Cycling the Danube
64 Part 1 Donaueschingen to Passau
Part 2 Passau to Vienna
Part 3 Vienna to Budapest
The short story
1452 km total cycling
Followed the Danube River from its source in Donaueschingen to Budapest.
38 days total
12 days not cycling in Regensburg, Passau, Vienna, Budapest and a side trip to Berlin.
26 days cycling including about 4 short days and other days between 40 – 80 km per day (mostly 50 – 65km).
Carried our own stuff and planned our own journey with assistance from info from friends and Bikeline guidebooks (Danube Bike Trails 1 – 3)
Stayed in hotels, bed and breakfasts, pensions, zimmer freis – mostly booked on the Internet through Booking.com, Airbnb and TripAdvisor a day or a few days before.
Mostly we had breakfast provided at the accommodation, bought lunch food at supermarkets and shops to have a picnic and went to restaurants for dinner. Used thermoses for tea and coffee supplemented by bakeries and coffee shops.
Only cycled occasionally prior to the trip but did a practice ride with our planned luggage and gear for 40km the week before departure.
Got sore bums, shoulders, wrists etc at the end of long days but not enough to detract from the enjoyment.
Fitted everything in a rear two pannier system each and I also had a front basket.
Took our own bikes from Australia which turned out to be much easier than we thought. Saved a fair bit of money doing this and also had our old faithful bikes. 2 punctures, one gear set service and one head set service on the way – there are lots of repair places. Our mountain bikes were fitted with touring tyres.
List of stuff taken
The bike – bike, spare tube, pump, tyre levers, chain lube, rag, bike tool (Allen keys, spanner set), puncture kit, duct tape wound round pump, small length cord for emergencies, bike lock and key, rear rack and pannier system, two small water bottles, thermos, lightweight head torch and red flashing rear light for limited night/dusk riding, bike computer.
Riding gear – helmet, shoes with cleats (Cath took walking shoes like nearly everyone else on the track), light cap to fit under helmet, sunglasses, lightweight high vis vest
Clothes – padded shorts 2, long sleeve cotton shirts for sun protection 2, merino t shirt, merino long sleeve, light soft shell jacket, rain jacket, rain pants, 2 underwear, cotton t shirt, street shoes, 2 pair light sox, polar tech gloves, big washing up gloves, tights, broad brim hat, travel trousers
Toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste, small soap, moisturiser, nail clippers, small amount toilet paper
First aid kit – bandages, sports tape, band aids, dressings, personal meds, antibiotics, betadine etc
Catering – sharp knife, spork, small plastic plate, cup, zip lock bags
Admin – universal adaptor plug, double adaptor, charging cords, mobile phone, iPad mini, go pro camera, notebook, pens, German phrase book, Bikeline guidebooks 3, cash, debit/credit card, passport, glasses (all accommodation had free wifi)
Other – lightweight dry bags, small lightweight day pack, sunscreen
Notes – I didn’t use the rain pants, long sleeve merino, tights, polar tech gloves, wash up gloves or the second pair of bike shorts as we had hot weather nearly all the time and very little rain. We could hand wash riding clothes on arrival at accommodation and it was dry the next morning. I would recommend bringing the warm and wet weather gear. Cath made do without the softshell. We carried some food with us from day to day. The front basket was very convenient but did affect steering when loaded. Schwalb marathon tyres are great. I would recommend a side stand for the bike – everybody else had one. Lots of people in the latter sections were having their luggage delivered to hotels each day as part of commercial tours with hired touring bikes and also e bikes.
Trying to prepurchase a train ticket for our bikes from Zurich to the source of the Danube at Donaueschingen (in Germany the river is called the Donau) was impossible from Australia. This was a key logistic in bringing our own bikes from Australia. All had gone smoothly from packing them down into cardboard bike boxes, taking them in the day prior to travel to the bus station because we couldn’t book a big enough taxi, having them accepted as part of our luggage by Cathay Pacific, picking them up undamaged at Zurich after two fights, taking them through the airport on a luggage trolley and then to the train ticket office. Everything hinged on being able to carry them on the train. Sometimes in travel you just have to go with the flow. Our train, and every other one we have seen since had a whole section on each of several of the carriages devoted to bike carriage. Yay. Bikes were everywhere, part of the culture, mainstream, not just the pursuit of super fit MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra) and MAWILS.
