The author (left) and her daughter prepare to embark on their 200-mile journey, decked out in new cycling attire.
Mon, Sep 17, 2012
All Along the Danube
A mother and daughter take a cycling trip to Vienna, Austria, and it becomes the stuff of family legend.
Pedaling along Europe’s longest cycling trail, my college-aged daughter and I incite a lot of laughter. We spin down the meandering route that edges the banks of the Danube River from Passau, Germany, to Vienna, Austria, whizzing past castle ruins, ancient abbeys, orchards and vineyards.
We glide through picturesque villages, Baroque towns, dark, fairytale forests and long stretches of nearly deserted farmland. Sometimes we skid into somebody’s backyard—as in now, when we meet eyes with a bikini-clad Rubenesque woman in a lounge chair. She sits up, giggles and waves. “Chic,” she says, pointing to our bike wear and insisting we halt long enough to let her examine our outfits, before she nods in approval and gestures us on.
No matter. We planned the trip with a goal—mother-daughter bonding and a good amount of our usual tomfoolery—so this is a solid first anecdote.
While most vacationers take a week or more to roll from Passau to Vienna, my daughter can’t spare that much time. She’s studying in Vienna and must be back in Austria’s glorious capital posthaste. So, we design a very doable itinerary that takes us from start to finish in five rather easy days.
We even include a few off-trail adventures to see monasteries, Mauthausen (a former concentration camp) and a nature preserve. We spend nights in urbane places such as Linz, Austria’s third-largest city, and places of staggering beauty such as Schloegen, where the Danube makes a U-turn and changes its direction twice.
When we buy matching Lycra bike costumes in the fetching riverside village of Grein, about halfway through our 200-mile trek, we aren’t angling to rivet anyone’s attention. In fact, we think only of our exceedingly sore rumps and our not-state-of-the-art cycling attire. (Envision my daughter pumping along for 30–50 miles a day in turquoise Keds high tops and me, stylishly but ridiculously donning a colorful “skort” and billowing silk top).
Shelling out a few euros to ensure the remainder of our bike adventure along the Danube will be more comfortable seems logical, especially after a rather embarrassing collision in which I ram into the back of my daughter’s bike at the foot of a bridge, then tip over and roll, ending up with my skort ripped, my knees bloodied and my silk shirt flung up over the top of my head.
So, in Grein, sipping glasses of chilled post-ride grüner veltliner at the bike-friendly Hotel-Pension Martha’s beer garden, we muse over a headless mannequin. She wears sleek duds: padded shorts and a plaid jersey. Even from a short distance, the clothing resembles lederhosen, the beloved suede shorts with suspenders that are the national folk wear of Austria. Kitschy and hilarious, the optical illusion intrigues us.
By our second glass of wine and the realization that our bottoms could use more protection, we decide to purchase identical, faux lederhosen-esque bike garb and take the rest of our ride along the Danube like an Austrian version of the Wrigley’s Spearmint twins.
We have no idea how exceedingly popular we will become. We can barely pedal a mile the next day without being asked to pose for photos or movies. Nearly every Austrian we meet wonders where they can buy such a modern play on their traditional clothing. People squeal with delight as we pass, whistle like wolves and compliment our style. Many just guffaw. And we become legendary. When we reach certain villages, folks purport to have heard we were coming. But such affability along the Danube Bike Trail is actually one of the reasons the jaw-dropping route attracts so many riders.
Camaraderie and support among cyclists from all over the world prevails along this best-loved, well-marked route. As bike riders wend their way along the trail, they look out for one another. Most riders chat amiably, share snacks, provide bike-repair aid and offer suggestions for hotels and eateries.
The Donauradweg, as the route is known in German, follows an old horse path that winds all the way to Bratislava through some of Europe’s most spectacular countryside. Mostly paved, it runs parallel to the river, sometimes coursing off, but never really undulating too far from the banks.
Passing through wine country, river valleys and forests, the terrain tends to be flat or rolling, making it perfect for riders of all skill and fitness levels. We see fellow cyclists of every age, shape and size. Some carry their luggage in packs, while others have opted—as we do—for an outfitter to deliver suitcases each day to their evening stop. Some cyclists race along the trail, but the majority poke along at a carefree pace, stopping to relax amid flower fields. Some sample monk-made grog in monasteries, sip wine at a family-owned vineyard, linger in a village coffee shop or simply nap in the sun.
At any time, cyclists can catch a ride on a boat or train to shorten their day. And since the bike path generally follows both sides of the river, riders can venture back and forth across bridges or via anachronistic wooden ferries so tiny they seem like enchanted toy boats. Though countless riders partake of the experience, the path never feels glutted or crowded. In fact, most of the time, we feel a sense of fulfilling solitude, a tranquility that enhances the richness of the landscape.
We bike our favorite section of the trail on day four: Grein to Durnstein. This 43-mile day eases us into the sensory overload of the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site and wine region. Midway, we stop in Melk, tour the prodigious, golden Baroque Melk Abbey, then dream our way through a terrain of apricot orchards, jagged ruins of medieval castles, small vineyards and timeless villages.
We stop in local wine taverns—heurigers—to nibble pickled peppers, slabs of roasted pork, whole-grain bread and olives. And, yes, more wine. But the highlight is our splurge stay at Schloss Durnstein. The 17th-century castle hotel, built for a princess, sits on a hill above the gentle Danube.
We finish in Vienna, a city of dazzling beauty and profuse personality. It manages to be draped in history, but fueled with a modern edginess. Between my daughter’s university classes, we gaze at works of architectural mastery, such as Secession Building (don’t miss Klimt’s frieze of Beethoven) and the Schonbrunn Palace, and gorge on iconic pastries such as the sacher torte.
But in the end, we’re drawn back to two wheels. We hop on some pay-as-you-go city bikes and consider doing the Danube Bike Trail backwards. My daughter looks at me, sees the gleam in my eyes and gets real.
“It’s not happening, Mom,” she says. “At least not until next year.”
Logistics: Passau to Vienna
Most people ride from Passau to Vienna (and not the other way around), because there is a subtle downhill grade that enhances the ride. To get there, fly into Vienna and take the train to Passau.
Places to Stay Along the Danube Bike Trail
Hotel Am Paulusbogen (ampaulusbogen.de), Passau (two-night packages from $307). Set on the Danube, amid the beautiful Baroque buildings of Passau, this sweet, friendly, three-star hotel has a fantastic restaurant.
Hotel Donauschlinge (donauschlinge.at), Schloegen (from $130). A typical Austrian-style resort, Hotel Danauschlinge caters to bikers and hikers. So stunning are the views from our room, we compare the sight to Bora Bora. You’ll love the big breakfasts. There are even bike mechanics on hand to mend broken cycles.
Landgraf Hotel & Loft (hotellandgraf.com), Linz (from $135). Evincing the über-hip reinvention that is Linz (once an industrial city), this sleek design hotel has creative yet comfy rooms. We loved our suite with a big bathtub mid-living room and commodious sitting areas.
Hotel-Pension Martha (pensionmarthagrein.at), Grein (from $78). Christine, daughter of Martha, adopts all her guests the moment they walk
through the door. In a refurbished, ancient building, this delightful three-star stay feels more like hanging out in someone’s home. Christine, a fount of information and an effusion of joie d’ vivre, offers helpful advice about the Danube Bike Trail.
Hotel Schloss Durnstein (schloss.at), Durnstein (from $227). A Relais Chataux property perched on a cliff above the Danube, this family-owned den of elegance manages to be at once refined and warm.
Altstadt Vienna (altstadt.at), Vienna (from $180). A centuries-old townhouse refurbished by an art collector, the hotel brims with splendid contemporary art.
Danube Bike Path: donauradweg.com
Outfitters: biketoursdirect.com or
Daily nonstop flights from Washington Dulles International to Vienna, Austria, on Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines.