Thursday, August 14, 2008

German Danube

Danube Valley near Tuttlingen: that's a castle up there!

Ulm Munster (Cathedral) tower

How I felt on the way up the Ulm Munster tower

This could be you on the Donauradwanderweg

Danube Gorge

Passau Castle

Zeltplatz on the Ilz River, Passau

Ihr Standort: You are Here!

"Germany! . . . I could hardly believe I was there." Exactly my thought, but it was an echo of Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1934, on his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople (A Time of Gifts, 1977). He continues, "For someone born in the second year of World War I, those three syllables were heavily charged. Even as I trudged across it, early subconscious notions, when one first confused Germans with germs and knew that both were bad, still sent up fumes; fumes, moreover, which the ensuing years had expanded into clouds as dark and baleful as the Ruhr smoke along the horizon . . ." My own place in history is sixty years distant even from the black clouds of the second world war, but wisps of war history did linger in my mind. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and this state, I have found, is best for finding wonder in a place, as I was about to do.

I spent most of my first afternoon toiling to get over the lump of land between the Rhine and Danube River valleys. As always, the climb was worth the effort: after the misty Bodensee, my first views of rural Germany were of rolling green hills dotted with colourful houses. The day was clear, but it became hot and heavy, in the oppressive build-up to a thunderstorm. I was out of energy as I neared the summit of the lump at the small town of Liptingen. Just as the first thunder cracked the sky I saw "Gasthof" in the typical Bavarian script on a cream facade with green shutters, and "moderne fremdenzimmer" on a sign by the door-''modern tourist room." Within minutes I was in possession of a room out of an IKEA catalogue: double bed with puffy duvets and a sitting area in flowered pastels. Later in the gasthof's restaurant I started my nightly Weizen beer habit: "it's fresh, for summer," the friendly waitress told me, and brought a tall foaming glass (50 cl). I was asleep a second before I wrapped myself up in the duvet.

The next day I rolled down the hill from Liptingen into Tuttlingen, the town where I joined the Danube near its source. And here I learned my next impressive multisyllable German word, "Donauradwanderweg, which I translated to suit myself: Danubebicyclewanderway ("wander" more accurately refers to hiking). From Tuttlingen, my plan was to follow the Danube all the way to the Black Sea, 2743.0 km away. As I started downriver, I tingled with the excitement of being in a place long anticipated. Through my iPod earphones Flying Mountain, a seventies folk group, sang to me, over and over, "Follow that stream down to the end, you just follow that stream down to the end." I laughed out loud.

The Danube Cycle Way is typically done in stages: in Germany from the river's source in Donaueschingen to Passau (I joined it at Tuttlingen, 36.5 km from Donaueschingen), in Austria from Passau to Vienna (said to be the most popular bike route in Europe), Vienna to Budapest, and the last, Budapest to the Black Sea. This fourth stage is clearly marked on the Eurovelo6 promotional website as being part of the whole route, but raised eyebrows and expressions of doubt about it are common. More on that in a later post.

Back to my first day on the German Danube. I spun along on the mostly flat green river valley with rocky cliffs towering on both sides, and very soon, saw my first Danube castle perched on a high crag. Along this stretch there were several encampments of large white tents: children's camps where I could hear the happy sounds of games and singing. Inflatable rafts were pulled ashore, indications of adventure to come.

After the first dramatic day of riding between the vertical rocks and trees, the countryside opened up into more conventional agricultural land--corn, in these early days of August, fattening; within arm's reach, tempting. As the days of August mounted up, more wheat fields were brush cut; in other fields coarse leafy greens were being grown (probably for livestock feed, suggested my informant from Stettler, Alberta). The cycleway was through these agricultural lands but also sometimes directly beside the river. On the riverside path there are numbers posted on large signs. These are the kilometre markers counting down to the Danube's end at the Black Sea.

And never too many kilometres down the road an historic town to explore, with a central tower and clock, often with the town's coat of arms, each building painted in crisp colours. I can't say if it's because this is a well-travelled tourist route that the towns are so well maintained, but I didn't see any that were run down with peeling or faded buildings. It's as if nocturnal workers toil on scaffolds with their brushes and paint while we sleep.

