Self-Guided Biking Trip from Passau-Vienna is Ideal for Family
by Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman and Dave E. Leiberman
At 6:56 am, I awake at the Gasthof Bohm to the sound of church bells pealing with an urgency. I think to myself, why 6:56?
I go out and explore the charming town of Persenbeug while the fellows sleep.
I walk by the river and get a look at the massive Ybbs-Persenbeug power station that spans the Danube. Like so many of the alternative energy solutions we have been seeing from the first day, it is such a contrast to the Old World charm of the medieval buildings (you can visit Monday-Thurs, 2-4 pm).
I come upon a marker to Franz Schubert and am left to wonder about his connection to this town.
I learn that Persenbeug also has a castle that dates from 1617 and has been owned by the Habsburgs since 1800.
We have a marvelous buffet breakfast at the Gasthof Bohm, a charming family-owned inn – the eggs were the best so far; yogurt and cereal; loads of fresh fruit, fresh breads and rolls – before setting out for our fourth day on the Danube Bike Trail.
I don’t realize it at the start, but if yesterday’s ride was the most adventurous and exciting, today’s ride will bring us the most exceptional, stunning and diverse collection of sights and attractions in a single day of our trip.
Justin, the BikeToursDirect representative who oriented us when we arrived in Passau, Germany at the start of our self-guided trip on the Danube Bike Trail, has advised that we take the bike trail on the north side of the Danube River this day, toward Marbach, with an aim to getting to Maria Taferl, a major attraction, and then cross over to the south side in order to visit Melk Abbey, another major attraction. This day will have some amazing scenery, because we will also be going through the Wachau valley – known as “the smile in Austria’s face” – which is a famous wine region and is where there is the castle where King Richard the Lionheart was held captive, on our way to Krems.
As we set out on the path, I fall into my own thoughts.
Biking gives me time to think about what we have seen and experienced, about the trip altogether. I think a lot about our visit to Mauthausen concentration camp yesterday, and about its relevance today. I think about the people we meet, about the benefits of getting outside your hometown, where it is so easy to believe in “exceptionalism” and have these ideas reinforced, until you see what is beyond.
Travel is discovering differences as well as sameness – you learn from the differences and empathize with the sameness, both which bring you closer together. I saw this so many years ago on my first trip to China, in 1978, even before normalization of relations, when one of our group was a Midwestern judge of decidedly conservative bent, and how his attitude toward the Chinese people changed over the course of our trip.
This trip, too, puts faces on abstracts. What is more, it puts you on a timeline that is astonishing for an American, with a history that goes back a few centuries. Here, what you see goes back through the millennia. You learn about empires which vanished and dramatic changes in political and social orders. It is humbling.
Then there is the simple act of biking – getting from point to point on your own power, and at the pace and perspective of a bicycle, exercising those endorphins in the brain as you pedal. I am struck by the fact that with biking every scene is fleeting – you see it once and it is gone, so you are constantly observing, thinking, processing, creating a context, tuning in. It is like a movie, only you are the one moving.
At Marbach, we see the sign for Maria Taferl – which is at the top of a hill, about 100 meters high. While the Danube Bike Trail is remarkably flat, It seems that all the major attractions we visit are at high elevation.
We take the first street which seems to rise straight up and only gets worse – I soon have to walk my bike, and when even that becomes too arduous, I leave it altogether and hike through woods, higher and higher. I suddenly come upon a shrine in the woods.
My two adult sons with whom I am sharing this adventure continue on their bikes, even going up on the trail I am hiking as if a mountain biking trail. We reach the top at the same time.
We discover a bustling tourist attraction, with the church, a magnificent structure, as the centerpiece of a town.
Maria Taferl is an Austrian market municipality of 872 people in the District of Melk and is considered the most important pilgrimage site in Lower Austria and the second most important pilgrimage destination in all Austria, after Mariazell.
It is a very ancient place – in the church plaza, there is a stone of Celtic origin, on which it is believed pagan sacrifices were made.
The first church was built around a shrine to the Holy Mother, which is the origin of the name “Maria Taferl.” According to legend, the statue of the Pieta at the shrine was an offering from Alexander Schinagel, a forester, who had a miraculous recovery from a serious illness. The shrine replaced a crucifix on the same spot which also had been the site of a miracle: a local shepherd Thomas Pachmann tried to chop down the oak on which it was placed, and gravely injured both his legs. After praying to the Virgin Mary, his almost fatal wounds stopped bleeding. The old oak was destroyed by fire in 1755, which also damaged the statue.
The magnificent church was built from 1660 to 1710. Its construction was begun under the imperial architect George Gerstenbrand and the Italian Carlo Lurago. Its famous cupola was built by Jakob Prandtauer from 1708 to 1710, who also is responsible for the design of the magnificent Melk Abbey we will soon visit.
Built in the Baroque style, it is lavishly decorated with gold leaf and frescoed ceiling. In the center of the high altar is the namesake Marian statue.
According to an inscription in the building’s interior, building the church gave the local inhabitants new courage after the Plague, the Turkish Wars and the Third Years’ War had taken their toll.
The tradition of pilgrimage to Maria Taferl dates back to the 17th century. In 1760 alone, there were 700 pilgrimage processions and over 19,000 masses. The church is kind of information treasure chest about its pilgrims, their origins, and their number, from the gifts they left behind.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 precipitated World War I) and his family lived in the nearby Artstetten Castle and were known to have regularly attended mass at Maria Taferl.
The view from the church down to the Danube River and the surrounding countryside is quite spectacular, even on this hazy day. On a clear day, we are told, you can see to the Alps.
We set out for Melk Abbey, an imposing, majestic structure that overlooks the trail and everything else. In 2000 it was designated a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO and for many is the highlight among the attractions you can visit on the Passau-Vienna route.
It truly is the most formidable of sights we have seen so far – just enormous. The abbey itself is the size of a city, a city in the mountain, and dominates everything around. It is as imposing and as grand as Versailles.
Melk has been a major spiritual and cultural center for over 1000 years, first as a residence of the Babenberg family, and since 1089 as a Benedictine monastery. (There are still monks here but we don’t get to see any). Monks could read and write so had schools and libraries; the abbeys were the storehouses of knowledge.
The Romanesque castle was replaced by a Gothic monastery; then a Baroque building was added. The architecture is stunning.
Our “Danube Bike Trail” guidebook, the Bible for our journey, notes, “After centuries of mixed fortunes, the abbey of Melk enjoyed a glorious heyday starting in the early 18th century, under the Abbot Berthold Dietmayer. Dietmayer and the St. Polten builder Jacob Prandtauer…. combined to rebuild the abbey as an expression of newfound optimism and power following the Ottoman wars and the success of the counter reformation.”
The Abbey Museum in the former Imperial Rooms was completely redesigned in 2001 and offers an exhibition, “the Path from yesterday to Today-Melk Abbey in its Past and Present,” that tells the story of the monastery’s ups and downs over its 900-year history. Most of the exhibits have English text but I walk quickly through most of the rooms until I get to Marble Hall and the Library, which is absolutely dazzling. Here, there are no English translations, but I look at the ancient books in the cases and imagine what the books mean (I see something about “Johannes Schlifpochar mid Drakula” and can only wonder).
Between the Marble Hall and the Library, you walk out onto a terrace which gives you a magnificent view of the Danube and you can see how the abbey dominates the town below – it also makes real the historic model you see.
The Abbey Church is utterly exquisite, with stunning decoration, frescoes, gilded ornaments.
In one of the grand hallways, there is a portrait of Jakob Prandtauer 1660-1726 at 60 years old, and in a lower level, an exhibit devoted to this amazing man. Until today, I had never heard of the man, but this day alone I have visited two exquisite marvels of architecture that he created.
I learn that Prandtauer was an architect and master builder of the Baroque period and Melk is his most famous creation.
Prandtauer worked on Melk from 1701 until his death in 1726, but also built the beautiful pilgrimage church on the Sonntagberg (1706-1728) and the monastery at Garsten near Steyr (1703-1708); he reconstructed the monastery of Sankt Florian near Linz, and built the grand staircase (1706-1714) and the great hall (Marmorsaal; 1718-1724). From 1708 on he was also in charge of works at Kremsmünster, and from 1720 at Herzogenburg, both monasteries.
Prandtauer not only was the architect but was in charge of all aspects of the construction and of the exterior and interior decoration of a project, drawing upon his early training as a mason and a sculptor.
He built cloisters, churches, pilgrimage sites, wineries and wine cellars, manor houses, granaries, castles for nobles, designed bridges, and built barracks for provincial estates. He figures in my mind as a Leonardo Da Vinci.
When Prandtauer died on Sept. 16, 1726 at Sankt Pölten, most of his projects were still unfinished. They were completed by his pupil, assistant, and cousin Joseph Mungenast, whose famous tower at Dürnstein (1721-1725) is thought to have been largely inspired by his master.
We are bound for Dürnstein, next.
Back on the trail, I think how much I love the way the trail flows into towns and the streets constrict and you find yourself on cobblestone, making tight turns, then it opens again to farms and open countryside. Cornfields become apple orchards, and then at Greisbach, we see our first vineyard. I love the variety of the scenes.
Across the road at Gvorobae, on the highest point we see a castle, the Ruine Aggstein.
I want to press on, especially if we will have any chance of seeing the castle where King Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned, but at Spitz, the fellows are ravenous. We stop at a biergarten, Spitzera, a real family place alongside the river, with a playground for kids, wine tasting, a café.
