Island hopping the Seto Sea by cycle – Six Bridges
Onomichi to Imabari
A 2 day cycle (for us) across amazing bridges and islands in the Seto Sea. An 80 km ride along the most direct route where many interesting side trips could be made through, across and around the islands to make a cycle journey of greater length and possible challenge. Well signposted, good maps at the tourist info offices and bike hire easy to organize.
Onomichi – A Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto to Fukuyama then a local train to Onomichi. Both trains are JR (Japan Rail) lines. Tickets were purchased in Kyoto Station at the “Foreigners” (English speaking) counter – easy and helpful. The “bullet” was like a ground level airplane. Lots of trains would be available from Osaka, Shin Osaka, Hiroshima and Kansai Airport.
Imabari – also serviced by train to Fukuyama then to Osaka or to Hiroshima.
At the exit to the station at Onomichi is a small Tourist Info booth where we were directed to the Green Hotel. The Green Hotel is 150 m from the station on the waterfront. Inside the Hotel foyer we arranged luggage transfer which unexpectedly was not available to our booked accommodation half way along the route (we sent it to accommodation in Imabari at the end of the route). We packed a few items in day packs for the ride and hired bikes with front baskets to carry them. Bike hire was done in a stall in the carpark next door. General purpose bikes with 5 gears proved ok. There are plenty of bike stations along the way so worries of not carrying spare tubes and a few tools were dismissed. Maps were available in the Hotel area.A small ferry took us across to the first island nearby where we started cycling. The start of the route was a little tricky to find but there were other cyclists to follow. The main route is marked on the road with blue signs pointing the way. Much of the first day to Setoda was on back roads with little traffic and dedicated cycle trails. Highlights were riding across the long suspension bridges that connect the islands – on cycle paths a level below the car roadway or on paths separated from the traffic. Rural land, forest, beaches, industry, shipyards, villages. Convenience stores appeared regularly with shaded areas especially for cyclists. Traffic seemed to be very cycle aware and courteous. A range of people were on the ride – lycra clad racers, mountain bikers, kids, tourists on hired rattlers, hybrids, road bikes and a few tandems. No tourers with lots of gear. Being 80km long I guess many would complete the ride in a day, do an out and back or stay half way like us with minimal gear.
In all directions the Seto Sea was jade green. Steep forested islands painted themselves into this iconic Japanese landscape. Haze added an otherworldly atmosphere to the scenes.
At Ryokan Suminoe in Setoda we stumbled into old Japan. Refined and welcoming hospitality. No words of English. Paper sliding wall panel shutters. Our room overlooked a lush garden. Tatami floors. Bath with a view into the garden. Sunset over the sea. Worn wooden floors. Individual room for dining. 7 course dinner with much seafood. Breakfast of fish, rice, miso soup and coffee. A little anxious about wearing the correct slippers.
30 km from Onomichi to Setoda on Day 1.
Another hot day. Terrific riding most of the way. Spectacular bridges that included the longest – 4.7 km. Views from high bridge vantage points of the islands and the sea. Uphills to access the bridges were long and slow but steady at well graded 3% angles but the downs were fast and easy. Navigation was straightforward right into Imabari following the blue line on the side of the road and the regular signs. “Cyclist sanctuaries” popped up just when needed for toilets, food, drinks and shady rest breaks. Much of this part of the ride route hugged the shore line with a dedicated cycle lane mostly and sometimes quiet roads. Strong tidal currents swirled the water round the ends of islands. A steady stream of ships plied the open sea ways. Villages, small towns, forest, orange and mandarin orchards, shipping industry. Cycling the spectacular bridges was unusual and very enjoyable. Each was a different engineering feat. The infrastructure and setup for cyclists was excellent. The bikes made the trip with no hassles. At Imabari a “Giant” shop right beside the station hired out smarter bikes for the more discerning cyclist.
The whole cycle trip can be extended beyond the standard 80 km by taking on some of the more challenging routes identified or taking the extra optional sections out and around the more isolated parts of most of the islands. Cycle touring is a wonderful way to tourist a place – active, at your own pace, one of those iconic self-propelled ways to travel. You interact with the place and the people in a quiet, gentle way.
Imabari – Cyclo No Ie – small funky youth hostel style accom right near station, terrific hospitality, book ahead as its popular and cheap. Fab yakatori restaurants nearby. Trains out to Hiroshima, Osaka and beyond.
After a section through forest the end of the old “Western World” could be picked out by a few hundred meters of road sided by some old, unused buildings – no man’s land. There were no border controls at all, just a small police car, a 24hr gambling place on the Hungary side and an old derelict building sprouting grass. I wondered what it was like living under communist rule. A little further on was an outdoor border museum with trenches, gun placements, concrete sheds and antitank constructions next to a line of barren land.
The Old Town was not that well preserved but was thronging with tourists.
Police were everywhere in the ritzy part of town for a meeting of the EU on security.
The river current was pumping.
During the day we bumped into the NZ couple again.
Our booked accommodation on web turned out to be a horse riding club on the very outskirts of a small town, with brand new facilities next to a sheep shed with a thatched roof.
It turned out that Hungary has quite a strong economy – manufacturing electronics and cars and agriculture. The well to do would come out to the horse klub for weekends of riding and training.
65 km. The total ticked over 1200km
A short day was necessary to juggle accommodation on the route. Some sections have no accommodation so we had to do either longer or shorter days.
Thermal pools provided delicious soothing to muscles that had been working. Trying to work out the etiquette of where to change and how to operate the security arrangements with extremely grumpy staff was not easy or intuitive.
In the delightful Old Town a street musician sang and played piano accordion, serenading lunchers with traditional tunes and love songs.
Further east we cycled beside the massive Audi factory, the biggest engine factory in Europe. A train nearby was packed with hundreds of freshly wrapped new cars awaiting delivery. A section of busy roads was full of scary fast cars and big trucks.
At the edge of a small town we headed into several kilometers of muddy, dirt roads that twisted through thick forest. Later a deer was spooked which leapt out of the scrub at the side of the track, heavily antlered, then galloped across corn stubble to leap over grass and disappear.
Kumaron seemed very East European – drab blocks of flats, poor houses and a bit run down but with a large new factory.
Our small hotel oozed with old communist world charm with a reception host straight out of the Adams Family. He was a little overweight, pasty faced with straight slicked hair. He spoke incredibly formal English with a deep Russian accent. We could have been in the heart of Transylvania.
A day in Slovakia
Over the bridge into Slovakia, Komarno was a ship building industrial town.
We followed the riverside dyke with the Danube on the right and green fields and small villages on the left. Often the land was at a lower level to the water in the river that was held in by the dykes. This was tough cycling – no bakeries or coffee shops! – small coop grocery shops and the occasional fruit stall.
A tower in a park gave a fine view of the sweep of the river. By now it was hundreds of meters across. A little further on a long narrow pebble beach stretched round a bend.
We took a deep gravel path for 5.5 km as an alternative to being on a busy road. This was hard going.
A later section had us back on busy roads with trucks. We found these roads nerve wracking. This was why we had not done much cycle touring in Australia. I had once done cpr on a cyclist near Canberra who had been struck by a car and later died. Mostly the route only included the occasional foray onto quiet country roads.
From Sturovo on the river bank we had a wonderful view across the Danube to the Basilica, the castle and the old town of Esztergom.
The bridge that led us back across the river into Hungary had been destroyed in WW2 and had not been rebuilt until 2001 with input money from the EU. The two towns had been separated by the river for 56 years.
We had a stunning world fusion dinner in a small new restaurant in a very down beat part of town with 4 American cyclists. Ah the treasures of the unexpected in travel!
With the peloton through Slovakia
The day started with Cath bumping into a very old friend who was cruising up the river from Budapest.
On the way to our first ferry across the river we met our America acquaintances again then joined poms, New Zealanders, a Mt Isa crew and a host of others as we waited for 20 minutes for the barge to come over.
On landing we took off in the middle of the peloton heading east. Soon the Mt Isa crew sidetracked while the yanks searched for a WC. We were distracted by the thermos and morning tea in the forest so the peloton dispersed only to meet up and reconfigure from internationals as the day progressed.
Forest trails, busy roads, delightful towns, riverside parks, floodplain meadows. There was great variety around the famous Big Bend in the river. Cycling surfaces alternated from the best to the worst.
Then another ferry back into Hungary. A couple of mean looking motorcyclists looking very wild and Germanic sat astride an old BMW. I asked if they wanted to swap bikes with us to be answered in deep Aussie drawl that they might think about it for the downhills only. I asked where his Triumph was (he wore a Triumph jacket) to which he replied that it was back in the garage at home in Australia. Looks are deceiving. He wished us a good journey with a big grin as he tootled past.
More busy nerve wracking road sides and forest cycle paths by the river led to Szentendre.
64km (seems like 63 and 64 have become our lucky daily numbers)
A sleep in and a short day.
