Danube Bike Cruise 30 April-7 May 2017
We boarded our cruise ship (river barge?) in Passau on schedule and were soon settled into a small but very well equipped cabin. The ship is beautiful and has all the latest mod-cons, although as usual on cruise boats, money is the key. We saved ourselves a bit of money by buying and economy cabin that was cheaper because it was close to the engine room and suffered from noise during night time passages. It wasn’t nearly as loud as we had been led to believe and it didn’t worry us at all. However, we spent a little more by choosing a middle deck cabin rather than the lower deck, thereby scoring a full sized picture window well above the waterline.
- MV Carissimar
- Length 110m Width 11.4m
- Draft 7m
- Decks 3
- Cabins 75
- Passengers 150
- Speed 21 km/h
Our route will take us from Passau in Germany, through Austria, Slovakia (stopping at Bratislava), Hungary (with a stop and a turn-around in Budapest), back into Austria (with a stop in Vienna) and back to Passau. The whole trip is eight days.
Life aboard the ship was very comfortable with some terrific company. We had two other Aussie couples, Sonja and Ray from Brisbane and Jenny and Darren from Melbourne. Dining seating was arranged by language spoken and we shared a table with a lovely English couple, Heather and Phillip, from Newark near Nottingham. There was also Barb and Bob from Alberta, Canada in our little group of English speakers. Most of the other passengers were German speaking although there was also a large contingent of Dutch. The meals were generally of a high standard with breakfast being a buffet and dinner four courses with some degree of choice. The wait staff, who mostly seemed to come from various Balkan countries, had a very strict set of rules, which included not changing seats. We delighted in breaking the rules and after a while the staff came to enjoy and share in our quirky sense of humour. I had a habit of ordering the chicken when presented with a choice of meals, even when it was sweets or there was no chicken offered and eventually they responded by doing a chicken dance for us.
Like all organised tours, there were a lot of rules and timetables to comply with. We were issued with the “Yellow Document” that gave strict times that had to be adhered to at the risk of being left behind. Daily announcements seemed to run to a somewhat different schedule to the “yellow Document”. We also received a daily “Cycling Briefing” where the complexities of the day’s cycle pathway were fully explained yet never fully understood. We never actually became lost but we had a couple of close calls and managed to rescue a few fellow cyclists at times.
The main guest manager was obsessed with hygiene, not an unreasonable obsession with 150 close packed guests on one ship, but obsessive all the same. Dispensers of hand sanitizer were positioned at every door way and instructions to “sanitize your hands please” were forthcoming on each and every boarding. I saw the logic and even agreed with it but it was hard to take at times.
Each day of cycling involved around 42km, mercifully mostly on the flat. We had paid the extra for an electric assist bike. We still had to pedal but at least we could kick in the help juice when the hills appeared. The bikes were of exceptional quality and brand new. However, unlike our e-bikes at home, there was no option to stop pedalling and simply apply the throttle. Our legs had to keep moving all the time so we still suffered the same degree of soreness and chaffing that the others copped. We were supplied with a pannier bag and handle-bar bag each, along with a spare tube and repair kit (luckily we didn’t need either).
Breakfast before a riding day was a fashion lovers nightmare. There was lots of lycra on show, complete with outlined rolls of flesh that should have been disguised under more voluminous clothing. Some people, like us, didn’t possess the full gamut of the real gear that true cyclist collect. We went out in thermal underwear, with shorts and T-shirts on the outer, raincoats to keep out the bitter wind and beanies instead of helmets. We wanted to wear helmets but there was simply not room to bring them in our luggage. The boat would sell us one for $A35 but that times two is a lot for five bike rides and there was no option to rent. Helmet use is not compulsory in Germany, Austria, Slovakia or Hungary unless you are under 15 so we went without.
