Vienna might not be top of your list when it comes to outdoor swimming destinations, but an 18km stretch of open water in the heart of the city – as well as the chance to swim-commute to work – has convinced Blaise Kelly
Austria’s capital city Vienna sits on the eastern edge of the Austrian Alps and the start of the vast Hungarian Plains. Famous for its cultural heritage and great thinkers, it could well be at the top of people’s list if they wanted to experience a concert, the opera or visit some art galleries. The Blue Danube is more well-known as a waltz in concert halls than somewhere for swimming. On arriving in Vienna a few years ago I had heard of its typical large eastern European or German open air swimming pool complexes, but it was only on joining the office swimming crowd in the Kaiserwasser, a short walk from the Donau city business district and UN headquarters, that I realised this was but the tip of the Viennese open water scene.
Once a complex collection of islands, the Danube basin was straightened out in the late 1800s in an attempt to tame its flooding and ease shipping. This failed to completely solve the problem and after years of studies, work on a grandiose flood defence scheme began in 1972 and was completed in 1988. Designed to protect the city against a repeat of its most severe flood in 1501, it involved 20km of the Danube being split down the middle: one side devoted to busy shipping lanes and the other a huge basin that can buffer any rising waters, called the Neu Donau. During calm conditions, which is the majority of the year, it provides 40km of recreational shoreline and an 18km stretch of open water of which 11km is uninterrupted. All this is less than 3km from the bustling UNESCO World Heritage city centre and easily accessible by any of three metro lines (U1, U2 and U6) and a plethora of bus, tram and cycle connections.
The remaining oxbow section of the Danube formed the Kaiserwasser and the 5km long Alte Donau, a green and picturesque swimming spot, with back gardens, restaurants and beaches lining its shores. On warm summer weekends it bustles with bathers and diners, rowing and paddle boats traversing the lake. No motorised traffic is allowed in either stretch of water.
A few years ago, the proposed London ‘Lidoline’ made headlines. It was a plan to set aside a lane of the Regents Canal for commuters. The Neu Donau is exactly this, forming the border of no less than six districts; it is a 100-metre-wide deserted ‘Autobahn’ for swimmers.
A chance conversation with local physio and swimmer Trixi, about leaving valuables on the shore when swimming, led me to buy an inflatable dry bag. At the time I was commuting from the south west to the north east of the city in the morning. The bag realised the possibility of running to the shore of the Neu Donau in the middle of Reichsbrueke, stuffing my clothes and running bag into the dry bag, blowing it up and jumping in. Apart from the odd canoeist and some geese, I was the only traffic. Patrolled by the occasional police boat, with plenty of passers-by on the shore never more than 50m away, it is open water swimming without the isolation some might feel in wild locations.
My commute was 2.5km through the shadow of high rise office blocks, past cyclists and runners using the traffic free Donau insel, under the busy A22 slip road and alighting at Briggetenauer Brücke via one of many pontoon steps or clambering out over the rocks under the Georg-Danzer-Steg, a few metres from Austria’s largest mosque. Although it is dammed off from the main river, it still has a slight north to south current, which ensures it is always slightly cooler and fresher than the Alte Donau, but trips south are noticeably faster
The other side of the expanding high rise Donau City complex (home to Austria’s tallest building, the DC tower) is the Alte Donau and Kaiserwasser, often preferred due to their warmer temperatures.
‘The loop’ is a 4.1km route that starts and finishes in the tranquil Kaiserwasser, overlooked by the Vienna International Centre (VIC) and a short walk from the U1 Kaisermühlen metro station. It takes in the quieter parts of the Alte Donau and provides minimal exposure to rowing boats which use the lake. It’s normal for people to get changed on the grass and leave kit next to a bench.
Enter the water at the steps and head out diagonally across the lake towards the footbridge that marks the entrance to the Alte Donau. Rowers tend to use the north side of the lake, but they do use both sides. This point of the swim is the only part where the rowing lanes have to be crossed, so proceed with care across to the shores of the Gänsehaufel island.
On the far side of the lake rowers travel on the left, contrary to the Austrian roads. Circumnavigating the island clockwise means any stray boats approach head on and are more likely to be visible. Follow the island around, keeping no more than a few metres from the shore/buoys and cross back to the Kaiserwasser via the same route.
An alternative to leaving kit at the shores of the Kaiserwasser would be to pay entry to the Gänsehaufel island, in the centre of the Alte Donau, where showers, changing facilities and lockers are available (May to early September) and start the swim at another point.
The Neu and Alte Donau (New and Old Danube) offer some of the safest and most accessible open water swimming that I know of in any city. This is helped in no small part by the tight environmental regulations of Austria and Germany, the only country to sit up-river from Austria on the Danube. An example is Vienna’s enormous storm water storage buffer to enable water treatment systems to cope during heavy rain. This ensures no foul water ever enters the river. In addition, water is tested every two weeks during the summer season (May to September) for E-Coli, Enterococcus and its temperature with results available online (see side bar).
Vienna is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities. From a swimmer’s perspective, I would definitely agree!
Indoor swimming options
Austria’s sporting heart lies in winter sports, something firmly cemented by a referendum in 2014 voting overwhelmingly not to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Although competitive swimming is not so popular, it has a well-kept 25m pool in every district (of which there are 23), two 50m (one of which is open air in summer) and a third a stone’s throw from the border. Every pool comes with ample steam and sauna facilities and in the south of the city the Oberlaa thermal baths provide respite from the bitter winter months (discounted during the summer bathing season).
Swimming is allowed all year round, however during winter months it is not unknown for the Neu and Alte Donau to freeze. In the summer, thunderstorms can come in at very short notice.
When the flood defences are in operation the Neu Donau is closed to swimmers. It usually takes around two weeks after waters have subsided until quality tests give the all clear. The Alte Donau and Kaiserwasser are usually unaffected.
Water quality information during the summer season: http://bit.ly/2r3qlPN
Jet2, Easyjet, British Airways and Austrian operate direct flights to Vienna. The city can be reached in one day from London by train. Or take the overnight sleeper service from Cologne or Frankfurt.