Cycling is the perfect way to see a country; it’s slow enough to let you take in all the details that are impossible to enjoy from a car or train, yet fast enough to make decent progress over large distances. The only real downside is that, usually, you have to compete for road-space with speeding cars and noisy lorries that are worryingly bigger than you!
So when I was invited to join a group of cyclists for the final stages of their seventeen-day journey through some of the most picturesque scenery of Holland, Germany and Austria, my main concern was about the danger of riding on so many busy roads, as such an epic trek must surely involve. I put my fears to the guide, Nick Mitchell, when I caught up with the tour in Passau on the German-Austrian border, and was amazed by his reply: “Despite a total distance of 904 miles over every kind of terrain, less than 10 of them are actually on vehicular carriageways. The route follows European cycle routes that are nearly all on dedicated bike paths far removed from even the sound of traffic, and the remainder are on distinct sections that are well protected from cars and lorries. It is the ideal trip for recreational cyclists who don’t like riding on roads.” Even with my doubts about safety assuaged, the physical aspect of the tour is still daunting, but Nick reassures me again: “The furthest we cover in a day is 68 miles and the shortest is just 35. We average a speed of 8-10 mph and stop regularly for coffee breaks and to take photos. We’re not motivated by speed but by enjoyment of the journey.”
Climbing astride the bike which Pedal Nation, who organise and arrange the trip, have lent me, I am introduced by their Operations Manager, Sunny Wattal, to my fellow riders, the youngest of which is 50, with the oldest in their late 60s. Most of them have completed at least one Lands End to John O’Groats jaunt (or ‘LeJog’ as veterans like to call it) but I am amazed when Karen, a 59 year-old farmer’s wife from Warwickshire, reveals that she only started cycling two years ago, having not ridden since she was a small girl. “Age is no barrier” proclaims Penny (68), from Devon. Inspired by this, I set out on my first day’s riding which will take us 53 miles from Passau to Linz, the third largest city in Austria. One of the attractions of the section of the route I am doing is that it follows a river – the “beautiful blue Danube” as Strauss called it – so am saved the energetic hill climbs that the others had already undertaken as they traversed the appealing but steeper topography of Bavaria.
With 25 miles comfortably under our belt, we stop for lunch on the bank of a double bend in the river which seems to have leapt straight out of a list of ’10 most ridiculously pretty places to stop for a picnic’. The food is simple but sufficient – a healthy spread of locally purchased salads, meats, cheeses and breads served with a range of fruit juices and water, followed by fruit and chocolates – but it is the visual feast of the surrounding countryside that we really gorge ourselves on: densely forested hills sweeping down to meet Hansel and Gretel-style cottages that overlook wooden boats plying the rickety home-made jetties which line both sides of the river. Afterwards, we pedal on towards Linz, our stop for the night, where we are reunited with our luggage, transported for us in the support van that also carries a spare bike and basic tools in case of problems. I head straight for the hotel’s luxurious spa where I indulge in a steam-bath to soothe away the miles spent in the saddle, before a dinner of Würstel and Weissbier in the town’s historic Altstadt.
Day two (for me; day fourteen to the others) is one of contrasts as we divert from the riverbank to visit Mauthausen, the site of a notorious Nazi concentration camp. The pristine, almost clinical, preservation of the camp and its grounds make it all the more chilling and it’s a relief, after spending a solemn hour there, to remount our bikes and head back to the welcoming waters of the Danube. Forty-nine miles later, we arrive at the village of Persenbeug-Metzling where our party decamps to three different guest houses. Space is limited as it’s high season and this tiny place is bursting with cyclists, most on similar tours to ourselves – although, talking to some of them, it becomes clear from their gasps of admiration that few are undertaking such ambitious expeditions!
Next morning, we meet for breakfast and enjoy one of the finest sights I have ever gazed upon from a dining room; there are views along the length of the river for miles in both directions: Teutonic castles to the left, romantic chateaux to the right, all drenched in glorious sunshine. The penultimate day’s ride, whilst shorter than the others at only 38 miles, promises to reward us with some of the finest scenery of the whole tour as we navigate the lush vineyards and towering escarpments of the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a famous wine-growing region and ‘honesty-boxes’ outside some of the residents’ houses offer bottles of home-produced wine for sale alongside tins for depositing payment, in the same way that eggs are sold at the front gates of English country gardens. You really cannot throw a stone around here without hitting a scene of outstanding natural beauty and we are reluctant to leave, yet must power on to our overnight stop in the city of Krems.
The final day brings immense satisfaction at having almost reached our final destination combined with a sad realisation that this is the end of a holiday on which firm friendships have been formed on the road between hitherto strangers. The surroundings become increasingly urban as we follow the Danube for 52 miles into Vienna. The temperature has risen to an energy-sapping 38C by the time we reach the capital and we wish we could join the city dwellers who have jumped into the Danube to cool off, or others who sunbathe (some totally nude) on its banks whilst the skyscrapers of Vienna’s business district tower behind, lending an incongruous touch to this city-centre ‘beach’ scene. We leave the riverside and head downtown, still keeping to the safety of cycle paths that completely separate us from the heavy inner-city traffic. As we approach our deluxe hotel, Sunny is there to welcome us with certificates of completion and much-needed liquid refreshment. Congratulations exchanged and group photos completed, Sunny and Nick take all the bikes and lock them in the van ready for transportation back to England.
I have relished nearly every mile of my section of the journey and really wish that I had completed the entire route. An organised riding holiday such as this takes away the headache of getting your bike overseas and back as well as transporting enough luggage for over two weeks; it also provides security and negates any worries about what happens if something goes wrong. We celebrate with dinner at a typically Viennese restaurant in the shadow of the famous Prater Wheel, where Karen confides to me: “I wouldn’t dream of making a trip like this on my own but, as part of a group with all the logistics and back-up taken care of, I feel totally safe and am able to just concentrate on enjoying the ride”. I concur and raise a glass to the whole group before heading back to the hotel where I contentedly say “goodnight Vienna”.
‘The Road to Vienna’ tour costs from £1,995 pp (based on two sharing) and the price includes accommodation in comfortable hotels, breakfast and a picnic lunch each day, the ferry crossing from Harwich International Port to Holland and luggage transfers. Flights (Vienna to London) cost from £83 pp with easyJet. Participants need to bring their own bike. (Bikes are transferred back to UK for the clients.)
Contact: Pedal Nation (a High Places division): www.pedalnation.co.uk/ 0114 352 0060.