Letter from Austria

Land of the Danube: industry and culture

By Guy Burns

guy aND BIKEIt was a cool dark, very early morning when my train rolled into Passau, Germany, the southern border city on the banks of the Danube.

I unloaded my pushbike and headed south east, there was hardly a soul about as I slowly sliced through the air and within minutes, was crossing the massive slow-moving Danube.

Navigation was easy; keep the river on my left shoulder and head down stream. Within 20 minutes I was over the border into Austria, another five and I had found a tree to curl up under for the night.

It was 4:30am when the first light of dawn shone through the trees and awoke me. Two and half hours sleep was all I could manage; never mind I would have a nap later on.

 Intro to Austria

That was my introduction to Austria, another 8 hours and 100kms later or so I would reach Linz, the major cultural and industrial hub of upper Austria.From there it was only another 10 kms to my destination, the small village of Steyregg, population of just over 4,000  (but officially it’s a city, getting this designation before Linz in 1482), and my home for several weeks.

The Danube River, heavy industry and culture permeate the area.curving danube

The Danube connects industry and culture  — and for time immemorial this waterway has been inexorably linked with man’s involvement with the area; firstly the Celts, then Romans, Slavs, Bavarians and Avars. The river was the major transport and communications hub and today is still used by thousands of barges to transport goods up and down Europe.

Two major industries dominate Linz, and, as a Kiwi, I found the harsh, stark world of heavy industry both fascinating and scary. Covering hundreds of acres on the eastern banks of the Danube are the two giant institutions: Voestalpine and Chemiepark.

 Steel smelting and finishing

VoestalpineVoestalpine is a huge steel smelting and finishing plant, producing high-end steel products and employing 46,000 people. Chemiepark consists of around 30 companies employing over 40,000 people, which produce melamine , urea , synthetic resins , synthetic fertilizers , ammonia , urea, nitric acid, paints. In fact, if it’s anything chemical, they probably make it there.

The strangely alien and industrial landscape is connected to the river Danube by three large ports. The juxtaposition between nature and harsh steel structures is interesting and at times, beautifully surreal. But I do miss crystalline blue skies and pristine air of Aotearoa.

The culture of the Austria is amazing with a depth and breadth that I do not find in NZ. Most small villages have a centre which will go back a thousand years with structures built at least 400 years ago. The locals are connected to the rich history and traditions of their-land, food, dress, music etc. and have a strong self-confidence in their identity (something we are slowly developing in NZ)

chess in austrian parkI’ve run out of space: but in a nutshell, I enjoyed

~ the countless variations of wurst (sausage)

~ the beers and the  strong tradition of responsibly drinking in public places; locally made cider, costing just $NZ3 at the supermarket

~ architecture; cycle-ways and cycle-friendly drivers; outdoor chess; and  hot summer weather (often around  the 30 centigrade  mark).

Next month I’m back in Southern Germany catching up with some friends.

danube aqnd yacht