World Tour of Austria – Grein to Wien

If you only knew, my beloved seafarers, where I’m writing from… A dream, so many sea books and a model Viking boat. I’m in the secret lounge of the imperial steam-tug “Frederic Mistral”, currently moored in Wien!

Clodia is quietly sleeping next to it. I can hear the Danube water since I’m about three quarters below its level. I have the rare privilege to work inside this historical gem, a cat purring on my knees.

Smell of old boat. Humid and cold but I feel great.

This museum piece, built in 1914, at first glance looks like a normal tugboat but beyond the appearance… Its story is fascinating: 26 metres long by 5 wide, draught 1.80, steam engine with max speed of 14 knots.

It was used for tugging but also to control the waterways, hosting aboard a very special guest: No less than Franz Joseph, the emperor.

From the portholes below-deck, surrounded by a sober luxury, he could take a look to the river banks and enjoy a quiet navigation, unnoticed. His cabin is simple and small, so distant to those built on the yacht of nowadays “nouveaux riches”!! The emperor, at the time one of the mightiest man on earth, travelled aboard a tugboat, in a 2 by 1,5 metres cabin with a half bunk-bed. Now that’s class.

My story was interrupted in Grein. Here I meet our new angel, Horst, in a place that’s smelling madness, the healthy way as usual! I’m strolling around with Paolo, our documentary director, when we enter a shop selling clothes, coffee and handmade soaps, all produced with passion and love. I see three people sitting around a nice table and we feel an immediate empathy, so we start talking about our journey and how life is going.

Here in Grein I feel a bit sick because of the cold, the rain and the effort. I ask if they know a cheap hostel to stay overnight. After a quick consultation Horst says: “Why don’t you come to my place?” Kindness and gentleness.

He takes me to learn the life of a little village that’s become wealthy thanks to the Danube and its dangerousness when the lock system wasn’t yet in place to slow down the current. At the time, in Grein there were three dreadful rapids that had already taken a heavy toll. Nobody was so daring to pass, least of all without a local driver. Grein’s helmsmen knew where and how to get through safely, being paid the right fee for their service.

This way the richness grew and grew: Today Grein, among many other things, is proud to own the oldest Austrian theatre, built with the money coming from helmsmen’s families and not from the nobility. A people’s theatre. In the city emblem you can see the helmsman who drives  a boat through the rocks. Fantastic, not a saint but a seaman!! A true secular vision!!

I also meet a friend of Horst who, bored of her job in the Post Office, is now running a shop selling local products, notably an Austrian Whisky. Then he shows me the pictures of a community of disabled and mentally ill people who are involved in the community through theatrical representations.

So many nice initiatives in this little village with a great soul. And to think that my first impact was negative: Despite the beauty of this enchanted valley, I could see the usual awful concrete wall running along the mighty Danube to prevent flooding.

But, as often happens, appearances can be deceptive, so I’ve met many angels. Horst’s own story is quite interesting: He owns a cinema on the Danube that for a while was at risk to be in the Danube! During the last great flooding in 2002 the water inside the building reached a 50 cm level. Man “in” the River, nearly.

For dinner, on top of letting me sleep in his house, he gives me a wonderful vegetable stew made with locally grown veggies. Horst collects and distributes them to many friends through one of the many buying groups. Wunderbar!!

Our conversation is rich and absorbing: He displays a great culture mixed with modesty and passion. A rare person. The next day I set off sadly. A local broadcaster, Grein TV, makes me an interview directed by Larissa, a media communication student who’s working in her dad’s camping for summer.

In the meantime Ferdinand, the mad and genial dentist who’s already a dear friend, has joined our team once again.

He also finds the time to buy a boat from a Swiss couple coming from Basel, who will give us lots of presents in Wien later on. Thanks!

We set sails rather late, after the heavy rains in the morning. Reached the once infamous island of Worth, we see a man waving his arms in the distance aboard a restaurant barge. He’s Rudy the pirate, running a wild restaurant seeming a little Neapolitan. We get offered a fantastic baked pork and beer, how to refuse!

Then, we fly down the river, to Ybbs and Pernsburg. Within the Nibelung lock, a group of (very funny) rowers from Ulm takes us for rather frightening Viking pirates who sing in Serb and are fatally lost along the Danube in a constant condition of dangerous drunkenness (in reality, natural madness).

After the lock the sun goes down and it’s time to stop. In Sarling we find a lovely free harbour, with many wooden boats around, enjoying a fantastic sunset.

A local biergarten gives us hospitality and we have a deep sleep. The next morning is misty and that’s not a good omen.

