The Danube Bike Trail to Vienna and beyond
January 5, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series chronicling a a self-guided bicycle tour from Prague, Czech Republic, to Budapest, Hungary.
So, in general, everything is better in Austria: the food, the hotels, people’s attitudes – everything but the prices. Buoyed by the comforts of the past two days we look forward to the 70-mile ride into Vienna.
The day was the classic Danube Bike Trail that one may imagine, but it doesn’t really exist. A rollicking ride along the big, wide river into big and busy Vienna. This city is made for bike riding and the locals are out in full force. To begin with there is some confusion, and following the flow we eventually figure it out. Valerie imagines a two-day rest off the bikes; it’s not to be. Soon, we have the bellman rolling the now road-worn two-wheelers through the lobby and out the front door, much to the delight of the other guests.
We had laundry from 12 days of consecutive riding. The hotel wanted 9 euros per shirt or pair of shorts, so we loaded up 20 pounds of dirty Pearl Izumi bikewear and other dainties and rode off across the city to one of the few laundromats the concierge could locate. It was quite a scene. You can add Vienna to the list of places you want to (re) visit.
The ride out of Vienna is as fantastic as the ride in. Bicycle-clogged city streets soon cross the Danube and disappear into an extensive city park and then into the wilderness, but not before riding through the nudist-friendly riverbank parks and clothing-optional beer gardens. Chomping at the bit, we are off on the quest for the third capital city in the third country of the tour.
Bratislava, Slovak Republic, the tour literature says “maybe a good spot for an extra day.” I say not; yet it is still a great ride, with long bridges to cross back and forth, always in sight of the armadas of long, skinny river cruise ships navigating through locks. Eventually, a beautiful old city emerges from behind ugly and dirty concrete buildings from a not-so-distant repressive past.
Slovakia is the poor cousin of the Czech Republic, while good food is hard to find, good beer flows freely. The villages are more drab and boring, yet the beauty of Gothic and Renaissance architecture is everywhere, so are the remnants of communal life and industry, boarded up factories and public buildings.
We had survived the first night of the tour in a strange and creepy place, so we knew we could survive the night in a small and nondescript wide spot on the trail called Gabeikovo. Here the route mysteriously disappeared into construction surrounding the “megalomaniac dam” that separates Hungary and Slovakia. There is no prescribed detour, but by now we are road warriors and take it all in stride.
The next day we head off to the last stop in Slovakia, Komarno. Located at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Vah.
Komarno is the site of possibly the best three-star hotel of the tour, Hotel Banderium. But the town overall is one-star, full of empty buildings, an entire town built with each individual structure designed to look like that of another country in Europe. Maybe 50 different buildings, mostly empty, as are the streets. Anyway, it is the last night in Slovakia and the hotel’s restaurant is excellent.
We get our first rain day of the entire tour. After determining the day’s route was mostly highway and not pathway, we decide to ride with the luggage transfer – no reason to risk life or limb this close to the finish. A quick email to Jaromir at the tour office and a second taxi is offered up for the bicycles and we all head for the border and into Esztergorm, “the Rome of Hungary.”
Glad to be dry and to have a rest day before the last big ride into Budapest, we soon discover that Esztergorm is worth a full day’s visit. Eventually, we end up at the famous basilica and decide to climb to the top, not knowing that few attempt that feat. Now we know why, after navigating up extremely narrow 24-inch wide ancient stone circular stairs, up over 30 stories of windowless towers designed to turn the strongest believer into a shivering, claustrophobic, sweat-drenched pilgrim. We are treated to a 360-degree walk around a very shaky walkway of rotten wooden planks ringed by a rusted out cable rail in a blustery wind and driving rain.
Why are we here? It must be the view, down the Danube in the direction of Budapest, across the Danube to the Slovakian side of the city called Storovo and up the Danube from whence we came.
One more reward for our efforts as a tiny little elf of an old man, the keeper of the dome, appears and motions us to follow him through a locked gate into the darkness. Here he demonstrates with a yelp, the reverberating, round and round and round echo. Stay here, he motions, and disappears, soon the most beautiful choir boy voice serenades us from the other side of the dome, we sing back and this becomes one of the most memorable events of a memorable tour.
With only 70 more miles of typical Danube Bike Trail, from path to highway, some traffic, then more traffic, we are zigzagging in and out of villages. It’s detours, dirt tracks, washed out paths, more highways and then the trail gets friendlier with miles of riverfront vacation cottages and small hotels, even a few restaurants and bars. So close, yet lost again in a confusing urban landscape, we find ourselves on the wrong side of the tracks, literally.
Getting good directions from helpful English-speaking locals means that we are close to the city; few people speak English outside of the cities. We can sense Budapest, yet we still can’t quite get there.
All of the sudden we are swept up by a pack of 7- and 8-year-olds out for a club ride. Pedaling their little mountain bikes with reckless abandon decked out in high visibility green bike vests decorated with a logo of the Big Bad Wolf. They hoot and holler as they ride through the underpasses and tunnels as they lead us to the Erasable Bridge, one of eight that join Buda with Pest, and the bridge that leads us to the final hotel of the tour.
Wow, what a finale! We check in and head to the bar for a well-deserved celebratory cocktail. We get what we want without the now-tattered visual aid and meet Zoltan, the barman who learned to speak English by watching the Cartoon Network.
But that is another story – and the end of this one.
Rob Philippe is a fourth-generation Coloradan whose great grandfather came from Paris, France, to build a hotel and saloons in Leadville in the 1870s. Philippe’s parents built a log cabin in Frisco in 1946 and brought him to Frisco when he was 2 weeks old in the winter of 1949. Valerie Weber is a Jersey shore girl now champion amateur golfer who has resided in Cordillera in the Vail Valley for the past 15 years. The couple lives in Cabo San Lucas half of the year.