At last, the Alps!

Six days prior to leaving Austria, we were mourning the fact we hadn’t been able to get into the real mountains of of this beautiful land, which some people say begin in Carinthia; others at the border between Germany and Austria.  In truth, they are both correct as there are three major ranges of the Alps in Austria namely, the Northern Calcareous Alps, Central Alps, and Southern Calcareous Alps. They run west to east across the country of Austria. The Central Alps are mostly granite and consist of the largest and highest peaks of Austria. The Northern Calcareous Alps run from Vorarlberg to Salzburg through Tyrol along the border of Germany. Some of it is also found in the Upper Austria and Lower Austria near the capital city of Vienna. The Southern Calcareous Alps are located on the Carinthia-Slovenia border.  Both of these ranges are mostly limestone.  These are high mountains, but the peaks seem very impressive because you are starting at such a low elevation from the valley floor.


On Wednesday, Bill’s colleague at Uni-Graz wondered if Bill would like to go with him and one of his graduate students into the western part of Styria to do some field work! This trip would take us into the eastern edge of the Northern Calcareous Alps.  Part of the research area is located within the Gesaeuse National Park .   I tagged along!  We were so thrilled!  We visited four valley locations (near Johnsbach and Aich – ~ 600 m.) and then drove almost completely to the top (few guardrails + narrow roads = glad I wasn’t driving!) of two of the peaks (~2300 m) at both places.  The purpose was to make some discharge measurements of springs and collect electronic water level data.  Some fancy equipment came along (computers, water level measurers, etc.) but also ordinary things like buckets, a hoe, and table salt!


The scenery was beyond beautiful and the weather could not have been more perfect!  Everywhere farm fields reached up to the forests, guesthouses welcomed travelers, flowers and cows dotted the grassy meadows.   The farmer and gasthaus operator who owns the land where Johnsbach (means John’s Creek) flows, has created a Kneippanlage, a place to experience the method of water therapy made popular by Sebastian Kneipp.  (We would see this kind of thing again!)


While the scientists did some work at the place where the spring emerges in the valley, I tried out the Kneippanlage.  (Anything to help my poor toe!) It was definitely colder than Flathead Lake and I was reminded that clear running streams are always deeper than they look from the surface!


We finished the day on top of the last peak, hiking to the beautiful, easily reached lookout point high above Gröbming and the Ennstal: the Peace Chapel of Emil Ritter von Horstig.  There’s a rope you can pull to ring a little bell, after making a wish or saying a prayer.


The Friedenskircherl was built in 1902 by Emil Ritter von Horstig in a rocky niche. What makes the Friedenskircherl interesting is not only its exposed location, but also that it is not affiliated with any denomination. Emil Ritter von Horstig built the Friedenskircherl as a memorial for all believers. The famous Styrian writer Peter Rosegger was walking to the Friedenskircherl in 1904 and wrote: “What should I write in these mountains full of sunshine, I can only be silent in prayer and blessed.”


Genau.  Exactly.




































































































Springtime in Graz

Spring comes early to this part of Austria.  By early April this year, the snow had melted and the vegetation, with its unmistakable chartreuse hue and resplendent flowering, appeared as if by magic.

the sweet fresh green and white of spring

By mid-April, children were picking and vendors hawking  the budding catkins for Palm Sunday festivities, another plus for the European ethic of using what it plentifully at hand.  In the US, it’s typical for churches simply to order palms in for this festival; if you exclude the southern tier of states where palms might grow anyway, where is the ethos in that?

By May, lilies of the valley sprang up in gardens. It is the ‘mutters tag’ flower.   



Aside from Mother’s day, May in Austria brings two other celebrations:  The raising of the May Pole (Maibaum) and May or Labor Day.

