25 May 2011

Viennese Green Spaces

Vienna is a city of parks and trees. Leafy and full of shade, it is a place where eighty-degree weather can feel tolerable and where there seems always to be a grassy spot to sit down for a rest. Beyond the proper parks, though, there are also surprising pockets of green - like the farmers market near our apartment. On saturdays, the already terrific Karmelitermarkt is filled with produce from the fields and pastures around Vienna. Usually a hot, crowded lot with hard angles and sweating cafe waiters, the market looked fresh and sumptuous filled with these leaves and roots.
The Danube runs by Vienna, but one might be tricked into thinking that it flows right through the center of town. In fact, the water in the city center is only a canal - the Donaukanal - and, although it's connected with the Danube, there is a big distinction to be made. Something I learned: "kanal," in German, is a word evocative of open sewers, and many people in Vienna want to change the name of the Donaukanal to make it sound more appealing. There are beaches and a bike path (above) lining the banks of the "little Danube," dressing up the concrete and cutting a pretty line along the ringstrasse development.
In the Augarten, in Leopoldstadt, a confusing labyrinth of hedged spaces is enclosed by walls and dotted with more formal baroque gardens. During the second world war, massive flak towers were built here to defend the city against allied bombers. One, still standing, is fenced off and grim. It's a huge thing, once able to house ten thousand people during an air raid. A prickly crown of gunning stations is visible from a long ways off, soaring above the treetops. The profile is foreboding and out of place in the garden, looming over laconic sunbathers and slowly-pushed baby carriages.
Nearby, there is a restaurant partly housed in an old bunker, open to the outside and hemmed in by trees. The name, "Bunkerei," called attention to an aspect of it I would have missed. Scraps of wartime Vienna are mostly hidden or painted over. Perhaps the most noticeable remnants of that time are actually voids - places where something used to be. A lot of Vienna's small parks are new, created after the war in the empty spaces where buildings had been destroyed.
Just outside the main city, the Danube lies in a long ribbon, stitched over with a few low bridges. It's wonderful - especially on a hot day - to walk across, taking in the fresh breeze and feeling a bit of elevation. Although they aren't very tall, the bridges give a feeling of height and space in a largely flat and horizontal city. Unlike other urban spaces, the buildings in Vienna haven't reached upwards much, and maneuvering through its landscape can feel almost too terrestrial.
We left town in love with Vienna - it was a city that seemed more cosmopolitan and unique than anywhere we've been in a long while. It was a place that invited urban trekking of the type we used to do in New York. Neighborhoods and avenues stretched into new territory and scenery easily, like a network of country trails. Walking here can be a meditative, aimless experience - uncrowded, expansive, interesting in an everyday sort of way.

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