Cycling from Vienna to Budapest along Europe’s iconic river, through three countries and changing cultures

 

It’s over 300 kilometers along the Danube from Vienna to Budapest, and I was going to cycle it. Despite the idea lingering in the back of my mind for ages, Viennese life somehow kept me from managing to find the time. With my sojourn in Vienna coming to an end however, it seemed the perfect farewell. And while Austrians aren’t noted for being adventuresome, a mention at weekly choir practice quickly turned up a worthy gang of six fellow riders.

Tarted up in padded bike shorts, borrowed bright yellow panniers (stuffed with Jause – because what’s more important on journeys than snacks?), and an indispensible map book in hand, we set off downriver. The first day took us along the Donauinsel, past those infamous FKK regions at the Lobau, with happy elderly nudists soaking up the sun. Our plan included turning off at every interesting site, and we promptly went off-course for a quick visit to the stately Schloss Eckartsau – occasional home to Franz Ferdinand and Emperor Charles and now noted as Austria’s number one ­wedding venue.

Back en route the mind-numbingly dull concrete path seemed to go on for ages – the Danube far out of sight between high trees. Finally, Stopfenreuth, site of the cancelled Hainburger Au power plant, broke the monotony. Heroic-scale bridge-side plaques told us the story of the protests that brought the project down.

Emerging over the tall grass at Wolfsthal, Bratislava was a welcome sight, a beautiful sunset blazing behind the bridge and castle. Often compared unfavorably to Vienna, the tiny Slovakian capital’s old-town center is postcard-cute, but it’s the outer working-­class areas where Bratislava truly shines. A group of students suggested an upstairs restaurant not found in any guidebook where we enjoyed one of the best – not to mention cheapest – meals I’ve had in Eastern Europe. Although stuffed to the gills with tender Halušky (dumplings) slathered with goat’s cheese and crispy Zemiakové placky (fried potato pancakes), we finished our evening in the Slovakian capital wandering the streets licking ice cream cones, flabbergasted by the extreme contrast in language and culture just 60 km away. Aside from the obvious language barrier between these two closest of European capitals, Bratislava has its own unique architecture and attitude. Granted, away from the manicured squares Soviet desolation still looms, but the city seems to take immense pride in not being merely a distant suburb of Vienna, as earlier imperial links might suggest.

 

Off the beaten path

Danubiana Meulesteen Museum©Archive Danubiana
Milan Lukac sculpture at the Danubiana Meulesteen Museum
©Archive Danubiana

Despite losing three riders who headed back, the remaining half of our troop heartily restocked and ventured onward. While the Danube trail winds through kilometers of lifeless industrial grey in the uninspiring outskirts of Vienna, once past Bratislava things take a more bucolic turn.  And less than 15 km out of town, the shining Danubiana Meulensteen Museum, a millennial temple of modern art, sits on a finger of land jutting into the river. The large sculpture park offers permanent works by American pop artist Jim Dine, Slovakian sculptor Vladimir Kompánek, and Peter Pollág’s The Danube Wings, composed of 240,000 pieces of hand-cut glass.

We carried on, smirking at the signs for the tiny township Horný Bar, past farms and fields until Sap, where the border splits down the center of the river, Slovakia on one side, Hungary on the other.
Throughout the day, we’d occasionally pass a certain cyclist clad all in black while he was resting, and in turn he’d pass us while we munched our beloved Jause. At one point we ended up cycling alongside, and he told us of his annual trip down the Danube, starting from Passau, Bavaria, and continuing all the way to the Black Sea and back. Suddenly our outing didn’t feel quite so daunting.

 

Two sides, different coins

We chose to ride on the better-maintained and more populated Hungarian side, yet save pennies by eating and sleeping in Slovakia whenever possible. We simply played it by ear as we went, stopping when hungry and settling in for the night when a suitable campground presented itself.

Wandering through the beautiful streets of Győr in Hungary, we were astounded by both the architectural grandeur and the number of bodybuilders strolling about the city’s cobblestone streets. Surely this riverside gem is some sort of weight-lifting world capital! We found a cabin for the night in a spooky, deserted campground, the pools and tennis courts locked up tight.

Further on, straddling both sides of the river, Komárom (Komárno on the Slovakian side) intrigued us, each half clearly stamped with its respective culture. Simply crossing a bridge the tone of life changed, with different languages and currencies – even gestures – reminding us we were in a different country.

 

Time stands still

On the Slovak side, we were lured into an authentic “Medieval Restaurant” staffed by women in rag dresses, straw on the floor. Reduced to a motley two (our remaining third had turned back earlier that day) we ordered one meal between us. Even so, we were unprepared for the ­gargantuan trough of meat and vegetables that arrived. By the time we sent the shared plate away, it looked virtually untouched.

Once we finally awoke from our coma of satiation, we passed through a string of towns and villages, each one a linguistic challenge: Neszmély, Almásfüzitő, Nyergesúfalu. Our goal was Esztergom, Hungary’s former capital, its stately and haunting fortifications overlooking the water that had flowed past for centuries. The venerable Esztergomi Bazilika holds a rightful place in the heart of Hungary, and after a longing look we crossed into Slovakia at Štúrovo for one last night.

 

The final lap

Esztergom marks the beginning of the ­so-called Danube Bend, where the river lurches directly south into Budapest. It’s a long leg of 70 km, but eye-catching palaces like Visegrádi Fellegvár and stately Szentendre break it up.

No matter if you arrive late. The bridges and spires of Budapest offer a stately welcome to even the most exhausted of travelers. (Photo: Wikicommons/ Christian Mehlführer)
No matter if you arrive late. The bridges and spires of Budapest offer a stately welcome to even the most exhausted of travelers.
(Photo: Wikicommons/ Christian Mehlführer)

Budapest makes its presence felt long before the  the familiar postcard images come into view. The city grows in scope and beauty until the path heads directly into the very heart of the city, gazing across to the landmark Országház parliament buildings.

For the entire week, we had cycled just ahead of ominous black clouds, barely ­visible behind us in the distance. At long last, turning from the river and into Budapest’s busy streets we found a restaurant at random, locked up our bikes and headed inside. The moment we sat down by the window, a torrent of rain cascaded over the city, washing our bikes clean and marking the end of a journey – an accomplishment, rather – I’ll hold forever close to my heart.


 

Insider know-how

Navigating along the Danube is mostly straightforward. Here’s how to make the most of a riverside journey

 

Where to eat & stay…
While still in Austria, there’s a number of charming trailside snack-bars and water stations to refill bottles. Further on, we found prices on the Slovakian side to be generally much lower than in Hungary, and the numerous bridges seemed almost perfectly timed for meals and sleeps.

Don’t leave home without…
The coil-bound Danube Bike Trail 3 (Verlag Esterbauer) proved indispensable, offering maps and suggestions for side-routes from Vienna to Budapest. Accommodations are also listed in-depth, though not all of them are still operating. While we found traveling without bookings part of the thrill, you might want to call ahead, particularly in the busier summer months.

Worthy side stops…
One of the most evocative sites appears at the very edge of Vienna, where the Danube Canal meets the river. The Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery of the Nameless) houses the bodies of the unidentified drowned victims of the Danube, commemorated with simple black crosses.

While the roads leading up to this mountain castle may seem daunting, the views at Visegrádi Fellegvár are unforgettable – and a perfect backdrop for bragworthy selfies.

While Štúrovo may not pack the architectural punch of its neighbor Esztergom across the river, this small Slovakian town not only marks the end of the Danube’s course along Slovakia before bending southward, but provides heart-stopping views of the Esztergomi Bazilika. The large Mária Valéria Bridge connecting the two cities was destroyed in 1944, and only rebuilt in 2001 – joining two very different cultures.

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Mark Andrew Hamilton is a musician and writer currently living in Montréal. His mother is Viennese, while his father is Scottish, and he has lived in both Vienna and Edinburgh to make sense of both sides of his family tree. His music is available at woodpigeon.bandcamp.com, he tweets at @woodpigeontweet and Instagrams at @markzipan