Rivers and Streams – Part 2

The Wohnpark of Alt Erlaa. Find this and find the Liesing.

Assuming you have survived the anthropological terror that is Vienna’s U-bahn line number 6, your point of embarkation will be the station of Alt Erlaa. To reach the Liesing, take the entrance to the shopping park, making sure you are not tempted inside by its unrelenting and fabulous retail pleasures, descend the stairs and head back for a couple of hundred metres under the concrete supports of the underground above. To your left will be the towering presence of the iconic Wohnpark and to your right, across the street, a branch of the supermarket Spar (currently being refurbished you will be delighted to know).

Your first sight of the Liesing will remind you that there are many great European rivers, and this isn’t one. But do not despair, you are not here for the potamological wow-factor. At least I hope not. Instead, more elevated ideals await: the distinctive urban landscape; the entwinement of history, culture and nature; and some of Vienna’s finest tarmac-inspired riverside infrastructure.

So, as you head downstream (the direction will be obvious as an empty can of Red Bull will float past at any moment on its way to the Black Sea) the first major road you will come across is the Altmansdorferstrasse. An unappealing stretch of highway linking the top of the hill near the Schönbrunn palace in the 12th district with the handsome middle reaches – best here left unmentioned (car dealerships, brothels that kind of thing) – of Vienna’s 23rd. Fortunately, the path runs underneath and as you emerge out the other side, you will come across the Schlosssee /Steinsee housing clubs with their sizeable ponds surrounded by little dwellings.

There are 235 such clubs, in one form or another, in the number one city (totalling about twenty-five thousand “small gardens”) and Schlosssee has been going since 1937. Steinsee came a bit later in 1957, apparently under the inducement to future tenants that there was absolutely no chance of someone blocking out the late afternoon sun twenty years later by building four monumental apartment blocks just up the road. Such clubs offer the chance to rent or buy small plots of land, usually with some kind of abode attached. Although these days a capacious wallet is a must, getting your hands on one of the more popular ones is mostly about family connections and political affiliation (according to someone I once worked with who got their grubby, sorry, green-fingers on one of the more celebrated and elusive gardens in Vienna’s Prater park in the 2nd district).

These small gardens are more commonly known in Austria as Schrebergarten, named after the German Daniel Moritz Gottlieb Schreber and their original ethos was one of “social functionality”. In other words, as places to relax, recover and perhaps grow some pumpkins, away from the filth, bustle and social disfunctionality of the metropolis. Over the years the social rules – garden shed with a modest piece of greenery (similar in concept to the British allotment) – have been slowly relaxed to allow the construction of not insubstantial dwellings (anything between 50 and 80 square metres). So, nowadays, there is often more floor space than garden, with terraces, balconies, satellite dishes and all the unnecessary plastic inspired industrial crap associated with the disquieting trend towards something called “outdoor living” (another drawback of climate change rarely mentioned in the academic literature).

But don’t linger too long or someone will call the police. At the end of this part of the path you will arrive at a junction (do not be enticed by the charming looking Beisl of Zum Schoder Wirt). To your left you will see Vienna’s twin towers and a couple of hundred metres up on the right, visible through the trees and bushes, is the chocolate factory and museum run by the Heindl family. Probably their most famous sweets are the Schoko Maroni (chocolate chestnuts) and Schoko Bananen (chocolate bananas). But, and here’s the thing, you never see anyone going in out of the factory itself. Only at night might you catch a glimpse of shadows moving about. Small, faint outlines of tiny people appearing behind the frosted windows. No one has ever seen the workers inside but there are known locally as the Oompa-Oidas.

A little bit further on, you pass under the second of Vienna’s great southerly streets – the Triesterstrasse. It is fortunate that you are on foot, because if you head out of town, it will eventually lead you to a vast car-park and the infamous retail carbuncle of Shopping City (an abject place of hopelessness and misery). Instead, as you pass below, you emerge into the relative tranquillity of Draschepark and the district Grätzl (neighbourhood) of Inzersdorf.

As you enter the park, you will be standing under a concrete flyover announcing the start (more or less) of the Südautobahn. Yes, you are in motorway country. In any other circumstances, it would be an uninspiring location, back-dropped by the constant hum of traffic and the usual reminders of the spray can. Fortunately, it has one redeeming feature, as this stretch of gentle-moving river (give or take a few thousand cars and the abundance of concrete) is a typical habitat for the Eisvögel (the Kingfisher). If you are fortunate to glimpse a streak of electric blue as it flies over the water, it is not only a wonderful and absorbing sight but a reminder that the natural world and its beauty can exist in the most unlikely of places (and a reason I would exhort you all to buy a bird book).

Ornithological obsessions aside, back in the day the park was the English inspired garden for none other than Baron Heinrich von Drasche-Wartinberg. After his uncle’s death in 1857, Czech born Heinrich inherited most of the adjacent land which luckily included the local brick factory on the nearby Wienerberg. Over the years, the “Brick Baron” turned the company into the biggest brick producer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (most of those fabulous buildings on the Ringstrasse are built from the clay pits of Wienerberger). The company survives to this day (celebrating its 200 year anniversary in 2019) and if this wasn’t enough, it is now the number one brick producer on the planet (someone has to be).

The baron’s inheritance also included two palaces: the old Schloss Inzersdorf, built in the 17th century by the local knights, and the new Schloss built in 1765. Both palaces were badly damaged during the second war and, with great cultural sensitivity and foresight, demolished in 1965 to make way for the eponymous Tangente (it’s another motorway) high above.

Leafy path in Draschepark. Liesing stream just  to the left.

Nowadays one can still get a sense of the original park and even a hint that a few hundred years ago this was all countryside and ripe for a Turkish invasion. Small pockets of quite dense forest remain and although this is not exactly the manicured splendour of Schönbrunn, there is a tree lined avenue running alongside the river. Part of it is also is dedicated to one of Vienna’s public barbecue areas (one of two in the city open all year round) which on a hot weekend is more like a rock festival. And for those of you of a certain age, there is a BMX track where you can re-live your inner Evel Knievel.

Temporarily distracted by thoughts of soaring over fifty red parked buses, you should now be in sight of the aforementioned Tangente, held aloft by its many cylindrical concrete supports. For one of Austria’s busiest roads, and my pick a couple of years back for cultural highlight in the number one city never to get a visit from a tourist (you can read more about it here) it is surprisingly quiet. And surrounding it on the steep banks across the river leading up to the motorway itself there are the many trees planted after the completed renovation in 2018.

The Tangente.

As you pass under the shadow of the motorway above, you will come to the centre of Inzersdorf. Here you will find a small square flanked by a primary school, opened in 1916 by Emperor Franz Josef, an 800 year church (rebuilt in 1820 in the classical style) and opposite, the restored façade, with its imperial crests, of the former Inzersdorfer food factory (the site was redeveloped in 2015 as private flats, some small business and a kindergarten).

Inzserdorf is old although today you wouldn’t know it. It was first mentioned in the historical record in the 12th century but in fact there has been a settlement here long before that. I know this because in the Roman Museum in the first district is a map of Vindobona (the Roman military camp on the site of modern Vienna) and Inzersdorf, alongside other villages along the Liesing – Oberlaa and Unterlaa, whose church also has Roman connections, are also cited on the map. This makes perfect sense because Inzsersdorf would have been on one of the main routes south from what is now the first district, and it is a hop from the former Roman camp on the Wienerberg (home to the  Alauda Legion). Moreover, as it is situated next to a river, it links it with the villages downstream and ultimately to the Danube, which would have brought you to the monumental Carnutum, the main Roman settlement in this part of the world when orgies, slaves and persecuting Christians were all the rage.

The path narrows now as you continue alongside the river. First passing the back of one of Vienna’s bilingual grammar schools (the catchily named Gymnasium Real Gymnasium 23) and then a few minutes later, on the other side of the river, you should catch a glimpse of what looks like a mini French château (the baroque Maria Theresien Schlössel). I can’t tell you much except to say that it is classified as a “landhouse”, so presumably the country digs of some landed dude trying to extract favour from the more wealthy people up the street in the original palace near the church. Also I doubt there are many private houses in Vienna boasting a bigger garden and grounds. You can spy them through the gates, although the best view is round the back requiring a slight deviation from your route.

Interestingly, although you would also have to leave the path to see it, there is another impressive mansion across the street on the Neilreichgasse: the Biedermeier “Fritsch House” built between 1840 and 1850. It’s worth quick peek if only decide if you want to buy it (currently on the market for an entirely reasonable three and a half million Euros).

We are now at about the halfway point to Oberlaa which seems like a prudent juncture to sit down for ten minutes and reflect on what we have seen. Alternatively, you could pop to the nearby Penny Market, the kind of supermarket designed for people that have been banned from all other kinds of supermarket, to buy a ham roll and a can of energy drink. Our journey shall continue soon in an unplanned third instalment. I hope.

© 2019 RJ Barratt