Down the Danube on Two Wheels
by Ann & Fred Abeles
click images for larger views

            Reading about someone’s adventures always makes us want to follow in their footsteps.  In this case we were inspired to follow in Thomas Steven’s bicycle tracks after reading his recently republished “Around the World on a Bicycle”, Stackpole Books, Jan. 2001 (available through Amazon.com).  In 1884, Thomas Stevens left San Francisco on a Columbia high-wheeler with the goal of traveling around the world.  His diary gives one a fascinating picture of the world at the time and of his fortitude.
We thought to duplicate a small bit of his adventure by traveling on modern bicycles along the Danube from Germany to Budapest.  A search on the web for bicycle trips along the Danube turned up Adventures on Skis/Adventure Sport Holidays (815 North Road, Westfield, MA 01085, 800-628-9655) that offered package tours from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary.  They made the travel arrangements for us to fly to Munich and go by train to Passau.  There a representative of Rad & Reisen met us with bicycles, panniers, maps and vouchers for lodging.
 
The company  transferred our luggage to each day’s lodgings and our job each day was to pedal the approximately 40 miles along the Danube cycle path and through small towns to the next hotel or guesthouse.  We chose the class A option for lodging including breakfast and made our own arrangements for lunch and dinners.  Our costs for the two of us for 19 days (May 15 to June 2, 2003), including round trip air, train, insurance, bicycle rental, 2 extra nights lodging in Vienna and 2 extra nights in Budapest, was $5110. We spent an additional $1100 on meals, museums and concerts, trinkets and transportation around Vienna and Budapest. 
Baroque buildings in Mauthausen, typical 
of towns along the way.

Rad & Reisen supplied us with city maps and information as well as cycle maps from www.esterbauer.com, which publishes a large series of bicycling tour books.  However, the only one in English is the “Danube Bike Trail”, which covers the trail from Passau to Vienna.  For the second part of the trip they supplied the “Donau Radweg Teil:3, Slowakische und Ungarische Donau von Wien nach Budapest” in German. The company did give us a small English addendum with some explanations as well as directions to our hotels.  Some knowledge of German was helpful for navigating the route to Budapest as well as an ability to follow the maps.
 

View of the cycle paths near Krems, Austria
The cycle path is not as complete in Hungary as it is in Austria.  As a result we biked on roads, some of which had a fair amount of traffic.  Another source of good information on cycle trips is www.mayq.com.  Many towns along the way have web sites and information on their lodgings.  The Austrian Tourist Bureau will also send you “Donauradweg von Passau bis Bratislava” which lists many of these sites.  Try  www.danube.at and www.donautal.niederoesterreich.at for more information.  If you travel off-season, you probably do not need to make lodging reservations ahead of time.  However, the trail is popular and many places are fully booked during the summer through fall seasons.

Our trip started out with a bang as we sat on the ground at Dulles airport in a terrific thunderstorm.  In spite of leaving Dulles 1 ½ hours late we made up some time and arrived in Frankfurt with just enough time to make the connecting flight to Munich.  Somehow the baggage handlers for Lufthansa did a super job and got our luggage onto our flight so we had no delays in Munich. We took the S-bahn to the main train station and caught the train to Passau. European train systems are easy to navigate and efficient.  Our hotel, the Weisser Hase was just a couple of blocks from the station in Passau.  After checking in and a short rest, we were ready for a leisurely stroll of the old city.  We had dinner in front of the old town hall along the Danube and watched the evening activity along the harbor.  The next morning we met the tour representative and he went over the details of the ride, first in German for several couples, and then in English for the 4 Americans.  Although you book this tour as individuals, it is such a popular trip that there are cyclists starting off everyday from Passau, either on their own or with bicycles and materials supplied by a tour organizer such as Rad & Reisen.  Next, we all headed over to the garage and picked up our bicycles.  They were 21 speed “hybrid” bikes with back racks, panniers and cycle computers.  You are warned that the panniers are not waterproof, so we packed things we wanted for the day into plastic bags and into the panniers. Then we were off, following the bicycle lane along the cobble stoned streets of Passau, over the bridge and down the paved trail along the north side of the Danube.  We passed through several small towns and saw old castle ruins on the hillsides.  Near the big S curve on the Danube, we took a small ferry for bicycles and pedestrians across to Schloegen, a resort complex that was the stopping place on our first night. Still a little jet lagged and needing some time to study the package of materials we had received during our morning briefing, we relaxed and had an early dinner.  The next morning we were nearly the first in the restaurant for breakfast.  Soon we were on our way, this time on the south bank as we traveled along the misty Danube flanked by lushly forested hillsides.

