Wednesday, November 17, 2010
2008 Tour Summary
The team: wife and I. We both love cycling and we had been thinking of a long-range tour for quite some time, but only in 2008 everything finally seemed on the right track for it to happen. I ride about 5,000 Km a year but never took a tour before. Seeking a flat ride as a starter option, we thought that the Austrian Danube cycleway would fit the criteria and also feature excellent structures to support the thousands riders who move along with the river. Maybe a little too "classic" after all, so why not adding a touch of adventure and reach Budapest? After building myself a couple of special rack mounting brackets for the side bags onto our mountain bikes, we went for a test ride prior to the August departure. The system proved sturdy and suitable for the scope and this was a good start! Each of us carried a luggage load of about 15 Kg (33 lb). Rear side bags topped by a small backpack containing our valuables which proved easy to remove when leaving the bikes unattended.
Our loaded car took alternate roads through Switzerland to reach Braunau am Inn, the starting point of our tour. The Brenner Pass highway is something to be avoided when a large portion of Italians funnels into it on the occasion of major vacation periods.
What a good occasion to see again our wonderful friends in Braunau, they even insisted for keeping our car in their garage the whole time. The good point about leaving next morning was wiping the tears off the beautiful 2-years-old twin girls with the promise that we would return to spend three more days together.
We made no reservations at all ahead of us to leave us with the freedom to choose where to stop. I was carrying a tent in case of sold-out locations but we never used it once.
Our plans to keep our daily stages in between 60 and 90 Km - except for a couple of stages - proved a perfect choice to maximize the journey. See this, stop there for a yummy bite accompanied by a sparkling apple juice (Apfelsaft gespritz), and find accommodation where deemed practical. "Pension" style places with a family bias are the perfect choice for their coziness, the hosts' kindness and the good food to discover for reasonable prices. Secure overnight bike storage is provided by most, if not all, accommodation facilities
Stage 1 - Braunau am Inn to Passau - 68 Km
We kiss our friends goodbye and we are almost alone along the stretch of the Inn Valley up to Passau, Germany, 68 Km on dedicated cycling path and the occasion for a brief thundershower. The wedge-shaped border city is nice to visit and features the Inn river on one side and the darker Danube on the other.
The bike path follows the Inn with only a few minor ups-and-downs where we learn how to deal with the extra weight of our luggage.
Stage 2 - Passau to Aschach - 66 Km
From this point on we'll follow the placid Danube, the longest river within the European Union that eventually reaches the Black Sea. Occasional noticeable floodings are recorded with a line and date on Passau's beautifully decorated city hall building. It's hard to imagine what these riverbanks have seen through the centuries. Here we can see how popular the Donauradweg is among bicycle enthusiasts. Groups, families and singles all heading to Vienna. It's no place for establishing records but rather a pleasant occasion to relax, enjoy the scenery and exchange smiles and words with fellow occasional companions aged 5 to 90. Many own their ride while several, especially groups, pedal their rentals from organized tours. The Donauradweg is an entirely dedicated cycle path provided that one knows when and where to stay on the right or the left bank. Such paths are in fact interrupted in some points. Not a problem though, although to avoid ending up riding on shared roads it's recommended to secure a free Donauradweg brochure available at every information offices and many accommodation venues. This document shows detailed maps and all river crossing points on dams or through small ferries.
The two banks are commonly referred to as the "Right" or "South" one (Südliches Ufer), and the "Left" or "North" one (Nordliches Ufer).
Today we stay mainly on the South bank, taking a ferry to the North in Engelhartszell and back South in Au (the path ends right at the dock). This is probably the most scenic area of the Danube within Austria, as its course makes a beautiful "S" shaped curve overlooked by steep surrounding hills.
Stage 3 - Aschach to Perg - 71 Km
Some 15+ Km after Aschach we pass on a dam to cross to the North bank and reach the large city of Linz. We enjoyed the city park but skipped the town center as we had visited it before. Past Linz, the path gets on a small island where it takes some orientation skill to find the bridge heading to the South shore, which is then followed until next ferry service to Mauthausen and on to Perg via secondary roads where croplands replace the usual sight of the river.
Stage 4 - Perg to Melk - 79 Km
It's a nice ride across the Wachau region, famous for its wines and fruit schnapps. It's too late to pay a visit to the huge monastery in Melk, so let's enjoy a fine dinner.
