Day 4: Grein to Marbach. 31km.
… begins with a ferry crossing, which we share with a couple of Aussies who lived in Wellington for five years. It’s a small world. We have a shorter day today and my legs are glad of it, feeling sluggish and reluctant to work. The flatlands disappear and the hills close in again, rising to cliffs where the river narrows. This is the Studengau, a treacherous passage for early shipping along the river until a canal was dug alongside to avoid the currents. The water is alive, pulsating beneath its smooth surface like muscles under the skin of a predatory animal. It’s easy to see how early watermen would believe in monsters hidden in the deep lying in wait for them.
The nature of the trail means we often see people we’ve seen before, leapfrogging each other. We wave at the English ladies as they pass, and an American couple we’ve seen a few times join us in a coffee stop. There’s a camaraderie between people on the trail, swapping tips on what to see and comparing how sore muscles (and bums!) are. But we’ve seen very few people on proper bikes, the majority on e-bikes. When my legs get tired I envy them.
The trail runs between fields, orange globes of pumpkins scattered amongst wilting leaves, glowing even without candles inside them, and a spread of small yellow flowers on long stalks that I can’t identify. Behind them a warm-stoned church rises, from which we hear music. An oompah band! It makes me laugh that they are playing Glenn Miller tunes and I hum Little Brown Jug as I pedal. A little way farther and the sound of another band playing Sweet Caroline drifts across the river and my humming changes tune.
Towards Marbach a barge carrying rows of transit vans passes us and we race it to the town, which snakes along the riverside in a thin line of buildings. We’re early and a little alarmed that our suitcases aren’t amongst those waiting in the lobby. While we wait we climb the steep hill behind the town to the Maria Taferl, a place of Christian pilgrimage right up there with Lourdes. I’ve never been to the latter but if it’s as tacky and tourist-souvenir-y as this (plastic wing-waving angel, anyone?) I’m not missing much. I flag cycling within the first few hundred metres and push most of the way up the 4km route, reviving myself with ice cream and coffee at the top.
Inside the church a gold bomb has exploded, so much gilt it makes my eyes hurt. But outside the view over the Danube is spectacular, if somewhat truncated by low cloud. Many people, even children, are in dirndls and lederhosen. One shop sells these and I conclude you can’t be poor to wear traditional dress.
Back at the hotel our luggage has, thankfully, arrived, and my worries about how to cope without toiletries and clean underwear (not to mention a fresh application of 3B cream – if my bum hurts now I’ve got no chance without that) are thankfully quashed. We eat dinner with our new American friends, who are a good laugh. It’s our latest night yet and nearly 10pm by the time we return to our room.
Day 5. Marbach to Krems. 51km.
The weather has not been our friend this week and day 5 begins like day 3, with rain throwing in the coldest temperature we’ve had since we left the southern winter. But the wind is our friend, behind us, and we practically fly along the trail, making the 10km to Melk in half an hour. Cruiseships line the river as we arrive, their attendant coaches beside them. The abbey sits high above, pale yellow and gold, imposing and imperious.
We park our bikes and walk up the hill, past crowds milling around. This should have forewarned us but we are inside before we realise our mistake – the place is heaving and it’s almost impossible to squeeze past tour groups that block the way. Worse, the abbey makes Ljubljana castle look traditional. Glass abounds; holographic light shows flicker. One room is covered floor to ceiling in white panels on which lights play as in a disco. I peep behind the panels and can barely make out the whorls and swirls of intricate stonework they are hiding. Another room is completely mirrored, the infinite diminishing versions of me freaking me out and causing me to rush out quickly.
We shuffle into the church for another gilt overload, huge chandeliers hanging from the roof. Signs asking visitors to respect the religious aspect of the buildings and be silent are largely ignored, as is the ‘no indoor photography’ rule. As we exit through the gift shop we cynically note the amount of photo books of the abbey that are for sale. I conclude I am getting old and clearly do not appreciate the modern way of exhibiting an ancient monument.
