A Town Steeped in History: A Day in Lienz
The Liebburg building on the main square in the centre of Lienz.
It is early in the morning when my mission begins – a journey to the other side of the Alps. My task is to write a profile of Lienz, the largest town in East Tirol. As I make my way from North Tirol to the remote region of East Tirol, I remember all the jokes we used to make at school about East Tirol and its people. We would laugh at their strange dialect. Tease the few children in our school from East Tirol about how they lived in the back of beyond, a million miles from civilisation. Did they even have electricity there, we would joke. The kind of things you find super funny when you are 16 years old.
After a rainy night in both North Tirol and East Tirol I cross from one to the other via the Tauern Tunnel. The clouds soon lift and the sun comes out. It seems that Lienz is keen to live up to its reputation as the sunniest town in Tirol. I have arranged to meet Evelin Gander at the local tourist office. She is a qualified city guide and normally accompanies groups of visitors on their odysee through the pretty medieval centre. Today she has agreed to give me an exclusive tour of what she considers to be the most beautiful places in her home town of Lienz.
Local artist Jos Pirkner's works can be found throughout Lienz.
The old city wall around Lienz.
My special best-of tour begins at a statue created by famous local artist Jos Pirkner. His works can be found throughout Lienz. "The hand pointing to the town centre has been worn away over the years. Guests, particularly those from Italy, think touching it as they go past brings good fortune," explains Evelin Gander. Just a few metres away is the main square, the Hauptplatz. It is there that we find the impressive Liebburg, a building dating from the 17th century. With its typically Tirolean onion-shaped towers it is one of the most popular photo spots in the town.
As well as the impressive architecture I also notice the unusual plants on the main square. Palm trees feature prominently – a sign that East Tirol is blessed with an unusually temperate climate.. Here on the southern side of the Alps it is warmer than to the north. Palm trees have grown here since the 1930s, as old photos of Lienz town centre show. Winters, on the other hand, can be just as cold as in North Tirol. The palm trees stay out from spring to autumn but are moved to greenhouses in October to protect them from the harsh conditions, expalains Evelin.
The main square in the centre of Lienz.
Lienz has a thriving arts and culture scene.
Relaxed vibe and craggy peaks
We encounter only few cars in the centre of Lienz – most of the oldtown is pedestrianised. That makes for a relaxed atmosphere with lots of outdoor cafés. "The town council is always looking for ways to make Lienz even more attractive and an even better place to live," says Evelin. They seem to be doing a pretty good job so far, I think to myself, as I admire the painted red, pink and blue houses lining the square.
"Historically, East Tirol has taken a different path to North Tirol. It was the Counts of Görz in particular who shaped much of modern Lienz. We have always has close contacts to Italy – that is something you can see in our architecture," says Evelin. Just as she say that we reach the Abraham-Haus, a modern building designed by internationally renowened architect Raimund Abraham which somehow both contrasts and complements the more traditional houses all around. It is a good example of how, despite their reputation, the East Tiroleans certainly are willing to try out new things and break with tradition.
The Abraham-Haus with the Lienz Dolomites in the background.
The cinema in the centre of Lienz.
As I raise my eyes to the skies I see the jagged, craggy peaks of the Lienz Dolomites. "The Spitzkofel is our local mountain. It is great for climbing. On the other side of the valley is the Hohe Tauern National Park, where the mountains are ideal for walking and hiking," explains Evelin. Before the invention of alpinism the peaks around Lienz were known to locals as "the monsters" – and for good reason. They were a mysterious world full of danger and forboding. It was actually British travel writers who came up with the name "Lienz Dolomites" when they arrived here after spending time South Tirol, today the Italian province of Alto Adige.
The people of Lienz are actively involved in the decision-making process when it comes to the development of the town.
Town guide Evelin Gander knows Lienz like the back of her hand.
Biiter schnapps and sweet treats in the Messinggasse
Friday and Saturday are market days in Lienz. Traders from neighbouring Italy present their delicious delicacies in the Messinggasse, a narrow cobbled road, flanked by organic farmers from the region selling fruit, vegetables, dried bacon and cheese. Here, too, the mood is relaxed. Some shoppers browse the market stalls, others enjoy a glass of wine in one of the nearby bars. Silvano Soravia offers award-winning natural ice cream in his ice cream parlour. "I come from Perugia and lived in Stuttgart for a long time. For me, Lienz is somewhere in between the two – a place with a southern flair and a northern love of order. It's a super mixture," Silvano says and laughs.
Lienz has lots of ice cream parlours, giving it a Mediterranean flair.
Friday and Saturday are market days in Lienz.
Just a stone's throw from the market is Rudolf Schwarzer's distillery – he is one of 400 registered schnapps-makers in East Tirol. The region's classic schnapps is called Pregler and is made using apples, pears and plums. But Pregler is in fact only one of around 70 schnapps varieties which Rudolf Schwarzer has in his cellar. Recently he has been experimenting with "bitters" – schnapps with a touch of vermouth or mountain herbs to give them a slightly bitter taste. "Our cellar doesn't have any real opening times," says Rudolf Schwarzer. "But if the shop I open then you are welcome to come in and taste some of our produce."