Stage 5 - Melk to Krems - 38 Km
Today's stage is rather short as we want to spend a good portion of the morning by visiting the baroque Benedictine abbey (Stift Melk) and its quiet gardens. And on we go. Minor ups and downs through some village where a celebration takes place. Rather enough people for such a small place, this is still Wachau and the smell of fermentation suggests there is some wine in the making. We dropped a couple of Euro in a donation box to buy a basket of delicious fruit - mostly plum, a perfect snack awaiting on the unattended table. The dark clouds are not much promising and our accommodation for the night is the cozy Gasthof zur Alten Post in Krems.
Stage 6 - Krems to Klosterneuburg - 70 Km
Some rain today, but the cloud ceiling shows promising patches of blue sky ahead of us and it's not too bad. Klosterneuburg is just outside Vienna but we haven't seen it yet, so it's a good occasion to stop and take a look. Another fine monastery here, this time it's Augustinian.
Stage 7 - Klosterneuburg to Vienna - 25 Km
We're in cycle world! The city of Vienna is credited to have over 1,000 Km of dedicated cycling paths and we're eager to explore them and see the capital of Austria from a different angle. We've been here a number of times before as we simply love this elegant city. The Donaukanal path takes us to the city center and Stephansdom is still here. Loads of tourists force us to walk our bikes to the Rathaus (City Hall). We cycle again on the Ring and find our way to the area of Meidling - near Schönbrunn - where our friend Mathias is waiting to host us for three nights. It's good to see him again and he has plans for a fine Heuriger dinner in Grinzing with a superb view over Vienna. The following days are dedicated to breakfast in Naschmarkt, long walks through the city and various visits including Leopold Museum featuring works by Egon Schiele. We also have a chance to share a good time and a Wiener Kaiserschmarren (delicious "pancake") with #1 VT ranking member "Globetrott", who takes us to a few places and buildings which would otherwise be much difficult to discover!
Stage 8 - Vienna to Bratislava - 90 Km
Our bikes, originally purchased in the US, have now also circulated in Italy, Germany and Austria. Today it's time to take them to another country as we head to Bratislava, Slovakia. I had been here way many years ago before former Czechoslovakia was split into two independent entities. Slovakia is today part of the EU and we cross into it at the exact point where it took me hours to clear the customs. It just takes a little longer than expected though as a couple of kilometers before this point a puncture forces me to replace the tube. My memories of Bratislava don't match with the city I see today. It's a very clean place to be and most historical buildings have been finely restored to their ancient glamor. Al-fresco restaurants dot the pedestrian old city and tourists enjoy their time through the quiet cobbled streets. The tourist office closes by 6 PM and has free internet access stations. Here we find a nearby room for the night and wait for the host to come pick us up.
Stage 9 - Bratislava to Györ - 85 Km
A short stretch from Bratislava and we're ready to cross the last border of this trip. The right direction is not the easiest to be found by cycling on deserted, unused and unmaintained roads. No signs in sight. For hints, we keep looking at the Bratislava-Budapest cycling map book that we bought in Vienna. Car tire "donut" marks on tarmac and discarded spirit bottles suggest that somebody come here for undisturbed night parties. Eventually, a large sign with bullet holes and bearing the colors of the Hungarian flag welcomes us to this country! Here we also find a posted green sign that indicates the cycle path. Wouldn't it be better to move it a couple of Km before? At any rate, never mind. Here we are. Time to deal with an incomprehensible language and placenames which are difficult to remember. From this point on we must say goodbye to the dedicated cycling paths and share the road. The course of the Danube marks the border between Slovakia and Hungary with the latter laying on the right bank. Our book shows two main routes to Budapest. One of these stays in Slovakia and follow the river. We otherwise choose to take the one in Hungary. This route mostly stays on minor roads and, although not all Hungarian drivers are enough patient with cyclists, at least it takes through small villages where we can see some shot of life, rest and buy food and drinks for the weather is getting hotter and more humid. Only some businesses accept the Euro currency and we take advantage of an ATM to get local Forints at the first occasion. Differently from Austria, where it's sufficient to follow the abundant cycle path signs, we now move from town to town following signs with placenames. Upon arrival in Györ it's necessary to ask for directions to reach the tourist office. We use English with young people and German with seniors.
Stage 10 - Györ to Tata - 66 Km
It's mostly croplands all the way to Tata and another good day. We are now used to strange, long placenames and a little more familiar with the general driving habits. Our maps don't show the location of the tourist office and again we ask locals for directions. There's a nice lake here and we opt for a simple bench picnic dinner by its hores after visiting a supermarket, where curiosity prompted the purchase of local cheese and other delicacies.
