DANUBEparksCONNECTED Bridging the Danube Protected Areas towards a Danube Habitat Corridor

Cycling the Danube in Austria


Good Bye Germany - Hello Austria



Photos and Text: Jovan Eraković

I come from a country where we at first could travel the world without a visa, like almost no one else. And then there was a time when we couldn’t travel anywhere without (hard to get) visa. So I learned to appreciate every crossing of a border, even if it was as symbolic as this one. It is beautiful - and important - to cross borders easily as if they do not exist. It is a natural right that we acquire by birth and that we carry through our whole life - regardless of whether others respect it or not. It is part of our dignity, the measure of our humanity.

And where it could feel stronger than along a mighty river that just flows and flows, minds its own business and does not care about human passion for invisible lines? I want to flow like that. But instead of diverging in a sea, after passing this board I will feel a bit more compact, a bit more human :)


Protected Area of the Wachau VaLLEY


The name "Wachau" sounds big and deep - with its right mix of vowels and consonants it resonates far and wide. But it actually marks a short, 16 kilometer long stretch of the Danube located midway between the towns of Melk and Krems: from Spitz to Loiben on the left bank, and from Oberarnsdorf to Mautern on the right one. It is one of the most prominent tourist destinations of Lower Austria.  The touristic formula of Wachau is simple and clear but hard to beat: picturesque landscape + historic villages + wine making tradition.

And Wachau also means slopes. Steep ones. Here the mountains rise right above the Danube, forming a narrow valley between Krems and Melk. Steepness is a character determining feature of the relief, steepness permeate the way of life. Vineyards of Wachau are steep ones. Pastures are steep. Paths are steep.

What is important to bear in mind in order to understand the great nature conservation significance of the Wachau? It is the coexistence of river landscape, dry grasslands (or “Trockenrasen” as mentioned in the previous reports - or “Brennen” in German), hillside meadows, natural forests, vine terraces and orchards.

Geological, climatic and landscape diversity is reflected in a species-rich flora and fauna. The different habitats are refuges for 300 plant species - among them 30 different types of orchids. Rare species of birds such as peregrine falcon, black stork, eagle owl, kingfisher and hoopoe can be seen, sea eagles are regular guests. Then there are beavers, 47 species of grasshoppers and emerald lizard - the heraldic animal of the Wachau - which inhabits traditional dry stone walls of the vineyards.

Let’s add to this that the Danube flows free on this stretch – there is no influence of power plant dams here. There are numerous gravel islands and banks and such structures, together with the old and revitalized arms/tributaries, promote the rich fish population with over 50 species. Remains of natural floodplains with flat riparian forests with softwood parts of white willow trees and precious (endangered throughout Europe) black poplars, accommodate more than 50 species of birds, rare bats and deadwood beetles.

No, bicycle was not of use here.
And no bicycle tool was of use here either - I got instead a pair of big cutters like these on the photos.

Touching carefully all the legacy and balancing its role and place in this touristy and wine micro universe, a team from LEADER-Region Wachau-Dunkelsteinerwald office covers a wide range of experience and specialist areas for the manifold tasks of regional cooperation. They will be my hosts today and I met them in front of their space located in the castle above idyllic tiny town-village Spitz:  Mag. Hannes Seehofer is an project manager of nature conservation who works in the office since 2003, and Dl Elisa Besenbäck is here since 2016.

There is also a whole nice group of local nature lovers that will do some useful work on one of the protected dry grasslands (Trockenrasen). But as this is an area of steep Danube slopes, we will have to go high above the river to find one – that was different from my previous visits to dry habitats in Germany and Austria.

”In other zones there is usually one type of protection. But this region is not only about the nature - it is an indivisible combination of nature and man-made cultural landscape. That’s why it is protected on several ways: as an UNESCO world heritage, as an Natura 2000 area, while it is also recognized by its European Diploma for Protected landscapes” - says Mr. Kurt Farasin, an enthusiastic member of our group but also an Artistic Director of Schallaburg & Lower Austrian National exhibitions.

That is also why this is not a classic national park, despite the fact that since it foundation in 1990, nature and landscape conservation have a special significance in the region. The Wachau became a nature reserve in 1955, has been awarded the European Nature Conservation Diploma by the Council of Europe since 1994. and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. In 1972, the area around Jauerling was designated as Jauerling-Wachau Nature Park. The Wachau is part of the Europe-wide network of protected areas Natura 2000 (Fauna-Flora Conservation Area, Bird Sanctuary).

Soon after start we passed by this beautiful old house from 16th century.
(Most of the village dates from 11-12th century.)

The maintenance and care of species-rich dry grasslands and meadows is a major challenge for nature conservation. The Höhereck near Dürnstein is the largest dry grassland in the eastern Wachau with 200 different plants and about 100 species of butterflies. Typical for the Wachau dry grass areas are the feather grass (stone feather) and the large and the black cowbell. On the plateau of Jauerling and in its side valleys there are remnants of original lean orchid meadows.

We are hiding to Protected area Setzberg that has an area of 10 ha, from which 6 ha is an open (clear) space. The burning is a natural monument.

The microclimate in the area is a mixture of continental and Pannonian climate. And similar situation is with plants, except that during thousands of years even plants from Asia have found its way to here. The average rainfall is modest 300-400 mm per year, while Krems is one of the driest places in Austria. (Only 40 km away in direct line are the Alps, with about 1000 mm of rainfall per year.)

Walking up to the dry grasslands

The soil is composed of limestone, silicate and marble granite. “Dunkelstein” or “dark stone” has an magmatic origin as a mix of volcano ashes which got pressed in the sea bed. (Grey “clouds” in the white marble are actually the volcanic ash.) During long geological periods it was at least three times pushed to surface and sank back under the sea bed, meaning that it withstood three cycles of cooling down and heating before it became what we see today.

Removing invasive bushes in order to preserve open space for the dry grassland.

Our working place – Setzberg.

This hilly zone was populated in the past but, as many similar ones, was abandoned
after WW II:  in that period the development of industrial agriculture led to drop of products prices and small farms were not able to keep with that pace. One such farm couldn’t support its family anymore, so someone had to get other job – and it started migration to cities.

The good consequence is that, since there is no more agriculture here, the whole region is a middle fertilized one. Why it is not completely free from fertilizers? “Because they still come by air”, says Kurt.

Fighting against invasive plants the way we do it today, on an area as big as Setzberg, off course wouldn’t have chance in long term. (Especially with someone like me in the band: while clicking and cutting around I thought of a possibility that it might end by being informed that I just cut the last remaining specimen of some region’s trademark plant :) That is why the Spitz team since 2010. used to organize 1-3 international summer work camps that gathered 10-15 participants from Europe, South America and Asia. During two weeks of work in the camp volunteers support the protected areas primarily in dry grass care and in the fight against neophytes, with the help of motor cutters or local farmers' mechanization.

“We now cooperate with other national parks like Donau-Auen and Thayatal at Chech border” – says Elisa – “and share these two weeks with them. We also organize another working camp with world heritage issues in cooperation with the Upper Middle-Rhine valley. It is a constant fight: we look for all possible partners and ways to enable financing of the camps.”

Despite being clearly marked as a nature monument, this steep part of the dry grasslands
are sometimes used by… mountain bikers who find it suitable for downhill ride.

After doing the job at Setzberg we started descend to Spitz but using different path. And here we were – the vineyard terraces, the core and hart of what made the viticulture of the region extreme but at the same time possible, determining it as the Cultural Landscape. A special feature is the fact that the walls are of the “dry” type: they were made without plaster, just by skillful stacking of stones. It all started at the beginning of the 10th century when monasteries started to cultivate vines not only on the valley floor but also on the steep slopes, by forming them into this impressive landscape.

Some incredible data about what I could see around me:
- visible dry stone wall surface area  is ca 2 million square meters;
- total length of dry stone walls is ca 720 km.

The walls accumulate heat during the day and then during the night slowly release it in the sandy soils – something that vine likes a lot. It is necessary to continuously maintain them, while there are no many people nowadays who know how to do this ancient craft. But as it is now a cultural heritage the interest is growing and there are even regular courses for those who are interested in learning the skill.

The steep terrain requires much more labor than in vineyards on the plain as there are very few opportunities for mechanization. But even in the places where machines could be used they are deliberately omitted and work is still mostly done by hand (all Vinea winemakers are even obliged to hand harvest). Many wine growers are living on their farms which were built centuries ago, and much in the Wachau remains the same as it was in the far past, despite the pressure of modern times.

And it is not all about the wine. Using of concrete in the process of construction would reduce ecological functionality of the walls, but dry-walls are valuable, friendlier place for living things. That morning, when I asked how many different habitats are around here, my hosts said: “countless”.  And now I understood why: the small cluster that can be seen on the photos above, consisting of a stone wall, a tree, some vine and some other plants - is just one of many islands in the sea of vineyards around me.