We rode slowly to savor our last day on the bikes
Twisting dirt tracks in the forest, rough paved paths, complex linking back roads, beautiful smooth bike paths through deciduous trees past coffee and food stands – accompanied always by the strongly flowing river that had widened to about 250 meters across.
I felt sad to be finishing. The routine of getting up, having breakfast, packing the panniers and spending the rest of each day pedaling through the countryside, villages and towns, mingling with the locals and making friends with other cyclists from around the world had become our world. Simple, journey, ever changing, active, fun.
As we reached the series of bridges across “our” Danube our eyes spread with our grins. At every turn was a magical building in the distance or a stunning scene. The Parliament building like a Disney castle, tall steeples and high domes, turrets and cupolas, coloured mosaic tiled roofs. Budapest is a beautiful city full of liveliness and atmosphere.
On the famous chain bridge, over the strongest current in the middle of the river we photoed and videoed as it slowly sunk in that that we had finished, made it, reached the conclusion of our journey. We had pedaled across half of Europe, from the western world into the east.
We had immersed ourselves in the lanscapes, cultures and rich histories of the countries. The Danube had guided us on a journey deep into our own personal past and helped us confront our own cultural outlook.
The exit from the city was spectacular. Along the cobbled street down to the strongly flowing Inn River then along its bank, through a pepper pot watch tower to the point at which the three rivers met. The flooding Inn water was dirty brown with silt from the Austrian highlands. It was a stark contrast to the deep green of the Danube. Spires, steeples and clock towers rose behind us as we pedaled across a suspension bridge to the north bank. A long luxury tour boat slowly pushed upstream against the current. The old castle brooded in mist on the steep hill above.
Our cycle path ran between the river and the road. This section between Passau and Vienna is reputed to be the most popular cycle route in Europe and therefore probably the world. It was a Sunday, the end of the local’s holidays, and beautiful weather, but we were still surprised by the numbers on the trail with us. Race trainers sped past. E bikers floated by with enviably little effort. Touring groups came as individuals, couples, pairs and groups, young and old and all between. Day trippers from Passau had the pleasure of cycling out for a distance, luncheoning in a biergarten, crossing the river on a small ferry and then returning on the other side. The valley was deeper in this area. Forested slopes rose steeply on both sides.
45 km took us to our pre-booked gasthaus on the bank of the river. From our cool balcony above the hanging purple and pink geraniums we watched the world go by. Sleek tour boats, speedboats, an occasional long barge, puttering small ferries, water skiers, two sea kayakers, long timber craft of the locals and the stream of riders.
720 km marked the half way point of our whole cycle trip. This differed to the guidebook by about 100 km which was made up of extras we had done along the way. Bodies, bikes, interest, accommodation, weather, budget. Most aspects of the trip were going well. Except for the endless schnitzels and fries and identical salads.
Late in the night the room turned into a mosquito nightmare. Shut the windows and the heat built up. Head under the sheet, sweat runs down. Lights on we hunted them down one by one three times in the night before we could sleep relaxed.
City of young people
Rain overnight and somber clouds lent a clean softness to the river and the valley. Again the forested steeps rose on both sides. White swans in groups groomed and stately stroked the grey green water which reflected in its stillness. Small villages were passed on both sides but mostly we were alone with the river, the forest and the path.
In the afternoon rain pelted down as we coffeed in a backerei. Further along one group sheltered under a large sheet of plastic while nearby another group sheltered under the narrow eve of a covered Jesu shrine – ah the usefulness of religion.
Approaching Linz the bike path adjoined the edge of a highway for a fair distance. Traffic noise from the speeding cars and trucks assaulted our senses. Cath became a little shell shocked. As we picked our way through the trams and people throngs to our city hotel I was struck by the number of young people. Up until this point our journey had been mostly through small villages and in the “old town” sections of small Bavarian cities which probably had an over representation of older folk. This city seemed refreshingly young and vibrant in contrast. Unfortunately we’d miss the electronic arts festival with our side trip to Berlin for a few days for Cath to do a course for work.
65km for the day. 785km total.
Berlin (side trip)
Bassy music thrummed across Alexanderplatz as we exited the subway. A gentle buzz of people walking, sitting, chatting, hanging out, “chilling” through the late afternoon. Almost like a side stage to the main show of people round the huge, fountained, public square. No crowds of men in suits and women office attired hurrying home from work here. Warm in the sun. Heavily dreadlocked, tattooed, jewelled. The band of young men played out. A type of electronica folk with a deep, driving beat. Acoustic guitar, flute, singer/rapper/speaker and a guy playing a plastic ceramic didgeridoo shaped like some Celtic sea horse. Like the crowd I was captivated. The synthesised sound washed off the buildings. Amplified. Everyone was there, a couple of hundred had been drawn to the tunes and the spectacle. Mid song the voice went into a pitch about the illegality of what they were doing and what we as audience were doing as participant spectators in breaking the law against recreational noise in public places. It was music and entertainment he exhorted us to acknowledge and appreciate, not noise. The crowd cheered him on.
