Self-Guided Trip from Passau-Vienna is Ideal for Family
by Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman and Dave E. Leiberman
We are biking through a village in the Austrian countryside. I have been keeping a 6-minute/mile pace (fast for me) since 4:30 pm, nearly four hours ago, in a hurry to get to our guesthouse in Au before dark, at 8:30 pm, and it is nearly that now.
We had a late start – basically because we backtracked much of what we were supposed to do yesterday – and did not even start today’s ride until 4:30 pm. I realize I would have to cram about five or six hours of riding which we have been averaging a day (okay, that includes photo stops), into those four hours. As luck would have it, a section of the Danube Bike Trail we are riding is under construction, so we are detoured, and lose the trail. We find ourselves amid cornfields with a rough idea of where we need to get to pick up the trail again, but in these fields, you can find yourself riding in a circle.
I find the way out of the fields to the main road which can get us to the town that is our destination, but my two 20-something sons with whom I am sharing this adventure, being a lot more adventurous and game to explore, want to follow what they think is an alternate bike trail through the farms. I am usually game to explore, except that I am concerned about being stuck in the dark. Still, I follow their lead…
Today’s adventure, on just our third day on the trail, is one I will remember forever.
Our biking trip along the Danube Bike Trail 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 is exceeding 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.
What is more, we are doing a self-guided trip: our route has been mapped out for us 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.
The Danube Bike Trail – Donauradweg, as it is known and clearly identified on these wonderful green signs that are so reassuring as they point the way – goes for about 2875 kilometers (1786 miles) through six countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine), following the Danube, Europe’s second longest river. From the first moments we get on the trail, It is no wonder why the Danube Bike Trail is the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe.
During the course of our eight-day adventure, we will travel about 210 miles of it, almost entirely in Austria once we leave Passau, Germany. This section of the trail is remarkably mostly flat and in fact, traveling east from Passau to Vienna, seems to slope slightly downhill – except for where we veer off to visit places, which always seem to be at a high elevation.
The biggest surprise of all, which we find even on our first day, is that the trail doesn’t just follow alongside the river which after awhile can actually be boring. Instead, it goes off into medieval villages, small towns, passes through farms and fields, beside and below magnificent castles, abbeys and ruins and is almost always interesting and colorful. The changing scenery keeps me in a constant state of enthrall. I find myself constantly stopping to take photos – so much so that the fellows try to impose a quota (good luck with that).
The trail is paved and almost traffic-free (you are actually surprised to share the road with cars who are coming to the same guest houses and beaches as we are). The trail follows an old horse path along the Danube, where teams of horses once towed barges upstream. After just a few days in the countryside, it is a bit jarring when we finally get to a city that has a traffic light, and then finally we reach our destination, the magnificent city of Vienna, which is remarkably and wonderfully biker-friendly.
(To shorten a day’s riding, you can often board a train or ship along the way. Many trains have cars specifically for bicycles, and ships carry them with no problem as well. )
The trail usually runs along both sides of the Danube, sometimes only along one side, and from time to time we cross the river, over dams, locks and bridges and sometimes in small ferries.
What is more, we are doing a self-guided trip: our route has been mapped out but we can linger over breakfast and start out the day when we want, veer off the road to visit, stop for photos where we like, discover a beer garden or a cafe. But 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.
I had only gotten the idea of a self-guided bike trip in Europe after a chance meeting on the AutoTrain from Florida, sitting at breakfast with a man who said he had done just that with his family.
After researching various bike tour operators, I found Bike Tours Direct – which offers 300 tours in 40 countries. It was their recommendation to do the Danube Bike Trail – I had not heard of it before.
The company was great to work with – providing detailed paperwork that answers every question that pops into your head, a reassuring sign “we’ve been here before, done this before, we know what you will need)- what to do before, packing, getting to the start of the ride, even detailing where to catch the train, providing timetables and fares.
They provide maps of the routes, photos and descriptions of all the hotels we are booked in, contact phone numbers and a list of bike repair shops along the way.
They tell us to bring our bike helmets since we won’t be able to rent them but that bike lights are provided. (Tip: bring your own water bottles, at least four, because you will be able to fill them each day from the sink.)
Though we do not have an actual guide and swag along, their careful attention makes us feel they are invisibly watching out for us, especially the way we leave our baggage out in one hotel and it miraculously appears again in the next. We are armed with telephone numbers if we need help or a repair shop.
Another advantage is that self-guided trips are substantially less expensive than escorted ones – I estimate around 40% less.
But I feel confident about doing a self-guided trip: my older son, Dave, has already led a 4,000-mile bike trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific from Yale University, raising money and awareness for Habitat for Humanity, so I feel confident he can follow the route laid out for us.
Dave and Eric were angling for an even bolder, more independent trip where you don’t have a set route and you find your own hostels or hotels, but I (wisely) realize the benefit, the creature comfort of knowing where I am going, what guest house to aim for that day without worrying about shopping rates or availability, and have our luggage transported for us magically reappearing each evening when we arrive at our destination, especially when you have only eight days to travel.
I think the self-guided trip is an appropriate compromise between the wing-it style trip that my sons want to do, and an adventure without unnecessary hassle of figuring out routes and finding appropriate lodging each night.
And I am proved right… as I realize the first day we arrive.
Bike Tours Direct offers three different categories of accommodation – I opt for the least expensive category (C) which is billed as “mainly three-star hotels.” I imagine these to be little better than hostels or the basic hotels I stayed in when I traveled around Europe as a college student, which is what we would have had had we traveled on our own. We are more than pleasantly surprised – actually ecstatic – that the hotels are the most charming, well located guesthouses and inns and small city hotels, wonderfully comfortable with private bathrooms, television, some offered WiFi, and each providing a marvelous buffet breakfast served in charming settings. Even more wonderfully, one that gave us that “authenticity” and sense of place.
The Adventure Begins
Our adventure starts when we land in Munich, the gateway I choose after doing my research and finding it to be a relatively low-cost gateway to Europe. But our journey actually starts with Air Berlin. As I was planning, each search for low-fare carrier into Europe brought up Air Berlin, through its Dusseldorf hub.
I love traveling foreign flag carriers. Your adventure starts from the moment you step on the plane. The international carriers still offer the niceties and amenities we associate with the golden age of air travel, that have been stripped away from domestic airline service.
We are flying coach, and still have a lovely dinner served with wine and an after-dinner drink, though they charge 3 Euro for the headset to see the movies on the personal TV (bring your own). They give us pillows and blankets. (See Air Berlin story)
It is very early in the morning when we land at Dusseldorf, go through Immigration, and change planes for Munich. We don’t have to be at our hotel in Passau until the late afternoon and the fellows think they want to go into Munich. But I do a calculation in my head, taking into account that we have all our luggage with us, and make a command decision that it is not worth it to travel 40 minutes back into Munich for the hour or two we would have, and then have the extra 40 minutes travel time to Passau. (A better idea is to have scheduled a night or two in Munich before connecting to the bike tour).
Bike Tours Direct has given us specific instructions about catching a shuttle bus from the airport to the train station in Frensing, even supplying timetables for the train.
Even though we are three people, we discover that it is cheaper to buy a Saver Ticket, where a family of five can travel for 31E ($41) – much less than the Canadian couple paid for their advance ticket.
Our train, with a giant picture of a bike on the side, caters to bikers – there is a large area to stand up the bikes, so we can take a cushioned seat. It travels so smoothly and silently.
I am struck how just outside of Munich, the landscape gives way to farms and a lush countryside.
We pass by old farmhouses with solar arrays on the roof; smart cars, and a nuclear plant belching white smoke.
We see things and say, “Why don’t we do it that way?” This is the best part of travel, to bring home new ideas, see a different way of doing things, and most significantly, bursting pre-conceptions, stereotypes.
This is one of the benefits of travel that takes you outside your own narrow sphere. You feel like Marco Polo.
Passas, City on Three Rivers
It is early-afternoon when we arrive in Passau – that first sight of buildings hundreds of years old, a bridge across the river that frames the most beautiful scene that I had in my head when I was imagining this adventure.
Passau is exactly as I would imagine an Old World European city to be – that word, “charming” – picturesque, pleasant- narrow twisting cobblestone streets, the elaborate, imposing churches at the high point and central point. Passau is “the City on Three rivers” – where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers converge.
Passau is a popular starting point for the Danube Bike Trail, and the city is a bikers paradise – it seems that the entire town is overrun by cyclists.
The taxi drops us at the guesthouse, Am Jesuitenschlossl-Passau, but it is still early and the room will not be ready for a couple of hours.
The fellows are tired after our trip, but I am not going to miss an opportunity to see Passau bathed in this glorious sunlight, so I lose no time, and set out for my “great explore”. Walking from our guesthouse, I pass a brewery, a playground, a pissoir, Shiske Lounge, the Cineplex where “Captain America” is playing. When you are in a foreign country, you are sensitized to what is different and what is the same; everything is interesting.
I walk across that picturesque bridge into the heart of the historic district, a see a rush of bicyclists coming in the other direction.
I come upon St. Paul Church, originally built 1050 (my mind tries to wrap around the date). This is the “modern” building, rebuilt 1663-1678.
At the dock, there is a line of hotel barges – grand affairs, ready for their Danube River cruise.
The city is largely dominated by St. Steven’s Cathedral, which claims to have the world’s largest organ (17,974 pipes). The original church was destroyed in 977; the present structure, modeled on the cathedral in Salzburg, was completed in 1695 and is regarded as the largest Baroque religious building north of the Alps. It has a plaque honoring war dead of 1833. The enormous door alone is marvelous to behold. The bell tower strikes the hour. I walk through a massive courtyard, ringed by what I think are tombstones; one tombstone mystifies me: I can make out a name, Leopold Graf Trapp, but it appears to have the name of God in Hebrew etched into it. There is no one to ask, so it remains a delightful mystery in my mind.
I wander around and get wonderfully lost.
I make my way back to the Jesuitschule guesthouse on the opposite side of the river. My room is comfortable, simple, a bit spartan- there is no air conditioning, but I have a TV with remote (none of the programs are in English, but that is perfectly okay).
When I check into the hotel, I get a fax when the representative for the local tour company will be coming by with our bikes and hotel vouchers.
Justin, the representative for DonauRadFreunde Travel Agency (the operator for BikeToursDirect), comes by our guesthouse about 6:30 pm to bring our vouchers, bikes (they have asked us in advance our height, but he brings extras to make sure they are properly fitted), and maps, plus an extraordinarily detailed guidebook that becomes our Bible.
I expect him to stay 15 minutes but he spends nearly an hour going over the route and adjusting the bikes. The Danube Bike Trail is actually two trails – one on each side of the river – and he recommends when to ride on the north or the south side, where to take the ferry across or a bridge, what sights and attractions to look for, even where to find a great cafe or restaurant and where to go for the best views.
He draws arrows on the map to show direction, and pinpoints places we should visit – a lakefront recreation area where we can swim, Marie Telfri, Melk Abbey, Linz, Enns, Mauthausen Memorial Center (Austria’s largest concentration camp, he explains when I tell him I had never heard of it before). In Vienna, where we end our trip, he tells us the name of a café with a 101-year old waiter.
I take notes, not sure of the spelling of the names, and during our trip, find myself going back to the notes often.
Our trip may be self-guided, but I am thrilled to have the benefit of all the planning and experience, especially since I now realize that it is much more than just following point A to point B.
Some 200 people start on the trail each day, he tells us. “Start either before 8 or after 9” because the Germans are precise about leaving between 8-9 – so if we leave before or after we won’t have a crowd (he’s right… we never have crowd).
Justin fits us to the bikes and it is a good thing he has brought some extras. He gives us a patch kit and spare tire, locks and keys, panniers, shows us how to work the Halogen bike lights (they are amazing- no battery, they run on pedal power!)
He also tells us it is okay to drink water from the sink. “What do you think, this is a third-world country?” he says with mock annoyance (that tip, though, saves us a fortune on bottled water, since we refill our bottles each day at the guesthouse).
By now, the sun is nearly setting – there is still some pink and purple in the sky when we bike over the bridge into the center of Passau.
We wander around looking for restaurants – I push them toward the picturesque riverfront area where I think I saw some. We choose Koniglich Bayrisch. We choose some traditional favorites spaetzel and schnitzel and have the local beer.
This proves to be one of our favorite pastimes – finding local places to eat, trying the house specialty and settling into the atmosphere.
(For more information on visiting Passau.)
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.
On the Danube Bike Trail, Day 2: Eferding-Linz-Au
On the Danube Bike Trail, Day 3: Au/Donau-Mauthausen-Enns-Persenbeug
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
Friday, 4 May, 2012
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