New Perspectives

Notes From Nature: Dec., 2010/Jan., 2011

Columns | R S Hughes | December 2010 / January 2011

My son’s first mountain summit! It’s no such thing in reality, but a couple of hundred metres is a heady height for a three year-old. The tens of pinwheel seeds of the sycamore tree that spin around when tossed to the air that we happen across on the way up help keep us amused, as does spotting the Danube from up high, visible at nearly every turn.

"…far ahead, a glint of the familiar old river, while the wintry sun hung red and low on the horizon," wrote Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows, the book we’re currently reading. And so it is as we make the trip we’ve planned for some time.

Each time we’ve journeyed north out of the city, towards Klosterneuburg and beyond, Leopoldskirche on top of Leopoldsberg seems to have been calling us. Perhaps it’s simply the sudden freedom in the sight lines on leaving central Vienna behind that makes the small white church, visible for miles, such an appealing destination.

"The gorge-vision that streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac," writes Robert Macfarlane in The Wild Places, in reference to the sometimes suffocating nature of city life. Setting out on what according to the map is the most direct route up, the hum of traffic from the main drag from Vienna to Klosterneuburg all but drowns out any hoped-for solitude. But a steep, concrete path of seemingly never-ending steps and corners, each one of which promises to be the last, gradually spirits us away.

After half an hour, robins and great tits are flitting about us like dolphins following a boat, and the sound of cars, trucks, busses and trains becomes more remote. It’s replaced by the chink, chink, chink alarm calls of the aforementioned birds, the faint pealing of church bells, the incessant barking of some far-off dog and the coarse cries of crows.

Reaching the top, we realise weave been fooled by the perspective, that this is a rainbow’s end: the closer one gets to it, the further away it seems. We’re finally standing just metres away from the church that can be seen clearly for miles, but we’re struggling to get a good look at it. It’s obscured by high, crumbling stonewalls and mature, sculptural pine trees.

We sit on a bench and eat cheese and pickle sandwiches, looking out over Vienna. The gaudy gold of the Viennese power station at Spittelau spouts white steam into the yellow-grey November sky, but it’s a good couple of kilometers from where I would have placed it instinctively from what I know of the distances on the ground. I’m surprised at the huge tract of city that lies between the river and the canal. And seeing the Danube – old and new – stretch before us like two dull sheets of steel allows me to truly appreciate for the first time the feat of engineering that the re-routed river represents.

As we descend past wheezing power walkers and day-trippers, I realize that Vienna fits together slightly differently than I had imagined. We walked up here to get a better look at the church. We’re leaving with a better understanding of the city.

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