Each of these islands accommodate a variety of animal and plant species including even the Aesculapian snake, the largest native snake species in Austria.

Back to the castle office, Hannes shows his original collection of blades used in motor cutters during summer volunteer camps. Each year of hard work is marked by one worn-out blade and added to the collection :)

Then Elisa, Hannes and me cycled to Krems.

We first used ferry to cross to the right bank of the Danube. The ferry had unique feature: a Camera obscura installed as a part of an artistic project. Two huge simple lenses (shown by the arrow below) captured images of the surrounding space and sent them through a simple prism to the dark room where one could watch them on two simple optical screens. Despite the simple question “why should I sit here instead of simply going outside to watch the original”, there was that simple, inexplicable
magic of the pinhole cinematic effect that kept me inside for the whole ride… Ok, the simple coldness outside had a little bit to do with that as well :)

On the road with my hosts. Elisa prefers road bike – a beautiful classic
model with steel frame. Hannes rides more average horse, but his trump is this
enormously stylish “Aktentasche” that elegantly sits at the back of the seat.

By the way, let’s mention again something else besides wine: the region is
proud of its apricots and the name “Wachauer Marille” is protected in the EU.

While we approach the point where Rührsdorf side arm departs from the Danube, Hannes talks about its importance: “Our reason to be proud would be at the first place ten kilometers of side arms constructed or revitalized in last ten years through the ‘Life’ project funded by the EU. Here we implemented very important water measures in Rossatz-Rührsdorf area.”

The beginning of the Rührsdorf-Rossatz side arm

This info board shows what was done and what is planed in the system. On the map below:
- Blue color – already finished side arm;
- Yellow color – planned new side arm;
- Green hatched zone - planned nature reserve with eagles, amphibians and black poplar.

This is where a new offshoot will be cut to the Danube (the short yellow line on the map above)
to provide enough water in the system when the new side arm is finished (the long yellow line on the map).

„There was an alluvial forest there and we want to have it back, mostly because of fish – the water will be calmer and more convenient for their reproduction, spawn, etc.”

Private land owners are an important part of such plans and most of them are open for cooperation, but it doesn’t always go without glitches. The planned new side arm is one example of that:

“Beavers recently damaged one orchard and fresh image of his damaged property makes the land owner worried that the new sidearm would bring even more of them. That’s why he opposes the project at this moment and we will need some time and some good arguments to change his mind.”

Hannes states that the ecological awareness in the region is high: ”There was plan in seventies to build a new dam between Dürnstein and Rossatzbach. But strong public reaction prevented it, and this movement actually become the base for world heritage and the rest of the story here.”

But he also adds this note: “Local people pay more attention to more visible aspects of the values we have here – and that’s mainly terraces. Less respect is given for subtler things like burnings. It also depends of the interests: hunters support us to maintain dry grasslands because they love open spaces. On the other hand, rock climbers often disturb the rare Falcon Peregrine who makes its nests in rocks and cliffs.”

Within the frame of the DANUBEparksCONNECTED in the last three years Elisa and Hannes visited Donau-Auen and Duna-Ipoly National parks; Elisa had the opportunity to also see Kopački rit, Rusenski lom and Djerdap, while Hannes visited Prut and Persina.

Elisa thus has good ground to conclude this: “Important thing that we learned through the project is that the challenges are similar. There are different ways to approach them, but there is no need to invent the wheel again and again - we can learn a lot from the experience of others. “


Donau-Auen National Park


On a pleasant sunny Vienna morning, we gathered in front of the Donau Insel Info center: a nice cycling group consisting of the Donau-Auen National Park partners from different projects.




Ivan Zavadsky (ICPDR Executive Secretary), Agnes Erler (Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism) and Andrea Rainer Cerovská (National Contact Point of the Interreg Danube Transnational Programme/ÖROK) gave a short Welcome Speech.

Photos and Text by Jovan Eraković

We didn’t have to move far in order to learn about the first project, MEASURES - managing and restoring aquatic ecological corridors for migratory fish species in the Danube river basin and the LIFE Sterlet Project. There was a container in the yard of the Info center that wasn’t attracting much attention until we were invited inside by Thomas Friedrich, Project Manager of the LIFE Sterlet project. Then we saw that another container was attached at the back, and the "2001: A Space Odyssey" movie protagonist David Bowman would probably say here: „The thing is hollow -- it goes on forever -- and -- oh my God! -- it's full of… sturgeons!“.


There were thousands of them actually, but most were not much larger than a fingernail: we actually entered a big incubator. „And these are quite exhausting little creatures”, said Thomas,”They must be fed every hour, 24 times a day, otherwise they would start to eat each other.”

The air in the containers was packed with other interesting small talks. In order to prepare sturgeons for later "real life" they breed in the Danube water that is not processed in any way. Or: to find DNA traces of fish that are already in the river, they “sniff” it by taking 40 liter water samples, then search them for traces of skin, scales, and mucus. It sounds like looking for a needle in a haystack but in reality it is more like, um… looking for a needle in a haystack. Well, in order to be an expert in any field one needs commitment, but also a good deal of faith in a good outcome.

The youngsters will be finally released into the Danube, with best wishes for their good luck. They will need it, especially females – on top of other danger they will have to face, some humans who will try to “pickpocket” something they will carry along one day: their eggs. One kilogram of caviar is 10-20.000 EUR worth and that is a bit too much of a temptation to the honesty of some. Despite the ban on fishing of sturgeons, they will try to earn that money.

A teenage sturgeon

The Latin name for the Danube genera of sturgeon is Huso,
but the name of exactly this thing that can be seen in the photo is, um... Huso Inflatus

On the second stop we heard Marlene Haimann’s (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna) report on the Danube Sediment project. As a counter measure to negative results of human activities in the past 60-70 years, 14 partners from nine countries target the restoration of the water/sediment balance in the river as well as an improvement of its morphology. A main project result will be the first “Danube Sediment Management Guidance” as a key contribution to the river’s mayor management plans – one for its basin and the other that deals with flood risk.

Learning about projects is not always an easy task

Next stop: Magdalena Wagner from WWF tells us about the project coopMDD . A Transboundary Management for Mura, Drava and Danube – the “Amazon of Europe” which goal is to protect nature in a highly valuable, free-flowing, 700 km long river corridor that comprises almost 1.000.000 hectares across Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia.

Magdalena also presented the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project which aims to establish an internationally recognized and sustainable flagship Cycling Tourism Product in the future 5-country UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube.

Agnes Kurzweil from the Austrian Environment Agency presented the Transdanube.Pearls project which aims to develop socially fair, economically viable, environmentally friendly and health promoting mobility services for the visitors of the Danube region.

Sabrina Scheuer (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna) introduced us to the project Danube Floodplain - reducing the flood risk through floodplain restoration along the river and its tributaries, and at the same time maximizing benefits for biodiversity conservation. Interesting aspect of the project is also a combination of classic and green infrastructure. And they managed to form an amazing network of no less than 25 partners along the Danube :)

„We also have our dry habitats here – the flodd protection dyke gives us these beautiful orchids”, says Georg.

On the next stop we learned from Christoph Litschauer (Donau-Auen National Park) about the Alpine Carpathian River Corridor project. The goal of this three-year long Austrian-Slovakian cooperation involving seven partner organizations is to protect, restore and develop river biotope connections in the mentioned space. Success will be monitored with flagship species like kingfisher or dice snake.

The Danube STREAM project is about smart, integrated and harmonized transnational waterway management and involves partners from Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. Gert-Jan Muilerman (viadonau) emphasized that its objective is to establish and maintain an efficient and environmentally-friendly transportation network. Among other things it provided navigational maps for ships passing nature wise sensitive areas of the river, as well as user-oriented information services. The project also embeds innovative elements, futuristic technologies and services - i.e. inland waterway infrastructure improvement pilots. And I liked its moto: „Common river. Common goal.“

To learn about the last project, we had to dig deep into some hidden corners of the park


The project Plastic free Danube project considers the stretch from Vienna up to the hydropower plant Gabčikovo in Slovakia”, said Iris Kempter (viadonau). “And it focuses on macro plastic waste (bigger than 5 mm) in and along the river and parts of its riparian area. The overall aim of the project is to establish a knowledge base as well as a methodological approach on plastic waste - entrance points, quantities, transport patterns, and environmental threats.” A big plastic bag magically appeared in Iris’ hands, and we could see a collection of assorted real examples. There were parts of toilets but even one tennis racket in pretty good condition.

