- Categorized in: September 2011
When you think how complicated it can be to navigate your way out of a big city on a bicycle, leaving Vienna was remarkably simple.
The Sofitel stands immediately beside the Donau Canal, a narrow waterway that cuts through the 1st District of the old capital. All we had to do was follow the towpath along its western bank, which would link up with the right bank of the Donau proper only a couple of kilometres further on.
It was a beautiful morning, and once we’d come down onto the towpath, we set out in a file of three pairings, chatting away to each other all the while.
First day on the road together...
Everyone had needed reassurance that we wouldn’t be doing anything too hard for the first day or two in order to be broken into it slowly. I think they had visions of being slave-driven over high altitude Alpine passes on the first morning.
“Don’t forget the rest of us haven’t been riding a bike for the last six months,” one of them said.
I kept telling them, “Listen, I know I can sit on this thing for over 10 hours a day, but I promise you I really am not very fast.”
Within the first kilometre my point was proven. Amid light-hearted chitchat, C&C, Lloydy and Skipper disappeared off ahead, leaving Lecka to wait for me as I opened up my legs and got my lumbering machine up to speed.
I thought it was a bit premature to begin cursing my fellow team members for going too fast, but I was quite out of puff when we came to our first halt.
On the DonauRadweg
By then, we’d reached the Danube – a mirror-flat body of water, serenely flowing east, about 300m across at that point.
When it comes to bike touring, few rivers are as convenient to follow as the Danube. Running its entire length is a cycle route known as the DonauRadweg. This stretches from the Danube’s rising in southern Germany, all the way to its mouth into the Black Sea on the Romanian coast. Unsurprisingly, one of the best-maintained sections is to be found in Austria.
Christina and I dropping back a bit - but there is the Danube!
Our plan was to follow the river as far as the city Linz – about 200km upstream – and then divert south-west heading into a region called the Salzkammergut – the area of idyllic lakes and angular peaks that I had so long looked forward to reaching. From here we wanted to make it to Salzburg on the fourth day, and then round off the week arriving in Munich on the Friday evening.
The plan to follow the river was a deliberate attempt to give everyone an easy day or two before heading towards more mountainous country. I imagined cycling beside a river for a couple of days would be a little dull if easy, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When you think what would be nice to have at your disposal on a little cycle tour like this – a perfect surface, lots of sign-posts, a little variety in the cycle route, no traffic, the occasional Gasthof with scenic views across the river valley – the Austrians have it all already considered, planned and executed. Done.
This meant that, as the first day was panning out and the others kept asking me which was the best bit of the whole trip, I was already saying, “Well, this bit actually.” Christian seemed to like this answer.
Our first Gasthof interlude set the precedent for the week. Instead of hydrating with water and cold drinks, we all opted for Radlers (beer and lemonade), which seemed far more appropriate sitting out in the sunshine. (They were all on holiday after all.) I also resolved that I would only eat Wiener Schnitzel for every single meal in Austria. If Schnitzel was on the menu, I had to have it.
Later on in the afternoon, our “peloton” was getting more and more organised, and we were fairly piling alongside the river. Look out any grannies gently walking their dogs, as six bikes sped past at 30kph, with a zip of whirring spokes and flashing colours.
There was still a high intensity of banter flowing between the group, as everyone spoke with everyone else and squeezed out every last detail of where they were in life. As Lloyd said that evening, “I didn’t expect it to be so sociable riding along.”
In fact, it turned out what he’d expected was probably more like what I’d been up to in Slovakia: a day of terrorised concentration on the road ahead, as trucks and buses blared past in a cloud of exhaust fumes, with the added misery of wheezing up unending hills in the wind and the rain. When I heard this was how he imagined it would be, I was all the more grateful he had chosen to come out and join in all the same. I’m not sure I would have.
Just when we were all commenting how lovely everything was, the Danube valley would then step up to another level: its sides would rise up around us, the villages would become more picturesque, ancient stone castles appeared round river headlands, and the Radweg would lead us off through ripening apple orchards and vineyards.
Apple thieves - you could lose arm for that in some countries
The temptation to pluck a couple of juicy apples from the overhanging trees was too much for Skipper and Christina in one of these orchards. Their delicious taste reflected the sensual intensity of this Teutonic paradise. Is it any wonder that vines and orchards are so often used as biblical images of a final place of peace? I really was struggling to recall anywhere I had been that was so pleasant.
As evening started to come on, we came to a dead end on the route on the right hand bank. But with a little local direction, we found a simple river ferry that could carry bikes and a couple of cars across to the other side.
Chrissie and Lecka on the river crossing
Once on the other side, Skipper decided he would help me out and we swapped bikes. I was riding the toothpick, he was on the beast. This suited me pretty well. I couldn’t believe how easy it was on a racing bike and almost wondered whether I should redo the ride one day on a bike like that. (I'll give that a little more thought before I do though.)
Meanwhile, Skipper seemed to be doing very well on the flat, but the first incline we came to, he decided that maybe I’d better take the beast after all. If you ever had a go on this, you’d hardly blame him.
Strange seeing my bike under someone else...
As we rode along, we were wondering about different things. In the midst of this rich green Danubian idyll, Skipper and Lloyd, as economists, were wondering how do you persuade a local vineyard owner here that he needs to contribute a good chunk of his wealth to the squanderers in Greece. Is his good fortune really contingent upon keeping the Greek economy afloat? It seems an unlikely stretch to believe the two are connected.
On the other hand, as a historian, I was wondering what on earth would possess an Austrian from a land like this to set out on an adventure into the miserable wastelands of the Russian steppe for the sake of more lebensraum? What could he possibly lack here? The thought of an Austrian teenager breathing his last in a Russian snowdrift, his heart breaking for this beautiful homeland he would never see again, seemed even more poignant now I could see what he had left behind. For what? Ostensibly nothing. (As I journeyed through the rest of Austria and Bavaria, this riddle continued to bother me.)
Coming to the end of the day....
At any rate, these aren’t our concerns. But I think we were all finding the ride through this landscape an intense and thought-provoking experience.
We decided we would come to a halt that evening in the little town of Melk.
None of us had ever heard of Melk before, which turned out to be a pretty little place, dominated by an enormous and colourfully ornate building overlooking the town square. (Initially we all thought this must be some kind of palace. We later learned it was a monastery. Clearly the Catholic Church was doing alright for itself in this part of the world.)
The monastery at Melk
Despite being unknown to us, it seemed that the town at least was expecting visitors and open for business. On the little square were three hotels, and several restaurants, all adorned with bright flowerbox arrangements of pinks and whites and purples.
C&C happy to have arrived in Melk...who wouldn't be?
The first hotel seemed a bit expensive.
Christina was about to go into the second to find out the room prices.
“Don’t bother,” said Lloyd.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Look up there. The paint’s peeling off the front. It’ll be horrible. We’re not staying in there.”
I don’t know why, but I suddenly had a terrible feeling that this week I would be going over budget.
We settled on the third.
Eventually we all appeared from our rooms and ventured out, clean and scrubbed, for a jolly meal in the open evening air, a couple of paces off the main square.
The night lights of Melk
I can’t remember what we argued about that night, but I’m sure we did argue because we always did. At least a precedent was set for future mealtime debates about a range of topics, some frivolous, others less so. None of this really mattered, except when Christian and Chrissie found themselves on opposite sides of an argument. When this happened, there would have to be lots of cuddles and stroking all round to make sure the thunder clouds over Chrissie’s head were cleared before we carried on.
Maybe the question was "beer..."
In fact Chrissie was the stand-out hero(ine) of the week for me. Despite my encouragement weeks before that she get on her bike occasionally so she was fit and ready for those Austrian hills, she hadn’t done so much as a turn of the pedal. While she claimed to be exhausted at the end of every day, she never once held us up, and by the final day spent more time nearer the front than the back. She just is a great athlete when she gets her butt in gear – something I knew anyway having been left dead in the water many times doing swimming sessions with her in the past.
We set out the following morning under a damp mist that sat lazily in the river valley. But even in the first few kilometres, the sun’s rays were breaking through the thinner patches of fog, and we were sure it would clear into another glorious day.
Sure enough, after a pleasant morning stop of Austrian cakes and pastries, we emerged from the little café into the sunshine and sped along on our way.
Skipper carrying the toothpick as the sun comes out
At this point, the Radweg diverted away from the riverbank, and we were curving around the edges of fat fields of golden maize, which stood up to 7 or 8 feet high.
We came to a little village called St Pantaleon. I was deep in conversation with Skipper about something to do with pharmaceuticals in Africa, and undoubtedly concentrating more on what he was saying than the road ahead. I mean, a quiet little Austrian back lane, what could go wrong?
St Pantaleon - not far to London now
We were pedalling immediately alongside each other, when along the road in the opposite direction came a small white van. He seemed well out in the middle of the road to me, as was I, and I worried that he might clip my panniers if I didn’t move over.
The “missing link” in my thought process was of course communicating to Skipper that I was going to swerve to the right. Perhaps it was because he seemed so happy telling me about the solution to pharma fraud in Africa that I didn’t want to break his flow. Or perhaps I felt we were so “connected” by now as a cycling unit, that my forthcoming swerve would be understood. Or perhaps I thought it was so bleeding obvious that we both needed to shift over a bit, he would move with me.
Whichever - I swerved. He held his line. The Beast barged the Toothpick, and there was only ever going to be one result: down went Skipper with a clatter of spokes and (if you listened carefully) a small shredding of flesh. Less foreseeable was that he then took out Lloyd who was immediately behind us.
Fortunately for Lloyd he landed on Skipper and escaped (more or less) without a scratch. On the other hand, Skipper’s left buttock had had a couple of smart tramlines gouged out of it, which I came to know quite intimately over the next few days.
Thankfully I hadn’t fallen over and had managed to avoid being hit by the van and safely came to a halt. But the pile on the ground behind me did look a little dramatic.
There seemed to be some clamour developing that this was my fault.
“Mate, what were you doing? You didn’t think of telling me that you were going to swerve?” Skipper said, giving the wry smile that over the years I’ve come to learn means “You stupid […….]!” followed by half a dozen rude names.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” I rejoined. “I was gonna get hit by the van otherwise wasn’t I?”
This seemed the best line of defence.
The amount of flesh he was missing, I suppose it must have hurt quite a lot, but I guess that is a small price to pay to learn to have better road awareness in the future. He still hasn’t thanked me for the lesson, but I suppose one doesn’t need to be thanked for every service rendered in this life.
However, in order to keep the peace, I generously accepted the blame for the time being, and surely must have paid any penance due by re-bandaging his mutilated bottom all week.
The tower of Enns - CJCB and THRB
A little further along, we came to a town called Enns where we sat down to a pretty hefty lunch. Somewhere in the middle of enjoying a fairly respectable Schnitzel, I found myself dragged into our fracas du jour, concerning the royalty, the noble classes, land-owning in general, and the notion of passing on wealth to one’s children. The lines were neatly drawn up between the Brun brothers on one side, and everyone else on the other.
Why we had to play the role of reactionaries I don’t know – except that the arguments against these things seem so stupid. Royalty as “outdated” – no more so than democracy. Ask the ancient Greeks. (Countries don’t need a king to be ruled by tyrants. Quite the opposite if you look at recent history.) Or landed nobility. Someone has to look after the land. After a journey across Central Asia and Eastern Europe, it’s pretty obvious which system keeps the land in a better state. (These days land ownership is more of a responsibility, in many cases, than a great generator of cash.) The idea of riches being passed on to the next generation. There will always be the rich (on whichever assets their wealth is based) just as there will always be the poor. Better make the rich good, than make the rich poor or dead (as some versions of socialism would have it). And the false premise that passing on wealth acquired to your children necessarily spoils them. It depends. This particularly seemed strange coming from people whose careers were about making tons of money. I guess the great joy of spending your well-earned money on yourself during your lifetime or in helping strangers can only be enhanced by the warm feeling of knowing your children got nothing out of you. Or at least only over your dead body if you are Christina.
Although I am being a little facetious, the argument is well rehearsed and only begins to draw to an end when Christian and Christina start arguing about which of them really made however much of their money. This is when the peacemakers move in and break it up, insisting it is time to get back on the road.
And so it was.
Chrissie ready for a punch-up
(Having neither great wealth, children, nor a title, it was all fairly abstract for me.)
That afternoon dragged on a little bit, as we had to leave the riverside path. (In fact we lost it.) Instead we took quite a main road towards the city of Linz, and we were all reminded why the cycle routes are a far better option if available.
After the gentility of the DonauRadweg, these roads seemed very aggressive, but really they weren’t much different from many of the roads I’d been riding along since Hong Kong.
As the afternoon wore on, we finally rode away from the Danube, which headed to the north-west as we turned south and west. It got a little tiring as the landscape presented our first proper hills. Not very challenging, but wearying enough at the end of a day of more than 120km.
We ended up coming to a halt in a little town called Bad Hall. Of all the places we passed through, it was far from the most attractive place. I suppose the name doesn’t promise much after all. Its high street reminded me of the main shopping street in King’s Lynn in my home county of Norfolk. (This is not a compliment.)
We did find a hotel though, and a bar that served Schnitzel so I was happy. I think we were all pretty tired after a long and not entirely relaxed afternoon.
But I went to bed like a little boy on the night before Christmas. Tomorrow we would reach the Hallstattersee, or Lake Hallstatt to you and me. Arguably the culmination of 15,300km riding for me, and one of the most beautiful spots on God's earth. I couldn’t wait!
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