The riding programs varied considerably from one day to the next. Out first day’s ride was through National Park alongside the Danube, almost all on cycle paths. Every so often we had to part with 2€ each to get on a ferry to cross to the other side of the river and sometimes the lure of a coffee stop or a lunch break would see us pull over and nurse our aching backsides. The scenery was spectacular, with magnificent forests covering the hills rising steeply above the fast flowing river. The river flow was being continually added to from streams entering along the valley, some creating lovely little waterfalls beside the road. It was quite charming and rather easy going. However, 43kms still works at the body even if the path is easy and the end was always a welcome sight.
Over the course of the week, we undertook four big rides, three of them 43km long and one 37km. We spent another afternoon riding in Vienna. Of the total distance, the vast majority was on well formed bike paths with the occasional stretch of road riding. This was mostly safe and secure except for one rather nasty 5km bit in Hungary where we had cars passing us at high speed on a fairly narrow country road. Most days we had to use a ferry at some point to cross the river, involving small ramp on vessels that charged around a couple of Euros to cross. One ferry in Hungary charged a whopping three Euros and only ran once per hour. We made it in good time but as we pulled out we could see others pedalling furiously along the river bank trying in vain to make the ferry.
There were a variety of little towns and villages dotted along the course of the ride with many cafes and small restaurants. Most were not open, with May being a little early in the tourist season. However, we did enjoy stopping for coffee and some form of delicious cake. Every form of cake or strudel is available in large quantities throughout Bavaria, Austria and Hungary and it is always cheap. Beer is also cheap but having a beer half way through a long ride is not recommended. We carried a packed lunch supplied by the boat and groups of riders would usually choose a pretty spot by the side of the river to stop for a break.
The cruise visited a number of major cities and some smaller cities or larger towns along the way. Sometimes we would stop overnight but usually the ship would depart at a later point and we would awake tied up somewhere new.
Bratislava is the capital city of the Slovak Republic (Slovakia). We rode into Bratislava from further upstream, crossing the border from Austria. On the Austrian side of the river there was a museum devoted to the Iron Curtain which featured a concrete bunker, layers of barbed wire and a system of trenches. I guess in times past most countries would have maintained some form of naval presence on the Danube but now many of the countries along its flow have open borders. We had the afternoon to explore Bratislava. The main feature is a huge castle that overlooks the city and houses many priceless art works and the Slovakian Crown jewels. The walls of the castle run down the steep hillside to be incorporated into the old part of the city, full of very beautiful buildings, stately apartment blocks and several open walking streets with shady trees down the middle. The weather was cool but good for walking and, as in all new cities, we stopped to sample the local brew and watch the passing parade. The streets seemed crisper and cleaner than most other places and everything was well organised. Bratislava created a very good impression.
Budapest in Hungary was our turn-around point and we spent a whole day and most of the night there, giving the passengers a chance to really explore. There was an optional 52km ride to a nearby town but the aching muscles ruled that out and we opted instead for a bit of walking. As previous visitors to the city, some of the others picked our brains for the best way to see the city in a short space of time and I was relieved when the advice I gave turned out to be accurate. Luckily, I could go back and read earlier writings in the blog to refresh my memory. It was funny to read that I had noted an experience with an incredibly rude waiter because a lot of our friends ended up reporting similar experiences, including a waiter who yelled at people for not ordering Hungarian food and a woman in a shop who demanded that visitors to Hungary must try to speak Hungarian.
While in Budapest, we noticed with concern that we had mucked up on some of our bookings for later in the trip, booking a week in Trogir, Croatia for May instead of June. We needed access to better Internet than the boat seemed to be supplying so we decided to head out and find a cafe with good internet and have a solid session on the emails and bookings to see if we could rectify things before we started losing deposits. To do this, we needed a few Forints, the Hungarian currency but we had little other need of any, with lunch being available on the boat. I went ashore to an ATM and withdrew F1000, the minimum amount then realised half way back to the boat that I had withdrawn a whole $A4.68,probably not even enough for two coffees. The ship was docked on the Buda shore of the Danube so we crossed the famous Chain Bridge to the Pest side and wandered down a beautiful walking street. Most establishments were not yet open but we finally found one that was starting to open up. We asked if they took Euros but they said no. We explained that we only had F1000 and it appeared that that would buy us two coffees with a little change so we settled in to use their Internet. On this occasion we were lucky to find some friendly and helpful Hungarians.
