Once a Cold War no-man’s-land, the Thayatal national park is now a restored oasis of calm and natural beauty

Sitting atop a mossy bluff overlooking the Thaya River near Hardegg, it’s hard to believe the Iron Curtain once ran through here. Gone is the barbed wire that once coiled along the riverbanks. The machine gun platforms and guard towers have long been demolished. What remains is a peaceful sanctuary just 95 kilometers from downtown Vienna.

Instead of demarcating an ideological divide, the valley is now at the heart of an international peace park. On the Austrian side, between Waldviertel and Weinviertel (Lower Austria’s Forest and Wine districts), it’s the 13-square kilometer Thayatal National Park – Austria’s smallest, designated in 2000. Across on the Czech side, it’s known as the the river Dyie, bounded by the Nationalpark Podyjí (63 sq. kilometers). Together, they protect one of the last well-preserved river valleys in Central Europe.

For the landscape, the Cold War was a blessing in disguise. With no human interference, the tranquil old-growth forest grew into a haven for storks, bees, butterflies and snakes.  Even the elusive European wildcat, a species all but eradicated in the rest of Europe,  is now returning to the park.

 

It’s not so easy to spot these felines in the wild, and biologists were astonished to rediscover them at Thayatal in 2005, a hopeful sign that Europe-wide conservation efforts may be paying off. Today, two wildcats, on loan from Austrian zoos, roam a large outdoor enclosure at the park’s visitor center.

 

In Bloom
The cooperative management of the Thaya Valley testifies­­ to the emerging ecological values of the cross-border region, with scientists working to stitch together nature preserves to protect ecosystems that thrive without human interference.

On the eve of the summer season, the staff is busy setting up maps and guidebooks in the gift shop. Even though they were not officially open, they stopped to chat about trails in the park.

After a quick lunch in Hardegg — with a population of 80, Austria’s smallest town — we decided to hike along the river and through thick beech forests in near-solitude, a respite from the bustle of our Neubau neighborhood in Vienna. A calm energy radiated from mossy green-blue boulders and the air was rich with the oxygen generated by dense forest waking from its winter sleep.

The forest floor is carpeted with some of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in these regions: white snowdrops (Galanthus) and purple liverwort (Hepatica), both of which flower during the waning days of winter. Only one other person appeared that afternoon, a park worker taking out dead branches at a popular riverside picnic spot.

 

 

Carnival of Animals
“For a long time, not so many people went there. It was at the end of Austria,” said Susi Rogenhofer, a Vienna artist who has been hiking the Thayatal since childhood. “So nature there is in very good condition.” Trails from the village of Merkersdorf lead to hilltop outlooks over “secret” castles on the Czech side — but only during certain times of the year, when the light is just right, Rogenhofer says. Once, while hiking with her family, she discovered snakes gathering on a special rock, their mating ground.

Aesculapian snake (Photo: FelixReimann/CC)
Aesculapian snake (Photo: FelixReimann/CC)

“Now in May, you can see maybe 30 snakes making love. My brother goes there every year.” The park is in fact a leading habitat for the Aesculapian snake, one of Europe’s largest, up to two meters long and some 150 species of birds, 20 species of bats and 1,288 documented plant species (nearly half of those found across Austria), a veritable biodiversity circus in the valley. This munificence stems from its setting on a climatic boundary, with rains from the Atlantic mixing with the  dry Pannonian winds from the east, making it a crossroads for European plant and animal communities.

Like all national parks, Thayatal is a place to reconnect with nature. At the end of our hike, we feel full of fresh air, ready for another week of urban madness.  Still we’re reluctant to leave, so before starting the drive home, we sit by the edge of the river, time out of time, watching the mellow evening shadows grow longer – until the insistent hoot of an eagle-owl tells us it’s time to go. Nature reigns supreme here; we are just temporary visitors.

 


 

Good to know

Thayatal National Park is 95 kilometers north of Vienna via the A22. Best to come outfitted although last minute picnic and hiking supplies are available in Retz (Hardegg has a small restaurant and bakery). Merkersdorf is the other gateway town on the Austrian side.

By public transport, catch a train (hourly) from Prater­stern to Retz, then switch to Postbus 1255 for the short ride to Hardegg or ­Merkersdorf, the best jumping-­off point.

The National Park Center (1.5 km from Hardegg) is open daily from Mar 19 to Nov 2. There’s plenty of parking, as well as a cafe and gift shop. Nearly every summer weekend has special events including hikes, science presentations and art shows, in and around the park. Visit the park website for details.

Popular hiking trails include the Einsiedlerweg (2.5 hours), leading to a peaceful meadow where a knight returning from the crusades once lived out his days as a hermit. The Merkersdorfer Rundwanderweg (2.5 hours) leads to the ruins of Kaja castle and stunning vistas overlooking the deep river valley. Trail A leads to the Hardegger Warte (Hardegg Lookout).

The river is also popular for canoeing. For more information call the Thayatal National Park regional tourism office at 02846/365 20.