Motorists usually take their cars when they go away on holiday so why should cyclists not take their bikes? Tempted by the idea of cycling 650 km through attractive scenery, hardly any motor traffic and very few hills, we spent 12 days in June following the first leg of the Danube’s journey from its source in the village of Donaueschingen in the Black Forest to the city of Passau, on the Austrian border.
We have ordinary commuting bikes; I have four panniers and Jim has three panniers plus a very useful handlebar box which is topped with a readily accessible map holder. The tourists we met (mostly German and not one from Britain) carried their luggage in a variety of fashions; some had large holdalls placed across two back panniers, some used trailers, and we came across a few parties whose baggage was being conveyed by motor vehicle. Here I hasten to point out that, despite our advancing years, we carried all our belongings ourselves and planned our own route. Neither presented any problem, even though Jim insists upon carrying every imaginable tool and gadget for every imaginable predicament.
We were very fortunate in obtaining the English translation of Bikeline, just published, and this proved invaluable. It maps the whole journey in bite-sizes, lists cycle-friendly places to stay, in order of appearance, suggests interesting detours and warns of difficult surfaces and heavy traffic (both rarely apparent and usually avoidable). To add to our sense of adventure we did not book any accommodation. Certainly, this presented no problem; one guesthouse was full but we were put in a delightful annex with our own sitting room at no extra charge. The proprietor’s young son, keen to practise his English, even helped us to bring in our panniers. Hearty German breakfasts were served wherever we stayed (not quite – we were treated to delicious Italian fare at one, whilst a UK expat at another was less than generous). Generally we were well sustained for the strenuous day ahead, and this proved invaluable as shops and cafés were very few and far between.
Some hotels, guesthouses and private proprietors subscribe to a Bed & Bike scheme but we simply used the lists provided in Bikeline and found that all ten of the places we stayed at were cycle-friendly whether or not they were accredited. Bike accommodation ranged from a first-floor terrace open to the elements to a special room with hangers and a tumble drier for wet clothes, specially provided within the house. Wet weather is fairly common but we were extremely fortunate in enduring just an hour and a half of rain the entire journey (indeed I was pleased to justify the waterproof clothing and pannier covers that constituted a fair proportion of my baggage). However, despite the fact that this was early June, it was often unbearably hot in the middle of the day, obliging us to seek a shady resting place or, if available, a suitable bar.
The route provides plenty to interest geographers, historians and lovers of nature, Baroque architecture and German beer. It could also be easily and safely tackled by children of about 9 years and above. Places that stand out in my memory include the gravel bed, hidden among acres of water meadow, into which the great river sinks underground for some 20 miles, the charming monastery at Weltenberg (so famous is the beer made by the monks there that it is impossible to walk through the cloisters unaccompanied by hordes of noisy visitors sampling the brew) which heralds a spectacular limestone gorge through which the river forces its way at dramatic speed, and a fabulous Baroque church, with an interior like an extravagantly iced cake dripping with gold, in the tiny hamlet of Loh, miles from anywhere.
Passau provided a fitting end to the journey. Here the Danube is joined by the rivers Inn and Ilz and is wide enough for substantial cruise ships to dock. We climbed to the castle to get a fabulous view of the city and to see the contrasting colours of the rivers before they merge.
We caught the slow train back to Donaueschingen and reviewed the many landmarks, as well as less significant but equally memorable places that we had visited, on the nine-hour journey. Most trains in Germany have a special carriage provided for bikes but it was not always easy to get them on. I did not enjoy shoving a heavily-loaded bike up four steps onto a waiting train but I understand that this kind of carriage is disappearing. Our cycle route, of course, continues through Austria and Hungary to Budapest and beyond. This leg appears to be more popular with British riders and tour companies, but our German friends assure us that it is not as nice! Indeed, Bikeline has published a further cycle guide that leads to the Black Sea. I’d be pleased to hear from anybody who has attempted this.
Down the Danube (a technical footnote)
So how does this route compare with those in the UK we’ve seen and what are the cycling facilities in the towns?
Much of the route away from trafficked roads was 3 m of tarmac of good quality, with some long unsurfaced sections similar to the Cam towpath, which were fine except where gradients or sharp bends occur and the surface tends to break up. In some 400 miles it was not surprising to find the odd bit that was dire or overgrown. The quiet roads were very quiet, often with under 4 m of tarmac but with gravel margins. Motor vehicles would pull onto this to enable the cyclist to remain on the tarmac.
A number of the larger towns (Ulm, Ingolstadt, and Regensburg) had high levels of cycling but with many uncomfortable cobbled streets. Ulm had ‘lockers’ signposted from cycle racks, Ingolstadt had ‘poor’ hybrid lanes with a kerb at both sides, but we did encounter a couple of big junctions with cyclists relegated to pedestrian status, and umpteen lanes to cross in many stages.
Before our trip we had a short stay in Freiburg, which has levels of cycling similar to Cambridge, but experienced the difficulties of tram lines in the wet. We also visited the two major developments that are being quoted as examples suitable for Cambridge and were much impressed.
As with our previous venture abroad to Denmark, it was the consideration of drivers of motor vehicles that so strongly contrasted with our experiences at home.