by Tim Dawe
First impressions can be lasting – especially travel destinations. So, I like Linz…straightaway.
I am with my daughter Katherine on our six-day, 350km cycling trip down the Danube River to Vienna. Not even the drenching rain crossing the Nibelungen Bridge dampens my emerging enthusiasm on my first visit to Linz, Austria’s third city.
The spring afternoon struggles with the grip of late winter. Rain clouds depart momentarily allowing shafts of waning sunlight onto Linz’s 13th century Hauptplatz, one of the largest town squares in Europe. It’s a magical arrival.
This long, divided square, open to the river, is lined with the stolid, uniform buildings of centuries past, punctuated with the Alter Dom (old cathedral, known as the Jesuit Church), the Altes Rathaus or old town hall, and centre stage, the bizarre Dreifaltigkeitssäule – a 20-metre baroque twist of white marble (holy trinity column) erected by grateful survivors of the plague. Beneath this striking statue are restful islands to sit and watch. Flowers dazzle in spring colours. A modern tram flashes over glistening cobblestones.
Linz has a great feel to it; it’s orderly and clean (no litter or graffiti) yet has vitality and style. Given the limits of time and space I ponder on my upbeat impressions. Two points come to mind: Linz’s mood seems open, inviting and “liveable”, and its built-form seamlessly weaves together the renaissance with the ultra modern.
Our hotel fits the latter description. The cycle-tour operator offers rustic Gasthof-type accommodation, not four-spangled-stars, so our check-in is not usual. It’s hard to look suave and sophisticated arriving sodden, bent over, lugging soggy maps and panniers – and wearing padded cycle pants.
The city motto is rather ambiguous: “Linz.changes”. It has and it does – for the better – transforming itself from the grey industrial capital of Upper Austria to a city of light, innovation and design…and culture; Linz is the 2009 European Capital of Culture.
It is time to cycle forth and discover why. I head for the river.
Infringing traffic rules that pedestrians and trams tolerate graciously, I watch pavement buskers from around the globe: a Peruvian group belting out Andean rhythms, a Romanian puppeteer and a blues singer from anywhere. They attract prosperous-looking shoppers emerging from boutiques in the smart arcades of Landstrasse, the main street and commercial centre. I discover bicycle wheels are no match for cobblestones and tram tracks.
Over the river again, I visit Ars Electronic Center (AEC). At 6,500sq m it’s huge and like nothing else. It is partly a museum and mainly a workspace for cutting-edge electronic researchers and designers. They call it a platform for digital arts to explore the future. Whatever. The aim is to present electronic and emerging technologies such as robotics, neuroscience and biotechnology in artistic and productive forms. Visitors can travel in virtual worlds and “experience the future”. At night expansive glass walls, embedded with LED lights, blaze out colours reflected on the Danube. In contrast to AEC, and with colour of a different sort, a circus and permanent fun fair abuts the building; old and new entertainment for all tastes, cheek by jowl.
Directly opposite on the Danube’s south bank is Lentos Museum of Art. The building itself is sculpture. Its black glass façade is covered with the repetitive word: lentos. Like other Linz landmarks it lights up each night casting vivid purple into swirling waters. Lentos offers modern art from the 19th and 20th century including works from Warhol and Austria’s favourite sons Klimt and Schiele.
With so much choice and so little time I ride off to the Old Town Hall to visit Linz Genesis, a museum dedicated to “the story of Linz”. So many European cities leave their medieval town halls as curiosities or museums. Not Linz. Here modernity operates behind the Hauptplatz façade incorporating the mayor’s office and modern arcades of shops and offices. I am fascinated by a gigantic aerial photo of Linz as floor covering in an exhibition hall, giving new meaning to a walk around town.
Darting around Linz by bike is fun, and faster than walking when time presses. It’s easy to correct directional mistakes traversing twisting, turning streets tracing medieval goat tracks. One turn leads me to an airy, spacious square containing the Stadtpfarrkircke or parish church. It’s a lovely baroque church where Emperor Friedrich III is interred – well, actually not all of him, only his bowels. At that time deceased royalty had a habit of leaving bits of themselves all over the country. Not unlike an animal marking (scenting) its territory.