We have a discussion because lately I have been much on my own, overlooking the efforts and the good suggestions coming from Bruno and Fine. That’s true and I’m not proud of it. I’m not an easy individual and possibly the many months of light craziness of this journey made me forget for a while who has given me so much, especially in the beginning when I was so weak. How long the way to be a wise man… I have broken something, and I’ll try to repair but it won’t be easy. I know that.

The sun pops out and we see a little sandy beach as a mirage after so much rain. We take a short pause with a funny break by Ferdinand. Ave Ferdinand!

Then the glorious Wachau valley begins: Rocks, vineyards and medieval villages full of history. One of the best looking places that I’ve ever seen.

The current is quite strong, about 10 km per hour, and we proceed with an alternate wind toward Spitz, getting safely through emerging rocks and steep cliffs that once took a heavy toll in lives and boats.

Spitz is nice, surrounded by a thousand balconies, many of them abandoned. Granite, sweat and blood. Then it came the wine to repay all efforts and enrich the following generations.

This time of the year an excellent tradition sees all farmhouses opening their doors to serve local products and wine, that’s very strong because of a severe microclimate with hot days and freezing nights. This is due to the Danube, that flows powerfully, and to a low raining rate. A hard-fought nectar.

In Spitz both Paolo and Ferdinand leave us. The very same day I set off on my own and sail downstream. Wien is now close, less than two days of navigation. The current helps me to win a nasty headwind. I meet rocks, castles, hidden beaches and clear water: Two guys aboard a Zillen, the local wooden boat pushed by an iron-tipped pole, approach Clodia asking to stop in Durnstein because it’s lovely.

And so it is, and also rich in histories, such as that of Richard the Lionheart who was imprisoned here by Leopold V after his comeback from the 1192 crusade and the taking of Acre in the Holy Land.

Richard committed an act of arrogance by throwing a few ensigns in the mud, possibly to gain all credits of the deed. On his way from Aquileia to the motherland, he had to pay a high price for this insult: Two years of captivity and a huge ransom. I wonder if he enjoyed local wine?

Leaving Durnstein I keep rowing and sweating. Krems and its baroque, the Danube that gets wider, the Wachau coming to an end, leaving place to the plains. In the sweetest sunset, I stop in the Traismauer marina where I’ll be granted free mooring. I feel good to row, now.

In the lock I meet Fine and Bruno once again, beginning a crazy sailing, with triple-reef and 20 knot wind blows from astern. In a few hours, I cover 36 km at 12/13 km per hour on average, up to Muckendorf where I cross two boats sailing upstream. How nice, and how rare! Here the current is nearly null because we’re very close to a lock. The next day is all by sail again, up to Wien.

Entering the city by sail is extraordinary! The big bridges, the palaces, the StephanDom in the distance, the fishermen houses with the lift-nets.

Two naked men (naturism is quite usual along the Danube and in Wien) scream “Ahoi!” inviting me for a beer in honour to the nicest boat seen in Wien in years. A compliment that I hand over to Roland, Silvio and all the other friends who helped in building Clodia.

Something, though, looks odd: Wien turns its shoulders to the Danube, we miss the real city. Never mind, it’s nice all the same. However I’m happy and I already know where to stop, which is a lot believe me! At km 1.923,7 I should find some bizarre historical boats, and I’m not wrong.

Franz from Linz told me that and he was right. I sail close-hauled against the headwind, getting there in the early afternoon.

I moor side by side to the Frederic Mistral, and shortly afterwards I get a warm welcome from Franz Scheriau, the captain.

He’s likeable, a big man with the strongest handshake. With all these boats around he must be a real lover of such a tough world.

His personal story is wonderful: He comes from the Steinmark, a mountain region, and, as he likes to point out, being a black sheep he dedicates to the sea. When he’s 14 years old he embarks on a fishing boat along the Danube, understanding quite soon that’s a wrong choice. Then, at 15, he gets aboard another fishing boat, this time directed to Greenland: A cold place, he says, with the company of men who didn’t have any other choice. Hard days. Fighting and alcohol in conditions too hard to be imagined. Then, at 17, he gets into the business of selling house boats in Amsterdam and become driver of tankers, big ships, travelling the seven seas. He’s one of the few captains to possess a license for crossing the Panama Canal without a pilot (smiling, he says that was nice to save 20.000 dollars) and also the only Austrian to have his residence in a boat on the Danube.

