Monday, 1 January 2018

Bicycling the Danube, Part 1: Pros and Cons

[A “Radler” in German can mean either either a bicyclist or a mildly-alcoholic drink consisting of half beer and half lemonade.]

Cycling the Danube (Part 1 of 3):

My partner and I spent six weeks in June and July 2017 travelling 2000 km (1200 miles) by bicycle along the Danube River from Donaueschingen, Germany, to Belgrade, Serbia — about 60% of the river’s length from its source to the Black Sea.

Travel and tourism statistics rarely include bicycling as a mode of transportation. But a case could be made that the Danube — at least the 800 river kilometers (500 miles) from Donaueschingen to Vienna, and perhaps the 300 km (200 miles) further downstream to Budapest — is the world’s preeminent long-distance bicycle tourism route. Certainly it’s the best-known and most heavily travelled long-distance bicycle tourism route in Europe.

In high season, more than a thousand cyclists a day on overnight journeys — not counting day-trippers — pass through some of the more popular sections of the upper Danube in Germany and Austria. I don’t know of any other route of comparable length, anywhere in the world, that has as large a volume of through multi-day travel by cycling tourists.

Yet despite the iconic status within Europe of the Danube as a cycling route popular even with people who don’t think of themselves as cyclists, it has a relatively low profile in the USA, even among cyclists who travel to Europe. Some of the factors discussed below that make the most popular parts of the upper Danube so attractive for casual cyclists make it less so for “serious” cyclists, although hard-core riders might nonetheless enjoy the lower parts of the river.

For bicyclists from the USA, the most popular cycling destination in Europe is France, followed by the U.K., Ireland, and (more distantly) Italy. Germany is an afterthought for most American touring cyclists, and Austria isn’t thought about at all. If Americans think about bicycling along a river in Germany, it’s much more often the Rhine than the Danube. Some U.S. tourists travel along the Danube, but almost all of them do so on river cruises.

I bicycled along much of the Rhine, including almost all of its course through Germany, in 2014. I’ve travelled by bicycle in France, the U.K., and other countries in Europe (as well as in North and South America, and in Asian cities). There are many good reasons to choose these, and other, destinations for bicycle tourism.

But Europeans choose to cycle the Danube in such large number for good reasons, and I think more overseas visitors should consider it.

In Part 1 of this series, I’ll give some of the reasons why you might enjoy bicycling along the Danube even if you don’t think of yourself as a cyclist, and why you might not.

In Part 2, I’ll give some practical advice for those who are thinking about a trip like this.

And in Part 3, I’ll highlight a few specific places to see, do, and stay along or near the river that I found interesting and/or enjoyable, and that you might miss if you weren’t looking for them.

Why bicycle the Danube?

