Hello from Austria – Medieval History Up Close at the Riegersburg Fortress and Explorations of Styri

Having recovered from my action-packed day yesterday which included a photo safari of my home town, some extreme hiking and subsequent culinary feasting (to counteract any potential weight loss), my final day in Austria had arrived and it was also going to be an exciting one. My brother Ewald and my sister-in-law Anneliese had planned an outing to one of Styria’s true medieval treasures: the Riegersburg, a majestic fortress that was first constructed in the 11th century in the strategically important border region of the Austrian empire.

Styria is one of the lesser known Austrian provinces, most people are more familiar with the area around the capital Vienna; the region surrounding Salzburg (“Sound of Music” country) and Tyrol with its high mountains and the capital of Innsbruck. Styria, although the second largest Austrian province that features the country’s second largest city (its capital, Graz), has largely remained below the radar of most North American tourists.

As far as I am concerned, it is one of the most beautiful spots, and I don’t just say that because I am originally from there. As a matter of fact, one of the explicit goals of my trip to Austria this year was to view the area I grew up in through the eyes of a travel writer and put it in context with some of the other areas that I have had a chance to visit over the last few years.

Styria is composed of eight major travel regions:

– the Dachstein – Tauern Region, characterized by high mountains, great skiing and other outdoor diversions

– the picturesque lake area of the Salzkammergut – Ausseerland

– the Murtal holiday region, a densely forested area offering lots of outdoor activities

– Upper Styria, another mountainous region that features the “Styrian Water Road” , the “Styrian Iron Road” as well as the Hochschwab mountain region

– Graz, the province’s capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 2003 European Cultural Capital

– Eastern Styria, my native region, an enchanting region characterized by medium size mountains, Austria’s largest mountain pasture, orchards, fertile farmland, monasteries and castles

– Thermenland Styria, a region full of gently rolling hills, vineyards and ancient volcanic activity that has created six world caliber spa resorts, and

– The South Styrian Wine Region and Western Styria where gently sloping hills full of vineyards and the famous White Horses destined for the Vienna Riding School invite to an area that is often referred to as the “Austrian Tuscany”.

Today’s destination, the Riegersburg, is located just at the southern border of the Eastern Styria travel region, right adjacent to the volcanic region of the Thermenland area. As a matter of fact, the fortress itself is built on the ancient volcanic cone of a long-extinct volcano. We started our drive from Weiz through the Raab Valley and the rural town of Gleisdorf. There we turned off the major road onto smaller country roads that took us through beautiful rolling hills, many of which feature orchards and vineyards.

Many of these small side roads are official bicycle trails which are conveniently signed and many of the local vintners own little rural restaurants called “Buschenschenken” whose garden terraces invite hikers, bikers and other travelers to sit down and enjoy Styrian culinary delicacies and wine. We encountered hardly any traffic, and on this beautiful warm summer day many cyclists were out there getting a good workout and enjoying the scenery.

After about 45 minutes we had reached our destination: a basaltic rock crowned with the majestic Riegersburg fortress was right in front of us. We parked the car in the village at the foot of the rock and started our ascent up to the castle. The narrow road lacks pavement and is essentially composed of dark volcanic rock that features many narrow grooves and ruts from hundreds of years of use by horse carriages. We entered through the first gate which was one of many. Altogether the Riegersburg has seven major gates and eleven bastions. The defensive wall around the fortress is an impressive three kilometers long. The combination of these features made the fortress the most important fortification at the Styrian border of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The strategic importance of this border region becomes evident in the context of the 16th and 17th century Ottoman Wars between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. The area of Eastern Styria in particular was often under threat of invasion by forces from the East. In 1664 a decisive final battle was fought in nearby Mogersdorf which ended the two-year war against the Turks. The Riegersburg itself was never conquered and as a result it came to be referred to as the “strongest fortification of Christianity”. It was part of an entire series of border fortresses along the boundary of the Habsburg Empire.

