Caravans and cutting edge

Patrick Barkham checks into a Linz garage and discovers the creative heart of this year's European culture capital.

On the surface, Linz is as tranquil as the waters of the Danube, the majestic river that slides through it. Baroque domes and belfries are surrounded by small stone squares. Trams, bakeries, galleries: everything is neat and tidy and calm. But as with many places that appear outwardly a little staid, this Austrian city is full of funny and occasionally sinister surprises.

None is quirkier than the reconditioned 1963 caravan occupying a derelict garage where I find myself after a stroll by the Danube. The caravan room is part of the Pixel Hotel, an unusual concept that has "rooms" - or "holidays in urban space" - dotted around the city. As part of Linz's year as the European Capital of Culture (shared with Vilnius in Lithuania), some of the city's underused urban spaces have been borrowed by the Pixel group and transformed into hip rooms.

"You are sent on a little journey and maybe you get a little feel behind the curtain, a feeling of being on the inside of a city," says Jurgen Haller, one of the architects who helped devise the scheme.

Each room is unique: one room is on a river tugboat, another is in a disused soup kitchen, while Pixel mit Garten is in the heart of the city's industrial area and comes with its own interior garden and free bicycles. Pixel in der Textilpassage is arranged over four levels in old stables. At the top is a tiny door, leading to Haller's favourite room, which is just 1.5 metres high.

Haller leads me down an alley to the low-ceilinged garage in which I will be sleeping. The caravan was bought on eBay and the air had to be let out of its tyres to squeeze it in. The bed occupies the large space outside the caravan. Behind the curtain that runs the length of the rear wall are 36 lights with which you can make your space as cosy or illuminated as you wish. The old lift has been cleverly converted into a walk-in wardrobe.

Haller has interesting tips on what to see: first, an exhibition on the history of magicians at the Nordico museum. This atmospheric little display of fakirs and snake charmers, diabolical monsters and "oriental mystery makers" (you'll get more from it if your German is better than mine) is as eccentric as Pixel Hotel.

Linz has a wealth of museums and galleries for a small city, which gets me wondering - what is our problem? On my journey, I received two text messages from friends. "Have fun in Austria. If that is indeed possible," says one. "Hope it goes well in Adolftown," says another. The stereotypical view is that Austria is crushingly dull and single-handedly responsible for Hitler. An exhibition in the Lentos, the unmissable modern art gallery on the Danube, reveals that even in Austria the city was once a byword for small-minded provincialism - in Austrian German, "Linz" rhymes with "provinz".

As a boy, Hitler moved to Linz and was charmed by the place, as was the renowned travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose epic walk across Europe took place in the growing shadow of Nazism. "Except for the fierce keep on the rock, the entire town was built for pleasure and splendour," Leigh Fermor wrote of Linz. "Beauty, space and amenity lay all about."

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In its culture-capital year, Linz Castle houses an exhibition that examines Hitler's plans to turn the rapidly industrialising city into one of five "Fuhrer cities" of the Third Reich. Opinion is divided on whether this tackles Nazism's cultural ambitions or is a whitewash; I didn't get the impression that Linz was in denial about its past. These days, it is a socialist city.

There is certainly an outpouring of off-the-wall creativity this year. One project has a different volunteer living as a hermit at the top of a church tower each week; another has turned a city cinema into "Ruhepol", a place of silence. You take off your shoes, sit on bean bags in the half-light and contemplate nothing - a rather wonderful secular temple.

The Lentos has an exhibition of leading works from all of Austria's galleries, a greatest-hits compilation that has Egon Schiele rubbing shoulders with video installations.

On the opposite riverbank is the Ars Electronica Centre, a digital arts museum with interactive exhibits and displays of kinetic art - feats of engineering as well as imagination - by Arthur Ganson, an American kinetic sculptor.

Diverted by the charms of Linz's traditional bakeries and restaurants selling fish from the mighty Danube (although not, sadly, the infamous giant catfish that lurks in its waters and is reputed to have swallowed poodles and even babies), I didn't have time to visit the dentistry museum, another alluringly weird rupture in the calm fabric of this oddly creative city.

Lufthansa flies to Linz for $1688, via a partner airline to Asia then Lufthansa with an aircraft change in Frankfurt. For $1738 Austrian Airlines flies via a partner airline to Asia then Austrian with an aircraft change in Vienna. It's possible to fly into Linz and out of another city for the same fare. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney excluding tax.) For more information, see linz09.at and pixelhotel.at.

- Guardian News and Media

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