  • The bike route on the upper half of the river is almost entirely separate from heavy motorized traffic. The main signed Danube bike route follows streets shared with light, slow-moving motorized traffic through village centers where there are restaurants, lodging, and other services, and some farm lanes with occasional slow-moving motorized vehicles. But between Donaueschengen and Budapest, bicyclists almost never have to share the road with high-speed motor traffic. (Below Budapest, there are substantial sections of the river where there is no separate bike path and the bike route follows rural roads, generally two-lane roads with neither paved nor rideable shoulders, shared with cars and local truck traffic.)
  • Services including food and accommodations are frequent, so you can go slowly — if you like — and set your own pace as you go. We sometimes made reservations a day in advance for Friday and Saturday nights, but it never turned out to have been necessary. At least in high season, there were always more places to stay, including many informal homestays, than were listed in any guidebook or online directory. In Germany and Austria, we didn’t need to start looking for a place to stay until we were ready to stop, and we never had to go more than about 10 miles before we found acceptable and affordable lodging. The more heavily booked the hotels in any town are, the more motivation there is for villagers to take in paying guests. (From Budapest south, there were dramatically fewer bicycle tourists — perhaps a few dozen a day passing any given point on the route in southern Hungary, compared to hundreds a day further upriver — and the distances between accommodations and other services were greater. It was still possible to travel slowly, with short daily stages, without advance reservations, further down the river, but we did have to think about how far it would be until the next lodging.)
  • You don’t have to carry camping gear or carry your own luggage on your bicycle. Between Donaureschengen and Budapest, if you are willing to pick your nightly stopping places (or let someone choose them for you) in advance, you can arrange lodging and luggage transport through tour operators who will have your luggage trucked from hotel to hotel so that all you have to carry with you on your bike is what you need during the day. Most of these tour operators give you some choice of preferred daily riding distance and a choice between hotels in several price ranges. Because tour operators get discounts for reserving large numbers of rooms, a package including bed, breakfast, and luggage transport typically costs no more than would lodging alone if you booked it on your own one night at a time. At least half the bicycle tourists along the Danube above Budapest were using these luggage transport services. (We didn’t because we didn’t want to commit ourselves in advance to how far we would go each day, or let someone else choose our lodging sight unseen.) Many of these tour operators will also include bike or e-bike rental in the package, if you don’t want to deal with getting your own bike to Europe and back, or don’t have a bike suitable for this sort of trip. At least as far downriver as Belgrade, there are far more hotels and guest houses along the route than there are campgrounds. So even if you carry your own luggage on your bike, there is little or no reason to carry a tent or camping gear on the upper Danube. (We only got as far as Belgrade, so I can’t say whether camping gear would have been useful often enough to be worth its weight further downriver.)
  • You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be especially fit. You don’t have to be a strong or “serious” cyclist. Most of the people bicycling along the Danube don’t have “bicyclist” as their identity. They are just people who happen to be using bicycles for transportation. Nobody you meet will put you down for being old and slow. One recent survey found that the median age of touring cyclists along the Danube is 47. Tour operators who arrange lodging and luggage transport typically schedule two weeks from Donaueschingen to Passau, one week from Passau to Vienna, and one week from Vienna to Budapest. That works out to average distances of about 50 km (30 miles) per day. At that pace, you don’t need to ride hard or spend all day in the saddle. You can take breaks for leisurely meals, sightseeing, socializing with other travellers, swimming in the river if it’s warm enough, or just to rest. We had no fixed itinerary, but ended up travelling at almost exactly this pace. Lodging was closely enough spaced that we could have gone even more slowly, with shorter days, if we had wanted to. Continuing at the same rate, it took us another two and a half weeks to get from Budapest to Belgrade. Most bicycle tourists start and end their trips in Donaueschingen, Passau, Vienna, and/or Budapest on weekends, which results in weekly pulses of peak cycle tourist traffic even at intermediate points. If you travel at the same pace, but hit these key places mid-week, you’ll find less crowded accommodations all along the route.
  • The bike route is easy to follow. The main Danube bike route is generally well signed. You can buy detailed strip maps, atlases, and guidebooks for cyclists with turn-by-turn directions. You probably don’t need them to find or follow the main route, but they can be useful for choosing between sides of the river or other alternate routes. If you make a wrong turn, you can usually find the right path again just by following the river. Where there is heavy bicycle traffic, you can follow other cyclists or ask them for directions.

[Typical signage along the “R1” Danube cycling route in Austria: Distances to next bridges, ferries, and towns on both sides of the river (right, in foreground) and posters listing local attractions, accommodations, and other services for bicyclists (left, at rear under roofed bicycle parking shed). Photo by Ruth Radetsky.]

  • The bike route is generally flat. There are short and sometimes steep little climbs of 5-15 meters (15-50 feet) up to dikes and embankments, to town centers on bluffs and benches above the river, and around dams and locks. But there are no major climbs on the main bike route between Donaueschengen and Vienna, and only a few further down the river (mainly in the middle section between Bratislava and the Bulgarian border) where the river cuts through ranges of hills.
  • Comfortable lodging and hearty food don’t have to be expensive. If you can afford to stay in inexpensive motels and eat in local diners in the USA, you can afford to cycle the Danube. We averaged US$77 (EUR68) per night including all taxes for comfortable double rooms — substantially better, and with better service, than I would expect for a similar price in the USA — with private bath, including hearty German-style breakfasts (not coffee-and-a-croissant French or Italian “continental” breakfasts). Except in Budapest, prices were cheaper everywhere east and south of Vienna than they were in Germany and Austria, and got steadily cheaper as we got further down the river. We could have travelled much more cheaply. In small villages, we often stayed in the best available accommodations. Once we decided we had had gone far enough for the day, we generally stopped at the next town or the next lodging place, regardless of price. If you are comparing prices, keep in mind that European restaurant prices, prices in shops, and most advertised hotel prices include all taxes, and tips are neither required nor, so far as I have ever been able to tell, expected (beyond rounding up to the next Euro) in Germany or Austria. Don’t be misled by the prices of hotels fancy enough to show up in online directories: Cheaper lodging was often available locally than anything listed online. Even in small towns, there is considerable competition between informal bed & breakfasts. Meals in small-town restaurants are generally cheaper than in big cities, and are generally cheaper (and portions more ample) in Germany and Austria than in some other European countries that are more popular with U.S. tourists, including the U.K., France, and Italy. The food got better (to my taste, anyway), more diverse, and much cheaper, from Slovakia onward.
  • Logistics are easy, even if you aren’t on a tour, don’t have reservations, and don’t speak German. On the outskirts of almost every village along the main Danube bike route there’s a billboard for bicyclists, on the bike path, with a comprehensive directory of accommodations, restaurants, bike shops, services for cyclists, and things to see and do in and around the town.

