Standing atop the watchtower of the Aggstein Ruins in Austria I gaze down to the Danube River, as it snakes through the Wachau Valley. It’s an incredible vista of forested slopes dotted with tiny villages, castles, monasteries and terraced vineyards.
During the 15th century most of these vineyards were owned by the Church and trade in the region flourished. Paths built alongside the river allowed horses to tow barges loaded with cargo. Today, these same towpaths link the Danube Cycleway – one of Europe’s most popular bike rides.
The Danube River is Europe’s second-longest river, flowing 2780 kilometres from its source in the Black Forest of Germany through 10 countries to the Black Sea. It is possible to ride the entire length of the river but, with limited time and resources, my friend Stuart and I choose to ride the 330km section from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria.
Passau to Linz
Our adventure begins in the medieval town of Passau, City of Three Rivers, where the Danube, Inn and Ilz Rivers converge. We spend some time exploring the old town, distinctive for its pastel-coloured buildings and delightful cobblestoned laneways. Later we trek up a steep stairway to the imposing fortress of Veste Oberhaus for fine views across the town and the Danube River, our excitement growing in anticipation of our journey.
The beauty of the Danube Cycleway is that it’s suitable for all ages, is predominately flat, and follows well-maintained bike paths or quiet country roads. We’ve opted for a self-guided tour because it includes luggage transfer and pre-booked accommodation, which gives us the freedom to enjoy a leisurely ride without any of the organisational hassles. The tour company gives us an excellent map and guidebook detailing attractions on both sides of the river. Our hardest decision will be choosing when and where to stop, although we have a quiet understanding that castles and ice cream take priority over everything else.
Departing Passau the trail initially runs alongside a busy road, but before long we find ourselves meandering through beautiful woodlands. The Danube is at its narrowest here with forested slopes stretching high above us on either side of the river. As we round the bend to the quaint village of Erlau I glance across the river to the overgrown ruins of Krämpelstein Castle, perched on a rocky outcrop. It’s an impressive sight and I have to resist the urge to pinch myself. This truly is bike riding heaven.
We cover 45km on our first day, a gentle introduction to the ride. The infrastructure supporting bike riding is very impressive, including bike ferries at regular intervals along the river and shuttle buses to our accommodation. We experience both on our arrival in Schlögen because our first night’s accommodation is in St Agatha, nestled in the hills 10km away from the river.
The following morning we hike to a lookout point. There is a light mist clinging to the treetops and we startle a deer foraging on the trail. From the lookout there is a remarkable view over Schlögen Loop. The Danube River takes a 180-degree turn before turning back in the same direction, creating a magnificent s-bend in the river.
During the course of the day we ride through changing scenery; leaving the mountains behind to experience sprawling farmlands. Occasionally, the path detours away from the river, alongside corn fields and past rambling country homes and derelict barns. Closer to the city of Linz, the route makes its way through an ugly industrial zone, but all of this is quickly forgotten once we reach the bustling old town with its huge medieval square.
Linz to Melk
Over the next couple of days we fall into an easy rhythm and begin to recognise other riders. There is opportunity to practice my limited German, which has progressed from the standard greetings of ‘guten tag’ and ‘auf wiedersehen’ to ordering chicken and chips (‘huhn mit pommes frites’). The bike ferry captains are very friendly and their goodbyes so enthusiastic that I’m almost tempted to burst into a rendition of “So long, farewell…”
In the afternoons there is always time for a leisurely ice cream in a shady spot alongside the river, which is exactly what are doing at about 4.30pm when I happen to glance at our trip notes: Must be in Grein by 5pm to get a shuttle bus to the accommodation. It is the only time we have a deadline and we had completely forgotten about it. If we miss the bus it’s a long ride uphill to our hotel. We have a mad moment of panic and a furious pedal for 10km into Grein.
Ironically, the approach to Grein is probably the most scenic of the ride so far. The photographer in me is screaming to stop and take photos, but we must keep going. As much as I love watching the Tour de France, I have no desire to do any mountain climbing. Luckily, the conditions are perfect and a tail wind gets us to the pick-up spot with minutes to spare.
The following morning we do get to explore Grein. It’s a charming Baroque village with some beautiful buildings, including the oldest bourgeois theatre in Austria. We also visit the Greinburg castle to see the arcaded courtyard and an unusual stone theatre covered by a Danube-pebble mosaic. From here the views across the Danube are amazing, as is the ride that follows.
For 50km we meander along, enjoying views of castles and churches on the opposite bank. Eventually, we get our first glimpse of the awe-inspiring Benedictine abbey, which towers above the town of Melk and is one of Austria’s most famous sights.
Melk Abbey is the most impressive and extravagant building I have ever seen. It was founded in 1089, but the Baroque structure standing today was built in the early 1700s. As I wander around the hallways the word that comes to mind is opulence – the ceiling fresco in the marble chamber is divine, the church is spectacular, and the 100,000-volume library is simply breathtaking.
Melk to Vienna
Our fifth day of cycling is the icing on the cake as we ride through the World Heritage listed Wachau region. This is a famous wine-growing area with distinctive terraced vineyards, built into the steep hillsides centuries ago. At times, the mountains are steep and craggy and, much to our delight, there are castles around almost every bend.
The 12th century Aggstein Castle was built into the rock high above the Danube River and over the years has been subject to siege, and destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions. The ruins house an impressive interpretive museum and are a definite must-see on our itinerary. We lock our bikes to a fence and walk through the forest via a steep and winding dirt road. The climb is somewhat tortuous, but it could be a lot worse. Fortunately we are not walking to a gruesome death at the hands of the infamous Schreckenwald – the terror of the forest. He was one of the castle’s brutal owners that extracted exorbitant tolls from merchants travelling downstream. Schreckenwald also took hostages and, if the ransoms weren’t paid, they were condemned to the Little Rose Garden – an impregnable rocky outcrop where the only choice was to slowly starve or jump 300 metres to a certain death.
Downstream near the town of Spitz we climb to the Hinterhaus ruins, which features a large Romanesque keep, a Gothic yard, and Renaissance battlements. These ruins are crumbling and overgrown, but a joy to explore. We eat a picnic lunch here, overlooking the vineyards and the river.
This afternoon we have to rush as time has slipped away. We ride through one fairytale village after another – with their beautiful churches, overgrown walls, medieval houses, and balconies resplendent with colourful flower boxes. We are making a beeline for Dürnstein because (you guessed it) there’s another ruined castle there. It was here that King Richard the Lion Heart was held captive for several months in 1193 on his return from the crusades. Unfortunately, I am so tired by the time we arrive that I can’t face another climb – a siesta and an ice cream are reviving consolations.
If I did this ride again I would spend several days in this region and linger in these charming villages before heading into Vienna. The busyness of the city is a culture shock after our week of rambling through the countryside and it’s a challenge to find our accommodation. Once there we sadly relinquish our bikes, but already I’m thinking of another trip. After all, I’m sure there is plenty more to discover en route to Budapest.
Have you cycled a section of the Danube Cycleway? Or another trail in Europe. Please share your stories in the comments below.
Note: This article was first published in Ride On Magazine in Australia.