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Leaving the Autobahn Society for a Look at Linz

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Some cities, to their misfortune, are too near to other, better-known locales to really come into their own as tourist destinations.

One such city is Linz, which next year will celebrate its 500th anniversary as the capital of Upper Austria.

Few American travelers bother to exit the Autobahn to look at Linz as they dash from Salzburg to Vienna. Perhaps they are put off by the smoke-belching ironworks on the outskirts of Austria’s third-largest city.

But a recent two-day stopover convinced us that if Linz were a five-hour drive from Salzburg, rather than merely two, it would become a “must-see” stop and not be as easily overlooked.

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To get here we chose the train from Zurich, a day’s trip affording vistas of cobalt-blue lakes, pristine chalets with flowers abloom in window boxes, a bucolic countryside with grazing goats and long, long tunnels through the Austrian Tirol.

Linz’s old quarter, on the south bank of the Danube, is exquisitely preserved, with cobbled streets and colorful and ornate patrician houses that have been converted to weinstuben (wine bars) and shops. One, incongruously, is now a Chinese restaurant.

In the old town we found Ronzl, where the decor--pink tablecloths, pine sideboards--is country French but the cuisine is Austrian. The Wiener schnitzel was superb, and the house specialty, a cream soup of apple cider and cheese, was memorable.

At the suggestion of a local we dined in the newer section of the city at Hofwirt, a favorite of residents. It was noisy, fun and inexpensive, and the roast pork, dumplings and cabbage were served in enormous portions and washed down with hard cider.

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Linz is for walking. The main square, with its Trinity Column, is one of the largest and finest in Europe.

Close by are several inviting hostelries, including the Drei Mohren (Three Moors) facing the square. It has been in the same family for 300 years, and its genial proprietor, Rudi Loidl, speaks excellent English. (He’ll tell you that Mozart slept there, as well as Michael Jackson, whose concert filled the stadium.)

At Loidl’s insistence we visited the abbeys of Wilhering and St. Florian, reminding ourselves en route that baroque and rococo are palatable only in small doses.

Wilhering quickly disabused us of that notion. This magnificent abbey, a scenic five-mile drive west from Linz along the river, has been in the custody of the small Cistercian order--an offshoot of the Benedictines--for 800 years.

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With luck you may be shown around by Father Dominic, whose English is fluent (he spent a year at the University of Notre Dame) and whose enthusiasm for his abbey is contagious. Wilhering’s church, restored in the 1970s and favored by residents for weddings, is a rococo gem of gilt and trompe l’oeil , a riot of pastels.

Father Dominic explained that the ceiling is painted blue, with clouds, to “give people an idea of heaven.” Adding to that illusion are no fewer than 800 cherub figures.

Linz’s other splendid abbey, St. Florian, is a 15-minute journey by autobahn from the city center. It dates from the late 8th Century, although it has undergone multiple remodelings.

In St. Florian’s stately marble hall in 1955, documents were signed ensuring Austria’s independence. From the end of World War II in 1945, the area south of the Danube had been occupied by American troops and that on the north by the Soviets. Still visible on the floor of the hall is the outline for an indoor tennis court improvised by GIs billeted there.

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The emperors’ rooms, a wing of 16 connecting chambers exquisitely furnished in antiques, were built in the belief that Austrian emperors would be frequent guests. But only Maria Theresa stayed there, and only once. Other overnight guests have included Pope Pius VI, in 1782, and composer Franz Schubert.

Composer Anton Bruckner, the city’s most celebrated son, once was a choirboy in St. Florian’s imposing Gothic-baroque church, later its organist, and composed on its 7,343-pipe organ. He is buried, as he wished, below the great organ.

We sat enthralled, an audience of three, as a resident monk played a Bruckner composition on that organ while the charwomen moved among the pews with their mops.

Linz is mad for music. Visitors are reminded that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived here for a time, that Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Eighth Symphony here.

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They are told that Leonard Bernstein and the late Herbert von Karajan both conducted in the concert hall, inside the steel and glass Brucknerhaus convention center overlooking the Danube. Each September an open-air Bruckner Festival commemorates the composer, who died in 1896.

A miniature railway whisks visitors up to Postlingberg, which has a lovely pilgrimage church and affords a panoramic city view. There are several Gasthof e for either a meal or a slice of Linzer torte, the city’s famous culinary treat, and coffee.

Other points of interest in Linz are the little Martinskirche (circa 800), the oldest church in continuous use in Austria, and the ruins of the 15th-Century Hapsburg Castle. Pleasure steamers plying the Danube afford another perspective of Linz.

Along the highways leading to and from the city, signposts beckon travelers to the hinterlands. The Innviertel and Muehlviertel of Upper Austria, and the lake country of the Salzkammergut, are easy daytrips. And, unlike Salzburg, Linz is not wall-to-wall tourists.

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Hitler’s early association with Linz (he attended high school here starting in 1900) is one fact that present-day burghers would like to forget. But the omnipresent ironworks, at one time one of Herman Goering’s munitions factories, is an unfortunate reminder.

But the factory is a minor flaw on the face of a city that, despite its population of 200,000, retains much of its country-market-town charm.

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Some accommodations in Linz:

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Drei Mohren, Promenade 17. Double rooms with bath and breakfast, $48 to $94 a night.

Spitz-Hotel, Karl-Fiedler Strasse 6. Doubles with bath, breakfast, $88-$96.

Hotel Schillerpark, Rainerstrasse 2-4. Doubles with bath, breakfast, $116.

For more information, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 11601 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2480, Los Angeles 90025, (213) 477-3332.

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