Budapest by night is the most beautiful city we have visited, surpassing even Paris. On the Pest bank, the incredible Parliament Building under flood lights is beyond belief while on the Buda side the imposing Buda Castle and inspiring Matthais Church with adjoin Fishermens Bastion look down over the river. The Chain Bridge joins the two banks in a wonderful show of 19th Century ironwork. To top all this off, we were entertained by a glorious display of forked lightning crackling down over the city and heralding a good dose of torrential rain. We were safely aboard the ship and dining at the time, although some of our new friends were experiencing the deluge first hand.
Austria’s capital city was by-passed on our downstream leg but on the return journey we pulled in for an afternoon and evening, allowing passengers some time to explore or go to a concert in the evening. Once again, we had done most things on our previous visit to Vienna so were content to just take ourselves into the city on a tram and the Metro to walk for a while and visit our favourite Wurtzel Stall. This proved harder said than done and we spent nearly an hour of our time just getting away from the ship and onto the right tram, mostly due to poor directions from the briefing. A lot of us had difficulty following the Austrian guide, not so much because her English was bad but more that her way of explaining things might have worked well in German but failed to translate across.
A Wurtzell Stall in Vienna is one of our fondest memories from our last trip with tasty Bratwurst and Currywurst, wholesome German bread and good Austrian beer. I consulted a map and made my best judgement about its location, deciding that it was most likely located in Stephenplaza. After a few errors with the Metro and the trams we made our way to what we thought was the right station, emerged from the underground and there, right before us, was our Wurztle Stand. Despite that fact that we had just had a big lunch on the ship, we still managed to squeeze down the extra 1000 calories on offer at the Wurztel Stand and confirm our memory of this being so much better than anywhere else we have tried German sausage.
Vienna is a city whose history conjures up a lot of romance. Music and concerts are advertised everywhere and there is a lot of choice when it comes to performances, both classical and modern. The architecture reflects the history as the capital of one of Europe’s great empires and there are many grand buildings to be seen. However, the city is rather disjoint and has integrated the newer post war buildings rather poorly in my opinion. On the northern bank there is a cluster of new steel and glass high rise buildings which display an interesting variety of shapes and forms but on the older bank of the river the mix of old and new is not so appealing. The parks dotted throughout the city probably save it, because they provide some welcome relief to the endless stone walls and statues that adorn everything. The mix of parkland and architectural splendour comes to a head at the Hapsburg’s Imperial Palace, which remains a must see part of the city. On this trip, we did not do it justice at all, so we were very glad that we had done a good job on our first visit and could afford to have a fairly relaxed day. Tomorrow it is back on the bike.
Vác and Esztergom, Hungary
We rode the 43kms between a couple of smaller Hungarian towns, passing through a number of tiny hamlets along the river. Before setting off, we explored the main centre of Vác and discovered a delightful town square surrounded by charming buildings, all very nice but then we have now seen too many beautiful towns to count. The cycle trip was rather different however, with the small Hungarian hamlets displaying a somewhat different character to those in Austria. The houses had very steeply pitched roofs, with many being and actual A-frame structure. Blocks were larger, with gardens in front and a vegetable plot at back. It looked very comfortable. Along the river bank were numerous tiny huts, presumably for fishing camps. Each one had a fine net suspended out the front on a high tripod. We wondered at the purpose, possibly a net for gathering bait or maybe there are shrimps of some kind in the river.
