Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Cycling the Danube from Germany to Vienna

Danube Trail, Austria, Planet Backpacker
The Danube Trail runs through Austria's wine country. A good time to ride is during the fall harvest.
By Robert Downes
From the book, 'Planet Backpacker'


 
  The Danube Bike Trail is the most popular in Europe for good reason.  It runs several hundred miles from the headwaters of the Danube River in France to Budapest in Hungary.
   The most popular stretch of trail is from Passau in southern Germany to Vienna, Austria.  This 225-mile route runs mostly along an old ox path beside the river that has the advantage of being traffic-free (whereas other stretches of the trail run along busy highways).  Following is an excerpt from the book, Planet Backpacker.

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Europe's best bike tour route
Danube Bike Trail, Austria, Planet Backpacker
Cycing the mustard fields along the Danube in Austria.
Der Donau
Linz, Austria


   My heart lifts the next morning when I get my first glimpse of Der Donau (The Danube) beyond the onion dome steeples, winding streets and passageways of old Passau.
   Passau was a frontier fortress town created by the Romans.  The town flowered under the Germans in medieval times, providing a gateway to Austria with the convergence of three rivers.
   Soon I am peddling along a broad, smooth lane by the river -- an old towpath.  One couldn’t ask for a sweeter trail.  Castles and towers dot the high hills above the Danube, which brims with tour boats, ferries and freighters.  An occasional propellor-powered paraglider wafts over the river, while to my left, a stream of Porsches, Mercedes, and BMW motorcycles glide by.  
   You encounter hundreds of cyclists throughout the day, and many outdoor cafès and hotels, all catering to bicyclists who come to ride the famous Danube Trail.  Your senses are filled with the aroma of the dank river and the sticky-sweet fermentation of fallen apples.
   Lunch is at a pathside cafè along the Danube with sauerbraten, potato pancakes, salad, potato salad and a huge dumpling.  Dinner is a calzone with chianti. These Austrians know how to eat, ja?
   I resist my natural inclination to be a gear-jamming miles-monkey and resolve to go slow, savoring the ride. I dawdle through the day like a kid on a tricycle -- no worries.  Time to stop for a bite of chocolate?  Why not...  Just 40 miles down the path, I find a campsite beneath an ancient castle tower and call it good.
    The next day I roll into Linz, a city which still has a touch of its medieval glory.   Adolph Hitler once attended school here and planned to make Linz the capital of his empire.  Wonder what the old master-race freak would say if he knew there are lots of well-to-do black African-Austrians living here now, looking quite confident and at home?  Funny how things turn out.
   Oh, by the way, despite what you may have heard about everyone speaking English in Germany, that’s definitely not true -- and even more so here in Austria.  Fortunately, my facility for foreign languages has improved with age, and I muddle along with a phrase book and my brand of cartoon German, vich involves talken mitten de nonsensigen endizens, in hopens dat der volks vill understanden me ser gut.

Camp Life
Somewhere on the Danube


  This being October, it’s completely dark by 7 p.m.  That means you start scrounging around for a campsite sometime around 5:30 to have time to put up your tent, have dinner and make coffee.  It can be a lengthy process, cooking on a  Titanium stove that burns a shot of pure alcohol.
   Since there’s no hope whatsoever of having a fire (not even the campgrounds have them, much less a clandestine campsite), I’m in my tent reading at sundown.  I carefully arrange my junk at the lower end of the tent, using my pack to prop up my back for reading by a lithium-powered booklight.  But soon enough, I need this thing or that -- more clothing to keep warm or a candy bar or whatever -- and the tiny dome tent looks like wild hogs have rampaged through it, rooting around for truffles.  My domain is also permanently damp as a result of being packed up wet the night before.
   I toss and turn most of the night.  Although I’ve got the thickest sleeping pad available -- the ‘comfort’ model that’s an inch-and-a-half thick -- it still feels like you’re sleeping on hardpan after an hour in the same position. Plus, it’s cold; so roll over, snuggle in a fetal position, wake up and roll again, on and on all night.
   By 6 a.m. you’re fully awake from having gone to sleep so early, but it’s still too dark, cold and damp to creep into the haze along the river.  So, more reading until you see the sun’s first glimmer. Then it’s time to get up shivering in your damp, smelly biking clothes and get the mess packed and on the road.
   But I like my little tent -- it feels like home.  And I can unzip a side panel and watch vast riverboats sliding by in the night, as long as football fields and lit up like Christmas.

Bandit on the Trail
Pohlarn, Austria


   When Austrians put a ‘camping’ symbol on a map, they don’t mean to suggest that there will be actual camping available.  I stopped at several of these ‘campgrounds’ only to find that they were long-established residential communities of old trailers on permanent foundations -- they’re basically holiday camps without a chance of any traveler actually camping there -- verboten!
   Yesterday afternoon, I pedalled for miles, only to be turned away.  What to do?  The sun was going down fast with nowhere to land. So I pedaled out of town a ways and found a pleasant spot on the river for a bandit camp.  But first, a picnic... It’s good to be back in that happy land where a bottle of wine costs less than a can of Coke or cup of coffee; so it was a pleasant time, sitting by the broad, still river, which shimmered and quaked with the colors of a pearl.  
   I reflected that for the long-distance traveler, the quality of being ‘intrepid’ is not something you choose or are born with -- it is simply a matter of necessity -- dealing with every curve ball thrown at you, often with a snap decision.
   Speaking of intrepid, an odd sight on the trail today was that of an enormous woman -- perhaps 300 lbs. -- peddling my way with both front and back panniers on her bike.  She looked quite strong, more muscle than fat -- huffing and blowing like a steam engine -- but I wondered how her bike managed to carry all that weight without snapping the frame.
   Was happy to have roused myself enough the next morning to avoid being run over by a huge tractor mower churning my way through the fog.  As usual, my tent was soaking wet, like it had rained all night -- only this was from the heavy dew of the river.
   Biking through Europe has made me realize how lucky we are as Americans. Most of these countries have none of the roadside parks or restrooms that we take for granted, and even an old stone hut can be a private tourist attraction that costs $5 to visit.
   In much of Europe, there is literally no public property -- even the wastelands belong to some lord or royal family. True, the big cities all have parks the size of airports, but these are usually the former hunting grounds of kings that were seized in violent revolutions (or donated by royals to forestall one). Out in the country, there is little in the way of parks or campgrounds for the common person. It makes me proud of America’s public parks and sharing spirit.
   On the other hand, the Europeans sure have some sweet bike paths, so call it a draw.
                                         ***
   The oddest camp was in the clubhouse of a rowing club in Pohlarn, Austria.  The club members let me crash on the floor there by the rowing machines -- it’s like staying at the Ritz after being out in the rough stuff.  And trusting? In the kitchen, there’s a drawer full of money they’ve left to the mercy of a stranger.
    At the clubhouse, I learn what Austrians do in their spare time, since it seems to be a rather dull country with no movie theaters, hardly any internet, and not much going on in the towns I’ve gone through... Opening a refrigerator door, I find it stuffed to the gills with beer and wine -- another room was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of empty bottles.  Rowing, biking and booze set the good times in Austria.
                                
Treasures on the Trail
Willendorf, Austria


   Have you ever been to Willendorf? It’s a tiny village where the 25,000-year-old ‘Venus of Willendorf’ was found.  The Venus is a nude sculpture of a fat cave woman with all of her stuff hanging out quite grotesquely -- considered to be the most beautiful Stone Age sculpture ever found. That’s not saying much...
   The museum in town offers a pictorial display of other sculptures from that period and they’re all fatties -- that was the feminine ideal back in Fred Flintstone’s time.  The Stoners were into big glacier gobs of fat glomming on the ladies in order to ensure the survival of the species against Neolithic starvation.
   The trail also passes the stupendous monastery of the Order of St. Benedict at Melk.  There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the decadent opulence of this place and its church. It’s like an explosion in a spaghetti factory, with cascades of golden foolerdoodle and religious brick-brac; paintings of cherubs and saints the size of barn doors on the ceiling and baroque gold curliques squirting all over the place like a madman’s wedding cake. 
   The greatest treasure at the monastery is the Cross of Melk, which is a fingernail-sized piece of the True Cross of Jesus, locked in crystal at the center of a large, elaborate cross of gold and jewels.  Also, the shinbones and assorted body parts of saints are fashioned into the centerpieces of crosses and chalices.  Imagine your shinbones becoming a tourist attraction and objects of veneration for 1,000 years -- some guys have all the luck.
   Then there are the usual corpses of saints under glass in the church, dressed in what looked to be spanking-new brocade of gold and bright colors of silk and satin, although not in the latest styles...  They are literally skeletons in party clothes, with -- believe it or not -- smiles on their mummified faces.  The Europeans are big on this sort of thing -- I’ve also seen corpses in Spanish cathedrals.  Imagine the Rev. Jerry Falwell under glass in a Baptist church in Virginia. Well why not, Bubby?
   It’s amazing that the Germanic people went from tree-worshipping barbarians to connoisseurs of such elaborate snickerdoodle in the space of a few hundred years.
   I can only imagine that some of these 16th century treasures were made from the gold looted from Aztec and Inca temples, far across the ocean, who in turn, got it from other folks they murdered.  The riches are meant to show the exaltation of God, but it feels more like you’re in the Temple of Mammon.  It didn’t feel too spiritual there until three Austrian churchmen started singing a cappella harmonies -- deep with soul -- which had all of the tourists spellbound.  We need more singing in the world, and less gold.
   In Melk, I see a tour group of around 40 American cyclists who are day-tripping down the Danube from inn-to-inn on upscale bikes with all of their gear carried in sag wagons.  It doesn’t look like much fun to me -- a packaged adventure.  
   They turn up their noses at my heavily-laden mountain bike which is strung with camping gear held in place with bungee cords.  Admittedly, I look like a traveling circus -- my bike resembles a rolling dragonfly with bulging panniers on either side and my guitar’s neck sticking far out over the back tire.  To them, I’m a weirdo -- to me they’re pussies with daypacks.  To each their own.
    That evening I make another bandit camp in a gully alongside the river and have a cheerless dinner of an apple and some bread slathered with Nutella, the European version of peanut butter, made of chocolate and hazel nuts.  It’s my only meal of the day, other than some bready stuff for breakfast.  Thank God for Nature Valley Maple Nut bars, the lembas of this trip which sustains me like the elven bread that nourished Frodo and Samwise on their trek to Mordor.
   Speaking of which, the pounds are melting from my body after nearly a month on the bike -- it feels like I’m 20 lbs. lighter.  Yet I seldom feel hungry -- traveling like this puts you in a state of ecstasy that’s literally mortifying.
   It’s funny how you can be way the hell out in the middle of nowhere and sure as shootin’, someone will show up at your clandestine campsite.  Even though I’m several miles from the nearest town, huddled in the woods in a gully by the river, a car passes by on a two-track road near my campsite close to midnight, with another car bumping down the trail in the early hours of the morning.

The Wedding Cake
Vienna, Austria


   After five days of riding along the Danube, the spires of Vienna rise in the mist far down the river.  Soon, I am in the ‘wedding cake’ of Europe, so named because of the crenelated towers, cathedrals, palaces and heroic statues at every turn.

   GETTING THERE: You can take your bike on most "local" trains in Europe. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible on some of the long-distance trains in France and other countries, so do your research.
   Germany still allows you to take your bike on the long-distance trains, however, so it's an easy matter to fly into Frankfurt, and make your way to Passau, just south of Munich.  From there, you simply get on your bike and ride.

   ACCOMMODATIONS: There are B&Bs and a very few campsites along the route, but they fill up fast because of hundreds of riders enjoying the trail.  Be sure to reserve in advance, unless you're camping out.

   RENTALS: Rent a Bike Passau is located in the train station Bahnhoftrasse 29, 94032 Passau at the west end of the station at platform 1.  Here's a link to their website: www.fahrradverleih-bahnhof-passau.de and to their headquarters in Regensburg www.bikehaus.de .
 


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