“The one thing you soon learn to adjust to in Vienna is that the Danube is entirely incidental to the city. It is so far from the centre that it doesn’t even appear on most tourist maps. I tried walking to it one afternoon and never made it. I got as far as the Prater, the vast and famous park, which is bordered by the Danube on its far side, but the Prater is so immense that after a half-hour it seemed pointless to continue walking on aching feet just to confirm with my own eyes what I have read a hundred times: that the Danube isn’t blue at all.”
Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There, 1991
Nearly thirty years on, it is tempting to say that the Danube is still incidental to Vienna. It certainly doesn’t dominate the city unlike others further downstream, and one can pass months in the number one Stadt without ever seeing it or even thinking about it. Part of this is determined by proximity and season; stretches of the old river – and the famous Danube Island – come alive in the summer months as a place of recreation, swimming, eating and drinking. And you never know you might see a nudist. But in spite of its status and size as one of Europe’s great rivers, one could happily live in Vienna and never give it a second thought.
Perhaps this is also still true for the visitor although with the extension of underground lines and the spread of hotels away from the more traditional locations it is conceivable that the river has become as important to the tourist experience as visiting the Michaelerplatz or the Hofreitschule (the Spanish Riding School).
Aside from the monumental Danube there are twenty-seven streams which run through Vienna, charting a course through different parts of the city, largely ignored, forgotten or unseen. Of these twenty-seven the most famous is the Wienfluß which passes through nine districts; from Penzing in the west to Landstrasse in the east, where it eventually joins up with the Danube channel, a tributary of its more famous incidental relative see above.
Given that the river is covered over from the start of Naschmarkt to Stadtpark (think man in a hat and long coat running away from the police with iffy penicillin falling out of his pockets) there is a high chance that many visitors will miss it. Some exceptions to this are: taking a stroll along the Wienzeile beyond Naschmarkt; having lunch in Vienna’s most exclusive and world famous restaurant of Steirereck; or crossing the Kleine Ungarbrücke in the Stadtpark itself famous for all those little padlocks and as the nocturnal launch site for those ill-fated sharing bikes. Even travelling on the underground U4 on the well-trodden path west to experience the summer palace of Schönbrunn, one is largely oblivious to its existence in spite of the fact that it flows along behind the stone wall adjacent to the underground tracks. Although you get a brief glimpse of it on the same line as you cross Otto Wagner’s Zollamstbrücke behind the Museum of Applied Arts in the 1st district.
All of this means is that given the architecture and regulatory need to keep the Wien from over-flowing into the private homes and Airbnb rentals of the affluent districts along the Wien basin, the first glimpse of water in Vienna for the first-time visitor will probably be a stretch of the centrally located Danube Channel around Schwedenplatz. It is the embarkation point for the several of those city cruise ships, one of the more popular spots in summer for an evening of city strolling and the best place in Vienna to buy cans of slightly chilled beer from illegal traders (think men with flip-flops running away from the police with cans of iffy lager falling from their pockets).
Speaking of beer, the reason I have water on my mind is after exploring the origins of lager in Vienna in a previous chapter. More so because one of these twenty-seven rivers or streams is the Liesingbach situated a mere 800 metres from my home and thus close enough to take pleasure in its understated tranquillity and occasional glimpses of wildlife, but far enough away not to be inconvenienced by a flash flood. This propinquity is fortuitous because, over the past couple of years, this unobtrusive stretch of flowing water has become a small but vital component in my efforts to continue to appreciate the number one city.
The reason for this is no great secret: yes, I am not entirely happy where I live at the moment in spite of what the world liveability rankings scream (although to my knowledge they don’t mention me specifically). I am fully aware of the heretical undertone of what I have just written and expect to be nabbed from my bed in the middle of the night by the special forces of the Stadt Wien’s public relations department. But all I can say is that although this intermittent sense of dissatisfaction has many roots (I am thinking of one particular mulish, moustached, invasive breed with a penchant for wearing sleeveless tops in contradiction to all rules of known fashion) it is partly to do with the invariable niggle of being marooned in the banality of suburbia. Forsaken from the essential amenities of what it means – in my mind – to truly live in a city (decent local shops, cafes, restaurants, walk able amenities, a sense, however small, of community) whilst not quite meeting the measures of the countryside: space, relative peace and people knowing-your-every-move.
And so to reconcile this sense of suburban entrapment I have realised that salvation dosen’t automatically rest with more “Vienna”. What I mean by this is the Vienna which is famous, the centre or inner districts which are, sadly, although forewarned, increasingly over-run by the need to service the whims of the visitor. With their tourist crap, tourist shops, tourist throngs and, most depressing of all, those fake vintage cars that take you on a sightseeing splurge of the city despite the fact they look like they have been borrowed from circus clown.
On the contrary, rather than sit at home and fester, and hope a loose and stupid member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard mixes up his missile coordinates with a clinical strike on my neighbour’s house, it was an awareness of the critical need to fan out (both literally and laterally). To the east, west, and sometimes south (north leads to trouble), to neighbourhoods confined to local people far from anything, superficially at least, which might be designated as “special”. To dig deep, get up close, to edge around the periphery in search of something original, unexplored or, to all appearances at first, banal. To resolve to seek beauty or concealed fascination amidst the concrete, the traffic and the incessant barking dogs (55 thousand in Vienna). And suddenly, as these things dissipate from your consciousness and the stresses of the soul-sapping reality of life between city and Land fades temporarily, you slowly imbue a sense of place, time and context. And in doing so discover all it takes sometimes, to set your disaffected spirit on a more even keel, is a little bit of adventure and something as simple as a piece of running water and a few seconds glimpse of a streak of blue – a Kingfisher.
So what can I tell you about the Liesing? Rising in the Vienna Woods at a height of 520 metres, the Bach (Bach is German for stream) flows 30 kilometres (about 19 miles) to the south-east of Vienna through the 23rd district – giving the district its name – and then on through the southern part of the 10th district where it meets up with the River Schwechat in Lower Austria near the village of Rannersdorf.
The stream itself has two names inspired by the geology of its catchment area: the first part is called the “Dürre” Liesing (meaning anything from “empty”, “arid” or, in American English, “loser”) which shows the typical behaviour (yes, rivers have behaviours) of something called a “karst”. This means it flows over a collection of soluble rocks (limestone or dolomite) with a rapid leach rate, encouraged along its way by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. Because of this, during the dry periods of winter and summer, it is not much more than a trickle.
But not long after it hits Vienna itself, the geology changes as does its designation (“Reiche” Liesing or “bountiful” Liesing) as it flows over a type of sedimentary rock which is more impenetrable (which for those in the know, is not only the unfathomable thing in Vienna). And so during periods of rain, especially heavy rain, the river rapidly swells and the stream is transformed into the Zambezi. This would be a problem if not for regulation (since 1947). But in spite of its placid appearance, there are still warning signs along certain stretches cautioning walkers of the dangers of being caught in a sudden and prolonged downpour (or worse being mown down on the adjacent Radweg by a man in ridiculous shorts with a bicycle bell fetish).
Geology aside, the banks of the Liesing are perfect for a city walk, although as you move downstream into Oberlaa you begin to witness the change in topography as the urban landscape gives way to farmland and the river broadens. Although it is possible to go to the edge of Vienna in Kalksburg and trace the source in to the city, a more practical navigational starting point is from the U6 underground station of Alt Erlaa in the 23rd district. Here you can head east (the more interesting stretch I would contend) along a shady walking / bike path to the edge of the known civilised world. You can of course stop in Oberlaa (7 km) where you can pick up the underground line 1 back to the steaming city but it is worth pressing on to Unterlaa (8.5 km) just to see what might be Vienna’s oldest church.
And so in part two it is time to pack your knapsack, pull on your boots and dig our your bird book. I can’t promise you will see a Kingfisher (although I know roughly where it’s possible even under a motorway) but there is a good chance you will be spooked by a not unsubstantial flying relative of the dinosaurs (a Grey Heron). And if our feathered friends are not your thing we have a chocolate factory, the brick king of Vienna and a discarded wagon sitting in a field from Vienna’s very own Riesenrad (ferris wheel).
Our journey continues here …
© 2019 RJ Barratt