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The medieval City of Friesach

Do you have a weakness for the Middle Ages? If so, I recommend a visit to Friesach. The small town in the North of Carinthia with a current population of approximately 5,000 inhabitants was once, in the 13th century, a place of economic, residential and religious importance. The castle ruins, the well preserved historic city fortifications plus numerous Gothic churches bear witness to the former greatness of Friesach. My tip: combine the trip to Friesach with a visit of the cathedral of Gurk

Friesach is one of Carinthia's oldest cities. It owes its wealth to the nearby mining places for iron and precious metals, to the privilege of coinage ("Friesacher Pfennig") and its geographically favorable location on an old trade route between the Adriatics and Vienna. Furthermore, the archbishops of Salzburg, to whose archdiocese the town belonged, patronised the expansion of Friesach to become a residential and administrative centre which also attracted various religious orders to settle in Friesach. In the first half of the 13th century, during Friesach's heyday, this surely was a place of supra-regional significance.


In the long run, however, the town suffered from being a playball between the Archbishops of Salzburg, their Gurk suffragan bishops and the Dukes of Carinthia - first the House of Babenberg, followed by the House of Habspurg, and with the Habspurgs imperial interests came into play as well. At the end of the 13th century Friesach was taken over, raided and vandalized three times. The town never really recovered and, towards the late 16th century, fell into a long Sleeping Beauty slumber. This is why there is more historical substance preserved in Friesach than in other Carinthian or Austrian towns.


Elevated over the town, on top of mount Petersberg, the Salzburg Archbishops built during the 12th and 13th century monumental, palace-like buildings - Petersberg Castle – of which the larger parts now remain in ruins. Most tourist attractions are restricted to the summer months, when the castle museum is open and when, in the so-called 'Burgbau,' traditional handicraft is shown that was once needed to build a castle. Also, this is the season for the Friesach open air theatre which stages productions within this imposing scenery.


The panoramic view from mount Petersberg opens to further nearby ancient weir systems and castles. There is a good view to the city, of course, with the city fortification from the 13th century, consisting of an 820m long and 11m high city wall and a moat, through which water from the river Metnitz flows. The ancient city gates and 11 out of its 14 defensive towers were demolished in the course of the 19th and 20th century.


Two churches stand out in particular: one is located within the city wall, the parish church Saint Bartholomew, the town's largest house of worship - a mighty structure which, since its erection around the year 1200, underwent multiple significant changes. The coloured glass windows in the apse should be worth your special interest: the windows on the north side originally embellished the town's Dominican Church; they date back to 1270-1280, whereas some of the windows on the south of the apse were created around 1330.


The second outstanding church building belongs to the Dominican monastery which is situated just outside the city fortification. It is easily recognizable as the church of a medieval reformed order, thanks to its unadorned facade and the ridge turret. The three-naved church in the austere design of the early Gothic style was built around 1250 and, with a length of 74m, it is Carinthia's longest church building. Among its greatest art treasures are two sculptures of the early Gothic style (Friesacher Madonna, Fork crucifix, both around 1300) and the late Gothic Saint John altar (around 1510), attributed to master Caspar von Friesach.

 

The marble Renaissance fountain at the town's main square with the magnificent town houses, might be the work of an unknown Italian artist. It was commissioned for Tanzenberg Castle in 1563 and transferred to Friesach in 1802. Its reliefs depict scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses.


It's good to know:

Website of the Friesach tourist office:

www.friesach.at 

Text: Birgit Stegbauer

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