A group of fast-moving cyclists swarm out of nowhere. With great speed they flit by, barely touching the earth. They carry no water or panniers; they ride with purpose, their heads low over their handlebars. I call them the “dragonflies.” A dragonfly spins into view. When his dark eyes flash at me, I see joy. I also realize that his speed is dangerous to a pedaler like me. I’m more careful to keep to the right.
I’m 67 years old, chunky, and happy to be here. The Danube River bike path, or Radweg, rolls from west to east along the Danube River from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria, following ancient towpaths through farming villages, vineyards, and gorgeous old Austrian cities. At the end of each cycling day, there is robust German food and tall steins of dark beer.
I heard about the Radweg from two friends. They urged me to “Get in reasonable shape, and go for it. The trail is flat as a pancake.” I’m thinking I could do it. I trained by biking laps on flat roads working on endurance rather than speed. I’d be riding solo in October, at the far end of their biking season. An Austrian tour company will rent me a bike, book lodging in villages, and transfer my luggage. The cost is less than a $1,000. I’m confident. How hard could it be to follow a river?
Danube bike path (Radweg)
My first morning in Germany, I walk along the Danube promenade in a fog of jet lag. It took two days in planes and trains to get here from my home in Alaska. Long, white riverboats line up along the river’s edge while busy stevedores handle lines around bollards. The small city of Passau is a jewel among three curvaceous rivers, the Ilz, Inn, and the Danube. Deep valleys chevron to the city while on a near hilltop, a grand castle presides. On a patio by an historic city hall, I order a dark coffee to help me make the 12 hour leap from night into day. Later, I medicate my anxiety about the next day’s ride with my first stein of German beer — it’s cheap and good. Schlepping into a pile of down comforter; finally, I get to sleep.
The next morning, I’m awake early. Eager me, I brush my teeth, wash my face, and hurry downstairs. A homily etched on a wall plaque encourages me to “Eat breakfast like a king.” Roger that. I bypass a large breakfast selection for a warm crispy strudel filled with apple and buttery cheese. After breakfast, I load my pannier with a couple of big bottles of water, extra clothing, first aid kit, lunch, bike tools, pump, and just to be sure, an extra tire. A bicycle is a helpful machine, but, today, after hauling my booty, my “booty” is going to hurt big time. I’ll learn to lighten up.
Morning on the Danube
Today’s ride will be a leisurely 50 kilometers, good for shaking out my bike legs on a comfort-styled road bike. As I adjust my load before crossing the Passau bridge onto the Radweg, a woman asks me. “Are you going on a long ride, my dear? I wish I could go with you. Here’s my address in Rome. Call me if you ever visit there.” I will meet more wistful strangers along the way.
Radweg sign and kiosk
As I peddle out of Passau, the river dimples with rain. My helmet is covered with a hotel shower cap. Stylish! Raindrops become soothing fingers pattering against my helmet. Morning traffic along the Radweg soon gives way to forestland. Small villages with home gardens and beer gardens are snugged along the trail. The lights of riverboats flicker through the mist while white swans dawdle along the shore. Birds sing in the rain. Ahead in the tiny village of Obernzell, there’s a detour to a riverside Radweg where charming guesthouses sport signs which say, Welkommen Radfahrer (Welcome Cyclists). The smell of frying onions cuts through the rainy mist. Biking over a narrow bridge spanning a creek, a small sign tells me I’m no longer in Germany; I’m in Austria.
By the time I get to Jochenstein Dam, I’m soggy. The café/respite area at the dam has a wide covered veranda. An elderly gentleman is standing under the eave which is dripping rainwater. He points to his bike, saying, Meine rad is besser! With a grin, he points behind his bike seat where there’s a tiny motor. An electric bike — I’ve wondered about those. The rain hasn’t stopped this guy. I’m thinking he’s some sort of rain angel, telling me, “You’ll never get too old to do this.”
The ship locks at Jochenstein squat in low profile against the river bank. Here hydrology meets sleek ecological architecture. I’m puzzled by a low concrete hardscape running along the sides of the cafe. It has baffled runs with rain water flooding through narrow sluices. A school bus appears and a troop of rubber-booted children offload carrying plastic buckets and scoops. They tromp through the water runs, damming points here, and releasing water there. It’s a hydrology lesson in a puddle jumper’s Disneyland.
