We ride the Danube on a bike and discover a cyclist's paradise. Story includes options for lodging along the way and information on choosing a tour operator.
By Jim Johnson
Strauss's waltz notwithstanding, it's likely the silty Danube never flowed blue. But that doesn't stop the tens of thousands of cyclists who each season seek the serenity and romantic history of Austria's most popular bike path.
For Americans making their first overseas bike tour, the Danube Bicycle Path offers nearly carefree cycling and an ideal way to view the region. First, for the 200-mile downstream stretch from just over the border in Passau, Germany, to Vienna, it's literally downhill all the way, passing through picturesque towns and villages and across lush farmland. Second, it's paved and almost traffic-free, following an old horsepath where teams of horses once struggled to tow barges upstream. Finally, in even the smallest villages, banners hang from hotels and restaurants: "Cyclists Welcome Here." Maps and guidebooks point out historic sites and repair stations; small inns are often equipped with tools and spare parts. Along the way, cyclist information centers stand waiting to help. It's a cyclist's paradise.
Even a leisurely pace allows riders to cover 20 to 30 miles a day with frequent stops to explore sights along the way. Each day the scenery changes - from deep valleys with craggy outcroppings topped with the ruins of ancient castles to the rolling vineyards of the Wachau region, dotted with medieval towns. Past the hills, the river widens and flat pastures spread to the horizons, as the trail meanders through farms and villages.
Most of the bike path parallels the riverbanks on paved remnants of the old horsepath. From time to time, the route crosses the river, over dams, locks and bridges and sometimes in small ferries that hold barely a dozen cyclists. At one landing, a sign instructs, "Shout across for service."
Along the way, sites of architectural, historic or cultural importance abound. In Engelhartszell, a Trappist monastery inspires visitors with its ornate rococo church. In Melk, the baroque Benedictine Abbey dominates the city. One building stretches the length of four football fields! Dürnstein offers a taste of the Middle Ages with its turreted walls, cobblestone main street and, looming over the town, the castle ruins where Richard the Lionhearted lay prisoner 800 years ago.
In Spitz, in the heart of the Wachau, one of Austria's wine-growing regions, bikers can become hikers and climb to the ruins of the Hinterhaus castle. Across the way, vineyards are carved into hillside terraces on the Tausendeimerberg - the Mountain of a Thousand Buckets, so named because of its plentiful yield of wine grapes. A few miles downstream, in the village of Weissenkirchen, a small winery offers tastings in its 700-year-old cellar.
Not all stops are sites of beauty. A winding road above the Danube ends starkly at the Matthausen concentration camp. From 1938 until the Allied liberation seven years later, 110,000 prisoners died here. The memory of its terrors stands in tragic counterpoint to the landscape below.
At most towns along the way, cyclists can become passengers and enjoy the view from steamships headed for Vienna. Many choose the final 25 miles - the least scenic - and disembark in downtown Vienna, where more than 300 miles of bike paths and bike-only lanes await the urban cyclist. (Bikes are also allowed on subways, and nearly 100 hotels offer storage and repair facilities.) Unlike bus-confined tourists, cyclists can explore Vienna's side alleys and absorb the sights, sounds and scents of the city. It's not uncommon to hear music resonating from hidden courtyards, perhaps a string quartet practicing.
Such sublime moments at journey's end allow cyclists to reflect on a worn wooden sign that had greeted them 150 miles upstream:
If you look upon the Danube,
Think of something dear to you,
And hold it in your heart,
Your wishes will come true.
For most people, that means they'll be back.
Lodging Along the Route
Hotel Donauschlinge Schlögen 2, A-4083 Haibach a.d. Donau, tel. +43/07279/8212, fax 82 40 41, doubles 990 AS ($75)
Hotel Goldenes Kreuz Hotel am Stadtplatz, A-4360 Grein, tel. +43/07268/316, fax 3168, doubles 920 AS ($70)
Hotel Stadt Melk Hauptplatz 1, A-3390 Melk, tel. 011-43-2752-2475, fax 011-43-2752-247519, doubles 980 AS ($75)
Hotel Wachauerhof, Ottenschlager Strasse 30, A-3620 Spitz, tel. 011-43-2713-2254, fax 011-43-2713-2875, doubles 800 ($61)
ALONE OR WITH A GROUP
Solo cycling appeals to many travelers, but most prefer organized tour packages, with guides, lodging, luggage transport, riverside repairs and meals. It's also an excellent opportunity to make new friends from other countries. Groups generally range from 10 to 15 guests. Although many U.S.-based companies offer bike tours, Austrian companies provide similar services at half the price. For even less, tour operators will arrange accommodations and shuttle luggage, giving cyclists more freedom but no support and less camaraderie and local knowledge. These Austrian-based groups also tend to be more multinational than U.S.-based operations (but always with English as a primary language).
Expect to pay about $900 for a one-week package. For luggage transport and lodging only, the charge will be about $550. Contact (in English):
• Rad & Reisen Schulgasse 36, A-1180 Vienna, tel. +43/01/405 3873
• Kneissl Touristik, Linzerstrasse 4-6, A-4650 Lambach, tel. +43/07245/2501
• Austria Rad Reisen Holzingerstrasse 546, A-4780 Schärding, tel. +43/07712/5511.