We finally made it to schlossORTH National Park Centre of the Donau-Auen National Park

The beluga sturgeon  (Huso huso) is the most powerful representative of the Danube sturgeons - it can be up to nine meters long. This giant used once to migrate from the Black sea as far upstream as to Ulm but today the Danube dams block its path. This model was made in Romania and another copy is located in Tulcea, the gateway to the Danube Delta - looking forward to see it there.

The "Schlossinsel" is attached to the Visitor Centre and full of surprises.This is a giant model of a nest. (That hopefully will not attract a bird of appropriate size.)

The last reproductive habitat of Emys orbicularis - the European pond turtle is in the Donau-Auen National Park.

And this thing that discreetly protrudes from water in the pond is just a tip of something spectacular down under…:

where visitors can enjoy peeking in the pond life.

The second day of the visit
was reserved for a tour with the office staff.
Here we are at the start, in front of the Eckartsau castle.

Ms. Stephanie Blutaumüller is paving my road all the time by contacting partners, opening doors and making my visits possible. Without her I would be lost and could easily be somewhere on
the Volga at this moment.

The office secretary was with us too!

A clever, although technically complicated device.Instead of searching around to monitor snakes and lizards, invite them to something they can’t resist:this black sheet metal plate will get nicely warm under the sun and turn into a solarium for cold-blooded creatures.

But the situation was not bad for the warm-blooded ones either: the spring was in full swing in the Donau-Auen and life was so good…

This gentleman from Spain was here for the second time to work on a farm: "I'm taking care of horses and I like it here much more than at home."

Under the flag of Haliaeetus albicilla, the white-tailed eagle.
I got a present from Georg: a feather from the tail of one of these magnificent creatures. It was for the good luck but also had a deeper meaning, like with American Indians. So it was an important and valuable gift. But it is hard to find good spot for such a fragile thing on a long-distance bicycle. I proudly put it on my helmet - only to lose it from there just several days later. Sorry Georg!

With Georg, Frankly speaking

The south wind that was bothering me quite a lot since the beginning of the journey, slowly gave way to the western one. It was nice to finally have such help at the back, but Georg said: “That south wind was protecting from bad weather form Atlantic ocean. So expect some rain along your route now”.

I got quite irritated by such a naughty prediction. Don’t tell me such things. Instead, tell me for example absolutely everything that you know about the Donau-Auen National Park. And that’s how the interview started (the rest is a history).

“The park covers an area of almost 10.000 ha. Forest and water areas – 75% of the total Donau-Auen surface - are excluded from commercial use”, started Georg.

Let me say here that the time spent with experts during this journey changed my view of many things, even small ones. I can for example admit that last year, while I was happily cycling the same route but for different reason - doing a survey of the EuroVelo 6 route - the park’s name didn’t light a bulb in my head. This time I paid attention: “auen” are meadows, pastures but also - the most appropriate meaning in this case - wetlands, floodplains.

The Donau-Auen National Park is a green stripe that proudly connects Vienna and Bratislava. The document that established the NP in 1996. even foresees future expansion that will include all wetlands between these two cities.

This national park protects the Danube and its islands, forests, meadows and bordering wetlands. It nicely floats on a zone that is challenging and a bit turbulent: the alpine part of the Danube with its waters that can vary by as much as seven meters, reconciles here with the part that leniently wanders deep into the Pannonian plain. Resulting rich habitat abounds in species:

- over 800 vascular plants;
- over 30 mammal, 100 breeding bird and around 60 fish species;
- thousands of different insects, fungi, microorganisms and algae.

When we talk about DANUBEPARKS, the main results and success are obvious, but is there something more subtle that makes you particularly happy?

In a questionnaire that we distributed to all partners couple of months after the first DANUBEPARKS project was launched, one of questions was “what do you foresee as the main difficulty in the project”? Seventy five percent of the partners answered that it will be the different languages and cultures. Then the same questionnaire was sent when we were already 6-7 years deep into the project, and this time the opinion was that the different cultures were the main advantage of the project :)

Another great challenge along the Danube is the fact that the richest and the poorest countries of Europe share that same water line (*) But who is rich and who is poor? When it comes to the natural wealth things turn to their opposite: materially rich countries destroyed their nature and reduced it to small reserves like Donau-Auen National Park. Here then, there is an embedded discrepancy: you build your standard by destroying your nature. Economy development or nature conservation? That is the challenge: how to bring commercial development to materially poorer Danube countries without repeating that same mistakes there.

Adieu Donau-Auen, hello Slovakia…




Programme co-funded by European Union funds (ERDF, IPA, ENI)