Wheeling along another former goat track I chance upon the marvellous sight of K.u.K. Hofbakerei, a bakery of renown with its shopfront clad in carved woodwork. It is clearly a sign: dismount for a coffee and sample the famous Linzer Torte. Its cosy café interior is a welcome contrast to old and new monumentalism. Walls are covered with aging posters and newspapers while military regalia gleam in corners. The place pays homage to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and especially Archduke Peter Ferdinand, a royal – and loyal – customer. Current proprietor Fritz Rath, whose great grandfather received royal patronage in 1903, proudly tells me this site has been used as a bakery since 1371.
Linz has thrown up an eclectic bunch of noteworthy sons: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and…Adolf Hitler. There is the Kepler University and the Brucknerhaus. For Hitler, well, there’s no mention of the adoring crowds of Austrians cheering on the Anschluss and of Hitler’s plans for Linz as his “European Capital of Culture”. No mention either of nearby Mauthausen concentration camp or the killing fields of Schloss Hartheim.
However things have changed since Hauptplatz was Adolf-Hitler-Platz, especially in the last few decades. Nazism is now a tourism feature. I am invited by a sign at the Altes Rathaus to do a walking tour of the buildings occupied by the Gestapo. I accept, but find the experience unfulfilling. Not only have we moved on, so have some of the buildings.
My assumption that a European capital of culture (Linz shared with Vilnius) is all musty museums and opera houses is dashed. After all, culture should be seen to be broad and diverse; Linz’s institutions are. They include the wonderful Brucknerhaus concert hall on the riverbank next to Lentos, its sweeping modern lines contrasting with the baroque architecture of nearby Landesgalerie housing classical and contemporary painting and sculpture, Linz Castle, first built in 799, now its largest museum, a puppet museum, the splendid Akustikon, blending the art and science of sound, the House of (children’s) Stories, and even a museum of dental history.
Linz’s cultural program goes all year: the zany Pflasterspektakel, rock and sound festivals, Easter passion play, summer rose garden cabarets, marathons and triathlons, and even oddball events such as Der Kranke Hasse (the sick hare). There are also film festivals, theatre, haute couture and flea market shopping and casino gambling. But I go on.
In fading light I head back to my hotel like a bee back to the hive. The hotel cannot accommodate us for dinner – is it the bike pants I wonder – and provides a voucher for The Black Anchor restaurant. Halfway through trying traditional schweinebraten mit sauerkraut I reflect that Austria’s cuisine is, er, more famous for it pastries! After a day in the saddle and just four hours exploring Linz, a well-earned early sleep is punctuated with exploding shells of fireworks…well, I hope it’s fireworks.
It’s now early next morning but still time before departing for quick visits to the magnificent Landhaus (provincial parliament) and Mozarthaus, home to the Linz Symphony. But first, courtesy of our bike company, we have an appointment with a chocolatier on gentlemanly Herrn Strasse, the poshest of addresses during the 17th century, restored today to its full splendour.
Katherine and I pick up our bike path at the funfair then spend the next hour cycling through a great greenbelt of remnant forest, parkland, boating lakes, sporting fields and nature trails. It’s known as the kulturemeile but it goes on for many miles, and follows a broad arc of the river; the perfect antidote for the urban dweller – minutes from the city.
Over on the city-side riverbank, screened by tall trees, is a broad sweep of industrial land; an economic powerhouse of chemical, oil and steel industries, port facilities and Linz Airport (Linz boasts more jobs than residents). Before cultural awards this was what Linz was known for. The now high-tech steel works at Woest, formerly Hermann Göring Works, once supplied the Nazi war machine. By contrast, today Linz is home to Pez, the peppermint candy. It is good to know there is an economic base for industrial output as well as Linz’s other powerhouse: cultural services.
Linz is behind me now. I was there for such a short time but I liked what I saw. One day I will return for a longer stay to really savour likeable Linz.