Biking Adventures in Germany and Austria
by Maggie Rentmeester
Travel adventures, especially those to foreign countries, are always exciting. Several members of my family and I began planning a two-week biking/ sightseeing trip to Europe through Vermont bike Tours (www.VBT.com) in the cold months following Christmas. Once the warmth of summer arrived we set off on our journey to the fascinating Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria. Baroque spires and domes from the 1400’s looked down on the modern and busy cities seemingly nodding their approval. Our group arrived in Passau, Germany, a city founded at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz. We settled into the quaint Alstadt Hotel, located on the finger of land separating the Inn and the Danube, and promptly checked out the beautiful terrace that provided a unique visualization of the comingling of the rivers. The Danube is dark bluish grey and the Inn has a silvery tone from mountain runoff high in the Alps—fishermen lined both rivers and from the look of their buckets, had great catches for the day.
Luckily our visit coincided with the town’s annual river festival just across a couple of lovely bridges on the banks of the Ilz River. I have never experienced a German town festival and was willing to immerse myself in the local culture, especially when that meant cold beer, smoky grilled sausages, and yeasty, fresh baked pretzels accompanied by live music! We crossed the Inn River bridge and marveled at the number of barges anchored for the evening: some decorated with Swarovski crystal chandeliers and private balconies — what a way to enjoy the scenery of the Danube! Then on over to the Ilz River bridge where we were treated to a boat jousting tournament going on below. Two low, flat bottom boats fitted with small platforms off the stern each held a jouster. Contestants perched on the platforms armed with a six-foot padded lancing devices. The boats were rowed smartly toward each other with the intent of getting close enough for one jouster to knock the other off into the river. Rowdy crowds at Lunch at a German pub houseired in costumes of lederhosen and dirndls lined the bridge. From the banks of the river they shouted encouragement to their favorite contestants. Multiple participants, men and women, ended up taking their licks and good-naturedly splashed their way to the shore. Volunteer jousters would certainly have been found in our group if they had been needed. Several of our adventurous folk might have run down to the shore to join in if asked, everyone looked like they were having a blast.
Everyone worked up quite a thirst with all the cheering for the jousters. A frothy mug of Hacklburg ale (“two fisted” drinking required for the mandatory liter mug that weighed a ton!) was the perfect drink to quench my thirst from the spicy grilled sausage, crispy baked chicken and chewy salty pretzels accompanied by tangy stone-ground mustard. The evening ended with lively, sing along, can’t keep your feet from moving, songs performed by a Beatles’ tribute band. It was easy to join in with the song lyrics, sung in English, not so easy to translate the conversation between songs, but great fun was had by all.
Morning broke the following day and after enjoying a hearty breakfast buffet with a selection of fresh sugar sweet strawberries and melon, aged fragrant sliced meats and cheeses, crusty homemade breads and fresh brewed coffee with sweet cream it was time for our next adventure.
Vermont Bike Tour (VBT.com) tour leaders Zuzanna and Andy once again transitioned us seamlessly to the next mode of transportation: a huge and luxurious river boat. Andy had a plethora of regional maps and used the large tables on the boat to point out the pathways of the rivers in the region. River travel allows passengers to cruise through four different countries—Germany, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. The Excellent German wurst !!!historic Danube has inspired songwriters, poets and kings. The Blue Danube Waltz was a symbol of Imperial Vienna and Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned along its shores, the proud fortress where he was once interred stands proudly high above the rapidly moving waters. While silently cruising down the twirling, winding route gazing as castles and ancient ruins appeared on the steep, thickly forested mountains lining the river; We all began to understand the power of the water. The movement of the boat became hypnotic and I could picture a time when beasts of burden lined the paths tethered to the boats pulling loads to the next destination. These one-time animal pathways have been paved over and converted into a bike trail with million-dollar views. We docked at the river port town of Schlogen and began our tour of the Wachau Valley.
Guidebooks describe the Wachau Valley as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a grouping of 936 properties chosen by the World Heritage Committee as having worldwide cultural or historical significance and include such lofty cohorts as the Great Barrier Reef, Yellowstone National Park, and Machu Picchu. While gratified that I traveled through an area of such epic history, my fondest recollections of the Wachau valley are that of gliding through fragrant vineyards lining the bike trail, warm sun on my back, glistening apricots ripening on the tree, and sipping delicious young heuriger wine.
The bike trail along the Danube winds peacefully adjacent to the river and veers off into picturesque towns lined with bright earthen-toned stone houses draped with flowering vines and stunning fuchsia and blue hydrangeas. On our bikes we meandered over one of the many bridges, gazed at the swiftly moving river and admired the stately Baroque church silhouetted on a hillside while standing with one foot in Austria and one foot in Germany. Thanks to the enactment of the European Union, borders are crossed with ease and many only bear small markings indicating the new country entered. My journey downriver took me past stunning gardens—one complete with bamboo, sculptured evergreens and stunning double fuchsia plants. We pedaled through lovely forested areas only to emerge at a clearing with breathtaking views of ruined castles, abbeys and churches. Lunchtime brought us to a dam crossing and we entered Scharding, Austria, a town famous for its nutty, Swiss-like cheese. Fragrant silky cheese sliced directly from the wheel, crusty locally baked bread and fresh apricots purchased at the local farmer’s market made for a delightful picnic lunch. Rich and velvety chocolate Sacher torte provided a sweet ending and incentive to bike a few more miles.
Have I mentioned anything about the food? The attention to detail, expert planning, and near-perfect execution by VBT included an amazing array of meals and snacks throughout the trip. On one memorable evening Zuzanna and Andy organized a scrumptious meal served in an ancient winepress room. They brought our group together that evening to enjoy house made braunschweiger and juicy sausages accompanied by fresh grape tomatoes and mozzarella for an appetizer. Roasted chicken, slow cooked beef served with homemade sauerkraut, lentils and potatoes for the main course. Spongy, spiced chocolate apricot torte was the finale. Afterward I was just barely able to roll myself back up to my room and dream of tomorrow’s adventures. Once again, VBT comes through with a lovely, unique, “never would have found this place on my own” establishment with delicious food.
The next morning the group and I pedaled through the enchanting Wachau Valley along the Danube towards the Baroque town of Melk. The paved path was smooth and led me through vineyards lined in robust grapevines heavy with the promise of a hearty harvest end-capped with multicolored fragrant rose bushes used as sentinel agents predicting disease. Stopping to admire and pick a few blushing apricots from a tree near the pathway, I took on some fresh fuel for my pedaling trip downriver. The majestic Melk Abbey appeared high above me on a rocky outcropping over the Danube. Our VBT trip included a guided tour of the Abbey and our knowledgeable escort was ready and waiting for us; how lovely to have someone take care of all of these details and make the trip so stress free. The Baroque monastery stands tall on the hillside capped with a trio of towering spires and a lovely golden yellow facade. The abbey was built in the early 1700’s and still has 900 active students attending. The size and scale of the building was impressive, but the most breathtaking portion of the abbey was the church. Pink, purple and violet orchids spun into 10-foot diameter wreaths decorated each side altar and blossoms threaded onto wires suspended from the ceiling. These colorful cascades created the image of raining orchids in the center of the church in honor of the feast day for Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Stunning frescoes on the ceiling gilded with four kilograms of pure gold embellished the opulent statues and altars. Stunning—I felt like I was in the company of royals with such an opulent display.
After enjoying brick oven fired freshly made pizzas topped with tuna, eggs, artichokes, and pepperoni for lunch provided by VBT, it was time to cycle back to Weissenkirchen. Friendly locals called out greetings of “Állo!” to passersby while perched on benches lining the Danube enjoying the sunshine and views. I paused along the way to breathe in the scenery and snap a few photographs of the uniquely terraced vineyards lining the lush green hills along the river. The Riesling wine bottled here is world renowned: crisp and fruity, lovely on the taste buds and perfect accompanying a multitude of foods. The VBT van appeared regularly along our biking routes with a delectable array of local goodies to sample and re-energize us. Each town and village had several convenient and accessible konditorei (German/Austrian pastry shops), every one of them offering a mouth-watering selection of delectable treats to hard working cyclists. Going hungry is never an option!
A biking voyage down a quiet river path might lead some to fear monotony. This is absolutely not the case at all: the twists and turns of the Danube provide delights around every corner. Tim and George at the river crossingThe path led us through villages with Renaissance buildings surrounding hidden inner courtyards gushing with newly bloomed flowers, past ancient ruins, through orchards heavy with ripening fruit and alongside vineyards holding the promise of both sweet and earthy vintages. Home cooked regional dishes were available in every town and harbored winemakers galore. Wine tasting was available every evening. Traditionally, the winemaker offering a tasting hangs out a wheat wreath on the gate offering an invitation to visitors. Andy and Zuzanna treated us to a lovely evening of conversation and wine sipping under the apple orchard strung with lights, I felt like I was in a fairyland.
The Wachau Valley enchanted me with its picturesque views, fabulous bike paths, fragrant vineyards, and exquisite cuisine. I left a bit of my heart in the valley and would love to go back.
Published September 2011