The Maibaum dates back to at least the 16th century in Germany and Austria, and perhaps is older than that, if one considers Celtic festivals or Freudian theory.  We were lucky enough to see the former, being freshly installed, as we ate in a traditional rural restaurant with our friends Gernot and Christina following their performance of a Haydn Mass at Mariatrost Basilica the Sunday after Easter.  In Austria, each baum’s ribbons or other decoration reflects the region where it is installed:  green and blue for Styria, red and yellow for Burgenland.   As we travel the countryside now, we see maibaum erected in nearly every village and often by local bars and restaurants, such as the one in Kainbach bei Graz, below.

the maibaum, located near a rural restaurant

it's decorated with carvings and the date













better view of the baum

Restaurant in Kainbach bei Graz-best backhanderl (fried chicken) ever!










traditional colors of Burgenland - red and yellow.

Here is another, a little more than a month old, near the border of Austria and Hungary.

The other May Day celebration is a nod to the political process, and the ‘workers parties’.   It featured, in both Graz and Vienna, large parades.  We knew about them because they disrupted our normal route to the train station as we headed to Vienna! No trams were running.  Fortunately, we did get to the train station and on to Vienna for the week, a trip which will be featured in the next installment.

"red" flag still flies in Vienna, 1 day after May Day (Labor Day)

In early May, we also finally made it to the Schloss Eggenberg.  Besides being the terminus of our tram line in Graz, it’s one of the most impressive remnants of the baroque era in Austria.  It dates back to the late medieval period (1460) and was the property of advisors/financiers to Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor.

Because the weather was warm and sunny, we chose not to tour the palace itself but to remain outdoors in the lovely gardens.  Both the palace and the gardens reflect elements of cosmological theory:  for example, the palace has 365 windows, one for every day in the year; the bushes and shrubs are arranged as a planetary garden, with groupings of plants given names like “Mars”, “Jupiter”, the “Sun”, “Earth” and “Venus”.  We were intrigued and so glad we went!   Where we found the gardens of the big palaces in Vienna devoid of spring flowers (presumably because they are annuals and must be planted each year), the gardens at Eggenberg, with mostly perennials, were bursting with color and scent and sound!  Ahhh, spring!

a perfect spot for wedding photos

Peacocks are everywhere!















we grow these back in Montana

tree with magnificent burl










amazing peonies

close up of burl - I know some woodworkers who'd like to get their hands on this!










azaleas leading into the 'sun' part of the garden

arbors of yellow wisteria represented the rays of the sun











this hedge is part of the Venus grouping. Can you see it is a heart?



purple wisteria, too!

and here is the goddess, herself










Everyone was enjoying the day!

a reader

children checking out the fish






the peacocks
Especially the peacocks!  (click on the link, above, to open video)  There was some kind of sporting event going on in the stadium adjacent to the schloss.  Every time the crowd would roar, the peacocks would answer!

We thought perhaps it was a soccer match, so we stopped by on our way to the bus stop, to see what was happening.  Here’s what it was!


American football!!!












Castles and football in the spring…who knew?  Just another day in Graz!

Thanks for reading!


Pummerins, Prancers and Palaces. (Palaces)

So now we come to the third in the trilogy of Vienna:  Palaces.  Vienna is chock full of them.  There are the Imperial Palaces where one can see the jewels and crowns of the Holy Roman Emperors, plus the apartments where the royals lived; and there is Schönbrunn, the ‘country’ palace and grounds which, like so many monuments in Vienna, has morphed from early medieval use to depredation by invaders to lavish restoration by the Hapsburgs.

In truth, Schönbrunn was little more than a hunting lodge and grounds for the earlier Hapsburgs until the time of Emperor Charles VI who gave it to his daughter, Maria Theresia, after which it really took off!

Because of the beautiful gardens, the beautiful day as well as the beautiful rooms, we chose to tour Schönbrunn and were not disappointed!  Because photos inside are prohibited you will have to visit HERE if you would like to see what we saw. There are some very good virtual tours at this site.

Schönbrunn Palace, in the high baroque style, is so immense, it is hard to fit it all in the camera’s view!


the palace from the back or garden side

As you walk out the ‘back door’ so to speak, you are greeted by gardens on either side, an immense statue called Neptune’s statue, and a huge edifice on a hill, the Gloriette, which was used as a sort of secondary dining room for the royals and their guests.  Some kind of almost al fresco dining!


The Gloriette beckons!

Unfortunately, it was just a little too early for the amazing plantings that happen in the gardens at Schönbrunn but we could get a sense of how lovely they might be at the height of summer.



the gardens await!

Everyone was very busy preparing for the summer season.  Even the statues were getting a cleaning from the winter grime (and moss, no doubt)!  This would be a lot of fun on a summer’s day but this day it was really windy, probably not too much ‘fun’ for the hose man!


washing off Neptune and 'friends'


You can get a sense of the layout of the gardens better from (almost) the top of the hill.


looking back at the palace and gardens at Schoenbrunn

There was a reflecting pool with mergansers landing amid other ducks.  Next time we’ll carry our compact binoculars so we can make the definitive identification!



reflecting pool with ducks, joggers, sitters

Also a really great view of Vienna!

We were more than fascinated by the Gloriette, with it’s massive columns and faceless statues.


It echoes perfectly the main palace that sits opposite.  Not a mistake!



'faceless' statue signaling the strength of the Austrian Empire

Austrian water is VERY good and safe to drink….something the Austrians are rightly proud of!


water fountain at the Gloriette

We were delighted to discover that the al fresco dining room of the Hapsburgs has been replaced by a working cafe.  The prices were a little steep but nice to get in out of the wind and enjoy some schokolade!  As with any caffeinated beverage, it is always served with a glass of water and a small spoon for eating up that yummy schlogoobers or whipped cream.




Vienna is famous for the elegance and hospitality of its coffee houses, which I hope to visit more on an upcoming trip.   Evidently Starbucks has tried to open a place or two there without much success.  The Viennese just don’t get drinking coffee from a paper cup and while on the go.  I think the Viennese know a thing or two. 🙂

Behind and beside the Gloriette, there are miles of more gardens and paths, and the Schönbrunn Zoo, one of the first in Europe.  We took a wooded path down and soon found ourselves being stalked by a two footed ‘friend’.



It's a Mandarin Duck, an introduced species, with some breeding pairs on the grounds!

The literature mentioned a Roman ruins, and we thought that would be interesting.   We could see what looked like a ruins from the top.



what looks like 'ruins'....

Alas, with their fondness for antiquity, the architects of the palace had created a Roman Ruins for the entertainment of the royals and their guests.  It did look a bit staged!!!!


Roman "ruins"

Some not so fake beauty lay in the grounds themselves.  Spring just arriving and all that!


spring arrives in the woods around Schoenbrunn

The squirrels were active, and much different looking than the ones we have in Montana!


hello. I am not the Easter Bunny!


We got some great views of a very common bird around Austria.  This one is MY photo! (unlike the previous photo which I had to borrow!)


Great tit in spring plumage

And some interesting flowers which I can’t find the name for in our Blumen book.  Oh well.  Not everything must be named to be enjoyed!


cool wild flowers


Until next time, thanks for reading!  Auf wiedersehen!

Nature walk

We were enjoying a quiet evening in the flat last Friday, April 1.  The long work week, replete with talks and classes, was giving way to expectation of wandering the Styrian hills and maybe a trip to Eggenberg Scholss, a large palace complex at the end of Tram Line 1.  Saturday was supposed to be in the high 70’s and we were looking forward to walking around, even without seeing all the flowers that would undoubtedly be planted there if we went later in the season.  But first, time to sleep.

Then the phone rang! (10:00 PM)   It was Sebastian, our birding friend, and ‘did we want to go out birding on Sunday?  He would be leading a BirdLife Austria group and we were invited.  (to be fair to Sebastian, he didn’t think we would have our handys turned on that late at night!)   Then he called back a few minutes later asking if we wanted to go on Saturday as well, if he could reach his birding friend with the car to order to check his schedule.  Then, another call, saying he could not reach him and so Sunday it was.  And so we went to bed, thinking we’d do a few errands on Saturday (remember stores are not open at all on Sunday), and maybe visit the Schloss.

The next morning, awakened by the melodies of birds and the sun already calling ‘get up’ we were actually birding from the bed!  Our apartment windows are at about the same height as the trees surrounding it, so it makes for easy and compelling observation.  It was 7 AM and the phone rang.

Sebastian again, saying he had reached his friend with the car and did we want to go out TODAY?  Could we be ready in ½ hour?  Bill was saying ‘of course’ as I was without coffee mumbling incoherently throwing on clothes.  We inhaled quite possibly the best morning breads we’ve had in Austria, gulped yesterday’s coffee, assembled some sandwiches, and got ourselves downstairs on time.   Whew.

Waiting for us were Sebastian and Wilfried.  Wilfried is the Chair of BirdLife Styria (partnered with Audubon in the US) and also a botany professor at KFU.  How do we keep meeting just the folks who can answer so many of our questions?



Wilfried, Sebastian and Jean 'on the road'

The day’s birding was simply terrific, from the Lapwings nesting in the fields at the Graz Flughafen (seems like a precarious existence to me!) and pheasants, to crested Grebes, Green and Wood Sandpipers, and a variety of ducks on small ponds in the area.


lapwing on nest at the airport


Lapwings are very cool birds.  Both genders are striking in appearance, but the males especially, with their mohawk hair-style feather-style, and funny, floppy wings.  We saw many doing a display flight.   Here is a female sitting on the nest (digiscoped, must improve technique!)



closeup lapwing on nest

The day was simply gorgeous.  We’ve come to almost expect that in Styria.  It seems to rain a bit, just enough to perk up more flowers and nudge more tree leaves into showing up, and then it’s sunny and warm.  The typical haze was gone and we could see snowcapped mountains in the not too far distance.  What you can’t ‘see’ however is the lovely aroma from the farm fields.  Hey, it’s spring and time to fertilize, naturlich, for growing all those pumpkins and corn!  Naturlich means cow, pig and worst-smelling of all, chicken manure!


ein schöner Tag

We crisscrossed the valleys surrounding Graz, going west, then south, then east, looking in fields, by streams and in woods, with us collecting new birds the way children collect stones at the edge of a lake. Our list ‘pockets’ were filling up!

The highlight, though, had to be watching the swans.  These were mute swans. We have them also in the US but they are introduced birds, often seen in city parks.  These swans are in their native habitat, which maybe makes them feistier.   So you’re probably thinking of some stately and peaceful creature, gliding along on the water’s surface as if on ice.


mute swan on pond, deceptively 'serene'

Resplendent in their breeding plumage their behavior is anything but serene.  I have never heard such a racket nor seen such a fight!  At one pond we witnessed a territorial dispute between two cobs.


'just visiting' swan hopes to stay on pond


not if this one has anything to say about it!


It’s a small pond and, sorry, there is only room for one pair.  The male whose mate was nesting at one end repeatedly attacked another pair until they finally got the message and left.


fight between two swan cobs


Unfortunately that piece of grass decided to move right in front of the camera at the wrong moment!  But there were feathers everywhere!

It was pretty exciting!

Click on the photo below to see the swan action and hear the amazing sound of the wings!


Along the way, we saw frogs, toads, and eggs of the same.  Also some very strong beetles moving a squashed toad!  And you thought ants were the musclemen/women of the insect world!


frog or toad eggs in pond



beetles on/under dead toad

More flowers, and yes, even some snipes!


lily (rare) in woods near Kirchberg ponds


yellow wildflower


this one is nick-named 'hansel und gretl' - it changes from blue to pink


white bell shaped flower. need to find the name!

To scare up snipes, Sebastian donned big rubber boots and mucked along through the swamp!


Sebastian mucking about, flushing snipes. It worked! We saw 7!

It was a lovely day for a stroll through the woods.


the guys strolling; me, checking out those wildflowers!

We never DID get to Eggengberg Castle but maybe in May, we can arrange it!

We’ll be traveling now for the next few weeks – Vienna, Spain, Salzburg, Altenpostmarkt, Vienna, and Budapest.  I am almost worn out just thinking about it!

Vielen Dank, as always, for reading and for your comments!

March(ing) into April

Spring is in full swing here in Graz.  The woodland flowers are blooming all around us; in the major plazas, tulips and crocus and other bulb-driven plants are appearing as if overnight (actually, they are –planted by gardening crews each spring, not springing forth from their winter sleep!); daffodils adorn private yards and maybe best of all, forsythia is turning on the lights in a significant show of flaming yellow!  I love forsythia – it was my Mom’s favorite spring flower and we had a wild and crazy plant out in our front yard when I was growing up in Virginia.

