It was one of those magic moments that I will remember for the rest of my life. This my first visit to the city of Vienna and so far it had certainly lived up to all my romantic preconceived images that I carried in my head. The day had been spent wandering among the incredible collection of vast museums, concert halls, cathedrals and galleries that the city is so famous for. Every corner that I turned revealed new surprises that left me spellbound with wonder.
When I returned to my hotel room I had first been tempted to just have a rest and an early night, but when I considered that I might never have the opportunity to return to this incredible city, I decided to jump on the underground railway and head back to the centre of town to see what it was like after dark. After all, it was a Saturday night and I assumed that plenty of people would be out and about.
About 15 minutes later I was in the iconic Stephanplatz area of Vienna, commonly regarded as the soul of the city. This is the home of the impressive, 700 year old, St Stephens Cathedral. In the daylight I had been particularly fascinated by the intricate pattern of coloured tiles on its steeply sloping roof, but in the darkening early evening, it was the tasteful floodlighting that accentuated its striking lines and made it appear even more beautiful than in the day.
I found an open air café to enjoy a late dinner (Wiener Schnitzel of course) and then set out to wander the area with no particular destination in mind. In previous travels I have usually found that the most memorable experiences are unscripted. They happen when you allow yourself to get lost in the moment and just follow your heart.
I was somewhat surprised just how quickly the streets and walkways emptied. By about 9.30 pm most of the people had disappeared and the cafes were starting to shut their doors. Thinking that I did not want to be out in a strange city by myself, I was just about to go back down the stairs to catch the train back to the hotel when my attention was caught by a haunting melody coming from somewhere in the vicinity. My curiosity was aroused and I abruptly changed my plans and headed off in search of the source of this beautiful and total unexpected music.
It took me some time to find which direction it was coming from but eventually I found myself in an almost deserted wide pedestrian mall with a sole cellist sitting on a chair and absolutely lost in his music. I could not help but be captivated by his skill and passion. As his fingers danced up and down the instrument his long hair flashed to and fro with the tempo. He did not seem to be aware of the small group of listeners who had gathered around to sit and savour the moment. I looked back towards the silhouette of St Stephens and saw that the full moon was rising over the cathedral in a completely clear sky. With the music, the moon, the balmy evening and the history that was all around me, it was such a unique experience that I wished I could capture that moment and take it with me for the rest of my life. For me it was the defining moment of the trip.
Wise men tell us that, in any true adventure, the journey if just as important as the destination. If that is the case then this adventure actually began over 12 months ago when I first mooted the idea for a European ride. After our previous trips to China and Nepal, Europe seemed the logical next step in an unfolding series of overseas forays for the Ghostriders.
As the trip developed from a vague concept to a definite plan, people began to come forward and express their desire to share this experience with me. For most of us the date of departure seemed so far in the future that at times it was hard to believe that we would actually be riding through the magical succession of towns that punctuate the route of one of Europe’s greatest riders – The Danube. Along the way our route was going to take us through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.
It was only when we reached the final few months prior to departure and commenced our series of training rides that we could finally begin to let the excitement grow within each of us. By one month before departure we had reached out final tally of 19 participants who would take part in the trip. This included 11 men and 8 women.
Of course one of the disadvantages of living in Australia, and Melbourne in particular, as that to get almost anywhere you must endure an incredibly long plane flight. By the time we staggered from the airport at Munich it had been almost 48 hours since we had seen a real bed. Mercifully the trip to the Marriott Hotel was relatively short and, even better, the beds were clean and incredibly soft. It did not take more than a couple of minutes before I was carried away to that most welcome of destinations known as the “Land of Nod”.
Our original plan had been to get up very early in order to catch a taxi to the Munich Railway Station where we were due to catch the train to Passau. To our relief the attentive receptionist at the hotel informed us that the train to Passau actually passed through the local station of Freising, which was within walking distance of the hotel. Not only did this save us an early trip into Munich but it also meant that we could enjoy an extra hour or so of sleep. To say this was welcome news of course would have been like saying that the Danube was just a little creek.
I was somewhat surprised to find that, even at the end of summer and at almost 50 degrees North latitude the evening temperature was very warm and humid. The bed clothes were quickly dispensed with and the air conditioning turned down to its lowest setting. Unfortunately it did not appear to do anything apart from emit a whirring noise. It certainly made no impression on the room temperature. In the morning we discovered that we could have just opened the windows, although there was a large sign which warned against letting in the mosquitoes. In fact none of us have seen either a mosquito or a fly since arriving in this country.
My alarm was set for 7.00 am but by 6 o’clock my eyes were open and I was fully awake. There was no sense in fighting my strong circadian rhythm so I got up and packed my bags while my roommate Brian decided to head off on a quick, pre dawn reconnaissance walk to the train station.
An hour later we were both in the dining room sampling the vast array of food that was laid out before us. If this was to be any indication of the type of breakfast we were going to be offered over the next two weeks, any hopes of avoiding an unwanted increase in my stomach girth would quickly go out the window. It was just as well that the top button of my trousers had popped off in the plane of else it could have been sent flying across the dining room following my delightful ingestion of a vast amount of eggs, bacon, tomato, fruit, juice, cheese, bread and cold meat. And did I mention the delicious cakes and cappucino ?
By the time I was staggering back up to the room I felt a little like the notorious exploding glutton in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Each trip certainly throws up its share of unique challenges and I could sense that the challenge in Europe would be to keep the weight gain down to less than 5 kg.
Munich to Passau
At 8.30 am we had fourteen happy travelers gathered outside the hotel with their luggage in tow. We had decided (at Brian’s urging) to walk to the Freising Railway Station. With our collection of luggage click clacking its way along the narrow cobblestoned streets we were soon mesmerized by the beauty and character of the rows of quaint shops and houses that were all around us. Almost completely absent were motor cars – everyone was either walking or cycling. In a compact town like this cars really are almost irrelevant and unnecessary. On the other hand there were hordes of cyclists of all ages and sizes happily making their way through the meandering streets and laneways. One thing that we would find much harder to get used to was the almost total absence of bike helmets.
After a few minutes of walking I started to regret my decision to pack all my gear in an old duffel bag. While the rest of the group were happily rolling their luggage along on well oiled wheels I was left struggling to find a comfortable way to hitch the awkward 18 kg bag over my shoulder.
Like everything else in this country we discovered the railways to run with typical Germanic precision. The train to Passau arrived right on time and we soon found ourselves happily seated in the upper level of a luxurious 2 story carriage. The seats were large and comfortable and I was somewhat surprised that we had the entire carriage to ourselves. What had happened to all those others we had seen waiting on the platform ?
The train was soon flying along quietly and smoothly at 150 kph. We found ourselves watching a succession of villages and farmlands fly by our windows. I could not help but feel that this was a fantastic way to travel. It was not until some time later that the officious female conductor arrived to collect our tickets. When she examined our tickets she wasted no time in informing us that we were seated in a FIRST CLASS compartment with SECOND CLASS tickets. No wonder the carriage was so empty.
I wondered whether the penalty for such a serious transgression was death by firing squad or perhaps even worse. Deciding that our best defense was to plead not guilty by reason of ignorance combined with extreme old age and an inability to read German, I threw myself at her mercy. My tactic must have worked as she relented and told us that we would have to move to a second class compartment at the next station. Apparently we would not be flogged as this was our first offence. We did not mind too much as we had already enjoyed the luxury of first class for the first hour of the two hour trip. It is amusing situations like this that help make every trip memorable in its own right.
Two days in Passau
The train pulled into the impressive Passau Station shortly before 12 noon. Our first impressions of Passau were of a magical town reminiscent of the pictures you might find on a chocolate box. Nestled at the conjunction of three rivers – the Danube, The Inn and the Ilz, Passau has a rich history dating back thousands of years.
A short taxi ride took us from the station to the hotel that was to be our home for the next two nights. Sometime during the course of the day we were expecting to meet the other five travelers who had made their own ways from Australia and would be making up our final team of 19 riders.
Our hotel had a completely unpronounceable name but turned out to be a most pleasant surprise with clean and comfortable rooms and lots of hot water. We were even blessed to find a small balcony outside our room which provided an ideal place to rest and chat. Another most welcome surprise was the weather. Although Passau endures winter temperatures down to -20C, our arrival in this city was greeted with temperatures in the mid 30s and quite high humidity.
We quickly set out into the centre of the oldest part of town, dating back to the 15 th century. The imposing cathedral (or Dom) lays claim to the largest church pipe organ in the world and daily entertains hundreds of visitors with its recitals. In the surrounding area we wandered an intricate network of narrow, cobblestoned streets. This would be the classic scenario for a James Bond car chase or perhaps a Peter Lorre lookalike hiding in the shadows wearing a gabardine overcoat although while we were there we saw neither James Bond nor Peter Lorre.
Above all the shops were box like five story buildings which house the apartments where most of the population live. Many of the small windows were colorfully adorned with flower boxes, cascading brilliantly coloured floral displays.
