Late Winter in the Wienerwald

Often called the lungs of Vienna, on this clear morning in the damp freshness, a feeling that is easy to understand

A road through the Wienerwald in February | Photo: KF/Wikimedia Commons

As spring peeks up from between the rocks and pries it’s way out from under the frozen grown, the urge becomes almost irresistible to cancel life for a day and head for the Vienna Woods.

In the last days of winter, the trees are still bare, and the light a blue and silver brown against the trees still dormant from the cold. The water is already gurgling though and there is moss along the banks and watercress over the spring that bubbles up from between the rocks. This is our gift, living here, a wondrous, hilly retreat of gentle paths, forests and streams that gives us back to ourselves.

The Wienerwald is often called the lungs of Vienna, and on this clear morning in the damp freshness, it is easy to understand why. Leaves crunch and twigs snap under food and the shimmering air is exciting to breath. It’s a gentle landscape somewhere between mountain and meadow, ancient hillsides, vineyards, and the occasional ruin. The paths are groomed, but not too much. It’s important to keep one eye on the ground so I don’t catch a boot on a root.

People find these paths soothing: The angst-ridden Kafka, often at a loss for words, would go walking here with his ladylove Milena, and Beethoven, increasingly troubled when his hearing was failing, thought the chirping of birds, the sheltering trees, and leafy vineyards of the Wienerwald made it easier for him to compose. There is something special about the light streaming in at an odd angle between the crags across a leaf-trodden lane, about the special smells of the damp earth and the crisp blue winter sky.

I like to take the bus up to the top of the Kahlenberg where, if the weather is clear, you can see all the way to Hungary and Slovakia. At the top is the small Church of St. Joseph, where the Polish King Jan Sobieski stopped to pray before leading his troops to Vienna’s defense against the Turks. And then you can follow around the hotel school, Modul, and take the winding path down the hillside to Nussdorf. But today it’s too cold and anyway, the Heuriger aren’t open yet.

So we decide on a different plan, take the car and head out the A21 to the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz – my favorite place in the Vienna Woods.

The Abbey of Heiligenkreuz takes up most of the little village that bears its name, nestled in a broad valley at the Western end of the Vienna Woods, about 15 kilometres out side of town. It’s not far from the hunting lodge at Mayerling, where the Crown Prince Rudolf and his lover, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, met their end (see Mar 2011 Vienna Review of Books, p. 9).

Passions like those seem remote here, a town within a town, where life passes from Matins to Evensong much as it has for eight centuries. Gregorian Chant echoes in the long corridors and the Abbey wine flows freely as they break their bread. It is a place the modern world seems to have passed by.

But what I love about this place is that alongside their ancient rituals of wine, song and holy writ, the monks of Heiligenkreuz have a second life as recording artists with Universal Music – for whom they made an album of Gregorian Chant, three years ago and catapulted themselves to No. 1 on the classical charts in the U.K.

So we park in the gravel year and enter through the abbey gateway; an outer courtyard leads passed a cluster of low stone buildings painted the Schönbrunner yellow so characteristic of Austria. Then through another broad courtyard with covered walkway arcades, and yet another to the Abbey church – luck is with us and through the windows, the rich voices of Gregorian chant suddenly emerge from somewhere deep inside. We try the door, but it is locked; it’s cold, but we have to stand ther listening, as the sound swells with the long arching lines of melody and resonating against the ancient stone. It is a haunting sound, yet also comforting, a sound that speaks to a need for which there are no words.

But after 20 minutes or so, we realize we are start shifting from foot to foot to stay warm, and after another few more, we turn heel and head back, diving into the Abtkeller, hoping for something hot to eat. Not a lot of choice – belegtes Brot, cold meats… but the Goulasch smells wonderful, so it’s an easy choice, and the Heiligenkreuzer wines cost next to nothing, so we order a carafe of wine and another of soda water and feel very well treated indeed.

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