Linz: Unloved but lovely and not your average fairytale

We are on a coach wending our way through the suburbs of Linz, the third biggest city in Austria, when our guide reveals that most Austrians think it isn't worth a visit. Too industrial, it seems. But then adds that he believes it is "a Sleeping Beauty, finally kissed awake".

It's a nice fairytale twist in this country of magical castles and romantic abbeys: Linz, more Grimm than grim?

Perched across the Danube about halfway between Salzburg and Vienna, this city of 202,000 people is one of the major stopping points for river cruises on this most famous of waterways – and one of the places where the ships can moor right in the centre of town.

The Cruise Critic website says the city is "more of a place of work than a place to visit" but that it "can provide relief for anyone suffering from 'quaint European village fatigue syndrome'."

This is doing Linz a disservice, if you ask me. Sure, it's not as chocolate-boxy as some places but it's an ancient city that was founded by the Romans and was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire. Its history includes Mozart, Hitler and the Pez candy dispenser company, which has its HQ just outside town (Pez, by the way, was invented in Vienna in 1927 and the name comes from the German word for peppermint: PfeffErminZ. Who knew?)

But as much as it has one foot in the past, the other foot is placed firmly in the future thanks to the existence of four universities and the energy and vibrancy that comes from keeping thousands of students entertained.

Johannes Kepler (he of the three laws of planetary motion) spent several years here teaching mathematics, Mozart wrote his Linz Symphony here in 1783 and, in 1938, Hitler, who always thought of Linz as his hometown, announced the annexation of Austria (the so-called Anschluss) from a town hall balcony in the main square. The balcony is still there today above the entrance to the town hall.

The main square (or Hauptplatz) is a partly pedestrianised rectangle edged with beautiful baroque buildings, busy bars and alfresco restaurants. In the middle is an ornate fountain from which rises the gold-topped Pestsaule, a column built to remember those who died in the various plagues that have beset the city.

Some of the city's popular (and cheap) trams run through the square and on warm days the steps and seats around the fountain are littered with students chatting, eating cheap lunches and canoodling.

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We take the time to tackle the steep stairs up to the schloss (castle) on the hill above the town. Not so much for the castle itself which was severely damaged by fire in 1800 and not rebuilt until a few years ago when a thoroughly modern museum annex was bolted on, but for the views from the terrace out across the city. (If you are lucky you will meet an American tourist who will ask you if you are in Germany.)

From here, the major churches and the main cathedral spread out in a panorama where traditional spires and terracotta roofs vie for attention with lovely Russian-style onion domes.

The tallest of these spires belongs to St Mary's Cathedral (Mariendom), a neo-Gothic pile just off the city centre which in 2009, when Linz was declared the European Capital of Culture, offered people the chance to live as a hermit for a week in a small room in the tallest tower.

The room – the tower chamber – was furnished with a bed, table and chair. The idea was that people could retreat from the noise of the modern world through silence and asceticism. It was so popular that the room – a facsimile of which can be found in the church below – is still booked up years in advance.

If you're of a worldlier bent you can come down to earth with a Linzer torte. This jam-filled pastry covered in slivered almonds is synonymous with the city and available pretty much everywhere. Our guide, we discover, is a bit of a torte tart and declares that a "true" Linzer torte improves with age and the filling should be redcurrant, not that Johnny-come-lately, the strawberry.

He also says it is the oldest cake in the world, with the original recipe dating to 1696. He might find himself in disagreement, though, with one Waltraud Faissner, author of the snappily titled book Wie mann die Linzer Dortten macht (How to make the Linzer torte), who says he's found an even older Veronese recipe from 1653.

Which would make the Linzer torte … Italian. Frankly, I'm not getting involved.

Across the river from the Hauptplatz, on the right side of the Nibelungenbrucke, is the arresting Ars Electronica Centre, which focuses on society, new media, technology and the future.

The building, which opened in 2009, is covered in a 5000-square-metre glass skin made up of 1100 glass panels, each equipped with an LED bar that allows it to change colour and turn the whole edifice into a giant display.

We round off the day with a bar crawl which begins not far from the ship at a riverside beach bar complete with deckchairs and sand. After which we head for the Stieglbrau Klosterhof, a charming beer garden hidden away in a back street just a 10-minute walk through and past the main square.

It is buzzing with locals and grim-faced but good-humoured waiters and we sit there happily, nursing cold glasses of Stiegl Weisse beer under the spreading branches of horse chestnut trees while some old church or other chimes the hour.

It's not a fairytale ending but I could live happily ever after here.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

linz.at/english/tourism.

GETTING THERE

British Airways, Qantas and most other major airlines fly direct to Europe from the main Australian cities.

THE CRUISE

Avalon Waterways operates river cruises throughout Europe, including on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Rhone and Seine rivers. Its nine-day Active Discovery itineraries between Budapest and Linz will operate between July and October 2017, priced from $5219 a person twin share. Phone 1300 230 234, see avalonwaterways.com.au

Keith Austin was a guest of Avalon Waterways.

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