In winter Passau is regularly blanketed in deep snow and the buildings have obviously been designed to help minimise heat loss from windows and doors. The overall impression is of a very pretty and highly organised town which has obviously built on its relationship to the Danube and Inn rivers and attracts thousands of visitors to enjoy its unique situation. Since I had never been to this part of the world before, I was absolutely captivated by the beauty and novelty of everything around me.
I soon discovered that Passau is a very easy city to navigate around in. Nestled in between the two mighty rivers you cannot travel far without reaching one or the other of these two waterways. Then all you have to do is follow it to the first reference point you recognise.
In spite of my best efforts I could never quite manage to correctly pronounce the name of our hotel – The Jesuitenschossl (and that is not a misprint). Each time I asked a German speaking person to help me with the name, I am sure that they all said something completely different.
At the end of an exhausting day wandering from one end of the town to the other I finally staggered back into the hotel in time for dinner. This turned out to be an extremely generous buffet, again clearly demonstrating that, of all the challenges this trip might throw against us, lack of food was certainly not going to be one of them. After a long day it was relief to be able to finally collapse into bed and quickly drift off into a deep sleep.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of steady rain falling outside our window. After the 35C top temperature of the previous day it was much nicer to face a cooler day ahead, although I was hoping that the rain was not going to be a portent of the weather we were going to face when the ride started. Although we were not due to collect our bikes until the following day many of our group expressed a desire to get the bikes earlier. After a bit of negotiating with the representative of the bike supplier we were shuttled six at a time to the large garage where the bikes were stored.
It was an impressive sight to see so many bikes all stored tightly in such a relatively small space. The single mechanic on duty seemed a bit overwhelmed at the unexpected arrival of so many customers but did his best to serve us cheerfully and efficiently. The bikes themselves were 21 speed commuting bikes with large rear panniers, comfort seats and dynamo powered lights. Our first impression of the bikes was quite favourable. They were smooth to ride, the gears worked well and they appeared to be well adapted for the type of riding that we were going to be doing.
For the next 30 minutes or so we descended on the bike that we had each been allocated and proceeded to adjust seat heights, check tyres and test ride until we were satisfied with the finished results. I am sure the exhausted mechanic was relieved when we finally all rolled out onto the street for the 3 km ride back to the hotel. Our only problem was that the rain was still falling steadily leading me to suspect that maybe the Ghostriders had broken another drought, just as we had done 18 months earlier in China.
The first brief foray on new bikes is always an exciting time, not only are you getting used to an unfamiliar bike but you also have to retrain your brain to ride on the right hand side of the road. Fortunately we did all make it safely back to the Hotel Unpronounceable but we did arrive looking like the proverbial “drowned rats”.
With our new bikes now safely locked away in the underground car park I set off into the centre of town for another afternoon exploring the city. I made my way over the Inn River and through the town to the side of the Danube (actually referred to as the “Donau” throughout our travels) River. There were a number of huge passenger carrying “river liners” at the dock. (Not only were the boats themselves very large but so was a sizeable proportion of the baby boomers that constituted their entire passenger cargo.)
These liners are not only extremely long wide they are surprisingly wide as well. Through their smoked glass exterior windows I could see expansive indoor restaurants, swimming pools and hundreds of rooms. They are more akin to ocean liners than river boats. During the course of the day I witnessed a number of these impressive vessels arriving and disgorging their hordes of obviously wealthy, middle aged and elderly passengers. It was obviously a thriving industry, even in these times of economic uncertainly.
The main building that I was interested in was the ancient fort located high on the hill overlooking the meeting point of the rivers. To reach the fort you first have a strenuous climb up a steep series of staircases, but if you make the effort the views from the top are breathtaking. The building complex itself also house the Oberhaus Museum. Since all the signs were in German I had a great deal of trouble finding my way to the entrance of the museum.
After several abortive attempts I finally found my way to the ticket office, paid my 5 Euro admission fee and was directed across an elevated wooden footbridge into a large central courtyard. I looked around for an entrance into the museum itself and, when I saw a large doorway with a prominent arrow pointing towards it, I thought I had found what I was looking for. With my ticket clutched in my hand I walked through a rotating turnstile and immediately found myself OUTSIDE the building. Since the gate prevented me travelling the reverse direction I could not retrace my steps. What was worse was the fact that the path I now found myself on went straight back down to the bottom of the hill. I had no alternative other than to walk all the way down and repeat the entire process all over again.
Some time later I was back in the same courtyard (and NO I did not make the same mistake again) and looked around for another doorway to enter through. This time I was determined to be more circumspect in my choice of portals and certainly would not be entering any room with a turnstile in front. By the same token I could not help but wonder why the signs were not in English as well as German, since this was obvious a very popular place for tourists to visit. I suspect that I was neither the first nor the last person to be caught out in that fashion.
In spite of my unfortunate misadventure at the start, the museum turned out to be one of the most fascinating places I had ever visited. Its vast collection of medieval artifacts surely must be one of the best in Europe. I spent the next couple of hours wandering among thousands of ancient books, documents, tools, weapons, clothing and other objects covering thousands of years from the Iron and Bronze Ages up to the last century.
The area around Passau has apparently been continuously inhabited since the Iron Age. Documents and maps from the 12 century showed that the overall layout of the city had changed little in the last 900 or so years. I was again disappointed that all the information about the exhibits was only supplied in German as I am sure that many visitors to this museum would have appreciated an English version also.
Since the afternoon was now well advanced and my stamina was almost exhausted made my way back to the Hotel Whatitsname for a brief rest before dinner. After another meal of huge proportions we retired at about 9.00 pm. Since I considered it a little early to go to bed I decided to watch TV for a short while, but, after a few minutes I noticed that my roommate Brian had already drifted off to a deep sleep. With CNN the only English speaking station I could find I was also soon in my bed and on my way to a dream filled 9 hours sleep.
The Ride Begins
When I stepped out onto the balcony it was clear that the temperature had dropped considerably during the night. I quickly packed my bag and took it downstairs. Part of the arrangements were that each morning our baggage was to be collected and transported to the next hotel, so that it would be waiting for us on arrival. In fact this procedure worked flawlessly throughout the entire ride. Not once did a single bag ever go missing. This meant that all we needed to carry on the bikes were our own personal items that we might need during the day.
After breakfast our group of riders gathered outside the hotel with our bikes, ready for our first day of cycling. Of course every ride of this nature must start with the obligatory group photo and we spent some time in a concerted frenzy of shutter clicking and video filming before we finally set off with much happy laughter – thrilled to be on our way at last.
Our plan was to follow the path on the North side of the river so this entailed a ride back through the centre of Passau and across a couple of bridges before reaching the famous Danube Cycle Path (“Donau Radweig”) that we all come so far to experience. Soon we were riding alongside the river and leaving Passau behind. The bike path is sealed and, since it follows the river bank downstream, it is gently downhill virtually all the way. This is probably one of the reasons that it has become so well known as a cyclist’s heaven, riders coming from all parts of Europe and the world to experience it at first hand. Not only is the riding easy, but the magical scenery would be hard to surpass anywhere else in the world. It is no wonder that this is regarded as one of the premier cycle paths in the world.
Although there were many other cyclists of all ages and skill levels on the path, most were going in the same direction as us and it was by no means unpleasantly crowded. It did not take long for the clouds to clear and open up a clear blue sky over our heads. Early layers of clothing were quickly discarded as we soaked up the warmth from the late summer sun.
With the mighty Danube on our right hand side we slowly made our way along the river valley. Rolling hills on both sides of the river were dotted with immaculate storybook houses and distinctive churches, each bearing a spire. It is little wonder that so many churches are struck by lightning when they are invariably the tallest structure in every village.
When we reached the moderately sized town of Obernzell someone made the fortuitous discovery of a German Bakery (I guess not so surprising when you are riding in Germany), offering us an ideal opportunity to partake of our first coffee and cakes for the day. Thirty minutes and several thousand calories later we were on our way again.
A short time later a small sign on the side of the bike path told us that we leaving Germany and entering Austria. It was a bit of an anti-climax – there were no border checkpoints, no immigration officers, no passports . You could easily ride straight across and not even realise that you were passing into a different country. Since it was so easy to cross the border I decided to go back and forth a few times. That way I could tell people that I “had been to Austria on many occasions”. The border also gave us a pleasant place to take a few more photos and watch the mighty river liners making their way towards Vienna. We gave them a big wave and were rewarded with a loud toot from the steam whistle.
Our first day’s ride was a scant 35 km, so we arrived at our next hotel before 12 noon. The 300 year old Gastoff Draxler was ideally located right on the bank of the river. The friendly owner told us that the building had been in their family for 7 generations. We were all thrilled to find such a character filled hotel , so steeped in history. The rooms were clean and comfortable and the situation was perfect. While some decided to get back on the bikes and explore the local town of Niederranna, the rest decided that it would be better to sit at one of the rear tables and just enjoy the spectacle of watching the succession of boats pass by while having a relaxing drink. It was a perfect start to our trip.
In spite of its great age, the hotel was so well built that I could so reason why it should not last another 300 years. All the windows were double glazed and built in such a way that they could either be completely sealed or fully opened to allow unrestricted flow of air into the rooms. The walls were at least 400 mm thick and therefore offering a huge thermal mass to maintain an even interior temperature all year round. In an area where the outside temperature can range from -20C to 35C it made eminent sense. It also really emphasized just how far behind we are in Australia.
I spent the afternoon exploring the surroundings before returning for dinner by the river. The staff of the hotel were all related and gave us excellent service with a most cheerful and informative manner. The procession of river boats continued while we were having dinner, but one of these craft in particular must have had specials significance to the attractive daughter of the hotel owner.
As the boat came around the bend in the river it loudly announced its approach with an ear splitting series of whistles. It did not take us long to see what the noise was all about. No sooner had the whistle finished than Elizabeth jumped to her feet, run into the dining room to grab a large red checked table cloth and then ran with her mother to the end of the small jetty. There they both proceeded to wave the table cloth over their heads, no doubt to let the young male officer on the boat know of their pleasure in seeing him.
When she returned to the tables we asked who was on board to create such excitement. The bright crimson colour of her cheeks answered our question. Obviously romance was in the air. It was a special moment and one that we will remember long after the trip is over.
Since it was fine and warm evening we were happy to eat our meal by the river and then retired inside to spend an enjoyable time in the dining room laughing, chatting and drinking. At about 9.15 pm it was time for bed and I was soon fast asleep until 4.00 am when I was woken by my mobile phone ringing. It was someone in Australia asking if I could come over and look at their computer. Of course I had to explain that this would be rather difficult as I was taking the call In Austria. I made a mental note to make sure that my mobile was switched off each night in future.
On to Linz
Before we started this trip we were given the option of travelling either with or without a guide. For a number of reasons (all of them connected to money) we chose to do the self guided option. This meant that we would be responsible for finding our own way from each hotel to the next. Although I am seriously directionally challenged, we were fortunate enough to have several GPS carrying riders in the group and several others who were willing to study the guide maps and advise us on the best route option for the next day’s ride. The members of the so called “Route Committee” performed their job so well that we were never (well hardly ever) lost during the entire two weeks of the ride.
Although our first day’s ride had been simple the second day was always going to throw up a few more challenges. Not only was the distance significantly longer but we also had several ferry crossings to transfer us back and forth across the river at strategic points along the way. In spite of these challenges Cor, Dick and Brian seemed confident that we would have nothing to fear.
Our stay at the Gasthoff Draxler was such a delightful start to the trip that we were all sorry to leave. As we unpacked the bikes from the bike garage Elizabeth came out to bid us all farewell. It would have been hard to imagine how we could have had any better service and we all knew that our brief stay at Niederranna would be a hard act to follow.
The first few kilometres of the day’s ride again followed the North bank of the river until we reached the town of Schlogen. At this point we could proceed no further due to towering cliffs blocking our way. We had to transfer all our bikes and riders onto a small ferry to cross to the South bank. This point of the river is famous for its S curve (referred to as the Schlogener Loop) as it detours around a large granite mountain.
After a short ride along the south side it was back onto another ferry to be transferred back to the north side once again. Each ferry owner seemed to have rather flexible pricing arrangements which meant that our fare was determined on the fly after he saw the prospective passengers lined up. I guess they all knew they had a monopoly and that you have no choice other than to pay whatever price they dream up.
Once back on the familiar north bank we continued for the next hour or so along the meandering river. It is so easy to see why such a mighty waterway has been such an important part of European trade and travel for hundreds of years.
At Untermuhl our passage was again blocked by a series of imposing cliffs which dropped almost vertically straight down to the river bank. There was no way that any bike path could get past this point so it was back onto yet another ferry to be dropped off about 800 metres further downstream .
The next major settlement was at Feldkirchen (literally the Church in the Field) and it was easy to see why it was so named. Our route at this point took us away from the river through a region of farmlands where the main crop was corn. As far as the eye could see the fields were full of tall corn stalks. As we approached the town the first sign we had that a town was near was the tall church steeple protruding high above a sea of corn.
The town itself seemed to be in the midst of major renovations with a number of somewhat noisy building projects all under way. We also found that the town water had been turned off for two hours meaning that our choice of lunch menu at the open air restaurant was quite restricted.
For the remainder of the day we stayed close to the river. The sun was surprisingly warm and, although we were riding down a gentle downhill gradient, most of us were starting to tire when we reached the outskirts of Linz. We had not expected Linz to be such a large city and our approach took us through several kilometres of suburbs before we reached the major bridge that indicated the point that we had reached our turn off to the city centre.
After making our way across the bridge we found ourselves in another world, with an intriguing mixture of old and new. The central street was serviced by a tram route with long modern trams passing by every few minutes. I soon discovered that the tram drivers do not appreciate it when careless visiting bike riders impede their progress. Feeling that it was too difficult to cycle through such busy traffic we joined the dense mob of pedestrians and walked our bikes for about 20 minutes until we finally reached the Hotel Kolping, ticked directly behind the town’s prominent casino. Although the hotel was large and modern I could not help but compare it with the charm and hospitality we had enjoyed the previous evening in Niederranna. Give me the character and friendliness of the family owned small hotels any day. Four and five star hotels are just the same the world over.
Our tour information informed us that we were eligible to each collect some free Austrian chocolates from a specialty chocolate shop in Linz. Not wanting to miss out on such a tempting proposition we set out from the Hotel in search of the shop in question. The only problem was that the street numbering seemed to make no sense whatsoever. Where the shop should have been there was only a open park. Nearby shopkeepers could also shed no light on our predicament. Since it was rapidly approaching closing time we started to feel that the chocolates were slipping out of reach.
Eventually we decided to search in the opposite direction and finally stumbled into the shop with only a couple of minutes to spare. It was starting to feel like we were contestants on the “Amazing Race” and that the chocolate shop was the pit stop for that leg of the race. After all the effort in finding the place we were a little disappointed to discover that our reward was two small chocolates each (worth about $AUD4). Nevertheless they were quickly devoured with a cappucino from a nearby coffee shop.
Linz was such a large and interesting city that it would have been interesting to have had more time to look around, however our schedule only allowed the one overnight stay.
Linz to Grein
Ever since we had arrived in Germany we had been blessed with warm days and cool nights. When the first rays of sunlight probed into my room this morning they revealed yet another cloudless day ahead. Although good weather is not everything, when you are cycling every day it certainly helps to have pleasant conditions to ride in.
Keeping in mind just how big a city Linz is we made the decision to get under way 30 minutes earlier than usual. This gave us a chance to safely make our way down the busy main street before the traffic conditions built up to peak hour.
Linz had certainly been something of a surprise to most of us. With its rectangular grid of major streets and its clanging trams it almost reminded me of Melbourne. It is only when you look at the dates and history of the buildings that the differences become evident. The central town area enjoys a cosmopolitan atmosphere with the usual array of name brand shops and thriving street side café culture that has become such an integral part of all prosperous cities. If the glittering array of expensive, new (and mostly black) cars is any indication, the Global Financial Crisis has not yet had any major impact on the wealthier part of town.
Once we had crossed the major bridge over the Danube we rejoined the bike path and resumed our easterly pilgrimage towards Vienna.
A short distance along the trail we took a short detour to explore the Pleschinger See. This is a large lake surrounded by many acres of manicured lawns and gardens. Apparently it is the premier recreational area for the residents of Linz to relax. After a most enjoyable early morning circuit of the lake we returned to the bike path and continued our way along the North bank.
Although you might imagine that Austria is predominantly a mountainous country, in this area we rode for many kilometres through an almost pan flat landscape, passing through several laovely small towns along the way. The trail mostly follows the river bank, but on several occasions makes quite significant detours inland. We were eternally grateful that the route is clearly marked with prominent R1 sings at every intersection and junction, making it almost impossible to lose your way.
About 25 km from Linz we reached the turnoff to the notorious Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Although this is only a few kilometres from the bike path it does involve some serious uphill climbing, leaving everyone clicking away in search of their lowest granny gear. The first glance you get of the camp is when you crest a steep hill and see the huge blue stone walls perched on the highest point for many miles around. The site has been preserved for the past 65 years as a memorial to all those who suffered and lost their lives there. There is also an extensive research centre for those seeking to piece together the records of lost relatives and friends.
Most of us had mixed feelings about visiting this spot and some decided to give it a complete miss. The whole experience is certainly confronting as you are presented with stark evidence of the utmost depths of human cruelty and depravity. It would be impossible to fully comprehend the degree of suffering that this place had witnessed as tens of thousands were systematically slaughtered in a variety of ways. The long lines of dormitory buildings still bear silent witness to just how many people were housed here. Underneath are the so called “disinfecting rooms” were thousands were gassed and cremated in the large furnaces.
