In the past five weeks it has been fascinating to observe the subtle changes to the visual and aural constitution of the physical environment in the number one city. The sudden appearance of men (only men) of a certain age and skin complexion usually sitting alone on benches drinking cans of beer (pubs closed). The relative stillness only punctuated by the upsurge in the ascendency of the barking canine (no change there). Or how the streets emptied of the piston engine only to be gradually reclaimed by more people on bicycles, scooters or strolling as part of their permittable daily exercise allowance. This also extended to the various walking and cycle paths which I know very well in my leafy (suburban dystopia) splinter of the number one city. Becoming magnets for a kaleidoscope of demographics rarely seen in such environments, as people sought respite from the suffocating repetition of home.
When walking is an integral part of your psychological toolbox, when you do it every day, week in, week out, along well-trodden routes to work or simply for pleasure, trying to find slithers of nature in the city to revitalize both mind (especially mind) and body, you are perfectly attuned to such temporary aberrations. Even with an upswing in the temperatures and the onset of spring when such ways witness an upsurge in users, seeing families in such increased numbers in spite of the social distancing rulebook when “normally” it is just you, a few dog walkers and a hungry Kestrel in search of a snack, is a reminder that something quite remarkable happened in late March and early April (no playgrounds open, no parks, no cinemas and most tellingly, no shopping centres).
Regular readers will know that one of my usual routes is along the Liesing stream towards Oberlaa in the south of Vienna. One of my favourite stretches is from Grossmarktstrasse to Himbergerstrasse in the 10th district and Rothneusiedel, one time mooted as the end station of the underground line 1. Especially at this time of year when the colours have the vibrancy of a Hockney painting and the stream is bathed in shadows from the reemergent foliage of the trees perched high on both banks. More so because it is also the most likely place to see a Kingfisher although strangely they seem to have skedaddled since the lockdown.
Unfortunately, most of it also doubles as a cycle path. This means there is always the likelihood that your walk will be interspersed with little ringing bells of warning, and I am never sure if it is simply that, a warning, or a unambiguous signal to get out of the way (I usually shuffle about one centimetre to the right). In any case, social distancing or no social distancing, the path makes it difficult at the best of times to give people a wide berth. And so with the mounting numbers and a unquenchable need to keep moving, I had to find an alternative, far from people and far from the dusty bikes of the fair-weather freak.
Although, the Liesing is only about half a mile from my home, ten or fifteen minutes in the other direction is something equally as enchanting: light industry. This, I discovered over the past couple of weeks, was the perfect spot for an urban meander for what has become known as essential exercise. Mostly, because many of the companies were closed which meant no traffic and more importantly, no people.
One possible route is along Richard Strauss Strasse (no, not that Strauss) which hosts among many things, the headquarters of VAMED (a global healthcare company and presumably in demand at the moment), a six-star sex sauna, the vast printing works of Mediaprint (leading Austrian newspapers, Kurier and Krönen Zeitung) and at the end, right on the city border, a substantial, modern building which would not look out of place as the home of a billionaire on the shores of Florida: yes, the Vienna headquarters of whitegoods manufacturer, Miele.
However, our route today takes us east towards the Jochen-Rindt Strasse, named after the formula one driver who was posthumously awarded the World Championship in 1970 after he died during practice for the Italian Grand Prix. (What’s that? He was German? You’ll be telling that Adolf was Austrian next!) Here there is a mix of social housing, delightful industrial units as far as the eye can see, and patches of farmland probably worth a fortune if only they could be built upon.
Crossing our old friend, the Laxenburgerstrasse, we find ourselves outside the Blumental municipal dump (Mistplatz), currently being rebuilt although scheduled to reopen its doors at the end of 2020 (I can hardly contain myself). That said, all dumps were closed from the middle of March and only accessible to “tradespeople” and anyone persuasive enough to demand the vital procurement of free compost. Interestingly, the closures brought a spate of fly-tipping in the city (the Lobau was a favourite apparently) with 30% more than usual according to the MA 48 (waste management, street cleaning and purveyors of amusing marketing slogans). Although, to be fair, this was offset somewhat by the reduction in discarded Red Bull cans during the same period as the usual numbskulls who drank it stayed at home in their tracksuits.
Just round the corner is another but no less equally significant site. One of the huge retail city distribution hubs for supermarket group REWE (Billa, Merkur and Penny Market) and formerly in the hands of supermarket legend, now deceased, Zielpunkt. Outside, on the day I pass, are many yellow home delivery vans ready to be dispatched to households avoiding the possible perdition of the normal supermarket during the lent lockdown. Essential workers I assume, on zero-hour contracts, keeping Vienna in Schnitzel, Soletti and Klopapier.
Moving on we pass under some train tracks. To your right, visible through the gates, is the Vienna Freight Centre South, the number one city’s homage to Chuggington. Completed in 2016, the area (77 football pitches in size) is the main handling point for European rail to road freight traffic in the capital. Each year it processes about 200 thousand containers which is half than envisaged. However, in the words of the Austrian state railways it “reduces the volume of lorries and trains in the Vienna urban area and strengthens Vienna as a location for all Thomas the Tank Engine fans in central Europe”. There is an “Info Box” chartering the planning and development but you have to call in advance to book an appointment (presumably with der dicke Kontrolleur).
You are now standing on the most southerly rim of Vienna. To your left are the obligatory Schrebergarten (small gardens with dwellings of variable size) and to your right, farmland stretching in the distance about a mile to the S31 motorway and Lower Austria. To the south west you can see the start of the Alps, to the north, the tenth and parts of Vienna’s 12th district. And to the east, about ten minutes up the road is the ultimate in slow-food: snails.
Established on the family farm in 2008 by Andreas Gugumuck (former IT manager, techno producer and champion boxer), Gugumuck is Vienna’s foremost snail producer. Snails have apparently been a delicacy in Viennese cuisine since the 18th century and there was even a marketplace behind the Peterskiche in the 1st district (the original wet market). More impressive still was that Andreas was named “Best Young Famer in Europe” by the European Parliament in 2012 who were wowed by his new and sustainable farming methods. In 2014 the farm became the Vienna Escargot Manufactory, including a shop and a farm-to-table bistro and to quote Andreas:
“Our snail farm is showing the way to a new kind of agriculture. Unlike traditional meat production, snails can be grown with a minimal use of resources. The animals range free and feed on locally grown herbs and vegetables.”
Which is splendid and coming to you from Vienna’s very own 10th district, scourge of the middle classes and oft cited worst place to live in the capital. Although when he mentioned “locally grown herbs and vegetables”, he also meant the small patch of my garden where I attempt each year to be self-sufficient. Still, with our journey nearly at an end, there is just one more place of interest before we hit the far reaches of Oberlaa and the turnaround for home: the Haschahof.
Started a hundred years ago by Thomas Hascha and originally called “Gutspachtung Rothnuesidel” the farm which eventually took his name focused on dairy, pig and arable farming. Much later it became one of the first organic farms in Vienna and since 1991 it has been a fully certified “Biobetrieb” with sheep, chickens, grain and vegetables.
However, in 2014 the owners of the original 100 hectare brick complex built in 1900 (the mysterious sounding Herzfelder trust) terminated the Hascha family lease and sold the ten thousand square metre site to the Vienna Housing Fund who planned to unleash the wrecking balls. However, the public outcry was so great that any plans for evil property development were cancelled and its future, like Britain after Brexit, remained uncertain.
But to the rescue! Last year the “Zukunftshof Stadtlandwirtschaft” (Future Urban Farming) backed by, ah yes, the snail king of Vienna, Andreas Gugumuck, were granted permission to temporarily redevelop the site with the idea to establish some kind of community centre (co-ops, small businesses, urban farming initiatives) for “civil society”. Although judging by recent evidence, not much is happening, and the place continues to look deserted.
The Haschahof concept of farming continues but it is perhaps better known these days for its “Pflückgarten” where hard pressed millennials can rent plots of land and cultivate organic veg. The season begins on the 1st May and it is the perfect place for social distancing as we approach the sixth week of the old normal. And yes, another week of home-schooling, in all its beautiful vengeance.
© 2020 RJ Barratt