Cycling the Danube with Backroads Travel
By Brian E. Clark
In 1192, on his return from the Third Crusade in the Holy Land, Richard the Lionheart (of Robin Hood fame) was captured by an Austrian rival and imprisoned in Durnstein Castle above the Danube River in northern Austria.
The English monarch was detained in a dungeon there, so the local legend goes, before he was ultimately ransomed for a huge sum.
Locked in chains and held for 14 months, I doubt if he enjoyed his time in the Wachau Valley, which is one of the lovelier parts of Austria and a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its grapes, apricots and scenery.
My experience couldn’t have been more different than Richard’s. I pedaled a bicycle through the 25-mile-long valley on a paved path bordered by red poppies. The Donauradweg (Danube bike trail) wended its way past terraced vineyards, orchards, tidy farms, ponds filled with croaking frogs and picturesque villages.
And my lodgings for the eight-day Backroads cycling trip along and in the hills above the Danube?
They were in the cushy Amalea (Amawaterways.com) riverboat, a sleek 120-passenger vessel that included a top deck swimming pool, a piano, musical performances, a fitness center and wi-fi. It was a far cry from Richard’s dismal dungeon.
And because the boat motored down the river every day, we met up with it each afternoon and never had to change hotels during the trip. A big plus.
John Montgomery and Marcin Wojciechowski, my cycling companions the morning we rode from Melk to Durnstein, and I stopped for a beer (we were in Austria, after all) at a small stand on the west side of the river. From our perch, we could see the blue and white church that towers above the Durnstein Abbey and the fortress ruins higher on a slope above the town.
We sipped our Pilsners and enjoyed the view of the 900-year-old castle and waited for a diminutive ferry boat, which looked something like an Asian sampan, to carry us and our bikes over the Danube.
After the crossing, we pedaled up a steep street and stopped in at a wine shop to sample the local fare, including some tasty apricot liqueur. Then it was on to the village of Weissenkirchen – where the Amalea awaited us – through more vineyards and orchards on slopes rising from the river.
My cycling adventure began three days earlier in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague. I’d arrived the previous day, giving myself enough time to explore on my own and then take a walking tour of this beautiful city, most of which escaped bombing by the Allies in World War II.
My guide, Luba, led a small group over the Charles Bridge, into the Infant Jesus Museum with its diminutive bedazzled robes and through the imposing Prague Castle. On my own, I found a museum dedicated to Antonin Dvorak, one of my favorite composers.
I left my digs near the Prague town square early the next morning and walked a half mile to the Hotel Klarov on the banks of the Vltava River near the Franz Kafka museum. There, I met up with the 20 cyclists who comprised my Backroads (Backroads.com) cycling group and our guides, Wojciechowski from Poland and Karem Gamil of Vienna.
We shuttled three hours to the Fursteneck Castle in Germany for a lunch orientation, our bike fittings and introductions to our fellow riders, which included 10 friendly cyclists from North Carolina.
Then we pedaled 32 miles on an old rail trail – which during World War II carried freight cars of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps – through the lush Bavarian Forest down into the Danube Valley. A few of them managed to escape, aided in some cases by locals. A display of placards told the grisly story of the railway.
On arrival at the port town of Vilshofen – where the Amalea was berthed – we were greeted with enthusiastic oom pah pah music, lederhosen-clad musicians and “bier.”
The contrast between the stop on the rails-to-trails line and the greeting at Vilshofen was jarring and still has me pondering how cruel people can be. In part because the Danube River enters the Black Sea south of Odessa which has been bombed repeatedly by the Russian military during its current invasion of Ukraine. At one point on our trip, we were less than 200 miles from that beleaguered country. It felt strange to be so close to war, yet so far away.
That night, after wine and a delicious salmon dinner, I looked out over the river from the deck of the luxurious Amalea and thought about women and children senselessly dying in Ukraine.
The next morning, following an itinerary talk by the guides, we rode past immaculate farms that looked as if they’d been painted yesterday. We were offered several routes ranging from 20 to 40 miles, mostly on flat riverside trails.
But I felt hearty, so I took the option that included a climb with a difficult 10.7-degree grade, which hurt. About half the group had e-bikes, which made climbing hills a breeze.
Our goal that day was Passau on the Austrian border, which is known in German as Dreiflüssestadt (City of Three Rivers) because the Danube is joined there by the Inn River from the south and the Liz River from the north.
On a walking tour with a Hong Kong-born guide, we strolled through the university town and stopped in at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of the globe’s biggest organs with 17,774 pipes and 233 registers.
On the third day, we crossed into Austria, where Gamil told us the grass was greener, the towns prettier and the women lovelier. (He was correct.)
Some took a 27-mile route to Enns, the oldest town in Austria. Others took a longer path, pedaling more than 50 miles to Linz, where we walked through the old town before dinner.
But we all began the day in a drizzling rain that turned into a downpour before the sun – thankfully – popped out in early the afternoon. After the long ride and the spray of mud from our bike tires, a shower and a restful night’s sleep felt good.
Then it was on to the Wachau Valley and Richard the Lionheart’s undesired home in 1192 and 1193.
The following stop was Vienna, which we reached via a relatively easy 28-mile ride, followed by a guided walk through the city that included visits to parks, palaces and places where musicians Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven lived and performed.
That night, I ate dinner at a lakeside restaurant recommended by Gamil on an island in the Danube with Montgomery and his wife, Kris, plus a pair of Canadians from Vancouver, Ron Sturgess and Barbara Block.
On the second-to-last day, we crossed in Slovakia, the eastern half of the former Czechoslovakia, passing through the Danube Wetlands National Park.
Before we left Austria, we had lunch at the Schloss Hof, a castle that served as hunting lodge for Habsburg royalty.
The vast estate now has a working farmstead, where visitors can learn about rural life in the baroque period during the 17th and 18th centuries. Old Austrian breeds at the Schloss Hof include Nonius, Lippizan and Noriker horses, white donkeys and spectacled sheep. (No, they do not wear glasses, but their facial markings make it look so.)
We then pedaled into Slovakia, which was once behind the Iron Curtain and which came down only 31 years ago. Our destination that day, following 45 miles of riding, was Bratislava, once a major capital in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After cleaning up, we toured the Old Town, the Bratislava Castle and St. Martin’s Cathedral, where 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned between 1536 and 1830.
On our final day of riding, to Hungary’s Budapest, the most difficult portion of the trip awaited us: a 40-mile pedal that included a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) ascent with some grades of 9-plus percent through Duna-Ipoly National Park to the town of Szentendre.
At breakfast, I debated whether to do the climb. But with the encouragement of the guides and more than 200 miles logged so far, I opted to do that ride. Though it was a long grind, I was able to complete the ascent without resting. (Whew.)
After lunch at a cafe in Szentendre, we got some tasty ice cream from a vendor that was served in a sugary cinnamon cone and strolled past a shop that had deep blue women’s skirts and dresses for sale. Then we turned our bikes back over to the Backroads crew and took a bus into Budapest, avoiding busy urban roads and streets.
After one last night on the Amalea, we did a walking tour through Budapest, which included a visit to the neo-Gothic Parliament Building on the Pest side of the Danube. Work on the massive structure, which is reputed to be the largest building in Hungary, started in 1885 and finished 1904.
Our guide told us more than 100,000 people were involved in its construction, that it contains more than 40 million bricks and that decorations include more than half a million precious stones and 88 pounds of gold. We also toured the city’s Jewish quarter – decimated during World War II – and saw statues dedicated to the students who rose up against Soviet rule in 1956.
Now I’m back home in Madison, riding my bike around lakes that dot the city and dreaming of returning to Europe to ride along rivers such Portugal’s Douro, the Rhine (from Basel to Amsterdam) or the Rhone River in France.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.