Along the Danube

DONAUESCHINGEN, Germany How about this for a ride — 1,350 kilometres of dedicated bike path that is flat, three metres wide and better paved…


How about this for a ride — 1,350 kilometres of dedicated bike path that is flat, three metres wide and better paved than the Alaska Highway.

Add to that three capital cities; Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Then add some of Europe’s most attractive riverine scenery with bike-friendly hotels, pensions and campgrounds lining the route.

This is the Danube Cycleway, running from the river’s source at Donaueschingen, in southwest Germany to Budapest in Hungary.

It has so many attractions there is a danger of not making any progress along it at all.

Not surprisingly, it has become the most popular bike path in the world.

We join this cycling heaven about halfway along at Linz, Austria, turning east for China.

Apple and pear orchards close in on the bike path.

In village stores we buy fresh bread and good cheese to picnic on a bench by the Danube.

The river is busy with traffic. Barges slug along, dark, and low in the water; cruise ships, all white paint and windows, transport their customers from one souvenir-buying opportunity to the next.

Ferries trace their way in between, to and from the far bank.

Next day we are not so happy.

A dull and cloudy morning shortly turns to a day of determined, soaking rain.

In this depressing greyness, we don’t take much notice of the scenery until the massive bulk of the monastery at Melk appears on the skyline, kilometres before we get there.

Though my guidebook tells me Melk has thrived since 976 A.D. it is still only a one campground town and the tent sites are several centimeters deep in water.

We turn up the hill beside the monastery for a dry night in the youth hostel.

As a reward for cycling 110 kilometres in the rain we go out for dinner.

With my pork in pepper sauce I try a Weissbier.

Though not a real beer, because it is made partly from wheat instead of all barley, it is an interesting drink.

There’s a good foamy head, it is pale coloured but cloudy from yeast that is deliberately left in and has a slight fruity sweetness.

Improving weather means we can enjoy the scenery.

Fields, orchards and vineyards on low hills take turns on our left, the Danube slides by on the right.

There are lots of villages, each spruced up for the tourists who visit on day trips from Vienna.

Durnstein village is particularly picturesque, crammed on a rise above the Danube and below the cliff top ruins of an 800-year-old castle.

Hotels and guesthouses butt into the narrow roadway and we have to weave around the tourists.

Richard the Lionheart is said to have been imprisoned here on his way back from a crusade.

That is modern history compared to the Venus of Willendorf, a statue unearthed hereabouts, described in the guidebook as the most beautiful Paleolithic figure ever found.

Her figure does not fit the modern fancy of beauty; she looks a little like the Michelin man.

I was having doubts about the guidebook anyway, because when we got to the village of St. Michael it instructed us to look for hares on the presbytery roof.

Attila the Hun stopped us at Tulln.

An emotive tableau of statues on the riverfront, show Attila proposing marriage to a certain Gudrun.

She looks properly demure, her entourage a little anxious; he leads a group whose martial aspects are nicely balanced by the flower he’s holding.

The tableau recreates a scene from the ancient, epic poem, The Nibelungenlied.

If this tidbit has piqued your interest in Attila‘s love life, be warned, the poem is so long and complex, Richard Wagner took 26 years to write an opera about it.

Today’s Tulln is a town of flowers and fountains.

More statues and Baroque buildings overlook a market in the busy main square. We liked the town and its campground enough to stay and commute by train, to visit Vienna, 40 kilometres away.

It is scary looking down when you are 60 metres up in the air. It is extra scary when you know the creaking Ferris wheel you are on is 110 years old.

For me the ride is a little pilgrimage.

The wheel features in one of my favourite movies, the 1949, black and white, classic thriller The Third Man.

The Ferris wheel is the landmark of The Prater, acres of parkland surrounding a funfair so old fashioned and run down, its now quaint appeal has made it a Viennese institution.

Vienna exudes self satisfaction.

Tourists go right along with the complacency, accepting the milling crowds, and the dreadful cost of a coffee or slice of chocolate cake, as part of the experience.

After enjoying Prague so much, my disappointment here extends to the architectural monotony of the palaces and museums.

In my ignorance, I christen the standardized look of mono-coloured buildings, burdened with symmetrical rows of windows, “blockhouse style.”

Nudists are a surprise sight as we leave Vienna, not to mention a distraction to safe cycling.

They are enjoying a warm afternoon on the grassy slope of the riverside dyke.

Others enjoying the sunny afternoon are several local cyclists taking their lap dogs for a ride in their handlebar baskets.

The cycleway has taken us into Vienna and out the other side without meeting a vehicle — that‘s wonderful.

The bike path just nudges into Slovakia to pass through Bratislava en route to Hungary.

Communist era tower blocks of apartments dominate the view across the river valley towards Bratislava.

There are dozens and dozens of them, closely packed, ringing the city like a fence.

This is our first real sight of Eastern European living and it looks a bit grim.

“Old town” Bratislava is an island of riches in a poorer land thanks to funding from the European Union and booming tourism.

As in other European capitals, there are lovely old buildings in the warren of streets that lead to squares where the sunny terraces of bars and restaurants are great places to sit and people watch.

Sadly, Bratislava is currently the preferred destination for stag parties, mostly British, here for a two-day drunk.

They hope to impress the waiter by ordering 15 beers, but that happens every weekend, so he only shrugs.

They hope to impress passing girls by shouting ribald comments but that doesn‘t even get a shrug.

They, and everyone else, pays for this behaviour through the wallet.

We have to send a restaurant bill back twice for overcharging and still they want to add a 10 per cent service charge.

Coming across a café called “bank + coffee” summed up this expensive place, acknowledging that you need one to afford the other.

It is no hardship to cross back over the river and enter Hungary.

Writer David Sillery lives in Haines Junction.