I was fortunate enough this past month to travel to Germany and Austria. It was an incredible experience with some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever laid eyes upon. Castles (Schlosses), cathedrals, snitzel, bier, museums, Sound of Music tour, and countless other experiences made it an amazing trip, but there was one part of the trip that stood out in my mind. Out of everything I saw and did there is one attraction that I tell all my friends about, and they shake their heads in envy. This journey did not take us to an important battlefield or beautiful landmark, we did many of those tourist things, but instead it took us to a small village outside of Graz named Thal to a decent sized country home. Not just any house, but the childhood home of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The journey began like many other days on our trip did with us, my girlfriend and I, sitting in our Salzburg hotel room plotting our route across Austria. I had been quite pleased with our vacation so far having seen and done a great bit around Munich. As she scrolled through her phone an idea struck my girlfriend that changed this trip into a pilgrimage for me. You see originally we had planned on making a beeline across Austria to Vienna not wanting to ‘waste’ our precious time delaying our journey to Vienna. As we scoured the Internet for the best activities, she came across an article about a guy’s trip to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood home, now museum to the bodybuilding/acting/politic dabbling/action movie superstar.
At first I was a little jealous, why hadn’t I thought of such an awesome idea? Visiting the childhood home of one of my heroes sounded fantastic. Then she added the icing on the cake, his original gym, where he first started weight training, was only 12 miles from his house, another easy stop. It seemed that the stars were aligning for me. I was sold. Then she said that there was a problem, it was a two-hour detour on our three hour trip from Salzburg to Vienna, cities on either end of Austria. As we weighed our options, I realized that this was something I had to do. Arnold was an idol to me and influenced me to get into the gym, something that has stuck with me to this day, but it’s more than that. Arnold has always been a person who has set the bar so high for himself and come through on top. Aside from his various scandals, he has proven himself to be at the very least a role model for success in his multitude of careers.
The next day we followed the signs to Graz flying down the autobahn, but avoiding the far left lane, much better left to the locals going 120 mph+. We drove to the small village of Thal, in the mountains west of Graz. We traversed the back roads and with only a few turnarounds, due to a spotty GPS, we arrived at a beautiful cream colored home with a small parking lot out front. I looked around expecting lines of Arnold fans waiting to get in, well at least a few other cars, but we were the only car in the lot. This better be open, I thought, or we wasted the better part of the day and our trip on a fool’s errand. We got out of the car and situated in front of this nice Austrian country home was a giant bronzed statue of the Austrian Oak himself doing his most massive full flex back pose. I exclaimed excitedly, “This must be it.”
I raced toward the house like a kid on Christmas morning bounding toward the presents under the tree. Empty parking lot. Closed doors. Could this gem in the mountains be closed? Could today be some obscure Austrian holiday causing the museum to be closed when my pilgrimage was so close to being complete?
After taking a few photos with the statue trying my best to imitate the full-flex, and sadly falling way short, I placed my hand on the door and pushed. Without a Herculean effort the door swung inwards, and we stepped inside. It looked a lot like any other home, but I could feel the source of awesomeness ebbing forth from it. A friendly lady at a welcome desk waved us inside. “You guys aren’t closing are you,” I said tentatively fearing the wrong response. “No, come on in,” she replied. Whew. She explained the tour, we paid, and she pointed us toward the first room inside this home turned museum.
The first room was dedicated to Schwarzenegger’s childhood and life as a young man in Austria. It had childhood toys, his bed and memorabilia from his time as a tank operator in the Austrian military. After another round of photos, we stepped into his governor’s room. It had Arnie’s gubernatorial desk and another chance for a photo op with a Governor Arnold manikin. Up some stairs we found a room dedicated to the movie star’s long film career. The room held posters from films, Terminator manikins, his suit from Batman and Robin (albeit not one of the better Batman films), and my favorite the Conan the Barbarian sword. The next room was dedicated to this bodybuilding career housing weights, trophies, a bodybuilding Arnold manikin (pictures took place again), and a bench press. I was really hoping to squeeze out a few reps, but a ‘Please Do Not Touch’ sign blocked my path of lifting where Arnold lifted, don’t worry this was rectified later when we went to his childhood gym. We finished our tour by viewing the Schwarzenegger family’s original toilet.
All in all, it was a small museum, but filled with enough goodies to please any true Arnold fan. We went back to the check in area where we decided to purchase a wide array of souvenirs, as well as a beer. We stepped outside to the Schwarzenegger’s back patio which combined with some nice fall weather was wonderfully relaxing. But our Journey of Iron did not end here. The woman that worked at the museum was nice enough to give us the address of Arnold’s first gym located 12 miles away in Graz.
So we piled back into our car, and we followed patchy GPS commands toward the center of Graz. There we pulled up to an old industrial looking building with a sign on it that read Sport Union. We weren’t exactly sure, but it seemed to be some sort of community gym. We parked the car in a dirt parking spot on the side of the road. We probably needed a pass, but somehow I got the feeling that nobody would care.
After the 20 minute car ride, we were in impressed by the fact that young Arnold would walk/ride his bike to this gym. A symbol of true commitment to their craft and an eye opener for anybody who is daunted by the fact they must drive 2 miles to the gym.
We started looking for the entrance. There were no signs where we had parked so we boldly walked around the back of the building. A soccer (football) field lined the back of the building, along with some picnic tables where a couple of men sat drinking beers spoke to the casualness of the entire area. Unheard of in America, but we weren’t in America.
We walked through some doublewide doors and down a bunch of steps. It was dark, and reminded me of my old high school gym. Down a few more steps and the walls were covered top to bottom with bodybuilding photos, photos of Arnold with the owner Kurt Marnul, and other famous weightlifters from the area.
Kurt Marnul was Arnold’s mentor when he first started bodybuilding and weight training. Unfortunately, Marnul wasn’t there because I am sure he would have given one hell of a tour. In fact, as we walked into the gym there was only one patron. He didn’t bother to give us a second look and continued his workout. Aside from the lone unenthusiastic gym goer, I could feel the power of this place. I knew in my gut that Arnold trained here and trained hard. I looked at all this old equipment, the polar opposite of the large gyms in the United States, and I had a better understanding of Arnold’s ambition.
You see it was a different time then. Bodybuilding was still in its infancy. It hadn’t become this mainstream phenomenon it is today. Back then, people weren’t shelling out thousands of dollars a year on gyms, trainers, and supplements. It was growing. It was a small sub-culture. As its followers grew bigger and stronger so did the sport. Then again, most things start small, sometimes in someone’s dank basement or in Arnold’s case, Marnul’s dark gym. I knew one thing immediately from stepping into this gym, and that was it took dedication and true love of the sport to come here everyday.
The old equipment and even older rusted dumbbells, placed the gym in time, and it made me long for a gym where I could go to that was bare to the bones. One that was simple and raw. A gym that was made for people that were serious about lifting and training. I imagined that this was what Marnul’s gym was at some point. Filled with a few dedicated sportsmen regarded warily by people on the outside. People that could not understand their dedication or why they did it. I think about my current gym with all its patrons standing around, sitting on benches, chatting it up while all the weights lie in a position of rest, while this old gym, birthplace of Arnold’s spirit lies barren of sportsmen. Fancy equipment, state of the art machines, and expensive memberships didn’t give Arnold the edge. They really don’t give anybody anything. Hard work, consistency, perseverance and drive are what builds people up. Or in Arnold’s own words. “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
I walked through the machines and weights picking up a few and gently laying them back down, in awe that at some point one of my heroes started out here. I hopped on the dip machine and ripped out a few reps for my poor girlfriend holding the camera. I am sure that she would have much preferred visiting a winery or walking the streets of beautiful Vienna or stopping in a coffee shop frequented by writers and musicians, but instead she stood in a dingy basement gym in Graz watching me revel in my weight infused glory. She understood what this meant to me, but I don’t think anyone truly understands the impact of Arnold on American pop culture especially for men my age. Either way I was grateful to have the experience. To me it was a once in a lifetime experience, one that will never be forgotten because sometimes you never can really understand someone’s journey until you’ve seen where they’ve come from.
If you find yourself in Austria and want to visit Arnold’s home, check out their webpage at: http://www.arnieslife.com/inhalt/en/welcome.html
It was incredibly hard to find the address to the gym. Almost every website link just says ‘he trained in a local gym in Graz.’ Not very helpful. However, after a good amount of research and talking to the staff at the museum you can find his first gym and hopefully Kurt Marnul here: Athletik Union Graz, Hüttenbrennergasse 31a, 8010 Graz, Austria
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Photo Credits: The author reserves all rights to photographs except Conan the Barbarian Sword photo found on theheadbangingmoose.wordpress.com.