Revealing the Many Truths About Vienna

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Vienna: for some people it is the city of Mozart, for others the city of Freud, for others still the place where Orson Welles charms and deceives everybody in The Third Man. Possibly the only thing they can all agree on is that Vienna is located on the Danube. It turns out, however, that the reality is a good deal more complicated than that.

We reveal the many truths about Vienna

Even a fleeting visitor will observe that Vienna is not a river city in the same way as London, Paris or Budapest. In Vienna, the river flows not through the city’s heart but rather marks the northern periphery. In stark contrast to Paris and Budapest, it also provides, quite frankly, little in terms of scenic views.

The first surprise for those who have never been to Vienna but know their Johann Strauss: standing “By the Beautiful Blue Danube” (the full title of his most famous waltz), you cannot help noticing that not only is the Danube not beautiful, it is not even blue.

"The river Danube seen from city - Many Truths About Vienna"

The second surprise comes when these visitors hear that, strictly speaking, they are not looking at the Danube at all. The stream that flows through Vienna is the “Donaukanal”, although it is not an artificial waterway either as the word “kanal” suggests. Confused? You have all the right to be. And mind you: this is only the beginning.

So where do you find the Danube in Vienna? Let’s go for a walk to look for it.

From Schwedenplatz (right at the Donaukanal), take subway line U1 to the stop Alte Donau. Turn left out of the station, and after approx. 200 metres, you will arrive at what is now called the Old Danube. For hundreds of years, however, until about 1700, this was for all practical purposes “the Danube”, since it carried most of the river’s volume through the Vienna region.

"finding other Danubes - Many Truths About Vienna"

I am saying “most”, because for centuries, the Danube in Vienna was more a sprawl of adjacent streams than a single river, not only in constant flow, but also in a constant state of flux. Every time the waters receded, having inundated the Viennese flood plains, they re-settled in a slightly different array, dividing up their volume differently between the individual sub-streams.

Originally, this did not pose much of a problem: Vienna’s buildings were all located on an elevated southern terrace, safe and relatively far away from the floods. Anything north of what today is the Donaukanal (the main stream for most of the Middle Ages) would have been considered a barren swamp.

In the 19th century, however, Vienna went through an extraordinary period of growth, and new suburbs were built all around its ancient core – also on the former swamps. The new inhabitants of Vienna’s northern districts demanded not only protection from the fairly regular floods but also road and railway connections to the town centre. But as long as the riverscape was in a state of permanent change, building fixed bridges was a huge technological challenge. This is when it became necessary to tame the Danube, a hitherto lazy but essentially wild beast.

So in 1870, the first large-scale regulation of the Danube was performed: the Old Danube was cut off the main stream (about 1 km on your left hand side) and essentially converted into a very large pond, entirely disconnected from the river’s flow at both ends.

"in search of the Danube - Many Truths About Vienna"

Today, it is one of Vienna’s most popular sports and recreation areas, as you can see from the large number of boats and second homes when you turn right. The entire Alte Donau also has a unique historical background, having served as the city’s main “beach resort” for its working classes throughout the city’s turbulent “Red Vienna” period (the 1930s).

"old Danube - Many Truths About Vienna"

Even today, several workers’ associations still have their sport clubs on the Gänsehäufel islands towards the eastern end of the Alte Donau (such as the police and railway workers).

"seeing the old Danube - Many Truths About Vienna"

After a walk of about 30 minutes, turn away from the Alte Donau opposite the second and smaller one of the two Gänsehäufel islands, walking briefly up Harnachgasse until you hit another waterway. This is the Neue Donau – essentially a flood relief channel – which was created during the second regulation of the Danube (1972-1988) when the river was split down the middle in order to better control its unruly flows.

To do its job properly, the relief channel had to be much deeper than the existing river, and the soil that was excavated to give the channel its required depth was subsequently heaped up in the middle, as an artificial barrier between the Neue Donau and what remained of the river. This artificial barrier, the Donauinsel, is what you are looking at on the other side of the New Danube – and which we are now approaching via the Kaisermühlenbrücke on our right.

"Kaisermühlenbrücke - Many Truths About Vienna"

The Donauinsel is 21 km long but only between 100 and 300 m wide. Once you have made your way across this thin strip of land, you have finally reached your destination: you are looking at the Danube. Well, does it “merry your heart”? Do you feel that “happy wishes pour from your full chest” as Franz von Gernerth’s lyrics to Strauss’s waltz have it?

"The Donauinsel - Many Truths About Vienna"

No? I thought as much. But hey: that’s Vienna for you. See this as an important lesson about the city you are visiting: nothing here is quite what it seems, and everything rests on the belief that any idea, no matter how far-fetched or even preposterous, can assume a certain level of reality if everybody believes in it – or even appears to or pretends to believe in it.

Always bear in mind that this is the city of The Third Man: there are many truths about Vienna, but also many questions and many answers, and they do not always match.

More on this in our next post. For today, proceed to the big bridge ahead, the Reichsbrücke. At its right end, there is a subway station (Donauinsel) from where you can take a ride back to the town centre.

There’s more. Come join us on our walks along the Danube. Be sure to join us by getting the latest post of the series. Subscribe to our free updates via email or follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Why not include us in your G+ circles too?

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