The peoples of Vienna have been publicly swimming for two thousand years. This may come as a small surprise given that Vienna has been, for most of that time, landlocked. Yet, and as we learned last year, the number one city is awash with places to pootle about in water (see Adventures in Swimming Trunks). You have the ten municipal open air pools in summer for a city of 1.8 million, although pre 1877 it was half that number as women weren’t admitted. Now this may not sound like much but London, with a population five times bigger, has about the same number of pools. In spite of this, and having spent approximately 22% of life living in London, I never swum outdoors there. I can think of nine million reasons why.
Then there is the 8km of beach along the Danube (a treacherous place if you believe the tendentious crime TV series spectacle that is SOKO Donau), the lakes of the Lobau and even the odd former clay pits of the Wienerberg brick factory on the road to Triest, south-east of Vienna’s very own twin towers. You can of course swim in the Thames in London but you are likely to die of some strange disease as yet unnamed by microbiologists.
Yet in the same way that no discerning visitor to London would ever risk going to a pub without at least reading up on the “protocol” of being served (yes, I have waved back at foreigners from behind a bar), summer swimming in the number one city is not simply a matter of turning up in flip-flops and edging gingerly into water that makes your fingers curl and stimulates sounds of “ooh, ah, ooh, ah”. No, as befits a city wedded to organisational prowess and administrative excellence it requires a certain amount of specialised planning and a forensic eye for the machinations and rules.
So, after much ethno-graphic research, obtained at great personal risk to myself and my skin, here is everything you need to know about swimming in summer in Vienna, and some of the things you probably don’t:
Viennese culture dictates that Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund (the early bird catches the worm) a diktat clearly evident in the number of office workers who start work at seven in the morning with faces like a Russian winter. Children are primed for such a world with school starting at eight, which if you think about it is exceedingly reasonable if you want to begin work at a normal time like nine. Providentially, arriving early is the only motive that will get me to go swimming at the Freibad (open-air pool). Alongside my desire to evade the ignominy of a catfight for anything in any public domain, there are two very good reasons for this: firstly, sun-loungers (see below); and, secondly, space.
In the film Amadeus, Salieri the neglected court composer anguished by the genius of Mozart, referred to the detested Wolfgang as “the creature”. Clearly Antonio had been swimming in Vienna as selecting your space at any Freibad provides a perfect window into the behaviour and qualities associated with the repetitive, habitual traits of living things, the human ones, the creatures. You may argue that Vienna in this case is anything but special and why would it be given the monumental enormity of say Stadionbad (165 thousand square metres) in Prater or Laaerbergbad in the tenth district where space is abundant, unless you arrive after lunch on a Sunday, and girths of the clientele are generous, more so after lunch on Sunday.
Yet what I have learned, pondering the eternal philosophical questions of our age, eyes hidden behind cheap sunglasses bought for five Euro from the Del Boy of Favoritenstrasse, is that in the number one city, arriving early is essential because of the unseemly clamour for a “decent spot” where any space is snapped up quicker than the last toilet roll after a night eating boiled eggs and drinking Dos Equis in the Mexico City bus terminal. Such appropriated space in sun, shade and anything in between, is then demarcated and defended with the zeal of a 17th Wiener against the marauding Turks of Kara Mustapha Pasha (this is where the concept of “deep history” is derived). And you need a certain amount of shamelessness to pull it off.
Assuming you have bagged your sunbeds (see below) you must then surround them with an ostentatious display of towels. One towel is for sitting or lying, one towel is for drying your wet swimming attire, one towel is for standing on whilst you dry yourself and three towels are placed strategically so no one else can get too close. If required you can also place position towels in a mix of sun or shade depending on your whims and lingering devotion to egocentrism.
So you have arrived with the pensioners. But you need somewhere to sit. Normally I find extended periods of laying in the sun a waste of a life, like sitting in traffic or watching anything on Swiss television. But the sun-lounger is an essential piece of kit in Vienna when swimming to avoid lying in the previous day’s cigarette butts or pesky bee infested “meadows”, as people here often refer to areas of grass. And arrive early you must.
It is mostly the Germans who traditionally get a bad rap when anyone mentions the reservation of sun-loungers before – so to speak – the cock has got his suntan lotion on. However, In the German’s defence they are quite brazen with it and make no effort to conceal the fact they must be first to the pool, at least with their towelling and in Word Cups. Yet, and this maybe a matter of conjecture, in a recent trip to a spa hotel in Burgenland, I began to realise that the world champions in sun-lounger blocking were Austrians for the simple reason they are so deftly cunning and discreet. In being so they avoid the pugnacious and insensitive conduct of their freakish northern cousins and, in doing so, retain their customary air of charm and occasional inscrutability.
The evidence? At no point did I ever see any fellow guests (from Austria) actually reserve a sunbed. And I tried. I would arrive at the pool before breakfast and towels would be laid out (always the same towels for the same families). I would arrive as they unlocked the doors to the pools and there they would be, chasteningly spread out as if placed by a ghost. I would arrive before a family had even checked in to the hotel, and there, in the place you were convinced was free only seconds earlier, would be a line of perfectly prostrate towelage (this always includes a Hello Kitty one). Now I am not a vindictive so-and-so but by the end of my stay, and purely for anthropological research, I just couldn’t help myself and those towels had to be placed on adjacent beds just to witness the reaction.
But what has this got to do with the Freibad? Well, sun-loungers (all free incidentally) at most of the open-air pools are, not surprisingly, limited. However, I have been swimming at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning and all are occupied. When I say occupied, I mean reserved with a small piece of clothing or some swimming goggles. Or reserved specially to sit on whilst having lunch. Or reserved for drying your Badehosen. Or reserved to use as a card table. “Any of these free?” you ask, “No!” comes the reply, stinging sarcasm ringing in your ears, “They are reserved for my bastard family who will arrive in three hours.”
In short, this conspicuous system is as corrupt as the agents of world football. And this is why currently you must be on the first bus, bring your own (I have started doing this because I am now a swimming professional) or cajole an elderly relative to do your territorial bidding. But a solution would be simple. Issue a ticket as you arrive, one person, one sun-lounger all controlled by a disaffected yet dictatorial student with a penchant for rules. Or me.
In her highly readable book “Viennese Cuisine”, the author Martina Hohenlohe talks about how the gastronomic success of Austria’s capital city is a lasting legacy of a multi-national state consisting of the best kitchen secrets of Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and the Balkans. She writes:
“The Viennese creativity goes far back into the past, to when the realm of the Habsburg emperors spanned the countries from Lake Constance to the Carpathian Mountains, from the Elbe to the Drina. The imperial sovereigns all like to eat well and that is why recipes from all over southern Europe finally reached the Imperial capital.”
In short, Vienna boasts a distinctive culinary culture and I couldn’t disagree in spite of the plethora of quite mediocre Chinese restaurants serving rubber chicken. After all, who wouldn’t want thirty-six ways to serve a Schnitzel or nearly fifty, highly nuanced variations on a simple cup of coffee? However, for a city which boasts such a gastronomic tradition, food in nearly every Freibad is mostly unadventurous and formulaic (the exception is the private Schönbrunnerbad). In fact, Hohenlohe could have been describing the archetypal Freibad foodie experience with these very words:
“The Viennese cuisine is not as refined as the distinguished French cuisine, but it is versatile. People don’t really warm to vegtables in old Vienna. They were the carbohydrate kings.”
Which is where the “Buffet” comes in. Tradition dictates that you must eat Berner Würstel (a sausage wrapped in bacon) and Pommes (chips) or perhaps Wurstsemmel. Although you are just as likely to get Schnitzel or chicken nuggets or something else combining the versatility of hot oil and carbohydrates. Vegetables are banned although salads are common place but served with deep-fried chicken and lots of sauces to make you sink in the deep end. The alternative is to really let your belly flop and even when the temperature is nudging the middle thirties, eat a full plate of roast pork and dumplings washed down with a beer (often Ottakringer, this being Vienna). And remember, drinking lager before lunch is not evidence of medical malaise. It is Vienna.
Part two will continue after a short lie down in the shade. It will consider: smoking, the importance of signs telling you what to do, fashion and the most feared individual anywhere near chlorinated water – the Badermeister.
© RJ Barratt 2014