This is the second installment of a two-part series about the EuroVelo 6 route, which appeared in the Dec. 2019/Jan. 2020 issue. “An Epic Act of Transience” appeared in the Oct./Nov. 2019 issue.
We left the Rhine and cycled into Germany. Solitary gravel roads dipped in and out of dense stands of trees surrounding secluded glades at the edge of the Black Forest. The trail then became a funnel. Steep dirt trails dove into the woods, snaking around velvety green, moss-covered stones, guiding us like omniscient ushers. All the while, a winding rivulet had begun to take shape next to us, its waters growing in strength as we climbed hills and plummeted between beech and birch trees, pines, firs, and oaks.
At its origin, the Danube — created by the convergence of the Breg and Brigach streams — is small, more like a big creek. This seems obvious, perhaps. The genesis of most undertakings, be it one of the mightiest and most historic waterways on the planet or a bicycle expedition along the 2,900-mile EuroVelo 6 (EV6) route we were pedaling, begins with a trickle. As my cycling partner, Thierry Joubert, and I left Western Europe for the continent’s central region, those two phenomena — the headwaters of the Danube, the continent’s second longest river, and our journey across 10 countries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea — intersected.
We’d started 15 days earlier in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, on the French coast at the mouth of the Loire River. In the early stages, as we pointed our gravel bikes east (loaded with front panniers, framebags, handlebar packs, and seatbags), it became obvious that France’s tourism model represented a different philosophy than we were accustomed to.
The cycling route, which utilizes the La Loire à Vélo path for the first 500 miles, was well marked. So well, in fact, that the backup navigation system I had assembled (four apps and hardcopy maps) mainly served as contingency plans. Our trail was a combination of shared but lightly trafficked roads, hard-packed gravel along river levees, and bicycle-only paths. Most drivers were almost too polite, waiting for us to reach intersections and then always giving us the right of way. Through France and Switzerland, pedaling more than 900 miles, we found bike-friendly campsites where we pitched a tent most days, B&Bs, pensions, and hotels, all located at regular 30-mile increments. And perhaps most important for the health of regional tourism, we discovered that the majority of people enjoying the trail were in-country locals. The trail’s primary focus was domestic travelers and commuters.
The existence of this bike-first tourism model was more than an epiphany. The realization for me, a longtime travel writer and responsible-tourism advocate, was a call to arms. The EuroVelo’s network of 16 routes stretches over 45,000 kilometers and includes 42 countries across every corner of Europe. That such a pedal-powered highway system could — in an easy-to-navigate and safe fashion — prioritize cyclists throughout an entire continent made me question the level of responsibility I had demanded from myself when covering stories and the publications I worked for over more than two decades.
“First of all, seeing Europe on a bicycle, rather than from the window of a car, a train, a bus, or a plane, allows one to experience the whole route, and not only the starting and ending points of a trip,” said Florence Grégoire, a communications assistant with the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), which oversees EuroVelo development. The ECF, based in Brussels, Belgium, supports cycling for travel and transportation. “The EuroVelo network helps [move] cycle tourism to the mainstream, making people realize it is a mode of traveling accessible to everyone, not only very sportive or adventurous people.”
As we covered the first third of the EV6 — riding through Nantes, Tours, Orleans, Nevers, and Mulhouse in France, and then Basel before heading across the Rhine Falls in Switzerland — along the Loire, Saone, Doubs, Ill, Canal du Rhône, and then Rhine rivers, I also became more aware of the physicality of the feat I was undertaking. Although I had been in fair shape before the ride, I discovered that nothing can compensate for being in the saddle all day, every day. The ability to ride approximately 60 to 80 miles per day for weeks represented a physical and mental routine, which necessitated I adjust to the route, not the other way around.
Each evening we unpacked a tent, sleeping bags, rain gear, clothes, tools, food, and cookery. Every morning we repacked; everything lived in a precise spot — mindfully measured based on bike balance and the degree to which each item would be needed throughout the day. We became efficient, chocolate-scarfing, banana-peeling, pedal-mashing, Marie Kondo–like organizing machines.
Regardless of how steely and methodical we had become, however, reaching the 1,770-mile Danube was a big deal. Our trip had suddenly become simplified. Reaching the last river meant we had one shoreline, one rolling landmark, one definitive path to follow to the end. We had found our yellow brick road — or so we thought. Also, when we looked at the EV6’s elevation table, the highest point for the entire route occurred just as we reached the creek that would soon become the Danube with which most are familiar. From that point — on paper anyway — the route seemed to flow downhill to the Black Sea.
“The Danube immediately changed the rhythm of our ride for lots of reasons,” said Thierry Joubert, my riding partner and director of Green Visions, an ecotourism outfit based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. “After more than two weeks in the saddle, we were reaching full strength as cyclists. But the river and the route also became one in a way that hadn’t happened before. How we rode, where we rode, and even when we rode — because of rain and floods — was now dictated by one geographical feature, which also brought with it more cultures, towns, and cities.”
The river’s monopolizing grasp of our journey was no coincidence. The Danube has been a key character in Europe’s story since the beginning of civilization on the continent. Every empire here has felt the need to control this crucial artery. The Greeks traded up and down its course. The Romans considered it the northern boundary of its vast holdings and set up military posts (becoming cities such as Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade) along the riverbanks to protect against invasion. The Ottomans and Hapsburgs both staked claims on sections for defense and economic survival.
The weight of that history was tangible, and suddenly we weren’t alone in that assessment. Riding into Bavaria, we were entering yet another sphere of cycle tourism development. The route, which followed the long-established Donauradweg, or Danube Cycle Path, became mainly, if not completely, riverside and bike-only. Bicycle groups, especially eBikers moving at a uniform 15 mph, started to steadily appear. As the Danube reached adolescence — big enough to become a city’s chief point of reference but not yet an industrial behemoth — the number of landmarks also seemed to be growing.
In Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, we pitched our tent in a canoe club’s front yard with the Ulm Minster towering above. Built over a span of 500 years starting in the 14th century, the gargantuan Gothic structure’s 530-foot steeple makes it the tallest church in the world. The river widening, we rolled through villages and towns spilling onto the path with beer gardens and cafés jammed with bicycles. Farms of canary-yellow canola flowers blanketed our horizons until the sulfur-spring–laden spa town of Bad Abbach. Just outside the route’s most northerly point, Regensburg — a city sprawling with architecture spanning millennia, anchored by Roman roots, and one of 11 UNESCO sites along the EV6 — we rode underneath the Parthenon-inspired, neo-classical Walhalla. Built to honor great German artists and scientists, the palatial hilltop building seemed to also guard the last of the river’s disappearing youth.
In Passau, our last city in Germany, our intimate little waterway, which we’d watched grow since its inception, merged with the Inn and Ilz rivers. Swollen by tributaries, strengthened across the width of Bavaria, and lined with cruise ships, it now commanded the landscape. As we crossed into Austria, the Danube had become an adult.
The stages between Passau and Budapest — a stretch that includes Vienna and Bratislava — are what many imagine when they think of organized bike travel, and with good reason. This is the spiritual vortex of bicycle tourism. The operative word here: tourism.
After spending much of the first half of the journey in relative solitude — throwing knowing nods as we passed the occasional bikepacker — riding among tour groups became the norm. Gaggles of cyclists of every age and, as often as not, on eBikes, surrounded us like schools of polka-dotted, fluorescent orange, and yellow Lycra fish swimming behind their leaders waggling red, blue, and green flags. My first, selfish, knee-jerk reaction was proprietary.
“Nah, man, you got it all wrong,” said Thierry, my riding partner, and typically the less judgmental of us. “This route doesn’t belong to you or me. Think of how much better it is that groups travel by bike than by car. The EuroVelo 6 is like Europe’s cycling Route 66. And just like that highway, people here are discovering, many for the first time, what places are like when you see them up close and can stop at any time to enjoy them.”
His point was, of course, correct. I was still stuck in the throes of my existential tourism crisis (and philosophical overcalibration) that had begun in France. The simple fact: people will travel, just as I was doing at that moment. The best we can hope is that they do so responsibly. These particular stages, starting from Passau — with castles, wine shops, boutiques, sausage stands, and, yes, genuinely excited bicycle tourists — signal that more and more people are taking sustainable travel seriously. According to the ECF, studies show that the full development of the EuroVelo network could, as early as next year, inspire some 60 million cycling trips and 7 billion euros of direct revenue annually.
“The Danube Bike Path from Passau to Vienna was our most popular destination when I started my company 15 years ago, and it’s the most popular today,” said Jim Johnson, the founder of BikeTours.com, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “The route has amazing scenery, vineyards, rich history, and incredible infrastructure with charming hotels, great dining, and options to take the train or boat, if needed. It’s important to note, though, that the Donauradweg wasn’t always universally embraced by towns along the route. Many balked at cost and exhibited the same NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] mentality we face in America. To me, it’s wonderful that a former mule path, used to tow barges upstream, now gives so much delight to travelers and so much revenue to people who live along it.”
For more than three weeks, Vienna sat like a giant blip on our internal radars. All the time it was getting closer and closer but never seemed to be a real place — just an Oz-esque utopia, where residents drink coffee from painted porcelain cups as Strauss’s “Blue Danube” wafts overhead. The reality of riding through the Austrian capital, with its approximately two million residents and swarming cars, was slightly different. Still, the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and arguably the river’s chief calling-card city, never ceases to enchant.
We wound through Vienna’s center, dripping in Hapsburgian ornamentation and opulence, past the tiled roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, an explosion of Gothic and Romanesque detail on a 12th century foundation. We wandered between the fountains of the baroque Schloss Belvedere Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and then debated the merits of Klimt, van Gogh, and Monet in its museum. We stood like little kids watching the 213-foot Ferris wheel, built in 1897, as it brought one cabin after another to the apex of its 20-minute rotation with views of the river we called home. We finished our tour in modern fashion on the left bank of the Danube, drinking beer as tattooed street artists played guitars and beat on five-gallon plastic buckets.
Just 40 miles to the east, we crossed the Iron Curtain’s former border and pedaled into Slovakia. Immediately, we were on a bicycle-only route that paralleled the highway and followed the river to the series of bridges leading into Bratislava’s old town. There was, for the first time, a hint of a shift from Western and Central Europe to the East. Baroque, Renaissance, Secessionist architecture mixed with communist-era reminders in the Slovakian capital’s center. The Bratislava Castle stared down as we rolled between ancient clocktowers and green cupolas, which shared space with post-WWII block buildings.
We broke out the maps at a café. Dragging grease-stained fingers across the different route possibilities, we made the executive decision to take the Hungarian side of the EV6 outside of Bratislava. The choice would have us riding, in rapid succession, through our fourth, fifth, and sixth countries on the 10-country EV6 within the span of one day. In two days, we would be in Budapest.
Few sights compare with the majesty of a great city straddling a formidable river. Perhaps no place in the world does this as gracefully as the Hungarian capital. From the Andante Wine Bar, hugging the Danube’s edge on the western, Buda side, we drank glasses of house white from the Tokaj region. The sun drifted over the top of Castle Hill behind us. Directly across the river, the iconic, neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament — an impossibly intricate series of steeples and turrets arrayed around its famous copper-colored dome — glowed with fading yellows and oranges as salmon-colored clouds spread above.
We watched cyclists commuting over the bridges crossing the river. We toasted as citizens met on the street and strolled off to cocktails or dinner. Raising glasses, it was easy to forget there was still around 1,000 miles to ride before the Black Sea.
In many ways, I knew that last section would be among the most rewarding and the most challenging. It would necessitate new levels of exploration and patience. Also, from here, after almost 1,800 miles and more than three weeks together, my cycling partner and I would split. Thierry would return to Sarajevo. I would ride alone until the end.
“Every section of the EuroVelo 6 route along the Danube has its own strength — be it history, gastronomy, vineyards, Roman culture, or all of the above,” said Vladan Kre?kovi?, a project coordinator at the Danube Competence Center (DCC), based in Belgrade, Serbia. The DCC works with countries along the river to develop cross-border tourism. “But there is a specific feel when traveling down from Budapest into the Balkans. There’s a sense you’re going beyond the place where many people stop. More and more travelers want to explore these new countries and learn about the places many are just now hearing about.”
Crossing into the Balkans from southern Hungary was a homecoming of sorts. I live in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and I have covered stories about the region for my entire career. The EV6 would take me through the heart of the peninsula, which stretches east–west from the Adriatic to the Black Sea and north–south from the Alps to Greece.
From the first days of planning the journey, I was reminded by EuroVelo officials and previous riders that a portion of the Balkans EV6, especially beyond Belgrade, Serbia, is still classified as “under development.”
To be classified as certified or developed, a route must meet specific guidelines in categories such as traffic density, daily elevation gain, attractiveness, public transportation options, and accommodations. In other words, compared to the path from France to Hungary, there would likely be a significant drop in the level and amount of infrastructure the farther east I headed. I was advised a new level of awareness would be needed — from being prepared with maps and extra tire tubes, to keeping water bottles topped and purchasing phone SIM cards for uninterrupted use of GPS-based apps.
As I entered Croatia, however, the word I continually found myself saying aloud was “freedom.” I adored every stage of the EuroVelo, without exception, but I felt at home in the Balkans. Boutiques and chic bistros were replaced by kerchiefed men and women standing at the edge of fields pointing thick fingers toward the next village where they felt sure the bakery would still be open. In the early stages of the trip, I needed a route marker every quarter mile and regular places to stock up on food.
Now I wanted only to ride a bicycle until I ran into the sea.
In Croatia, the path rolled through the cities of Osijek and Vukovar and then across the vineyards surrounding the town of Ilok before crossing into Serbia, where I followed the route to Novi Sad and its riverside Petrovaradin Fortress, built during Hapsburg control of the area. When I stopped in the capital of Belgrade, a frenetic metropolis at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers and famous for nightlife on boats lining the water, I took a day to gather supplies and intel. I had one last push ahead of me — about 600 miles to the Black Sea.
The route followed good asphalt roads as it passed Serbia’s Iron Gates, a series of narrow gorges pinching the Danube between the Balkan Mountains to the south and the Southern Carpathian Mountains to the north. Climbs were now rewarded with sweeping vistas, largely devoid of structures, just sunrises suspended in the morning mist, which clung to the river, and dusk framing herons and ducks, storks and woodpeckers.
At Serbia’s end, at a tri-border point, I trusted my gut and took the Bulgarian rather than Romanian route. For the next five days, I was alone. There was only me, my bicycle, a clear head, and a sea of sunflowers — rolling waves from one farm to another, up hillsides and engulfing houses. I rode around 85 miles per day, only stopping in towns to sleep in excellent B&Bs for around 10 dollars per day.
On the last day, the 37th of cycling from the Atlantic coast, I pedaled into Constanta, Romania. I could smell the salty Black Sea air before I could see the water. My own personal Route 66 had taken me across a continent. There was nowhere else to ride. Families walked along the boardwalk, posing to take selfies. I asked someone to take my photo. After, she handed my phone back and asked, “Is this a good place to ride a bike?”