My filming was foregrounded by an older women in a burqa with her son. New Berlin, and Germany itself maybe following on behind, was showing itself to the world right there in “Alex”. The place that had been named after an emperor of Russia, was a major commercial centre and the heart of Berlin’s night life in the twenties, then separated into East Berlin during the Cold War before the climactic largest demonstration in East Germany during the “peaceful revolution” that precipitated the fall of The Wall in 1989. And the world watched on fascinated and interested. People of all colours
and persuasions, a real multikultur. I wondered about the softly approach of the authorities that let this music happen. Young people openly challenging the establishment. The government of the country trying to be good in the world, opening its borders to the Syrian refugees, closing its nuclear power stations and striving for renewables – we had cycled past a thousand biogas cornfields.
Earlier in the day we had walked across the now barren ground where between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime headquarters that housed the Gestapo and the SS had stood. Alongside a permanent exhibition outlines clearly the terrible impact on people and the world of WW2 Germany. Immediately following the war the Germans were traumatised, having been both perpetrators and victims. Unable to talk about their experiences they launched themselves into the economic miracle of post war Germany. In the 60’s, as more details of the holocaust became public through war crimes trials, sons and daughters rebelled, accusing their parents of being complicit in the war. The older generation, the same as my own parents, were “unable to grieve”. The children and grandchildren of the war may have intergenerational trauma. There may be similarities to my own family and my country on the other side of the war with parents unable to articulate their personal stories. Nearly every family in Australia at the time was touched by tragedy in the war but we in Australia don’t have to carry the guilt of perpetration.
From my seat on the edge of the fountain I looked out over the square at the world of mainly young people. I hoped that the Syrian asylum seekers found a safe home here, that the hard line right wing and neo nazis could be kept in check, that Germany could continue its efforts for good in the world. And that my own country could do some of the same.
The music played on as a firebreather added to the spectacle.
On a bike tour of the new Berlin next day we stopped outside a large, dilapidated brick building which now held the most famous techno club in the city. Opening sometime Saturday pumping parties lasted drug powered into Monday or Tuesday. The long weekends didn’t matter a lot to those without jobs. For lots of others it was a fly in for the weekend to Europe’s best scene then home to Stockholm, London or Dublin for work Monday morning. Bearheim. Apparently the best sound system in the world. Germany is the world centre for techno, trance, house, dance music. Nudity and sexual experimentation is welcomed – in the cavernous, dark, basement there are things that cannot be unseen once witnessed apparently. You wait for hours to get in and the bouncer doorman decides who passes through. It’s a big industry for the city, police are lenient with the drugs. Like “Brave New World” I wonder if this has an element of soma for the masses.
Whole, cool suburbs are plastered with graffiti art. Now the hippest suburbs have the best street art. The world’s top artists of their genre have been paid big money to fresco building facades and sides.
In a total one off for Berlin we cycled down the main strip of a major airport that had been recently decommissioned because it was a little small and situated in the city precincts. The government had anticipated selling off the land for development but couldn’t get past a militant crowd of thousands of protestors claiming it needed not to be changed and belonged to the people. So having been constructed by Hitler as the world’s best airport in 1936 to impress all visiting countries, having been used by the Nazi Luftwaffe during the war, then been a transit point for refugees from all over Europe at the end of the war, and then a distribution point for food and vital supplies during the early partition of the city, it is now a massive public park and recreation field, and the hangars are being used as a processing facility for thousands of refugees from Syria – kites of freedom in the wind sport section make a colourful welcome.
Some of the suburbs in the former East Berlin are now the places of choice – parks, multiculturalism, vibrant, lots of young people, old and comfortable feeling, very hipster. I wonder at what a grand vision socialism was – all with equal rights, access to housing, employment, health care, education, shared resources, sublimating one’s own needs to the common good – a shame that it didn’t work and was decimated by dictators, power, corruption. To stand next to the Wall, to touch it, to look at the paintings is to feel the power of people to grab the opportunity when the time is right to change the world. In 1989 the Wall was breached and torn down, then like dominos the countries in the eastern block all overpowered their communist masters in a peaceful revolution and the iron curtain just disappeared almost overnight.
Back on the bike – Part 2 continued
Darkness and Evil
Lynz to Arldaga.
