Cycle-cruising the Danube.
Words and photos by Chris Bish.
When I first set off for the ‘continent’ on two self-propelled wheels, it was on a single-speed bike laden with camping gear and with a minimal amount of money. Nearly 50 years on, I, like many have discovered the joys of load-free cycling as companies take your gear from place to place ahead of you and leave the rider unencumbered. The ultimate has to be what we have just done, which is to tour in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary accompanied by a river-cruise ship voyaging down the mighty Danube – Europe’s longest river.
The benefits are obvious: your hotel accompanies you, so no packing and unpacking. Food and drink is supplied; you get to go to great places and can miss out the dull bits by sitting on the ship as it does the work for you. And you sleep in the same (reasonably) comfortable cabin every night.
The Danube Cycle Path is, between Passau in Germany and Vienna, Europe’s most popular cycle route, with over half a million riders using it each year. It is neither particularly busy nor crowded. Nor is it always just a cycle path. There are places where cars use it too and there are sections where it leaves the river and ventures through villages and farmland. The great cities of Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava are on the river, and we visited all three as part of our trip. The trip includes the well-known tourist areas of the Loop and the Wachau region as well as those cities.
Isn’t it a bit dull? You know, riding a cycle path along the same river for a week? Not much in the way of hills. Isn’t it all a bit samey? Not at all, would be my answer. Admittedly, we only cycled on four of the six days –there are two “city” days- and only a total of around 200km, but the nature of our tour gave us plenty of variety both in our cycling and in what we saw along the way.
If you are still reading, then well done; you haven’t dismissed the whole adventure as too soft and ‘not really cycling’ so here goes with some itemised detail:
The tour we booked was through Austrian company Rad + Reisen. Transport to where the trip begins – Passau in Germany – is not included so flights to Munich or Vienna (both rail linked to Passau) had to be added. We were the only English party, but there was about a 50/50 split between English and German speaking travellers at the briefings. Fourteen nationalities were represented. The youngest rider was 7: the oldest 80 with the majority being, ahem, ‘mature’. The organisation and support was excellent with the genial Tour Director always on hand to give briefings, advice and to solve problems. The ship, and at 120 metres length with 200 on board, a ship it truly is, was a bit old, but did the job. Certainly not the height of luxury, but superb value, with an enthusiastic and hard-working young crew.
The Danube is wide and deep, and tracks its way through every phase of humankind’s history. We visited the site and replica of the Palaeolithic “Venus of Willendorf”, which at the time of its discovery was the oldest representation of a human figure known. Nearby is the spectacular castle where Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner. More recent history is represented by Cold War bunkers on the way into Bratislava – indeed, we cycled along the line of the Iron Curtain and admired the nesting storks in what is now a tranquil scene. Much of the river is wooded and feels remote from civilisation. Sometimes the ship travels all night but its engines are quiet and sleeping is not an issue.
Some of the places the ship berthed were spectacular. A few hundred meters from the old centre of Bratislava with its quirky statues (with the sense of a new country proudly creating itself), the centre of Budapest as the lights come up on the magnificent parliament building and the bridges sparkle. Another stopover was a short tram-ride from the heart of Vienna, with its grand buildings and music, and for variety we also stopped among the rural tranquillity of the towns and villages of this beautiful part of Europe.
In theory the cycling was not very demanding – there are only four days of river riding with the ship passing en route. You can cycle on the city days, but we opted for public transport. As it was, temperatures up to 32 degrees made it a bit more challenging, and few would have wanted more.
There are recommendations for things to see and do on the way, and these were always good fun. They began with a ferry-crossing “mit schnapps” and went on to a cider house and open-air smoked mackerel – and that was just the first day! The bikes live on the upper deck while the ship moves and have to be unloaded onto the quayside by the crew each time they are used.
The bikes themselves are the continental city-bike type made by KTM. They are easy to ride and low-geared, so will suit most riders. I will admit to being a little put-off by a panier that weighs more than my Bianchi, but the bikes are fine if you keep them rolling. What was more troubling to those of us used to more “sporting” equipment was the upright position, which is hard on the back. Worst of all was the big, soft saddle.
Some of the American riders had bought their own SPD pedals, the lack of which was another gripe if you don’t like your feet to feel insecure, but the saddles nearly ended one slight woman’s ride on day 1. Fortunately a narrower harder saddle was found and peace restored, but there might be a strong case for taking your own saddle. Some riders had taken their own bikes, but I would not do this, as they are stored in the open and can get knocked about during unloading. If you did have a more, shall we say, agile bike, then there is plenty of time for diversions from the planned route and opportunities to visit museums, monasteries and castles just off the path.
So, would I recommend this tour? Absolutely. I want to make it clear that we paid our own way and have no connection with anybody with a commercial interest in this operation. The tour is wonderful value and the prices on board more than reasonable. With the British Pound and the US Dollar being strong against the Euro at present the tour works out at under £100 a day for full board. My own cost of living index based is the price of beer, and that comes out at €3.50 for a big one on board. A bottle of passable house wine is €12. The food is abundant and seemed to suit most. I particularly enjoyed the spiced fried aubergine at breakfast, but there was the usual continental ham, meats and cheese as well as traditional cooked options. The evening meals gave a choice, including vegetarian, and there was cake and coffee after cycling. Maybe a little too Eastern for some, but that’s travel for you. There were even late night snacks, but I doubt many cyclists were awake for those. The lovely crew even put on a show for their guests.
For me, the strongest impression was of the beauty and peace of the cities, towns and villages we visited. People can live in their cities. Fancy that! The car has been tamed and trams, buses and cycles rule. A little girl of maybe 7 cycling through the heart of her capital city in perfect safety will astonish those who have to dice for their lives to get to work on a bike in the UK. Mainland Europe really is way ahead of the UK in suppressing the dominance of the car and reclaiming cities for humans.
Other highlights include riding though a forested section near Esztergom in Hungary, with nightingales chortling in the trees. The wildlife becomes more abundant the further east you go. We loved being whizzed past by dozens of Peter Sagan fans in full pro kit in Slovakia. Wine tasting – well, drinking, then– in the Wachau. And such neat and tranquil beauty. If there were to be a best-kept-village competition in Austria they would all come first equal. Litter? None.
Cycle touring on the Danube – the conclusion.
So what are the downsides? It was hot during our week in June, and the air-conditioning was sketchy at times. The bunks are a bit narrow and hard and the cabins, unsurprisingly tiny. Each cabin has a superb shower and a cramped toilet and water is not an issue. The ship did run out of beer, which caused an unscheduled stop to top-up, but this was due to the hot weather and not my fault, honest! The only open space on the ship was dominated by a small group of smokers, but we were rarely aboard when the ship was moving during the day. Most of the travelling is done by night, with only short hops made during the day, when you can wave at the ship as it passes from the bike or bar on the riverside, wherever you might be. Typically of this lovely holiday, the boat Captains give a friendly toot of the ship’s horn as they pass by.