After 36 hours of continuous travel – taxi, bus, two flights, two trains – Donaueschingen station provided everything we needed to reassemble the bikes, a covered area and a big bin for the cardboard. Coffee and a lunch roll at a bakerei, wander through the delightful small town, history, Furstenburg (730 years of brewing beer – no sign of hipster craft beers here), tinker some more with the bikes at the small hotel, have fun dredging up my schoolboy German. Ready for 1500 km to Budapest.
Part 1 – Cycling the Danube – Donaueschingen to Passau
Setting out on a 35 day journey involving one of the classic modes of self-propelled travel felt marvelous. We rode through a wide valley, fields of rich well-watered greens, hillsides of darker forest. Rowed potatoes grew between acres of sunflower pastures that were profusions of colours with sprays of other red, blue, white, pink flowers.
From Donaueschingen to Neudingen, past Gutradingen on the other side of the river. On to Geisingen and through the small village of Hintschingen. Several other couples and groups of touring cyclists passed in both directions. Immendingen and then stunning Mohringen with its coloured houses – green, white, blue, pink with accents of black, gold, white and red, cobbled streets, flower boxes of high artful schemes of colour cascading from window ledges. A gravel path led us through a section of the Black Forest. Tuttlingen, the place of the Tuttl people in the long ago past, was larger. A ruined castle on the high hilltop. Cath Rapunzled near a gabled tower. The area was the scene of a great battle in the 30 Years War. Now the town is a world centre for manufacture of medical technology. BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and Renaults cruised the streets outside the market square.
An easy intro day sorting out the finer points of the trip – coffee in the thermos, lunch rolls made at breakfast, locating toilets, waterproofing gear, where to put the passport, getting the bum to make friends with the saddle. 38 km.
Hills and Bells
Another couple of ingens (Nendingen, Fridingen) passed before we climbed away from the river into a small village on a higher terrace. As we cycled along a lane lined with coloured window boxes spilling downwards from ancient houses the spired town clock rang out and led into cascading church chimes. Later again as we passed slowly by a medieval house church bells sounded a timely welcome.
The valley sides steepened and pressed in. Habitation became sparser. White and grey limestone crags towered above our gravel trail which wound beside the river. Through lush forest. Light showers of rain then sunshine. Several times as we photoed and rested we came upon a pair of runners. In a mix of broken English and German they told me of their training for the Berlin Marathon.
At Bueron we left our panniers at the hotel then hill climbed for 5 km away from the valley. Wildenstein Castle looked both impregnable and magical with two moats and built on twin rock outcrops. It had withstood Europe’s darkest periods since 1076.
48 km Top speed downhill 50 kph. 300m hill climb climb Total 86 km
Venison and spinach with wild mushroom cheese sauce MMMMM.
Dark knights and princes
Away from the Benedictine abbey town of Beuron the river narrowed again. Tall limestone pinnacles, towers and cliff faces thrust out of forest. One section was reputed to be an “Eldorado fur kletterers” (climbers). Grassy meadows nestled in the occasional flatter section. Small castles perched precariously on rock outcrops. Robin Hood and Hansel and Gretel could have been glimpsed in the dappled green glens.
A dark knight stood tall, exuded a subtle menace on the other side of the road outside the supermarket. The young man dressed in black, smoked heavily. Piercings on his face and sharp studs on his eyebrows and lips. Tattooed arms. Chatting to his mate they periodically broke into quiet song together in time with the heavy metal music thumping from a small rechargeable boom box in the centre of his handlebars. His mudguards were lined with small sharp points. Studded brown leather hand guards added the only relief from black and silver. Small mirrors were grasped aloft by metal scythe like fingers. Thick chunky tyres. Like an antihero in a Ramstein music video I expected him to don a medieval metal armoured helmet before he pedalled off.
Visible from anywhere in the town of Singmaringin is the Schloss (castle). It is a magical structure of battlements, ramparts, arches and all the trappings belonging in fairy tales. Here the structure is real. The modern day prince still lives in his private palace adjoining. I shook my head in wonderment that we could drink coffee under a tower that reached skyward above and into my imagination of the stories of princesses, battles, allegiances, serfdom, of feasts and famines and sieges. Like Disneyland’s “tall tales and true from the legendary past”.