As we approached the end of the ride at Esztergom we began to see the enormous dome of the Basillica of Esztergom, an enormous structure perched high on a prominent cliff alongside a fortress of considerable size. The closer we got the more the structure seemed to dominate the view. With plenty of time before the boat docked, we decided to ride up through the town to inspect the basilica and catch the view. Fortunately for us, putting the e-bikes in 1st gear and full power makes light work of the very steep climb to the top. The heavily cobbled streets don’t help either and at one point, going up through a narrow lane to a draw bridge into the castle, it was more like serious mountain biking. The view was worth the effort and even the ride itself through the picturesque streets was thoroughly enchanting. Esztergom is a town worthy of a visit.
Krems, Dürnstein and Melk
Our final ride was in Austria, after a day in Vienna, when we cycled the 37km from the town of Krems to Melk. We were looking forward to a ride 6kms shorter than the usual 43km but as it turned out, we nearly did the extra distance just getting out of Krems. Krems is a pretty enough little town with the usual scattering of old churches, the odd bit of fortification and numerous 19th Century apartment blocks. However, the ride briefing failed to give us really clear instructions for getting through Krems and onto the Danube cycle path so we spent nearly an hour wandering around looking for signs. We weren’t alone, with lots of cyclists buzzing about calling out instructions to others or calling for help. Somehow, we all made it out of town and onto the path. The day’s ride was easily the most picturesque of the cruise, taking us through the Wachau Valley, a wine growing region of some renown. Every village we passed through was gorgeous, made more by the numerous outlets offering wine tasting. Given the early hour and the fact that wine and cycling don’t mix we resisted the temptation.
The path took us through the village of Dürnstein, first mentioned in 1192 when, in the castle above the town, King Richard I of England was held captive by Leopold V, Duke of Austria after a dispute during the Third Crusade. The castle, which was damaged beyond repair by a Swedish army in the 17th Century, is an imposing sight on the hill over the village but it is the village itself, nestled amongst the ruins of the castle’s old fortifications, that gives the true charm to the place. We actually found Dürnstein to be the most charming village we have yet encountered, a big call given the number of beautiful little hamlets we have been through so far. Unfortunately, the rest of the World shared our opinion and the narrow streets were filled with tour groups. We had been warned of this and had not attempted to ride our bikes through the village. The good thing about the tour groups was that there were lots of tour guides operating in English so we could listen in for free. There was ambience everywhere, little cottages, cute little shops, smart pensions, arched bridges etc, the place had the works. A lot of shops were selling a local version of fire water made from apricots, fermented and distilled into a 40% alcohol brew that we definitely resisted trying. Later, we were presented with a miniature bottle of the stuff by Heather and Phillip, fellow cyclists from Britain. We will be forced to try it some time.
This cruise was one of the best experiences we have had and will remain a highlight of our lives for many years to come. Not only did we make some wonderful new friends (thank you to Phillip and Heather, Sonia and Ray, Jenni and Darren, Barb and Bob) but we proved that there was still a little bit of puff in these two old farts and managed to clock up 172kms of cycling along the Danube River. We loved the cruising lifestyle, survived the excesses of food and beverage and added enormously to our developing understanding of the heritage of European life that it so fundamental to, yet so poorly understood by Australians.
In hindsight, we were incredibly lucky with the weather given the time of year. The only rain we had was on rest days in the cities and no ride was ruined with bad weather. At times it was a bit on the chilly side but cycling in the cold is much better than the hot weather.
There were also a number of people on board who did not cycle. I confess that I would find such a cruise rather boring if I had to spend most of the time on the boat. The shore going past is interesting enough but not for eight days. Indeed, some of the cruises go right through from the Black Sea along the Danube, through the new connecting canal, into the Rhine and on to Amsterdam, taking around 20 days. I would go mad. The cycling was the key to this cruise.
We booked our tour with Rad+Reisen, an Austrian company that runs cycling tours in many parts of the World. The bikes were first class and the organisation excellent, although some of the actual daily briefings fell short of the mark. As an experience, I can only recommend it. https://en.radreisen.at/