Venice to Vienna

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Venice to Vienna

Leaving Venice  The view from the Autostrada is mainly of flat plains. The region here is Venezia Giulia — known for its silk industry. Reliable rainfall and fertile soil have stimulated fruit orchards and vine growing. This flat land is part of the Po River Valley, well-watered by rainfall draining down from the Alps. That's why there are so many rivers along the way.

Udine  The Autostrada skirts the city, but it's worth pointing out that this is the industrial and commercial center of the Venezia Giulia region. For much of its history it was a part of the powerful Venetian Republic. Just outside the town is the village of Campo Formio, where, in 1797, Napoleon concluded a treaty with Austria, after he had swept through Italy on his first campaign.

Gemona  A charming little town clustering at the base of a castle. The mountains are the foothills of the Carnic Alps.

Tarvisio  You're now approaching the spot where three borders come together: Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Tarvisio was once a Roman town, and now figures as an important crossroads between Italy and Austria. Summer and winter sports make the town a popular resort.

Villach (COURIER: This town comes soon after the border crossing.)

Villach is important for traffic moving between Austria and Italy, and this makes for a large railroad junction and much activity. Thick woods in the surrounding countryside provide timber, a local industry. Villach is also a thermal resort, thanks to radioactive waters from natural springs.

Leaving Villach: The mountains that come after Villach are called the Villach Alps — modest ones, but pretty enough to attract tourists and campers in the summer. This is the Austrian province of Carinthia (Karnten in German), where many of the people are Slavic rather than Germanic. This province was almost incorporated into modern Yugoslavia after WW I.

Velden  At Velden, the Autobahn runs along the northern edge of the shoestring-shaped Worther See, fed by springs, and hence much warmer and less prone to flooding than most mountain lakes. This has drawn many tourists, most of them German.

(COURIER: You might give your Introduction to Austria at this point, if you haven't already done so.)

Klagenfurt  This is the capital of the Carinthia province, and its largest city. It was previously a mountain stronghold, guarding the pass through the mountains, but Napoleon tore down the city walls in 1809. Leather and wood industries are prominent.

Maria-Saal  This little town is of great historical importance. It was once the Roman city of Virunum, capital of the province of Norica. Many scattered Roman remains are strewn over fields outside the city. In the 8th and 9th centuries, hordes of barbarians swept through these mountains. Gradually, the barbarians became converted to Christianity, and this was the place where the reconversion process started. The town today is famous for the pilgrimage church of Maria-Saal, after which the town is named. The church was built in the 15th century, and massively fortified for protection against Hungarian and Turkish hordes.

St. Veit an der Glan  This town used to be the main city of Carinthia, back in the 15th century when the Dukes of Carinthia had their seat there. The encircling mountains are full of castles, most of them sitting right on the summits. No less than 15 of them are within a six-mile radius of the town. (Sorry, you can't see them from the road.)

Friesach  This is the oldest town in Austria, in spite of its modest appearance. For years it was the southernmost extent of the territory of Salzburg, ruled over by the Archbishops of Salzburg. Hence, it was a military outpost, and that's why the city was so heavily fortified. Also, it is situated in an important gap in the mountains, and had to be defended against invaders from the south. Three castles still survive from this period. In 1217, the Dominicans established their first monastery in German-speaking Europe. The chivalrous Teutonic Knights, in the Middle Ages, established a colony in the town, as well as a church. Every year, a series of open-air plays takes place in the ruins of the Petersburg Castle: Shakespeare, Schiller, and Hauptmann are performed.

Crossing into Styria  You do this just after Friesach. The province of Styria (Steiermark in German) is known as the "green province" because of its miles of rich forest. Cattle raising, as well as timber, are age-old activities. Mining and metallurgy were added centuries ago, making Styria one of the oldest industrial areas in the whole of Europe. The provincial capital of Styria is the city of Graz.

Mur River Valley  You reach this valley a little after Neumarkt, and follow its winding course until Bruck. The mountain chain to your left is the Niederetauern, a tourist attraction for its dreamy valleys and tucked-away mountain villages.

Judenburg  A trading city, strategically located in the Mur river valley. A lovely Venetian-style campanile dominates the town, reflecting the local wealth and pride of the city back in the days of the Austrian Empire. Judenburg used to be an important stopping place on the road from Vienna to Trieste, the Adriatic port-city of the Austrian Empire. That gave it a cosmopolitan air strangely out of keeping with the austerity of the surrounding (still uninhabited) mountains.

Fohndorf  This village is on the other side of the Mur river (to your left), but evidence of its coal-mining activity is clearly visible: large slag heaps piled here and there.

Zeltweg  This town lies just beyond Fohndorf. It's the location of Austria's annual Grand Prix races.

Leoben  This city lies on the other side of the Mur river. We mentioned earlier that the province of Styria is one of Europe's oldest industrial centers, especially for mining and metallurgy. Leoben is the center of this activity, and a busy market town. It is situated near large deposits of iron ore, and its location in the valley makes it a transportation site for exporting the ore to other parts of Europe. A major school of mining is in Leoben. Napoleon's campaign against Austria came to an end at Leoben in April, 1797, when he entered the city with his army. He had swept through Italy, and defeated the Austrians in a previous battle. Vienna lay a few miles ahead. The Austrian Archduke Karl was beaten, and he knew it. The young Napoleon, only 28, was able to dictate the terms of a peace treaty. The Low Countries were to be surrendered by Austria to France, as well as Lombardy (northern Italy), and the territory of France was to be enlarged eastward all the way to the Rhine. The treaty was formally signed a while later, in Campo Formio. Leoben, in short, was the little corporal's first military-diplomatic triumph.

Bruck an der Mur  This charming town lies on the confluence of two river valleys: the Mur (which we have been following), and the Murz. The name of the town means, of course, "Bridge on the Mur (River)." The fortress which dominates the town is the Landskron.

Prosperity: Since Bruck lies at the junction of two major trade routes through the mountains, it has long enjoyed prosperity. Also, the mining activity in nearby Leoben helped Bruck along too. Today, iron ore refineries keep the city humming.

Civic pride: With wealth came civic pride. Guilds of ironmasters and ironmongers flourished in Bruck, dominating the city's politics and business. Bruck was, you might say, a union-run town, medieval-style. Wealthy families built palatial houses along the central square and the main streets: these 15th-16th century middle-class houses are a scenic feature of the town, with their arcades and courtyards.

Main Square (Hauptplatz): this is the most famous attraction of the town. In the square is the Eiserner Brunnen (Wrought Iron Well), its elegant well-head made in 1626 by a local artisan named Hans Prasser. This is the finest iron work in all of Styria. The canopy crowning the well-head is astonishingly elaborate for an outdoor structure. Don't fail to note the Kornmesserhaus, which stands on the northeast corner of the square. It is the best example of an old "burgher" house in Bruck, having been built by Pankras Kornmess in the 15th century. The arcades of the facade are in Flamboyant Gothic style, though early traces of the Italian Renaissance are visible on the first-floor balcony (loggia). This house illustrates to a T the wealth acquired by the solid merchants of Bruck back in the 16th century.

Murz River Valley  We are driving along this valley now, with mountains closing in all around. Unfortunately, the landscape is marred by industrial works, especially iron and steel plants. But this is the price paid for a high standard of living in Austria.

Kapfenberg  You'd hardly guess it to look at it, but this is Austria's second most important industrial center (after Linz).

Semmering Pass  These limestone masses are known as the Schneeberg Massif. The mountains start getting really steep after Murzzuschlag. The Semmering Pass is one of the most spectacular ascents.

(COURIER: The top of the pass is a good place to take a rest stop, if you haven't had one yet, then definitely stop.) Part of the way up the pass is through a modern tunnel. Once on the other side of the tunnel, look for the railroad tracks. This is Europe's oldest railroad route over a tall mountain pass, which was forged through the mountains in 1867, 20 years before the St. Gotthard Tunnel. At the time, it was considered an engineering miracle. The pass was important, since it lay on the route from Vienna to Trieste.

At the top of the Semmering Pass, we cross from the province of Styria into Lower Austria. This is the historic cradle of Austria, where the Habsburg monarchs built an empire that lasted for 700 years. Outside of Vienna itself, Lower Austria is the most heavily populated of Austria's provinces (1.3 million). The richest farms and orchards in Austria dot the countryside.

Neunkirchen  We're out of the mountains and entering the broad Pannonian Plain, which extends through most of Hungary. The town of Neunkirchen is named for the nine little churches that once formed the heart of the settlement.

Wiener-Neustadt  "New Vienna" is in fact a very old town. It was founded in 1192 by Duke Leopold of Babenberg as a frontier fortress against the Hungarian hordes. The Habsburg emperor, Friedrich III, made it his imperial residence in the 15th century. Friedrich III's son was Maximilian, one of Austria's most popular emperors, affectionately called "Emperor Max". Max was born in Wiener-Neustadt and is buried there. He died in the town of Wels, while on a trip from Innsbruck to Vienna, but his remains were brought here to his birthplace. From the highway, you can see a few spires of the town — not much else — but that's enough to suggest the richness of history which is packed into it.

Today, Austria's "West Point", the military academy, is located in Wiener-Neustadt.

(COURIER: You'll skirt the Vienna Woods on your way into Vienna, and you might say something general about it — not stealing your thunder for the Vienna Woods excursion. Perhaps concentrate on general geographical facts. After this, begin your Introduction to Vienna.)

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