Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland is surrounded by one of the largest contiguous belts of reed beds. And it is the reason for a special winter sport: reed-cutting.
Reed harvest in Illmitz, Photo: Österreich Werbung/Diejun
Reed is water-repellent, mould-resistant and insulating
. Since early history it has therefore been an irreplaceable building material - and it has proven its worth particularly as a roof covering. Anyone visiting the "Ötzi-Dorf" in Umhausen in the Ötztal valley or the Celtic village of Keltendorf Am Kulm, with their reconstructions of how people lived in ancient times, can see this for themselves. However, something that has passed out of use elsewhere has remained a characteristic feature in Burgenland
, with the 150 square kilometres plus of reed beds occupying over half of this steppe lake.
In Purbach, you can experience how this building material gets used today: when searching for a craft that would guarantee him independence, Martin Sandhofer discovered reeds. He had established that while there were still reed roofs
and also a demand for them, there were no longer any reed roofers
. He has, for instance, roofed the lakeside village of Weiden with reed
, along with the Feriendorf Pannonia
holiday complex and several open-air museums. But the achievement that really fills him with pride is the "Haydn-Haus" in Rohrau
: in 2006, he was the person to relay the roof on the house where his famous fellow countryman was born. More impressive in terms of the area worked - almost 1,000 square metres - was the renovation of the residence of the Austrian ambassador in Brussels. Not to make the house stand out, but because there, as in many countries around the world, it is traditional
to roof buildings in reed.
When the leaves have dropped from the stalks in autumn, cutting begins. Only 10 - 15 % of the area of reed is harvested, using a converted piste-making machine with two mechanical reaper-binders mounted onto it - working on the ice, if it can take the weight, or simply in the water, which is shallow here. To protect the rare fauna - the reed belt is the breeding-ground and habitat
of many, and in some cases rare, species of bird - the harvest must be brought in by the end of February. It is stored out in the open, stacked in bundles. The wind
from the Pannonian Plain dries the reed. The quality is important, and that depends on the stiffness, length and freshness of the reed: Martin Sandhofer works with a mix of one-year old and this season's reed
The short stalks are laid on the roof in small bundles and clamped firmly in place. Bundle overlays bundle, until the roof is sufficiently high and weatherproof - around 30 centimetres. Its insulating qualities and durability are astounding. Reed roofs can last for up to 100 years
, so long as they are sufficiently steeply-pitched to allow water to run off rather than seep in. The gentle, low roofs simply invite you to touch them, doing the house and the spirits good.