by Karen Rubin
Our biking trip along the Danube Bike Trail from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria has been a trip of a lifetime for me, marking a milestone that took meticulous research and planning. With such high hopes, I am delighted how this trip exceeded my wildest dreams, from being immersed into the architecture, culture, history and landscapes of Old Europe, to the exhilaration and freedom you feel by using a bicycle as your main mode of transportation. It is a joy to travel at the pace and have the perspective from the slightly higher perch of a bicycle seat. There are no windows or motors between us and our surroundings, and we get to interact with local people and fellow travelers along the road.
I traveled with my two 20-something sons on an eight-day self-guided trip: our route has been mapped out for us by the Bike Tours Direct local bike tour operator, but we have the flexibility to linger over breakfast and start out the day when we want, veer off the road to visit some attraction, stop for photos where we like, discover a biergarten or a cafe. And we still have the benefits of an organized trip: all our hotel arrangements are made, and our baggage is transferred each day, magically appearing each evening as we arrive in a new destination. The hotels are perfection – local, authentic, charming, extremely comfortable and well located.
Our journey is as perfect as can be, but includes the few things that don’t according to plan that are form the most endearing and cherished memories of a travel experience.
Like the detour and getting lost and finding the route through the cornfields – or frantically crossing the bridge from Enns, riding with the auto traffic to Mauthausen because we found the ferry closed for the day at 7 pm and it was 7:18 pm.
Figuring out the signs (or not), especially the ones that say Verboten; watching TV in German, deciphering menus when waiters do not speak English.
Pedal power – the opportunity to see and engage the world at the pace and perspective of a bicycle, is an extraordinary experience. The physical exertion adds to the experience – engaging that part of the brain and releasing the endorphins. You feel you are participating in the scene, rather than watching it pass you by through a window. There is a cinemagraphic aspect to it – the scene constantly changing – but it is you who are moving.
Bike Tours Direct, the US-based-broker for local biking operators around the world (they offer some 300 tours in 40 countries), was marvelous to work with, advising me on which of their huge catalog of bike tours would be best for my particular interests. From their recommendation (picturesque, culturally interesting, relatively flat), I settled on the Danube Bike Trail which proved to be the most idyllic in every way – spectacularly scenic, every peddle push of the wheel brought you to a marvelous scene, very varied, easy to bike, and packed with fascinating sights to visit along the way. The route also is remarkably flat – mostly going along the river or just off it, through villages. and though I picked the Passau-Vienna route, instead of the Vienna-Passau route mainly because Munich proved the cheaper, most direct gateway (Air Berlin had the best fare), I discovered that the Danube flows east toward Vienna, so that the route actually sloped slightly in that direction, making it a little easier, still.
Bike Tours Direct also picked a real winner for the local operator, DonauRadFreunde Travel Agency: the trip was superbly planned and coordinated, and offered excellent value for money, especially with the self-guided option.
The self-guided option proved ideal: a great compromise with adventure that my adult sons who wanted a total free-spirited adventure, and me, who wanted the convenience of not having to figure out a route, work my way through foreign-language maps, arrive at a town and first have to find a hotel, and not have to haul our stuff on our backs or bikes (as we saw many people do).
A self-guided trip means that our luggage was taken each day to the next pre-booked hotel, that we were provided maps, that our rental bikes were properly sized and waiting for us at the first stop, that we got directions (even train schedules and fares) between the airport and the first and last stops on the itinerary.
The self-guided tour, we found, is the best of both worlds – as organized as needs to be yet free to go at our own pace.
And as we discovered, it gave us wonderful flexibility to explore, stop for photos, linger over breakfast, stop at a biergarten. We had all the advantages of a guided trip – marked maps, pre-arranged hotels, livery of our luggage – and still had the adventure we wanted.
And, when I calculated the cost of booking the hotels on my own, the value is tremendous. Self-guided cycling trips are also significantly less expensive than guided tours, perhaps as much as 40% less.
I was very impressed with the pre-trip information provided by Bike Tours Direct – the packing list especially, and the detailed instructions on how to get to each place, beginning with how to get to the train station from the Munich Airport (shuttle bus, the fare, even the schedule), the schedule for trains (we were happily surprised to find we could purchase a family fare at less cost than a single adult ticket purchased in advance from the US by another couple), and how to get to the first hotel in Passau (taxi proved to be the best way, but it was the only taxi we ever needed to take during our trip), as well as how to get to the train station in Vienna, the end point of the trip.
Before we left the US, I had a list of all the hotels, but not the actual vouchers. When we checked into the first hotel in Passau, I received a fax telling me that the bike company rep would arrive early evening with the bikes, vouchers and guide materials.
I called the company to arrange for the guide to come earlier, and he did. He brought a selection of bikes (the company had already asked for our sizes to make sure they would have appropriate bikes), and we tried them out, and he made any adjustments, fitted them with panniers, gave us a repair kit and spare tire. We also received the most wonderful Danube Bike Trail book (one per room).
Then he provided us with sheets that detailed the route for our trip, and spent about an hour with us telling us which side of the Danube to travel on because of the sightseeing features or because the trail was better (there is a north and south Danube trail); how you cross over on bridges and ferries (ferries cost about 2E each trip and take a few minutes, however, he forgot to warn us that the ferries shut down at a certain hour). He marked on the trail where the hotel was on the route for each night (based on the book, we could approximate how many kilometers we would need to travel each day), and our instruction sheet gave precise information on how to find the hotel from the route, and how to get back to the trail the next day (some of the hotels were located on the route and were never more than a short distance off it).
The hotels were the most delightful surprise of all. I booked the “C” category (the lowest cost), expecting these to be modest, very local hotels (I mean, if we would have done the trip purely ourselves, we would be looking at hostels), and, remembering back to by college backpacking days, was expecting bathrooms to be located down the hall. In fact, each of the hotels was charming, comfortable, immaculately clean, with private bathrooms and televisions (some had Internet available); each served breakfast in a charming dining room, and each guesthouse also offered a restaurant for dinner.
We could have purchased a dinner option, but I made a good choice in opting for having more choices when we traveled. One of the pleasures was finding local restaurants, and sometimes we just got hungry before we reached the hotel or guesthouse and would find a lovely place along the route in a village. Twice, though, we arrived so late, the guesthouse accommodated us for dinner and this was most pleasant, as well.
One of these was the Jägerwirt, which proved the most charming of all. Located just off the trail, amid cornfields and farms, we rode the last hour in dusk and made it to the guesthouse just as full darkness set in (thank goodness for the bike lights) at 8:30 pm. The proprietor, Johanna Landerl a delightful woman who is also the chef, said there would be no problem in having dinner (especially since there was nothing else around), and her recipes were absolutely inspired, gorgeous presentation (we were struck by a flowers that looked exactly like parrots, arranged around the lip of a glass of water). It was the best meal of our trip, washed down with the local beer.
The book you receive at your start hotel is Danube Bike Trail, a 200-page, English-language book of maps, route information, sightseeing, and photographs in a 9″x5″ book format made especially for cycling.
The bike book became our Bible, providing details about important sights to see along the way (even hours of operation), in one case, advising that route on the north side of the Danube was more physically arduous and involved getting closer to cars than the south side which was recommended for families with children (that’s for me!). But it always was simplest to revert back to the map with the hand-drawn directional arrows and stops marked on it by Justin, the BikeToursDirect representative, and the notes I made from our first evening.
I thought we would be riding about 30-35 miles a day, but somehow, it seemed to work out more to 40-60 miles, partly because we got lost, or missed the ferry, or had a detour, or we backtracked to do what we missed the day before. And that was fine, because you aren’t riding continuously, and because the trail is mostly flat, even going slightly downhill in the easterly Passau-Vienna direction.
Expect to ride 4-6 hours a day, and take 2-4 hours for sightseeing. That’s not a problem in summer when the days are long (got dark at 8:30 pm).. Our routine was to start off at about 10:30 am and arrive at 8:30 pm. If you want to ride less during the day or sightsee more, you can opt for the 9 or 10-day trip instead. Otherwise you should arrange for at least one night in Munich before the start of the trip, and at least two nights in Vienna at the end.
Being self-guided, we are mostly on our own, without the benefit of a van in case that day’s ride was too arduous, as guided trips usually have. But if it would have been necessary (which it wasn’t), we could have taken a train or ship along the way. Many trains have cars specifically for bicycles, and ships carry them with no problem as well. And we had phone numbers for repair shops along the way.
A bike holiday is definitely, the best way to see, experience and travel the world.
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. Tours in new destinations such as Cambodia, Tibet, Jordan, Mexico, Bhutan, and Nepal add to programs in ever-popular regions like Tuscany, Provence, and the Loire and Danube Valleys.
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.
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