[This was just the welcome arch for bicyclists. Around the corner, there was a placard with detailed information about services for bicyclists in the town.]

  • You’ll meet ordinary people from the countries along the river. Cycling the Danube is an open, egalitarian, and welcoming social experience along the path and wherever you stop. In Germany, which dominates the culture of Danube cycle tourism, bicycle travel isn’t seen as effete or sporting. It’s an inexpensive, middlebrow mode of travel favored by middle-aged, middle-class couples and families — the sort of people whose counterparts in the USA you might find at a KOA. (One survey found that about half of Danube cycle tourists are in couples, 20% are travelling solo, and 30% are in groups of three or more friends or family members.) Wealthier tourists along the Danube, including most tourists from overseas, are more likely to be on boat cruises. Europeans with more money or more adventurous tastes travel by car or plane, and are more likely to take their big holidays outside Europe. Because German is the common language of tourism all the way down the river, travel along the Danube is especially attractive to people who speak German but who aren’t fluent enough in English to feel comfortable travelling outside the sphere of German influence — people you’d be unlikely to meet, and even less likely to talk with, in big cities or places more popular with intercontinental tourists. The community of Danube cycle tourists is international, but dominated by people from Germany, Austria, and neighoring countries: Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France. We met a few Hungarians in Germany and Austria, but not many other cycle tourists from the countries further downriver. Outside Vienna and Budapest, the only Americans we met in six weeks of cycling along the Danube were on river cruises or were U.S. expats who lived in Europe.
  • It’s an opportunity to experience small-town and provincial Europe. The Danube is a beaten path of tourism, but through countryside and communities that are otherwise mostly quite provincial. It’s mostly rural, in some stretches even wild (we saw foxes and deer among other wildlife), with plenty of natural beauty but with modern comforts and conveniences in every village. There are sections of the river through narrow valleys (not deep, but steep-sided) where there is no motorable road along the river, only a bike path along one or both sides. In less than 800 km (500 miles) between Vienna and Belgrade the Danube passes through the capitals of four countries — more than any other river in the world — but there’s no other city of more than 200,000 people anywhere along the rest of the river. Bicycling in and out of big cities is often the worst part of a bicycle trip, but there are easy bicycle highways on the dikes through Vienna, the largest city on the river.
  • There’s something to see every day. Few individual sites along the Danube are spectacular, but there’s a sustained beauty to the river, the gradual changes of scenery and culture, and the procession of villages, towns, and (mostly) small cities along its banks. Large sections of the river are through national parks. There’s surprisingly little heavy industry or visible “development” along most of the Danube — much less than along the Rhine. But while the banks of the Danube aren’t especially heavily populated today, the river has been important since pre-history, and remains so today. There are many significant monuments, structures, and historical and archeological sites along the course of the river. Castles, cathedrals, forests, fields of flowers, Roman ruins, medieval walled cities and towns, and sites of memory of modern wars including World War II, the Cold War, and (not least) the wars in the former Yugoslavia, in which we should not forget that the U.S. was a participant and a perpetrator, not an impartial observer from afar.
  • Bicycle travellers along the Danube are tourists, not curiosities. You’re not a freak for being on a bicycle. People won’t stare at you, ask stupid questions about why you are on a bicycle, or assume that you’re an athlete or a fitness freak. You’re just a normal tourist like thousands of others. 60-80% of the tourists in some towns along the river are travelling by bicycle. Most of the rest are on river cruises, and are back on their boats by nightfall, so cyclists are the basis of many village economies, at least in the summer. You can change for dinner if you want long pants to keep your legs warm in the evening, but nobody will care if you come into a village restaurant in tights or cycling shorts. Many of the other customers will be dressed the same way.

