Cruising and cycling the Danube in Germany: The Melk run

Peace and fragrant loveliness inhabit the green hills of Austria's Wachau Valley on the Danube. Add a heavy bike with slipping gears, however, plus a posse of testosterone-fuelled fellas and suddenly, the hills are alive with irritation.

For someone who cycles regularly, it's a no-brainer to jump at the option of cycling a particularly scenic stretch of the Danube from Durnstein – the medieval village with its Richard the Lionheart associations – to Melk with its remarkable Benedictine abbey.

It's only a 32-kilometre cycle of about three hours along the undulating cycle tracks beside the Danube, with one two-kilometre hill. Easy.

This is clearly the reaction of the couple of dozen cruisers who, cocktails in hand, gaily add their names to the list of people keen for some en plein air exercise on our APT 15-day Magnificent Europe Budapest to Amsterdam cruise.

We are, after all, expanding exponentially thanks to the bacchanalian feasts aboard our river cruise ship, the AmaBella, plus the constant, wicked sipping and snacking on cakes, biscuits, champagne and cocktails.

The next morning, our cruise director offers an ominous warning about difficulty levels of "four out of five". This ensures that many of these same bike aficionados storm reception to enthusiastically scratch out their names.

Perhaps it's the right choice. It's not the cycle difficulty that's the problem, it's the bikes – heavy hub-gear behemoths with three-speed handlebar twist gears, some of which seem to be missing teeth.

My 27-speed lightweight hybrid resting at home would easily have handled the hills, the wind and the gung-ho lads, who receive a scolding from our exasperated bike guide for their combative riding – apparently they are "trying to keep up with the AmaBella" so they can wave importantly to admirers.

In the face of such obstacles, the terraced vineyards, apricot orchards, hilltop medieval castles and cobbled villages recede. Shoulders hunched, legs straining, expletives erupting, I decide that my heart's desire is for river cruises to swap most of the heavy on-board manual bikes for e-bikes. Less lactic acid, more landscape.

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You can understand why they stock them – heavy usage, but there's a case for changing the equation. Keep a few by all means but offer a greater number of e-bikes. The Wachau River Valley is a 30-kilometre-long stretch between Krems and Melk, named a World Heritage spot in 2000 because of its cornucopia of monasteries, castles, ruins, medieval villages, plus its superior wine production.

The valley traps the summer warmth, feeding about 1500 hectares of white grape varieties, including gruner veltliner, riesling, weissburgunder, muskateller and sauvignon blanc. Wineries dot the bike path, but we must speed to Melk to rejoin the cruise and tour the cream-and-yellow baroque abbey that towers above the Danube. Before our bike departure, we walk into the cobbled, medieval town of Durnstein, dating from about 1050 – some fortifications, walls and towers still exist. About 160 metres above the town looms Durnstein Castle where in 1193 Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned during the Crusades.

Charming Durnstein, one of Austria's smallest towns with about 900 residents, also has a magnificent baroque church. And you can't walk far in the town without encountering the Wachauer Marille or apricot.

This sweet valley specialty is a food with a "protected designation of origin" in the EU. There's apricot brandy or Marillenschnaps, bright orange apricot jam, chutney, syrup, marmalade, even Marillenknoedel or apricot dumplings.

Fortified by history and apricots, we join our bike ride, noting only three e-bikes. We note for too long – they're nabbed. It's irksome to be passed on every hill by a 20-something not even breaking a sweat.

We basically ride like the clappers along the undulating path, the "boys" urging one another along ahead, my partner's groaning echoing from behind as his gears spin devilishly. We stop only briefly for water and to cross the Danube by ferry. The wind rises, giving new meaning to the term "cycling upstream".

Finally, we reach Melk, whose library inspired Umberto Eco to write Name of the Rose. Naturally, the tour involves 64 steps down to the abbey from the carpark and 64 up again. The "boys" and their testosterone are nowhere in sight.

This lovely stretch of the Danube attracts connoisseurs, hedonists and epicureans. Next time, I intend to join them on an e-bike.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Singapore Airlines flies daily to Budapest and Amsterdam from Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com

CRUISE

APT's Magnificent Europe 15-day River Cruise Amsterdam-Budapest and reverse costs $6995 per person with a Fly Free deal or Fly Business Class deal for $3995. Tours operate from March to December. For more information, see aptouring.com.au or call 1300 196 420

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises/river-cruises

traveller.com.au/germany

germany.travel

Alison Stewart was a guest of APT

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