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Grussgot From Graz: Austria’s Second-Largest City has a Hill Worth Hiking

Jun 20, 2023 12:10PM ● By Lisa Ballard

"Grussgot,” said the man coming down the stone steps as I passed him, laboring upward toward the top of the Schlossberg in the center of Graz, Austria. Grussgot is the universal greeting in this central European country known for its Alpen peaks and apple strudel.

“Grussgot,” I replied back, trying to return his friendly smile between deep gulps of air. Two hundred sixty steps were a lot of steps! There were other ways to get to the top of the Schlossberg, a 1,500-foot-high hill in the middle of Graz, namely an elevator and a funicular (two cars on a train track that balance each other going up and down). However, I’m a hiker and couldn’t resist climbing the Friedensteig (Peace Trail), also called the Russian Steps because they were built by Russian prisoners during World War I. The impressive stone staircase zigzagged up a precipitous rock wall, sometimes hugging it and other times hanging on it, to the city’s highest point.

About two-thirds of the way up the cliff, the path came to a T. Having no idea what was ahead in either direction except for more steps, I turned left and quickly found myself in a
series of narrow garden terraces called the Hanging Gardens of Graz.

Tulips, hyacinths, and narcissus splashed color under blooming dogwoods and wisteria. The lemon and fig trees had unfurled their new pastel leaves, while other perennials and shrubs brightened an otherwise gray day. As I climbed, I had to pause every few steps to take in the fabulous flora on one side and the expanding panorama on the other of the Mur River flowing among a sea of terracotta-tiled rooves.

History of Graz

Graz, population 284,000, is not a big city by global standards, but it’s the second largest in Austria after Vienna and the capital of the Austrian state of Steiermark (also called Styria). It lies 95 miles southwest of Vienna and 30 miles from the border of Slovenia, between the Styrian Alps and a large swath of farmland. The city’s close proximity to Slovenia is evident in its name, which is derived from the Slavic word gradec, meaning “small fortress,” an apt moniker. Although my goal was to reach the top of the Schlossberg, which translates to “castle hill” in German, the military role of this strategic high point greatly overshadowed the fact that a castle once stood there.

Graz was settled in the early 12th century but rose to prominence in the Middle Ages as the residence of the Leopoldine Habsburgs, a branch of one of Europe’s long-ruling dynasties. The Habsburgs had a residence atop the Schlossberg, but it’s better known for its fortifications, which successfully resisted sieges by Hungarian and Turkish invaders for more than 200 years. Napoleon Bonaparte also coveted the Schlossberg.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French besieged this hilltop bastion three times, in 1797, 1805, and 1809. It was eventually destroyed by the French as a provision of an 1809 peace treaty, after which most of it became a public park. Some of the fortress’s massive 19-foot-thick, 62-foot-high walls remain, as well as the city’s most famous landmark, a 90-foot-tall clock tower that dates back to 1559, and a bell tower that was part of the former fortress. These two historic towers survived thanks to a handsome ransom paid to the French to preserve them during the razing of the rest of the bastion.

Finding the Clock Tower

Eventually, I reached the top of the Friedensteig. My goal was to see the clock tower. It took a while to find it, even though it is such a large, striking attraction.

The steps petered out by the white-washed Starke House, named for an actor from Dresden, Germany, who used to come there to write poetry during the early 20th century. A hundred years earlier, it was the home of the vintner who tended the grape vines on the terraced Schlossberg before the public gardens were planted. Today it is a gourmet restaurant with a jaw-dropping view of the city.

I continued along the walkway through the gardens that wound around the remains of the fortress. A few minutes later, I found myself face to face with a large, regal lion. Not a live lion, but a statue called the Hackher Lion. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the last French siege of the Schlossberg and honored the heroic Major Franz Hackher zu Hart, who was as brave as a lion. With only 900 men, he prevented 3,000 French soldiers from capturing the Schlossberg.

Impressed but still excited to see the clock tower, I walked in the opposite direction and soon came to a different tower. This one was octagonally shaped and surrounded by tall trees. It was the other bell tower saved from the French! Built in 1588, it housed the Liesl Bell, the third-largest bell in Austria—six feet wide and weighing over 10,000 pounds. The 436-year-old Liesl Bell still chimes three times per day, at 7 am, noon, and 7 pm.

Wandering farther, I passed an Asian-looking pavilion on my right perched on the edge of the cliff. Called the Chinese Pavilion and Bishop’s Throne, in 1796, the Bishop Count Nadasdy, who had spent 40 years in the Schlossberg’s dungeons, died while sitting on a stone bench on this spot shortly after being released from his cell. “At least the fellow went out with a magnificent view,” I thought.

A few steps later, I finally found the famous clock tower where the otherwise rounded hilltop came to a point. It was stunning, worth every penny that the locals paid to Napoleon to prevent his army from destroying it. Dating back to 1265, it is one of the oldest structures in Graz. It was first built as a defensive lookout but was converted to a clock in 1569. Its 16-foot long, gold-plated hands marked the time, along with the oldest of its three bells, which rings each hour. (The second bell was the city’s fire alarm starting in the 1600s, and the third signaled the mandatory closing time of taverns during the 1800s.)

As I walked around the clock tower, other visitors smiled and said grussgot to me, as a street musician played an Austrian folk tune on his accordion. It was the perfect accompaniment to my tour of the Schlossberg. Prior to climbing the Russian Steps, I had always pictured Graz as an industrial city without much to see. However, after climbing the Russian Steps, I’ve changed my tune.


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