Cycling the Mighty Danube
When we decided to bike across Europe, our itinerary was largely set by our desire to follow the mighty Danube River as it criss-crossed the map of the continent.The river holds many attractions, after all. Spanning thousands of years of rich and eventful history, it offers stunning national parks, unique archeological sites, and unbeatable cultural and religious centers to enthrall artists, daydreamers, history buffs, cruise-goers, and vacationers alike. Much of its wealth is protected in several cultural and natural sites under the UNESCO’s World Heritage program. The second-longest river in Europe, it passes through nine countries and four capitals. For cyclo-tourists like us, the river is an ideal guide.
We are two of the lucky few who followed this flood of wonders from its source in the heart of the Black Forest of Germany all the way to its delta at the Black Sea in Romania. We watched the river grow, as a child grows, from a tiny fountain in front of an 18th-century castle in the charming town of Donaueshingen to one of the world’s great rivers.
In southern Germany, we cycled past green and brown fields and followed the meandering river through small towns with red rooftops and tall green church steeples. Roadside shrines depicting Jesus on the cross welcomed us into every town. As we reached Passau, the border town between Germany and Austria, the waters of the Isaar River flowed into the Danube, nearly doubling its volume. The Danube is now a mature river, known to the Germans and Austrians as the “Donau.”
Riches of the Wachau
On our way to the imperial capital of Vienna, we continued on the Donau bike path through a region known as the Wachau, which is regarded as one of the most colorful cultural regions of central Europe. It is an historic place where stunning landscapes, a rich culinary tradition, and ancient winemaking traditions overlap. The vineyard-covered hillsides were filled with apricot orchards and the warm golds and reds of the fall season warmed our chilled bones. As the fallen leaves crackled underneath our tires, we admired the pastel reflections of waterfront houses in the serenely flowing river.
This charming stretch of riverbank, dotted with innumerable monasteries, churches, castles, fortresses, and Roman ruins, has fascinated visitors for centuries with its legend-filled history. Descriptions in fairy tales and depictions rendered by artists have helped to create a romantic image of life along the Danube, and its picturesque towns still conjure up images of a bygone era.
Jewels of the Danube
Not much farther east, the Danube throws itself into the excitement and bustle of Vienna’s urbanity, whose proud heritage is displayed in many magnificent monuments, cathedrals, and buildings. In this famed “music capital of the world,” we listened to an opera at the Vienna Opera House and to the Vienna Boys’ Choir at the Imperial Palace.
We tasted locally made sauerkraut at the Farmer’s Market, savored hot spiced wine at the Vienna Christmas Market, and indulged in a rich slice of cake and coffee at one of the city’s many coffeehouses, which are an integral part of Viennese life.
From Vienna, we continued eastward, following the convoluted course of the Danube into Slovakia and Hungary, where the steadfast mountains force the river to make a 90 turn southward 30 km. north of Budapest. We arrived in the capital by night, and the contrast with the wintry countryside was striking.
Budapest boasts one of Europe’s most panoramic banks, offering vistas that will take away the breath of even the most seasoned traveler. Sometimes called the “Queen of the Danube” or “the Paris of the East,” this enchanting city glitters at nighttime, when the palaces, bridges, and monuments of the Castle Quarter are shown to their best advantage. The Danube’s waters are impregnated with the magical orange glow of Buda Castle, which is perched high on a hilltop above the famous Chain Bridge. We enjoyed exploring Budapest’s underground caves, experiencing its throbbing nightlife, and rejuvenating at some of its almost one hundred hot thermal springs and Turkish baths.
Winding through Eastern Europe
After a short passage through northern Croatia, we biked through the last European capital sitting on the Danube: Belgrade in Serbia. From there, we continued on to eastern Serbia, where the widening river becomes fast and furious as it is strangled by the Carpathian Mountains. The quiet mountain roads afforded stunning views of the Carpathian gorge and its rainbow-colored cliffs. We pedaled through hillside towns whose streets were shared with tractors, horses and wagons, and old men and women sitting on benches.
We crossed into Romania, feeling as if we had stepped back one hundred years in time. We cycled through the fertile plains of the Valachia region, the area once terrorized by the cruelty of Count Dracula. The Danube River branched out as we reached the port of Tulcea, grabbing at the Black Sea like a three-fingered hand.
The delta of the Danube is the largest and best-preserved in Europe and the third most important in the world, after the deltas of the Amazon and the Nile. The wetland of marshes, floating reed islets, tree-fringed lakes, exotic backwaters, and sandbars attracts marine animals and over 300 species of birds. Birdwatchers, amateur fishermen, scientists and photographers flock there from around the world.
We reached the gently lapping waves of the Black Sea coast as the orange sun was setting into the sea. What a journey! We said good-bye to the river and continued on towards the Middle and Far East, where new adventures awaited. As for the Danube, there are many projects in the works to make the waterway even more accessible…Last edit by Joe V on Jan 24, '17
Nov 21, '09Thank you for the memories of "home". This is where I grew up, and my mother was form Vienna where I spent many a summer vacation..thus the Donau holds a special place and meaning in my heart.
I, too, traveled along many miles of this lovely river.. only on motorcycle.. many moons ago.
Blue Danube has always been my cellphone's ringtone, too.Last edit by jnette on Nov 21, '09