Martin Chambers

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The Danube cycleway

The Velo 6 is a long distance cycle route across Europe. It starts on the Atlantic coast in France at Saint-Nazaire and the mouth of the Loire River, and finishes on the Black sea. The most popular section and the best signposted is from Pasau in Germany, through Austria to Vienna (one week), or on to Budapest in Hungary (two weeks). A staggering 55,000 cyclists each year do this trip. Here the route follows the Danube river along old tow paths and back roads and despite, or maybe because of the crowds, it is a trip worth doing.

Vienna is a direct flight from most European cities and bikes can be hired in the city so this section is relatively easy to organize. Trains run from Vienna to Passau daily, with a special ‘cycle train’ every Thursday. No need to book, it departs 8am from the Vienna station, simply follow all the other cyclists to find the train. You could book onto any train, but there is something special about being a part of a crowd.

Other travelers on the cycle train will be from wiry hard core cross continent types to fat middle aged tourists with hire hybrids (us) but once spread out along the way, you will for the most part be alone.

If you choose the two weeks and finish in Budapest you will need two trains to return to Vienna and the changeover is a little rushed. Make sure you get off the train as soon as it stops so you are ahead of the crowds as you negotiate stairs and platforms with your bike.

It would be possible to camp along the way, but most people choose to stay in small hotels and hostels. This is surely the beauty of this trip, to meet and be a part of life along the river. In the Wachau district many hotels are attached to wineries. Most guests are on a weekend from Vienna to sample the excellent wine, and the towns are romantic and clean and almost exactly as you might imagine them. We sampled wine and bought a bottle for our picnic lunch the next day. I find I ride particularly well after a bottle of wine and a picnic lunch.

It is when you sit by the way on the grassy banks that you discover what has happened to the crowds on the cycle train. They pass and you call hello, and they respond in whatever language they have, and they disappear just as quickly. Some, who see our Aussie flag, stop for a longer chat.

Because it is such a popular trail it would be wise to book accommodation ahead, particularly if riding as a group. In one town we followed the instructions – past the church, turn left, etc – but could not find the hotel. We asked in a hotel with a name similar to the one we had booked, and showed them the booking slip. They laughed. We had booked a hotel in Linz Germany, not Linz Austria. Luckily they had a vacant room. For the rest of that evening we were the lost Aussies. I think they thought not that we had booked the hotel in the wrong place, but that we had ridden all day for several hundred kilometers in the wrong direction.

At Melk, the abbey is worth a visit. They have a library with over 300,000 books and rooms that were remarkably similar to our hotel room. In Estergom the basilica is worth the effort to climb, all spiral thousand steps, to a view across the river to Slovakia. In Slovakia you will visit Bratislava and if you are lucky they will be rehearsing an opera in the courtyard of the castle. If you are even luckier they will have tickets for sale and for 20euros you will hear some of the great classics sung by masters. Opera, I think, was made for these settings.

Along much of the river below Vienna you can choose to ride on either side. We rode in Slovakia despite the guide book warning that the way was less well marked and there might be difficulties with currency. We had no trouble, other than in a small roadside stall where we bought, by hand gesture, bread, cheese, salami, tomato and paprika for our picnic. Three and a half euros. As we sat by the river we discovered that the paprika was in fact the hottest hottest chilli. Even the ants couldn’t eat it.

Along the way green Velo 6 signs mark the route and you should have no difficulty. The only time we got lost was at Budapest where the signs are easy to miss and there are roads and cycle lanes and freeways and after the quiet rural time next to the river it is a bit of a shock. She went one way, I went another, and I didn’t know where we were staying. Somehow our rule about going back to the last point of contact was forgotten. It got dark and I had no lights. I hated this city. It began to rain (no it didn’t, but it makes for a better story). Eventually I found a coffee shop and emailed her. She was sitting in the spa in our luxury room. ‘Where are you?’

Later that evening we sat with beer and food, by a balmy river with a glorious view of the yellow lit old bridges and buildings. Lovers strolled by arm in arm. Budapest is wonderful. Life is wonderful. Cycling the Velo 6 is something you must do.

There are two good guide books. We used the smaller Cicerone book, the Danube Cycle way. For greater detail, try Esterbauer but carry only the volumes you need. More information here at the European cycling federation, where you will also find out about another 14 Euro Velo routes.