Gurk: The Spiritual Centre of Carinthia
The small town (or rather village, with some 1,200 residents) of Gurk is situated in the scenic Gurk River Valley and surrounded by hills with meadows and woods - over-all resembling the "Sound of Music" image that many international visitors associate with Austria. Nearby is the community Straßburg with a castle in which the Prince Bishops of Gurk lived and from where they ruled.
The name "Gurk" misleadingly resembles the German word for cucumber ("Gurke"). However, it is actually derived from the term "gurgle", which refers to the sounds of the river Gurk. The area was first populated around 2,000 years ago, but only when Carinthia became part of Bavaria in the early Middle Ages, the settlement of Gurk gained significance.
The earliest written record of Gurk dates back to 831; religiously, the region was under tight control of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Archbishop′s court in Gurk was first mentioned in 864. In 898, Emperor Arnulf gave the Gurk Valley to the Count Zwentibold - who was an ancestor of the local saint Hemma of Gurk.
Gurk: Cathedral with no Bishop
In 975, Emperor Otto II sanctioned the opening of a nunnery. With a new endowed, the nunnery was reformed by Hemma, the local countess and landlady, in 1043. In 1072, the nunnery was dissolved and its possessions became the home to a newly founded diocese, which was under control of the Archbishop of Salzburg. As a "filial diocese", the Bishops of Gurk were constant rivals to their "lords" in Salzburg until 1787, when the bishop moved to Klagenfurt - where he still resides. More information on the nunnery is available at my article on the monasteries of Carinthia.
In terms of sightseeing, the Parish Church formerly known as Cathedral of Gurk attracts most of the tourists′ attention. The original cathedral was built in the 12th century and ranks among the most important Romanesque buildings in Austria. This ancient core is best viewed in the crypt, which is famous for its 100 pillars. Later additions include Gothic vaults and frescos, Renaissance frescoes, and Baroque interiors such as altars. One particularly important attraction is the "Gurker Fastentuch", a painted cloth from 1458.
The village of Gurk itself is also pleasant and has one or another spots worth being explored. The best thing is probably to just take a walk or have a drink in a local Gasthaus. Attractions nearby include the medieval town of Friesach. A bit further off Gurk, you will find St Veit an der Glan, the mighty fortress of Hochosterwitz, and the mining town of Hüttenberg. Going even further, you can get to Carinthia′s capital Klagenfurt by Lake Wörthersee; or Ossiach by Lake Ossiachersee.