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Biking the Blue Danube


The Danube Bicycle Path offers 200 miles of carefree cycling - almost all downhill - along riverbanks and through rolling pastures. Copyright Jim JohnsonStrauss'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 -- often small inns equipped with tools and spare parts. Along the way, cyclist information centers stand waiting to help. It's a cyclist's paradise. Still, both foreign travel and long-distance bicycling can intimidate some tourists, and many choose an even more carefree option, an organized bike tour. It's also an excellent opportunity to make new friends from other countries.

I recently joined ten others riders -- five Canadians, four Germans and one Swiss -- for a week-long tour. Most were middle-aged, and few were athletic. Our two bilingual Austrian tour leaders from Rad & Reisen (Bike & Travel) met us at the Hotel König in Passau and gave us an orientation in German and English.

One guide would ride with us each day, we were told, leading the way and helping with repairs. The other would drive the van, scouting out lunch spots and transporting our luggage to the next hotel -- up to our rooms, no less. Hotels, breakfast and dinner were part of the package.

The next morning, we enjoyed a typical breakfast of muessli, yogurt, rolls, preserves and cheese. After our leaders fitted us to our rental bikes and gave us some safety tips, we were off. We kept a slow pace, covering 20 to 30 miles a day with frequent stops to explore sights along the way.

Each day the scenery changed. We started in a deep valley with craggy outcroppings topped with the ruins of ancient castles. Soon, the hills turned to the rolling vineyards of the Wachau region, dotted with medieval towns. Finally, as the river widened, flat pastures spread to the horizons, and we meandered through farms and villages. Most of the tour carried us along the riverbanks on the paved remnants of the old horsepath. From time to time we crossed the river, over dams, locks and bridges and sometimes in small ferries that held barely a dozen cyclists. At one landing, a sign instructed, "Shout across for service."

Along the way, we toured sites of architectural, historic or cultural importance. In Engelhartszell, we visited a Trappist monastery and stood in awe inside its ornate rococo church. During an overnight stay in Melk we toured the baroque Benedictine Abbey that, with one building the length of four football fields, dominates the city.

During the harvest, cyclists can stop for a taste of grapes -- or even sample wines in gardens and centuries-old cellars. Copyright Jim JohnsonDürrnstein offered 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, Austria's wine-growing region, we hiked to the ruins of the Hinterhaus castle and looked across to the Tausendeimerberg -- the Mountain of a Thousand Buckets - where vineyards were carved into hillside terraces. A few miles downstream, in the village of Weissenkirchen, we toured a small winery and had a private wine tasting in its 700-year-old cellar.

Not all stops were sites of beauty. A winding road overlooking the Danube ended starkly at the concentration camp in Matthausen. From 1938 until the Allied liberation seven years later, 110,000 prisoners died, most of hunger, disease and exhaustion from working the adjacent quarries. The memory of its terrors stands in tragic counterpoint to the landscape below.

Churches, cathedrals, abbeys and castles are at almost every turn. Copyright Jim JohnsonWith each day, our group grew closer. At dinner, we sang songs and told stories about our homelands. Along the route, we often rode side-by-side, talking about politics and history, food and romance. When we stopped for lunch, most often at outdoor cafés overlooking the river, we shared what we had seen that morning -- a flock of geese in the marsh, another band of cyclists enjoying wine and cheese and singing, a small chapel along the river. Language was never a barrier.

We spent the last leg of our tour aboard the steamship Theodor Körner bound for Vienna. There, after an evening of camaraderie in a small bistro, and a bus tour of the city the next morning, we hugged and said our good-byes.

 

Terraced vineyards stretch above the village of Grein. Copyright Jim JohnsonMy cycling adventure wasn't over, however. I had booked a city bicycling tour with Vienna-Bike and still had two hours of cycling ahead of me. My guide and I set out along the "Ring Streets" that encircle the old city where its ancient fortification once stood.

Riding in special bike-only lanes, we passed the famous Strauss statue, the Vienna Opera House and the Imperial Palace. We walked our bikes through the pedestrian zone, passing shops and cafés in the shadow of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Unlike the bus trip, this tour meandered through Vienna's side alleys, and I absorbed the sights, sounds and scents of the city.

As we passed a baroque courtyard, we heard a string quartet practicing. Mozart, my guide noted, lived in an adjacent home for nearly 10 years. "Vienna really takes care of bicyclists," she explained. "We have about 300 miles of bike paths within the city, and, if you want to travel outside the city, you can take your bike on the subway."

Most of the Danube Bicycle Path follows former horse paths where teams of horses tugged barges upsteam. Copyright Jim JohnsonNearly 100 hotels offer storage and repair facilities. The next morning, as my Lufthansa Airbus banked over the Danube, I thought of a wood-carved sign our group had seen on one of our hikes: "If you look down upon the Danube, Think of something dear to you, And hold it in your heart, Your wishes will come true." I guess that means I'll be back.

If You Go:

Transportation
Lufthansa German Airlines and Austrian Air fly to Munich and Vienna, respectively. Many United States carriers fly to European gateways with connections to both cities. Trains run every two hours from Munich and Salzburg to Passau. The trip takes three hours from Vienna and two hours from Munich and costs $33 and $20, respectively. The hotel is a five-minute taxi ride from the train station.

Lodging
Hotels are included in the tour price and range from historic inns to modern, first class hotels. All have private bath.

Bicycles
Airline policies differ on transporting bicycles, both in cost and in how much you have to take your bike apart. I recommend renting instead. Three-speed rentals are included in the tour price and come equipped with foot-brake, front hand-brake and two saddlebags. For a $26 surcharge, 14-speed hybrids are available. Helmets may be rented for $10.

What to bring
On frequent bicycle tours, I've heard more complaints about chafing and sore bottoms than about tired muscles. Spend a few hours in a bicycle shop at home, and try on different clothing. At very least, invest in comfortable cycling shorts and gloves, bring several layers of pants and shirts, and carry rain gear.

When to travel
May, June and September are ideal riding months with temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 degrees. Traffic is low, and you avoid midsummer heat. In September, you gain the added pleasure of the annual grape harvest.

Tour companies
For the services of a guide, luggage transport, van support, and tours of important attractions, as well as two meals a day and overnight lodging, expect to pay about $750. For those who still want some independence, tour companies will also provide luggage transport and lodging only, for about $500. Contact (in English) Rad & Reisen, Schulgasse 36, A-1180 Vienna, tel. 01143-405-3873; or, Kneissl Touristik, Linzerstrasse 4-6, A-4650 Lambach, tel. 01143-7245-2501.

Nightlife
For a taste of Vienna's nightlive, have a look at Smackdab Media's 'Bar of the Week'.

We spent the last leg of our tour aboard the steamship Theodor Körner bound for Vienna. There, after an evening of camaraderie in a small bistro, and a bus tour of the city the next morning, we hugged and said our good-byes.

Terraced vineyards stretch above the village of Grein. Copyright Jim JohnsonMy cycling adventure wasn't over, however. I had booked a city bicycling tour with Vienna-Bike and still had two hours of cycling ahead of me. My guide and I set out along the "Ring Streets" that encircle the old city where its ancient fortification once stood.

Riding in special bike-only lanes, we passed the famous Strauss statue, the Vienna Opera House and the Imperial Palace. We walked our bikes through the pedestrian zone, passing shops and cafés in the shadow of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Unlike the bus trip, this tour meandered through Vienna's side alleys, and I absorbed the sights, sounds and scents of the city.

As we passed a baroque courtyard, we heard a string quartet practicing. Mozart, my guide noted, lived in an adjacent home for nearly 10 years. "Vienna really takes care of bicyclists," she explained. "We have about 300 miles of bike paths within the city, and, if you want to travel outside the city, you can take your bike on the subway."

Most of the Danube Bicycle Path follows former horse paths where teams of horses tugged barges upsteam. Copyright Jim JohnsonNearly 100 hotels offer storage and repair facilities. The next morning, as my Lufthansa Airbus banked over the Danube, I thought of a wood-carved sign our group had seen on one of our hikes: "If you look down upon the Danube, Think of something dear to you, And hold it in your heart, Your wishes will come true." I guess that means I'll be back.

If You Go:

Transportation
Lufthansa German Airlines and Austrian Air fly to Munich and Vienna, respectively. Many United States carriers fly to European gateways with connections to both cities. Trains run every two hours from Munich and Salzburg to Passau. The trip takes three hours from Vienna and two hours from Munich and costs $33 and $20, respectively. The hotel is a five-minute taxi ride from the train station.

Lodging
Hotels are included in the tour price and range from historic inns to modern, first class hotels. All have private bath.

Bicycles
Airline policies differ on transporting bicycles, both in cost and in how much you have to take your bike apart. I recommend renting instead. Three-speed rentals are included in the tour price and come equipped with foot-brake, front hand-brake and two saddlebags. For a $26 surcharge, 14-speed hybrids are available. Helmets may be rented for $10.

What to bring
On frequent bicycle tours, I've heard more complaints about chafing and sore bottoms than about tired muscles. Spend a few hours in a bicycle shop at home, and try on different clothing. At very least, invest in comfortable cycling shorts and gloves, bring several layers of pants and shirts, and carry rain gear.

When to travel
May, June and September are ideal riding months with temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 degrees. Traffic is low, and you avoid midsummer heat. In September, you gain the added pleasure of the annual grape harvest.

Tour companies
For the services of a guide, luggage transport, van support, and tours of important attractions, as well as two meals a day and overnight lodging, expect to pay about $750. For those who still want some independence, tour companies will also provide luggage transport and lodging only, for about $500. Contact (in English) Rad & Reisen, Schulgasse 36, A-1180 Vienna, tel. 01143-405-3873; or, Kneissl Touristik, Linzerstrasse 4-6, A-4650 Lambach, tel. 01143-7245-2501.

Nightlife
For a taste of Vienna's nightlive, have a look at Smackdab Media's 'Bar of the Week'.