48 km. Rear end not so sore today. There was a steady stream of cyclists throughout the day, nearly all German we surmised. Mostly the locals seem civil and all say “Guten Morgen” as they pass but they don’t appear particularly friendly – a little dour perhaps so far. One young couple pulled a home-made wooden cart with wheelbarrow wheels and a shade frame that looked like a small coracle on wheels. Inside was a baby and some of their gear. Many oldies, tubbies and lazies (we looked down our noses at them!) were on electric bikes that cruised past and did the hills easily. Even small inclines brought us into the lowest gears with our luggage on board. My shoulders ached and Cath’s legs felt heavy from the previous day’s optional hill climb.
Long day on the saddle
66 km. 8.45am – 5.15pm. Further than we’d ever ridden in one day, with luggage, to get to our prebooked accommodation. 30+ degree heat. German summer had arrived late. We drank lots.
A detour up onto the plateau required a walk pushing the heavy bikes past wild apple trees. Over gently rolling country trucks passed by. The traffic, when we were on the roads, was very bike aware and courteous. One large truck followed us very patiently up a steep winding hill without pushing to overtake. A large scale open air museum exhibited evidence and a partial recreation of an Iron Age (500 BC) village – the most significant site of its type in Europe. Adjacent to the Danube the archeologists had found items from all over Europe and beyond. These Celts had built an outstanding civilisation in a place surrounded by tilled fields and wild forests, in a commanding position with views out to the distant snow-capped alps on the southern horizon.
Down on the fairly flat lands we cycled through many more fields of corn. This is used in the production of biofuels and is by far the most common and extensive cropping of the rich fertile soils of the floodplain. Villages and towns each with an amazing church and half timbered houses. Every single one of them could be world heritage listed.
Mid afternoon, and still with a long way to go, we began losing it with each other. Hot, tired, sore, too many uphills. Should have carried some extra food. A welcome village disappointingly only has a beer garden. …………………………….. Then we rounded a corner in the next village to find a bakerei! Kaffee, tea, cheesecake and a pastry called “plunder” made me feel like a jocular pirate. Good cheer restored we pushed on again. Finally we reached Mengen where on the outskirts Cath noticed what could have been our first refugee establishment, groups of Arab looking kids playing in an open yard in a low cost housing area. At our guesthouse “Rose” we had the medieval loft 3 narrow flights of stairs up with small windows onto the roofscape of the old town. We collapsed on the bed, then later showered, washed our cycling clothes and slowly resurfaced.
200km total for the trek. The trail had become more heavily used and with more facilities such as rest places and even a cycle oasis with a drinking water fountain at the top of a steep rise.
On an alternative side trip route for the day we made our way beside the Blau River which was a tributary to our Danube. Small limestone crags reappeared which rose out of the thick forest at the edge of the valley. A closed off cave entrance with prehistoric archaeological heritage stimulated visions of cavemen with spears fighting off wooly mammoths. Crystal clear water flowed out of the “Blue Pool”. In a hollow in the hillside the depths of the water and the geology made the water a deep blue. Green water weeds lined the sides of the pool and tall beech trees glowed an iridescent green in contrast. At one side stood an ancient waterwheel and beyond that a rich church and abbey. I wondered at the number of religious shrines that underlay the church of modern (the last 1000 years) times. Often pagans of the past placed great value in natural springs and built shrines in the grottos. These became places of worship as successive peoples took over the regions through millennia and finally fell into Christian hands. The place did have an underlying beauty and life giving atmosphere. Apparently the pool is one of two entrances to a vast underground cave system that remains not fully explored due to the extensive cave diving necessary to access the inner most catacombs.
In Ulm, our first large city, we woke to the carolling bells of the cathedral. It’s spire of laced stonework is the tallest in the world – 161 m.
47km. Top speed 52 kph (it’s fun to be a hoon) One puncture repair on Cath’s bike first thing in the morning. 30 degrees – the summer heat continued.
