Reclaiming The Streets of Vienna

Travel Essay

It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon in the center of Vienna, and I am in a bathing suit, covered in fluorescent paint, standing next to a hoard of people which have slowly stripped nearly all of their clothes off. Eliza and Anne-Sophia, the Austrian girls who graciously let me invade their flat for “couch surfing” just two days ago, are speaking German to an elderly naked man who has a permanent smile fixated on his face and an erection that is clearly making both of them feel a little bit uncomfortable. Philip, on the other hand —Eliza’s other roommate— is busy attaching a large horn on the purple and yellow bumble-bee striped bike which I have borrowed from him. He is calmly relaying the rules of today’s event to me, which boil down to two simple acts: one, don’t stop honking your horn, and two, don’t stop riding your bike. “There will be many, many people riding around you,” he stresses, which I take as a nice way of saying that if I stop peddling, I may just get run over by an unsettling percentage of the hundreds of people which now surround me. But yet, this possibility doesn’t worry me in the least. It's the first Sunday of the month and Vienna’s streets are about to be taken over by an assemblage of semi-naked hippies on bikes in a plea to “reclaim the streets.” Call it World Naked Bike Ride Day, call it Car Free Day, call it an enormous party on wheels- one thing is certain: it’s an exhilarating introduction to the city.

Music soon starts blaring from a sound system which has been expertly attached to the back of a young man’s bicycle, but shortly after it is masked by a mélange of bike horns, bells, and screams that erupt right after a man yells something into a megaphone. Eliza comes over to grab her bike and asks if I am ready. Before I can even answer, she assures me that I will not get lost as long as I follow the crowd. “Don’t worry, we’re all family here,” she says with a genuine smile, and I believe her.

The next hour or so is an experience unlike any other. A bicycle circus with costumes, partially and fully naked men, women, and children, painted bodies dancing and singing on their bikes- people of all ages, sexes and ethnicities are unified in showing the car-commuting world that the streets rightfully belong to them too. With police escorts throughout the city, traffic gladly stalls and onlookers scream words of encouragement. People know we are coming by the persistent ring of bicycle bells and music that beckons our arrival.

Despite the light rain which has materialized, the ride is not finished until we make stops at all of Vienna's major points of interest, and finally, when the bikes gather at a large park on the edge of the Danube River for one last stop. At this point, I am separated from my Viennese friends with no knowledge of my exact whereabouts, but am not fazed in the least. In what seems like a matter of minutes, cyclists have set up makeshift wine stands throughout the lawn and large groups have started running toward the murky Danube waters for a celebratory skinny dipping. I sit mesmerized, wanting to join them.

The drizzle soon stops completely, and rays of sun pop out from behind the clouds in an overly dramatic and almost scripted way. To everyone’s surprise, a rainbow appears overhead shortly after. It’s a moment of magic, and as soon as people realize it, euphoric screams and applause erupt throughout the entire gathering.

I catch sight of Anne-Sophia and Philip from across the lawn, and run up to give a hug of pure joy. We are all wet and smelly and smeared head-to-toe in paint, but none of that matters. Philip grabs three cups of wine and we toast to the moment and to the sun and to being beautifully united at this riverbank. And as the sun starts settling down over hundreds of deserted bicycles and smiling faces, I truly understand what Eliza meant when she called us all a family. And with that idea in mind, my new friends and I strip off our clothes and our inhibitions, and we run toward the water to join in the celebration.