The place where he now lives is beautiful, interesting and packed with good vibrations. Not by chance, the next morning while I take a relaxing walk I can’t believe to my eyes: A Buddhist pagoda and temple flood me with white and gold.
Also, so much water, sky and green, the Prater garden is behind us.

The website is a very good starting point to understand the beauty of this place and of the many boats that Franz had bought and restored.
Among them Ana, built in 1896
: It’s the oldest passenger boat on the Danube and I’ve had the privilege to drive it.

So many friends will come here, with great surprise and happiness of Captain Franz, who’s worked a lot to bring people visiting these masterpiece from the past. Bernd comes with a super bio breakfast made from his garden’s fruits, while Thomas, who works with him, bring us plenty of products that he sells with passion and competence.

Then we take part to the filming of a police series, set aboard the Mistral and Bruno drives Ana for the troupe.
Still, I have to mention two people: Julieta Rudich, an extraordinary woman, documentarist and reporter working for ORF, who brights me with her all-round beauty and gives me a bed to sleep.

And Anita, who manages a very interesting project about the Joy Economy and the World Cafès. I’ll dig deeper and let you know.

Wien is a city that from Balkan gate, or better stil Hungaric, is now becoming a starting point for thousands of projects about water. We’ve met Benedict Mendl, from ICDPR, in the galactic headquarter of the UN.
It strikes a little fear to be body searched as in an airport for a simple interview. It’s sad to think about the terrorist attacks of the past and the reasons behind them.

The interview that Benedict gives us is a model of professionalism and tells about years and people who’re dedicating many resources to water. A project created for children, in alarming collaboration with Coca Cola, leave me puzzled with a little smell of Green Washing, despite the project itself sounds really good.

Then we see Gaetano, Uruguaian photographer with rare sensibility, Pablo, who takes Bruno and Fine for a tourist tour on a bus full of Brazilians, Pablo again aboard clodia with Liliana, his lovely and unleashed daughter, two nice girls from Budapest living here and Viking boats as usual…

Yet again crazy encounters, the market, the secession reigning and an empire that does not exist anymore but it doesn’t know it, a city that’s proud of its multi-ethnicity in a Country where the 20% of population votes for the extreme right wing. Wien of cafès anf kebab, far from the Danube, from this black river springing from the Black Forest and flows into the Black Sea, but whose soul is all but black.

Waves and wind, such as those enjoyed in these days of early winter aboard Clodia. Hard bike riding against the wind, turning easy on the way back. Rain and a wonderful metro.

I wouldn’t mind staying in Wien, and I might as well do it, for a winter that everybody says very tough. But I like cold winters, Franz’s boats and this capital of Europe and Orient so undervalued. But Wien, the womb of Europe where many things spring in the shadows… Took my heart. Maybe through a smile and a nice laugh from Uruguay, who knows… Funny enough!!

Yesterday was unforgettable. I’ve met the guys from Sargfabrik, a sort of co-housing born in the early 90s when an old factory of coffins was transformed into a very nice residential area. Here people join together to have a better lifestyle, where the quality of construction, of services, of sharing resources without damages, seems to work.

It looks like a luxury residence but a roof working as a vegetable garden, integrated systems and building techniques make of it a passive house. The sauna, the natural pool, the centre for seminars and concerts, the restaurant and bar serving fair-trade products make of this place a dream made real.

Something way better than the eco-chic trend that’s so popular in our still too shallow society. The constant meetings and confrontations allow to manage this structure with democratic efficiency. Thomas, one of the founders, and Bernd give us hospitality, food and warmth, sauna and intelligence. And a sweet cat.

Danube-Paranà comes to my mind. I wish that Wien will turn its face to the Danube, I’ll try to make it happen. Budapest embraces the Danube, Wien doesn’t. But something’s changing.

Hasta luego y Auf wiedersehen!

P.S. thanks to Billy Connolly for inspiring today’s title

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2 Responses to “World Tour of Austria – Grein to Wien”

  1. Pascal says:

    Hey guys! here is the Veneto-Turco-French hairdresser from Istanbul. It’s been a long time since I took some news and now it appears that you might get to Istanbul before X-mas!!!
    it would be lovely to organize something at home for your arrival so pleaaaaase let me know when your amazing journey will get to Asian borders…
    Lots of love to everyone and thank you for these wonderful pieces of dream you share with us.

  2. Giacomo says:

    Grande Pascal, sooooo late. I am planning to stop in Budapest for the winter. And then back for a while to Vienna to work on a project very interesting, and then starting again in march, april of the next year.

    Grazie di tutto e abbraccio forte da tutti

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