In an inauspicious start to our Danube adventure, roadworks divert us less than 100m from our hotel in Passau. Essie goes apoplectic, demanding an immediate u turn. She finally accepts this won’t happen, re-works the route and tries again. The road she wants to send us down is also closed, as are the next few. We’re as frustrated as she is: the diversion is almost 10km and right through the city centre. Worse, when we get to the other side of the works it’s to find our hotel is slap in the middle of them and the accessible route is from the other side. We’ve gone from quietly congratulating ourselves on an early arrival to seriously pissed off. We unload the car and drag our bags across the rough pavement, hot and sticky, muttering oaths against roadcones and those who use them.
Day 1: Passau to Niederranna an der Donau. 33km.
The next morning we’re ready to leave at 8.30 but the hunt for a handlebar bag to hold the map (the provided one doesn’t fit our bikes) delays us. When we eventually find a bike shop it doesn’t open until 10. It seems early birds living in Passau go hungry.
We’re glad to get out of town and finally on the trail, passing a large dock where half a dozen low ships lie, coaches lined up in homage, hundreds of people around them. These long barge-type vessels will become a familiar sight over the next few days, rumbling past us and disgorging their contents at every tourist hotspot.
At last we are free of the crowds and can enjoy the ride, pausing at a statue of Isa for a couple of photos. Isa is a nixie, a siren, sister to the more well known one at Loreley on the Rhine. I saw Loreley decades ago when I was a teenager and have been fascinated with sirens ever since – I love Waterhouse’s painting.
The romance of the Danube is tempered somewhat by its colour – more weak, milky tea than the Blue of legend and Strauss. As we ride it’s so close to us, lapping at banks only inches from our wheels, half a kilometre wide. It seems sluggish and slow, but it isn’t, small eddies and pools telling of its power and showing why anything on the water moves downstream at a remarkable rate. It is a harnessed river, with many barrages and power stations. We climb the steps up onto the first we pass. Below us in the huge lock, a cruise ship and a barge sit side by side waiting to move upstream. The water level between the up and down locks is remarkable, twenty metres I would guess.
Small ferries cross the river at various points and we catch one for a quick look at the only Trappist monastery in Austria. I baulk at desiccated bodies inside glass coffins (probably some saintly previous residents) and make a quick exit. There’s a small shop selling beer brewed by the monks and, on the basis he’s ‘never tried Trappist beer’, Neil buys a bottle.
The first day being fairly short we arrive at Gasthof Draxler mid-afternoon to a warm welcome and a lovely cool room with a handy veranda to air our gear. It’s right next to the river and we eat dinner watching ships cruise silently by, their lights glowing in the dusk. It’s remarkably peaceful.
Day 2: Niederranna to Linz. 64km (plus a couple more to find the hotel).
After crossing the river Neil decides to climb the hill to get a view of the Schlogen Loop, where the Donau does a U turn around a lump of granite. I cycle on, fearful my legs will give up before the end of the day if I use too much energy now.
The river shines silver in the light of a sun hidden by clouds that thread through the top of hills beside it. The only sounds are the shush of my wheels on the damp path and the idle chatter of a few birds. Water sloshes against the low bank as a ship chugs past. Huge moss and lichen covered rocks line the bank, the path twisting around them, and lone houses and small settlements lie across the water. I take a moment to stop and enjoy it, gazing around me and thinking how lucky I am to have both the physical and the financial ability to have this amazing experience.
Neil finally catches me, having got lost on the path and walking much farther than he needed to. He deserves the Apfelstrudl when we stop for coffee in Aschach. I haven’t expended the energy he has but I eat it anyway. The next few km along the top of the dyke beside are a challenge – it is long and straight with little diversion, we are into the wind and my bum begins to feel the forty km it has already ridden. I gain a new respect for professional cyclists.
The path is diverted as we approach Ottensheim, and we begin to wonder if we are being followed – the Kiwi rowers are in town! I can’t blame them, it’s a lovely little town with a square packed with market stalls. We leave it on a path beside a busy road and although we are on a raised section it’s noisy and unpleasant with heavy traffic – a passing lorry causes so much draught my helmet visor wobbles scarily. Halfway along it starts to rain and we stop to pull on jackets. It feels like forever before we reach Linz and we then have a further couple of kms to the hotel. Hallelujah there’s a bath! I soak my tired muscles before we get a bus into the city to find an early dinner. You know you’ve cycled over 60km when it’s Friday and you’re in bed by 8pm!
Day 3: Linz to Grein. 62km.
… and the rain is still leaking from the clouds. We weren’t foolish enough to expect good weather every day but I’d normally flag a ride in the rain and summoning the enthusiasm to get on the bike in my waterproofs is hard. But the river is amazing, glowing almost white with reflected clouds. A couple of swans glide elegantly away from the bank as we pass and I don’t see them until they move, so camouflaged are they against the water.
We lose the trail in a small village and stop for an early coffee. The owner invites us to sit inside, which is nice as we are literally dripping water as we stand, but we decline and stand and stretch as we drink. The coffee perks me up and we motor through the Machland, almost flat terrain and, frankly, quite boring. Long sections are along dykes, the river shining one side, fields of crops the other. It’s easy cycling but there’s not much to see.
We eat our picnic with a group of English ladies riding Brompton bikes, small-wheeled commuter bikes that Neil says he ‘wouldn’t like to ride this far’. The rain has stopped but it’s chilly and we don’t linger, riding on towards Mittelkirchen in search of more coffee. The flood defences are impressive, high dykes and walls, the road passing through gaps with slots for large gates to slide across. My German is good enough to understand an adjacent display explaining the new defences against unprecedented repeated floods in recent years, pictures of houses flooded almost up to the roof. It’s a sobering reminder of climate change.
A Gasthof with a sign outside cyclists very welcome draws us in. The owner greets us with an enthusiastic handshake, leads us into the kitchen to show us a freshly baked Linzertorte and insists we sit inside, even though we are obviously soaking wet. He comments on the strapping I have on my knee, (which has been niggling for a couple of days so I’m taking care of it) then offers a tube of Voltaren. We’ve met so many kind people on this trip.
The track cuts through more flood defences and fields of maize past its harvest best, new growth of potatoes, then into a wood, the trees a pleasant change from the openness of the flatland. A large sculpture of a leaping fish announces the largest fish ladder in the world, the water in it looking much brighter and fresher than in the main river.
Grein lies under low hills on a bend in the river, a small marina making it very photogenic. The sky is dark and threatening so we don’t linger. The sign for our hotel sends us uphill and Neil pedals off as my legs absolutely refuse. I find his bike outside an archetypical small hotel, the Gasthof zur Traube, and follow him inside. We are warmly welcomed by the owners, who pass their baby between them as they greet us and show us our room. It’s a delightful place, more so when dinner, a grilled whole fish with perfectly cooked vegetables, is one of the best we’ve had in weeks.
To be continued…