Who says cruising isn't for the active? Brian Johnston pedals the Danube Cycle Path through vineyards and a millennium of history on a Uniworld river cruise in Austria.
The thought of a cycle ride in Austria has me eyeing up my cabin's curtains. Snip snip, and I could have a pair of patterned shorts to rival those worn by the von Trapp family kids. This stretch of river isn't Salzburg, but would fit right into that movie of nuns, Nazis and saccharine sentiment. The riverbanks here pop with dandelions, poplar trees line up like soldiers on parade, and there's even an abbey on a buff above our ship, Maria Theresa.
It's day four of my river cruise on the Danube between Passau and Budapest and we're docked at Melk. Perhaps I've had a few too many favourite things in the past few days. Uniworld's food is, as ever, hard to refuse. Perhaps just another slice of Roquefort or Sachertorte? Oh, okay then, why not. After all, I've signed up for a cycling tour, and can delude myself into imagining I'm going to pedal it all off.
We gather on the riverbank, giddy with the pleasure of a fine morning. Wisps of mist rise off the water, and herons strut. I wouldn't be surprised if someone broke out a guitar and started strumming. Instead, off we drift in a shoal behind our Uniworld tour guide along the cycle path. We pass teenagers fishing, old men ruminating on village benches, Romanians clipping vines, ding-donging fellow cyclists.
The pathway skirts hills and occasional small cliffs. This slice of Austrian Danube wallows through a fat, fertile valley of apricot orchards and vines. Honesty boxes by the roadside tempt with fruit that oozes summer sun. The region's peppery Grüner Veltliner wine and its plump apricot dumplings will feature on the menu aboard Maria Theresa that evening.
A castle looms across the river as if it has just fallen out of a fairytale.
Our ride is about 30 kilometres. At first, I'm slightly worried, since this is longer than an earlier cycling tour in Passau, where we'd cycled 20 kilometres up the German side of the Inn River (cobbled old town, contemporary university campus, mossy forest) and back down the Austrian side (cow-chewed fields, snug farmland, hydroelectric dam). Our tour leader, Andy, a long-shanked cyclist and cross-country skier, had set a pace as spanking as a wild goose flying with the moon on its wings.
This ride, though longer, takes a more sedate pace. No need to be clad in wobbling Lycra or pretend to be a contender in the Tour de France. Happily, there's a rest stop halfway at a riverside shack with beer on tap and the chance to indulge in a sausage, something one ought to do at every opportunity in Austria.
For the most part, we follow the river in the downstream direction on a concrete, dedicated cycleway that is almost flat, meaning we seldom have to tackle gear changes. Occasionally, we detour for a stickybeak into villages where frescoed houses cluster around fountain-splashed squares. There are brief uphills, but polite waits for stragglers.
For such a short river stretch, the Danube here squeezes in a startling range of history. The Celts, Romans and Habsburgs all recognised its strategic importance. Europe's oldest work of art, a fertility fetish nearly 30,000 years old, was unearthed in one of the villages we cycle through. The curvaceous Venus of Willendorf appears to have eaten far too many schnitzels with noodles and crisp apple strudels.
Onwards we cycle through Schwallenbach, where red-roofed houses hunker amid vineyards. The village is medieval in its austerity, but the baroque era is most apparent on this part of the Danube. Our cycle ride is sandwiched between the opulent yellow pile of Melk Abbey and the distinctive blue-and-white belfry of Dürnstein's wedding-cake parish church. Part of a former Augustine monastery, the church is a baroque clash of dimpled cupids and grinning skeletons in glass coffins.
Uniworld's ship Maria Theresa passes us as we near Dürnstein. It gives a great hoot and we wave back. We're smug with self-congratulation, glad that we've chosen to cycle instead of sit on the ship, delightful as it might be. On this cycle path, we can smell the roses. Wildflowers are an Impressionist blur in the hedgerows. A castle looms across the river as if it has just fallen out of a fairytale.
Dürnstein is our finishing point. Julie Andrews could sing a corny song about it. Old-town ramparts, hill-clinging houses and a coronet of ruined castle sit between cliffs on a tight Danube bend that dissolved into vineyards, creating the most picturesque spot on the Austrian Danube. By day it's awash in river-cruise passengers and day-trippers from Vienna, but we've missed most of that. By the time I've showered and nipped out to a cellar door on a second Uniworld excursion, Dürnstein is almost deserted.
With what remains of my energy, I shuffle through cobbled streets and clamber up to the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held for ransom in 1193. The view is another of my favourite things here in this happy corner of Europe, even if the hills are occasionally alive with the sounds of my muscle-aching groans.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Uniworld.
CYCLING IN EUROPE
If Uniworld's cycling excursion inspires you, then the extended Donauradweg or Danube Cycle Path (donauradweg.at) offers many more pedalling pleasures. It's one of the best cycle routes in Europe, hugging the north bank of the Danube River for 365 scenic kilometres – nearly all in Austria – between Passau in Germany and Bratislava in Slovakia. Linz and Vienna are the biggest cities along the route.
You could tackle the cycle yourself, as the region is well set up for tourism and signposts are clear and omnipresent. However, various companies such as Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com) offer organised cycling tours with accommodation and luggage transfers.
If you're really ambitious, a network of Eurovelo cycle paths (eurovelo.com) meanders clear across Europe. The Danube Cycle Path is just one section of Route 6, which runs 4,400 kilometres from Nantes on France's Atlantic Coast to Constanta in Romania on the Black Sea.
Uniworld's two 10-day itineraries 'Enchanting Danube and Munich' (which runs between March and November 2018) and 'Enchanting Danube and Prague' (May to November 2018) incorporate city hotel stays followed by a river cruise between Passau and Budapest. Prices from $5599 for an all-inclusive fare.
Complimentary 'Go Active' guided cycling tours are offered on the Danube and Inn Rivers. The ship also carries its own bicycles, allowing for individual exploration in destinations such as Vienna and Budapest. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com/au