The rich soil of the flood plain and hinterland all seemed to be covered in corn fields. Very occasionally we spied out a tiny potato patch and some private strips of land with apple trees. The corn is fed into biogas collectors each day. The decomposition produces methane which is converted to heat which then generates electricity. Apparently this biogas is heavily subsidised as a move towards sustainable energy. Angela Merkel wants to phase out the country’s 17 nuclear reactors in the early 2020s. As we cycled past the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant I wondered about how long all this prime agricultural land can keep producing a mono crop without running out of nutrients. And I wondered about what the farmers are doing now – did they sell out to the biogas producers? And what of food sustainability?
We got out the thermos and had tea, jam rolls and bananas at the Autobahnsee (large pond near the big highway).
Aspects of the Germanic psyche slowly surfaced. The general dourness was sometimes broken by a more friendly face, a smiling hello and a willingness to chatterbox. The set of many of the faces of the German cyclists is one of life being lived under some duress. Is there perhaps an inter-generational inheritance of guilt about the wars and also the difficulties of reparations after each one. I noticed that the animated conversation appeared to be proportional to the amount of beer consumed. Nearly every night we were woken by late night revelers who made no efforts to dampen their volume to lessen their impact on the rest of the community who were long in bed. And many young people made statements driving by with bass pumping the atmosphere from their car stereos. These things were noticeable because they were outside what I sensed might be the general demeanor of the populace.
Every town we passed through had its historic central area, arched entries built in the 10th century, clock towers from the 14th etc. Tucked away in a modern suburb near this town were the ruins of a roman temple.
59 km. 312 overall. Day 6 of the cycle tour. The heat continued – mid 30s. Overnight at Dillingen, Cath had more pork and I went vego.
Field after field after field of corn began to grow tiresome. A few wind turbines appeared. There is a surprising lack of public toilets on this internationally renowned cycling route. We learned that in the larger towns the Rathaus (town hall/admin building) usually had a WC. Otherwise it was essential to make use of the regular sections of forest along the way.
After 37 km we called a rest afternoon in a town of amazing history that had been completely rebuilt and restored after a total hammering by bombers in WW2. On the outskirts of town was the Airbus helicopter factory which I supposed was built on the site of an aircraft factory operational during the war and was perhaps the reason for the heavy bombing.
Go the Catholics! At the cathedral next to the abbey every section was covered with frescos or enclosed alters and sculptures covered in gold. Wealth oozed from the place and overwhelmed. One side altar contained a full skeleton of a saint on show behind a glass partition who wore a gold crown. At the other end under the massive choir stall and huge organ pipes was the grave of a woman who had been beheaded by her husband count who knew she was innocent of whatever she was accused of, in the 1200s!
Umleitung (detour) through the forest
A farmer passing in a tractor gesticulated wildly in a direction different to the flat short way round the river to the next town. At the next intersection the signs had been altered and directed us gently uphill, then steeper and steeper until finally we had to walk. Pushing the heavily loaded bikes uphill was hard work. Into a forest on a gravel track. Already tired from the heat, another day over 30 degrees. Everyone hates electric bikes – two cruised past up the steepest section. Light through verdant green foliage. Blessed shade. Up and up. Eventually it flattened out and we were able to mount up again. Several kilometres extra.
We called it quits again at lunchtime after 40 kilometres. We were actually doing pretty well considering the heat. It was like cycle touring in Aussie summer. A palace, a delightful marketplace, another hugely ornate cathedral, frescos of great antiquity.
394 km overall. On a long downhill all I can manage is 50 kph.
Out of commission
Another seriously hot day was forecast so we had arranged a short day – 37km (in the guidebook). We pedaled in the morning cool into forest and farm land. A few crops of spuds and cauliflower offered a little variation and even a tractor driven by a young woman. A superb hunting palace stood grandly in a large field in the woods with an imposing gateway and pepper pot towers on each corner. It was all closed up unfortunately.
We sojourned in Ingolstadt, a delightful town of very old buildings with coloured front facades. Dramatic munsters (cathedrals) and a large Rathaus, a large castle that held the Bavarian army museum. Ice cream parlours were packed. For several slow hours we relaxed, ate lunch and cruised around the cobbled streets linking up patches of shade.
Late in the afternoon we continued along the side of the Danube. Sometimes on the dyke that held back the water in the locks, sometimes through the shady, cooler forest. Near our destination was a massive power plant. It was an enormous installation of buildings, towering chimneys and pipes feeding from the river. It was a gas and oil plant built in 2007 to supply peak load power – 400,000 euros – and then decommissioned in 20016 as it became uneconomic to run in the face of the government’s push towards renewables. It seemed like a huge waste of resources and a memorial to rapid change. Our guesthouse, in a small and incredibly historic town nearby, was newly renovated, probably to cater for all the workers at the power plant.
Actual distance 48 km.
Hop bushes twined tall in fields of rows. Groups of men in old wooden sheds raked over the foliage. Then at Weltenburg Abbey hordes of tourists sat in the huge Biergarten in the Abbey square and ate and drank the famous beer brewed by the monks. On the side of the square a church appeared only middle sized and a little plain on the outside. However on the inside it was plastered with frescos, gilt, sculptures and a large statue of St George slaying the dragon and rescuing some princess. The wealth was palpable and overpowering. The Abbey was situated on a bend of the river.
Below the Abbey the river narrowed and gained momentum. It wound through wonderful forest, swirled past tall limestone cliffs. This was one of the most significant nature reserves on the length of the river and reputed to be one of the most beautiful. We boated the 6 km gorge downstream.
40 km cycling and 6 km in the boat. My bum sore has improved and Cath’s allergy/sunburn on her thighs began settling down. We rode in heavy rain for the first time which was a welcome break from the heat. Luggage stayed dry. All of Cath’s ALDI gear was working a treat – merino top, panniers, helmet, sox, cycling shorts.
Regensburg – city of churches
40km. In a cool green park with a man-made stream we celebrated 500 km with a cuppa. It felt like quite an achievement for us who had not done more than a day’s cycling of up to 45 km prior to the trip. Now we had peeled off 11 days in a row, some shorter than planned due to the hot weather, but still with a fairly good effort each day. The cycling had been varied with navigation, gravel, cobble stones, small roads, a couple of busy roads and lots of paved cycle path.
We found our Airbnb apartment, a small room in a medieval building in the old town, low door, bathroom in a small dungeon, quiet and cool. With a purple feature wall, purple curtains and white bed head, romantic. Perfect for a two night stay with a rest day. Bliss to go to the supermarket and buy lots of salad and fruit and fresh food we could prepare ourselves. A sleep in and time to plan out some logistics for a break in Berlin while Cath does a course took up a morning.
I found out that Regensburg had not been badly damaged in the war. There was one big bombing campaign to wipe out a Messerschmitt fighter plane factory but the city had escaped the worst. The whole old town had been UNESCO heritage listed. There is practically a thousand year old church on every corner, narrow lanes lead to open squares. Our first experience with non-German tourists consisted of groups of aged Americans and younger Asians tailing flag waving guides. Cycle tourists like us wove in between the walking crowds and umbrellaed drinkers in open air cafes. The occasional car and motorbike tried to get through but mainly the place was pleasantly dominated by pedestrians. A lavish palace of centuries antiquity was built by a family who invented the postal service from the 1500s and later were granted princehoods. The palace was still lived in by the descended current prince and princess who have entertained Mick Jagger, Elton John, Charles and Lady Di just as in the old days the renowned artists and aristocracy would have been guests. I guess the modern equivalent would be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – do they have places I wondered?
Feel like a cyclist
The rest day did wonders. Legs felt fresh. In cool weather we cruised across the country. Fields. Beside the river dyke. Past small villages and palaces. Lots of churches. Just enjoyed the motion and changing landscape. I had a soundtrack of German popular music and played it on my phone. It gave a rhythm to our pumping legs.
Early afternoon, as the heat built, we rode into Staubing for a break. Just when you start to think you might’ve seen all the small German towns you need to see a magical new place unfolds. The Main Street was shut to cars and was buzzing with people. Rowed on each side were variously coloured facaded buildings and a huge town clock tower stood as the centre piece proudly crowned with four green turrets. The tower had been celebrated a few days prior in a big festival for its 700th birthday and wore a big pink ribbon and bow.
On our end of day stretch Rammstein heavy metal boomed from my phone at full volume. 80 km for the day. Felt pretty straight forward.
Up till this point our accommodation had been in hotels, guest houses and pensions, which were like small guest houses. As we had wanted to push out the distance and didn’t quite know where we would get to we didn’t prebook. In a small village at the end of our day we happened on a zimmer frei, a room for rent, in a private house. This one was full of local workers but the proprietor took us to another further into the village. The room and place were excellent and I had fun communicating in my limited but expanding German. Normally for dinner you wander down to the local biergarten but the only one nearby was closed. The man who ran the house took us to another biergarten in his car. A small mercedes with plush black leather seats. As he drove we talked brokenly about mercedes, diesels and car prices in a few shared words and gestures. He sped up and seemed to get a little excited when I noticed the manual overdrive on his automatic transmission. At too high a speed he nearly ran off the road. The car was very fast and capable but the roads were narrow and winding through corn fields. Like James Bond he powered us on to dinner. Maybe it was the two weeks on bikes that made us grip the seats.
At dinner our “mein host” was a jolly pirate of a fellow who had lived at the guesthouse with biergarten all his life. Deep fried schnitzel and chips was the only thing on the menu. Ugh more Bavarian food. When we questioned mein host about the tall poles hung with cultural symbols instead of explaining them as a type of living maypole which we found out later he demonstrated his coloured light system that hung from the pole which he lit up like his own “Las Vegas” to direct people to his place after dark. We chatted with a Dutch cyclist about cycling, our home countries and Germany. His take was that very few people in Germany spoke English, contrary to many other countries.
The ride home was another hair raising drive.
I contemplated later the lack of German people who spoke English in our experience and the very small number of people from Australia who we knew that had travelled to Germany. Both of our fathers had fought in WW2. It was the parents of the people we met and our parents’ generation who had suffered that terrible war. My childhood was filled with movies and TV stories about fighting the bad guy nazis – Dam Busters, Battle of Brittain and Hogan’s Heroes. Maybe it was all still too close. I had heard that up until at least 15 years ago German kids did not even learn about the war in school history. I wondered whether Angela Merkl’s open door to refugees from Syria was an unconscious atonement for the country’s previous nazi history.
Stage 1 complete!
Country lanes, a few busy roads, paved cycle paths, gravel tracks on the top of the river dyke. Sightings or our first luxury cruise boats and also industrial barges using the river. We crossed an autobahn on a narrow bridge that shook and vibrated as cars, motorcycles and trucks sped endlessly underneath in a noise assault. While filming the strong current in the Danube My iPhone fell in the water. Ouch.
After an expected 60 km straightforward day from the guidebook stretched out to 75 and the afternoon heat built up we finally crossed over the lock system and rolled into Passau. 685km and stage 1 completed felt terrific. Yay! The journey, our bikes and gear, our bodies and our togetherness had been rolling along really well. Gasthaus Golden Sonne had building antiquity from 600 AD and had been taking in guests for 800 years. Our room was a small cell on the second floor. Comfortable, cosy, well appointed, cheap and medieval. Passau was a town on the confluence of three rivers full of narrow lanes and wonderful buildings. Last year, in 2015, at this time 2000 Syrian refugees had swelled its streets every day. There was no sign of this influx observable to us.
The city where three rivers join together into the Danube, Inn and Ils. Saturn, the mobile phone shop in a mall, sent us off to Funky Land, who passed us on to Krystl Quik. The phone’s innards showed no sign of water or corrosion and fired up properly. Fingers crossed.
The cathedral boasts the biggest organ in the world – five interlinked seperate organs in different parts of the enormous church with over 2000 pipes. In the half hour concert Bach belted out then two other composer’s pieces filled the space and our hearts with the tenderest melodies and drama filled crescendos. It seemed to me one rare time when the place, the music, the architecture, the sculpture and the art all came together in a coherent meaningful whole. All the other churches we had seen paled into insignificant self-agrandisement and over the top rococo wealth. Even this one was lined outside with “indulgences” (stone memorials) that were paid for by rich people centuries ago to have their bodies buried within the church and secure themselves a place in heaven.
The day was a welcome break from cycling. On climbing up flights of stairs to the castle that perched high above the city we both found our legs still packed full of lactic acid which made them feel like lead.