I just returned from a self-guided cycling tour along the Danube from Passau to Vienna. It was a great relaxing holiday which reinforced again the value of self-guided tours - the joy of travelling at your own pace, stopping here for coffee, popping into an unexpected museum there, all the while knowing your hotel is waiting at the end of the day and your luggage is being transferred for you.
I started my trip in Passau, a small ancient town on the border of Germany and Austria. Situated at the confluence of the Inn and Danube the old town lies on a peninsula formed as the two rivers meet.
All along the banks of the rivers are paths, city walls and terraces where people were enjoying the stunning spring weather. What's a man to do but join them - in fact, I could not think of a better way to celebrate the start of my holiday.
After making sure all my gear was in order - two panniers (check), spare tube, pump and repair kit (got it), handlebar bag (yup) and maps (OK), bike tuned (great) - I set off the next morning along small paths and country roads on my first day of cycling. The scenery was riverine - steep forested hills meeting the river, a farm or village here and there, with the bike path connecting it all. I followed the south shore of the river for a while, then crossed by bicycle ferry to the left bank, where there was a bike-only road winding through the forest.
These bike ferries are part of the cycling infrastructure along this part of the Danube. They cost only a few euros and are a convenient way to hop across the Danube - either because the opposite side has a quieter ride, or if you want to do some sightseeing. Some of the ferry captains make a bit of extra money selling local produce on the side and I bought a tiny bottle of local pear schnapps, a purchase that I was very happy with a few days later.
I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, a Rad Treff (Bike Meet), a place which catered to cyclists. Even this early in the year (it was late April), the place was hopping with people enjoying lunch, coffee or a pint of beer. As you sit at long tables it was easy to meet people and I chatted a bit with a young man from Belgium who was cycling the same distance I was in three days rather than my six. That meant long days of 100 kms a day and, unlike at my pace, not much time to stop.
Towards the end of the day I noticed a viewpoint and castle ruins on my map, so I parked my bike and hiked uphill. Leaving my bags with my gear along the road didn't worry me - this is a very safe region indeed. It was a steep climb but the rewards were a stupendous view from atop a 12-century robber baron lair.
One more ferry ride and I arrived at my hotel around 5pm, just in time to enjoy dinner and drinks with two cyclists I had been seeing all day.
The next morning was another fine day of cycling bike paths and quiet country roads through forests and fields, taking me to Ottersheim. After lunch I crossed the Danube to the right bank to visit the beautiful Cistercian Abbey at Wilhering. As I entered the church I noticed a guided tour had just started, so I joined in. It was a marvellous tour with the guide pointing out lots of things I would have missed - in fact the tour lasted two hours. A smarter person might have noticed sooner, but it took me that long to realise I had joined in on what was in fact a private tour. After apologising I beat a hasty retreat.
Riding into Linz on a Sunday evening I didn't think much would be going on. But this being Europe, plenty of people were celebrating life in the town square and as my hotel was somewhat outside the city centre I decided to have dinner first.
As it turned out there was another good reason people had been out on a Sunday night - Monday dawned grey and forbidding and this was the one day I had dreadful weather. So I donned my raingear and set off towards Enns, my first stop. Here I spent an agreeable couple of hours at the Roman museum, warming up and taking in the splendid exhibits. This stretch of the Danube Valley is part of the UNESCO World Heritage region The Danube Limes, forming the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. Enns was one of the larger garrison towns situated along this border - it bore the brunt of some of the 'Barbarian' invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries.
As the day progressed I found out what "Montag Ruhetag" means: Monday Rest Day - pretty much all restaurants and cafes were closed, so I settled for a roadside picnic in a shelter specifically built for that purpose. Out of the rain I feasted on bread and cheese, nuts, chocolate and that lovely little bottle of schnapps I had purchased on my first day.
Continuing through pretty farm fields with the rain coming and going I had a choice to make. It was a choice I had faced a few years ago on my hiking trip in Ireland as I found myself knee-deep in a bog: get grumpy at the weather, or sing songs and make the best of what nature has dealt you. I chose the latter and although "Singing in the Rain" wasn't part of my repertoire, it was an outlook on life that was uniquely reinforced days later.
After thus braving the rain, which by now was coming down sideways, I arrived at a 400-year old merchant's house in the small village of Ardagger. It had been converted to a hotel and while my room was tiny, the entire building oozed country charm. I had a lovely traditional dinner by the fireplace in the company of two cyclists who were following the same route as I.
The next morning fog shrouded the hills, a sure sign of better weather to come. And indeed soon I found myself riding through splendid sunshine into the old town of Grein.
Once again following quiet roads and cycling paths that day ended at the spectacular monastery of Melk. It was one of the reasons I had chosen this trip and the building didn't disappoint.
I took a few hours admiring the interior of the monastery with its museum highlighting the history of the abbey, before crossing the Danube to my hotel. Here I found myself in a phenomenal room which I only left for dinner.
The hotels Exodus uses on this trip are all four star properties and are very comfortable indeed. Most of them are family-run which shows in the wonderful warm hospitality offered at each of them.
The next day again broke sunny and cool and I soon found myself cycling among the pretty vineyards, villages and farm fields of the Wachau, another UNESCO heritage region. The hills here are dotted with ancient castles, lording it over the farms and towns in the valley below, none more famous than Dürnstein Castle. I had seen images of it showing a marvellous view of the castle, town and river, and I wanted to enjoy that view myself. I approached a local hiker and asked for directions and was told to hike all the way to the top of a nearby hill as the views "keep getting better and better".
As it turned out the view I was looking for was already splendid halfway up the hill, but the words of the hiker ringing in my ears, I continued uphill. And while the views were dramatic indeed, it was to be for a whole other reason the climb became meaningful to me.
You will remember the choice I made in the pouring rain a few days prior - be a grump or make the best of the cards you have been dealt? At the top of the hill I noticed a sign "Kanzel" (Pulpit) and figuring this was likely another viewpoint I followed the trail. And what did I find, apart from another spectacular view?
A rock on which someone had written: "Things are the way they are. It is what we do with it that makes it special".
Coincidence? Maybe. I like to think there was something bigger at play here.
Near the top was a so-called Alpen-Hütte. If you were to translate this literally it means mountain hut but in this part of the world they are full-on restaurants where you can enjoy a meal and a drink. I did so in the company of a local couple learning more about the area as the conversation went along.
Thus refuelled and re-energized I walked downhill to the ruins of Dürnstein Castle. It was here that Richard the Lionheart had been kept prisoner by Leopold V "the Virtuous", duke of Austria. During the Third Crusade, The Coeur de Lion had insulted the Austrian flag, and, it is said, arranged the murder of Leopold's cousin Conrad of Montferrat. So when The Lionheart, after suffering shipwreck on the way home, was forced to take the land route through Leopold's realm, the latter had him arrested and locked up in Dürnstein's castle. Richard became a pawn in international politics and intrigue (you can read more about that here) but he was eventually released against payment of 100,000 pounds of silver.
Dürnstein these days is a popular stop for Danube river cruise ships that ply the route between Passau and Budapest. On these ships you can be as active as you like as some of the cruise lines offer walks, hikes and bike rides for those interested. I spoke to a guide and she told me some of her guests had cycled into Dürnstein from nearby Spitz, a lovely ride I had enjoyed too, while others were walking up to the castle.
My last day started with a train ride from Krems to Tulln to cover some less interesting countryside. Beyond Tulln lie the Vienna Woods and I took a detour here to take a walk in the forest, which was alive with birdsong.
Soon enough I rode into Vienna and with the help of my maps and app plotted a route to my hotel, riding through as many parks as possible. Again people were out in force enjoying the great weather and their beautiful city. I joined them later on and spent the next three days taking in the sights of Vienna.
My entire trip including side trips covered about 320 kilometres in six cycling days, so on average just over 50 kms a day. Before I started the trip I thought I'd be done cycling in just a few hours a day but as it turned out, with stops for coffee, lunch, sightseeing and walks, I was outside most of the day. And knowing my hotel was waiting for me I never felt compelled to hurry, which meant this trip was a truly relaxing holiday.
The added value in booking this self-guided cycling tour along the Danube as a package with Exodus, rather than doing it yourself, lies in having your hotels and bike prebooked, your luggage transferred, and your bike brought back to the starting point. The route itself was easy enough to follow and I barely consulted my trip notes, although following the route on the app was helpful at times.
Because of the easy going pace and the mostly flat terrain it is also a great trip for anyone who has not done a multi-day cycling trip before. Indeed, I would even recommend this trip to families with active children.
If you want to find out more about this, or any of our other hundreds of self-guided walking and cycling trips, please contact me.