Last month we joined a Rad & Reisen week-long holiday travelling from Passau, in Germany, to Vienna and back. The ship (the MS Theodor Korner in the featured photo) was our floating hotel and bikeshed and this, and following blogs, is my personal record of a very enjoyable and memorable trip.
The holiday was booked early this year with Macs Adventure, a company based in Scotland. They were very helpful and provided excellent communication running up to the trip. Having decided previously that a cycling tour down the Danube would be a good wheeze,I looked into making all the reservations myself. However, I concluded fairly quickly that booking a package holiday might well be cheaper, was certainly much easier, and travelling in a group had the potential to be more fun. All this turned out to be spot-on and I would recommend this approach to anyone else.
We decided it would be fun to travel to and from Passau by train from Chamonix where we had a short walking holiday and where we left our car. The planning proved an interesting and challenging experience and, in the end, proved to be a cheap and enjoyable way to make the journey. Booking early undoubtedly saves money but the cheapest train fares do commit you to making some quite tight connections. At one stage we had to sprint down a platform in order to jump on the next train. While on another, despite sprinting, we missed the connection. Luckily another suitable train arrived 15 minutes later and there was no ticket collector on board.
We had an overnight stop in Bregenz, Austria, a lovely town beside Lake Constance (or Bodensee, if you are German). This lovely lake, 3rd largest in Europe, is actually just a slow running part of the river Rhine. It is bordered by Germany, Austria and Switzerland and has the curious distinction of being the only part of Europe with no defined borders. Apparently there is no legal agreement as to where the borders lie on this lake! We arrived a few days before they were to stage the Magic Flute on a floating stage on the lake and some of the set was on view from nearby; two very large dragon like creatures with a precarious walkway between.
Just as we arrived in Passau it started to rain. This was a good excuse to take a shelter and a beer while we worked out where we had to go to find our ship. It was only a short walk through the town centre but the rain continued. So, while sheltering in a shopping area, I bought a cheap bright yellow umbrella in Woolworths for 2€. We walked to the docking area through the old town and deviated to go into St Stephen’s cathedral, which has the largest cathedral organ in the world.
If you can believe it, this organ has 17,774 pipes and 223 registers (whatever they are, I understand the pipes bit!). As befitting something with a big organ, I suppose, it also has big bells: 8 of them. The heaviest weighs 7.5 tonnes.
When we got closer to the river we started to notice a peculiar, not very strong but persistent aroma. It was the smell of the town drying out after the extreme floods of the previous month. Passau is accustomed to floods. It is at the junction of 3 rivers and there are markings on many of the houses recording flood levels in previous years as can be seen below (I had a picture of this one on the old Town Hall but this one is better because it shows the level of the June 2013 flood. They had not yet painted the marker on the wall on my picture. The next lowest marker below the damp line is dated 1501.)The floods of 2013 were clearly exceptional and unprecedented. The disruption and devastation must have been enormous but you have to look quite carefully to see the evidence. Most of the silt and mud had gone but there were open windows and doors with large electric fans in operation at almost every property close to the river. And there was the pervasive smell.
We were about 20 minutes early for embarkation so we sat in the sun and watched passers-by and speculated which of these might be our companions in the coming week. The Danube was rushing by, still looking in flood mode. At 5pm we boarded, were welcomed, given our room key and shown to our cabin. We knew it was going to be small so that was no surprise, but it was very adequate, twin beds, washbasin and shower with toilet and a small wardrobe. I knew we would be on the lower deck but I was pleased that we had an opening window. We were fairly quickly told not to open it when the boat was moving, for fear of water ingress and what that might lead to! We were told there was an English language briefing at 5.30 and a German one at 6.15. We selected the former.
Our guide was Andreas, an Austrian with excellent English. He told us all about the trip and briefed us on the cycle route for the next day. Out of the 100 or so guests around 20 attended the English briefings, although we only met one other Brit and he lived in Spain; the others seemed to be a mixture of Scandinavians and Dutch and some from the old colonies ie. USA, Canada and Australia. The standard bikes were 7 speed Austrian-made KTM bikes fitted with back-pedal braking, something that takes a little time to adjust to. They were very comfortable sit-up-and-beg-type bikes. For those with less cycling intentions, it was possible to pre-order a 21 gear or an electric bike alternative. Everyone was given a substantial pannier bag, a tool kit, a combination lock and a detailed book, to keep, with route maps. The bikes came in 3 sizes and the boat crew gave advice and made adjustments to ensure everyone’s bike was just right. Then a tag with our room number was attached to the bike, reserved for us for the duration of the trip.
After the briefings, there was a welcome reception followed by a 5 course dinner with introductions to the crew and a free cocktail. We were assigned places in the dining room and we shared a table with two Americans and two mystery guests who did not appear for dinner that evening. The mystery guests’ cocktails did appear though and were shared by those that were present! Next day we were on the same table but the mystery guest places were never filled. We have no idea what happened to them. I thought the food was excellent on the ship, a view not shared by everyone I spoke to, and the main course at this first meal was pork fillet.
The first day of cycling was going to be 52km and we had to get to the ship stop by 3pm so it could leave and travel on down the Danube to stop for the evening at Linz. We are not regular cyclists so had no idea how easy a 52km ride would be. nor how long we might need to complete it. So we planned an early start next day. Breakfast started at 7 and we were there on the dot. If you did not fancy cycling you could stay on the ship, cruise down the river and take your lunch on board. But if you were cycling you selected from the “help yourself” breakfast bar what you would like to eat for lunch and the crew wrapped it up for you and gave you a plastic bag to hold it in. This was an excellent arrangement, everyone got what they wanted and there was minimal waste. We were advised not to drink the tap water on board and every cabin was left two half litre bottles of water every morning and there were several drinking fountains on the cycle route.
We must have been just about first off on our bikes that morning and cycled through Passau to join the riverside path just after going over the Marienbrucke bridge over the river Inn. The cycling was quite easy and psychologically we were going downhill (downstream) all the way, even though there were, of course, some ups as well as downs. There was evidence of the recent flood just about everywhere with some enormous, metre-high accumulations of sandy sediment.
On this first stretch we stayed on the southern bank, in Austria; the northern bank was in Germany. The first hydroelectric power station (in German power station is Kraftwerk!) we came to was Jochenstein near Engelhartzell. It is a joint Austro-German venture and was 24km away from Passau. We arrived there well before lunch so felt that we would be on time at our rendezvous with the ship. While writing this I discovered that the Jochenstein is a prominent rock in the Danube that I noticed just downstream of the power station.Just after the power station, we took a ferry to the north bank of the river and continued on along gentle paths often shaded by trees with their welcome shade. It was sunny and quite hot by that time. By around 1pm we had reached our second ferry of the day. We had ridden around 42km so had time to take a lesiurely lunch and walk up the hill to a small bar and restaurant that made and sold its own pear cider, known as “most”. This was at a famous abrupt bend in the river known as the “Danube loop of Schlogen” or Donauschlinge, (Donau being the German name for the Danube).
Slightly wobbly after the “most”, we took the ferry across the Danube and rode the last 10km or so to take our third and last ferry of the day to Obermuhl. We seemed to be just about the last cyclists to arrive at the ship around 3pm and were pleased to pass our bikes onto the ship’s crew and take a quick shower before we joined the rest of the party in tea/coffee and cakes at 4pm. The easy chairs of the lounge made a very welcome change from the saddles. Our nether regions were appreciative and we lived to cycle another day…