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Cycling the Danube

By Mary Perkins

This past June Heather and I did a cycling trip along the Danube River, starting in Passau Germany (the lower corner) along the Danube River to Vienna, Austria, and then on to Budapest in Hungary. In all it was about 677 kilometers of riding and of course lots of sight-seeing and enjoying European cuisine and wine and beer. Our trip was not unique. Others in the club have done similar trips in Europe and if you are interested in such a venture there are a number of people who would be glad give you tips.

Arrangements were quite simple. We booked with an agent Heather had dealt with before, sent in our deposits and bike sizes and that was about it. We opted to fly in and out of Budapest as that was a direct flight. It meant taking a train for six hours to Passau (a long day) but even that ride was enjoyable as we saw some of the countryside we would be cycling back through. Passau is an interesting old city (aren't all European cities old and interesting?) Jet lag wasn't a major problem and we spent our first weekend exploring the city.

On the first Sunday night we met the trip representative --a young woman--who gave us our itinerary and maps, and we 'met' our mounts. Companies who do these trips like to use 'comfort' bikes, heavy but certainly sturdy and have wider knobby tires, which as Heather pointed out, are excellent for cobbled streets and she was certainly right in that regard. We had one rear pannier and a front 'lunch bucket' style of pannier. Our luggage was transported for us, so all we had to take was our rain gear, water bottles, and any incidentals we wished. Our hotels and breakfasts were provided so we often purchased something at the local Spar store for lunch.

Our days usually had us starting about 8:30 or 9 am with a coffee stop at 10 or 10:30 and later lunch in a park or such along the way. Once we arrived and checked in --our accommodation varied from old-style hotels, a rebuilt monastery, luxury B&Bs, and some modest inns--we usually took a tour of the area and decided on where to have dinner. Our cycling days averaged about 50 K but in fact varied from about 35K to 75K. The route is quite flat and in fact generally downhill as you follow the river as it wends its way down to the sea.

There is a paved path, or bike lanes from Passau to Vienna and most towns have bike lanes, or at least very wide (often cobbled) streets. Interestingly enough, the route keeps moving from one side of the river to the other, Germany to Austria, Austria to Germany, back and forth, back and forth. Because both countries use the Euro, and speak German, this present little problem.

We booked an extra night in Vienna (only one was built into the itinerary) but needed more. The day we arrived it was one of our longer days and although tired we went out to see the town and got to enjoy their Pride Parade. The next day was sight-seeing and trying out some of the famous Viennese sweets-- they were fantastic. Wish we had allowed at least one more day.

After meeting Josef, representative for the next part of our trip, getting our new maps and directions, we headed for Hungary. This time we were also crossing into Slovakia for a short distance as well as Hungary. Our route instructions for this part were also interesting as they sounded as if they were translated literally from another language--something like the English instructions you get with a Chinese-manufactured digital watch. The Slovakian and Hungarian languages are quite different and very unlike anything we are used to. But of course that is why we travel isn't it? To be exposed to something different.

Also, the trail in these countries was less predictable. We had more parts on roads and country lanes -- very country. One part ran along a farmer's field following a lumpy, bumpy tractor path and then into a woods. That is why we needed sturdy bikes!

Along the way we met people from various places and countries, including three fellows from Ontario, one from Bowmanville (he was wearing an Oshawa Cycling jersey and Heather was wearing her Beach Street Spinners jersey) and one it turned out I knew from canoeing. We rode through towns, villages, cities, parks, vineyards; we visited a variety of sites, Melk Abbey being one that stands out, had a very moving experience at a concentration camp memorial (which had a staggering hill approach) and hiked up to a look-out high above a bend in the river to see the tour boats navigating this famous point. Another day we stopped and swam at a park that had been made from some natural ponds --one of which had been made into a mechanical water ski park.

As part of the journey in Hungary we were given tickets to take the train part-way for one day. Finding the station in Mosonmagyarovar was as difficult as pronouncing the name. English is less common in Hungary. However, Josef, our rep, had said ask a young person if you need help as many of them do speak English. Fortunately there were some young people who were very helpful. We needed to take our very, very heavy bikes down the steep stairs to the tunnel under the first track and up the even steeper stairs to the second track. Thank goodness Heather is strong. Otherwise I would still be there trying to get that bike up those stairs. Another day we were given tickets to take a boat part way. Much easier. Not as luxurious as the river cruises we saw moving by us each day, but a lovely way to travel and again, meet some very interesting fellow-travelers.

In Budapest we booked two extra nights in order to catch a direct flight back to Canada. And it was a good thing we did. It is a fantastic city and I think both of us could have stayed longer. The architecture dates from the time of Emperor Franz Josef and the whole city on the Pest side is still consistently of that period. We booked a hop-on-hop-off pass which also included a night cruise on the river (not to be missed!) and some restaurant and bar goodies. It was a great way to be able to get around in our limited time and in the heat. At the suggestion of a young Canadian we met on the night cruise, we even had an afternoon at the natural mineral water baths.

Is this for you? The company says inexperienced cyclists, even children can do it. I would say you should have some cycling experience behind you (or your behind will hurt you), but definitely worth getting in shape for. After all, when you cycle instead of drive (or cruise) you can justify that extra beer or that lovely dessert!

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