It took me a relatively long time to appreciate the gentle art of walking for pleasure. Much like cycling in the days before cycling seemingly became a “lifestyle”, walking was more or less about functionality. To get from one place to the other whether it was school, work, meet friends or walk home from the pub because I’d spent the last tenner on a round of beers.
As a language trainer, a job like a travelling salesman but without the company car and badly ironed shirts, you cover a lot of ground on foot as you skirt between jobs, usually from one public transport hub to office and on to the next. Admittedly, I sometimes drive but increasingly, as regular readers will know, I have gown weary with the tempestuous and erratic nature of the Viennese driver. So I try and avoid it and, more importantly, them.
This is also partly linked to a greater appreciation of the environmental and social damage done by an insatiable appetite to move around in a metal box whilst checking your phone. In truth, I will never understand the inherent desire amongst some car drivers who subscribe to this sense of entitlement and elevated status. Mistaken, I would argue, in some self-centred conviction that because the thing they are sitting in costs more than their home and shines brighter than an exploded star (newly washed at the Waschstrasse by an immigrant who should not be in Vienna claiming all the benefits and stealing jobs) they can drive and drive and drive irrespective of the smouldering damage to the natural world and my mood. And so in my mind, if we want to save the planet and perhaps mitigate the kinds of unbearable heat Vienna and other cities experienced this summer, then a good starting point is our own feet. Although bear in mind that whatever happens because of the threat of climate change, the planet will survive, it’s just that we won’t. Not to alarm you.
Although once in my twenties I did a couple of walks with a close friend who hailed from the Derbyshire Dales in the UK, it was not until I became a parent that walking long distances for recreation became almost essential. The reason for this was that when my younger son was born he would generally sleep in only three places: in his Mum’s arms, in the car or in a moving pram. And when you are faced with the stress and sleep deprived first months of parenthood, you take any chance you can get for a break even if it means walking for three hours in the rain through the woods or along a river. Of course, every parent erroneously assumes that aspects of their pre-child existence will simply continue as normal after the birth, including scheduled trips to the pub or cafe on such walks whilst your child sleeps. This is the life you tell yourself; a nice stroll, a sleeping child and a relaxing pint. But as soon as you sit down and as soon as the pram stops moving, the eyes open, the restlessness begins and within seconds you have discovered the concept of “parent pace” drinking.
But my serious love of hiking or trekking was fired by a summer holiday in the Lungau in the middle of Austria a couple of years ago. We knew the place from skiing and decided we needed to see it in summer and although the kids took some convincing it was one of the most rewarding holidays in my life and ever since I have been hooked. By this I mean I now possess a pair of specialist walking trousers and shorts because as I have discovered, for good or bad, “walking” is as much a “lifestyle” as cycling and there is a piece of kit for everything.
Read any guide to Vienna and almost all of them will tell you that the city is perfect for two feet. What they mean by this is that the compact first district, home to most, although certainly not all, of the major sights for the first time visitor, can be crossed in less than half an hour (think Schottenring to Stubentor or Schwedenplatz to Karlsplatz). Or it would be if it were not for the thronging masses of people which have turned Kohlmarkt, Graben and Kärntnerstrasse in to some dystopian tourist misery, thronging the streets in slow moving shuffling packs, masters of blocking the pavements and generally causing vexation. I cautioned back in 2015 that the centre of Vienna was in danger of aping the tourist experience of other cities in Europe with their busloads of day-trippers traipsing from one must see sight to the next and it is my contention that in 2018, overkill is sniffing portentously at the gates.
The commentarii will naturally proclaim that Vienna and its residents should be grateful. Grateful for the revenue that tourism generates and the jobs and investments that follow. But this completely misunderstands the fundamental point: one of balance. Ten years ago Vienna was already successful with tourism but you never thought that there was an disparity between the true day-to-day existence of the city and the many visitors that came to be wowed by the friendly Vienna welcome and all those, admittedly, stunning buildings. Yet head down town these days, even now, and what you will witness is poignant, startling and indicative of something truly out of kilter with what a modern city should be: balanced.
