Part 6: A Small Story About A Big River

There are a million different ways to cross Europe by bicycle so picking a good route can be quite a task. Most of our route planning happens while we’re on the road, combining map reading and intuition to find the best cycling roads as we’re going along. The great thing about riding in Europe is that you’re not just confined to riding on roads, there are thousands of cycle paths all thrown into the mix too. We don’t have any maps of these cycle routes, we just seem to find them, or they find us. Many of Europe’s finest cycle paths follow the course of rivers, taking advantage of nature, so watercourses and their bike paths will no doubt play a critical part in navigating our way across the continent.

One such bike path is the famous Donau Radweg (aka The Danube Path, Eurovelo 6). This path is massive, it stretches from the source of the Danube in South West Germany all the way out to the Black Sea in the Ukraine. We’ve been following it from Linz, in North West Austria, and It’s been a truly unique experience so far.

Not many folk stop off in the small industrial city of Linz, it’s doesn’t boast particularly stunning scenery or any major tourists attractions, it’s just an average city. As we entered Linz from the Danube hills we had a great view of the place. The chimney stacks of processing plants poke out of the industrial sprawl down in the valley below. The road we take into Linz is fantastic but our exhilarating decent into the city is cut short as we get stuck behind a tanker. Boo! We enter from the North side of the river, it looks pretty grim at first. Sketchy characters wander about outside seedy looking bars and gambling venues. We head for the river so we can check out the other side of town. The bridge takes us into a central square of tall well kept buildings lined with smart restaurants, modern trolly buses glide around, their cables hang like metallic cobwebs above our heads. We get a good feeling about the place. The digital sign outside of the pharmacy informs us it’s 6 O’clock and 35 degrees, it’s the hottest day of the year. No wonder we’re completely knackered. We find a cheep hostel and book in for 2 nights so we can rest our legs for a bit and check out the night life. There’s not that many places to go out in Linz but we really like what we find. There are some decent bars, everyone we meet is really friendly and sociable. The people of Linz know how to have a good time and are more than happy for us to join them. Exactly what we were hoping for!

The next day the heatwave finally broke, we couldn’t have timed it better, we look out of our hostel window at the pouring rain, smug. Our mate Caz, who we met in Munich is on her way from Salzburg to Vienna so with some gentle pursuasion from JT she stops off in Linz to join us for the evening, she’s flying back to England the next day and kindly donates us a generous supply of PG Tips. Result! As the night draws on we finish up in a small bar/club near to our hostel, Kapu. Inside the most entertaining drinking game we’ve ever seen is taking place. The aim of the game is to ride a small bicycle from one side of the floor to the other, here a shot of rum sits on a stool. While still on the bike the rider must drink said shot of rum. The problem is this, the rider is attached to a pillar on the opposite side of the floor by a giant rubber band constructed from a dozen or so old bike inner tubes. We join in the fun. It seems like all this cycling has paid off, I make it to the stool no problem and go for the shot, got it, the elastic rapidly tightens, boom! The booze goes all over my face, straight up my nose, the next thing I know I’m wiped out, a hysterical heap on the floor over at the other side of the room. Laughter and applause fill my ears, I feel like a winner.

Thankfully the weather picks up the next day, we make a quick visit to Linz’s spectacular art installation, bridges in the sky, where we wander around the roof tops through a network of board-walks high above the city centre, then we head for the Donau Radweg!

The Danube is a hive of activity. Every city and town we’ve passed so far makes good use of it, the flood plain is packed full of facilities, from raquet sports and basketball courts to BMX tracks and canoe slaloms. The Danube track is simple, neither complicated or expensive, but it provides a great facility for local communities and passing travellers like us. Out in the sticks the path is pretty tranquil then as we get close to cities there are cafés and bars along side. It’s not just used for cycling either, roller blading is incredibly popular and seems to be the transport of choice for beautiful Slovakian sun goddesses who skate from the city to visit their favourite spot for a coffee and a cigarette.

In between the cities, we pass through a variety of landscapes, the peaks here are much smaller than the mountains we encountered in the South but they’re dramatic nether the less as they rise steeply from the perfect flatness of the Danube. As we pedal towards Vienna a noticeable change in the vegetation develops. We enter the Wachau region, here the verdant tones of the forest begin to dim, the trees shrink into vinyards and orchards. Ancient monasteries look fantastic in the fading evening light. There can’t be many places where you can see such variety without riding on roads. I begin to understand the popularity of the Danube path.

As we approach Vienna we can see the city skyline rising before us. We break off and follow the Danube canal. The concrete underpasses and canal path walls are plastered in graffiti, we pass the university quarter beside futuristic buildings, shiny sculptures and Vienna’s famous municipal waste incinerator, a bizarre architectural work of art. We ride deeper into the beating heart of Austria. It’s insanely busy, we’ve just hit rush hour. It’s easier to get off and push. Fortunately for us we have a local contact to call upon, Romana, who we met in Linz, is the best guide we could ask for, she even works for the Austrian National Tourism Authority. We give her a call and meet her outside the grand opera house. Like all of Vienna’s city workers she’s looking super cool. We drop off our bikes and bags then mooch about the food markets and cafes.

Cycling out of Vienna is a totally different experience to our way in. The bike path shows us a side of Vienna I doubt many people see. As we pass through a labyrinth of factories, gasometers, power stations and ship yards the pungent aroma of anearobic digestion and petrochemical processing drifts through the air. The Danube branches off into a complex network of canals here, it’s easy to get lost. We cross at one of the many ‘kraftwerk’ which span the river, these gigantic control structures are absolutely mind blowing. Cruise ships and barges look like little toy boats sitting in the locks a hundred feet below us while maintenance cranes and a monolithic control room tower above our heads. We feel very small in the company of this colossal concrete beast.

On the other side of the river the path is no less surreal. We stop at a riverside bar called Jamaica Beach to check that we’re heading in the right direction for Bratislava, there’s something peculiar about the place, we burst out laughing when we notice a chap stride to the bar proudly exhibiting his shlong! A quick scan of the area reveals dozens of middle aged Austrians, all stark bollock naked. We’re in the trip zone for sure. Like startled witnesses of a high speed pileup we rubber neck for a brief moment then get the hell out of there.

The third city we hit is different again. Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital is full of charm with it’s chunky castle perched above a pristine old town. It’s a very calm city, a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Vienna. We make base at Hostel Blues, a slightly bohemian set up, it has a comfortable lived in feel about it, the receptionist has the most beautiful accent and a good taste in music. Outside old trams rattle around as we explore the narrow streets between the tall red roofed buildings of the pre-industrial quarter. I’d like to come back and see more of Slovakia but we need to press on, we’ve still got 9 countries to get to in order to complete our challenge and my craving for home made goulash is getting out of control. We resist the urge to head north and explore the Carpathian mountains and continue our journey down the Donau towards Hungary.

After a month on the road a change of seasons is revealing itself. Fruit hangs heavy on the trees. The temperature has dropped, slightly. The corn and sunflower fields that have become a regular feature of our surroundings are now been harvested. All the hay has been made. Out on the path we press on late into the evening in pursuit of a camp ground but the nights are drawing in, I pick up a puncture as darkness falls. We lose the signs for the camp site and we’re hungry. We make a dinner of pasta and tinned herrings in the street, we pitch our tent under a bridge. In the morning we’re awaken by an angry man and his dog. His foreign rant is indecipherable to us but we get the message: Get off my land! We do just that, and so our journey continues…

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For the Route see MAP 5