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All eyes are on the river where kayaks bounce, bob and capsize in the choppy waters. Watching the kayakers take on the raging rapids is fascinating entertainment.

Graz, known as Austria’s second city, constructed the rapids in the Mur River, which bisects the city, to make the river more a part of city life. It is just one example of the innovative spirit that characterizes this city pulsating with life and fun.

Locals who gather to watch the daredevils call the run through the rapids the Terminator Race. They’re proud of their almost-native son Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born near Graz.

Just upriver is a wonderfully bizarre floating island-bridge, an avant-garde, shell-shaped structure of steel and glass that houses a restaurant, playground and amphitheater. Its wavy décor is designed to bring the feeling of water indoors.

The island is part of the projects involved in Graz 2003. The city was selected as the European Union’s Cultural Capital for this year, and through November there will be numerous exhibitions and events held in conjunction with the honor.

In addition to the island, other far-out structures were built. Mary’s Column, a statue of the virgin atop a tall pillar, stands in one of the city’s squares. A glass elevator rising to the same height as the statue was erected next to the column so visitors could ride to the top and enjoy the same views of the city that Mary has.

Also, the city’s famous clock tower was given a shadow — a duplicate clock tower in black built next to it.

“It’s just like Graz has woken up this year,” notes city guide Josefa Robier. “There are so many new things and people really like them. Usually people from Graz favor the old.”

And indeed, in addition to the fun and funky new, Graz is featuring treasures of the old. In 1999, UNESCO declared the city a world heritage site. The narrow, twisting streets of its Old Town lead past fine examples of Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and jugendstihl architecture.

Located in southern Austria on the sunny side of the Alps, Graz is closer to Slovenia (25 miles) and Hungary (37 miles) than to Vienna, which is about 125 miles or a two-hour drive or train ride away.

“The Iron Curtain was right before us,” said Robier, meaning the border to the south was closed. All that has changed and now the city is at the heart of a central European region that is growing together.

Graz, the capital of the province of Styria, has a population of 240,000 including 40,000 students who study at one of its three universities. The jazz department at its music university is considered Europe’s best.

The town is also noted as a center for the manufacture of car parts. DaimlerChrysler has a Graz plant where both the Chrysler Voyager and the Jeep Cherokee are manufactured.

I began a recent visit with a city tour. We walked through a cave-like tunnel to an elevator that took us to the top of the Schlossberg, a 1,500-foot hill overlooking the city’s rusty red rooftops. Graz was bombed 52 times during World War II, Robier said, and toward the end of the war the city constructed a bomb shelter, six miles of tunnels under the hill, where 50,000 people escaped to safety. Several years ago the tunnels were opened. One tunnel is used as an exhibition hall, while another holds a small train that runs past fairy-tale scenes.

Steps, some 260 that make up the Soldiers’ Staircase built by Russian and Austrian pioneers in 1916, also climb to the top of the Schlossberg. The hilltop was the site of the original Graz castle, built 1,000 years ago by the Slavs who called it gradec, meaning little castle. Hence the origin of the name Graz.

The castle was expanded in the 16th century as the main fortress against invading Turks. “Our castle was much bigger than Salzburg’s,” my guide proudly pointed out. Napoleon tried, without success, to conquer the huge castle. Finally in 1809, after winning the war with Austria, he had it blown up. A park was created around the castle ruins in the middle of the 19th century.

The city landmark — a clock tower dating to the 14th century, which was not destroyed by Napoleon — dominates the castle hill. Its clock face has a diameter of about 18 feet and is claimed to be the largest clock tower face in the world. The clock also has the unusual distinction of having its large hand point to the hours, while the small hand points to the minutes. This was done so those far away could look to the clock and at least see the hour.

The Schlossberg park, with wonderful views of the city and the hills surrounding Graz on three sides, is a delight. Gaslights cast a romantic glow through its paths at night. “Many young people in love go up to the castle in the spring,” says Robier.

We took the elevator down from the park to a mid-station and walked along a narrow street into the heart of the Old Town. The bombing during the war was confined primarily to the industrial parts of Graz outside the city center, so its architectural jewels were unharmed.

Graz was a city of aristocratic palaces, many with Renaissance courtyards. I followed Robier off the streets through numerous openings that lead behind the houses to surprising spaces of calm and architectural beauty. Especially impressive was the arcaded courtyard of the old Jesuit university from the 16th century, when the Jesuits arrived in Graz to lead the Counter-Reformation.

