Republik Donauinsel

Vienna’s island retreat hosted 3.2 million ­festival-goers for three days of mass music frenzy

On 22 June, the crowd cheered for Austro-pop legend Reinhard Fendrich | Photo: Hubert Dimko

On 22 June, the crowd cheered for Austro-pop legend Reinhard Fendrich | Photo: Hubert Dimko

According to its organisers, the Donauinselfest (Danube Island Festival) from 22-25 June is the largest open air festival in the world, with an estimated 2.5 – 3 million visitors attending this year. And while it’s hard to appreciate the scope of such a mass event in its entirety, every large story is made up of little ones.

… At the Radio Arabella Oldies stage, aging heartthrob Waterloo indulges his personal obsessions by chanting American Indian songs wearing nothing but fringed buckskin pants and an enormous turquoise amulet, brandishing his microphone stand like a spear. As the sizable crowd stares transfixed upon their heroes’ heavily tanned torso, their faces betray both genuine affection and mild embarrassment.

While the Donauinsel is mostly known as the city’s recreational paradise, its roots are far more utilitarian. Completed in 1988, it is part of Vienna’s elaborate flood protection system. It is made with earth displaced by the creation of the Neue Donau (New Danube), a channel designed to absorb floodwater when needed. In the previous month, it once again proved its usefulness as rising waters threatened riverside housing.

… Opting for a tent instead of a proletarian stage, the Ö1 Kulturzelt caters to the more sophisticated patrons. Polish accordion virtuoso Krzysztof Dobrek tears up the place with a face melting solo that would make any rock star green with envy. The well-dressed audience dances till the boards creak, clutching the very same plastic beer cups everyone else is using.

The idea to use the island as a leisure area came almost as an afterthought. In 1983, a local branch of the SPÖ organised a small party near Floridsdorferbrücke to promote the island’s potential; when 160,000 people showed up instead of the expected 15,000, an institution was born. It remains closely associated with its primary organiser, the Social Democratic party.

… Not far from the Puls4 Electronic Music stage, a small sausage stand makes a musical statement against the overwhelming beat emanating from their neighbour by blasting thrash metal for all their tinny speakers are worth. A small but dedicated group of head-bangers heeds the call to arms and begins whipping their long, sweaty hair around in all directions, to the bemusement of surrounding festivalgoers. 

Traditionally, the festival is held on the 6.5 km stretch between the Reichsbrücke and the Nordbrücke, with 11 different stages and 19 areas. Countless concession stands line the pathways to offset the official ban on bringing your own, which went largely unheeded and unenforced. Still there is a sizable supporting cast to ensure safety: 150 medics, 6 doctors, over a thousand volunteers and a very large police presence.

… As night falls, the volatile combination of heat, hooch and hormones creates unpleasant yet predictable scenes that are quickly contained. An altercation at the amusement park section between rival teenagers is quickly broken up by over a dozen police officers. 

Regardless of its origin as a thinly veiled campaign event, the Donauinselfest is now a microcosm of Austria. People from all walks of life attend. But it’s not so much one large, living entity as so many small bands of buddies, families and friends, all moving in the same direction yet ultimately isolated. Bread and circuses for the masses, and Gemütlichkeit reigning supreme at the many makeshift beer tents. Yet those so inclined will always find a few outsiders relaxing on the riverbank, creating their own private festival on a lazy summer evening.

… On the Wien Energie/Radio Wien Stage, the largest and most crowd-friendly, favourite son Wolfgang Ambros launches into his greatest hit and one of Austria’s unofficial national anthems. Ignoring heat, humidity and swarms of mosquitoes, he extols the joys of the national pastime: “Schiiiiifoan!” There’s not a dry eye on the island.

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