Freewheeling along the iconic river is highly recommended, says Stephen Scourfield.
The 340km of the Austrian Danube cycle route between Passau and Vienna is rated as one of the best rides in Europe. I’m just dipping into it but the full length is usually ridden over seven days, and mostly self-guided, with riders staying in accommodation each night.
But there are packages that include everything from hire bike to bed, and accommodation providers along the way offer luggage-transfer services.
Finding a room, from high-end to modest hotels, pensions and B&Bs, you can search and book online, of course, but in spring (April, May), there were plenty of “zimmer frei” signs out, showing room (zimmer) vacancies.
The trick is to follow the flow of the river — heading downstream, west to east, brings the advantages of gravity, prevailing wind and the afternoon sun on your back, and also means you’re going with the flow of bicycles. Most of nearly 40,000 cyclists annually (mostly between May and September) head from Passau to Vienna, which, of course, provides a beautiful climax.
The cycling is mostly on bike paths, or minor roads, and usually right next to this section of Europe’s second-longest river (after the Volga), the full 2900km of which rises in Donaueschingen in Germany and runs into the Black Sea.
Between Passau and Vienna, there are few hills, good signs along the route, boats that can take you down the river if there’s bad weather or a change of plans, and small ferries to take you across the river, as there are mostly cycle paths on both sides.
The cycle path follows the serene Danube River. Picture: Stephen Scourfield
I see quite a few electric- assisted bikes but I’m on a good old-fashioned eight-speed treadly. If you hire, many companies have Austrian-made KTM bicycles, which are very capable. I see very few bikes with panniers, as riders take advantage of baggage-transfer services and ride light. For those who wish it, you don’t have to wear a helmet, as they’re only compulsory in Austria for those aged under 12.
The scenic highlight is surely the Wachau Valley, which, on this sunny, blue-sky day — with the grass green, yellow dandelions dotting the vineyards and the smooth river running beside me — is, well, simply splendid. This is what Austrians call Emperor’s Weather.
The town of Melk is an historically important spiritual centre — and there’s 1000 years of history at Melk Abbey. It is worth the trip up the rocky hillside on which the Benedictine abbey perches.
It was built by the Babenberg dynasty as a castle and the Imperial Wing was added by the Hapsburgs but the 500-room building has been used as a monastery since 1089, and 30 monks still live and worship here, local guide Sophie Gassner explains. “It is a living church.”
Since the 12th century, and still today, it is also important for its role as a school. Today it is a private school, taking 900 high-school students for a nominal fee of about $110 a month, and they happily wave to me from ancient windows.
The monastery holds the Melk Cross which, believers say, contains a fingernail-sized fragment of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.
It was brought to Melk in 1040 by Margrave Adalbert, of the house of Babenberg (“margrave” is the hereditary title of some princes of the Holy Roman Empire). We walk past ceramic stoves more than 2m tall which kept rooms warm, wood being fed in from the other side of the wall so servants didn’t need to come into the room and disturb the occupants.
Tranquil mountain villages mark the cycle route along the Danube. Picture: Stephen Scourfield
We see part of its library of 100,000 books in 15 languages; at the moment, its oldest book, which is 1100 years old and is about astrology, is on display.
Its baroque-style church is magically ornate, conjuring up the splendours of a heaven that would have shone as a prize.
Below, the River Danube snakes off through green hills.
There are picturesque villages such as Weissenkirchen (White Chapel) and plenty of Austrian hostelries for lunch stops —particularly plan a stop at the hillside village of Durnstein.
During the Third Crusades period, Richard the Lionheart was once held captive in Durnstein Castle, and there is a signed walk around town explaining this and other histories. It is a small village of stone walls and interesting doorways and windows. A single bell rings in the otherwise silent morning.
Durnstein Abbey (Stift Durnstein) was established in 1410, rebuilt in baroque style in 1710 and, for $4, I wander its courtyard and splendidly ornate church.
And so the Austrian Danube cycle route progresses, following the serpentine and fast-running river, riders occasionally crossing it, passing locks and bridges, and finishing in Vienna, a cycle-friendly city where cycleways are often built into the paths. And there, in the clear morning, we are off to explore music, art, culture and history — by bike.
One day at a time
This is how the Austrian Danube cycle route might roll out:
Day 1: In Passau.
Day 2: Passau to Schlogen, about 44km.
Day 3: Schlogen to Linz, about 53km.
Day 4: Linz to Grein, about 65km.
Day 5: Grein to Melk, about 51km.
Day 6: Melk to Krems, about 40km.
Day 7: Krems to Vienna, about 85km. (Or ride around 45km to Tulln, and take the train into the centre of Vienna.)
Day 8: In Vienna.
Stephen Scourfield flew to Europe as a guest of Emirates, which flies daily between Perth and Dubai, with connections to Vienna. For planning and booking, visit emirates.com/au or travel agents. Or call the Perth booking office on 9324 7600, or go to the booking office in business hours at Level 2, 181 St George’s Terrace, Perth.