I’m slogging it when I reach a quaint guesthouse by the river. My bag is waiting in the foyer. There is no elevator so I schlepp my bag up three flights of stairs. After a short nap and a long shower, I go downstairs to be assured by the host, “It will be sunny tomorrow.” I’m a thirsty cyclist, and I quickly down a large stein of the uniquely delicious German beer. My dinner is a plate of white asparagus and hot potatoes drizzled with a light béarnaise sauce topped with a crispy trout fillet. As I eat, I think about how my first day went. I’m grateful for my sturdy legs. My butt is sore. I got cold and wet but, hey, I’m here.
The innkeeper was right. The morning the sun warms my shoulders as I ride toward Schlögen Loop, where the river makes a lovely curve. There is a ferry at Schlögen which takes cyclists across the river where the trail continues. I ask the ferryman to take my picture next to a field of sunflowers, but later I realize that my helmet is on backwards. I look dorky but happy.
A long, quiet stretch of trail leads to Aschach Dam where there are acres of logs, stacked in rows, towering overhead. The map route is a busy roadway, so I ignore a “Verboten” (forbidden) sign and follow a small path next to the logs. About halfway, I hear a motor start, and looking up, I see large sprinkler arms starting to rotate while sluicing water onto the logs. There’s a lot of water. I can’t turn around, so I mark the rhythm of the arms like a kid jumping Double Dutch timing the swing of the rope: one-two, one-two … Go! Pedaling hard, I make it through the first swing, pause, and pedal again and again, until I slip through. I stop, heart pounding. I’m dry. I’m alone on the trail. I’ve seen no rest facilities, nor will I. After carefully looking in both directions, I lift my bike skirt in a patch of greenery. “Guten Morgan” a soft female voice greets me, as she jogs by. I’m embarrassed but she isn’t.
At Ashach village, I’m surprised to see a bike van parked on the town promenade. Cold drinks sit on a table, where cyclists are stopping, obviously part of a tour group. “Monica’s dropped out.” shouts one incoming rider. “She wants to ride inside the van.” The day has turned cold and gloomy. I’m wondering about Monica. Do her legs hurt? Is she thirsty? Bored? Or does her butt hurt too? Who knows? One person in the group asks me if I’m on my own. “Aren’t you afraid?” she asks.
Cycling out town, I think about her question. I am afraid of many things: snorkeling, sticky mudflats, small airplanes, dying badly. But on a bike, I can be brave. It doesn’t matter if I’m wet or hungry or can’t find a bathroom. I have only myself to worry about, and at the end of a day orienteering, I feel sharp. Although I have bug juice on my face, I feel like the cleanest kind of beautiful. My body is working and getting stronger. Novelty and change, beauty and nature are here. What’s to be afraid of?
I must cross the river to get to the hamlet of Obermühl. In summer, there must be clusters of cyclists waiting, but on this fall day, it’s just me. As a small ferry motors from the opposite shore to fetch me, I greet the ferryman with “Gutenn Tag.” In small villages, most Austrians speak German. I won’t be discussing Nietzsche with locals over a beer tonight, but with my ninth-grade German, it’s good to know how to order one. I can buy a ticket, say, “Thank you, “Have a nice day” and “I love Austria.” After a windy river crossing, the ferryman points to a sunny yellow guesthouse — my lodging for the night. He promises to pick me up at the landing the next morning at 9:00 AM sharp.
Obermühl is a quiet, lovely village worth the small detour. A white church with a steeple marks the center of town. Two elderly women sit on kitchen chairs in the late afternoon sun cracking walnuts. There are no ATMs or convenience stores. At the guesthouse, the bike garage is open. My room is light and bright, with a puffy down comforter and a just-right pillow. There are no toiletries or washcloths, just comfortable simplicity. There’s no phone or clock and no Wi-Fi. A small TV is perched on a wardrobe as an afterthought. I turn it on, but instead of CNN, I find a couple of farmers in heated dialogue with some handsome cows looking on. The next on-the-farm segment is a humorous look at some pigs getting into a vegetable garden and upturning a row of beets. An indignant gardener waving beet fragments chases them out. Reality TV, Austrian style.
