Symphony of the Vienna woods
The forests surrounding the Austrian capital still remain, as foresters and environmentalists have been striving to keep them so.
PHOTOS: COURTESY THE FOREST DEPARTMENT, VIENNA
LEGENDARY FORESTS: Vienna's vineyards are turning bio
THE Vienna Woods have traditionally been the maestro's muse. On solitary walks along its leafy footpaths, Beethoven found inspiration for his Pastoral Symphony. Schubert penned some of his songs on jaunts with his mates to some rustic tavern there. Johann Strauss the Younger famously wrote his "Tales from the Vienna Woods" in waltz time. And, though it didn't lighten his philosophy of life, even Franz Kafka derived joy from the symphony of these woods.
The forests of beech, oak and tall black fir surrounding the capital of western classical music may since have sagged somewhat under the weight of the modern urban sprawl, but they still hold a great beauty and harmony and that's because Austrian foresters and environmentalists have been striving to keep them so.
Trekking with local forest officer Andreas Schwab through the woods that have played so prominent a part in European cultural history, I could see that their preservation is Austria's top priority. The nodal agency for the task, the Forestry and Urban Agriculture Department of Vienna, known as the "MA 49", has, according to its PR chief Schwab, implemented a slew of innovative conservation initiatives in recent decades in the "Wienerwald" (German for Vienna Woods) a 42,000-hectare octopus-like sprawl, with its tendrils reaching from the north-western suburbs of Vienna past the city's southern end right down to Lower Austria and Styria.
In the Lainzer Tiergarten, a legendary part of the woods, I got a fair idea of both how the Vienna Woods looked when emperors and noblemen hunted there and of conservation work in progress. Visitors to the 25-sq. km. enclosure, three-quarters of which is thickly forested, are advised not to stray from the marked paths because wildlife (among others, wild boar, red and roe deer and the mouflon, which is a wild sheep with long, curved horns) must be left to roam in peace and sections of the woods need to be left alone to resurrect themselves.
"These sections are designated `Natural Reforestation Zones' and always closed to visitors," explained Schwab as we look around one such zone (the media is allowed in, sorry). Here, fallen old beeches and oaks (one stout oak standing on a hillock was 350 years old) are allowed to crumble into the dust. The foresters' only intervention is to create small clearings here and there to enable new saplings to spring up alongside the antique trees. "The clearings have a diameter less than the height of the tallest tree. The sunlight in these clearings enables new saplings to spring up there. And that's how the forest regenerates itself."
The zone lies in the eastern tract of the game park, which, incidentally, also houses the Hermes Villa, a little chateau blending the neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau styles, built in the 1880s by Emperor Franz Josef as a retreat for his eccentric Empress Elisabeth. A few years later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shaken by a Habsburg tragedy in these very woods. Franz Josef and Elisabeth's only son, Archduke Rudolf, the 30-year-old crown prince, was found dead at the imperial hunting lodge in Mayerling, along with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera. A suicide pact, it was said, but never proved.
Vineyards and meadows
Our next foray into the woods proved headier than Hermes Villa. My visiting Swiss friend and I rode up on a bus from the suburb of Grinzing, near where we were staying, to Cobenzl to reach the Kahlenberg "house mountains" an easily accessible part of the woods that holds small vineyards and big meadows and affords panoramic views of the city.
Walking up from the Cobenzl bus stop we saw a stone plaque stating that at this spot "the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigmund Freud". The pioneer of psychoanalysis and his wife spent the summer of 1885 in the Belle Vue Hotel there (it no longer exists), and it was reportedly then that Freud gained insights that would form the stuff of his book, "The Interpretation of Dreams" (1900). We also passed the 375-year-old Kahlenberg church which flaunts two plaques: King John III Sobieski prayed there before leading his Polish troops together with the imperial forces under Charles of Lorraine to free Vienna from the Turks in 1683, says one; the other commemorates a visit by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II to the church exactly 300 years later.
The Kaiserbrunn (Emperor's Brook).
After trekking under a colourful canopy of spruce, pine and larch, sunlit vineyards and green meadows richly framed in autumn colours, we rested at a vantage point to gaze out at the Gothic spire of St Stephen's Cathedral and down at the Danube that was never blue but meanders like a silver-grey ribbon through the city. We also stopped to drink "sturm" (young wine, served only in the autumn) and eat "kastanien" (chestnuts) at a local vineyard, and were informed that "more and more of Vienna's vineyards are turning bio," by vintner Stefan Meier. The MA 49, which maintains its own vineyards at the Vienna Coblenz Estate, has had a role to play in this; it encourages and trains local vintners, farmers and hobby gardeners to use biotechnology on their fertile limestone properties.
Its persuasive techniques turn into strict policy in Vienna's watershed forests of Schneeberg, Rax und Hochschwab in the northern limestone Alps. "The use of chemical agents such as insecticides and fertilizers is prohibited here. That's to protect the local springs," explained Hans Tobler of Vienna Waterworks when we visited the Kaiserbrunn (Emperor's Brook) in Schneeberg's Hoellental valley in Lower Austria, about 100 km from Vienna. The Kaiserbrunn, discovered by Emperor Charles VI in 1732 while on a hunting expedition, supplies 200,000 cml of water, i.e. over half of Vienna's daily requirement of drinking water, through a 130-km-long, rock-cut tunnel called the First Vienna Mountain Spring Pipeline, constructed in 1873.
The Waterworks keeps this spring duct, literally, under lock and key. A solid green door seals its entrance in Kaiserbrunn village. Tobler opened the door with a flourish to allow me a peep into the historical cavern enclosing the Emperor's Brook from which tens of barrels of water were once carried daily on horse-drawn carts to the Hofburg in Vienna.
"The spring is pristine," Tobler pointed out. "The forests and soil are at once filter and reservoir. We ensure the water's purity by maintaining ideal soil conditions and tree cover in these mountains. We promote ecologically valuable tree species while prohibiting the cutting of old groves and single old trees. We have created mixed forests in recent decades because single-species forests, like the spruce forests promoted in previous centuries for commercial reasons, can lead to soil erosion. We also control waste water treatment and sanction new construction projects only after conducting an environmental impact study."
No artificial precautions
The foresters even cull the game population to ensure that the woods rejuvenate without any artificial precautions. But, naturally, that method cannot be used on the two-legged population. So what they do instead is to educate them in environmental preservation.
In the Wiener Waldschule (Forest School) in Ottakring in Vienna, for instance, schoolchildren get to know the forest habitat and its denizens (all there in the form of stuffed animals) and learn in a playful but conscious way about the inter-relations in the ecological system of the forest.
In the National Park Camp Lobau flanking the Danube Wetlands, youngsters are taken on adventure walks. "The walks are a lot of fun," chirped my friends Barbara and Paul Beyer's 10-year-old son, Nicolai, "because we learn about local trees, birds and wildlife and how to help keep them happy and also about things like how to tell the time of day with the help of the sun and how to work with microscopes!"
The Austrians have learned the wisdom of catching them young.
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