Why not bicycle the Danube?

  • You have to ride at more or less the same pace as other cyclists. Where there’s a path for cyclists separate from the roads for motorized vehicles, it’s generally only wide enough for one file of loaded cyclists (with wide panniers) in each direction. Think of it as a two-lane bicycle highway with only occasional pullouts for passing. Everyone goes at more or less the same speed, which is set by the slowest cyclists. Plan your daily distances accordingly — you won’t be able to go as fast, or as far each day, as most long-distance bicycle tourists do on open, paved roads in the USA. (Of course, you won’t be pressured to go further or faster if you don’t want to.) The path twists and turns, with many blind curves. Sightlines are often short, and it can be a considerable distance between places where there is space and visibility far enough ahead to safely pass a slower cyclist (or to pull off the path out of the way of cycle traffic if you want to stop), much less a bunched-up group of slower cyclists. You have to be prepared to encounter a clump of cyclists stopped in the middle of the path around any corner. In high season (June through August) between Donaueschingen and Vienna, traffic on the bike path is heavy enough that you will rarely be out of sight of other cyclists. Trying to go faster will be frustrating for you, rude to others, and possibly dangerous for all. (This is less true below Vienna, where traffic gets much lighter, and none of this applies below Budapest, where bicycle traffic is much lighter and you can ride at your own speed.)
  • You have to concentrate constantly on route-finding, and stop often. The main Danube cycling route is generally well-signed, but the signage is often complex, with alternate branches, connections to and from routes on the other side of the river, and multiple short and long-distances routes joining and diverging from the main through route. To avoid roads with through motorized traffic, the marked bike route often zigzags along farm tracks and lanes, with frequent sudden sharp turns. Worse, the route signs for cyclists at most intersections are sized and positioned so that you can only read them after you get to the intersection. (Hungary is a welcome exception: Much of the main Danube bike route in Hungary is on roads, and the signs are designed and positioned to be read at cycling speed as one approaches.) So (1) you have to be constantly alert to the possibility that the path might swerve off on even the smallest cross-track, with no warning before you get to the point where you have to turn, (2) you can rarely maintain a steady pace for long, and (3) you need to slow down enough to be prepared to turn, and often stop before you can parse the cluster of signs, at every junction. In Germany and Austria, it was rare to go a kilometer without having to come to a full stop to consult the signs at an intersection. That’s nothing like bicycling in the U.S., where you can often ride for miles at a steady cadence without having to think about route-finding, and where signs for junctions and side roads are generally visible as you approach, so you don’t have to slow down if you aren’t going to turn.
  • The bike route has many blind curves and unsigned hazards. Intersections are signed (once you get to them), but there’s rarely any warning of blind sharp curves or other hazards. You need to ride quite slowly, and pay attention, to ride safely. A path like this requires much greater and more constant concentration for safe riding than does a typical road shared with motor vehicles, where hazards are visible and/or signed further ahead. Along much of the Danube, I had to pull off the path and stop if I wanted to appreciate the scenery.
  • Surfaces are sometimes rough. As I’ve noted above, the bike route along much of the Danube follows paths separated from motorized traffic. Some of those separate bike paths are paved. But while there have been one-time appropriations of European Union “integration” money for paving and development of the bike route, there appears to be little or no ongoing funding for maintenance, especially in poorer countries further downriver. Some sections of the path that were paved a few years ago have deteriorated, with potholes, frost heaves, bulges from tree roots, and cracks between blocks of concrete pavement that have settled or shifted out of alignment. Other stretches of the bike path follow the tops of unpaved dikes, on gravel roads built and maintained for trucks and farm implements more than bicycles. The gravel on these unpaved dikes is considerably coarser than the fine crushed rock that’s the standard surface for bike paths on former railroad rights-of-way in the USA. It’s passable, but calls for wider tires than you would want for a bike tour on typical U.S. roads or “rail trails”. Worst of all are the cobblestones or paving blocks (“pavés”) in some old towns and (more rarely) farm lanes. If there’s one cobbled street in a village, it’s probably designated as the bike route through the historic center of the old town where the hotels, restaurants, and cafes are concentrated. Pavés serve as a form of traffic calming to slow down motor vehicles, but they are punishing to bicycle over, especially on hills or when wet. Pavés are fairly common along the Danube, but mostly only for short enough distances that you can get off and walk your bike. Cars and trucks driving over cobbles or pavés rattle loudly. Avoid taking a hotel room fronting on a cobbled street on which motor vehicles are allowed. I saw other riders with tires as narrow as 28mm, but I would prefer wider tires for many of the surfaces we encountered. I rode the Danube on tires 38mm (1.5”) wide; my partner had 46mm (1.8”) tires.
  • Camping is difficult in some areas. Distances between campgrounds are often substantially greater than distances between other types of lodging. Some people told us wild camping is generally illegal in Germany and Austria. I haven’t been able to confirm whether this is the law, but it seemed to reflect common attitudes in Germany about trespassing. I wouldn’t camp outside a designated campground without permission, except in extremis. [Update: See the comments for some advice from a German bicycle traveller about asking for permission to camp in Germany and other countries.]
  • Bicycle travellers along the Danube are tourists, not curiosities. People in towns along the Danube are friendly and welcome tourists, but they aren’t going to roll out a special welcome mat just because you are travelling by bicycle, the way people will do in many other places. (This changes somewhat south of Budapest, especially in Serbia, where people are acutely aware of the negative image they have been given by international media, and are eager to show foreign visitors that people in Serbia don’t deserve to be demonized.)

[Photo by Ruth Radetsky.]

[The end of our journey at Belgrade. We hope to go back to ride the lower Danube to the Black Sea.]

Next: Part 2 - Practicalities

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 1 January 2018, 12:00 (12:00 PM)

informative. . .I hated the unpaved dikes in Germany, there were LOTS and seemed endless ! Can you tell me if there were many between Passau and Budapest please? . . . .I am currently trying to decide if this cycle will be appropriate or not.

Posted by: sheryle, 1 March 2018, 19:07 ( 7:07 PM)

@sheryle -- From Passau to Vienna there was almost always a paved bike path on at least one side of the river. From Vienna to Budapest there were more places where we had to choose between an unpaved dike and a paved road shared with motorized traffic.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 3 March 2018, 08:16 ( 8:16 AM)

Wow! I'm truly impressed how informative the Danube blogpost is. Super helpful!

You wrote that wild camping is illegal in Germany. Well, we always pitch our tent and never faced problems. But asking the locals to stay on their grounds could be a great opportunity to get in touch with them. And usually they have a beer or two to offer :)

Sometimes it's rather difficult to find a place for camping, that's true. But it's no problem at all to knock on doors and ask for permission to camp on private grounds. I'm sure most of the people can speak English or understand the word "camping". And we've never been rejected.

What we usually do when we can't speak the local language:

- write down the sentence "May we pitch our tent for one night in your garden, please" in the language of the country we're cycling through. In German it would be: "Dürften wir bitte für eine Nacht unser Zelt in Ihrem Garten aufstellen?"

- then we ring the door bell,  introduce ourselves (cyclists from Germany) and  show the sentence asking for permission to camp

That has always been working.

Posted by: Claudia Hildenbrandt, 4 March 2018, 04:40 ( 4:40 AM)

What an epic way to see the countryside of these European countries. Got hooked on reading this 3-part series as it's info packed. :)

I agree cheaper lodging is almost always cheaper locally than online.

Posted by: Giovanni Esposito, 15 April 2018, 21:42 ( 9:42 PM)

Any idea of who I can contact direct to schedule luggage transfer? I like to book my own hotel.

Posted by: Monica Litle, 22 July 2018, 16:01 ( 4:01 PM)

@Monica Little - I don't know of a company that provides luggage transfer as a standalone service, although it is probably available for a price. If you find a company that provides this service, let me know. Luggage transfer is generally offered as part of a package "self-guided tour" along with lodging and, optionally, other services such as bike rental. Many of these companies offer a choice of daily distance and price category of lodging, but they limit you to their list of selected hotels, which are the ones where they make daily luggage pick-ups and drop-offs.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 23 August 2018, 12:48 (12:48 PM)
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