Some outstanding images: the huge castle in Sigmaringen, my first overrnight stop. Along its mass turrets poked the sky. In Ulm I climbed the Munster (cathedral) tower, at 161.6 metres, the highest church tower in the world. The tower seemed less substantial and skinnier as I neared the top but perseverance yielded a spectacular view of the Danube winding its green-brown way past the industrial area and train yards toward the clusters of white houses with red pointed roofs on streets curling in on themselves. In Donauworth, the Danube Cycle Way intersects with the "Romantic Road" leading to another series of towns with castles, including the one on which Disney modeled its own castle. . . At Weltenburg, a huge church (kloster) bordered the river where it became steeply banked again; the road ended, and a cyclist and pedestrian ferry took me downstream through the gorge about five kilometres to Kelheim, another town with a schloss (castle) high on a hill. Regensburg also had a magnificent castle, Thurn und Taxis. I approached it early on a quiet Sunday, new sun lighting the elegant facade. The enormous leafy park around it was peaceful with just the padding feet of joggers. And to top it off, beautiful Passau, the end of this stage. The old centre of Passau is where three rivers meet: the Danube, the Inn (only slightly shorter than the Danube, but wider--had it been a bit longer the Danube from henceforth would have been the Inn), and the Ilz, a smaller river where the campsite was located. Passau has a commanding waterfront. The houses are joined as one but are painted in different colours: creamy yellow, blue, orange, green. The castle climbs the steep hill above the Danube and dominates that bank. Tiny windows are painted around to look bigger, and the castle has a pristine look that it probably did not have before tourism became its main purpose. Not unlike other towns with such an advantageous location, Passau likely has 7000 years of continuous settlement, one long story of prosperity, changing fortunes and rulers.

I cycled this stretch from July 28 and ended up in Passau on August 6. During this time the weather pattern for each day was consistent: warm and sunny days, and rain almost every night. Heavy dew was also present on the nights it didn't rain. This meant fresh mornings. Some days I cycled into a white mist which dissipated by 9:00 into a blue sky. The river in the humid heat has the same smell, the familiar fug of the great Asian rivers I have been on--the Mekong, the Red River.

My days settled into a comfortable and easy routine--follow the river; follow the Donauradwanderweg arrows. Picnic frequently along the way. And as I picnicked, others rode by, calling out, "Guten morgen!" "Guten apetit!" Some mornings I even did some writing at my picnic site while my tent fly dried.

The quality of my wandering changed on this stage: it became more social from the first day. Germans (and after them, the Austrians) along this route were very outgoing and forthcoming with help. I needed only stop and look the slightest bit perplexed, and someone was there to advise. In Tuttlingen, my first town on the Danube, I was walking through the market square looking for the tourism office when a retired army colonel and a touring cyclist himself, asked if he could help me, and ended up inviting me for a coffee to talk about cycling adventures. On my second day on the river, a cheerful grandmother cycled up beside me and the discovery that I did not speak German did not phase her at all. With her ten words of English and my ten words of German, we chatted all the way to her doctor's appointment in the next town in telegraphic speech. One hand on the handlebars, she used the other to demonstrate with poking jabs what she was going for--a blood test, I think. Then we parted with a cheery "Tschuss!" (Bye!).

And there were scores of other cyclists on this bikeway. There were the streamlined lycra-clad ones on light racing bikes, as well as ones with wobbly butts and billowing t-shirts, laden for a tour. Lots of couples. There was the romantic who rode behind his sweetie, pushing her bike with one hand as he rode uphill. (Although I could swear I saw the thought bubble over the head of one raspberry-faced man as he pushed his bike up another hill: it said, "I get to choose the next vacation.") And I finally found "my people": these are the cyclists at the "zeltplatz," the tent site, usually a specific spot within a "campingplatz". Nightly reunions at the zeltplatz had us sharing stories of the road and life over dinner. I never felt lonely on the Donau.

On our last evening together in Passau, Herbert, Romy and I reflected on our journey down the Donau to this point (some 600 km). They were heading home to Switzerland the next day. Romy said, not sure she could believe it, "Everyone says the next part (Passau to Vienna) is the best! Can it be true?" Romy's question will be answered in the next post.

Kromarom, Hungary, 4294 km (August 21, 2008)

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