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Hello from Austria – Classical Music, Hiking & Summer Tobogganing & Two Delicious Backyard Feasts

Hello from Austria – Classical Music, Hiking & Summer Tobogganing & Two Delicious Backyard Feasts

After just a gorgeous day on the Alpine peaks at the Austrian / Italian / Slovenian border, the weather gods were not as kind yesterday. It rained and drizzled pretty much the whole day and I spent a relaxing day in my home town, visiting with friends and doing errands. The big excitement was reserved for the evening: a live concert at the Kunsthaus Weiz, a recently constructed multi-purpose performance venue. My sister-in-law Anneliese and I got ready for an evening of classical music that would feature works by Mozart, Strauss and Verdi.

Just before 7:30 pm we strolled into the concert hall and were just able to find two separate seats in a packed venue. Many local dignitaries were present, and this was an important event in Weiz’ social calendar. The concert was organized by the Weiz Lions Club as a fundraising event and the concert featured the AIMS Festival Orchestra and Soloists. AIMS stands for “American Institute of Musical Studies”, a Graz-based organization that offers six-week long programs in Vocal Lessons, Opera and Lieder Coaching, Master Classes, Foreign Language Diction, Conversational German and career-related courses for professional musicians, pianists and singers.

Twelve young sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, two baritones and six tenors performed pieces from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”. The music that these young artists produced was indeed magical and we marveled at the talent of the singers, none of whom seemed to be much older than 25 years of age. The emcee, Andrea Huber, an American of Swiss heritage, took us through the evening. Andrea herself is a highly respected soprano who is now based in Germany and also teaches for AIMS.

The orchestra was directed by Edoardo Müller, a renowned conductor who has conducted in many of pre-eminent opera and concert houses around the world, including those of Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Munich as well as Tokyo and Santiago de Chile. His North American assignments include the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, the Seattle Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Most of the musicians in the orchestra were also in their early twenties.

The beauty of this music deeply touched me, and in addition I was elated by the notion that all these international music students, most of whom hailed from the United States, came together in Europe to hone their craft and pursue their passion. As I found out by talking to some of the AIMS performers after the concert, the AIMS program not only provides a great opportunity for elite musical training, but also a cross-cultural experience that will create memories of a lifetime. In my conversations with five or six of the AIMS students I found out that they come from places such as Boston, California, Rochester and even as far away as China. They all confirmed that they were extremely well-received in Graz and that they were having the time of their life, hoping that this European experience will kick-start their careers in classical music.

In total the concert had raised 15,000 Euros for local needy families, and the event was a resounding fundraising success. I even ran into one of my old high school teachers, a sports and geography teacher, who was extremely popular with the students. I had not seen him for close to 30 years, but recognized him immediately. He still had the same bright smile as he did three decades ago, and although I had to jog his memory a bit, his face lit up when he started remembering our class. Anneliese and I left the concert on a high and celebrated the experience with a night cap in a local café called Weberhaus. I mused that a small town like Weiz, with a population of less than 10,000, would offer such high caliber programming whose quality was truly at an international level.

So after an evening of high culture, a more physical and culinary program was on the menu today. I started the day off with another photo safari through my home town of Weiz, and explored the Taborkirche, which is dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. The Romanesque church was first mentioned in a document in 1188 and expanded in the late 1300s with a Gothic altar area.

Until the late 1600s imposing walls and watchtowers were surrounding the church, giving it a defensive character and making it possible for the local population to find safety within the complex, which was particularly important during the Turkish invasions during the 1500s. The church yard features several gravestones from the Roman era, indicating that this area was actively settled more than 2,000 years ago although much older pre-historic remains were found in the surrounding regions as well. The so-called Celtic Village on the nearby Kulm Mountain is the first outdoor pre-history museum in the province of Styria and illustrates that this area has been inhabited since pre-historic times.

During a stroll through the Main Square of Weiz I ran across two old acquaintances, my neighbours’ mother, who I had not seen for at least 20 years and a friend from my former volleyball team who I had not seen for more than two decades as well. It’s now almost 21 years that I have been living in Toronto, but it was great to see these familiar faces again and to reconnect after such a long time.

At 9:30 am I went to visit Klaudia, one of my best friends from high school, at her parent’s house. Our other school mate Doris was already there and it was great to see both of them again, more than 23 years after we graduated from high school. After the initial hugs and kisses and how-are-yous we started walking onto the local hill, the Weizberg. Our stroll took us through the local cemetery where we admired a very famous grave: the last resting place of Aurelia Schwarzenegger, Arnold’s mother, who was a long-time resident of Weiz.