The grounds are now home to numerous memorials and epitaphs, all seeking to ensure that what happened here will never happen again. We left feeling rather shaken but I think that we also believed it was important that we witness the site of something that we had only previously read about in the history books. We must never forget that that this was one of history’s darkest hours and be eternally grateful that the evil that ordered these places to be built all over Europe was defeated and at least some of those responsible were brought to justice. I am sure that all the perpetrators eventually faced a much higher court when they finally gasped their final earthly breaths.
The actual nearby town of Mauthausen is a pretty, bustling town but it’s name will ever be tainted by its proximity to the concentration camp. Since the day was now well advanced we stopped for lunch there before resuming our ride to Grein.
Although the cycling was easy the afternoon was steadily heating up and I was amazed at just how much sting the sun can have, even at 49N latitude. We were also riding into a gentle but persistent head wind for most of the afternoon.
With another 17 km still to go we all stopped for a delicious ice cream at a convenient trail side eatery. It was the perfect way to refresh ourselves before the final leg of the day’s ride.
Over the past three days we had watched the Danube steadily increase in width and at this point it is certainly a most impressive spectacle. All day we witnessed huge cargo and passenger vessels making their way up and down the river. I could not help wondering how much more fuel they would use on their upstream voyages than their downstream ones.
With a couple of kilometres to go we rode around a sweeping gentle left hand curve of the river and gained our first view of Grein. It was enough to have everyone stop and reach for their cameras. Withg its prominent central church and surrounding cluster of 3 and 4 story buildings it certainly looked a most welcoming sight. Since we were all hot and tired our most immediate thoughts were for the waiting hotel and the showers.
Our home for the evening was the Gastoph Strudengau and this turned out to one of the most fascinating hotels of the entire trip. The coat of arms on the outside of the building proclaimed that it had been built in 1468, although the rooms had obviously been refurbished a few times since then. In fact our room was large with an equally spacious en suite bathroom. Fortunately the character of the original building had been faithfully preserved.
Without doubt the town itself was the prettiest we had so far experienced and I am sure that most would have loved to stay for another day or more to explore and experience everything it had to offer. I could not help but imagine what it would have been like in this exact spot three or four hundred years ago. Most of the buildings would have been the same, apart from maybe the nearby coffee shop, but I could picture elegant local personages being chauffeured in their carriages while the sound of a string quartet could be heard drifting from one of the large houses. It really would have been a marvelous place.
We were once again fed to overflowing in the hotel dining room before I headed off for a short night time walk around the narrow streets. The bells in the illuminated ornate clock tower peeled loudly every 15 minutes , regularly reminding me that it was time to get some sleep before tomorrow’s ride.
Grein To Pochlarn
Although the original itinerary called for us to cycle through to Melk, the large size of our group meant that accommodation would be difficult. For that reason we were redirected to stop about 10 km short of Melk at the town of Pochlarn on the South bank.
The morning ride out of Grein took us along another delightful region, with the bike path sticking very close to the river. With the sun shining brightly overhead it was impossible not to be in high spirits as we chatted and rode, sharing each wonderful new sight with our riding companions. This really is a superb way to discover a new country.
At Persenbeug we reached a huge bridge that took us across to the south bank and to the nearby town of Ybbs. It was in Ybbs that we took some time to visit an impressive bicycle museum. Their collection traced the evolution of the bicycle form its earliest forms through to the present day. For anyone interested in bikes this place is worth spending some time in.
It was then a relatively short ride to the Pochlarn and the Hotel Moser. Since we were quite early we decided to catch an afternoon train to the larger town of Melk, famous for its impressive Abbey perched high on a hill in the centre of town. Like every Austrian train we travelled on this one was no exception. According to my GPS it was moving at near 150 kph between stations so the short trip was over in almost no time at all. Not only are the trains incredibly fast they are almost completely silent as well.
When I stepped off the train at Melk it was almost like steeping back into history. Although I had never even heard of this place before I started planning this trip, it really was a delight to be able to wander its streets and marvel at the history that was around every corner. Dominating the entire town is the impressive Benedictine Abbey. This must surely be one of the most impressive historic buildings in all of Europe and the treasures it houses are absolutely staggering – although the guide did tell us that they had to sell their Gutenberg Bible in order to pay for repairs to the roof.
The library alone contains thousands of original hand copied manuscripts, some dating back to the 12 th century or earlier. The current building was constructed in the early 18 th century and is a dazzling example of classical Baroque architecture. There is also an attached school with almost 1000 students. For any lover of art, history or architecture this place would have to be on your “must see” list.
After two hours exploring the Abbey and surrounds I made my way back downhill to the railway station and caught the train back to our hotel at Pochlarn. It had been a day so full of visual overload that I almost felt a little overwhelmed by what we had seen.
Pochlarn to Traismauer
If we thought that the cycling of the first 4 days was idyllic then we all had another think coming. Although the weather forecast was for a “cooler” day with “gathering thunderstorms” in fact we were treated to another mirror image of the first 4 days. The morning began with a completely clear sky, cool air and absolutely no wind. As the day progressed the temperature slowly increased to around 30C but the sky remained clear and the cycling conditions were as close to perfect as any of us would dared have wished for.
Since we had spent the previous night in Pachlarn rather than at Melk as originally planned, the first section of the ride was going to take us back past the beautiful town we had visited the previous afternoon by train. For that reason we decided to cross back to the North bank and follow it all the way to Krems.
The first 10 km section followed a very quiet sealed path, with the river bank never far away. With the morning air fresh and clean and our bodies energized by a good night’s sleep, everyone was cycling along strongly and in high spirits. I think the prevailing feeling was on of how privileged we were to be able to experience such a beautiful ride in one of the prettiest places on earth.
As we passed by Melk on the opposite side of the river the imposing Abbey could be seen from miles away. We kept on moving into the famous wine growing region of the Wachau Valley. It was there that we passed through a series of villages, each one seeming to be prettier than the previous one. It is little wonder that people would come from so far to ride this bike path.
With their narrow, cobbled streets, enchanting buildings dating back hundreds of years, incredible floral displays cascading from almost every window and the ever constant Danube providing the backbone to the country it is easy to understand why the cameras were clicking all day.
Numerous castles, bridges, arches and churches date back to the 1400’s or even earlier. I tried to picture what these places wouldhave really been like 300 or 400 years ago. Although the buildings would have been much the same it would have been a blessing not to have cars competing with the pedestrians and cyclists in such confined spaces. It is a shame that these town centres cannot be made into car free zones.
By mid morning our thirsts were beginning to grow and we stopped at an inviting roadside restaurant in Spitz to enjoy a coffee and cake. I was pleased to see that the mugs of cappucino, looked like the genuine article but the coffee actually left a lot to be desired. In fact this was to become a feature everywhere we travelled. Perhaps we have been spoiled in Australia, but the baristas of Austria are just not up to the mark. Someone needs to tell them that you cannot get the froth on a good cappucino just by pressing the button on an aerosol can of whipped cream. In spite of the coffee only scoring a 3/10, we found it interesting that it was invariably served with a glass of water.
After Spitz we continued through acres of vineyards. Along the trail were numerous apple and pear trees, fully laden with ripe fruit to satisfy the hunger of any passing walker or cyclist. It was not until we were well out of the Wachau Valley that another reading of the trip notes revealed that we could each have collected a free bottle of wine along the way. Oops – maybe we will have to come back in a couple of years to do the ride again.
The trail occasionally left the immediate bank of the river and undulated through villages and fields. Situated high on the surrounding hills we passed by several ruined castles. I guess we could have ridden to get a closer look but I did say that they were all located on hill tops ! It might have been fun if we had made it but none of us had the excess energy to tackle the steep climbs that they would have demanded.
Krems is a large town nestled on the North bank and this was our cue for a lovely lunch break before crossing back to the south bank for the short detour to the town of Traismauer which was our “pit stop for this leg of the ride”. With the temperature once again rising and our stamina ebbing, a final stop for a trail side ice cream provided a welcome rest break in the mid afternoon.
My first impressions of Traismauer were not as favourable as the numerous towns we had passed through during the day. It lacked some of the charm that we had marveled at in the Wachau Valley and the noisy main road passed right under my hotel window. The neighboring petrol station had an outdoor table which was obviously the meeting place for locals to gather, drink, smoke, laugh and talk VERY LOUDLY.
On the other hand the room itself was certainly one of the most interesting we had stayed in so far. It was actually two rooms, decorated throughout in art deco style, complete with 4 beds, 2 TVs, lounge suite, wardrobes and other furniture. The huge wardrobe would have thrilled the heart of any keen art deco lover, although the loud thumping of the sub woofer at the petrol station really started to grate on my nerves after the first 30 minutes.
One of the biggest surprises of this hotel was the high quality of the food we were served for dinner. Certainly no cafeteria style dining here! The meal was of an exceptionally high standard – professionally presented and prepared by a chef who obviously took pride in his work. After we had all eaten we invited the chef into the dining room so that we could all give him a rousing ovation. He really deserved it.
Also during the evening meal the heavens opened with an impressive downpour that sent rivers of water flooding down the street and into the hotel foyer. We were really glad that this rain had not arrived while we had been on the bikes and we all hoped that is would be well past by tomorrow morning.