Along the river out of Linz we passed a very large area of heavy industry – big smoke stacks, piles of coal.
We cycled and pushed uphill to the Mauthousen concentration camp memorial. For a time the Mauthousen Gusen complex had the harshest conditions of any in the concentration camp system. 90,000 people were murdered there through beatings, shooting, lethal injection, frozen to death or in the gas chamber. We walked through the international memorials and through the camp with deep sadness and shame that our species could have sunk so low. And the moral wrongs being committed now like our own Australian government’s torture and harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore camps (as highlighted by UN and Amnesty International). The Nazi stealing of 200,000 children from Poland was the same as Australia’s “stolen generations” of indigenous children – at the same time and later – for the same racial reasons as part of the White Australia policy. The killing of inmates at concentration camps was similar to massacres and murders of aboriginal people in frontier Australia. There aren’t even many memorials in Australia to these massacres and murders, just a few place names like “Poison Waterholes Creek” and “Murdering Gully”.
Camaraderie on the trail
Arldaga Markt to Melk
A flat tire on Cath’s bike was traced to a tiny shard of stone worn into the tire. Another long day in heat through sections of boring pavement with no towns or change. We kept bumping into a nice group of yanks, who were having their luggage transferred to hotels at the end of each day, and also a Swedish couple who asked us “do Germans drink more beer than Australians?”
At Melk the famous Abbey had wonderful gardens and lots of tourists.
This section between Passau and Vienna was turning out to be not as good as the first section. We were finding the cycle path and signage in excellent condition but the touring not as interesting as the first section and a lot more crowded.
55 km (passed 900 in total)
Melk to Traismauer
A cool early start led us into the famous wine region – The Wacchau Valley – vineyards on steep slopes on both valley sides of the river valley. Old medieval towns of Durstein, Krems, Splitz – castle ruins on high rocky knolls, old church/forts, gated towns, perched on steep slopes above the river.
The riding was more interesting. Plums, grapes, wild fruit was at hand. The path was busy with day tripping cyclists and lots of river cruise boat tourists.
The afternoon was another in the series. Over 30 degrees C. In weather like this at home we probably wouldn’t go out for a cycle.
Traismauer to Vienna
Another cool early start. We felt and thought we looked like cyclists, making good pace.
At 1,000 km we stopped to high five and photograph the bike computer. We were totally stoked to have covered such a distance and felt very proud of ourselves.
The Swedish couple caught up and we rode with them for a while chattering about cycling and our countries of origin. They had done a trip from home to Italy and back several years before and others that put our own 1000km into perspective. Achievements are relative. There is always someone out there who has gone further and done more than you.
While we morning teaed with the Swedes a New Zealand couple rode up and joined us. It turned out they had been riding and camping in Europe for 4 1/2 months and done 4,000+ km including Eastern Europe and Sicily in 40 degree heat. This was great international fun – smiling, laughing, sharing stories and tips and perspectives.
The afternoon was a long, hot grind into Vienna. Underneath circling, interweaving highways, past street art and on into the big city.
We slumped into our old world Viennese apartment with huge rooms and dated furniture.
70km, 1050km for the trip. End of stage 2
My bike needed a steering head repair and Cath’s needed a gear service.
Coloured images on concrete walls, graffiti art
Wild faces, fantasy and fantastical
In snapshots under freeways beside the Danube Canal
Cyclists flying – roadies, tourers, commuters
Apartment large grand from decades past
Like the inner city only centuries gone
Stone faced buildings line the streets
Museums, churches, town hall rathouse, parliament
Statues everywhere self-aggrandizing
Horse riding Franz, Eugen, Leopoldo imposing
Just a little silly now
Hofburg palace a grand show 700 years of ruling wealth
And the highest price for a WC
Famous Viennese cafes nice coffee grumpy staff
Tourists grouping walking everywhere
Mozart light and frilly trillies in a golden hall
Green cool park respite
Share the bench with Muslim family
Refugees most probably war at home
Kids smile and walk and play on paths and grass
Mum and dad watch the pigeons and their new countrymen and women
Such a long journey
To a new world
Time now ticks awfully slow
New jobs, friends, company, chatting, home, relatives
Takes so long
The cost of safety
Cool books coffee shop
Friendly waiter smiley makes a change
Vienna Boys Choir – flat, lacking childlike joi de vivre
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.
52 Adventures. That's the aim. In the year from February 2015 and maybe more. Like any real adventure the outcome is unknown. The journey, the comrades, the solitude, the challenges, the special places are what matters. And this is the record – writing, images and video. Enjoy.