We walked slowly up to the castle on the rutted road that was surrounded by a crenellated wall that would allow sharpshooters to target potential invaders approaching the fortress. On an open plateau below the actual castle building there are numerous plaques mounted on a wall, providing a memorial to hundreds of soldiers from surrounding villages that fell during World War II. Each village had its own plaque. Another picturesque gate took us to the last part of the path that would take us right up to the fortress. At the foot of the fortress is the “Burgtaverne”, a restaurant with a beautiful large outdoor patio that features a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside and entices with traditional Austrian cuisine.

As we approached the fortress itself we walked across two moats that were each equipped with a drawbridge and the second inner moat actually still had water in it. We were now truly inside the building complex of the fortress and through a large inner courtyard we approached the central building which features the retail store where we purchased our 9.5 Euro admission to the central part of the fortress.

The name of the Riegersburg fortress was originally mentioned in 1138 as “Ruotkerspurch”, which actually means “RĂ¼diger’s castle”, so the fortress originally belonged to an aristocrat by that name. It underwent major reconstruction during the late 16th century to include late Renaissance architectural features. The large ceremonial rooms and the arcade in the inner courtyard date back to this era.

Two permanent exhibitions are being hosted in the Riegersburg: the “Witch Museum” in the cellar focuses on the obsession with and persecution of witches which had gripped Central European countries from about 1450 until 1750. About 300 presumed witches and sorcerers were persecuted in witch trials in Styria and many of them were executed. The peak of the witch-hunting frenzy took place during the 30 Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 when the war and the so-called “minor ice age” had destroyed agriculture and decimated the population, much of which of course was blamed on the evil doing of supposed witches.

We were planning to see the other exhibition: “Legendary Riegersburg – Legendary Women”. Two very colourful female characters are associated with the history of this fortress. The first one was Baroness Elisabeth Katharina von Galler (1607 to 1672) who was the lady of the castle from 1648 to 1672. In a time of very traditional male-female role expectations the “Galllerin” was a very unconventional character and strayed from the usual norms. Women, even aristocratic women, were not allowed to own property at the time, and Elisabeth, as the sole heiress of the fortress, would have had to relinquish any property ownership to her husband, but she refused to comply. Even in her prenuptial agreement she ensured the right to decide over her property herself.

Baroness Elisabeth von Galler initiated a complete reconstruction of the fortress which included the stunning baroque White Hall as well as the construction of the numerous bastions, gates and the extensive walls surrounding the castle. Several inscriptions above different gates point out that she spent a lot of money on this construction work. Her husband incurred major debt and in 1649 she paid him out with a substantial sum of money and got rid of him. Altogether Baroness von Galler was married three times and involved in several legal battles with her husbands, and local clergy.

The other interesting female character featured in the “Legendary Women” exhibition is Katharina Paldauf who was an employee of Baroness von Galler for whom she started working at 20 years of age. From 1673 to 1675 she got embroiled in the Feldbach Witch Trial and was accused of having manipulated weather and participated in witch Sabbaths.The legends also say that she was able to grow roses in winter, a talent that earned her the moniker “the flower witch”. For her supernatural powers to grow flowers in the off-season she was accused being a witch and was presumably executed in 1675.

Various displays in the exhibition also shed light on the historical background of the 16th and 17th centuries. Servitude and feudalism characterized the power structures during the Middle Ages, and peasants had a very difficult life while aristocrats formed a hereditary elite that was entitled to hold lands and exercise far-reaching powers over the common people. The mostly agrarian economy at the time obligated peasants to deliver a substantial share of their production to the local lords and noblemen who in turn promised them protection during periods of war. This was an era of extensive exploitation and lords had the right to use peasants’ land as they pleased. Often a peasant would require the permission of a lord when he intended to marry, and onerous taxes were imposed on the peasant class. These harsh conditions actually led to many peasant rebellions throughout Central Europe in the 16h century.

