Vienna's hiking trails lead tourists, locals off the beaten path

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2004

VIENNA, Austria Stuffed with schnitzel? Overdosed on all those must-see museums and historic buildings? Vienna offers visitors a perfect antidote an urban hike.

The capital of this hiking-crazed country has an impressive network of easy-to-reach city hiking paths that provide walkers a couple of hours of refreshment combined with sights most tourists otherwise would miss.

Known in German as "Stadtwanderwege," the paths cover areas ranging from the popular, vineyard-studded Kahlenberg hill in the city's northwest to the Zugberg, a forest-covered mound in the south. Paths also lace the lesser-known parts of the central Prater park famous for its giant Ferris wheel and other amusements.

"They're spread all over Vienna, and they give a nice sample of the diverse flora here, from the Vienna Woods to the wine hills," said Heinz Fink, a city official in charge of the paths.

Most of the hikes go through some green spaces, including the leafy Vienna Woods, some of the city's several vineyards or across lush pastures. But all also pass by eateries where walkers can fill up on hearty food, beer and torte to get a quick burst of energy and make up for any calories lost.

The city created the paths 25 years ago as a way to get the Viennese to leave their cars at home as they headed out for weekend excursions, Fink said.

They remain popular among locals and visitors alike, with an estimated 100,000 trotting the paths each year, he said.

Even so, the paths offer a dose of solitude and a refreshing break from some of Vienna's most popular tourist sights, such as the Schoenbrunn Castle, which attracts almost 1.8 million visitors a year. They also feature their own, little-known sights, including ancient churches, castles and a historical observatory.

There are 11 hikes with estimated walking times ranging from two and a half hours to five hours over distances of six miles to nine miles.

For die-hard walkers, there are also four longer versions two that circle the city and two that cross it, one from north to south and one from east to west.

"Although they go straight across Vienna, 90 percent of them are located in green areas," Fink said.

He's received requests for brochures with details about the paths from places such as Germany, the United States and Australia, but locals, especially the elderly, make up the paths' core fan base. Some collect stamps in a hiking pass to qualify for special "Stadtwanderwege" pins.

Hanns Liharzik, 74, has meandered the Vienna Woods since he was a child and still walks the city hiking paths regularly.

"I think they're a very positive encouragement to get out in nature," he said.

The hikes highlight natural areas that visitors often are surprised to see in a capital, Liharzik said.

Those that take strollers up into the hills offer stunning panoramic views of the Danube River slicing through Vienna. On clear days, from some vantage points, walkers can see the distant hills of neighboring Slovakia on the horizon.

"They give a good overview of Vienna's surroundings, and they also give a good guide to nature," he said, adding that they can be walked by just about anyone who is healthy.

The paths generally are well-marked and numbered, but bringing a detailed city map to supplement those printed in brochures can be helpful. Wooden signs carved with the word "Stadtwanderwege" and the path's number show the way.

Vandals occasionally have twisted the signs, leading hikers the wrong way, Fink said.

But "you can't get really lost in Vienna. You always end up somewhere," he said.

Despite the popularity of the paths, Fink has received some complaints.

"Someone called me and said: 'My feet got wet,'" he recalled. "I said it was no surprise it had been raining for three weeks."

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