The Danube is, of course, a fabulously long river. Rising in Germany’s Black Forest, it sloshes eastwards through a total of 10 countries, before flushing into the Black Sea 1,700 miles later. On the way it ticks off a set of cities that reads like a greatest hits of places you really should get around to visiting one day: Linz, Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade, Budapest. Only the Volga, at 2,300 miles long, beats the Danube as far as European rivers are concerned – and it certainly doesn’t match it in terms of variety, the choice of scenery being Russia, Russia or Russia.
For cyclists, the most popular bit of the Danube starts in Passau, on the German side of the border with Austria, just at the point where it gets a boost from the River Inn, one of its tributaries. Lycra-clad enthusiasts think nothing of thrashing swiftly eastwards from here to Vienna, the Austrian capital, around 200 miles away, pausing only to check their Strava times and adjust their padded pants to prevent chaffing. It’s a stretch of river that forms part of EuroVelo 6, a cross-European cycle route running from Nantes, on France’s Atlantic coast, to Constanta in Romania, 2,300 miles away. Apparently, the full route takes people of “average fitness” around eight weeks to complete.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply to deliver a sense of perspective about my family’s achievement on our cycling holiday along an Austrian portion of this mighty river. In six days of cycling, we managed a pitiful 106 miles, or about six per cent of the Danube’s length. We averaged approximately 18 miles a day – the vast majority of them on the flat, or gently downhill – considerably less than my daily cycling commute in London. And lots of those miles weren’t even in the same direction. A quick consultation with Google Maps tells me that, had we been of “average fitness”, we could have knocked off the 45-mile quickest-route journey from the village of Grein, which was the furthest west we managed, to the Unesco-feted city of Krems, the most easterly outpost on our itinerary, in… er, four hours and 18 minutes.
No, Inntravel’s “Danube Explorer – A Family Cycle” holiday is certainly not about distance travelled, nor is it about whizzing at full tilt through the great cities set along this fabled watercourse. Instead, our route meandered through Austria’s verdant Wachau Valley, which lies around 50 miles to the west of Vienna, a wonderful concoction of green-clad hills, agricultural plains, apricot groves and terraced vineyards, punctuated by an absurd number of fabulously turreted castles.
- 14 reasons why the Danube is Europe’s greatest river
- Telegraph Tour: Music and majesty of the Danube with John Suchet
The trip nevertheless provided exactly the sense of dynamism that young teenagers – my sons are 14 and 11 – require in order to enjoy themselves. As we looped and dog-legged along the Danube’s shores, there was always a fresh goal to be achieved: a lake to be swum in, a lunch to be enjoyed, a schloss to be visited, or a hotel to be checked-in to before dinner. It’s just that, thankfully, these goals weren’t measured in miles per hour, but in units of pleasure.
In the process, I learnt that slow holidays might sound easy, but they require meticulous preparation. First the logistics: our bike hire and transfers by train from Vienna were all taken care of by Inntravel, which also arranged for our luggage to be passed between hotels by taxi, freeing us up to pedal with just the bare necessities (sun cream, swimming costumes, bottles of water) in our panniers, which were decked out in the light-blue livery of Donau (Danube) Tourism. (We saw plenty of fellow “Donau” travellers en route, marked out by the colour of their bags, and began to think of them as a sort of friendly slow-mo cycling club.)
Inntravel also supplied a fat folder of briefing notes that was at first glance slightly intimidating, a minutely catalogued set of instructions governing every twist and turn of our proposed route, with descriptions of possible diversions, places to stop and eat, river crossings and the best swimming places. There were even sections (happily never called upon) titled “nine easy ways to fix a puncture” and “useful cycling vocabulary”. (“Das Pedal” and “die Pumpe” seemed self-explanatory, although I’d have struggled with gears: “die Gangschaltung”.) Within a day, though, we were carrying on SA on the CP and turning L at the R/A just after the TJ like real pros. (Straight Ahead, Cycle Path, Left, Roundabout and T-junction, in case you were wondering.)
Hotel Schachner Krone was our first base, set in the hilltop village of Maria Taferl, about 10 minutes from Pöchlarn, site of the nearest train station. Here the rooms are split between two buildings – the Krone and the Kaiserhof – linked by a footpath around the back of the main street, with wonderful views out over a curve of the Danube. It’s a relaxed sort of place, our rooms comfortable without being luxurious, the standout features being a wonderful outdoor pool set on a quiet garden slope and a restaurant shaded by horse-chestnut trees, from which we watched the sun set over the river, the Alps burning orange in the far distance.
The village itself is dominated by the twin-turreted Basilika, where our enjoyment of a moving display of Madonna and Child paintings was rather unsettled by the boys racing in to tell us that the area also served as a Pokémon Go gym (the spattering of phone-absorbed teenagers outside were the giveaway). This shattering of the sublime/ridiculous interface spoke of an urgent need to get moving: it was time to put das Pedal to das Metall, or whatever the cycling equivalent is.
A short bus journey took us west to Grein, a riverside village of pastel-coloured houses dominated by a Saxe-Coburg-owned schloss. After pottering around the castle interior (a peculiar mix of hunting heritage, mosaic-studded grotto and boating museum), we loaded our bikes onto a small wooden skiff and were ferried across the river to begin our mini-odyssey. Turn L onto CP, our cycling notes said, and we were off.
Whatever Johann Strauss might have to say about it, the Danube isn’t blue. Under the bright sun that pursued us for most of our trip it was a slightly underwhelming shade of brownish sludge; below an overcast sky it swept beside us a gurgling green. It is, however, always a river at work: swift-flowing, busy with ferries, cruise boats, barges and pleasure craft. At the beautiful 14th-century town of Ybbs, where we stopped for lunch, the Ybbs-Persenbeug barrage is one of the many indicators of man’s attempts to tame the river: a Kraftwerk, or power station, created as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Austria after the Second World War.
We’d set ourselves a teeny-tiny task: to visit a different monument and swimming spot each day (there are various backwaters and man-made lakes where outdoor swimming is encouraged). On our second morning of cycling, the former was taken care of at Artstetten, the family seat of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (yes, that history lesson). Inside the castle, an exhibition delivered plenty in the way of memorabilia, yet never seemed quite convinced whether it should be celebrating the life of a man most famous for being shot dead. He was clearly a complex character: violent of temper (he’s said to have hunted down 200,000 animals during the course of his life), yet devoted to his wife and family. After overdosing on maps, military paraphernalia and dynastic intrigue, we got back in the saddle and drifted onwards, past vast fields of corn and sunflowers.
Melk is a cosy little town burnished by a grand 18th-century abbey which, we learnt during our visit, is stuffed with illuminated books, eerie bone-orientated relics and catacomb saints. Our own resting place for the next two nights was the Hotel zur Post, a traditional inn on the main street, with a lovely restaurant and an outside terrace (plus an ice-cream bar that proved slightly too alluring for the boys). Swimming that day came courtesy of the municipal baths on the outskirts of town, where Austria gave us a lesson in how such things should be done: three pools, including diving platforms, flumes and Olympic-length lanes, all set on a grassy hillside.
We pottered onwards, our days acquiring a natural rhythm: a bit of culture, a cycle, a swim and a schnitzel-and-strudel-based meal, not necessarily in that order. Occasionally our route left the cycle path and we shared the road with a few cars and lorries, although we usually had the run of a dedicated cycle lane.
From Melk we sped on to the fortified town of Dürnstein – a favourite stop for river-cruisers – topped by a bright-blue church tower. This stretch of the river is all about produce, with many of the vineyards we passed offering tasting opportunities. (The village of Spitz, birthplace of the riesling grape, is particularly proud of its “thousand bucket hill”.) From the boys’ perspective, though, the apricots (Marillen) were a highlight, the fruit from the trees often hanging so low over the cycle path that it would have been a crime not to scrump. Apricots were everywhere, in fact: bottled as liqueurs, made into soap or conjured up as dumplings known as Marillenknödel.
The Gartenhotel Pfeffel, just outside Dürnstein, was the swishest of the three hotels we stayed at, its vineyard producing plenty of crisp grüner veltliner and riesling; the sort of place where people drift around in white towelling looking for the spa. Our vast rooms peered out over the Danube and a tiny rooftop pool added to the appeal.
We visited Krems (for all its fame, not a patch on the quieter charms of Dürnstein); we dodged thunderstorms (once offered sanctuary by a charming woman who gave us soup and shelter from all the Donner und Blitzen in her farmhouse); we criss-crossed the Danube itself (summoning a local ferryman from the opposite shore by clattering a great yellow canister that served as a bell). And then, on our last day, we finally had to make a bit of an effort.
Our schloss that morning, Aggstein Castle, was “optional”, according to our cycling notes, as it could only be reached after a steep, mile-long climb. No matter, I said. It would serve as the greatest achievement of our trip. Having first fortified ourselves with lunch in the shady garden of the Aggsteiner Hof Gasthaus (I recommend the rissole and apricot Saladkreation), we began the ascent, which immediately turned out to be a near-vertical climb better suited to Chris Froome than my family of dilettantes. I cajoled, I bribed, I begged. And eventually – after much breathless agony – we reached the summit and an extraordinary ruined castle, with ramparts to clamber around, a restored knights’ hall and a pretty, tranquil chapel.
The boys were dubious as to whether it had been worth the effort, but I for one was convinced, not least by the view. This was the highest vantage point of our whole journey, and it was from here under a cloudless blue sky that the Danube finally revealed its true colour: a river of gold, priceless in its treasures.
How to do it
Slow-holiday specialist Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) offers the Danube Explorer self-guided cycling holiday for families from £995 per person based on two adults sharing and from £260 per child when sharing parents’ room, including seven nights’ bb in four-star hotels, five dinners, luggage transported between three hotels, high quality bicycle hire and cycling accessories, river cruise Dürnstein to Spitz, cycling maps and route notes.
Flights to Vienna are extra: there are flights to Vienna from a wide range of UK airports with easyJet, BA, Austrian Airlines and Eurowings. Return rail/taxi transfers from Vienna Airport (out/home 1hr 50min) cost £350 for family of four. Electric bikes are available for adults for a supplement of £58 per person. The holiday operates May 6-October 8 2017 (start any day).