Sunday, September 4, 2016

Danube Bike Route 1: The German Danube from Ulm to Passau

From Prague we took a train to the Danube.  Our original plan was to take the train to Regensburg, 150 km above Passau.  However, we got to Prague a few days earlier than we originally estimated, so we changed trains in Regensburg and went another 250 km further upstream, to Ulm.  It's still not the start of the Danube Bike Route, which is in Donaueschingen, 200 km still further to the west.  Guess we'll just have to come back to Europe again to fill in that gap.

Taking the train with a bicycle is usually pretty unstressful in Europe.  You make a reservation for yourself and your bike and just make sure you get on the correct train car.  A tandem can be a little problematic on trains with tight spaces for bikes, but we had no problems at all with either leg of our train journey.

Our lodgings were across the street from the Ulm Münster.  It looks like a cathedral but has never been home to a bishop, so it is a "Minster" (the technical term in English).  Regardless of what you call it, it is the tallest church in the world at 161.3 m (530'), though the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is scheduled to top out about 9m (30') taller, if it is ever completed.  There is a stairway to the 470' level (by comparison the observation deck of Seattle's Space Needle is at 520'), but we decided not to attempt it since it would have to be done the next morning, and we feared it would leave our legs too rubbery to bike the planned 50 km.  OK, another reason to return to the Danube.

Although the tower is largely cut stone, most of the church is made of brick, and we frankly didn't find it all that attractive, particularly on the outside.  It did impress with its size, of course, and we also found some excellent wood carving in the choir stalls.

Ulm was heavily damaged in WWII bombing, and the Minster survived but came very close to becoming a giant pile of bricks.  A section of town called the Fishers Quarter today looks ancient, but it's hard to say how much is rebuilt.  One building that almost certainly is original is the one in the second photo below, with hardly a level line other than the tops of the windows.  Decidedly not level is the nearby Metzger Tower, so-called because the town put the Metzgers (butchers) outside the town walls and built a gate and protective tower to allow access between them and their customers.  The legend is that it began to lean when the butchers held a secret meeting in the tower to discuss how to hide the fact that they were making their sausages smaller but still charging the old prices.

In 2013 we biked the Donauradweg, or Danube Bike Route, from Vienna to Budapest.  We took the train back to Vienna and planned to bike westward across Austria and Germany along the Danube when the great central European floods of 2013 intervened.  We ended up cycling instead in the Netherlands for the rest of that summer.

Now we were back, and again following the Donauradweg, which is also a large part of Eurovelo 6, a long-distance bike route that goes from the Atlantic coast of France to the Black Sea coast of Romania.  The bike signs reflected this with their logos.

Since the Danube Bike Route is highly regarded and well used, we expected it to be mostly paved.  It was not.  In the 250 km to Regensburg, we were on packed limestone surfaces 30% of the time, particularly when close to the Danube.  On the plus side, there were very few cobblestone sections, all quite brief.  We also had more climbing than on the Main Bike Route or the Moselle Bike Route, though none of it was overly long or steep.  And there's nothing like a hill to give you good views!

By the way, if you wondered about that sign in the third photo up that says "2537.2," that's the distance in kilometers from that point to the mouth of the Danube at the Black Sea.  The Estebauer company, whose "Bikeline" bicycle tour books we've been using on the Elbe and again here on the Danube, has guidebooks all the way.  Anyone interested?

There were towns and cities every few kilometers, and a great many of them had city gates still intact (or rebuilt) that welcomed us to bike through.

Lauingen was one of many small cities with beautiful old architecture in the Altstadt, or old part of town, but it outdid all the others with a small discovery on the edge of town: a Roman temple dating back to 212 A.D.

The church on the right has no historical plaque on it, but it played a small  part in one of the epochal battles of European history, Blenheim.  This is the parish church of a very small town called Blindheim, a name the Brits who fought in the battle got a bit garbled in their later retelling of it.  John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, and his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy attacked a French-Bavarian army camped overnight in Blindheim.  What does a general want to know when attacked?  How many attackers, where are they, and what are they doing.  So up that church steeple went two French and one Bavarian general, to have a look.  That look alone was not enough.   Before day was done two armies of over 50,000 soldiers each had waged a bitter fight that the French and Bavarians lost, badly.  Three months ago we posted photos from the house that the Duke of Marlborough built (at British taxpayer expense, in gratitude for whipping the French), called of course Blenheim Palace.

It seemed like there were a few towns or cities each day which charmed.  On one day, for example, we had the simple charms of  Donauwörth in the early morning, then Blindheim in the afternoon.

The next day we had religious and noble splendor just before lunchtime, in Neuburg  .  .  .

Followed by the Grünau Hunting Lodge after we packed up after lunch and rode another half hour, .  .  .

And ended with quiet charm in Vohburg, where we stumbled across this house on a side street.

As on the Elbe, there were lots of bike tourists, including some fairly young ones.  The dad in the third photo told us that his sons are 7 and 11 years old, and that they do up to 30 km a day, with lots of time for play as well.

This part of the Danube Cycle Route should perhaps be called the Danube Valley Cycle Route, as we've only occasionally been right next to the river itself.  In fact, there have been times when we've been more or less "next" to it but couldn't even see it through a thin but dense layer of trees.

At times we've been in the broad floodplain of the river, but there have been a few hills.  On one of them we rode, this time on a paved trail, between lush stands of corn on one side and hops on the other.

As we approached the city of Kelheim, the bike guidebook recommended that we quit cycling for a dozen km and take a boat, both to avoid some challenging hills and to enjoy the Danube Gorge, where the river cuts through the Jura mountains.  We went with the flow, so to speak. That's our ship arriving in the first photo, and the Benedictine monastery we started from in the second.  They've been in this location 1,400 years, though the current building you see is "only" a few hundred years old.  They also have the oldest monastic beer garden in the world, using some of those hops we had just cycled past.

We interrupt you now for a little breakfast.  No, make that a whopping BIG breakfast.  Dutch and German hotels almost always have a breakfast buffet that puts American and Canadian hotels to shame.  But the Dormero Hotel in Kelheim put all the Dutch and German hotels in second place with their breakfast spread, which they claim is 160 different items.  It took three photos to capture most of it:

After a breakfast that included Weißwurst, Nova Scotia lox, five kinds of homemade rolls and 153 other items, it's a wonder we were able to bike out of there!

The cycling definitely got better after Kelheim.  The trail was now more often along the river, and more frequently paved.

And then there was Regensburg, an ancient city where Kepler was born, lived and died.  It has a cathedral which is nice, but its real claim to fame is its Stone Bridge, built in the 1100s.  It was the first bridge across the Danube, and remains the oldest bridge in Germany. 

If you were a merchant moving spices from Italy to almost anywhere in northern Europe in the Middle Ages, there's a good chance you used the Regensburg bridge, and all that trade made it a very fine town indeed.  We spent quite a time gawking at the rococo splendor of the St. Emmeram cloister church on the edge of town.

We also spent a good bit of time on a tour of Regensburg's bike shops.  We searched for 7 and actually found 5, none of which had the perfect tires for our ailing tandem.  On our next-to-last day in the Czech Republic we had to scrap our rear tire and mount the spare.  We hoped that with it we could make it to the end of the trip, but then two things happened:  our front tire got a hole, and the rear tire got a flat.  We did a temporary patch on the front tire and lost confidence in the rear tire, so decided we needed two new tires.  We did in fact find an acceptable Schwalbe 20x1.5, narrower than we'd like, but it might actually be a good tire to have on the bike this coming winter so we're not overly unhappy.  However we do plan to have better tires on the bike next summer, and a better spare!

We were not quite done with gravel bike trails along the Danube, but there were also lots of great paved trails, including some passing by imposing castles.

And then there was the tandem couple we encountered who took "Don't leave home without it" to a whole new level of meaning.  We don't think there's much they didn't bring from home on their bike trip!

We had one more magical city before reaching Passau, our intermediate destination.  This was Straubing, a city of spires.  Even the water tower in the third picture looks impressive.

Magic of another kind was needed at our final overnight before Passau.  In June  2013 we dropped plans to bike here due to flooding.  The next photo shows just how bad it was for the owners of the Gut Altholz Landhotel and Restaurant.  Louise is barely visible in the second photo, in the middle arch.  At the time of the flood she would have been 2 feet underwater.  The owners remarkably had their place -- or at least some of it -- back in operation the following Spring.

It wasn't rain of biblical proportions for us the next day, but we did find ourselves biking in the rain for the third time this summer, though only for about half of the 3 hours it took to reach Passau.  During breaks in the rain we captured the gloomy look in two photos.

And, finally, Passau, 400 km from Ulm.  The bike is already stowed in the front room of Hotel Cultellus on Little Knife Alley (Kleine Messergasse).  We'll share more about Passau and continue another 280 km on the Danube in Austria in our next blog.

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