Self-Guided Biking Trip from Passau-Vienna is Ideal for Family
by Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman and Dave E. Leiberman
It is about four miles back from the Guesthouse Jägerwirt in Au/Donau to Mauthausen, but that is just the beginning of what proves to be one of the most exciting of our trip. The best travel experiences are life-enhancing, sometimes even life-changing, and this day provides just such experiences.
Justin, the BikeToursDirect representative who prepared us at the start of our self-guided trip along the Danube Bike Trail from Passau to Vienna, had told us about Mauthausen – I had never heard the name before. He said it was Austria’s largest concentration camp. Very little of what is there today is original, except for a couple of barracks, the gas chamber and crematorium, he tells us. It is now hidden behind a forest that was planted after the war. You wouldn’t know it was there except if you were looking for it and catch the sign along the road, “Mauthausen Memorial Center.”
There would have been virtually no way of visiting yesterday, when it was on the route that was laid out for us, even if we had not lingered too long in Linz, and had not missed the ferry from Enns. We would have had to get to Mauthausen by 3:30 pm and that would have been impossible. So we resolved to get an early start from our guesthouse in Au/Donau, after a most pleasant breakfast served in the most charming dining room, and backtrack.
At Mauthausen, we see a sign that says, Mauthausen Memorial Center. Leaving the Danube Bike Trail, we follow a road that winds up and up and around to the highest point. Only the most committed go up the road – it is so long and steep – and the only people I meet along the way – actually, the other Americans we meet along the Danube Bike Trail – are similarly driven to see first-hand the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, an epicenter of horror during the Holocaust. David and Eric are able to bike all the way up, but I have to walk it much of the way.
As I push the bike up the 14% grade, I can only imagine what it was like to bring up the gigantic stones and building materials and supplies. I think of what would have happened to me if I showed any weakness or inability to carry the load. I would have been struck down dead where I fell, or dropped dead trying to make it to the top.
Finally, at the summit of the hill, this massive fortress comes into view. You think that it must have been here for hundreds of years, built, you imagine, over a period of years.
But I learn that there was nothing here before 1938. The first inmates arrived at Mauthausen from Dachau concentration camp on August 8, 1938, five months after the annexation of Austria by the German Reich. They built the fortress-like camp and the barracks from scratch, and were expendable. In fact, before there were the gas chambers to do the job, they were intentionally worked to death.
It is horrifying to contemplate that Mauthausen started as a private enterprise. The location was determined primarily by the presence of granite quarries to supply a SS-owned company, Deutsche Erd and Steinwerke GmbH with building materials for monumental and prestigious buildings in Nazi Germany.
But from 1942, the inmates were being used increasingly to work in the armaments industry. At the end of 1942, there were 14,000 inmates at Mauthausen, Gusen and a few satellite camps.
By 1943, the priority at Mauthausen changed: unlike many other concentration camps, intended for all categories of prisoners, Mauthausen was mostly used for extermination through forced labor of the Intelligentsia – educated people and members of the higher social classes in countries subjugated by the Nazis.
A large menorah, the monument provided by Israel in memory of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were singled out for special brutality and died here, serves the purpose of a tombstone; in Jewish tradition, people visiting a grave leave a small stone, and there is a large pile of them. The menorah dominates a scene that looks out to the pastoral countryside – so peaceful and beautiful.
One of the stunning realizations is seeing the setting of this place – surrounded by farms and homes just as it was when it was a concentration camp, walking distance from the picturesque village below. You scan the countryside and realize the people today are probably relatives of those who lived here then, too.
Seeing Mauthausen is a profound and disturbing experience, and thoughts flood back to me often on the ride. It is a fortress that forces you to new, painful understanding. We are told that we are among the last visitors who will be allowed to walk inside the showers and see the crematoria – something that really upsets me because most of the site has been sanitized and sterilized of the horror that was here. It is really positioned more as a memorial garden – a cemetery for souls without coffins – where there are statues and monuments and people bring flowers, mementoes of loved ones lost.
We spend about three hours at Mauthausen Concentration Camp – the very minimum you would need to visit (when you arrive, request the audio tour which is free with admission, otherwise you will have no clue about what you are seeing; there are also guided tours).
We leave Mauthausen about 12:30 pm, and set out for Enns – actually backtracking some more. But Justin has told us the old city was very special, and we do not want to miss it.
So we cross the Danube by ferry again, and then ride several miles to get to the town. It is absolutely beautiful and we are so glad we didn’t miss it, especially when we realize its significance.
The town is actually set on a high hill – clearly part of the original fortifications. A narrow street opens to a massive square in the center of Enns – it is absolutely magnificent, with a great tower, ringed by gorgeous buildings. We find a delightful restaurant with outdoor seating and enjoy pizza.
Enns is one of Austria’s oldest cities “receiving the privileges of a municipium in 212 from the Emperor Caracalla when about 30,000 people lived here,” I learn later from Wikipedia.
One thousand years later, on April 22, 1212, the town received its charter (the document is displayed at the local museum).
The history of the area goes back much, much further: people have been living in the area 4,000 years ago; Celtic tribes were living here in 400 BC. In the year 15, the settlement joined the Roman Empire; 6,400 Roman soldiers lived inside the Roman fortress “Lauriacum”.
We learn that during the Diocletian Persecution of Christians, Saint Florian, a Roman commander, was martyred at Lauriacum on May 4, 304, when he was drowned in the Enns river. Nine years later, Emperor Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming religious tolerance. Around the year 370, an early Christian basilica was built on the remains of a Jupiter temple and Lauriacum was the see of a bishop until 488. The modern St Lawrence Basilica of Lorch was built in 1344 on the foundations of the old church.
Around the year 900, the Enisiburg castle (later Ennsegg Palace) was built on the Georgenberg hill as a protective fortress against Magyar invasions. The surrounding settlement prospered from the 12th century when a market was established here. In 1186, the Georgenberg Pact was signed, an inheritance contract between Ottokar IV, Duke of Styria, who lacked a male heir, and the Babenberg Duke of Austria, Leopold V. When Ottokar IV died in 1192, his duchy of Styria, which at the time reached from present day Slovenia to Upper Austria, fell to the House of Babenberg. Enns became Austrian.
It was Leopold VI, Duke of Austria, who endowed Enns with town privileges in 1212.
The most striking landmark of Enns is the City Tower on the Main Square, a Renaissance masterpiece built 1565-68, which serves as a clock tower and a watch tower.
The Town Square has many gorgeous buildings, most Gothic decorated with Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo facades. A 16th century well was re-discovered in 1995.
Enns bills itself as the “Siena of Austria” – both are medieval cities, constructed behind city walls. You can visit the Lauriacum Museum; the Roman Central Museum; the Basilka St. Laurenz, Enns Castle, built in 1475 out of three burger houses. You can follow the IVV Ennser town “adventure path” which takes you through 2000 years of local history starting from a Roman encampment to the city Lauriacum to the medieval old city to today’s town center.
We don’t have time to do any of this, because it is already late afternoon and we have not even started this day’s route. By the time we get to the point where we should have started today’s mileage, it is 4:30 pm and I calculate we have about 40 miles to travel to the guesthouse in Persenbeug for the night.
But as luck would have it, a section of the Danube Bike Trail is closed, and we are detoured.
Our adventure really begins when we lose track of the detour and find ourselves amid cornfields, on alternate trails. We finally make it back onto the Danube Bike Trail – so happy to be on our familiar route.
Back along the Danube, we cross over a bridge at Saxon to follow the south side of the trail, which is wooded while the north side is adjacent to a trafficked road. From here, though, the trail is gorgeous with stunning views back to the north side, now bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. Even though I am concerned about the time, I can’t help myself but stop to take photos.
I am really pedaling – keeping a 5 or 6-minute mile pace for hours.
I know we are near – there is one more bridge to cross over at Ybbs to get to Persenbeug. Bugs are so thick, they are like large snowflakes. I hum and sing to myself (I don’t have an MP3 player or radio). Finally, we come to the bridge from Ybbs and ride over into Persenbeug.
We arrive at the Guesthouse Bohm at about 9 pm, where the proprietor serves us dinner in the courtyard garden.
Bohm is more like a boutique hotel than an inn or guesthouse We dine in the garden (the manager gives us 15 minutes to come down or the kitchen will close). We pay 3E for Internet access. We even get CNN in English for the first time, and I try to catch up with news – thinking how great it is to be isolated, and also how isolated you feel when you are cut off.
Now that I am comfortably resting at the guesthouse, I can say this has been the best day – the most interesting, exciting, adventurous. Life-enhancing, certainly, possibly even life-changing.
BikeToursDirect serves as a central resource for bicycle tours around the world, representing nearly 60 tour companies that offer almost 300 tours in 40 countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America. BikeToursDirect offers a variety of resources to help travelers choose tours and handles the entire booking and payment process. For more information, visitwww.biketoursdirect.com, call 877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danube Bike Trail Ride is Trip of a Lifetime
On the Danube Bike Trail, Day 1: Passau-Eferding
On the Danube Bike Trail, Day 2: Eferding-Linz-Au
On the Danube Bike Trail, Day 4: Persenbeug-Durnstein-Krems
On the Danube Bike Trail, Days 5-6: Krems-Tulln-Vienna
On the Danube Bike Trail: Seeing Vienna by Bike
Tuesday, 5 June, 2012
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