The noblemen on the other hand lived a lavish lifestyle. An inscription at the entrance of the fortress indicates that an excessive feast during the 1600s resulted in 21 days of binge eating and drinking. The opulently decorated Knights Hall was the location of many such bouts and a wooden bridge connecting it with another hall was used for relieving oneself after all this carousing and is commonly referred to as the “vomiting bridge”. Even today the figure of a man bent over adorns the bridge, reminding people of its original purpose.

We were awed by the lavish detailing in the former living quarters of the Riegersburg, in particular by the Hall of Knights with its coffered ceiling and the opulently decorated baroque White Hall. When we walked through the premises, the White Hall still featured table decorations and leftovers from a wedding that had been held a few days earlier at the fortress. The castle today is owned by the Liechtenstein family, an aristocratic family that has been living at this castle since 1972. One of the family members had just recently gotten married. The beautiful flower decorations and wedding menus gave us an idea of what some of these historic feasts must have looked like.

We had enjoyed our first-hand history lesson and were ready to keep exploring so we walked down the long basaltic road into the town of Riegersburg that sprawls at the foot of the fortress. A baroque church and several restaurants anchor the picturesque main square of the village and there is a large pond on the outskirts of the village that features a resort with beach volleyball, a water slide, tennis and eateries.

We then continued our big country drive to our next destination: the Castle of Kapfenstein, about 20 minutes from the Riegersburg, is also located on an extinct volcano close to the Hungarian and Slovenian borders. Its recorded history dates back to 1065 and it was one of the fortresses that protected Austria from attacks by the Magyars and Turks. The castle was owned by different noble families until it came into the possession of the Winkler-Hermaden family in 1898.

Today the castle holds a 15-room upscale hotel as well as a restaurant with extensive outdoor patios that provide a stunning view into the surrounding countryside. We picked a beautiful spot on the terrace and started perusing the menu. A wedding had obviously just happened at the castle hotel because the bride and the groom were still carrying presents out to their vehicles. We decided to taste some local delicacies, and I enjoyed my mushroom soup with roasted buckwheat and a cheese platter with a broad assortment of Austrian specialty cheeses.

Our late lunch had stretched into the mid-afternoon and it was now time to continue our journey. But before moving on we took a little 15 minute stroll through a forest and some vineyards to a small chapel on the plateau next to the Castle of Kapfenstein. From here we had a perfect view northwards and through a magnifying viewer we were able to see our previous destination, the volcanic cone of the Riegersburg.

It was time to return so we started our drive back to Weiz. We had made arrangements with our friends Luis and Isabella to join them for a little backyard get-together on my last evening in Austria. Both my friends are avid motor scooter riders and Luis allowed me to hop on one of their two-wheeled machines and accompanied me on a little test drive. I had ridden a motor scooter for the first and so far only time in my life on the island of Ibiza and was exhilarated to have another go at it. After some initial balancing problems and after getting used to adjusting the gas on the handlebar grip we finally got off to a decent start on our little adventure and took an exciting spin on the local country roads.

Twenty minutes later we returned and sat down in their beautiful garden, admiring the large pond that the two of them had created. We all reminisced a bit about the time in 2005 when my brother, my sister-in-law and these two friends had come to Toronto for a visit. This was the first time that I saw my friends again, this time on their home turf. We were even thinking that one of these years we should do a joint skiing vacation in Schladming in Upper Styria, a phenomenal skiing region that is often the location world cup ski races and a place where my friends go skiing on a regular basis.

The sun was starting to set and it was time for me to get back to brother’s place and to start packing my suitcase. I said goodbye to my friends and invited them to come for another visit to Toronto. Ewald, Anneliese and I spent another nice few hours at their home as I got ready for my departure, feeling rather sad about the impending end of my trip.

Without a doubt this has been my best visit since I left my home town 21 years ago. Nine days just wasn’t long enough to even explore the sights of my immediate area. In addition to the wonderful connections with my family and some good friends, I had learned during the last few days that Styria, the region I was born into, was certainly on par with many other tourism areas that I have visited throughout North America and Europe.

Styria’s beautiful landscapes, the extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation, the architecture, history, music, culture, and last but not least, the delicious cuisine will definitely make me come back again.