Danube Cycling (Grein to Vienna)


Day 5 - Grein to Mittelarnsdorf (80 km)

When we climbed up to Burg Kreuzen yesterday evening, we could see the hilly landscape sloping back towards the river. It was our route back to the Donauradweg and, in the cool morning air of yet another perfect riding day, we rolled out of the hostel garage and away, coasting down the steep curving road beneath the shady forest. Head down and backside up (more for comfort than for speed), we closed in on 50 kph before gravity slowed us down and required a final bit of pedalling to reach Grein.

Looking towards the narrows of the Strudengau

Today, we would stay on the south bank to avoid riding alongside busy roads and the most pleasant way to reach it was to take the bike ferry across the Danube from the pier at Grein, along with a dozen other cyclists setting out on their own journeys. Some of the faces were becoming familiar.

Leaving Grein

Reflections in a riverside lake near Hössgang

Reaching the other side, we disembarked and soon settled into the steady rhythm of pedalling that had carried us easily along the flat and well-formed cycle way for the past three days. The castle, church spire and old buildings of Grein disappeared into the background as we passed a series of mirror-surfaced lakes and then headed deeper into the Strudengau, that narrowing of the Danube Valley feared by old river men for its currents and eddies.

It was a similar landscape to that of the Schlögener Schlinge and one that we had come to like best - the only difference was that, having spent an evening in the hinterland, we could no longer delude ourselves that the wild forests that covered the steep slopes extended any further. We knew that the plateau and rolling hills above were a mosaic of human settlements and activities.

Part of the canal by-passing the Strudengau

View down river towards Sarmingstein

St Nikola an der Donau

Still, it was a very pleasant morning's ride, shared with lots of locals. It was a Sunday morning and Austrians like to cycle or fish alongside the river's edge on a Sunday. By the time we reached Ybbs, 20km on, the landscape was again changing - the hills were becoming lower and the valley wider.

Somewher between Grein and Ybbs

A shady section of riverside cycle path

The main street of Ybbs

We detoured briefly to ride through the narrow cobbled streets of old Ybbs, with its old Renaissance houses. It was a good place for a coffee break.

One of the many barges that ply their trade on the Danube

The pastel shade of Renaissance Ybbs

Heading on, we left Ybbs via a narrow path past backyard gardens to eventually follow the shady banks of the Ybbs River back to the Danube and a long eastwards push. The track weaved to and from the river's edge, alternating between tow path, fields of wheat and village street, much of the time overlooked by the towering presence of Maria Taferl, a pilgrimage church high on a hill on the north bank.

Pilgrmage church of Maria Taferl

The colourful buildings of Gottsdorf

Sheltered marina on the Erlauf River

Once we passed the town of Pöchlarn, a certain monotony crept into the now flatter landscape, as we pedalled steadily along a high levee bank that shaped the Danube and kept it contained as a watery highway for barges and floating hotels and an energy source for the hydro-electric stations. It also served as a place from which Sunday fishermen cast their rods. Reaching the Neuwinden barrage and power station, the first time the massive yellow silhouette of Melk Abbey came into view.

Once more on the camino

We by-passed the barrage and continued on into Melk. We had visited here 24 years ago and arrived with a sense of anticipation of good memories revived. It didn't work - firstly having to pick our way past crowds of people disembarking (onto the cycle path) from the river boats, then seeing the heartbreaking flood-damage still under repair in the lower village, which concentrated the crowds. Even the abbey was partly hidden by scaffolding for repairs. We usually abide by an important travel rule - if you really enjoy a place never go back, as the memory will always be better than the new reality. Perhaps we should have followed it this time.

A long section of path along the dyke

The Benedictine Abbey at Melk (finished in 1738)

The abbey high above the Melk River

Main street of Melk

Melk was also the first place to seriously challenge the flatness of the Donauradweg, with a steep climb out of its old centre to the hill between town and river. This of course meant a nice descent back to the river, but a little later this was followed by another short steep climb and long descent to get around the Schönbühel Castle, dominating a narrow neck in the river.

View eastwars from the Nibbelungen Bridge

Schönbühel Castle

The river near Aggsbach

An unexpected traveller on the cycle path

Once again the Danube Valley was closing in, with steep forested slopes - it certainly was the Danube that we liked best. Reaching the village of Aggsbach, we looked up to see the silhouette of Aggstein castle perched high on a rocky knob, over 300m above the river. In the middle ages, the robber barons who lived here would watch the river and, if any boats came by, impose a large toll for them to continue. One even strung a heavy iron chain across the Danube to enforce it and wow betide those who could not pay.

Aggstein Castle - on its rocky perch

View inland from the castle

Now 300 metres is a long way up, especially as the road was only just over 2 km long - not really made for riding, but the views must be incredible. I couldn't resist the idea, though the fair Nello found it easy to resist. She sat in the shade of a tree and I pedalled off and up an incline that soon began to steepen even more. Half a kilometre further on, in the lowest of 21 gears I stopped and began to walk - the 20% gradient of this section was more than the bike (or I) could handle. For the first time, I reached my destination hot, sweaty and thirsty, but it was worth it - the ruins of the castle are impressive and the commanding views both up and down the river were amazing - clearly no boat could sneak by!

View eastwards from the walls of Aggstein Castle

Looking down on the Danube from Aggstein

The 13th century ruins of Aggstein

What the guard saw from the castle window

Then it was time to return - whoo-haaa! hope the brakes work! They did and I rejoined the fair Nello beneath her shady tree to head on along the tow path that followed the river. Soon after, we spied the first vineyards spreading out along the hillsides of the north bank above the town of Spitz. We had entered the Wachau, a region famed for both the beauty of its landscapes and the quality of its wine - an excellent combination.

Not long after, we arrived at the village of Mittelarnsdorf and our guesthouse for the evening. It had been a long and sometimes hard day, with a hillclimb for seasoning, but after a hot shower, a cold beer to quench the thirst and a glass of fine Wachau red (Blaue Zweigelt) in the warm evening air, the mellow mood of a day enjoyed descended over the Danube Valley.

Sunlight on 13th century ruins of Hinterhaus Castle near Spitz


Day 5 - Mittelarnsdorf to Tulln (64 km)

We had become used to a pattern of fine clear mornings with cloud building up over the course of the day - today the cloud was there when we woke. Still, it was a fine day and rain was not on the forecast. It promised to be a pleasant morning exploring the Wachau. Leaving the hostel at Mittelarnsdorf, we backtracked several hundred metres along the river to wait for the ferry to Spitz.

Spitz an der Donau, its castle and its vineyards (taken from the south bank)

We had opted to ride the north bank, as this took us through more of the vineyards and historic towns of the region. The ferry took its time to cross the river and pick us and other waiting cyclists up, and we took our time admiring the profile of Spitz, in the forefront of hills criss-crossed by rows of grapes - the classic Wachau landscape.

The sun lights up St Mauritius Church in Spitz

The vine-covered lower slopes of 610m Atzberg
in the Wachau

The dark slopes of Seekopf (671m) rise
above the Danube

Still life - Danube with a pot of geraniums

Once on the north bank, we headed eastwards, rounding the rocky slope of the Atzberg, past the old fortified church of St Michael and on through the vineyards of Wösendorf. It is strange how row on row of orderly grapes on hillsides seems so aesthetic, but it is, and we found ourselves dawdling along the country roads enjoying the Wachau vinescapes.

Vineyards on the outskirts of Spitz

Riding through the vineyards near Wösendorf

11th century parish hall at St Michael's Church

The pretty main street of Wösendorf

Interior of the 16th century Church of St Michael


Maria Himmelfahrt monasery church - Dürnstein

The main street of Dürnstein

The Augustinian Abbey

"Tag" of Josef Kyselak - the world's first serial
tagger who in the 1820s and 1830s painted
and carved his name all over Austria

The main street of Krems

We passed slowly through the pretty villages of Jochling and Weisskirchen, vines backed by the steep slopes of the Danube Valley, to eventually regain the river near a sweeping bend. Ahead the silhouette of the ruined castle high above Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was held for ransom on his way back from the Crusades, came into view.

A pleasant country road in the Wachau

Silhouette of the castle above Dürnstein

Dürnstein, a walled medieval town with its castle and Augustine abbey, is arguably the gem of the Wachau. We rode up the old road from the river and into the old town, alive with busloads of tourists - we took the regulation photos and rode out again. Dürnstein is picturesque, but it is one of those places that suffers from its own popularity.

View up the river from Dürnstein

Houses built into the rock face

The road out of Dürnstein

After a coffee on the outskirts, we pushed on through one last area of vines to follow the river into Stein an der Donau, passing through the old city gates, up the cobbled main street and out the eastern gate.

The western gate into Stein an der Donau

The Steiner Landstrasse running through the old town

We were now in neighbouring Krems, one of the better-known walled towns of Austria. However, after our long and pleasant dawdle through the Wachau, it was already lunchtime, and the gardens of the central park in Krems provided a peaceful setting for our picnic lunch.

It was only a short distance form the park to the Steiner Tor, the impressive towered gateway to old Krems - we rode through and dismounted to walk the long pedestrian mall, once a medieval street now a modern shopping area, but retaining its architectural integrity. This was to be the end of the aesthetic Danube for quite while.

The Steiner Tor built in 1480 - gateway into Old Krems

The central park of Krems - a good spot for lunch

When we remounted and rode out of Krems, the cycle path took us through the industrial area - neither pleasant for the eyes or the nose. The landscape was also becoming flatter again, as it gradually morphed into farmlands and then passed through a grove of riparian forest to reach the tow path along the Danube. Ahead lay 15 km of flat asphalt path and we had a tail wind behind us - there was nothing to do but up the cadence for a long fast run along the the levee bank, which only stopped when we reached the barrage and locks at Altenworth power station.

Homage to van Gogh

The fields of Theiss

Barge entering the lock of the Altenworth Barrage

As we started to cross the barrage, we noticed a barge approaching - a chance to watch the massive lock in operation before heading on. Back on the south side, the last part of the cycle path became a bit more diverse, passing through patches of forest and along a tow path before winding its way around the wheatfields and meadows of Pischelsdorf and Langenschönbicht.

However, with the best of the scenery way behind in the Wachau, we were on a mission to get to Tulln. Soon the path turned back to regain the river and skirt the edge of the old town, to reach our hotel in the modern outskirts of Tulln. It had been another long day in the saddle and, for a while, we thought that our bodies were becoming trip hardened. However, by the time that we arrived, we were weary and saddlesore - we had covered the last 40km in the same time it took to ride the 20km through the Wachau and it took its toll. The nap after the shower was just what we needed.


Day 5 - Tulln to Vienna (44 km)

Minorite Church in Tulln

Our last day on the Donauradweg had arrived. Our good fortune with the weather had held and the day dawned without a cloud in the sky - the big blue for our ride into Vienna. Our first port of call though was a quick circuit through the old centre of Tulln, which we had been too tired to do on our arrival yesterday evening. Then it was back onto the cycle path and eastwards.

Beyond Tuln the Danube had become a wide and slow river

"Treppelweg" is a word that is now burned into my brain - much of our trip had been along the towpaths that line the Danube and were used by horses to tow the barges upstream in days gone by. Now we were coasting down yet another - the choice of bank was moot this morning as the cycle path on both sides of the river followed the treppelweg. Our trip though did not start without incident - while riding nonchalantly along, my handlebar bag fell off, causing me to swerve suddenly to avoid it - the fair Nello, on my rear wheel, had to swerve the other way - right off the path and down the steep grassy slope of the levee bank. Fortunately, she held her cool and came to a graceful stop at the bottom. However, the handlebars on her bike had loosened and kept slipping. We had no toolkit on our rental bikes, but managed to hail a group of French cyclists who had the right size Allan key to tighten the bars - "merci, les mecs".

The Treppelweg east of Tulln

A section made for day-dreams

After that, the route was uneventful and we rolled on along this long stretch of the Danube. Today we weren't rushing, just turning the pedals over and enjoying our last day of riding. It is strange, the addiction of the river - even though you look at a map and think "not more riding along the river bank", there is something hypnotic about having it alongside as you pedal along and the kilometres crank by. Over the past six days, the Danube, alternating between beautiful and ordinary, had become like an old friend.

The barrage and power station at Greifenstein

Geometry of the Danube

We had a long slow coffee at the Greifenstein marina watching a waterskier strut his stuff before crossing to the north side via a barrage, then pushing on past Korneuberg for one last picnic lunch on the shady bank, as the occasional barge chugged slowly upstream. We were now closing in on Vienna quickly - riding between river and autoroute, as the first silhouette of city skyscrapers appeared on the horizon and the last hillside vineyards disappeared behind us.

In the forest near Korneuburg

Last picnic on the river's edge

The skyline of Vienna begins to appear

Chapel on the summit of Kahlenberg

Skyscrapers of the modern quarter of Vienna

Last pit stop on the Donauinsel

We had reached the Donauinsel, the long and narrow island that splits the Danube's course through Vienna, and crossing on to it, began a pleasant couple of kilometres riding down its grassy spine, as the tall buildings of modern Vienna grew larger. Reaching the first of the many bridges that cross this island, we turned right to return to the southern bank and start a long ride in to the centre along the Danube Canal.

Vienna's famous Spittelau garbage incinerator
- designed by Hundertwasser


Praterstrassee - our home in Vienna
and end of the bike trip

The best way to celebrate the end of the trip
- with a bottle of Blauer Zwiegelt

It was impressive the way the city cycle path network operated, taking us from outskirts to centre without ever having to share a route with either car or pedestrian. And so we arrived at our hotel in the heart of the Austrian capital - 353 km after we had set out, our six day trip down the Danube from Passau was over.


A day in Vienna

We decided to spend an extra day in Vienna - this haut-lieu of culture, music and architecture certainly warrants more than a couple of hours at the end of a long, hot bike ride, and probably more than the full-day we were giving it, but we tend to be reluctant city tourists. We visit them more out of a sense of "cultural guilt", than an urge to see their attractions - that is just the way it is.

12th century St Stephan's Cathedral


Part of the Hofburg Palace at St Michael's Square

The dome of St Michael

Floating swimming pool on the Danube Canal


Thus, armed with a day-pass from the U-bahn, we joined the mad throng of mid-summer tourists to see the highlights of old Vienna; cathedrals and palaces, buildings of state or just plain old office buildings with interesting baroque facades.

It was the architecture of old Europe, the feeling of a long and interesting history that cities of the new world lack.

Skyline of old Vienna

From the old city centre, we u-bahned our way to the home of the Hapsburg dynasty, Schönbrunn Palace, bright yellow and massive in the hot sunshine and surrounded by an expanse of carefully manicured gardens or white gravel beds. It was a monument to the days when power lay concentrated in the hands of those, whose ancestors were just that bit more cold-blooded and treacherous than yours or mine. For me, buildings such as this are more a reminder of the dark side of humanity than the glorious.

Interior courtyard of the Hofburg

Sky-chair at the Prater

Schönbrunn Palace

A peaceful arbour at Schönbrunn Palace


Looking over the palace gardens to the Gloriette

The famous Prater ferris wheel

Finally, just so my musings on human history did not depress us too much, we spent the evening at the Prater - a playground for the Viennese, an eclectic collection of ferris wheels, rollercoasters, adrenalin-inducing rides, sideshows and carnival-type amusement (watching not riding). It was just the right amount of contrast before we left by bus from the Vienna International Bus Terminal, a somewhat overstated name for what is an oversized bus stop wedged beneath an autobahn flyover in a seedy-modern part of the city.

Our destination was Prague and it would be interesting to compare the two old capitals of Central Europe.


Two days in Prague

Prague really has nothing to do with our cycle trip down the Danube, but it doesn't fit anywhere else so here it is. It may have been unfair to allow Prague two days while we spent only one in Vienna, but we have never been here before and we had visited Vienna (albeit 24 years ago). That was in fact 1989 and Prague was just about to break the shackles of communism, along with most of eastern Europe. It was an interesting time to be in Europe - we drove across Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany as the borders were rupturing. Cars were pouring out of the east and huge queues formed at the borders - the totalitarian governments were collapsing. We had a small taste of what living under such a government must have been like, as we spent an hour in a fenced bay at the East German border crossing into West Berlin, wheels chocked to prevent our "escape", razor-wire fences and guard towers, big bad dog watching us through the chain wire, as the guards pondered why we had arrived at the northern crossing instead of the official transit route in the south. In the end, they waved us through - I suspect they were just amusing themselves at our expense. This also has nothing to do with our Danube cycle trip.

The gothic 14th century Týn church

The Astronomical Clock (installed in 1410)

A baroque church steeple

Nighr time in Wnceslas Square

In the 24 years since it opened to the west, Prague has become the tourist pin-up of former eastern bloc cities. I am sure much has changed - for better and for worse. The days of a cheap visit to a glorious city are long gone - the tourist mark-up in the popular squares and visitor hot-spots is even more than we found in Vienna. The price of a beer may very threefold within the space of a city block, so a bit of advice. If you just want the atmosphere, go to Wenceslas Square or the Old Town Square for a beer, if you just want to drink the beer for which the Czechs are famous, go to a place a couple of streets away.

Statue of Jan Huss in the Old Town Square

The entry to Prague Castle

Statue of Good King Wenceslas

The 15th century Powder Tower

View back towards St Vitus Cathedral

The Round Tower of Peague Castle

Interior of St Vitus Cathedral

The narrow houses in the castle wall

Statues on the 15th century Charles Bridge

Crowds of tourists crossing the Charles Bridge

The rooves of Prague

The Charles Bridge crossing the Vltava River

We enjoyed Prague and it deserves its reputation as "the golden city", but in the jostle of the crowds, we found ourselves longing for the solitude of the Pirin Mountains and the dolomite spires of the Julian Alps - it was time to go. There was an even more urgent longing that need to be fixed - it has been over 3 months since we have seen or daughter and her family, two little girls missing their grandma (and maybe even their grandpa) would be waiting with her at the Freiburg train station tomorrow afternoon ....... only one more sleep to go!