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Review: Cycling down the Danube

Specialist Holiday - Cycling

Melk , Austria

Follow Enfield down the Danube

  • By SilverTraveller AndrewT

    2 reviews

  • 2011
  • Solo

138 people found this review helpful

I was charmed by Edward Enfield’s book Dawdling down the Danube; Enfield was 73 when he took his two week trip, which encouraged me as a cycling novice. He also carried his own luggage which I also wanted to try. The whole point of travelling solo is to be free of time/place structure: indeed Enfield writes a lot about the idiots flying past him down the tow path, working to self imposed schedules.

Renting a nice bike in Vienna (€100 per week) was easy, as was transporting it by train to Melk: there are special vans on all inter-cities to transport bikes.

Melk is the starting point to the Wachau, the scenic region of wine growing in Austria. I started with a test run upstream for 10km with no ill effects. From here to Vienna the cycle path runs on both banks. The first surprise was the age of the cyclists: average sixty by my count and usually in marital pairs.

Melk has an enormous Benedictine monastery with a chapel laden with golden baroque. It was founded by the Babenburgs (the lot before the Hapsburgs). It is now a tourist classic, and the ancient town below feeds this need with jolly cake shops and cheap hotels for cyclists. There was a monk on hand during my visit to the abbey.

Melk is a major staging post for cruise boats going to Vienna and there are eleven docking points for them. Some of the boats are about 80m long- thin like the barges they run along side. I saw only one family-sized boat during the three day journey: it was flying along at fifteen knots carried by the powerful current and bouncing in the light rough.

From Melk onwards downstream through the vineyards to Durnstein for an overnight stop and 35kms of cycling (maybe three hours). The Danube wends through gorges with a few turreted castles on dominant rocks. Every village has wine tasting and there were always a few Austrian cars outside them, filling up with Grune Veitliner and Riesling wines. I stopped in Willendorf to see the site of the pre-historic fat woman Venus, considered as the first attempt by a European at art. It dates from 25000 BC and the living style was Stone Age. Similar icons have been found in the strand from Czech to France. Received wisdom is that the artist exaggerated size of the woman’s parts as eroticism, but I began to wonder if actually they just liked larger women and the figurines were drawn from life.

Durnstein is a very pretty town and proclaims itself as the prison of Richard the Lionheart, caught by the Austrians on his way back from the Crusades. He was found by Blondel, the minstrel, equally celebrated in the town. The English ransom paid for everything built for the next hundred years. There is yet another abbey in Durnstein, this time Augustine, but much smaller. Similar lovely views down across the Wachau. I was lucky to catch a free concert in the abbey’s central courtyard with Strauss melodies played with wind instruments. The town’s burgher elders were out in force dressed in loden hunting jackets. It was easy to see that the same concert a hundred years before would have looked much the same. I climbed 500 metres straight up from the town to the ruined castle which was harder than the three hours cycling in the morning. I was perplexed by the lack of Elf and Safety: clearly if your child wanted to jump off the top, that was no concern of the parish council.

A gentle drop in Krem, which is a real gem. I thought that Lord Clark would have warmed much to this town in his definition of civilisation. I parked my bike in the modern university and used their internet for free; the students quietly working and reading and socialising. Past the prison, though God knows whom they keep in there, as there is no evident crime. Into the town with a hotch potch of Roman through Romanesque to Baroque. Every building had a story to tell. I particularly liked this statue of the hen-pecked husband used as advertising material by a men’s social club.

I set off again down the Danube intending to follow Enfield’s side excursion into the apple orchards but I had picked the wrong bank. The glory of cycling is to see the cultivation change from field to field: you move from cherry and apple to apricot to wheat to barley and then vines.

I decided to go straight through to Tulln some forty kms further but I was up against a head wind and got bored with the lack of scenery. I turned off half way and headed inland following a bus route. The vista opened up to castles on the hills and spires in every village; the Danube valley was maybe twenty kms across with fertile plain in between. The area was called Wagram. It was only after half an hour that I realised I was riding through Napoleon’s battle field. The Wagram metro station I had passed so many times in Paris and the wide boulevard leading off from Etoile with the same name. I tried to remember whether Prince Andrey in War & Peace had fought here; in fact he had fought at Austerlitz, yet another metro station, but on the Western side of Vienna: Tolstoy would have loved these peasant fields and the quiet diligence of the farmers; the fields no doubt ruined for a generation by the destruction of that dreadful battle in the quiet wheat fields of Wagram.

This peasant culture also drives the cuisine: all stewed meat and potatoes; lots of pork and sausages. And the libations too: kirsch and something made from apricots.

I bowled into Tulln exhausted only to find the town’s hotels. I had to track another five kms down to the next village to a crummy place on the river. In all, seventy kms: too much. Tulln was a Roman base, a reminder of the continuity of habitation here on these banks.

I stopped the next day in Klosterneuburg, a beautiful town overlooked by tourists because of its proximity to Vienna; it reinforced the fact that the wealth in the hands of the church and the aristocracy had been predominant in that part of central Europe over hundreds of years.

And then a cycle track all the way into central Vienna. I could easily have done the full journey from Passau in Germany to Vienna and would recommend that to others.

To be part of so much history for three days in towns untouched by the twentieth century was to connect with these folk from the past. Thereby to think that there might be universal and continuing truths and that one should seek in this life to find them. The Danube towns did not exude the morbidity of Vienna- you could not imagine Don Giovanni being written in the fine town of Krem- and they were the better for that. It was more Maria von Trapp and less Maria Theresa the Empress of Vienna.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • Debbie
    almost 3 years ago
    what a super and inspirational review! II can see that you booked everything independently rather than using a tour operator. Would you do it the same way again?