Danube Cycling (Passau to Bad Kreuzen)

Getting There

A bus trip and four changes of train saw us leave Lake Bled and Slovenia, tunnel under the Karavanke Mountains to emerge in Austria and finally stop just over the border in Germany, in the historic town of Passau. In fact, Passau had just set itself a bit more history for, eight weeks ago, it suffered the worst flood in over 500 years, as the Danube and Inn Rivers combined to cover its old centre in metres of water. We had allowed an extra day to have a look at Passau before commencing our Danube cycle tour and it was actually amazing how much the city had returned to normal in that time.

The level in 2013 compared to other floods
dating back to 1501

The town hall tower and clock

View down towards the Jesuit monastery

The Veste Oberhaus - 13th century fortress
of the prince-bishops

We wandered through its old cobbled streets and pastel coloured houses to check out the villains at the confluence of three rivers; the Ilz looked veritably tiny and would not have contributed much to the inundation, the Danube upstream was bright green and looking decidedly innocent, while the Inn was grey with silt and looked much more guilty. In fact its dirty waters cut across the green of the Danube to tint (or taint?) the combined river flowing on to the east. As we walked back along the riverside, the impact of the flooding became much more apparent - the musty smell of mould floating out of ground floor doors, blower fans pumping air into many a door to dry rooms out and lots of rubble being shovelled out and repairs started where the damage was too great. It would have been heartbreaking to have owned a house or business in these riverside areas.

Streetscape in Old Passau

Ceiling of St Stephan's Cathedral

Confluence of the green Danube and the muddy Inn Rivers

Nonetheless, Passau was definitely back in action and tourists were roaming about everywhere enjoying the sights and sipping coffees at sidewalk cafes. We did likewise and included an organ concert at St Stephan's Cathedral - baroque is not my favourite architecture style (too much "look at me"), but sitting in this enormous cathedral with its extreme baroque interior and listening to the thundering of the world's largest cathedral organ with over 17,000 pipes (well, perhaps not all were played this time) was an experience.

View across the Inn River to the cathedral

Passau sunset

Then it was off by local bus to the bike garage to pick up our rental bikes for the cycle trip and a ride back through the streets of Passau to our hotel in Innsbach, in a tiny sliver of Germany on the eastern bank of the Inn River. Tomorrow we would be on our way. The way cycle tours operate here is that you cycle independently, but your luggage is transported each day from hotel to hotel - a little bit of luxury, but then the Danube cycle path is about enjoying yourself, not about hard work or great achievements.


Day 1 - Passau to Niederanna (35 km)

The first day's cycling was also the shortest - perhaps to let people get used to the bikes and the riding, but also to allow people time to explore Passau before setting off. Having already done that the day before, we slept in a bit and set out mid-morning, heading east away from the city to follow the south bank of the Danube. It was a pleasant day for riding, with quite a bit of cloud about and a cool but gentle breeze as the fair Nello and I set off on the Donauradweg, the famous Danube Valley cycle path.

Leaving Passau .....

.... and entering Austria

A covered bridge on the path

The path followed the river and a road eastwards through the forest and fields along its flanks. Imperceptibly we slipped out of Germany into Austria, pushing on through the Sauwald region past the German village of Erlau on the opposite bank and beneath Burg Krämpelstein on a steep slope above, from where the old bishop-princes ensured that tolls were collected from wayfarers (a very good argument for the separation of church and state).

Burg Krämpelstein high above the cycle path

On board the luxurious crystal ferry

Obernzell (in Germany)

The village of Erlau

Parish church at Pyrawagg

We continued on to the village of Pyrawagg, stopping for a break by its pretty little church across the river from the steep green forested slopes of the Donauleiten Nature Reserve. Then it was on to Kasten, where we caught a ferry across the river, back-tracking a bit to Obernzell on the north bank. Ferry may not be the right word for this large vessel with glass staircase and chandeliers - our ten minutes on it were probably as close as we will get to a luxury Danube River cruise.

The "Kristallschiff" arriving at Kasten

The river near Kasten

We had left Austria and disembarked back in Germany for a coffee in the main street of Obernzell, before pushing on to follow a quiet road along the river's edge. The north side cycle path was much more peaceful, winding its way beneath the high slopes of the Donauleiten, with the songs of birds and only the occasional passing car.

High above the village of Kasten on the opposite bank sat the 12th century castle of Vichtenstein. The road continued on, past a large set of barrages and hydro-electric plant, to Jochenstein and its legendary rock. Here Isa, a lesser known sister of the famous Lorelei, sang river boatmen to their doom on the Danube. We blocked our ears and rode quickly on.

The architecture of Obernzell

The rock of Isa - home of the legendary Danube nixie

Looking from Germany across to Austria

Soon after Jochenstein, we again left Germany and entered Austria without realising it (the beauty of the Schengen state borders), this time for good. Passing Engelhartszell and its Trappist monastery on the opposite bank, we picked up the old towpath where horses towed the barges upstream in days gone by, to reach Kramesau and a lovely little farmhouse-restaurant for a bite of lunch.

Engelhartszell on the south bank

View from our room at Niederranna

From here it was only a few kilometres down river to Niederranna and our guesthouse for the night, complete with room overlooking the Danube. It had been an easy first day, virtually all flat with a very few gentle rises and descents - no sweat (literally). It was time for a beer on the banks of the river as we watched the long river barges and floating hotels cruise by!


Day 2 - Niederranna to Linz (65 km)

Today's section was over 60km long which, for people used to using a bicycle just to commute, is a relatively long day in the saddle. The path was quiet as the two of us set out from Niederranna, quickly leaving the village behind to follow a quiet road along the north bank of the Danube, as it cut its way through the Bohemian Highlands. At times the path was pinched between the steep forested slopes and the river, where the morning air was still quite crisp. At other times the gap widened to allow open meadows and fields on the river flatlands, where we rode on in the warm sunshine. It was a very pleasant start to the day.

View from Niederranna - the Danube cuts through the Bohemian Highlands

On the towpath next to the river flats

In the forest between hillslope and river

The river slowly began to curve southwards and we followed it around to reach the Au-Schlögen bike ferry landing. We had reached the start of the Schlögener Schlinge, a double loop in the river. Here the Danube is blocked by a high granite ridge which turns its course back on itself several times before the river breaks through to flow on eastwards. The small wooden ferry was waiting and we rode straight on, arriving on the southern shore of the Danube a few minutes later.

Marsbach Castle high above the river flats

View from the bike ferry to Schlögen

After a short detour to check out the recently discovered remains of a Roman gateway (the Danube was the northern limit of the Roman Empire, guarded by a string of forts), we pressed on along the southern bank in the deep shade of the densely forested and steep granite walls. The views across of the big loop in the river were impressive.

A peaceful part of the river at Schlögen

Panorama of the Schlögener Schlinge (the big loop in the river)

The steep river walls before Inzell

Thus began one of the more delightful sections of this cycleway - along the old tow path as the river carved a deep valley through these highlands, steep slopes lined with thick forest, cool and quiet apart from the sounds of birds. With only the odd farmhouse or guesthouse, you could almost imagine this to be the wild Danube of times gone by - not even a barge plowing by to break the illusion of a pristine river.

The wild Danube between Inzell and Obermühl

We stopped for a break at a cafe in Kobling, opposite the village of Obermühl. as we sat sipping our coffees, the first barge for the day pushed its way downstream to remind us that this is a working river. We set out again to continue on the tow path along yet another beautiful section of the "almost wild" Danube.

A lovely section of path between river and cliffs

Coffee stop at Kobling

A barge passing the 17th century customs post at Obermühl

Back on the track

Soon after another big loop, as the river wound its way through the steep-sided valley, we spied the Neuhaus Castle on its rocky perch high above a bend. After passing the castle, the valley walls became slowly lower and we passed a large camping ground full of holidaymakers - civilisation was creeping back. For a while, the shoreline was curiously swampy, a fact explained by our arrival a bit further downstream at the Aschach barrage and hydro-electric plant stretched across the river - the illusion of a wild Danube was now completely gone.

The big bend between Obermühl and Untermühl

A "floating hotel" cruising up the Danube

Looking towards Neuhaus Castle on hiitop eyrie

Closeup of Neuhaus Castle (first built in 1262)

16th century gothic church at Aschach

We rode on into Aschach, with its pretty pastel coloured buildings and stopped for a long lunch. Then it was over the bridge to the north bank to continue our ride. For the first time the route headed away from the river, crossing flat farmlands to reach the village of Feldkirchen and its 16th century Gothic church. From Feldkirchen, the cycleway headed directly back to follow the Danube again, but we were enjoying the change of scenery, so we devised our own route, crossing these rich flatlands with their crops of wheat, rye, corn, beets, canola, potatoes, even strawberries.

The ornate facades of the houses of Aschach

As we followed a string of backroads, enjoying the rich rural smells and the tapestry of green and gold, we passed through the hamlets of Pesenbach, Mühldorf, Goldwörth, Purwörth and Hagenau, all within a dozen kilometres. Not a square metre of land was wasted, if it wasn't being cropped, it was producing a second rotation of hay - agriculture is certainly intense on the rich soils of the Danube flatlands.

16th century gothic church in Feldkirchen

Welcome to Linz

End of ride celebration - Austrian style

The wheat fields of Feldkirchen

Mühldorf Castle

Rejoining the cycleway, we descended into Ottensheim where a market was being held in the Marktplatz, as it has for centuries - it was another opportunity for a break, one which our backsides greatly appreciated. Leaving this charming old town and the peaceful rural hinterlands, we were in for a bit of a shock, as the cycleway began to follow a major road - chatting became impossible against the background of a constant stream of cars heading out of Linz.

A peaceful country road near Hagenau

Market day in Ottensheim

We were closing in on this big Austrian city. For several kilometres we were accompanied by this cacophony - interestingly, four major transport routes were paralleling one another; river, rail, road and cyclepath. In fact it was the fastest we had ridden all day, with no reasons to linger as we attached ourselves to the slipstream of a local commuter cyclist.

The old cathedral in the Hauptplatz (Main Square)

The buildings of the Landstrasse, main street of Linz

The spires of Linz began to appear across the river and, at last, we left the road to find the route up onto the Nibelungen Bridge and across the Danube into the city. Passing through the large and impressive City Square (apparently the largest in Europe), we proceeded down the cobbled surface of the Landstrasse, the busy main drag of Linz. It was a bone-rattling experience on our suspension-free bikes and added a final insult to the injury of our now quite tender derrieres. To finally get off at our hotel was a great relief, though all in all, the diversity of the wild, the rural and the urban gave us both a much better feel for character of one of Europe's great rivers.


Day 3 - Linz to Grein (65 km)

It was another perfect riding day, sunny with temperatures in the low 20s and a slight breeze at our backs as we set out from Linz. Instead of heading back down the Landstrasse to regain the cycle path, we followed a parallel street to avoid the 800m of juddering cobblestones. We could not avoid them in the City Square though and they took their revenge, as the fair Nello's front wheel caught an edge and came to a sudden halt. All seemed well as we continued on over the bridge to pick up the riverside path on the north bank. It was a Saturday morning and the Austrians were out on their bikes in droves, as we headed slowly eastwards. Slowly was the operative word, as lots of people were passing us and we had dropped a few kph since yesterday. It took 5km to realize what was happening - not a sudden loss of energy, but the mishap on the cobbles had knocked the wheel slightly out of alignment and a brake caliper was dragging on the rim - poor Nello had been doing the equivalent of a 10% uphill gradient on this flat asphalt path!

Once fixed, we were under way at full speed. We were now riding along a long levee bank, which held the level of the river above its immediate surrounds. Across on the south bank were the steelworks and factories of industrial Linz, while mountains of gravel and aggregates rose above the flat landscape from riverside pits.

View eastwards from the Nibelungen Bridge at Linz

The aesthetics of industry

Just another hilltop cathedral

Here the Danube was no longer even a semblene of the wild river of days long gone. Itt had been beaten into submission, contained and reshaped into a working river - wide and slow, it was a highway for industry, and the industry was all along this stretch. It was not an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

On the levee bank east of Linz

Black and orange gravel heaps ready for transport by barge

A natural channel of the Danube near Abwinden

My mind began to wander to purge these images - as we sped along with the fair Nello on my rear wheel, now passing people who had overtaken us earlier, I was the domestique in the Tour de France bringing my leader rapidly back up to the peloton. It was the first time the tour had been along the Danube and I was determined to get her there for the final sprint. Head down and teeth gritted, we rolled along this long levee bank and, one by one, moved up towards the lead, when ooops! we missed the turn to St Georgen. The reverie was over and we did a U-turn - we were back on the Danube cycling tour and heading inland towards the villages of St Georgen and Gusen, where we stopped for coffee and cake at a pathside guesthouse.

Gusen and the neighbouring village of Mauthausen share a dark history - during WWII, they were the sites of two concentration camps where over 160,000 people were killed. Once a peaceful rural setting, today a bit like everyday suburbia, in between a death camp - we really can't afford to be complacent.

The Pragstein Palace in Mauthausen

Picnic near a sandy beach

At Mauthausen, we returned to the river, at first paralleling a busy road. Fortunately, this headed inland, leaving us to the tranquility of the river's edge and the crops and fields alongside. At Au, we even spotted a beach - a great place to stop beneath the shade of the riverside trees and enjoy the fresh bread, ham and punnet of delicious strawberries that we had bought for lunch. While still greatly modified, this reach of the Danube was much more pleasant than that of the industrial outskirts of Linz.

Pushing on, a detour took us back inland for a while, through the rural landscapes of Naarn and Strass, between tall crops of corn, past fields of green beets and russet-coloured ripening canola, before returning via a grove of shady riverside forest to resume a long and meditative ride along the levee bank. The meditation ended as we reached yet another barrage and power station, at which point we headed inland once again for an excursion through the floodplains of the Machland.

Croplands near St Georgen

Passing thorugh the riparian forest

Flooding here is so frequent, that it has warranted the building of massive levees and steel gates to protect the villages of Mitterkirchen, Labing and Mettersdorf. As we rode through they seemed a bit like the modern equivalent of a medieval walled town. The destructive power of the big floods was evident around here as well, as we passed by flattened crops and fields and forests with silt up to a metre deep deposited by the flooding of eight weeks ago. Bulldozers had been hard at work since to clear the thick layer of silt from the roads of this low-laying area.

the massive concrete levee around Labing

Heading out across the floodplains of the Machland

Thick deposits of silt from the June floods line the track

The road eventually took us back to the river and to the village of Dornbach, where we left the floodplains of the Machland. The Danube was now bordered by high forested hills and following its own course again - we had arrived in the Strudengau region and soon after reached the town of Grein, with its castle, 16th century civic buildings and tall spired church.

Riverside path heading to Grein

The 1563 Rathaus (Town hall) of Grein

View over Grein from the Greinburg Palace

An idyllic river scene near Grein

Entry bridge to Kreuzen Castle

Grein was the end of a 60km ride, but not the place where we would stay. Our accommodation had been booked in Bad Kreuzen, 8km inland in the lush green hills of the Strudengau. The hotel sent a minibus to pick up guests and their bikes and we were soon enjoying this very different landscape, particularly when viewed in the late evening from the tower of Kreuzen Castle.

View from the castle tower over Bad Kreuzen and the fields and forests of the Strudengau

-*/`-* Sunset over the Strudengau

We had reached the halfway mark and it seemed appropriate to do a physical self-assessment; lungs - not really challenged, legs - still plenty of kilometres left, backside and coccyx - died 10 kilometres ago! What would we give for a gel bike seat cover.