Burgenland is not your typical Austrian region – there are no real mountains around. Instead, swamps and steppes define the landscape. Not to mention a giant lake in the middle of it – Neusiedler See. It the second-largest endorheic lake in whole of Europe. Overall Burgenland could be considered to be the only true lowlands in Austria.
These are perfect conditions not only for bikers but for many birds and other species, making large areas around Lake Neusiedl protected. The biosphere of the lake and the lake itself is a unique sight in Central Europe.
Another interesting feature of Burgenland is the absence of bad weather. The Sun is shining over 300 days a year, making Lake Neusiedl a perfect place for leisure and water sports. The best locations for these activities are Podersdorf and Breitenbrunn.
Despite the image of Austria being one of the best white wine producers in the whole world, red wine culture is also thriving in the sunny Burgenland. Just like tasting a local Riesling or Grüner Veltliner white wine in Wachau is a part of the full experience of the region, in Burgenland, it wouldn’t be so without Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt red wines. In order to experience the full potential of Burgenland wines, I would recommend taking a dedicated wine tour. You can read more about this topic in my wine hiking day trips from Vienna article.
All of the reasons listed above attract many tourists not only from Austria but from neighboring Hungary and Slovakia as well. Among all the activities my personal favorite thing to do around Neusiedler See is cycling.
Thought the official English name of the lake is Neusiedl, I‘ll be referring to it the same way as the locals do – Neusiedler See. The name of the lake probably comes from the nearby village, Neusiedl am See. As you might have guessed, „see“ translates to „sea“, or „lake“, and the whole name of the village would translate to something similar: „New settlement at the lake“. Whatever the name of the lake was before, with time, Neusiedler See took over.
The legend tells a bit different story. According to it – there was no lake before Neusiedl am See. But let‘s start from the beginning…
Once, these lowlands were all green and fertile. People lived their lives happily within a few settlements of the area. One day the Lord of Forchtenstein got lost during his hunt and came across to the village of Mädchenthal. There he met a beautiful girl named Maria and instantly fell in love. The Prince hid his status from the young lady, thus she mistook him for a regular hunter.
A servant of the castle, Samuel, betrayed the prince and told everything about the affair to his princess. Soon the Lord of Forchtenstein had to leave the castle for war and his wife took this as an opportunity to take her revenge. She ordered Samuel to arrest Maria with her mother and them to the castle for a trial. The women pleaded their innocence and vowed that they had no idea of the prince‘s identity but Samuel had bribed some farmers to testify otherwise.
Both were sentenced to death. Maria had accepted her fate but her mother had other ideas. Just before both of them were thrown to the pond of the village, she cursed the cruelty of the castle‘s mistress and everyone involved. „Let them have what they deserve before the Sun sets for the second time“…
The next day the pond started to expand. People noticed the bodies of the two victims on the top of its surface – both with peaceful faces and their hands crossed. The level of Lake kept rising, drowning Mädchenthal and the castle.
The locals started to believe in the miracle. That stopped the flooding but the people involved got what they deserved. The process fell into despair, which drove her mad, Samuel drowned in the waves of the lake, and the Prince built the monastery of Forchtenstein and went to Rome to ask for forgiveness. The local people survived the flooding but they lost their homes and had to build a new settlement on the edge of the lake – Neusiedl am See. The lake is known as Neusiedler See ever since.
The geological features of the lake wouldn‘t be so if it was not for its geographical location. Endorheic lakes usually form deep inland, far from the seas and oceans. This way it is hard for rivers to form a water pathway between oceans and lakes, like Neusiedler See. Central Europe is a natural location for such an endorheic lake to form.
Endorheic lakes are the end-point of all the water coming to the area. They drain it from the surrounding land and due to the low water-mixing, these lakes tend to be richer in minerals.
Neusiedler See is salty but the amount of salt is 20 times smaller than found in seawater. The nature of the lake is also the reason for its opaqueness. This might be confusing because Neusiedler See is very shallow. On average, the lake is only 1.5m deep and it doesn‘t really get any deeper than 1.8m.
Because Neusiedler See is a shallow steppe lake, it shouldn‘t be surprising that it is normal for the lake to disappear during the long draughts, or with the interference of human engineering. Since its formation – somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 BC – there were many such occurrences. The last time Lake Neusiedl had dried-out was in 1866. A local villager has noted in his diary that he was able to cross the lake without having dirt on his boots.
The opposite is also possible. The biggest flood was recorded in 1768 when the size of Neusiedler See almost doubled at 515 sq m.
The fluctuation of the water level in endorheic lakes shouldn‘t be that surprising. Often, like in Lake Neusiedler See’s case, the main inflow of water to the lake is precipitation and the main outflow – evaporation. Endorheic lakes are very sensitive to the environment. The infamous example is the Aral Sea, whose size shrank about 60% in the last century due to the Soviet agricultural mega-projects.
The drainage area of Neusiedler See is 1,120km sq. That is about 4 times the size of the lake itself. That is enough to make Lake Neusiedl the biggest of its kind in the whole of Europe. Well, if the Caspian Sea is not counted, which is 1,000 times bigger than Neusiedler See. The difference is so big that it almost feels like it doesn‘t count.
Neusiedler See broke all the expectations I had before my first visit. It was not as beautiful as I was hoping it to be but in the end – it didn‘t matter. I imagine many people visiting Burgenland for the first time had a similar impression.
The landscape surrounding the lake caught me off-guard. For the most part of the bike trail, I was hardly even aware of Lake Neusiedl. It lay somewhere far beyond the swamps, which surround the lake. There are very few clean passages to the shore of Neusieder See. Most of them are in the villages.
Neusiedler See will not try to steal the show itself, rather the lake is the catalyst for the beautiful nature to emerge in the area. This is precisely what we actually come here for. Let it be Seewinkel National Park or a beautiful historic Old Town like Rust, it is all here because of Neusiedler See. It is a true steppe lake that fully supports the surrounding life’s richness. Only by understanding the nature of Lake Neusiedl, I learned to appreciate this exceptional lake on its own terms.
Having in mind the location of Lake Neusiedl, it is a great day or weekend destination from both Vienna and Bratislava. The amazing infrastructure will ensure an unforgettable bike trip around Neusiedler See.