Klaudia even mentioned that her father happened to encounter Mrs. Schwarzenegger at the cemetery a number of years ago, but she had collapsed due to a heart attack. My friend’s father called the ambulance which gave her emergency treatment and took her to the hospital. She passed away shortly after and Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a thank you letter to the ambulance employees as well as to Klaudia’s father, to thank him for getting help for his mother. Proof that in this town real celebrity connections are just steps away…

We continued our stroll to the imposing baroque Weizbergkirche. Right next to the church is the so-called “Kräutergarten” (herb garden) that was created by a group of local residents (including Klaudia’s mom) that features a wide variety of local herbs, many of which are used in the regional cuisine. Then we took the romantic stairs down the hill, a pathway that we had walked many times as children. Our local stroll took us past our former high school, where we discussed fond memories of our school years.

One of the highlights of our high school careers were two choir trips to Germany, to our partner school in Offenburg, where the two school choirs jointly performed classical songs. We most fondly recalled the actual concert where for the finale both school choirs appeared together to jointly sing the last song. Screaming our lungs out among 120 singers from two different countries was an exhilarating experience, and not surprisingly my passions for cross-cultural exchanges were kindled at an early age.

After our return to Klaudia’s parents Doris left and the rest of us started preparing a hearty meal, and I, by no means gifted in the kitchen, donned the apron and started cutting and chopping whatever needed to be done. (Good thing I was not in charge of any really important tasks…) Klaudia’s mom whipped up a delicious meal for 10+ people in next to no time and we soon sat down in the garden to have some Austrian specialties: we savoured a “Bröselknödelsuppe” (breadcrumb dumplings in a clear beef broth), stuffed green peppers and delicious mashed potatoes with caramelized onions.

Given this delicious yet substantial calory injection, we had to do a work-out and decided to do a hike up onto the Schöckel, at over 1400 m the highest local mountain. Around 2 pm we met up with Doris again and all three of us broke out our Nordic walking poles and we attacked the mountain from its steepest side. Doris, an experienced hiker, led the group at a rather hellish pace, and the two of us clambered behind her. Some areas were so steep we had to use our hands to brace ourselves climbing up between the rocks. But our walking sticks definitely aided in the ascent and about an hour later we were rewarded with an astounding 360 degree view over the Styrian hills and mountains.

The Schöckel is also referred to as the “Grazer Hausberg” or local mountain of Graz, and we had great views down into the Styrian capital and the Mur Valley. To the south the Austrian and Slovenian plains were stretching out, looking east and right saw the foothills of Eastern and Western Styria, and to the north we took in the panorama of the more imposing mountains of the Styrian Alps. We also saw several ramps for hang-gliders, a popular activity in this region.

We walked past some peaceful cows that were grazing on the mountain pastures and reached the summit area which is the location of the upper station of the cable car, of a couple of restaurants and a summer tobogganing course. The weather today was brilliant and many serious hikers, mountain bikers and tourists were congregating at the mountain top. We were quite fascinated by the summer tobogganing and Doris suggested that I should try it.

Well, I have always been a bit of a daredevil and she did not have to say it twice. She even sprang for my Euro 2.50 round, and a couple of minutes later I was sitting in the steel “buggy of death”, ready for my hair-raising descent down the serpentine curves of the course. Actually, the ride was a lot tamer than I expected, and I only occasionally pulled the brakes, but it was still an very entertaining experience. I figured if I did it again I would probably try to go down the course without breaking at all.

Once the lift had pulled my buggy back up to the summit plateau we started walking past the Stubenberghaus, a large mountain restaurant and inn, towards the summit cross which provides a beautiful view northwards into the mountainous area of Upper Styria. I have always loved mountains, and to see peak after peak after peak was just a great experience. We then started hiking back to the car and our trek back down was considerably easier than the torturous climb up. We stopped at Doris’ beautiful country house on the way back where we admired her recently created garden pond and her new dog. Equipped with some gorgeous ripe Styrian peaches from Doris’ family’s farm we returned to Weiz and I dropped Klaudia off.

About an hour later we reunited when Klaudia, her husband and two children, her parents, her sister Andrea and her daughters Nina and Katja arrived at my brother’s place. Tonight we would all get together for a great barbecue, and my brother Ewald, the passionate chef, had a few special treats waiting for us. Anneliese, my sister-in-law, had been helping all afternoon with the preparations.

After some initial chit-chatting we started off with a savoury vegetable soup, and then my brother started preparing the main course: 13 whole artic chars were waiting to be grilled in a large pan on an open fire. Ewald had already been marinating the fish in a special blend of herbs and spices the whole day. Tender young potatoes were to accompany the fish, and a solid Styrian salad with pumpkin seed oil rounded out the main course. A scrumptious raspberry parfait provided the sweet final note to our culinary symphony.

So despite a bit of rainy weather yesterday, I had had a fantastic couple of days which included classical music, hiking, a reunion with good friends and an amazing array of gastronomic delicacies. Now there is only one more full day left of my trip to Austria, and tomorrow we will explore one of the medieval treasures of Styria: the Riegersburg, a massive fortress on a basaltic outcrop dating back to the 10th century, often referred to as the “strongest fortress of Christianity” because it was never conquered.