Stage 11 - Tata to Esztergom - 55 Km
Today we put our rain gear on right from the start, but we're later pleased to see an improvement in the weather. As we climb a couple of steep hills I honestly miss the coolness of a few hours ago. It's now really hot while uphill. From the top we can see the Danube again after a couple of days and we're happy to ride mountain bikes as the gravel, bumpy downhill road wouldn't otherwise be as much pleasant with street tires and without shocks.
Approaching our destination we follow our instinct rather than our map book to find a beautiful, straight, freshly made dedicated cycle path. Too new to be on the book! In Esztergom we circled to find accommodation at sight. The first room we found - and got - was right across the bridge leading to Štúrovo, Slovakia.
Some say prices are lower on the other side of the Danube but we couldn't find much choice there and opted for a memorable goulash soup in Esztergom.
Stage 12 - Esztergom to Budapest - 84 Km
We ride along the river and today we have a couple of ferry crossings.
The way towards Budapest is confusing as we get closer to the city. We later get puzzled again as we are just outside of the capital but can't find our way. Luckily, it's Sunday and we just follow a hundred of locals who ride through otherwise unimaginable woods and footpaths (!!!).
At least we're now in town but the good feeling doesn't last long as we find ourselves among a crowd of thousands of walking people, police and temporarily fence-barred roads. What is this? These guys are going to the Sziget, a music festival event attended by people from all over Europe! It's necessary to take a couple of urban detours, ask for directions and haul our bikes up and down staircases to overcome railroad tracks. This done, the Danube is in sight again to be followed until the unmistakable skyline of the Parliament building tells we reached the city center. There aren't many cycling paths in Budapest and at times we prefer to walk the bikes on downtown sidewalks while gazing around and getting oriented. Good thing we have a map to locate the accommodation we reserved two days ago.
IS IT OVER?
It's resting time for our tires, not so for our soles. Our room at the residence in the capital of Hungary is large enough to host our bikes. We decide to implement a combination of public transport and long walks to wander through beautiful Budapest for four days prior to take the train back to Braunau. This is also the perfect occasion to meet Attila, the organizer of the Caucasian Challenge 2008 rally which I'm about to take in a few days from now aboard the VirtualTourist-sponsored wonder machine - a 1986 Russian-made Moskvich which I'll have the pleasure to pilot through a unique, much different adventure across eleven countries to Yerevan, Armenia. I would return to Budapest in just a few days and it's a good feeling.
MORE TO COME
Back to Braunau and ready to spend three days with our friends and a couple of occasions to ride all together as well. Even on a rainy day.
We also decide to discover the Inn Valley in the opposite direction and a day-ride takes us to Marktl, Germany to find out this is the birthplace of Pope Benedikt XVI, but not before getting lost in the swamp park area where we practice riding in the mud and orientation skills. Upon returning to our friend's house, the two little twin girls focus on our helmets and deem them so nice that they immediately want to wear theirs as well. They kept these on for the whole weekend, from breakfast to bed time!
BICYCLES ON TRAINS
As soon as we reached Budapest we went to Keleti train station to make reservations and buy tickets to Vienna. It proved bad timing due to outbound travelers who attended the Sziget music festival. Although the line in front of us was not tremendously long, it took us one and a half hours to finally reach the counter. The long waiting time in the warm hall was mainly due to the fact that the tickets had to be written by hand. On the day of departure the bikes were loaded onto a special wagon with the help - and consequent tipping - of the railways employee who suggested to lock the bikes to the railings. Contrary to what we had found on the MAV website, this train stops in Wien Westbahnhof station rather than the Südbahnhof. Much better, as it would have otherwise required riding from one station to the other. Our train to Vienna had a dedicated car for bicycles, where an employee helped to overcome the 1-meter (3.3 ft) step and suggested to lock the bikes to a featured rail to prevent theft.
The ticketing in Vienna was otherwise quick and easy. Either the route to Passau or Braunau require two transfer stops with train change, meaning a 10-hour minimum total travel time. On the first leg from Vienna the bikes were hanging to a hook by the front wheel in a dedicated car while we were sitting in a different car, on the second leg we shared a dedicated car for bikes and passengers. The last leg, although short, was the funniest. Both people and bikes find their place aboard a small one-piece train, therefore we pushed the bikes up the regular steps with some help from locals. Not an easy task if you have bags, and it was crowded enough for us to clog the exit and feel embarrassed for it. I guess this is what every Donauradweg rider experiences unless if riding a rental bike, but it's really the only minor hassle for those who take this wonderful route as most people on trains are kind, helpful and understanding the situation.
Tour GPS tracklog available here: