Friday, August 15, 2008

Austrian Danube

Austrian Donauradweg sign

Must be Saturday: St. Florian Abbey

St. Florian ceiling fresco

Austrian countryside

Melk ceiling fresco: beating back the Turks

Melk ceiling fresco: rejoicing in victory

Wachau Valley vineyards

Gruss Gott: Welcome to Austria!

I cycled downstream from Passau on the German side of the Danube for about 25 kilometres with Austria on the other bank. The pink line running down the middle of the Danube on my map then made a right angle north across my path, but on the road, no sign: another EU invisible border crossing. At the end of my first happy day, a morning of riding in the shade of steep treed banks and an afternoon of riverside rest under a tree at the Schlogen loop, a woman said to me with a certain formality, "Have a good time in Austria." I was startled--I had barely registered that I had left Germany. I had to keep reminding myself over the next few days which country I was in.

One of my excuses for this is the seamless continuation of the excellent cycling infrastructure along the Danube route. If anything, the services for cyclists stepped up another level. There were "Radler Info" stations where someone could help you make accommodation or transportation bookings. Numerous posters advertised luggage transfers and travel deals for cyclists wanting to take their bicycles on a bus, train, or ferry between towns along the route. You could even pick up the phone to get a ride from a "Radl taxi" (although bicycle breakdown is the only imaginable reason to want one--heading east, the route is better than flat, it goes slightly downhill). Even the bike route signs had extra flair: the universal bicycle symbol now carried a cyclist with a jaunty hat and a flower in his backpack.

Is the 330 km Danube Cycle Way between Passau and Vienna better than the 583 km stretch from Donaueschingen to Passau? Yes, and no.

With the river now carrying the combined forces of the Danube and the Inn, there was more drama in the landscape. The river banks steepened, and the landscape beyond became more contoured. More often I found myself riding by the river's edge, sometimes almost level with the water. A lot of this bikeway must have been based on old towpaths. I have fond memories of riding along beside vertical rocks on the paved track, with overhanging trees to absorb the heat of a summer afternoon. As the river widened, it resembled a small shining sea stretching to the far bank. Between Tulln and Vienna, the river kept its silty green brown look, but seen at a distance, its width allowed it to become almost blue. Now too there was more shipping activity to watch: instead of grain, wine and salt (the white gold of old), now stacks of shiny economy cars load the barges pushing water upstream.

Historic towns with baroque building facades appeared at even more frequent intervals along this stretch, just as meticulously maintained as in Germany. I picnicked less and stopped more often in old town centres for a coffee or "eis" (italian ice cream). I succumbed to the pleasures of a "Vienna breakfast": soft boiled egg with thinly sliced white cheese and ham; melt-in-your-mouth rolls and butter, jam and honey. I spent a few mornings under hauptplatz cafe umbrellas at sun-dappled tables, writing amongst my breakfast wreckage and still half-full pot of coffee. To complete this picture, you might imagine me listening to homeboy Mozart on the cafe stereo, but this wouldn't be accurate. The concept of the "nostagie cafe" is popular, but I'm not sure whose nostagia it is. When I stopped off in the centre of "atmospheric" Ybbs for example, I hummed along to "lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet," and "there's nothing I can do, I only wanna be with you."

In this stretch too there were days when it seemed that around every turn, there was another castle or abbey or church in the near distance, perched on a hillside or hugging the river bank. Durnstein had both these: the craggy ruin of the castle in which Richard the Lion-Hearted, King of England, was imprisoned in the winter of 1192-93 looms above the town, and a magnificent early 15th century abbey with baroque retrofitting dominates the river bank.

There were bits and pieces of history from every era along this part of the river. In Passau I learned about the history of the powerful Catholic prince-bishops in the middle ages, and medieval castle life. At Mitterkirchen, I walked around a reconstructed celtic village, on the site where 8th century BC burial remains were found in 1980. It was fascinating to think of life here 2700 years ago. (I planned to have a snack at the "Prehistoric Cafe," but decided to give it a miss when I heard "Highway to Hell" blasting out of the prehistoric kitchen.) I visited the great Benedictine Abbeys at St. Florian and Melk, with their amazing baroque buildings, courtyards, libraries and ceiling frescoes. I regretted the impracticality of lying flat on the marble floors to have a really good look at all the characters and scenes portrayed on the different ceilings (other tourists looking upward would have tripped over me) . One depicted the defeat of the Turks, who advanced up the Danube as far as Vienna. (As I go east, there is increasing evidence of Turkish occupation.) Forward to the 20th century, I climbed to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp memorial, the last of the Nazi camps to be freed by the Americans in May 1945. The grim camp and the survivors' stories of the evil and cruelty endured here (heard through an audioguide) are almost unbearable, but it stands on a beautiful site with views of rolling hills around. As I picked up more and more of these historical pieces scattered about the landscape, they started to cohere for me in a bigger picture that gets more complete as I progress down the Danube.

My social scene changed as I lost the companionship of the Donaueschingen to Passau crowd, but I gained new companions, most of them German: a couple from near Frankfurt, a man on a recumbent bicycle from the Bodensee who introduced me to "zander" (pike perch), a fish unique to Europe; two couples from Donaueschingen; a man from Heidelberg.

The Passau to Vienna route was mostly idyllic; there were, however, some lengthy stretches of riding alongside really busy roads--on a safe bike path, but nevertheless the stink and noise of automobiles spoiled slightly the otherwise idyllic Wachau Valley, for example. Also, here's a quibble that only an over-indulged cyclist could make: you had to keep choosing which side of the river to ride on. I misunderstood what I had read about the approach to Linz and came in on the south bank, which was scenic but with no bike lane. I was four kilometres into the eight kilometre stretch of busy road before I realized that I meant to have gone on the other bank which had a bike lane, but I was speeding along with a tailwind at 30 kph and just wanted to get it over with, so kept on, right into Friday afternoon bridge traffic in Linz. Horrible.

Coming into a city on a bike is often not pleasurable, and the approach to Vienna was no exception. I had enjoyed the first part of the day. Midmorning I stopped to have a snack and dry my tent at a picnic table, which turned out to be social central. Recumbent Man stopped on his way back from Vienna to ask how I had liked the Eis Palatschinke (ice cream pancake) he had recommended for dessert; the man from Heidelberg stopped to have a fruit snack, the two couples from Donaueschingen called out their greetings as they sailed by. My fellow picnickers were two couples from Holland who had rented their bikes near Passau and would be returning them in Vienna. (Take note: only 45 euros ($Cdn 75) for 13 days.)

The heat and wind took every last drop of moisture out of my tent, fly and groundsheet, and I packed them away and headed for Vienna. It looked so easy to get downtown on the bike map that I didn't use the GPS, and there were lots of other touring cyclists headed that way. I passed most of them . . . and then I was mysteriously alone. As the kilometres mounted up, I realized I had somehow missed the turnoff for the city centre. When I finally asked someone for directional help, he laughed. I was so far off I wasn't even on the map. He took me across the railroad tracks--"there is no traffic," he said, as he nimbly jumped over several sets of tracks with his light bike in one hand; I decided I would abandon my own unwieldy steed at the first rumble of a train. He pointed me back toward Vienna and said with more sympathy than before, "it's only 15 minutes to the bridge; now the wind is with you; good luck!" In another hour or so I was on Vienna's ring road and eventually found the youth hostel I had booked, clocking over 20 kilometres more than I had planned for the already long day. I had heat exhaustion and was dehydrated; it was a less than glorious end to this stage.

There was a little adjustment, waking up with roommates in a small room in the city after all those dewy river grass mornings, but Vienna has some compensations. My first afternoon I walked around feeling small beside the towering buildings of the museums and palaces and theatres. The decorative detail is Baroque--coats of armour, twirling ropes, but most notably, statues abound: standing atop, straining to hold up pillars beneath, muscles bulging; and everywhere, heads poking out of the facades, grimacing and frowning.

At the end of my introductory stroll I headed for a magnificent multi-towered building that I thought might be the cathedral, but turned out to be the Rathaus (City Hall). A huge screen stretched across its front, and in the Rathausplatz hundreds of people were eating and drinking; restaurant stalls surrounded the square. It was the Vienna Film Festival: free films of concerts, dance, and opera every night through the summer. The price was right--free! I had just got a plate of grilled fish and vegetables and a beer when I saw Nadine, my Parisien roommate from the hostel and the only person I knew in all Vienna. We had dinner together and then found seats in front of the screen among the thousands set out, which filled up quickly as the showtime approached.

The film started at 8:50 p.m., just after sundown: a concert of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra & Gustavo Dudamel live in Caracas. Different members of the orchestra apeared on the huge screen, now the brass, now the violins, the conductor with his wild hair; and behind the passionate musicians the Viennese sky deepened to a darker blue between the five floodlit towers of the Rathaus. The statuary on guard all along the balconies far above looked down, with feet forward as if ready to deal with such a huge crowd. A magnificent setting for a magnificent concert. The audience in Vienna responded almost as the audience in Caracas, clapping, cheering, turning to each other in appreciation and amazement, as Nadine did to me: "Magnifique!"

The next day, August 14, was a banner day: Trish arrived from Vancouver to join me for the cycle eastward on the Danube. She was ready to ride, but I managed to keep her in Vienna for a classical music concert of "greatest hits" of Mozart and Strauss in the Orangery Concert Hall at Schonbrunner Castle. In this concert hall Mozart and Salieri had competed in a musical contest. (Salieri won, but Mozart has won the contest of time.) At the Castle we also visited the apartments of Kaiser Franz Josef and Kaiserin Elisabeth, not remarkable in themselves but interesting for the glimpse into their personal lives--not so very happy it would seem. Elisabeth was ambivalent about the king (who adored her) and about marriage and was rarely there; she was murdered at the age of 60 on one of her many overseas trips. The king was lengendary for working long hours at his desk; he slept (and died) on a narrow cot beside his prayer bench.
The following day we picnicked in the huge square between the Natural History and Art History Museums, oblivious to the heads frowning down on us while we caught up on our news. Then followed a dreamy afternoon strolling in the picture gallery amongst the work of great painters of the 15th to 18th centuries: Titian, Breugel the elder (the biggest collection in the world is here), Rubens, Durer, so many greats in one place.

And next day, eastward to Bratislava, Slovakia: next post.

Budapest, Hungary, 4503 km (August 29, 2008)

No comments: