Flip-Flops and Loose Strings: An Exposé

Vienna is land-locked, but when it comes to cooling-down, this city knows how to improvise

On The Town | Isabel Termini, Michelle Shepherd | May 2012

Beginning in May, Vienna flocks to the many pools and riverside beaches across the city, like Schafbergbad in the 18th District (Photo: APA/Karl Thomas)

The City of Vienna has found the perfect antidote to the ever-windy, grey spring days in a land-locked city. May is finally here and Wien has a long tradition of making everything near water into a beach, and planting pools in the most unexpected places. Here is a primer.

May at last!

With summer, swimming season has arrived. A bit of sunbathing is a human necessity, as people unfold like flowers in the warmth of the early summer sun.  A source of vitamin D, sure, but more importantly, a sensual experience.

In this, Vienna is an old hand, with more and better public pools and bathing beaches than many summer resorts, transforming the sleepy winter capital into a lively and leisure-rich summertime city.

Take your bicycle or public transit for a splash along the grassy stretches of the Old Danube (U1 Alte Donau), from the docks at the Danube inlet, near the U1 Donauinsel, or, paddle out into the main channel off the Danube Island. There are plenty of choices. After a hard day at work, you’re just minutes away from a completely different world. Come with a friend, a lover, alone or with family – all ages, all sorts come to the public riverside beaches.

In the late 1960s, the Vienna city government aimed to turn Vienna into a "City of Baths," meaning that nearly every neighbourhood throughout the city now has access to a swimming pool. For many native Viennese, the summer goal is to spend as much time as possible in a bathing suit. For seniors, the beaches become a way of life in the summer, where they meet-up with old friends, play cards and drink a beer or a "G’spritzter".

A pool cartography

When people who live in Vienna chat about their favourite swimming spots, they often describe a sort of mental map, to indicate the communities where they feel most at home.

Martin Kotinsky, press spokesman for the Vienna Bathing Administration (MA 44/ Bäderverwaltung), talks about Vienna’s public pools and beaches with a familiarity usually reserved for one’s childhood friends. He lists them with affection: the Höpflerbad in Liesing, the Gänsehäufel in Kaisermühlen, the Krapfenwaldbad in Döbling, the Laabergbad in Favoriten.

His top choice is the "Kongo." The Kongressbad in Hernals was built in 1928 from plans made by the town’s master mason, Erich Leischner. But, since Kotinsky moved away from the west side of the city, where he grew up, his new "neighbourhood bath" is the ­Simmeringerbad.

But when he has a day off, he hops on the U-Bahn to the Strandbad Gänsehäufel.

Red Vienna and the Gänsehäufel

The Gänsehäufel is located on a sandy island in the side channel of the Old Danube. It is the city’s pride and joy, the "Superbad" tauted by the Wien Marketing – in the same vein as a "Superblock" of social housing: It’s the swimmers equivalent of the legendary Gemeindebau, built during the historical era of Red Vienna.

On a fair day in summer, as many as 30,000 swimmers come the Gänsehäufel. Yet somehow it never feels crowded, as people disperse among the several swimming pools, tennis courts and other sports facilities at hand, nestled here and there around the vast, gracious lawns, under the shade of the poplars and cottonwoods. Amongst the willows, reeds and ducks, the nature preserve also includes a tranquil, protected sandbar reserved for the "altogether" – the nudist zone.

The Gänsehäufel matters to the Viennese. Destroyed in the bombing during World War II, it was lovingly rebuilt after the war and reopened in 1950, and like the reconstruction of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral was a symbol of renewal and also the continuity of the social democratic government in Vienna. Over a century since it first opened in 1907, this timeless city resort has been an oasis for all those without the time or resources to travel to the seaside.

The revolutionary 68ers

As time passed, the Vienna government evolved the aforementioned broader Bathing Beach Plan, the Bäderkonzept, planning fourteen new baths in seven years, so that every Viennese citizen would have local access. The concept included renewal of out-dated public baths, like the Volksbäder, or Public Baths, which provided the District’s inhabitants with showers and tubs. Volksbäder were still being built in the 1920s era of the Gemeindebau, because the tiny apartments were still planned without private bathrooms.

The Bäderkonzept, a grand ambition, ended as an effect of the 1970s oil embargo, when a financial crisis brought stark austerity measures.

Grab the sun-block and inflatable toys

Besides the Höpflerbad in Atzgersdorf, the Schafbergbad in the 18th District was one of the most recently of the summertime bathing facilities. An extra large park, with landscaped lawns and gardens surrounds the swimming pools. A corrupt contractor, along with technical problems during construction of the massive concrete structures resulted in the plans being scaled back. Still the stunning view of the city was preserved and it finally opened in 1974.

The wide-open, concrete structure of pools is in stark contrast to the clothes changing and storage area cabanas in red, blue and yellow, now softened with time. Now, after nearly 40 years of intense use, the Schafbergbad has aged with a surprising dignity, with a retro charm that has made it a kind of cult-favorite among the young. In short, a serious hotspot, and not only from the sun. While the sparkling terraces of water flirt with blue sky, an equally beautiful community of teens and 20s gathers there to meet and greet.

"While each community has a favourite pool, young people travel to the Schafbergbad" Martin Kotinsky told The Vienna Review. Although it is not as easy to get to with public transportation, it has become the favorite meeting place for water-loving teenagers who live in Vienna’s west. Among this age group, the only real competitor is the Kongressbad.

So swimmers have been waiting eagerly since last September for 2 May, the official opening of the summer swim season.Have Kotinsky and his MA 44 colleagues become nervous, as summer approaches? He replies, "No. It is just business as usual."

Leafing through the brochures and gazing up at the posters on the walls, we have to ask: Why is it that we have never seen a female lifeguard at a public pool, an impression supported by the Bathing Administration’s own statistics. In 2011, only eight out of 100 lifeguards were women.

"Generally, girls do not like to work in hot spots," Kotinsky said, describing the rampantly busy locations like Laaberg-, Ottakringer-, Simmeringer-, Kongress- and Schafbergbad, frequented by young people who are not always "very respectful." They prefer the lesser frequented baths, like the Angelibad and the Höpflerbad, where the uproar is comparatively tame. After all, it’s summer; who can blame them if they want to relax too.

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