through, I notice that one of these steel behemoths bears a slash of graffiti. ‘Das ist kultur’ (‘That’s culture!’), it shouts. The statement may be sarcastic — but when it comes to cultural concerns, Linz is a place that knows its stuff.
Islands come in different styles. But whether volcanic crag or tropical sliver, they all tend to respect the same principle: they’re made of rock. And yet, as I stand in the middle of the Mur, watching this gentle river flow by me on both sides, the ‘land’ beneath my feet looks distinctly metallic. In fact, it’s hard steel. This is a little unusual.
Of course, the Murinsel is supposed to be unusual. A softly curved ‘island’, floating metres from the Hauptbrucke bridge — sunlight playing on its surface — it’s the clearest example of the appealing quirkiness that has come to define Graz. Crafted by New York artist Vito Acconci in celebration of the city becoming European Capital of Culture in 2003, this curious creation was only meant to occupy its mid-river position for the 12 months of festivities. But it proved so popular with locals that, a decade on, it remains in situ, connected to the banks by a pair of narrow walkways. It’s even developed into a busy meeting place, with a children’s play zone, a little theatre area and a gourmet cafe.
I peruse the menu in the latter and order a speciality coffee. It is not until it arrives I realise my selection, the ‘Kaisermelange’, contains raw egg yolk as well as honey and chocolate. I take a tentative sip. The rich, thick taste is unexpected, but far from unenjoyable. Rather like Graz itself.
The city’s year of cultural exposure caused a sea change. In some ways Graz’s experience could be compared to a respectable, unassuming middle-aged man suddenly discovering a new passion, a new wardrobe, a new lust for life. Its history is not especially remarkable: long centuries as a regional capital of the Hapsburg realm; occasional tussles with Turkish and French armies; surviving the Second World War with so little damage occurred that the city’s medieval core (the Altstadt) was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999. Even now, although Graz is Austria’s second biggest city, and the kingpin of the state of Styria, it doesn’t feel like a major metropolis — its carrot-coloured roofs and delicate steeples ooze a prettiness that’s accentuated by the city’s position in the southeast of the country, not far from Slovenia and Italy. As such, the prevailing mood is quasi-Mediterranean — restaurant tables on small squares, most post-work drinkers favouring the orange-red refreshment of an Aperol spritz over a cold beer (the drink of choice elsewhere in Austria).
The mould was broken 10 years ago. And if the Murinsel is the most eccentric reminder of 2003’s spotlight, then the Kunsthaus is the most impressive. This showcase for contemporary art may have been conceived by Brits (architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier) but its appearance is almost Martian. Indeed, locals have taken to calling it — with marked fondness — ‘The Friendly Alien,’ thanks to the 16 futuristic nozzles jutting from its otherworldly blue torso. And the building returns the compliment by singing to the city. At 10 to the hour (between 8.50am and 9.50pm), the gallery begins a five-minute serenade — an ethereal sound collage produced by the US musician Max Neuhaus, which is audible outside. The result of these soft noises wafting over the river is eerily magical.
The Kunsthaus puts on touring exhibitions of photography and sculpture. Located on the edge of the Mur, it’s a flag-bearer for Lend — an increasingly hip corner of the city that spreads out on the river’s west bank. Once the red-light district, Lend has swapped seediness for vibrancy — its transformation summed up by the Hotel Wiesler, a local institution that emerged from a refit in 2010 aglow with boutique chicness ‘The Wiesler has been around since 1909. But numbers don’t mean anything to us,’ its website boldly proclaims. Sure enough, I arrive to find crates of vinyl in the foyer, and Speisesaal, a bar/eatery where dabs of street art adorn the walls. Cocktails start at €5.40 (£4.50), and the bar is open till 1am each night. I never see it empty.
There’s nearby competition, both from Die Scherbe — one of several bohemian bars that keep Lend in party mode until late — and Kwirl, a cool store selling off-beat homeware, (such as origami lamps in the forms of cats and horses). The latter is an example of a flair for design that bleeds into the Altstadt, on the east bank of the river. Laden 21 — half exhibition space, half showroom — deals in funky furniture, while Mur proffers shelves of bright crockery. It’s not surprising that in 2011 Graz became a UNESCO City of Design — a title bestowed on places that demonstrate a commitment to the creative arts that’s been awarded to just 12 cities, of which only two others, Berlin and St-Etienne, are in Europe.
At first glance, the Altstadt clings to the classic image of Austria. It has a wide, stately main square, Hauptplatz; and running north to south is Sackstrasse, flanked by such grandiose buildings — not least the 16th-century Landhaus, home of the Styrian parliament — that it might still be a thoroughfare for Hapsburg carriages. Then there’s the Graz Dom, injecting the skyline with unbridled 15th-century pomp and majesty. This epic gothic cathedral is most famous for Das Gottesplagenbild, a 1485 fresco on its rear exterior that captures the city in a rare dark period, caught in the grip of Ottoman Turkish violence and virulent plague.
But look carefully, and a youthful vitality skips through the courtyards and passages of this old quarter. The conjoined squares of Glockenspielplatz, Mehlplatz and Färberplatz are the restaurant hub. On a warm evening, I grab a seat at Eckstein (on Mehlplatz) and try ox steak with grilled vegetables amid laughter and chatter. Elsewhere, Karmerliterplatz is a nest of watering holes, with Continuum proving a particularly lively option for late-night beer and music.
Graz makes one concession to the mountainous Austria of a million postcards: the lone Schlossberg, which rises above the Altstadt. The castle that crowned this bluff was demolished by the conquering Napoleon in 1809, but the city makes use of the ruins, with a theatre in one of the vaults and Aiola Upstairs, an Italian eatery, serving coffee where sentries once kept guard. Standing on the ramparts, I can see the Kunsthaus below, although Schlossberg Dom Im Berg — a former wartime bomb shelter now used as a clubbing venue — remains out of sight; lurking inside the hill beneath my feet. Further proof that Graz has hidden depths.
Ryanair offers direct flights to Linz from Stansted. Indirect options to Linz and Graz from other UK airports are available with Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa. www.ryanair.com www.austrian.com www.lufthansa.com
Average flight time: 2h.
Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖB) operates rail services in Austria. There are no direct services between Linz and Graz, but an indirect service, changing in Selzthal, takes about 3.5 hours. Westbus runs a direct bus service between the cities, taking two hours 40 minutes. www.oebb.at www.westbus.at
When to go
The cities are pleasantly warm from May to September — but are also well worth a vist when they burst into life for the Christmas-market season (November and December).
Need to know
Currency: Euro (EUR). £1 = €1.16.
International dial code: 00 43.
Time: GMT +1.
Places mentioned: Linz
Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz. www.lentos.at
Linzer Mariendom. www.mariendom.at
Madame Wu. www.madamewu.net
Sky Garden. www.skygarden.at
Cafe Strom. www.cafestrom.at
Ars Electronica Center. www.aec.at/center
Alte Metzgerei. www.altemetzgerei.at
Places mentioned: Graz
Kunsthaus Graz. www.museum-joanneum.at/de/kunsthaus
Hotel Wiesler. www.hotelwiesler.com
Die Scherbe. www.scherbe.com
Laden 21. www.laden21.at
Graz Dom. www.domgraz.at
Aiola Upstairs. www.aiola.at
Dom Im Berg. www.spielstaetten.at
The Rough Guide to Austria, by Rob Humphreys and Jonathan Bousfield. RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
Ryanairhotels.com has three nights in Linz at the four-star Spitz Hotel, from £299 per person, including return flights from Stansted. www.ryanairhotels.com
Three nights in Graz at the four-star Hotel Gollner, with flights from London City (via Frankfurt) on Lufthansa, costs from £362 per person with Expedia. www.expedia.co.uk
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)