Monday, 1 January 2018

Bicycling the Danube, Part 3: Highlights and Lowlights

Cycling the Danube (Part 3 of 3):

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I talked about why you might (or might not) want to take a trip by bicycle along the Danube, and about some of the practicalities of such a trip.

In Part 3, below, I’ll highlight a few interesting things (not by any means all, and not necessarily the “best”) places and things to see and do along the river or nearby, and a couple of particularly outstanding places we stayed.

Places to Stay

As I discussed in Part 2 of this article about practicalities, the standards of lodging for bicycle tourists along the Danube were very high. That was even more true at inexpensive accommodations in and between small towns than in bigger cities where higher prices prevailed.

There were only a couple of places we stayed, as noted below, that were so outstanding that I’d recommend that you at least consider stopping for the night, even if you might otherwise have felt like riding on for some little distance. Both of these are rural or small-town gastronomic getaways that offered extremely comfortable rooms and other facilities, in extravagantly scenic locations (and with rooms with riverfront views), and exceptional food, at prices not much higher than our average (less than US$100 per night for a double room with full cooked-to-order breakfast).

[View from our room at the Gathof Pension Ernst, Untermuhl]

Gasthof Pension Ernst, Untermuhl, Austria (between Passau and Linz):

This country inn is located in the middle of a stretch of the Danube where there is no road for motor vehicles along the river valley, only bike paths on either side. The lawns and grounds look out over a small-boat harbor and marshes filled with nesting birds to the wooded ridgeline across the river. We had planned to go further before stopping for the night, but it started to rain just as we got to Untermuhl. After going inside for lunch, we decided to stay. We weren’t the only cyclists passing through and staying at the inn, but their core business appears to be weddings, other family gatherings, and small corporate retreats. The food is characteristic of Austrian cuisine at its best: simple, fresh, and made with great care from natural ingredient of superb locavore quality. We spent as much on lunch and dinner together — our most expensive meals of the entire trip — as on our room for the night, and didn’t regret it.

[Terrace of the Stari Podrum, Ilok. The cellars extend into the hill under the castle to the right.]

Stari Podrum, Ilok, Croatia:

Even better food and drink (of a very different sort), in an equally scenic setting, at a much lower price — this was Croatia, not Austria, and the less-touristed part of Croatia at that. (The high-end destinations in Croatia are places on the Dalmatian Coast such as Dubrovnik and Split.) The heart of the Stari Podrum is the great banquet hall of the winery whose cellars are dug into the hillside just below the castle on the crest owned by the same family. A row of comfortable modern guests rooms have been added, mainly to accommodate destination weddings. Each room has a sweeping view over the marshy meanders of the Danube through the national park below. The food was superb, with dishes we’d never had before, and was — of course — accompanied with equally fine and unfamiliar wines. Developing a taste for food or drink you can’t get back home is always inconvenient, but we fell for Croatian “medica”: honey liquer. Less expensive varieties are made from a base of plum brandy flavored with honey, but we preferred the ones distilled from fermented honey (honey wine or mead). Medica is made in Serbia as well as Croatia, and we tried to buy some in Belgrade to bring home with us. But the staff in the duty-free shop warned us off: for some reason U.S. agriculture inspectors won’t allow the import of honey or honey-based products, even those with an alcohol content high enough to kill any dangerous insects.

[Banquet hall of the winery at the Stari Podrum, Ilok. We had this table for 20+ to ourselves at breakfast! Photo by Ruth Radetsky.]

Places to Visit

This is definitely not a comprehensive or “best of” list of sites, sights, or attractions. Much of what’s most rewarding about a bicycle trip on the Danube is the fine detail of daily life, the details and nuances of subtle changes rather than sudden spectacles, slow and steady currents rather than waterfalls. And most of the real “must-sees” are unmissable.

My emphasis in this short list is on things that you might not notice or appreciate if you weren’t looking for them, in order along the river in the downstream (northwest to southeast) direction followed by most cyclists:

Mauthausen Memorial (east of Linz, Austria): The site of the Nazi “concentration camp” at Matthausen is up a steep hill on a bluff above the north bank of the Danube. It’s not visible or especially well marked from the main path, and you might be tempted to pass it by. If you aren’t looking for Mathausen, you might be on the opposite side of the river at this point, looking for services in the town of Enns.

Mauthausen isn’t a name as well-known as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was the operational, administrative, and extermination center for the entire network of Nazi concentration camps throughout Austria — the “Eastern Reich”. It provides a disturbingly but edifyingly comprehensive, well-preserved, and well-interpreted (the signs are mostly bilingual in English and German, except in the field of national memorial monuments with inscriptions in a Babel of languages) overview of the Holocaust, its motives and methods, and its diverse victims.

If you go to the Mauthausen Memorial, I would plan to spend at least half a day. There’s bike parking and lockers for valuables at the front entrance. The closest lodging is about 10 km (6 miles) from Mauthausen across the river (via the Mauthausen-Enns ferry) in Enns, or a similar distance downstream along the north bank in the camping complex at Au on der Donau, which has cabins, basic hotel rooms, and a restaurant/bar as well as campsites.

The Venusium (Willendorf in der Wachau, between Melk and Krems, Austria): A fascinating little museum devoted to the Venus of Willendorf, a Stone Age female figurine unearthed during the construction of the railroad line along the Danube in the early 20th century, and its significance and context. Worth a brief halt.

Zwentendorf (between Krems and Klosterneuburg, Austria, northwest of Vienna): There are nuclear power plants on the banks of the Danube, using river water for coolant, in Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria — but not in Austria. What was to be Austria’s first nuke at Zwentendorf was built and fueled, but the control rods were never pulled out to start the nuclear chain reaction, following a national referendum against nuclear power in 1978. The building was sold to a private company that rents it out as a training center for operators of reactors in other countries (at Zwentendorf, they can practice in parts of the reactor that would be fatally radioactive in a working nuclear power plant) and as a movie set. It’s also one of the most important monuments to the success of the anti-nuclear movement and the origins of the Green Party in Austria and Europe. As you pass by, you can stop and raise a glass in celebration at the beer garden and restaurant in a log cabin on the lawn of the reactor building facing the bike path and the river.

[Nuclear reactor building (left) and biker-bar log cabin (right) at Zentendorf. The riverbank is just behind the camera on the other side of the bike path.]

Petronell-Carnuntum (Austria, between Vienna and the Slovak border): Many stretches of the Danube formed the border between the Roman Empire to the south and the territory of the “barbarian” Germanic tribes to the north. As a consequence, the south bank of the river is the site of many ruins of Roman forts and garrison towns. Carnuntum was a small Roman city; Petronell is the modern Austrian hamlet built on its ruins. What makes Carnuntum so interesting is that much of the site hasn’t just been left in ruins or excavated and exposed, but has been rebuilt with Roman materials, tools, and techniques as an exercise in “experimental archaeology” that gives a picture of a living Roman town with all of its infrastructure. Most cyclists follow the easy route along the dikes on the north bank of the Danube between Vienna and Bratislava, but it’s worth taking an extra day and winding through the hills above the south bank to explore Carnuntum. There are a couple of quite adequate hotels, mainly catering to bus tour groups, just across the road from the main museum complex, and outlying Roman sites scattered along the road for several miles.

House of Terror, Budapest, Hungary: Intended as an anti-Communist propaganda museum, the Museum of Terror is at least equally interesting as an exhibition and elucidation of the museum designers’ anti-Communist credo and the ways it feeds the neo-fascist populist resurgence in Hungary and some other former Warsaw Pact nations. Just don’t rely on these exhibits for unbiased history, even if you think that such a thing exists (which I don’t). The building served as the headquarters and an interrogation and torture center for the secret police, first for the Hungarian fascist collaborators of the Nazis and later for the Soviet-aligned communist government of Hungary. The museum exhibits begin with a facile statement of the equivalence of Nazi and Stalinist political repression, and go on to portray both fascism and communism as entirely foreign ideologies of occupation (German and Soviet respectively), ignoring the substantial base of support which they each enjoyed within Hungary at the times they came to power. There’s much to learn about consequences in this museum, but an unfortunate absence of real concern for causes.

[Signs of the times: Everywhere we went in Hungary we saw these official government billboards with ad hominem and anti-Jewish denunciations of Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist and political activist George Soros.]

Serbia: Is there any country the USA has bombed so recently but about which people in the USA knew so little at the time, or know so little now about the effects and the aftermath of the military intervention carried out in our names? Visiting the memorials to Serbian atrocities on the Croatian side of the Danube in Vuckovar was an educational experience. But being welcomed as warmly by the people across the river in Serbia I had been told I should want to kill, and riding over the bridges in Novy Sad built to replace those destroyed by US and NATO bombs and missiles (along with other civilian infrastructure including oil refineries and petrochemical plants along the river, at great environmental cost that lasted for years, even far downstream), I found myself wondering whose lives anywhere had been improved by those “humanitarian” airstrikes. I won’t try to tell you what you should think about any of this, but I will tell you that all of us in the USA — as citizens of a country that was one of the participants in the wars in the former Yugoslavia — should think about them more than we do. A good way to jump-start that thinking is to go there and see these places for ourselves and through the stories told by local people.

Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade (Serbia): Yugoslavia no longer exists as a country, but lives on as an idea: a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and non-aligned yet non-isolationist state with distinctive political and economic structures and a truly independent foreign policy and international role.

[Quotation from Tito at the Museum of Yugoslavia.]

The Museum of Yugoslavia is a sophisticated and thoroughly contemporary museum that preserves and strives to interpret this history; how and why and in what ways it succeeded and failed; and its relevance to the present and the future.

[Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.]

Detours from the Danube

Our route followed the Danube as closely as possible, except for one side trip when we were sick, it was raining, we didn’t feel like riding, and we took a train from Ingolstadt to Nuremberg. By doing so, we missed what some travellers describe as one of the prettier sections of the Danube between Ingolstadt and Kelheim. But we found our visit to Nuremburg well worthwhile, and we much enjoyed the ride from Nuremburg back to the Danube along the original Rhine-Danube Canal, rejoining the Danube at Kelheim, just above Regensburg.

Many tourists from Danube river cruises are bused up to Nuremburg for the day to visit the courtroom where the Nuremberg trials of Nazis accused of war crimes were held, and the associated museum on the larger theme of the origins of international criminal law. The museum is worth a visit, but I found it overly self-congratulatory. Most war crimes still go unprosecuted, and the definition of “war crime” remains subject to political distortion and abuse.

I would plan to spend more time at the somewhat less-visited museum on the the grounds of the Nazi party national congresses held each year in Nuremberg, a vast permanent complex of indoor and outdoor arenas and parade grounds that will be frighteningly familiar to anyone who has seen the classic film documentary of the 1934 Nazi convention, “Triumph of the Will” — and also, perhaps, to viewers of President Trump’s post-election stadium rallies of his supporters. As a museum of propaganda, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds has extensive exhibits on the ideology of Nazism, why it was attractive to some many people, and how it was promoted and advertised. Of all the museums of Nazism, this may be the one that provides the best basis for understanding and assessing the threat of fascism today in the USA, in Europe, or in other countries.

[Reviewing stands at the Zeppelin landing field on the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg.]

On our way back to the Danube along the historic canal, we spent a night at the Altstadt Hotel Stern in Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz. We would have been happy for a comfortable clean bed, and nothing more, but this hotel was outstanding in an entirely understated way: a small hotel in a small town that wasn’t on the Danube or any major tourist route, and didn’t have any obvious source of well-to-do business guests, but managed to get all the little touches just right, without apparent effort and without any show of servility.

Family History

A personal highlight of this trip was a look at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, which is still in the same house at Zugigleti út 93 in the Buda hills that my Great-Uncle Nathaniel P. Davis and Great-Aunt Louise lived in when Uncle Pen was the U.S. Minister to Hungary and head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Budapest in 1949-1951.

The U.S. Ambassador’s residence is the last house before the base of the scenic chairlift to the top of János Hill, although unfortunately we got there on a day when the chairlift was closed for maintenance.

The Ambassador’s residence was (and as of this writing, still is) vacant, since President Trump has yet to nominate a U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. The Protocol Officer at the U.S. Embassy had hoped to be able to give us a tour of the house while it was unoccupied. But that was not to be.

The Ambassador’s residence was acquired by the U.S. government, along with the embassy across the Danube in downtown Pest and some other buildings, in a complicated barter deal after World War II. My mother remembers Aunt Louise telling stories about the holes she had to mend in the threadbare carpets! Eleni Kounalakis, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 2010-2013, described the residence in her 2015 memoir as “a shock… smelling of mold, dust, and rotten pipes”. President Trump’s prolonged delay in appointing an Ambassador provided an opportunity for some overdue major maintenance, and the day we got to Budapest the entire building was closed for renovations.

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 1 January 2018, 14:00 ( 2:00 PM)

Thanks for all the great info! I'm thinking of this trip in a couple of weeks with my 8yr old. Vienna to Budapest.

Posted by: Donna, 2 May 2018, 16:26 ( 4:26 PM)
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