This was the pattern for the next several days as we went on to Linz, Grein, Emmersdorf, Krems and Vienna. We tried to be on our way by 8 AM; we’d stop at a store in one of the little towns for cheese, fruit and fresh bread, have a picnic along the river and arrive at our destination between 2 and 3.  After a shower and changing into street clothes, we’d explore the town or sit at a coffee shop and enjoy the scenery, especially the lovely town squares in the villages. The guidebook points out the many old churches and abbeys to visit along the Danube.  We especially enjoyed seeing new birds and flowers and learning about the importance of the Danube for transportation.  In Linz we rode the adhesion railway, the steepest such railway in the world.  It takes you to the top of a small mountain, Poestlingberg, where you have a beautiful view of the city.  As we were leaving Linz, we happened upon a group of young students learning rules of the road for bicycles and cars.  Evidentially, driving instruction begins at an early age in Austria.  In Melk, we biked up the steep hill to the huge Benedictine Abby.  There we toured the buildings open to the public and appreciated the many informative legends in English.  The day we reached Melk, we had biked in cold rain all day and were happy to spend some time in the abbey, drying off.  Then we rode across the river to the small town of Emmersdorf where we lodged at the Hotel Zum Schwarzen Baren, the fanciest lodgings on our whole adventure.  First off, we rated a 2-bedroom suite (for unknown reasons) so we had lots of room to dry our rain gear.  Then they had a big hot tub and heated pool.  After spending some time in the tub, all our chills from the rainy day were soon gone.

After Melk, we entered the region known as the Wachau, a major wine-producing valley along the river.  Here, the ground is so productive that no space is wasted.  Grape vines are even planted in the walls to take advantage of the best conditions.  Some bicyclists with stronger constitutions than ours were able to do some wine and schnapps sampling along the way but we waited till dinner to try the delicious wines of the region.  Unfortunately, you would need many days to sample them all and we had just a couple of days.

In many places the radweg, bicycle path, is on the former Treppelweg or what we would call a towpath.  When the Romans first started moving up the Danube into northern Europe, they used slaves to pull their boats up river.  As commerce along the river increased, large ships were pulled upriver by teams of horses, sometimes with 40 or 50 horses tethered together.  The development of steam replaced the horses and in many areas the treppelweg was used as the right-of-way for a railroad.  At the town of Spitz, shortly before Krems, we headed into town to visit the Shipping Museum, which has excellent exhibits on the history of shipping on the Danube.  Salt (mined in Austria around Salzberg) lumber, wine and granite were important products shipped down the Danube to the Black Sea.

The days flew by and soon we too were flying down the path to Vienna.  We had beautiful weather and a strong tail wind the day we biked the 55 miles down hill to Vienna.  To Americans, it was strange to bike into a major city.  The bicycle path stays along the river and away from streets until you are in the center of town.  Even in the middle of the city there are ramps and paths that lead you to the bicycle/pedestrian lane on the bridges so you do not have to be in traffic.  We turned in our bicycles in Vienna and spent the next 2 days exploring this beautiful city.  For us the highlight was the Technisches Museum.  There they had a special exhibit on the history of the bicycle.  Here we could see the early experiments with high wheeler bicycles such as Thomas Stevens rode and pushed around the world.  We saw all stages in the development of the modern bicycle, including experiments with different materials from wood to carbon fiber.  We saw the Bruegels at the Art History Museum, the art collection at the Academy of Fine Arts, the history of Vienna at the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, the Jewish history of Vienna at the Museum Judenplatz, Schoenbrunn Castle as well as the Treasury and other museums in the Hofburg.  After two days of Extreme Museum Touring, my husband Fred was overjoyed to get back on his bicycle and head on down the Danube.  We left town in a cloud of smoke.  Sunday, the Viennese like to light up the barbeques for picnics in the huge park along the Danube.  Every space was taken as we headed south along the river.  The grilling area was followed by a few kilometers of nude bathers, sunning themselves in the park along the trail.  These diversions made biking challenging through this area.
 
 
Nice trail!
Our last night in Austria was in Petronell/Carnuntum, the site of a Roman town from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.  There are several large archeological parks where you can get an idea of the settlement and activities during Roman times.  The site was chosen both for its position on the river and for the mineral baths that are still in use in the neighboring town of Bad Deutsch.  The next day we crossed into Slovakia and headed on towards Bratislava and then to Mosonmagyarovar, Hungary.  Fred’s enthusiasm for the trip was given a boost by the lovely roller bladers in front of him as we cycled in Slovakia.
It was not difficult to communicate with people along the way as many spoke German and quite a few also knew some English. Our route in Hungary took us on to Gyor, Tata, Esztergom (Rome on the Danube) and Budapest.  We were on the Danube path before Mosonmagyarovar and then directed onto roads to Gyor, Tata and Esztergom.  We think the traffic has increased considerably since the guidebooks were published and probably a route through Slovakia would be better than the roads around Gyor.  The traffic in some areas was not pleasant.  However, our stays in the towns were lovely as both Gyor and Tata have wonderful old town centers with sidewalk cafes and interesting shops.  Our route to Esztergom took us over a couple of big hills and then back to the Danube.  Esztergom is an ancient royal town, the birthplace of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, and the site of the Basilica founded by St. Stephen in 1001. 
Our lodging in Tata, Hungary

 Our hotel in Esztergom was just over the canal from the fortress and Basilica, so after our showers we had a pleasant walk through the old city and up to the church.  Our last day of biking was again along the Danube mostly on the cycle path. We had a chance to ride several small ferries back and forth over the river as the better path changed from side to side.  We also biked the length of Szentendre Island.  This island, built up of sand and clay from the river, forms a natural filter for the Danube water.  The water drawn from wells on this island is clean and supplies Budapest with fresh water.  At the lower end of the island we took another ferry back to the left bank at the artist’s colony of Szentendre and then continued on the bike path into Budapest.  The last few miles in the city were on bike lanes but shared the streets with a lot of noisy traffic.  We were happy to reach our hotel on the edge of the large Liget City Park. After turning in the bicycles we were tired.  We had traveled 50 miles that day, including some concentrated navigation on the city streets.
 
A new section of the path near Szob, Hungary
The next couple of days we spent enjoying the city and its museums.  Although we had been warned about pickpockets, we found the city no more threatening than any large metropolitan area.  As you move about the city you can see a lot of reconstruction taking place.  Since the fall of Communism, the city is undergoing a rebirth and finally repairing damage from WWII and the 1956 revolution.  We spent time up on castle hill, the site of the original Buda as well as visiting several museums in Pest and especially enjoyed the Museum of Applied Arts. We visited the Jewish Museum and Dohany Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter. There is a memorial garden attached to the museum with a sculptured willow tree as a memorial to the Jews of Budapest who were murdered here. 

We had a good look at Budapest as we rode the funicular up to Castle hill, the metro, a bus and several streetcars. The metro stations were especially interesting as each station was beautifully restored with good exhibits of the history of the area in Hungarian, English and German.

Saturday night, along with our new friends from Munich, we attended a Folkloric Concert with an amazing cimbalom player.  Sunday we said farewell to many of our acquaintances from the trip, as most were heading home. We caught our flight back to the US on Monday. We enjoyed our Danube adventure and would recommend it to anyone willing to travel by bicycle.  We frequently thought about the descriptions from Thomas Stevens as he traveled through this region over one hundred years ago.  Some of the sights we saw would have looked familiar to him – and others would have left him amazed.