Thursday, September 15, 2016

Danube Bike Route II: Passau to Dürnstein

In our last post we took you along the Danube with us from Ulm (green star on map) to Passau (orange), the last German city on the Danube before Austria.  Today we'll carry on down the Danube to Dürnstein (purple), then return by train to Passau.  In the blog entry that will follow, we'll wind up our European biking with a ride up the Inn and then the Salzach Rivers from Passau to Salzburg (blue star), our final destination.

We'll say more and show more photos about Passau when we return by train, as we spent more time sightseeing then.  On this our first swing through the city, we crossed the Danube beneath the impressive fortress called Veste Oberhaus, and headed downstream on the left (north) bank.

The Danube is in a relatively deep valley in this area, and we saw a number of castles, some big, some not.

There were almost no cities of any consequence in the first 95 km, to Linz, and nature surrounded us.  Even the few small towns seemed like they were incidental to the deep forests that surrounded them.  Ships glided by, most of them sightseeing boats from Passau going 30-50 km down the river and back.

The bike route was fabulous, almost entirely right next to the river.  Sometimes you had peek-a-boo glimpses through the vegetation, at other times an unimpeded picture-window view.

At the  Schlögener Schlinge, the S-curve at Schlögen, the land is so steep on the north side that the road disappears for a few km.  We watched as a large tour boat came by, then turned around and headed back to Passau.  Once it cleared, our own more modest vessel came to ferry us across to the right bank so we could continue on our way downstream.

We spent a peaceful night at a hotel right on the river.  Our balcony looked out at a village perched on a hilltop across the valley.  For the first half of the next day we continued through deep woods reaching right down from the dark hillsides to the constantly curving river.

We saw quite a few bike tourists here, but sometimes they're harder to tell from the day riders since quite a few of them are with tour groups that make your hotel bookings, select your restaurants, and carry your luggage, in exchange for a cost that is 3-5 times what we pay to ride the same trails, stay in the same hotels and eat in the same or similar restaurants.  Since these group tourists don't have the tell-tale well-stuffed panniers of a "true" bike tourist, they can usually be identified by the fact that they're in a group of ten or more riders, and they're riding identical bikes or bikes with identical small day bags.  One group announced itself by having identical t-shirts -- about two dozen of them when they had all passed by.

Our average day this summer has been 47 km (~30 mi.), and that's exactly what we did to ride from Passau to Linz.  With a light tailwind, smooth flat roads and trails and a simple route to follow, we were in Linz early enough to change out of our bike clothes and head out for a 1 km walk to the Pöstlingbergbahn, a trolley that climbs up to the suburb of Pöstlingberg.  It's one of the steepest non-cog rail rides in the world (the steepest grade is 11.6%).  The views of Linz from the top were wonderful.  Linz is quite a large place, Austria's third-largest city with a population of ~200,000, plus suburbs with 75,000 more.  However, by aiming the camera just right, you could make at least some of those quarter-million folks seem far away.

The next morning we took a shot of some of the boats at the town wharf.  A few are for day tours, but several were Viking River Cruise boats or their competitors, long boats that can travel by river all the way from Amsterdam to here, and on to Vienna, Budapest or even the Black Sea.

A short ways out of town we met yet another tandem.  This was the team of Hans Peter and Gisela from Ulm, though they started this tour in Passau since they had previously ridden the leg we just finished a few days ago.  After we got their tandem portrait, they captured the best shot of Team Redtandem for this summer.  Thanks, guys!

While "Celtic" and Austria are not a connection we might make today, Celtic people actually lived in west-central Europe and created what is called the Halstatt iron-age culture in an area that includes what is today Austria.  The map from Wikipedia summarizes a lot in a short space. 

In 1980 a farmer found an object in a field 30 km east of Linz, and scientists got very, very excited.  So excited that they started digging up his farm for the next 10 years, and today we have Keltendorf, the Celtic Village.  It reproduces the types of buildings that were found, in whole or in part, here and in other excavations in the Halstatt culture area, dating to roughly 700 BC.  It was an informative 90 minute break from biking.  Pictured are a bake house and ovens; a wealthy family's house and bedroom; an example of a loom; a window made from a cow bladder and some sticks; an actual piece of jewelry and a modern reinterpretation of it; and finally the burial tomb for an important person the museum calls a "duchess."

This terrific day ended in a terrific town, Grein.  It's a picturesque town right on the river, and we had a nice room in the Goldenes Kreuz, right on the town square, which we explored after dinner.  We even climbed up to that palace high above town to check out the view.  Not bad!

Most days we have a picnic lunch, and the next day's picnic spot was above-average for scenery.  Our destination was the city and abbey at Melk.  Stift Melk, as the abbey is called, is enormous.  It was famous for its library, which is still consulted by scholars wanting to know what sort of knowledge was available to scholars in the late Middle Ages.

Hard to say which was the more impressive, the abbey or the views from it.

We had entertained hopes of riding all the way to Vienna, but a serious rainstorm was approaching and we would get caught out a day away, throwing off reservations we had made for the following week.  So we spent two nights in Melk and biked 60 km -- 30 km to Dürnstein along the south bank and 30 km back on the north bank -- on the final day of good weather.  We also picked up train tickets for the following day.

The plan worked well, and the trip to Dürnstein was wonderful.  This is an area called the Wachau, where the Danube again cuts through mountains and creates great scenery along the way.  Add in some castles and you've got yourself one of the best stretches of the Danube.

This is also perhaps Austria's most famous wine-growing area, and we saw quite a few vineyards, some quite close-up.

The most famous castle in the valley is in fact Castle Dürnstein, high above the town of the same name.   It is where Richard the Lionhearted was held for ransom on his way back to England from the Crusades.  Today it is a well-visited set of ruins, but a bit too much of a climb for us with 60 km to bike.  We ferried across to check out the quaint town and the view at the west end of town back up the Danube, then headed "home" to Melk.

The train trip back to Passau went smoothly.  Though the bike car was packed with bicycles, we managed to find a pair of slots that were open, which allowed us to angle the tandem so that it didn't block the walkway.  As the train headed west, we saw parts of the bike route we had just ridden whiz by backwards at 100 km per hour.  In three hours we had "undone" the four days it took us to bike from Passau to Melk, and here we were again in Passau!

The 1-2 days of rain that had been threatened turned out to be 2-3 hours of rain scattered here and there, and in the end we got in quite a bit of sightseeing (plus some much-needed haircuts).  The best hike was up to the castle we had seen a week before, Veste Oberhaus.  From here one got a clear view of the joining of the Inn River and the Danube.  The Danube rises from forests and meadows and is fairly clear.  The Inn and its major tributary the Salzach come from glacier fields in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, and are filled with the fine silt called glacial flour that gives it a blue-green milky color.

While exploring this sizable castle and searching for the best viewpoints, we noticed a couple nearby who were speaking English and seemed like athletic types.  Turns out they're Dutch/Canadian and tandem riders!  Roland and Elizabeth are riding a recumbent tandem but, like us, were in non-bike clothes for a day of walking and sightseeing.  We spent the next hour in a mix of sightseeing and comparing tandeming experiences.  Perhaps we'll meet up with them in the Netherlands on some future trip.

Down in the town the day before we had done some less vertical sightseeing, although Passau is not a flat city and there's not much totally level walking to be found.  We poked into one church thinking it was the cathedral, and it was quite beautiful but not quite large enough to be a cathedral.  Turns out it was indeed another church, right next door to the cathedral!  We still have a hard time understanding the logic of back-to-back churches of the same denomination, but it's far from being the first time we've encountered it in Europe.

In any event the first church was quite pretty, so here it is in the first photo below.  We timed our visit to the cathedral for the daily noontime organ concert, which was jammed with people (that's just a remnant of the crowd several minutes after it was over).  The attraction is the world's largest organ, with almost 18,000 pipes.  In our photo you can only see one of five groupings ("choirs") of pipes, each with its own characteristics, such as the "French Renaissance" and "Italian Baroque" choirs.  While organ music is not a genre we're drawn to, the concert was good and it displayed the organ magnificently.  Looking around the church we could also see a large crowd up near the ceiling, plus little angel babies -- cherubs is the preferred term, we think -- dotting the walls here and there in classic baroque style.

Passau was one of our favorite cities of this year's trip.  Perhaps it's the manageable size and attractions like Veste Oberhaus and the cathedral and our quirky accommodations in the 16th century Hotel Cultellus, but it was also the many varied views and quaint narrow streets and alleys.  We're glad the way the trip worked out that we got to see it twice.

We'll close today's blog entry by taking you metaphorically back up the hill to Veste Oberhaus and looking up the Inn River, our next destination.  Salzburg is about 160 km up the Inn and then Salzach Rivers, and the trip to and around Salzburg will be our next installment.

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