Tiny Graz Europe's big star in '03

Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski embarked on an exploration of Graz, the picturesque Austrian city that serves as the European Union's sole cultural capital for 2003. His report follows:

raz, Austria's second-largest city, isn't very large, being home to 250,000 or so people. But the quaint capital of the Styrian region -- which, lying south of the Austrian Alps, is known for a more laid-back, Mediterranean air -- looms large on the cultural map this year, as it takes on the role of the European Union's sole cultural capital.

Graz, always a crossroads -- Ljubljana, Slovenia, is as close as Vienna, and Venice, Italy, is as near as Innsbruck -, this year is the gathering point for artists, performers and spectators from across Europe.

When I visited the city during the annual Austrian Travel Business trade show in early January, many of the 6,000 scheduled theater, music, art and sporting events -- including 1,000 for children (see list below) -- had not yet geared up.

But I was able to tour several of its newest temporary and permanent attractions, in addition to the classic must-see sights that have charmed visitors to Graz for centuries.

The temporary Shadow Clock Tower atop Schlossberg hill is one of 18 structures built for Graz's reign as E.U. cultural capital for 2003. The E.U. Cultural Capital program is an enlightened and benign form of "urban welfare," I have found.

Each year, an often-overlooked, smaller city -- chosen to hog the media spotlight -- is showered with funds to spruce up existing glories and construct bold new ones as venues for cultural activities.

Graz has been no slouch in the preparations department, spending some $62 million on related events and the construction of 18 new buildings and public-art installations.

Capital ideas

Arriving at the city's Hauptbahnhof train station, I was greeted by an innovative mural covering the arrivals hall; the computer-generated images appear three-dimensional and leave no doubt you've arrived in an art capital.

Graz has installed large art projects at other access points to the city, such as "Hands-Out," a 325-foot-long wall of 240 waving arms along a main highway, and "Airport Art Zone," which covers glass surfaces in the arrivals/departures lounge at Graz Airport with multiple colors.

Some of this year's 700,000 expected overnight visitors to Graz also can get around town in one of 15 decorated Kunsttaxis ("art taxis"), which screen video works on backseat monitors; the taxis, which charge normal fares, can be hailed at cab stands or ordered by calling (878) ART-TAXI.

But the big thrills were to be had later, once I'd checked into my hotel and set out on a walking tour of Graz's old town.

It seems every resident's favorite new structure is the Island in the Mur, a mussel-shaped, midriver steel span and open-air theater bridging the city's old town and traditional working-class areas.

When completed, the island will feature a cafe, amphitheater and children's playground.

At night, the bridge -- along with many other structures and city streets -- is bathed in an eerie blue-and-green glow designed by French artist Laurent Fachard.

At the other end of main drag Herrengasse, an elevator has been built next to the famed Mariensaule ("Mary's Column"); for a euro, I rode to the top to enjoy a one-minute view of both a statue of the Virgin Mary and the city below.

Fog and rain, unfortunately, kept me from visiting the most prominent of Graz's temporary installations -- the Shadow Clock Tower, a black, steel replica of the city's trademark Uhrturm clock tower that's been built next to the original atop the Schlossberg hill.

A few blocks from the Island in the Mur, Graz's most striking permanent addition is the Kunsthaus art museum, still under construction at Sudtiroler Platz 2.

Set to open to the public on Sept. 27, the odd, curving, "biomorphic" building looks alien among neighboring baroque churches and sober offices and hotels; the first exhibit, Peter Pakesch's "Fancy," debuts Oct. 25.

Clients should take advantage of discounted visitor tickets and passes available; the Graz 03 Card, which is good for three days' worth of exhibit admissions and public transit, along with 30% discounts on nationwide railway fares to and from Graz, costs about $21.

Meanwhile, the 03 Daily Ticket offers a day's worth of admissions and local transit, plus 30% off regional transit, for about $19 per person.

Traditional treasures

The balance of my stay was spent exploring Graz's older attractions, including the Renaissance-era, arcaded Landhaus, a setting for outdoor summer concerts; the Provincial Armory next door, with 30,000 pieces of weaponry dating to 1551; the baroque, stuccoed House of Luegg; and the Gothic cathedral and mausoleum.

Other essential sights include the Edegger-Tax bakery on Hofgasse, with its century-old, sculpted-wood facade; the 107-year-old Schlossbergbahn funicular to the clock tower; the strikingly modern Botanical Gardens; and the mannerist Schloss Eggenberg palace, a Graz 2003 event venue that was built in 1625.

Those clients looking for a break from urban hustle and bustle should be steered to the rolling hills of the surrounding Styrian wine country, the Lipizzaner Stud Farm at Piber or the world's oldest Cistercian monastery at Rein.

Booking Graz 03

The Austrian Tourist Office in New York recommends the following commission-paying U.S. operators to Graz:
• European Connection: (800) 345-4679; [email protected]; www.europeanconnection.com.
• Patrician Journeys: (973) 992-3938; www.patricianjourneys.com.
• Smolka Tours: (800) 722-0057; [email protected]; www.smolkatours.com.
• Towne & Country Tours: (800) 487-0479; [email protected]; www.towneandcountrytours.com.
• Turner Trichel & Associates: (877) 360-1999; [email protected]; www.tt-a.com.

Once in Graz, clients can visit the 03 Info/03 Bar at Mariahilferplatz 2 or the 03 Shop at Herrengasse 16 for information, exhibit tickets and Graz 03 passes, tour reservations, and souvenirs and guidebooks.

For details on Graz 2003, visit www.graz03.at or contact the Austrian Tourist Office at (212) 575-7723 or at www.austria.info/us.

Graz 2003 highlights

• Graz Memory: Multimedia exhibition of citizen histories in tunnel system under Schlossberg mountain. www.berg03.at. March 22 to Sept. 28.

• Psalm 2003: Festival at Graz Cathedral of Christian, Jewish and Muslim sacred music. Through April 27.

• Tower of Babel: Exhibit of oral and written communication and language, at Eggenberg Castle. April 5 to Oct. 5.

• Phantom of Lust: Citywide events explore legacy of Graz author Von Sacher-Masoch, for whom "masochism" was named. April 26 to August 24.

• Styriarte 2003: Music festival brings likes of Cecilia Bartoli and Nikolaus Harnoncourt to Graz. June 19 to July 27.

• Acconci on the Mur: Local actors proclaim independent "republic" on Island on the Mur; theater, arts events. July 5 to 15.

• Icons of the 20th Century: Vienna Philharmonic premieres violin concerto by Bea Furrer, at the new Helmut List-Halle venue. Nov. 28.

For more events, visit www.graz03.at on line.

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