by Tim Dawe
Many of us look forward to travel, especially as retirement looms; perhaps a long cruise to Alaska, the Caribbean, the Baltic or even a river cruise. So consider cruising down the Danube. On a bike!
I’m in the Bavarian town of Passau on the river border with Austria – a place I know well from my youth. Then, my explorations didn’t extend to Vienna or Austria’s Donauradweg (Danube bike trail). Now, decades later and in retirement mode, I’m on my bike ready for a 360km, six-day journey following the river to Vienna with my Europe-based daughter.
It’s a short walk to Rad & Reisen, one of several operators of self-guided bike tours. Günter, the helpful mechanic, kits us out with bikes built like Sherman tanks (panzers, in this context) with indestructible steel frames. They come with panniers and all the fruit, weighing in about 20kg; very different from my light-weight, narrow-tyred road racer – some adjustment is needed.
Our tour is a group of two – us! Each morning a truck picks up our suitcases and delivers them to the next arranged Gasthof or inn. It’s a case of: “Here is a detailed map with bike repair shops along the way and here’s a telephone number in case something goes wrong. So off you go.” Gute Reise!
Leaving Passau from the town hall, where a 2013 mark records the greatest flood in 500 years, we cross the Danube at Luitpoldbrücke and hit the open road – well, “path”. It’s bitumen paved, about 4.5m wide, well-signed and maintained and, dedicated for cyclists.
After four kilometres we round a bend and plunge into the multi-green Bavarian Forest. It towers hundreds of metres above us, angled sharply from the path, and it’s isolated. In 36km we see no-one and pass through only one village, Obernzell, the first of many stops for kaffee und apfelstrudel.
Despite carrying wet weather gear, snacks, camera and “stuff”, and the light head breeze, my enthusiasm has us zipping along up to 25km/hr, too fast for the schedule and too fast for the knees. We end our day early and spend most of the rainy afternoon in a riverside pub sampling the local beer. Later, from my bedroom window 20m from the river, I watch the long, low tourist boats en route to Vienna, five days and “only” 330km away.
At remote Schlögen, where the Danube dramatically doubles back in a picturesque sweep, we have to dismount because the steep-sided forest reaches right down to the water ending our cycle path. We take a small wooden ferry to the other side, the only passengers.
By lunchtime the forest gives way to the lovely town of Aschbach where we cross a busy bridge to the left bank for a ride through farmland and recreational camps to Ottensheim. I am fascinated with the ferries hanging off a high steel cable across the river. By steering into the flow at the right angle the skipper uses the river current to slide the ferry from one side to the other; ingenious medieval water technology and green power before its time.
Suddenly we’re riding alongside a freeway and a commuter train as first we enter industrial areas then outer suburbia of Linz, Austria’s third largest city. Here we are treated to a four-star hotel and have the late afternoon to explore this most liveable city with its many art galleries and museums contrasting with strikingly modern architecture, brilliantly lit up at night. Linz was European Capital of Culture in 2009 and it is easy to see why. I make a note to return one day.
It’s a long and rather uneventful day as we press on following the river through parklands and farms hidden behind a riverside greenbelt. Intriguingly, power stations like small boats are strung across the river, generating power from the fast-flowing river. Above us the ruins of strategically placed castles line the high ridges, their former occupants free from floods and damp. By early afternoon (still going too fast) we are stopped in our tracks by the beauty of Grein seen across the river. It’s everything one expects of historic Europe’s towns: castle, church, square, and enhanced on this spring day bathed in sun.
We have time to explore the castle and loll about in the town square before being whisked off in a minivan to Bad Kreuz high up in the hills for our overnight stop. It’s a surprise to be served a top quality dinner.
We cross again to the right side of the river to avoid sharing with motor traffic. At Werfenstein Castle (another ruin) the river narrows sharply causing some rapids, the cause of legendary tales of shipwrecks over the millennia. There are no settlements for about 30km, just overhanging trees and dappled sunlight, but we are joined by local weekend cyclists. Quite suddenly we arrive at the oddly named Ybbs upon its eponymous river. It is a lovely town quietly enjoying a sunny Saturday. We partake of an outdoor lunch in the square with a very large beer or two.
The afternoon presents far more varied landscapes, especially around the tongue-twisting Krummnussbaum (crooked nut tree) and interestingly, an odd unexplained group of flag-waving young people wandering a country lane singing and wheeling a wooden barrow full of beer. They cheer as we weave through. Local customs.
Pöchlarn, named for the important eighth-century Bishop of Passau, believed to have commissioned the epic Nibelungenlied, is our home for the night. The poem’s cultural significance is evident in the name of every second bridge or square in these parts. Pöchlarn is a busy semi-industrial town spread across the river and served by rail. Our gasthof in Bahnhofplatz is opposite the train station and jumping with Saturday night gemütlichkeit. Once more we dine on schweinebraten and sauerkraut.
Our morning is spent visiting marvellous Melk Abbey. It’s a highlight of the trip for me and I am not disappointed. But I am surprised it presents as a modern museum with high-tech displays and not dark, dank and medieval as expected. Here for the first time we are confronted with boatloads of tourists doing the round trip from Vienna. It is a foretaste we are leaving rural Austria behind. We take the opportunity to walk the cobblestones of the quaint village, literally in the shadow of its enormous abbey.
Our cycle path moves from the river edge to high up the bank taking us through elongated medieval towns and villages. It’s a different perspective riding through the main street (often only street) of the charming, picture-perfect villages of Emmersdorf, Aggsbach Markt, Spitz and Weissenkirchen to Dürnstein, and the Wachau Valley.
Dürnstein is a beautiful town much photographed for its abbey and castle and the centre of Austria’s wine making district. By the look of those ambling around this Sunday, it’s also a place for Viennese to enjoy a scenic long lunch. We riders view the Abbey’s distinctive blue spire from a different angle.
We spend the night at a hotel in nearby Krems, a town so large it has traffic lights. Things are definitely getting urban.
The tour provides tickets from Krems to Tulln. It’s too far to ride to Vienna in a day from here and, frankly this industrial area is a bit of let-down from the sights of the Wachau Valley so the rail journey is welcome. I resist my daughter’s urging to continue on the train to Vienna; an error I regret. Disembarking at Tulln is a “are we there yet” feeling; it’s an uninteresting, hard slog through Kornneuburg on Vienna’s outskirts.
At 12.39pm precisely (important as money is riding on it) we leave the Donauradweg and enter the Vienna’s Ringstrasse. It’s been an eventful ride in Upper Austria’s countryside, at times hard-peddling and at other times effortless exhilaration. But always breathtakingly beautiful or interesting. We’ve experienced varied landscapes, weather and accommodation and enjoyed friendly exchanges with both locals and cyclists on our riverside adventure yet the final feeling is, “we’ve done it” – and that it’s unrepeatable.