From the end of the 13th century, Graz was ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty. Tucked away in the courtyard of the Burg, a castle used by Hapsburg Emperor Frederick III, is a Gothic double winding staircase. Much of the castle was torn down, but this unique feature remains.

Nearby are the city’s cathedral and mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II, the unmerciful ruler who forced his Protestant subjects to convert to Catholicism. The mausoleum was closed for renovation during my visit, but the glorious late-Gothic cathedral was open. It was built on the orders of Emperor Frederick III in the 15th century and is filled with art treasures including two Renaissance chests with intricate carvings in ivory.

As we continued our tour, Robier said that many people say Graz looks like an Italian town. It’s no wonder, she explained, as all of the architects who worked in the city in the 16th and 17th century were Italian, as were the craftsmen who carried out their plans.

The best example of this Italian influence is the 16th century Landhaus, which, with its arcaded courtyards, columns and round arch windows, is a masterpiece of Italianate Renaissance architecture.

We walked on to Graz’s Bermuda Triangle.

“We know why people disappear here,” Robier said of the town’s Mehlplatz, Färberplatz and Glockenspielplatz, a hub for bars and restaurants. In warm weather, the outdoor tables are packed since this is the place to be.

Find a seat at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. or 6 p.m. and watch the Glockenspiel. Under the clock in the tower of the building at the corner house on Abraham-a-Santa-Clara-Gasse, window shutters open and carved wooden figures in traditional dress twirl to the jovial sounds of the Glockenspiel.

One of the most amazing sights in Graz is the Zeughaus, the provincial arsenal and a former ordnance depot that now houses the largest collection of historical weapons in the world — some 32,000, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries. The armory, built in 1633-34, was set up as a permanent depot to counter Turkish attacks.

The collection is mind-boggling: four floors with breastplates and other parts of armor mounted on the dark wooden walls. In the center under the beamed ceilings are rack after rack of old guns. Even those not interested in weapons are impressed. Views from the upper-floor windows of the Landhaus courtyard next door are superb.

A soon-to-be completed building, the Kunsthaus or modern art museum, may do for Graz what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilboa, Spain. It’s a whimsical structure, a giant bubble floating atop a glazed ground floor that has been dubbed “the friendly alien.” With its skylight nozzles protruding from the roof, it does resemble something from another planet.

Peter Cook, one of the London architects who designed the museum, said it’s a building “that gives amusement and joy … it’s like the household pet of Graz.” The museum, which is scheduled to open in September, can be toured by appointment.

On my last night, I had dinner at Zur Goldenen Pastete, one of Graz’s oldest restaurants. Missy and Bill Levit from Milwaukee sat next to me. They found Graz “charming … quiet, not touristy… very pleasant, extraordinarily clean and pedestrian-friendly.”

It’s all of those, plus beautiful. On the way back to my hotel I passed the steps to the Schlossberg that were illuminated with bright orange lights for a dramatic effect. The clock tower on the hilltop glowed in a soft pastel light. Church towers shined golden. The island in the river shimmered in shades of iridescent blue. Graz is a secret full of surprises.

— Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, is a journalist living Stuttgart, Germany.

If you go

• Many hotels in Graz offer special weekend packages for Graz 2003. I stayed at the four-star Hotel Weitzer in an ideal location on the river within walking distance of all the sights. Two nights, double room, including ample buffet breakfast, is 109 euros per person. Regular price for a double room is 160 euros per night. Hotel Weitzer, Grieskai 12-16, telephone (+43) (0) 3167030, Web site www.weitzer.com.

• Graz Tourismus Information can provide information on other hotels, as well as a wealth of brochures on the city and its attractions. Guided tours of the town in English can be arranged through the office. Bus excursions to nearby attractions such as Schloss Eggenberg, the Piper stud farm and the wine area can also be booked through the tourist office. Contact the office at: Herrengasse 16, call (+43) (0) 31680750, or go to www.graztourismus.at.

• Guided tours of the Kunsthaus (modern art museum), including a film on the structure which is nearing completion and will open in September, can be booked by calling (+43) (0) 316720910, www.kunsthaus.at.

— Leah Larkin

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