David orders Spitzels Herrengrostl with fried egg, (8.90E). It comes in a frying pan: potatoes, onions, variety of peppers, mushrooms, port and grilled ham.
Everywhere we have stopped along the way, the food is fabulous and we enjoy tasting local favorites. We admire the China and glassware.
I learn that Markt Spitz, population 2,000, is at the foot of the Tausendeimerberg (“Thousand Pails Mountain”), named because it supposedly produces 1,000 pails of wine (56,000 litres) in a good year, our guidebook says.
The trail takes us passed Wehrkirche St. Michael, a really ancient church which we learn had underground passages that ended at the river so people could flee into ships when the village came under attack. It looks more like a castle or watchtower than a religious place and served that purpose of defending people: When there was danger of war, the people fled into the fortified facility with their cattle.
The Gothic main church we see dates from 1500, but the church goes back to 800, reputedly the oldest in the Wachau. The description is a reminder of how harsh and precarious life was.
Leaving Spitz, we find ourselves in the midst of the Wachau’s best vineyards. The path is somewhat raised so we get these gorgeous panoramas of the countryside
We are in the middle of the wine region. Night is falling. Ahead, we see the lights come on in the town ahead.
The Castle Town of Dürnstein
I pass under a stone statue of King Richard, the Lionhearted – the boys didn’t even see it.
King Richard I Lionheart of England was held captive at Dürnstein in the winter of 1192-93. The castle where he was held, a ruin today, was built in the mid-11th century.
I am hurrying to get to the castle, but my hopes of actually visiting are rapidly fading with the sunlight.
I see the outline of the ruin of a castle on the hill – realizing this is all I am going to actually see of it.
“Dürnstein was first mentioned in 1192, when, in the castle above the town, King Richard I Lionheart of England was held captive by Duke Leopold V of Austria after their dispute during the Third Crusade,” I learn from Wikipedia. “Richard had personally offended Leopold by casting down his standard from the walls at the Battle of Acre, and the duke suspected that King Richard ordered the murder of his cousin Conrad of Montferrat in Jerusalem. In consequence Pope Celestine III excommunicated Leopold for capturing a fellow crusader. The duke finally gave the custody of Richard to Emperor Henry VI, , who imprisoned Richard at Trifels Castle. Dürnstein Castle was almost completely destroyed by the troops of the Swedish Empire under Field Marshal Lennart Torstenson in 1645.
There is also Dürnstein Abbey (Stift Dürnstein), established in 1410 by Canons Regular from Trebon. It was rebuilt beginning in 1710 in a Baroque style according to plans by Joseph Munggenast, Jakob Prandtauer and Matthias Steinl. The monastery was dissolved by order of Emperor Joseph II in 1788 and fell to the Herzogenburg Priory.
Even though the major attractions are closed, still, as we come to the town, and ride through on narrow cobblestone streets, it is the most enchanting scene of our trip. We ride through a gate, and looking back, I realize that the whole town is the castle. I’ve seen it!
It is so enchanting, it is no wonder that Dürnstein is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the Wachau region. I make a mental note of the most charming hotel, Hotel Schloss Dürnstein, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux.
We ride the last 7 or so miles in the dark and manage to get separated. At this point, I am grateful that I have arranged for our cell phones to be used for text and international calls (we only turn the phones on when we need to use them to avoid unnecessary charges), but I am remarkably calm.
I wait at the gate to the city of Stein, another incredibly charming old city. I am contentedly taking photos of the gate in a yellow glow of the street light, waiting for some interesting form to pass through, when the boys catch up (they were only behind me because they thought I took a wrong turn).
By now, the green signs with blue symbol and white bike image and arrow pointing the way to go (some even giving the distance to the next place) that mark the Danube Bike Trail are such a comfort, I regard each one as a personal friend, companion, the unseen force watching over, knowing where we are and where we want to go.
It doesn’t take long to ride through Stein, with its gorgeous old buildings and open squares decorated with baroque statues.
Then, all of a sudden it seems, we are in Krems, a major city by the standard of the countryside we have been riding in for the past few days – a university, actual street lights and roundabouts for traffic. We get lost trying to find the hotel, though the instructions are actually quite clear (a carnival being set up in the local park, blocking the route, is what put us off).
The Parkhotel-Krems, is wonderfully situated just opposite the park, and walking distance to the old city. It is a small city-style hotel. It is after 9 pm when we arrive, settle in, and walk back to the square. It is a small city-style hotel – there is internet access in the lobby, a bar lounge.
We find the most delightful outdoor cafe at the Sudtiroler Platz, the major square just in front of the gate to the old city, where I finally get my apple strudel that I have been craving since we arrived. It was arguably the best in the world (2.7E).
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, visit www.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, Days 5-6: Krems-Tulln-Vienna
On the Danube Bike Trail: Seeing Vienna by Bike
Friday, 15 June, 2012
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