What is it really like to take a homeless walking tour of Vienna? Should you really try it? As part of the Vienna List Challenge, I had to find out for myself!
The icy wind was biting, my toes were numb despite the cosy boots and 2 layers of socks encasing them, and my nose had lost all feeling hours ago. It was not what you would call typical weather to take an outdoor walking tour of Vienna.
But this was not a typical walking tour.
At minus 4 degrees, with only 3 of us in attendance, a lesser tour guide would have surely cancelled their walk through the inner-city streets in favour of a warm cafe and some light chit-chat. But Barbara was made of stronger stuff – though softly spoken, we were drawn to her warm tone and fascinating information.
But why on earth would 3 young women who had lived in Vienna for more than a year (or longer) be taking a walking tour on a freezing Saturday afternoon in January? Surely they’ve seen St Stephan’s Cathedral by now?
We had seen the cathedral, but today’s tour was all about seeing the city of Vienna from a different angle (though Barbara did manage to show us a new view of St Stephen’s from a side alley that I wish I’d taken a photo of, as I’m sure I’ll never find that alley again #rookieerror). The real perspective came from her in-depth knowledge and stories about homelessness in Vienna.
The Shades Walking Tour of Vienna is a concept I’ve never come across before in my travels – a walking tour guided by and about homelessness in Vienna. The name refers to the company’s goal of illuminating the ‘different shades of homelessness’ that exist in Vienna. A concept which Barbara carefully explained to us , defining the 3 main kinds of homelessness that are found in Vienna.
Even in a city with excellent social systems in place, more than 2,000 people are now homeless in Vienna, some permanently and by choice, but the majority due to a sudden and unexpected change in life circumstance. Listening to Barbara share her own story, it was frighteningly easy to imagine how your regular life can so easily be upended into uncertainty. The leading causes of homelessness in Austria include;
- job loss
- family separation
- financial crisis or greater global influences (changing job market)
Such unplanned and uncontrollable events can so easily tip people from the edge of poverty, or even a relatively comfortable life, into outright homelessness without warning.
I’ve taken my fair share of free walking tours in European cities (Sandeman’s is always a good bet) and hell I’ve even led my own walking tours of cities in my former life as a tour guide – but this was something different.
Strolling from the Jesuit church to the Franziskaner square, beside the famous ‘Kleine Cafe’, Barbara shared details about the work Caritas and local churches do to support the homelessness, revealing a side of Vienna I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t known about before. Ashamed that I hadn’t done more to learn about and contribute to.
It is so, so easy to get caught in the expat bubble of everyday life and disregard the enormous privilege and fortune it is just to have a roof over your head and a meal to keep you warm.
The tour was more than just a walk with facts – it was a discussion between all of us on the ethics, challenges and societal norms surrounding homelessness. Something that your average hop on hop off tour couldn’t possibly offer.
After the main square, we continued up to the 1st districts very own social housing flats. What struck me most were the contrasts surrounding us while on tour. We were on an alley whose main feature was a ‘carb-free cafe‘ (which let’s be honest, on any other day, I’d be intrigued by). But in that context, it felt like an indulgent middle-class joke, to have it set beside the commission housing for people barely managing to get by.
But then again, who am I to judge? Who knows if the people living there do want carb-free snacks on their doorstep? The contrast certainly had us questioning the relative value of property, coffee and lifestyle choices. We then delved into Vienna’s history of assisting poverty-stricken students in the medieval ages and the role that popular pub Bettel Student had in supporting this.
The tour then wound its way to Stadtpark, ending at Karlsplatz – iconic sites of Vienna now shrouded with an extra layer of understanding thanks to Barbara.
I can honestly say it was one of the most intriguing and eye-opening walking tours I’ve been on – and having only done 1 of their 3 available routes, I now want to try them all! I doubt we will get another day as authentically freezing as that Saturday in January, but a tour itself will no doubt be just as enlightening.
Would you try a tour led by the homeless? Let’s chat about it in the comments below!
- SHADES TOURS Vienna offers walking tours in English and German
- Tours are available year-round and can be booked online up to 24 hours prior to the tour
- SHADES TOURS Vienna is a local start-up so you are supporting not just the homeless but local business by joining a tour!
- The company works closely with local charities & institutions to ensure the safety and long-term well-being of guides. The tours are non-exploitative and work toward alleviating poverty through tourism
- Tours begin daily in central city locations and generally run for 2 hours
- Other activities are also available to be booked for private groups
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