Town across misty river
I hear a chugging sound in the gravel driveway up to the patio. Two small blond boys are sitting on either side of their father on an ancient tractor. Dad goes inside for a beer while the smallest boy mimes the chugging sound long after the engine has been turned off. Finally, the larger boy helps the little guy off the tractor and they both run into the guesthouse. They come out with some fizzy water in tall glasses, gulp their sodas, turn their glasses bottoms up, and place them, carefully, on the picnic table. It feels to like it’s long ago and somewhere else.
Tomorrow’s ride will be at least 65 kilometers. The gathering clouds prompt me to pack rain gear and a second set of clothes. After a shower and a nap, I keep company with a schnitzel and a beer. Later, when I wake in mid night, I see a long, white tour boat glide by, a bare whisper through the water, and when it passes, utter dark and complete quiet.
The next morning, I find the ferryman waiting. “Good morning, Miss America,” he greets me cheerfully. I’m his only passenger. When he asks me where I learned to speak German, I’m flattered. The ferryman quotes for me, “Die, das, der, what should I care?” On the opposite shore, he waves me off with a hearty Auf wiedersehen, and I recklessly blow him a kiss from America.
This morning’s fog is typical for autumn. Although I can’t see across the river, I have company along the Radweg. Pheasants sit at the edge of the cornfields picking at the remains of the harvest, and a little deer bounces away. If I look closely, there always seems to be one dog-sized rabbit in the center of every turned field. It’s quiet, like the world is fresh just for me.
I find a sign at the next river crossing, Geschlossen, (closed). The ferryman may close the ferry when the morning mist rises up from the Danube. That may mean detours, longer riding days, and sometimes, backtracking to pick up an alternate route. Besides adding miles to the day, a detour is one way to get lost following a river route! I will find Geschlossen signs at cafes, bridges, and sadly one night, tacked to the door of my lodging. With empty tables still outside of beer gardens, I can feel like I just missed a big street party.
Although I’m alone on the trail this morning, what might be loneliness for some is solitude for me. Legs pumping in the cold air, with no one to see or hear me, I wander in the sanctuary of my mind. I may talk a bit to myself, sometimes sing. From happiness, I think. Whether its verses remembered from a hymnal, beads fingered on a rosary, or a meditation chanted, the heart can flow with the river. I think Siddhartha would have loved long bike rides.
Toward Linz, I must cross the widening Danube at the massive Kraftwerk Ottensheim-Wilhering Dam. A steep concrete stairway climbs to the dam crossing. A cyclist is struggling up several flights trying to hold onto his bike and panniers. I’m not strong enough to do that. I have an ugly vision of me and my bike tumbling back to the concrete. I find a path to the right of the crossing, follow it to the main road, and then double back to the left to cross the bridge. I’m proud I’ve figured it out.
The Radweg going into the city of Linz runs along an increasingly busy highway. There is a long slog up a gradual grade onto a bridge that leads into Linz. At the top of the hill, I stop for pastry and coffee. Got to keep my strength up! There is a cloud of smoke inside, so I move to an outside table where I can sit upwind of the smokers. Across the street, there are several Austrian men standing under a kiosk talking and drinking beer. A sign on the kiosk promises a stein and a sausage with kraut for six euros. There’s a German word, which sounds like a sneeze, Gemütlichkeit. It sort of means being cozy with your friends. There’s a gemütlichkeit-type ease and laughter as the men drink.
I stay on the Radweg and bypass Linz through a long vista of grassy parkland. Large metal sculptures gleam along the Danube. The greenbelt becomes a giant dog park with both dogs and owners fetching and running. Suddenly there are young men popping into the air on bikes — it’s a bike park. Everywhere are sports clubs. These folks like to play!
Small tour groups pass like gossiping magpies — noisy conversation — then silence in their wake. Here are companionable couples where the man gallantly rides point, protecting his partner from the wind. Parents pass with their children wobbling behind them. The few women I see alone are athletes — litheness and speed in lycra. As they pass, they smile at me.
The Radweg passes through Mauthausen, a town with a horrific backstory. Between 1938 and 1945, an estimated 123,000 people were murdered by the Nazis at a concentration camp built among rock quarries a mile above the town. Prisoners were gassed or jumped to their deaths. Cycling past the detour to the Maulthausen Memorial, I go on to the village of Mauthausen, an ancient market town with a wide promenade and a ferry. Before crossing the river, I buy an ice cream. I need to wash the bad taste from my mouth.
My first view of Grein opens like a TV commercial for a European river cruise. There’s a stunning confluence of water and hillside, a view of the town’s ancient architecture, and anchoring it all: a pretty ships’ station. The wind has turned winter cold, and my lodging is up a ski hill. I’m to wait for a bus. I stand in the open wind for over an hour and when the driver finally loads up my bike, it is dark. After 15 minutes of hairpin curves up a narrow road, the driver says, “Here we are.” I’m feeling hypothermic and have no idea where I am. I walk my bike toward the only light on a street off an alley, and I am thankful that it’s my hotel for the night. My third-floor room has no heat. I find heat packs in my gear, put two of them on my chest, and then cover myself with a down comforter. An hour later, I can feel my fingers and toes.
I muster and join the locals downstairs for some beer and goulash. I explain to the owner that I absolutely cannot ride my bike back down. “Ich bin an alte Frau, bitte!” (I am an old woman). I’ll kill myself riding down that road. He’s not sympathetic. “That’s where the fun is!” he answers brightly. If you are 20 years old, he’s probably right. The next morning, my host agrees to give me a lift on his way to work. The bike hangs out the back of his tiny Fiat and makes a thunking sound as we twist down. I give him a nice tip. Friends!
A day of cycling on the river’s dike finally opens onto a broad boulevard offering the first glimpses of the baroque Benedictine Abbey at Melk. The abbey shines in yellow and golden glory. Although I know it’s a must to take the abbey tour, I’m sullen about doing it. I can’t seem to reconcile the Malthausen prison with this beautiful abbey towering over the town and river.
Leaving Melk, vineyards tangle into the emerald hills of the Wachau Valley. Light morning mist weaves through vines where white and red grapes hang heavy. The air smells juicy. I can’t resist sampling along the trail, but feel little guilt for pilfering when a farmer offers me a handful of dark grapes. Wine is stored in large metal tanks and crated bottles between rows. I see a young man climbing to snatch an apple. His bike leans against the tree.
As I near the tiny village of Mitterarnsdorf, a sign identifies, “Saint Catherine, Church of the Radfahrer.” The one room chapel has morning sun beaming through a small stain glass window. A rough voice behind me says, “Go on in.” Startled, I turn around to see a large man in cycling shorts. He tells me that this little chapel was built to bless cyclists … a quiet place to say a prayer for safety. Once outside, this robust gentleman tells me he was born here and, although he has traveled many places, this is his home. As we mount our bikes to leave, he thumps his chest hard and declares, “I am an Austrian!” I’ve just met a proud man in a beautiful country. My Malthausen sadness leaves me. This is now.
Wine tank and wine crates
Riding from Tulln, both the Danube and the Radweg widen. Orchards and vineyards soften the miles to Vienna. I grab a couple of apples that have fallen to the ground for lunch before stopping at a museum built within the remains of old Roman walls. In the museum’s washroom, a woman introduces herself as “Elise” and asks me if I’m English. “I’m Alaskan.” The English language sounds foreign in my ears. Elise is amazed I’m riding on my own. She touches her hand to my cheek and expresses concern. “Are you eating?” she asks. “Are you sleeping?” Yes to eating; no to sleeping. I mention I might linger here for the night. “Don’t stop now — the weather is turning,” Elise warns. “Ride on to Vienna. Snow is predicted.”
I trust Elise’s weather warning. I pump hard through a darkening day of wind and rain to reach the outskirts of Vienna. As I cycle to my hotel on a wide bike path along the river, it begins to snow. Swinging into the hotel’s bike garage, I’m reluctant to get out of the saddle. Maybe Budapest? I’m pumped and ready to keep going. I order myself to “Get off the bike.” As I dismount and unload my panniers, I give one last look at my trusty steed and I know I’m hooked.
Austrian Tour Company: Radreisen (radreisen.at) provides maps, lodgings, and luggage transfer.
Airports: Munich, Vienna (I took train to Passau from Frankfurt, Germany)
Route Book: Bikeline Guide: Danube Cycle Route 1 Donaueschingen To Passau (BIKE.121.E) Verlag Esterbauer GmbH
SHARON TOMLINSON is an avid adventure cyclist who is currently on another cycling tour of Germany.