Traismauer to Vienna
Our original itinerary called for us to catch the train from Krems to Tulln and then ride the remaining distance into Vienna. Since we had already ridden well past Krems a group of map studiers and kilometre counters arrived at the conclusion that we only had 70 km or less to ride to Vienna. It seemed pointless to break our established cycling routine by resorting to a train, so a unanimous decision was made to stay on the bikes all the way. At least we could then honestly say that we had ridden all the way from Passau to Vienna.
The rain that had arrived the previous evening was still drizzling down when our morning ride began. For the first time a series of multi coloured rain jackets were donned as we prepared for a wet day in the saddle. Rather than dampen our spirits I think that most of our riders were actually looking forward to the novelty of riding in the rain. This would also give us a little respite from the hot afternoon sun. Although the light drizzle continued for most of the day the temperature was mild and the conditions were still excellent for riding.
The first section from Traismauer to Tuln was almost deaf flat along quiet paths. This enabled to establish a good regular cycling rhythm as we rode along with almost no other riders in sight. One particular point of interest was the large nuclear power station situated right alongside the bike path. Judging from the almost empty car park it would appear that almost no staff are required to keep it operating. I wondered if the engineer in charge was one “H Simpson”.
Tulln is a largish town with an impressive entrance from the Danube side. We made our way through some narrow laneways to the centre of town where some major renovations were taking place to the city square. It looked as if the entire centre of town was being pulled down and rebuilt. Although the construction noise was a little daunting we did manage to discover the best Austrian Bakery we had thus far seen. The next 30 minutes was spent happily drinking coffee and eating the most amazing cream cakes. Oh What Bliss !
With Vienna now almost in our sights we started to feel a little like John Bunyan’s long suffering pilgrim as he approached that wonderful “Celestial City”. We cruised and chatted happily as the kilometres steadily ticked over. Gradually the unmistakable signs of an approaching large city became apparent but there was very little of the “collar of squalor” that so often seems to surround most large cities the world over.
The bike path was clearly marked right into the centre of Vienna where we crossed the main Danube River and continued along the narrow central island. This island was man made out of the material taken from the river bed to create the so called “Neue Donau” (New Danube).
At certain times of the year this island is the site of popular celebrations and festivals although, as we rode along, it was almost deserted. It was very exciting to be able to see this famous city for the first time. In most people’s minds the name Vienna conjures up romantic images of an age when people had time to dress up and dance to Strauss Waltzes. Everyone was eagerly looking forward to the next two days which we had set aside as rest days to explore this city and prepare for the harder second stage of our ride to Budapest.
It took us a little time to locate our hotel but, thanks to the wonders of GPS, we were eventually all safely settled into our rooms at the Hotel Donauzentrum. It was reassuring to look back and assess the ride so far. With over 330 km completed all of our riders had completed the entire distance. We had experienced no punctures, crashes or serious mechanical problems. The standard of our accommodation had been well above what we had expected, the food uniformly excellent and the scenery breathtaking. So far the trip had exceeded our wildest expectations.
After spending 24 hours in Vienna I had to admit that I was falling in love with the city. In this amazing place there is certainly so much to fall in love with. The buildings are beautiful and immaculately preserved, there is romance and history around every corner, the people are attractive, well groomed and self assured. The museums are packed with priceless exhibits and the musical heritage permeates the whole culture. In addition the trains and trams are efficient and run on time. And did I mention that the food is also fantastic ?
Of course I know that no city can ever be perfect and I am sure that Vienna does have its shortcomings. I am told that it is freezing in winter and the occasional graffiti indicates that not everyone is totally law abiding. If we were to spend a longer period of time here I am sure that other problems would become apparent but my initial impressions were certainly extremely positive.
The biggest problem that we noticed, not just in Vienna, but all over Austria was the disgusting habit of prolific smoking in public places. Decades of serious Quit campaigns in Australia have finally had a measurable decrease in smoking, but here it appears that they at least a generation behind us. Smoking is everywhere, in outdoor restaurants young parents blithely smoke with their infant children – nonchalantly blowing clouds of toxic smoke into their young faces. Everywhere you look you find men, women, teenage boys and girls all addicted to nicotine. Great for the tobacco companies but appalling for the health of the nation and obnoxious for those forced to share the passive smoking that is all around you.
It seemed that the wonderful world of Vienna is always viewed through a haze of stinking tobacco smoke. I suspect that the health legacy of this habit will be suffered for decades into the future.
The morning of my first full day in Vienna dawned looking like it was going to be rather grey, however the early clouds quickly disappeared and the sun shone from a clear sky for most of the day. I headed out on foot from the hotel in an attempt to get a first hand feel for the city. For 2 hours I wandered about with no specific destination in mind. My meandering route took me through a variety of areas, including an immaculate botanical garden complex on the banks of the Danube, past the impressive sky needle and into a quiet residential area. When my legs started to tire I hopped onto the underground and caught a train to the centre of the old city – St Stephen’s Place (or “Stephenplatz”).
It is a daunting experience trying to master the mechanics of the public transport system of a foreign city when you don’t understand a word of the language but somehow I managed to purchase a ticket and safely emerge up a series of steep escalators into the oldest part of the city. To the Viennese, this area is regarded of the soul of their city.
After arriving in Stephenplatz I had no idea of where to go or what to see, so a goo doption was to buy a ticket on the so called “hop on hop off” bus tour. These tours are viewed from the back of an open double decker bus, which regularly stops at points of interest around the city. This allows you to get off to explore that area. When you are ready to continue you just return to that stop and wait for the next bus to arrive.
This proved to be an excellent introduction to the city, giving me an idea of which areas I would like to return to and explore in greater detail. Even though I had been expecting to see some beautiful buildings in Vienna, I was not in any way prepared for the sheer size and opulence of what awaited around every street corner. You really could spend weeks exploring this city and the wealth of treasures it houses.
After the bus tour I returned to the vicinity of the Vienna Opera House and began my walking expedition from there. This magnificent building was completely destroyed during World War II and was then rebuilt from the original plans, reopening in 1956.
Following the ring road I passed through the Burgarten (garden) to the expansive Heldenplatz complex of palaces and museums. The next two hours were spent with my jaw dragging along the marbled floors as I explored the incredible labyrinth of interconnected museums – displaying everything from ancient Roman artifacts and ruins, musical instruments of every possible shape and size, armor, weapons and clothing. As interesting as the exhibits were, I found the building itself to be a sheer work of art and I can certainly say that I have never been inside any building quite as grand.
The 800 year old St Stephen’s Church is regarded as the true centre and soul of Vienna, although at the current time it is undergoing extensive renovations. From the sections that have already been completed you can clearly see that this must rate as one of the world’s great cathedrals. The incredible mosaic of coloured tiles on the steep roof is a work of art in itself.
By 5 pm I was worn out from my walking and sensory overloaded from my sightseeing. I decided it was time to jump back on the underground and seek some rest in the comfort of the hotel room. On the way I met some of our group who had apparently managed to secure tickets to the opera for that evening and were very excited at the prospect of attending a real Viennese Opera.
After dark I wanted to see what the centre of the city looked like after sunset and so I returned to have dinner at one of the open air cafes. The night was warm and still with the northern stars twinkling overhead. Large crowds were wandering about, chatting happily and watching some buskers pedaling their talents.
It did not take long however for the crowds to disperse and for the restaurants to start to close. I had expected that the night life would have continued a little later into the evening and was just about to call it quits and return to the hotel when I heard the haunting distant music that I mentioned at the start of this tale. I was completely entranced by the melody, long before I first saw the musician.
When I located the young cello player I discovered that I was not the only one that had been captivated by his passion and talent. A small group of listeners, both old and young alike, were gathered in the moonlight to savour the moment. For me, it was this moment, more than any other experience I had in Vienna, that really encapsulated the entire trip. It was a moment that I will remember forever.
As I slowly walked back to the underground station I had that contented feeling that the trip had already been a success. In every previous trip I have undertaken I have looked for that single defining moment that will forever capture the trip in my memories. Although buildings, towers, mountains and rivers can be impressive, it is almost always a human encounter that I treasure the most. For me I would always look back on the 2009 Danube Ride with the recollection of the Moonlit Viennese Cellist foremost in my memories.
The next day was a Sunday and I had no intention of trying to cover as much territory as I had on the previous day. Instead I decided to concentrate just on the area near the huge Hofburg Palace. Once again Vienna had provided another cloudless and warm day which made it just perfect for sightseeing. Another 15 minute fast train trip took me to Karlsplatz Station, from where I walked to the so called “museum quarter”. Although it was still quite early in the morning there were already crowds wandering the gardens. Young lovers walked hand in hand in what must surely be one of the most romantic places on the planet. As for me – I looked the proverbial archetypal ugly tourist, complete with baseball cap and video camera. It was just as well I did not have to look at myself.
The Natural History Museum houses a massive collection of just about every imaginable type of life form. Once again the thousands of exhibits stretched on from room to room. Huge glass cases housed every kind of animal from tiny birds to huge polar bears. The collection is actually so large that I almost found it overwhelming. I found myself feeling completely insignificant in such lavish buildings surrounded by such an incredible number of exhibits. I wondered how many people actually got lost in this place.
When I found my way out of the museum I spent the next couple of hours just watching the wide range of activities that was taking place all around me. My attention was caught by the distant sounds of a marching band. As I came closer to the source I found myself swept into some type of service that was taking place. Lines of uniformed men stood to attention while an apparently important dignitary spoke to them from an elevated platform. Every few minutes the band would start up with another rousing tune. I have no idea what it was all about but it was entertaining.
Continuing past the Spanish Riding School I walked back to Stephensplatz where I stopped for an open air lunch. There were a large number of horse drawn carriages available for tourists to hire for a ride around the city. It would be easy to allow these sights to become a catalyst to your imagination to picture what life would have been like in a much earlier time. Whether or not I ever return to this wonderful city I will always treasure the short time that I was privileged to experience in this location. The next day it was back on the bikes to begin the second part of our journey to Budapest.
Vienna to Bad Deutsch-Altenburg
Although the second leg of our ride from Vienna to Budapest was also being organised through Rad and Reisen, apparently it was a different division of the company that would necessitate a changeover of bikes. Since we had become quite fond of the bikes that had carried us safely this far, we were a little apprehensive at the prospect of having to familiarize ourselves with new ones. Our fears were unfounded, however as we soon discovered the replacement bikes to be just as good as our earlier ones. We also received a new set of maps to guide us all the way through to Budapest. After a brief introductory talk by our new driver “Andreas” we were on our way, once again with our handlebars set in an Easterly direction to Budapest.
Almost unbelievably we were presented with yet another warm and sunny day, possibly the best we had had thus far and ideal for cycling. Because of the various parallel branches of the Danube the first section out of Vienna was a little confusing and we took a wrong turn early on. It took us some time to eventually navigate our way back onto the correct path.
On the outskirts of Vienna we stumbled into a nudist area, and were somewhat disoriented when a number of completely naked, middle aged gents openly displaying their wares on the side of the trail. One particularly brazen fellow offered to point out the correct path to us. He was able to adequately do this with both hands behind his back ! This episode was a little confronting for some, but such public nudity is apparently popularly accepted in Austria.
Once we were finally on the correct path the cycling was perfect. It was not only flat as a pancake, but for many kilometres it was dead straight as well. As the overall bike fitness of our group had obviously improved we were able to make very good speed all the way to the turn off to Bad Deutsch Altenburg.
In spite of its name there is nothing really bad about Bad Deutsch Altenburg. It is situated on the south bank of the Danube and we reached it via a long and very impressive bridge – easily the longest we had crossed so far in this trip. Our first impressions of the town itself were of a fairly spartan, almost soviet style, of settlement. The buildings had little of the decorative charm we had seen in most of the towns we had ridden through in Western Austria.
The main claim to fame of this area is the large health spa where ailing citizens are send by their doctors for two weeks treatment. Apparently this treatment is fully paid for by the government. Judging by the dense haze of tobacco smoke hovering over every public area it would seem that part of the treatment also consists of intensive bouts of smoking. It is a pity that they did not see fit to give their lungs a clean out at the same time as they were partaking of the life giving spa treatment.
We stopped for a late lunch at the Hotel Stockl (our hotel for the evening) and then jumped back on the bikes for a short ride to the nearby Roman ruins at Carnuntum. This region is famous for its well preserved collection of amphitheatres, arches and other ruins. I was a little surprised to find that there were no particular protective fences to keep destructive individuals away from these priceless relics of the Roman Empire. It was so disappointing to see that some people had already chiseled their names into the old stone columns and walls.
Leaving the road behind, we followed a series of grassy pathways across rolling fields to a series of stone walls and the remains of a large amphitheatre. Riding around the centre of the arena with lots of laughter and shouts we could imagine what this area must have been like 2000 years ago when it was part of the flourishing Eastern Roman Empire. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
At one impressive towering arch we all gathered for a group photograph before returning to the hotel for a late afternoon nap before dinner. It had been a glorious day with such a variety of sights that we were all in high spirits, not knowing what surprises awaited us around every corner. The odometer indicated that we had covered a little over 60 km for the day. This might not sound like much, but it is the ideal distance when you are wanting to spend a substantial time off the bikes as well as on them. Tomorrow our time in Austria finishes as we head on into Bratislava.
The Hotel Stockl was another most pleasant surprise. In fact, all the hotels have been unique in one way or another and we have all been so impressed with the cheerful hospitality of the owners of each establishment. At the start of the trip we had expected that the food would have been basic, cafeteria style fare. In fact the exact opposite has been the case. You could almost think that each establishment was going out of its way to impress us with a better dining experience than the one before. We had been told that the Ghostriders group was the largest cycling group of the entire season (I assume that they meant in numbers of riders rather than the size of the riders themselves) and that they had been looking forward to looking after us.
The food at the Stockl Hotel was impressively prepared and the careful presentation would have done any five star restaurant proud. We completed the evening by inviting the female chef into the dining room for a well deserved ovation. Another magic moment.
Out of Austria Into Slovakia and Hungary
We have come to expect perfect weather on this trip and this is once again exactly what we got. As we progressed further and further East we noticed a distinct change in the look and feel of the towns we were passing through. Although the villages were changing the cycle path remained absolutely flat and perfect for riding.
The first section of the ride out of Bad Deutsch Altenburg took us to the nearby town of Hainburg, dominated by an arched entrance and an imposing old stone wall. Apparently this wall dates back over 800 years, and although the city was attacked many times in the following centuries, it remains remarkably well preserved.
After a brief stop for supplies we were soon on our way again, meandering on the southern side of the Danube until we reached the border crossing into Slovakia. Although the large border check point was no longer in use you could easily imagine what a daunting obstacle must have posed when Slovakia was part of the Soviet Union.
Nowadays anyone can ride straight across the border with no passport checks whatsoever. We were soon looking across the river to the large city of Bratislava on the opposite bank. The town was dominated by a huge suspension bridge. The architecture on the south side of the river was quite utilitarian compared to the decorative and fastidiously clean Austrian villages we had come to love. When we stopped at a trail side eatery to buy some drinks we found ourselves surrounded by cast off garbage and long, unkempt grass.
Skirting the south bank we turned further south, away from the river, and soon found ourselves in open farming land. There was little evidence of people and the few small towns we passed through seemed deserted. Several unfinished houses and others that appeared to have been abandoned suggested that this region was experiencing difficult economic times. Missing completely were the flashy back BMWs, Mercedes and Audis we had seen everywhere in Austria.
A few wrong turns found us furiously studying the route maps for clues, but eventually we stumbled onto the correct path and were soon gathered at the border crossing into Hungary. In the matter of a couple of hours we had cycled in three different countries. Hungary was the final country we would be cycling through and we were all keen to see how conditions there compared with those we had seen earlier.
The first evidence of the new country was in the place names. We were now presented with place names which were completely unpronounceable. With such long words in their vocabulary I could imagine that there would be a good business in selling pens. The language and currency is also different here. The local currency is the “Forint”, although we did find that many places will also accept Euros if they are asked. The exchange rate is about 250 Forints to the Euro and it was a pleasant surprise to find just how cheap everything was when compared to the prices in Austria and Germany.
After a relaxing stop for lunch we arrived at Halaszi at about 3 pm. The Regio Panzio Hotel exceeded our wildest dreams – not only was it situated right on the river but the rooms were clean and generous in size. The young and attractive hostess worked tirelessly all evening to serve our meals and drinks. What a delight it was to share our meal outside in the large al fresco dining area while we watched rowers training in the river. With only 4 cycling days remaining I don’t believe that anyone wanted our enchanted journey to end.
After dinner several o four group went out for a walk along the river and met a local resident who was in mourning for his dead dog. Apparently they spent a few memorable moments chatting with him, helping him to drown his sorrows in 80% proof rum.
Halaszi to Gyor
The day began as a carbon copy of virtually every previous day of the last fortnight. There was not a single cloud in the sky to block the sun and not a breath of wind in the air to help me dry my washing. I crammed the still wet washing into a plastic bag and hoped that I might be able to get it dry the following night.
When we presented for breakfast at 7.00 am the only thing that was prepared for us was black coffee in very large cups. We waited till 7.30 but there was still no sign of additional food. By this time we were all starting to wonder if that was all we were going to get. We needn’t have worried, however, as by 8.00 am a procession of plates started to appear with eggs, rolls, salads, etc, etc piled high. We attacked the food with a vengeance, although the prospect was for a relatively short day with absolutely no climbing. This entire area is part of a large flat, fertile flood plain which supports a wide variety of crops.
We decided to start the day by taking a short (10 km return) ride to Mosonmagyarovar (not a spelling mistake). This turned out to be a much larger city than we were expecting, with a collection of interesting old buildings. After half an hour of exploring we got back on the bikes and rode back to Halaszi. From there we followed very quiet rural roads and bike paths for about 45 km to the city of Gyor which was our “pit stop for this leg of the ride”.
One rather amusing aspect of the ride each is the unique and frenetic way that Brian approaches his sightseeing. Whenever we reached a new town, in the same space of time that we had sat down and ordered a cappucino, Brian had disappeared into the distance with a determined look on his face and a guide book and GPS in his hand. Ten minutes later he would report that he had visited two hilltop castles, met the great grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm, seen the world’s tallest midget and listened to a talking tadpole. We could not understand where this guy got his enormous drive from.
As we approached the city of Gyor we could see that we were in for yet another surprise. It was a much larger town than any other Hungarian town we had seen thus far. With its collection of amazing Baroque buildings it almost looked like a smaller version of Vienna. After checking in at the Hotel Baross, I walked back a couple of kilometres to the centre of town. This was the first city we had seen in Hungary that was actually packed with people. Even though it was working Tuesday there were hundreds of people just walking about or sitting at one of the many outside restaurants that dotted the central malls.
Since it was mid afternoon and I still had not had any lunch I decided to join Michael at one of the inviting restaurants and I was soon feasting on what was probably the most delicious meal I have had for many years. Not only was the food exceptionally good it was also very easy on my wallet – only 14 Euros including two course lunch and drinks.
Michael and I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Gyor Museum. This did not look too impressive from outside but it housed an amazing and varied collection of items from the past several thousand years – right through from prehistoric times and the Roman Empire, up to the Second World War. The attentive female attendants followed us throughout the building as most of the exhibits were not protected but were open to the public. Photos were also forbidden, also I have to confess that the shutter of my camera sometimes clicked when the attendant was looking the other way.
The evening meal was not at the hotel but at a nearby restaurant. When our party arrived the waiter announced that they had been eagerly expecting us all day and ushered us to a long table where a large sign proclaimed “Welcome to the Ghostriders”. The food that followed was absolutely superb, again suggesting that the chefs in Hungary would rate as some of the finest in the world.
Gyor to Tata
The start o four ride in Passau now seems like an eternity ago. Since that first day on the bikes we have now ridden hundreds of kilometres in 4 different countries, discovered some amazing cities, experienced some of the best scenery in Europe and witnessed first hand the gradual change of ethnic and social characteristics as we progressed further and further east. Today’s ride took us back through some small villages, each with a distinct soviet feel. It would be easy to believe that these have changed little since the days when Hungary was firmly behind the Iron Curtain.
The houses in these villages were mostly sombre, colourless and very often in need of serious renovation. The people also seemed more reticent and did not acknowledge our presence withany warmth or enthusiasm. It also seemed that the majority of households had at least one aggressive barking dog to ward off unexpected visitors.
Although the atmosphere was sombre there were certainly some interesting sights and, with the weather remaining so perfect, the cycling conditions were again the finest we could ever have wished for.
In spite of the surfeit of GPS units in our group we still managed to get lost on our way out of Gyor and for a terrifying few minutes found ourselves on a very busy arterial road with cars and trucks speeding by only inches from our handlebars. Fortunately we stopped to again consult the maps, retraced the previous couple of kilometres and regained the correct route without any accidents. We were soon able to enjoy the safety and peacefulness of the quiet rural roads and bike paths.
Our lunch stop was at Nagyigmand but I found that the town had no bank to change my money into forints so I had to go hungry in Hungary. The next section led us out of the dead flat flood plain that we had been riding through for the past few days and onto a series of undulating hills. These were the first hills we had encountered in a long time and the accompanying head wind also helped to raise the degree of difficulty by one or two notches.
We rolled into Tata at about 3.00 pm and immediately proceeded to once again get lost. After a number of diversions we finally managed to find the Hotel Arnold wonderfully located next to a park in a quiet, leafy cul-de-sac. This was another gem of a hotel with very comfortable and clean rooms and a great atmosphere.
I set off into town to change some Euro in forints and soon discovered a large bank. Since there were only a couple of people waiting I figured that I would not have to wait long for service. When ten minutes went by without being served I realised that I had to first collect a numbered ticket from the machine. That seemed fair until I noticed that people who had come in long after me were being served while I was still waiting. Since the manager was doing nothing but sitting on his copious backside and rest I decided to ask him why I had not been served. It was obvious he spoke not a single word of English and he seemed put out that I had disturbed his slumbers.
Thirty minutes later I still had not been served and the situation was becoming ridiculous. My good humour was rapidly evaporating and decided to take matters into my own hands. I walked behind the counter and again confronted the idle manager, pointing angrily at my watch. He took me to the only person who could speak English. She explained that only “teller 4” could change money. The only problem was that there was no teller 4. When I asked where the missing teller was, no one seemed to know either his whereabouts or when he was likely to return. His desk had been empty ever since I arrived. Apparently the task of changing money is so complex that only a specialist can handle it, even if that specialist is taking a day off. I stormed out of the door, regretting that the experience had wasted so much of the short time I had in Tata. Later I found that the Hotel was happy to change my money without the need of a “currency specialist”.
With my pocket bulging with a plethora of fresh found Forints I went out in search of food and soon found myself seated at a lovely little café where I indulged myself in a delightful Caesar salad. The city of Tata is probably best known for the huge lake which dominates the centre of town and is obviously the focal point for its social life. I walked a little of the way around its vast expanse of water and felt that it would have been great to have a little more time to learn more about this place.
After our evening meal we spent a deal of time discussing the pros and cons of the various alternative routes for the penultimate day of our journey. We finally agreed that it would be best if the group split into two for the next day, so that each person could choose the option that appealed to them the most.
Tata to Esztergom
When we began this trip two weeks ago most of us had no idea what to expect. Not only had none of us completed this ride before but we also had no real idea of what the hotel accommodation was going to be like. Since we had opted for the cheaper option as far as hotels were concerned we could have expected that some of our accommodation could have been pretty basic. To our surprise, all of our overnight accommodation was of a perfectly adequate and, in most cases, surprisingly good standard.
Rather than stay in the almost identical, plastic style 4 star hotels that are so common in every large city the world over, almost all of our hotels had a unique and distinctive character that made each one of them special and memorable. In fact, if I was to run this entire trip all over again, there are very few changes that I would be inclined to make.
With our trip now rapidly approaching its conclusion and Budapest now almost looming on the horizon, I think that most of our participants have mixed feelings. On the one hand there is a palpable feeling of personal achievement as the goal that we have working towards for so long is now almost within our grasp. For some this is a personal accomplishment that has required a long period of preparation over the past 12 months.
On the other hand we have had so much fun on this trip and the weather conditions have been so favourable that I am sure that everyone will be sad when we finally get off the bikes for the very last time.
On this penultimate day of riding there were several options available to choose from. Our final decision was to split the peloton into two groups. One group opted for the shorter but hillier route away from the Danube, whereas another group chose to complete the considerably longer but flatter route back into Slovakia and the North bank of the Danube. A third group decided to skip the bikes altogether and catch the train directly to Ezstergom.
Since I was keen to have another look at Slovakia I decided to opt for the longer route. This necessitated a 20 km ride along a major road to the border town of Kamarom. Although the traffic was quite heavy, we didn’t feel particularly in danger and managed to cover this distance quite rapidly and safely.
As we once again crossed the disused border checkpoint back in Slovakia it was worth reflecting just ho much must have changed since the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. We also passed a very large industrial complex that was now completely abandoned. Hundreds of broken windows, rusting chimney stacks and long grass tenaciously sprouting through concrete car parks gave a silent testimony to a busier time in the past. It would have been interesting to know just exactly what this huge complex used to produce and why it had been closed.
Once we entered Slovakia we could again feel that old Soviet influence that still seems to underlie the current society. This is especially true in the smaller cities. We found our way onto a quiet bike path that paralleled the North of the Danube. Very soon we were riding in a secluded landscape that reminded of pictures I had seen of Siberia. I could almost imagine Topol wheeling his barrow and singing “If I was a Rich Man”.
This path eventually led us back onto another sealed road near the rural town of Iza where we stopped for a break and a (surprisingly good) cup of coffee. The next 20 km were dispatched at a good speed on a quiet road with a fast smooth surface. All of the group were riding strongly, obviously benefitting from the daily cycling of the past two weeks.
At the roadside esort of Csarda Moca we left the public road and returned to a delightful bike path, right on the river bank. With the day now warming up it was a relief to find plenty of shade along the way. Another pleasant surprise was a large floating restaurant moored on the side of the Danube. Since this floating Shangri La appeared just at the time we had designated for lunch, we immediately dropped the bikes and headed aboard for a delicious lunch. As we dined we watched the steady stream of large cargo barges making their way up and down the river.
After lunch we returned to our cycling with renewed vigour and managed to cover the remaining 30 km or so to Sturovo at a very good pace, even though we were battling a steady head wind all the way. As we approached the city we could see the prominent domed basilica of Esztergom which is the most famous landmark in this entire district. The construction of this amazing building began in 1822 and it was to become the largest church in Hungary, finally being consecrated in 1856. Since it is located on the highest point in the city it can be seen for many miles in every direction.
With the huge basilica as our goal we were soon riding back over the huge Esztergom Bridge back into Hungary for the final time. Our Hotel was just over the bridge in a perfect location close to the base of the basilica. Once we had checked in I set off looking for the correct path to reach the dome. It was not at all obvious and actually took a sharp eye to find the narrow stone staircase that led all the way to the top of the hill. The climb is quite strenuous but when you get to the top you are rewarded with a cool breeze and an incredible view down over the river and out into the surrounding area.
Up close you can see just how huge this basilica actually is. The columns at the front of the building are of such a size that I could not imagine how they could be raised without the aid of modern construction equipment and cranes. I never cease to be amazed at the design and engineering skills of these builders that constructed such enormous churches and palaces all over Europe.
The interior of the basilica was equally spectacular, both in beauty and magnitude. I made it to the entrance just before closing time but still managed to spend an extended period of time inside, soaking up the serenity of the place.
Later in the evening we gathered for our second last dinner together. When everyone compared their experiences of the day it was evident that all three groups had enjoyed their day immensely. In some ways it had been perhaps the most memorable day of the trip so far.
The Final Leg – Esztergom to Budapest
The final day of any extended ride is always tinged with more than a little sadness. After two weeks of daily cycling it is hard to believe that soon the bikes will be nothing more than a memory. We awoke to yet another perfect day. I am not sure what the odds would have been against us getting such an unbelievable sequence of such days, but I suspect they would be similar to those of winning the Lotto.
When our bikes were packed, ready for departure, we discovered that three riders had left early in a determined attempt to arrive at Budapest early in the afternoon. The rest of us were in a more relaxed frame of mind and lingered for a few group photos before departing on the final leg of our cycling odyssey.
Our plan for the final day was to follow whichever bank offered the greater length of bike paths. This meant that we followed the south bank for the first 25 or so km before catching the ferry across to Szob on the north bank. Since the first 3 riders had been delayed waiting for the ferry to depart we were all reunited again for the next section.
After being away from the river for some of the past week it was a great feeling to be once again closely following the huge river which had been the thread that provided the focus for our ride. The Danube at this point is an enormous waterway approximately 600 metres wide. The terrain had also changed from the flat flood plains to rolling hillsides dotted with picturesque old houses.
The riding was easy and fun as we meandered to and fro following each turn of the river. A little further on the Danube splits to either side of the huge Szentenrei sziget (island). At the town of Vac we left the north bank to catch yet another ferry across to the island itself. One we were on the island it felt like we were in a different country altogether . It really felt quite Mediterranean and you could almost believe that you were cycling through Sicily rather than Hungary.
Szentenrei sziget is actually many kilometres long and os home to several sizeable villages. We eventually found our way to the third ferry crossing of the day and transferred across to the south bank again at the town of Szentendre. Since the time was now 12.30 and the day was quite warm, when we spied a shady restaurant we all decided that it was time for our final lunch on the ride. Although the service was a little slow, the food itself was excellent. Seventy minutes later we were underway again.
It was a little hard to estimate just how much further we had to ride, but again settled into a steady rhythm of following the defined bike paths at about 20 kph. The closer we got to Budapest the busier the path became, especially when they passed through one of the many riverside villages along the way.
As we approached the outskirts of the city itself the route became more and more convoluted and quite tricky to follow correctly. Our first glimpses of the city we had been expecting so much of for the past two weeks were not inspiring. Dingy neighbourhoods, numerous completely trashed derelict buildings and everything in sight covered in aggressive graffiti do not combine to inspire a positive feeling for any city you are experiencing for the first time.
The further we entered Budapest, the more seedy the neighbourhoods seemed to become. Judging by the content of the messages painted on the walls it would appear that there is a large angry underclass in this place that wants the world to know they are not happy with the prevailing state of affairs.
It took us another exhausting hour or so of highly stressed riding through busy streets before we reached the sanctuary of the Hotel Flamenco and we were able to get off the bikes for the final time. According to the speedo we had covered over 90 km on this final day, making it the longest day of the entire ride. All that remained was a series final triumphant group photos, quickly followed by a shower and a change of clothes. If the theme of our ride was “Budapest or Bust” then it was comforting thought that none of our riders had bust anywhere along the way, in fact in almost 800 km of riding we had not so much as suffered a single puncture.
That evening we gathered around the dinner tables for the last time and celebrated our achievements. It may not have made the front pages of the world’s newspapers but for the 19 participants it was a proud moment that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
The following morning we had a few hours to explore the city before we started to disperse to various other locations throughout Europe. About half the group caught a bus for the three hour trip back along the freeway to Vienna. After an overnight sleep huddled on the metal chairs in a deserted Vienna airport terminal, I caught an early morning flight to Paris. It was indeed a strange feeling being on my own again after spending so much time shared with my cycling friends.
I spent the next few days having a series of solo adventures, including being lost in the Paris suburb of Montmartre at 1.30 am in the morning with no idea where my hotel was. But such tales will have to wait for another time.
A week later I was safely back in Australia. I did not bring back many souvenirs, but in my mind the memories will be with me forever. Later I discovered that there is another variation on the trip that we did – you start the ride at Ulm in the Black Forest, and then ride to Vienna via Passau. Now that gives me an idea – I wonder what we will be doing in 2011?
Appendix One – A Few Things I Learned During this Trip
At the end of each trip I like to share some pointers which might prove useful for anyone contemplating undertaking a journey similar to this one. So here they are (in no particular order):
- The tap water was safe to drink in every place we visited. I never once resorted to buying the expensive bottled water that has become such an environmental disaster. No one in the group suffered any form of stomach upset during the trip.
- When you are visiting a town or city, DON’T run all over the place like a headless chook in a frantic attempt to try to tick off all the places of interest listed in the guidebook. I find it is much better to choose a small number of places to explore at leisure – quality rather than quantity. I also find that most of the real “travel treasures” are discovered by accident rather than by design. It is those magic serendipitous moments that really make a trip truly memorable. I also like to sit and just watch local people going about their everyday lives. This gives me a great sense of what the place is really like.
- During each of your trips look for a single event that really exemplifies the trip in your memory. For me it is most often a chance encounter with a person that really gives me that special memory that I will treasure always. It is most unlikely to be something that was listed in the guidebook as a “must see”.
- The underground railways in each large city work really well. Although your first trip might be a little bewildering, take the time to learn how they work and you will be rewarded with cheap and efficient transport. One comment however – don’t expect to talk to anyone, you will find that almost everyone in your carriage is either immersed behind their iPod headphones or talking continually on their mobile phone.
- Cycling is the perfect way to see a foreign at first hand. It gives you a unique view into the lives of the locals that you would be unlikely to experience in other form of transport.
- When you choose your hotels, don’t be fooled that the more stars a hotel has, the better it will be. We found that the 2 or 3 star, family owned hotels and guesthouses offered a fantastic level of hospitality that the plastic 4 and 5 star hotels could not match. Every one had its own unique features and style which made them memorable.
- Whatever country you travel in, take a little effort to learn some of the language. It is unreasonable and arrogant to expect everyone to speak English, and a little time spent mastering a few words of the local language will always reap rich rewards in your interactions with the local people.
- Don’t feel that you have to account for every minute of every day. Take some time to relax and appreciate the experience you are having. Meditate, take the time to assess your life and where it’s headed, make friends, learn about yourself. Make the journey a spiritual as well as a physical experience.
- Even if you can’t speak much of the local language, don’t underestimate the value of a smile. It is a universal ice breaker in just about every situation.
- Learn to “go with the flow”. In spite of the most meticulous planning, things can always go amiss. But don’t panic, if we are relaxed and open I have found that things will always work out in the end. Allow others to help you if necessary, most people really want to be of assistance if you let them.
- If you are planning a trip in Europe we found that this time of the year (late August/September) is a fantastic time to do it. We found the weather to be perfect and yet, nowhere that we went were crowds a problem. Even later in the trip I never had to queue for entry to place like the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre Museum or the Tower of London. If I were to do this trip again I would certainly pick the same time of the year.
- Although it’s always easier said than done – try to travel light. At least half the stuff most of us tend to pack in our bags we never use.
- The move towards a single European currency certainly helps travelling between countries in this part of the world. It was so easy just be able to cross back and forth across borders without passport checks or costly changing of money. Even in those countries that have not yet officially adopted the Euro, we still found that many larger establishments will accept them anyway.
- Michael Poods
- Brian Cooper
- Dennis Dawson
- Lothar Rockmann
- Celia Weindahl
- Noel Wolstencroft
- Jenny Wolstencroft
- Richard Dodd
- Jenny Rogers
- Russell Lloyd
- Helen Lloyd
- Dick Bartley
- Anne Bartley
- Daryl O’Grady
- Linda O’Grady
- Cor Riethoff
- Anne Riethoff
- Ross Hayward
- Tina Hayward