Cycling down the Danube (1)

The journey begins - Vienna 209 kilometres + detours
The journey begins – Vienna 209 kilometres + detours

Down the Danube

As a recreational cyclist the idea of cycling in Austria, a country with wall-to-wall mountains, was distinctly unappealing. Austria, I thought, was not a cycle friendly country. However, I soon discovered that where there are mountains there are river valleys and most of Austria’s cycle paths follow rivers.

Austria’s number one cycle track is the Donauradweg or Danube Cycle Path which follows the Danube from Passau on the German border to Bratislava on the Austria/Slovak border passing through Vienna on its way.

Budget airlines make getting to and from the start and finish easy because they tend to fly to lesser known airports. Salzburg and Munich are within easy reach of Passau; Linz is right on the Danube and makes an excellent start. At the other end of Austria there are flights from Vienna or in Slovakia there are flights from Bratislava which is ideal ideal for anyone wishing to cycle the length of the Austrian section of the Danube. Flying to Linz with Ryanair and back from Vienna with Aer Lingus fitted perfectly with my plans and timetable.

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Picking up my bike in Linz from was only a matter of minutes, a signature or two, collecting the hotel vouchers and a route map. Then it was off down to the Danube to find the Donauradweg.

The path leaves Linz through the city park and is well signposted with green signs on which is a bicycle icon. Almost immediately I found the Danube and crossed a bridge to the north side where I picked up the Donauradweg The north bank is much prettier than the south bank which is the industrial quarter of Linz and includes the shipbuilding yards that were once the mainstay of the city’s economy.

St Florian's Abbey
St Florian’s Abbey

Although it added to my day’s distance I took a detour along the Anton Bruckner Radweg to the small town of St Florian with a huge abbey of the same name.

The organ in the abbey church at St Florian often played by the composer Anton Bruckner
The organ in the abbey church at St Florian often played by the composer Anton Bruckner

The abbey particularly the Baroque abbey church is highly decorated inside and out. The gilded organ was often played by the composer Bruckner who was associated with the abbey for many years. There is also an interesting Fire Fighting Museum worth visiting.

The detour to St Florian is worth it just for this - one of the best Sacher Torte in Austria
The detour to St Florian is worth it just for this – one of the best Sacher Torte in Austria

Below the abbey in the little town square is Konditorei Cafe Baumberger which serves sacher torte that is, in my opinion, second only to the original served in Cafe Sacher in Vienna.

The cyclists ferry at Mauthausen
The cyclists ferry at Mauthausen

The Anton Bruckner Radweg loops back, passing through the small town of Enns and along the Danube to the point where the River Enns empties joins the great river. Here I took the Radfähre or bike ferry across to the town of Mauthausen. There are a number of these bike ferries along the river specifically for cyclists. Bridges across the river can be great distances apart and for cyclists following more scenic and less busy routes these ferries are invaluable.

Mauthausen seen from across the Danube
Mauthausen seen from across the Danube

The town of Mauthausen has a pretty waterfront with cafes and Baroque houses facing the river. However all this prettiness has a darker side. Mauthausen was the site of Austria’s most infamous concentration camp. A visit to the camp and memorial is a very sobering experience.

Much of the first day was a long but not arduous cycle over the flood plains of the Danube with the hills a distant reminder that this was the land of wall-to-wall mountains. As the evening drew in so did the hills until the Danube was flanked on both sides by steep slopes. Road, rail and cycle path now shared a small strip of land between the river and the wooded slopes. By the time I pedaled into Grein it was beginning to feel like Austria once more.

Grein is a quiet little medieval town with a square surrounded by a mix of Baroque and medieval architecture. Dominated by Greinberg castle the town sits at a curve of the river and was able to control and tax river traffic in both directions.

Grein Castle, a welcome sight at the end of the first day.
Grein Castle, a welcome sight at the end of the first day.

The next day I had decided on an early start so was up with the birds; but there were no birds. The sky was dark and glowering and the cobbled streets of Grein were lashed with rain. The day was not going to be much fun

I retraced my route for 2km to cross the river. Once on the other side I felt the full force of the rain-laden wind in my face. Most cycling along the Danube is done in a west to east direction because the prevailing winds blow in that direction. This stiff breeze was blowing in the opposite direction; east to west. To add insult to injury it carried vast quantities of rain with it. Cycling into the wind can involve as much as 50% extra effort. Certainly I was using lower gears.

The dark brooding Werfenstein Castle
The dark brooding Werfenstein Castle

Wörth Island and Werfenstein Castle on the north bank just a few kilometres downstream looked particularly foreboding in the rain. Apparently they look like this most of the time even in sunshine. This section of the river was noted for its dangerous eddies and whirlpools. Often the boatmen transporting goods on the river would get trapped in the dangerous currents and for a price the locals would rescue them. If a boat ran aground any cargo cast overboard was declared to be the property of the castle’s lord. As he set the laws locally it became a legalised Austrian version of Whisky Galore.

A rain and wind-lashed Danube is definitely not blue
A rain and wind-lashed Danube is definitely not blue

I pushed on to my destination for the evening, Maria Taferl. The season was drawing to a close and I seemed to be the only person mad enough to be cycling in the atrocious weather. The sound Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube kept taunting me as I cycled within metres of the waters that were definitely not blue. My mind was playing cruel tricks on me as the wind freshened and I felt like I was getting nowhere.

Towards the end of the day I made a terrible discovery; Maria Taferl where I was to stay the night was 3km up a steep and winding road 220m above the Danube Valley. After some 51km in wind and rain I really did not want a Tour de France style hill climb.

In the next instalment you can find out how I tackled this problem and read more about my trip down the Danube on two wheels. Sign up now to be kept informed when the next instalment is posted (see the sidebar)
A cycling holiday from Passau to Vienna can also be booked with UK tour operator Headwater

Declaration: I travelled as a guest of Donau Reisen who organise cycling tours in several European countries and the Austrian National Tourist Board. As always I retain full editorial control and write from my experience.

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