Rudolf Schwarzer has a huge selection of schnapps in his cellar.
Schwarzer is currently experimenting with aromatic "bitters".
Coffee and kayaking on the Isel river
All that walking has left us tired. We decide to take a break at the Mocafe, where locals say they serve the best coffee in Lienz thanks to the fact that the owners roast the coffee beans themselves. The café is just a short walk from the town centre, on the banks of the Isel river. However, it seems our luck is out – on the door we find a sign saying "Private event". We have to do without an espresso as we gaze out at the rushing water of the Isel. This river, which has its source in the Hohe Tauern National Park, flows here in Lienz into the Drau, a larger river which then continues its journey east to the province of Carinthia. Kayaking is one of Evelin's favourite hobbies and she can be often found out and about in the whitewater around Lienz. It's such a cool feeling paddling through the middle of town. There are a number of rafting schools in the area which also offer easy adventures for beginners," she explains. Talking of sport, Lienz is home to the famous Dolomitenmann. It is known as one of the toughest relay races in the world and comprises four disciplines: mountain running, paragliding, mountain biking and kayaking.
The Isel river flows into the larger Drau river in Lienz.
Mocafé serves excellent coffee from home-roasted beans.
Gingerbread in summer
We head back to the centre of town and for a stop at the City Café Glanzl. It is an institution in Lienz and one of three places where you can get an original "Lienzer Lebzelt". This deluxe gingerbread is made with honey, cranberries, haselnuts and spices. The recipe dates from the 17th century and there are 20 separate steps to be completed from start to finish. The final one is applying a layer of marzipan with the logo of nearby Schloss Bruck, a medieval fortress on the edge of town. We order two cappucinos and, of course, a couple slices of "Lebzelt" to go with them. The perfect sweet treat on an early summer's day like today.
Melitta Glanzl with a famous "Lienzer Lebzelt".
Gingerbread may be a winter classic, but Lienzer Lebzelt also tastes good in summer.
The remarkable Schloss Bruck
Schloss Bruck is, in fact, the next stop on our tour. This fortress is on the western edge of town and was once home to the Counts of Görz. No visit to Lienz would be complete without a trip to Schloss Bruck, Evelin tells me. Highlights include a beautifil chapel with frescoes dating from the 15th century as well as an excellent permanent exhibition on the world-famous painter Albin Egger-Lienz and fabulous views from the tower. In spring, summer and autumn the building also hosts events such as concerts and children's workshops. The in-house café is also popular, especially for breakfast and brunch.
The courtyard at Schloss Bruck is used for concerts in summer.
View from the tower at Schloss Bruck.
Anti-war statement: Albin Egger-Lienz-Kapelle
Another "must see" away from the oldtown is the parish church of St. Andrä. An early Christian church already stood on this site in the 5th century. The Gothic basilica that towers here today is about 500 years old and of great architectural importance. The church contains the tomb of Leonhard, the last Count of Gorizia. Only after his death did East Tirol become part of the Habsburg Empire and thus part of Tirol.
But the real highlight is the memorial chapel next door. Built in the early 1920s, it was been originally conceived as a celebration of the glory of war. Albin Egger-Lienz, however, erected a stark anti-war memorial with an emaciated Jesus Christ. This caused a huge scandal at the time that reached as far as the Vatican. If you want to see the chapel, where Egger-Lienz is buried, you have to ask for the key at the inn next to the church.
The Gothic St. Andrä basilica is one of only a few buildings of its kind in Tirol.
The Lienz Dolomites used to be known to locals as "the monsters".
Last but not least: Lienz Railway Museum
The crowning glory of a great day is a charming and gracious reception afforded to us at the railway museum, which is somewhat hidden away at Lienz railway station. A journey into the past, it has been put together with much love and technical know-how by the "Railway Friends of Lienz". The guided tour can be a little quirky, but it is informative and entertaining - even for railway novices like me. The museum does not have regualar opening hours, but the admission fee is very reasonable.
The railway museum is hidden away behind the railway station in Lienz.
The old heating room gives visitors fascinating insights into the history of the railway network in East Tirol.
"If we had more time I would show you the Tristachersee lake, the Zettersfeld mountain with its singletrack trails for mountin bikers or the historic Roman town of Aguntum," says Evelin. But that would be too much for an already full day of sightseeing. I say my goodbyes and head back to North Tirol. The peaks of the Hohe Tauern mountains are bathed in wonderful hues of red and pink, bidding me farewell as I leave their mighty realm. Next time I come back, I tell myself, I will definitely go to the Hohe Tauern National Park. My thoughts turn to all those silly jokes we would tell at school. Now, two decades later, I know how wrong we all were. East Tirol is truly the most beautiful part of Tirol.