I WANT to tell you a story. It is a rather sad one at first, but I assure you, it does have a happy ending.
Once upon a time there was a city, which sat rather like a thorn between two roses. Nobody much liked this city, and because of that, it really did not have a lot going for it. It sat in the cradle of a huge river, itself impressive, but even the river did not like the city, because of what it stood for. Nobody ever came here, unless out of necessity, because it was a city based on heavy industry.
Then, one day, something extraordinary happened. The year was 2009, and the city was named the European Capital of Culture. Its name was Linz, in Upper Austria. Suddenly, our ugly duckling had turned into a swan. Those ruffled and torn feathers had taken on a new sheen, and everyone was forced to sit up and take notice, even those two roses, Vienna and Salzburg.
Tourists began to gather from far and wide to see what all the fuss was about. They came, they saw, and they spread the word that the dawn of a new cultural awakening was rising over the banks of the River Danube, by turns a dividing line and a connecting link between the cultures and regions on its banks. No other city in Austria lies as close to Europe’s second largest river.
The old shipyards took on a new and profitable lease of life. Artists were commissioned to decorate the desperately forlorn riverside warehouses with their own style of vibrant graffiti and imagery, creating magical transformations. Oh, how the city folk rejoiced. For, all around, Linz had metamorphosed into something creative and arty and clean and vibrant and wholesome and, perhaps most important of all, welcoming.
I had visited the city before the change. Only for a couple of days. It is difficult to remember now why I was here, which does not say a lot for the place at that time. But that is not the point. I am here again, and what I see and feel is a vibe running through its veins.
Trams and prams and bicycles and bystanders and tourists and traders merge on Landstrasse, the main thoroughfare which runs from the flower-filled park where you find the new Musiktheater am Volksgarten (above), Europe’s most modern opera house, to Nibelungen Bridge, which spans the River Danube. Stand here, and you will see large, luxury river cruise ships berthed, spilling yet more tourists on to the streets to eat and drink and shop and soak up the culture and the atmosphere.
Café culture has caught up here. Dozens of tables and chairs spill over on to the pavements and across the squares, where students soak up the sunshine whilst eating ice-creams or sipping lattés, heads down texting on their iPhones and Samsungs.
Modernism is the ‘now’ word, personified by the Ars Electronica Center which lies across the Nibelungen Bridge. On the banks of the Danube, the building blends digital art and technology into our everyday lives (www.aec.at).
An interactive adventure world for children and adults alike, the building houses impressive exhibitions. It sounds baffling, and some areas might go straight over one’s head, but it does become clearer as you wander the showrooms with a knowledgeable guide.
The city’s designation as a UNESCO City of Media Arts in December 2014 proved yet another milestone in its cultural transition. It is easy to feel the pulse of a city demanding international recognition as a pacemaker for visionary, progressive thinking. Yet it is also about enjoyment and relaxation, as expressed by locals and tourists alike as they relax under the baroque facades and sit around the Trinity Column in Hauptplatz, the largest urban square in Europe and the starting point for a stroll along Landstrasse. After Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna, Landstrasse is the most frequented shopping street in Austria.
The world’s largest outdoor gallery can be found in Linz harbour. The oversized graffiti by artists from eight different countries using spray paints, roller and brush, can best be viewed from a cruise along the Danube.
The facades of old industrial buildings and house walls have been covered in twenty large-scale pictures, characters and calligraphy. The outdoor gallery Mural Harbor has gradually transformed the commercial port into an urban space for art in a public space.
A harbour tour on board the MS Linzerin also passes Austria’s only shipyard. (www.donauschiffahrt.de and www.boxxoffice.at/de/linzag_hafengalerie).
To gain a wholly different perspective of the city, head to Hohenrausch, where you can cross wooden walkways and climb the ‘No Worries Tower’, the top of which offers superb views across the rooftops (www.hoehenrausch.at). Since 2009, Linz and Upper Austria have boasted of this special cultural highlight, which attracts over 100,000 visitors a year. The secret behind the success of this art appreciation project is the mixture of the rooftop trek, sightseeing from unusual vantage points, art installations, games, and a different way of experiencing the urban space.
Back on the banks of the Danube, the Brucknerhaus, Linz’s concert hall, is named after the composer. It is possible to take a guided tour, but do book in advance (www.brucknerhaus.at). The first musical connections between Anton Bruckner and London were created as early as 1871, when the Upper Austrian composer performed works by Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, as well as his own improvisations in the Royal Albert Hall. The world’s most important conductors have had the honour to be at the Bruckner Festival for forty years. I was lucky enough to be here during the Bruckner Festival, where I heard a wonderful concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Semyon Bychkov and mezzo-soprano and contralto Elisabeth Kulman. The programme included pieces by Wagner, Haydn and Schmidt.
There are many variations of this jam-filled, lattice-topped pastry coated with almonds, but for real authenticity, I headed to the famous Jindrak Bakery at Herrenstrasse 24, just off Hauptplatz, where I had a go at baking one myself under the guidance of an expert (www.jindrak.at).
I asked Manfred Grubauer, chairman of Linz Tourism, his thoughts on the changes that Linz has experienced in recent times. “Historically, Linz is an industrial city which added culture and nature, and we now have over fifty per cent green space. We are also the cleanest industrial working city in Europe.
“Our focus is the future. We are a successful, modern and creative city, where the quality of life is of a very high standard. However, we do not compare ourselves with what I would term a first city like Vienna, London or Amsterdam. However, tourists are interested in the so-called second cities like Linz, because we offer a different kind of cultural experience.
“Business people did not come here for the museums or theatres, they didn’t see the opera house. So the advent of cultural tourism has been a learning curve for all those involved in the tourism industry. For example, river cruises started with one or two ships, and now we have more than 160. We prepared ourselves for the influx of visitors, having gained our experience from cities like Salzburg and Vienna, and we continue to work hard to meet all the standards that the visitor has come to expect.”
Linz, it would seem, has grown from almost a ghost town a decade ago to regaining its self-belief. Without doubt, being named the European Capital of Culture six years ago has helped improve its self-confidence. And that, I have no doubt, will continue to blossom as more tourists pour into the cultural hub of Europe.
WHERE TO EAT
LENTOS RESTAURANT on Ernst-Koref-Promenade (www.lentos-gastro.net) is a pleasant spot for lunch, as it lies by the River Danube a stone’s throw from the Nibelungen Bridge. The exterior interlinking ceiling and walkway casts impressive ‘upside-down’ reflections of passers-by.
RESTAURANT SCHLOSSBRASSERIE (www.schlossbrasserie.at) can be found at Schlossberg 1a. Glass surrounds the restaurant, offering expansive views of the city. Take a stroll around the verandah at night and see how beautifully the Ars Electronica Centre – the largest LED facade in Europe – and the Lentos Kunstmuseum – one of Austria’s most important museums of modern and contemporary art – cast their ever-changing play of colours across the Danube.
WHERE TO STAY
I was a guest at the Austria Trend Hotel Schillerpark (www.austria-trend.at/hotel-schillerpark), which is situated in the city centre, close to all the shops, and a short stroll from the Musiktheater am Voilksgarten.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) offer regular flights
Linz airport (www.linz-airport.at) lies south-west and a short taxi ride (approx. €35) from the city. There is also an airport bus from/to the Fulghafen Horsching airport stop and from/to Linz Central Station (www.liz-airport.com/fahrplan).
Tourist Information Linz
Austrian National Tourist Office
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