I am watching the forsythia in our front yard here in Graz – it’s a little ‘behind’ because it’s higher up, I guess, and I will post a photo when it’s ‘ready’. Meanwhile, this is what Jakominiplatz in central Graz looks like now:

flowers in Jakominiplatz

Last week was a quiet week – no major concerts or events, except for Bill’s talk in the Seminar Series his department at KFU/TU sponsors.   It was one of the first really warm spring abends (the late afternoon time) and students were enjoying the out of doors, a sight you would see on any university campus!

students relaxing on warm Spring day - KFU Graz


The talk went great, held in an old lecture hall in one of the buildings at KFU.  With each footfall on the worn marble steps I wondered about the history of the hall and of the students and faculty who walked here so long ago.   The university itself dates back to 1585, founded by Archduke Karl II of Inner Austria.  After some permutations, (including a stint as a lycee and a  medical school) it was reopened in 1827 by Emperor Franz I.  The main (old) buildings that exist on campus today were inaugurated in 1895.  Bill’s office is NOT in one of the old buildings.

Institute of Earth Sciences Building at KFU - old water well in foreground

The University hit a low point in 1938, when 17 percent of the teachers, the Nobel Prize winners Otto Loewi, Viktor Hess and Erwin Schrödinger among them, as well as almost two thirds of the students were ousted and expelled for “racist”, religious or political reasons.  Nearly 27,000 students are enrolled today.

The talk went well, attended by about 60 people – students, faculty, the deans of the two programs that are jointly sponsoring this Fulbright appointment.  The hall itself was old also:  long wooden benches arranged in rows, with a place to write in front.  Everything wooden! If not, how else would (no pun intended) we be able to knock on the ‘desk’ tops when the lecture was over?  (No applause in Austrian classrooms; if the students liked the lecture or class, they knock on the table or desk tops as a sign of their respect!)

Lecture Hall where Bill gave his talk - March 29 2011

I certainly knew I was in a science classroom, though!


Bill has some great colleagues here.  One of them is originally from California and is married to an Austrian woman.

Bill with colleague from his department

After the talk, there were lovely refreshments!  Out came a huge variety of Brötchen (a slice of bread topped with cheese, egg, different cuts of meat including sliced blood sausage, salami, fish, vegetables), local wines from east of Graz (white from just east and red from Burgenland, which borders Hungary), several kinds of beer, and juices to be mixed with water (your choice of stille or mit gas).  It was a great opportunity to meet some of the faculty, and some of the spouses as well.

after the talk - the refreshments


Graz is a lovely place to walk and we spent an evening  last week,  just walking around downtown, after bopping into Moser Buchhandlung to purchase, believe it or not, a Spanish-English dictionary.  There were choices in nearly every major language of the world, and only ONE Sp-En dictionary.  We got the last one!  As we walked we noticed that now all the restaurants and cafes have their platztischen (plaza tables) out, and the strolling musicians are there to accompany diners.

We passed the maroni stand,   (John, this one is for you!)

maroni (chestnuts) - about the size of a shooter marble or just a little larger

and the Dom, where the sun was glinting off the angel’s ‘crown’,

Graz Dom - angels in sunlight

and in one of the many courtyards, found the center for the Styrian government (Graz being the seat of Steinmark or Styria).


inner courtyard - Styria government offices

Outside, in a tree, another sure sing of spring!



The weather was so warm on Saturday that we made for our favorite local restaurant Hausrl im Wald, aiming for dinner on the patio.

on the patio at Hausrl im Wald

the 'chestnut' tree


This is a chestnut tree, but we think its a HORSE chestnut and not a true chestnut from which the maroni come.  Its buds signal flowers appearing soon and the arrangement of the branches looks very much like the horse chestnut in our neighbor’s yard at home.

ready to burst forth!

this is the bark


We inhaled enjoyed our dinner,  mostly because we had not eaten since 7:00 AM due to an unexpected trip out of town!

More on that to come!

Thanks for reading!