Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

Vienna Vignettes – Pedaling the Wachau


VIENNA–JULY 18, 2015 16:27

Yesterday was an amazing, exhausting rush. We had been planning a day trip to Austria’s famous wine-growing region, the Wachau, for months. This idyllic valley runs along a stretch of the Danube, and its intense sunshine makes it perfect for vineyards and orchards. The blue/green river, waterside castles, and quaint villages make it perfect for tourists on boats, cars, and bicycles.

So there we were, on the upstream side of the valley in Melk, having taken the early train from Vienna on the money-saving Einfach-Raus group ticket. On the train, I was flipping through the local free newspaper tabloids, marvelling at the abundance of fuzzy newsprint topless photography. In Melk, we grabbed our rented bikes (from the phone-operated Nextbike system) and hiked uphill to its famous abbey. We hoped we could get a high view of the city without paying admission to the abbey, but alas, the viewing terrace was behind the paywall. With temperatures rising quickly, we decided to get on the road.

The Free Part of Melk Abbey

The Free Part of Melk Abbey

Melk Abbey from the River

Melk Abbey from the River

The TI in Melk (and most of my pre-ride research) recommended riding on the south side of the river (the Melk side) for the first half of the 25-mile route before crossing to the north side (the Krems side) on a ferry. Taking their word, we hit the south bank trail.

A well-marked, shady trail took us from Melk’s Danube diversion to the big river itself. Not far out of town, we saw the distant onion dome of der Schloss. Debiking to climb down to the beach for photos, we saw our first (of many) nude sunbathers. Between the tabloid newspapers and these secluded beaches, we were seeing more than our fair share of skin for the day.

Der Schloss Wachau

Der Schloss

The trail diverted away from the river and a rather long climb took us up into the hills. The rented three-speed bikes didn’t have a low enough first gear for us, so we walked the bikes on the steepest part of the hill. Thankfully, after this initial climb, the route was downhill or flat for the rest of the day.

At lunchtime, we pulled off at a small cruise boat landing at Aggsbach Dorf. Pasta salad and ham sandwiches were the fuel of choice on this hot day. Cruise boats of all sizes jockeyed for position on the big river as we sat, rested and ate. We preferred our cheaper and more flexible mode of transportation, but as the heat of the day wore on and the miles piled up, we began to see the wisdom of a river cruise.

The next stretch was defined by apricot, apple, and pear orchards. Wine country really begins at the halfway point of our route, but the fruit groves set against the hills and the river made for a very pleasant ride indeed. At Spitz, we caught the ferry across the river – a current-powered boat with a very forward-thinking design. A wire was stretched across the river at a height that would allow cruise boats to pass uninhibited; the ferry was tied to this guide line with another wire. When crossing the swift river, the captain simply angled the rudders into the current to create a cross-river pull. The guide wire kept the boat from being swept downstream, and the sideways pull drove the boat to the other side of the river without the need for any kind of engine or power.

We Even Found a Cornfield!

We Even Found a Cornfield!

We filled our water bottles in Spitz as we were now on the sunny side of the river. Just outside of Spitz, we stumbled into a fortified church – Wehrkirche St. Michael – surrounded by high walls and a round tower with a huge carving decorating most of one wall. For us, hot and tired as we were, its best attribute was its dark, cool interior.

At Spitz, we were officially entering wine country; every square foot of land seemed to be covered with vineyards. This made for a beautiful view, but very little shade. The sun was really punishing, and temperatures climbed to and Irish-melting 95 F (35 C). We soldiered on through vineyards and villages. We were planning to visit a winery after the second-to-last village of Durnstein. In the village, the bike route took us up another steep hill for a great view of this final bend of the Danube. This sucked away some of our last endurance, but we kept pushing, knowing that a relaxing bottle of white wine was waiting for us just out of town.

Wachau Wine Country

Wachau Wine Country

And there it was! Just past the village, we turned into a winery with a shaded outdoor picnic area. We locked up our bikes and started looking around. The door to the house was open, but no one was around. The cafe door was closed and locked. We buzzed the “RING HERE” bell twice with no answer. We heard some voices coming from inside one of the buildings, but didn’t want to pop our heads into the door. Clearly they heard the bell and decided it wasn’t wine time for us.

Down the road, we tried another wine bar, closed. As we arrived at the beginning of the Krems urban sprawl, our final destination, we tried another wine bar that was was just opening. Had we been too early? Do wineries and wine bars in this part of the country not open for visitors until the late afternoon? Looking closely at many of the signs on doors, 4 p.m. seemed to be a common opening time on weekdays. It is possible that we were just unlucky with our choices; we had skipped countless small wineries on the ride, but had passed them by hoping to stop closer to our finish line. Maybe these people do less day-drinking than their reputation might suggest!

In Krems, disappointed at missing the chance to enjoy Wachau wine in its home valley, we locked up our bikes and assessed our condition. Twenty-five miles in the heat and humidity had taken its toll on us. sweat-covered and dehydrated, we didn’t feel like exploring the old town of Krems looking for the perfect wine bar. As we returned the bikes to the train station, we saw a Vienna-bound train boarding on the platform and seized the opportunity.

Back in Vienna, we stopped by the Aldi supermarket – the source of most of our nourishment on this visit – for some dinner supplies and went home to rest, shower, and gear up for a night out.

Fed, rested, and showered, we couldn’t find the strength to go out. Again, we called it an early night.

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