Vienna’s Secret Spring Getaways

With mother nature sporting her springtime best, a weekend sojourn to her walk-in closet can be closer than you think

The Danube wetlands at the Naturpark Donau-Auen are home to diverse plant and wildlife | Photo: Kovacs

The region also boasts castles like the Franzenburg | Photo: Sendor-Zeman

The Grey Heron is a wading bird and a native of Europe, Asia and also parts of Africa | Photo: Kovacs

Once again the countryside surrounding Vienna is awash with spring colour. From forested hills with bright green canopies of beech and oak, to romantic gardens adorning majestic castles, there are some charming places for a day’s getaway.

And get away I did – with daypack dusted and family enlisted – determined to discover the most enchanting short escapes of all. Here are three absolute gems:

 

Sparbach Nature Preserve 

The Grey Heron is a wading bird and a native of Europe, Asia and also parts of Africa | Photo: Kovacs

The Grey Heron is a wading bird and a native of Europe, Asia and also parts of Africa | Photo: Kovacs

We headed south to Nature Park Sparbach in the hilly woodlands surrounding Mödling. Established in 1810 as a wildlife sanctuary by Prince Johann I of Liechtenstein, Sparbach is Austria’s oldest nature preserve.

It is also a wonderful place to relax and explore.

We filed through the park entrance and took the trail leading to a picturesque valley. Malone Junior skittered ahead, stick already in hand, seeking adventure. He didn’t have to look far: There, amidst the trees was a petting zoo.

“Not with the stick!” I shouted as he opened the gate and was greeted by several gregarious goats and a braying donkey.

Nearby we discovered interactive nature stations (where Junior beat me at guessing the animal silhouettes), and an enclosure with some contented looking wild boar. We stopped at the romantic Lenau Pond, named after Austrian poet, Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850), to muse over a verse from his collection, Schilflieder (Reed Songs), which was floating on the surface.

At the adventure playground we set dignity aside and went swinging from ropes and climbing nets, laughing as we took to the slides. A babbling stream with stepping stones ran through the playground, and we soon had our shoes off. But smoke from the playground barbeques wafted our way. “Come on,” I said when I caught Junior eying those sizzling patties. “Lets see what else we can find.”

A trail led us up to the 12th-century castle ruins of Johannstein. With panoramic views, the Schloss once served as part of Vienna’s defence network. Later, its idyllic setting inspired Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Raimund (1790-1836) to write his famous romantic comedy Der Alpenkönig und der Menschenfeind.

We tramped past the Temple of Diana, paying a cursory homage to the Roman goddess of the hunt, before reaching the summit of Heuberg. Here the Köhlerhaus ruins offered mesmerising views of the peaks of the Schneeberg and the Rax. Junior threw his stick and watched it cartwheel into the sky. “I’m hungry,” he announced. And I had to admit that despite the view, my stomach too was empty, and together, we marched down the hill to seek out our well-earned lunch.

 

Laxenburg 

The region also boasts castles like the Franzenburg | Photo: Sendor-Zeman

The region also boasts castles like the Franzenburg | Photo: Sendor-Zeman

Like Don Quixote, his lady love, Dulcinea del Toboso, and his diminutive squire, Sancho Panza, the Malones sallied forth on another day, to Laxenburg, just south of Vienna. With its origins in the 13th century under the reign of Duke Albrecht III, and later the summer residence of the imperial family, the centrepiece of Laxenburg is Franzenburg Castle, constructed from 1799 to 1835.

Its formidable towers and battlements and 25-hectare pond are storybook lovely, an enchanted castle worthy of medieval knights. Also on the grounds is the old castle from the 13th century and now home to one of Europe’s most modern film archives (Film Archiv Austria).

We decided against the tour, as we had our hearts set on wandering.

Without map or objective to trouble ourselves, we strolled the gardens, passing couples locked in romantic reverie. We breezed by Concordia Temple, with its 16th century design symbolising harmony and perfection; we paused to admire the ornate Baroque design of the Lusthaus pavilion, and the knightly settings, from crypts to a jousting arena.

At the castle pond I had to retrain Young Sancho, who had taken to throwing rocks, startling the ducks and those same couples now schmoozing in their paddleboats. In such a way we merrily frittered away an entire afternoon. Before we left, though, we stopped in at perhaps the most important place of all – Eissalon Laxenburg! Here, Lady Dulcinea del Toboso graciously reminded this knight-errant it was his shout.

 

National Park Donau-Auen

The Donau-Auen (Danube Wetlands) National Park extends some 36 kilometres from    Vienna to Bratislava along the Danube’s northern banks. There are over 9,300 hectares of riparian forest, meadows and waterways to explore – far more than can be covered in a day. Still, never shy of a challenge, another Saturday saw us clambering into our VW and heading for the National Park Visitor Centre at Orth an der Donau.

The visitor centre was located inside Orth Castle. Built in the 12th century, later transformed to reflect a more lavish 16th century Renaissance style, the castle includes a museum, and a compact wetlands experience island. Bypassing the museum, we ventured out to the island.

There we admired the brightly speckled European Pond Turtles paddling amongst the reeds. Malone Junior found the underwater observatory where giant carp drifted in the chilly gloom before the glass. Slightly macabre was one a-little-too-true-to-life encounter with a sheep carcass lying rotting in the grass. Junior stared aghast at all the wriggling life beneath the wool, while I did my best David Attenborough to explain the natural process of decay.

We followed a trail from the island into a humid forest with giant oaks and black poplars, squirrels and red deer, and – I feel obliged to mention – an astounding number of mosquitos. Scratching furiously, we fled – up over the Marchfelddamm (a cycling mecca extending the length of the national park) and onwards, eventually reaching the Danube.

The Danube wetlands at the Naturpark Donau-Auen are home to diverse plant and wildlife | Photo: Kovacs

The Danube wetlands at the Naturpark Donau-Auen are home to diverse plant and wildlife | Photo: Kovacs

Here the breeze was strong, and the banks were grassy and shady. An ÖBf (Austrian Federal Forests) information trailer had been set up there, where Ranger Clemens and his son were at their posts.

“Here,” his son said when I approached the ÖBf aquarium. “Hold this!” Before I knew it, I had a snake slithering through my fingers. I was still goggle-eyed when he took the snake and handed me his camera. “Take a picture, will you!” I did as I was told. “Good,” he said. “Now put the camera back in the bag!” I did this too, bemused at being treated like a junior scout by this knowledgeable imp. But Ranger Clemens knew his stuff and was soon surrounded by visitors, swarming like pilgrims to a prophet. I barely had time to say goodbye.

We dined on fresh river fish at the nearby Uferhaus (Riverbank House), as I fanned through the national parks brochure: safe swimming at the Orth Islands, camping at the Au Terrasse, boat hire here, barbeques there, fresh asparagus at the roadside stalls. So much to do, but it was already dusk. Malone Junior yawned and scratched a mosquito bite. A welt rose, as white and full as the moon.

“We’ll come another time,” I said. But the warmer months are fleeting in Vienna and we are all busy. Will we really return? I hope so.

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