Yet with this evident problem, all of Vienna is a great place to see on foot and everyone will have their favourite route or routes (mine used to be from the front door of the pub to the bar). In truth, however, one can walk anywhere. Yes Vienna has the famous Wienerwald on its doorstep but walking does not have to necessarily include trees, frisky wild boars and the hunt for Bärlauch (wild garlic). A neat little book written by Jine Knapp called Wien Walks (describing Vienna on the front cover as “Adventurous, beautiful, relaxing, full of contrasts, cute and wild and woolly”) is a perfect introduction to “urban walking”. But sometimes, even in the city of liveability (thank you Economist), you have to get out from time to time and some wonderful opportunities are waiting not far from the selfie-sticks. These include nine so-called Stadtwanderweg stretching for 240 kilometres (mostly in the Vienna Woods and the outskirts of the city) but also a collection of trails added in 2005 covering another 120 kilometres in twenty-four stages called “Rundumadum”.
It would be impossible to comment on all of them without writing a book, more so because I haven’t actually walked all of them. But as a taster, this is one I know: city walk number 6.
Stadtwanderweg 6 – Zuberg – Mauerwald
Reaching the start of the path by public transport is relatively easy. You just sit on the number 60 tram from Hietzing to the end station at Rodaun. It’s a bit of a stretch but a pleasant enough ride through the 13th and extremities of the 23rd districts and you will see an aqueduct (calm down). From there it is a short walk to set you off on your trail. However, my normal embarkation point is the top of the hill above Mauer (the bus 60A will also get you there if you have the nerves and patience) because there is a large car park and it more or less coincides at the end – going clockwise – with the best kept pint of Ottakringer in Vienna.
So, from here you snake down the hill past the dog walking enclosure to the posh enclave of Kalksburg, cross the Breitenfurterstrasse and onwards to the cascading torrent that is the river Liesing. Just over the water is one of Vienna’s most exclusive private schools – The Kollegiem – but ignore the braying parents and take a left following the river along the optimistically titled Promenadeweg towards Rodaun (see tram 60). Here a right turn will take you up the hill passing some curious yet bitingly perceptive English graffiti claiming that school is a prison and onward into a charming little square and a church. As you take a breather enjoying the mix of the baroque and the romantic you can muse on the cool fact that Rodaun, with about half a hectare, is the smallest wine producing region in Vienna (in total the city has about 600 hectares).
Then it is time for the Zuberg and the Mizzi-Langer Woods (alpinist and early alpine skier) and a gentle climb up to Eichkogel and the currently closed Wiener Hütte. At 428 metres Eichkogel is the highest point of the 23rd district (the lowest is any visual, aural or olfactive interaction with the holy terror that is my German neighbour). From here it’s a steep walk down the forested hill to the very agreeable Breitenfurter tennis club where you can pause for refreshment and scare the locals by speaking English.
Next stage is to cross the Breitenfurterstrasse (again) and follow a small path up into the stress-busting surrounds of the Dorotheerwald. It’s an easy ascent up through the trees and then out through the other side across some pleasant meadows and a descent towards the Gutenbachstrasse. Awaiting you, after a thirty minute walk up through the heart of the Mauerwald, is the perfect Gasthaus zur Schiessstätte serving up superb seasonal Wiener Küche, expertly handled beer and an array of deer heads poking through the wall to startle the younger guest.
Afterwards it is twenty minute march back down the hill through the forest to be serenaded by barking dogs of all shapes, sizes and echelons of obedience. Your 12.5 kilometre yomp is at an end. But before you leave you can have a quick look at the remains of the Mauerberg barracks (I say ruins, it is a stone wall). History tells us that soldiers were stationed here from the 18th century as part of an existing Jesuit monastery. However, according to Michaela Lindinger in her book “Secret Vienna”, the barracks were finally destroyed in 1949, the last residents being the airborne intelligence unit of the Nazis. Back then they were intended, as Lindinger writes, to be “the most beautiful and most majestic barracks in the military district of Vienna”, designed by Rudolf Weiss a student of a certain Otto Wagner. Sadly, the project was never realised because the Austrians, inconveniently some might argue, were on the losing side in the war. From 1894 until 1918 the barracks had their own shooting range in the nearby woods hence the name of the restaurant (Schießstätte).
Part two – and its time to get serious…
© 2018 RJ Barratt