We cross to the less favoured side of the river as I want to see the site where the Willendorf Venus, the most complete version of a fertility figurine from the Paleolithic period, was found. Disappointingly, the museum is closed, and we have to settle for walking up to the site where a large statue has been erected (the original is only 11cm tall). Standing on the spot where, thousands of years ago, someone dropped or deliberately left a sacred carving I get goosebumps.
Monday is clearly not a good day to be in need of a warm place to stop for lunch. We struggle to find anything open, even kiosks are shuttered and empty. We finally find a restaurant, shrugging off our damp layers amongst people eating fine food and drinking wine. A warming bowl of soup sends us on our way to the origin of many of these wines, vines climbing the hillsides around us and filling the valley bottom alongside the river. We cycle between them, the trail rising and falling more than it has so far. It’s harder on the legs but the change of pace is easier on my bum and a break from regular spinning.
This area is very scenic, castles lurking on clifftops, one described as a ‘romantic ruin’ that is a ‘lovely side trip.’ Romantic or not, unless it comes with a hoist up the hillside it’s not going to happen. It’s hard enough cycling up the short, steep slope into Durmstein, an incredibly picturesque village in the middle of wine country. It’s packed, impossible to cycle through, the main street lined with shops and cafes stuffed with tourists looking rather less dishevelled than we do. We pause to remove raincoats and watch, impressed, as one of the huge barge-boats does a handbrake turn in the river alongside. It’s clearly a practised manoeuvre, the stern swinging around rapidly in the current as the bow stays more or less fixed in one place. It’s also clearly a turnaround spot, two more doing the same as we cycle away between the vines.
In Krems we again get lost as we search for the hotel, although we later discover that Neil’s insistence on following signs for Zentrum has led us away from where we should be so it’s our own fault. The hotel receptionist is exceptionally welcoming and friendly and, whilst our room is small, the shower is wonderful. We join our American friends and stroll through the town looking for dinner, becoming increasingly concerned as we pass closed restaurants. We finally find one open only to discover that the only seats available are in the smoking room. No, you didn’t read that wrong: smoking room. Coming from a city where smoking isn’t allowed in even outdoor seating areas it’s a huge shock that smoking inside is still allowed in some places. We leave, finally finding a pub that serves food and, not surprisingly, is very busy.
Day 6. Krems to Vienna. 82km. (Full disclosure – 40km via train.)
I miss trains, there being not many lines in New Zealand and few opportunities to travel this way. And I’ve never been on a double decker train before. Our seats upstairs give us a good view over the countryside, mainly more vineyards and rolling farmland. At Tulln we join another group in creating a chain to get half a dozen bikes off the train as quickly as possible.
The wind is against us again. How does it happen that the grass whispers of a breeze and a rustle in the trees talks of a light wind, but my body feels like it’s pushing into a Wellington northerly? It’s hard going for my tired legs and, not for the first time, I envy those whizzing past on e-bikes. Thankfully the sun is shining. We stop by a small marina for coffee, pink flowers framing a view of the river. Despite the blue of the sky the river still isn’t, struggling to attain a hint of turquoise where the water lies undisturbed, otherwise grey and colourless. Whoever was behind The Blue Danube was a marketing genius ahead of his time.
Our route into Vienna is hampered by crowds milling around beside large boats, coaches blocking the small road that would be an alternative to the river trail. It’s an unnerving few km before we break out onto a pleasant riverside boulevard, although I’d quite like to get my hands around the neck of whoever thought cobbles were a good idea on a cycle trail. We find our hotel without any issue, my worries that signs for Austria Campus were leading us to studentville unfounded, and we seem to have finally hit paydirt, the hotel new, a large secure park for the bikes, and a large, hot shower for us. We use it quickly and catch the U-bahn (underground train) into the city, finding a bar to toast ourselves and our safe arrival.
Some stats… ones and twos
One tube of 3B cream (indispensable, seriously)
Two glasses of Prosecco (on the last night, as for previous nights…)