Leaving the Alps behind, we headed towards the Danube. When we were deciding on our route through Europe, this is the one section that I (Deb) really wanted to do. Mac wanted Verdun, France. Colburn wanted the beer route in Belgium. Lucia wanted to go to Prague. I wanted the Danube. Much like the EuroVelo 15 along the Rhine River, the Danube path (part of EuroVelo 6) has very low gradients, lots of infrastructure, and great opportunities to amuse the little ones with things other than biking. It’s perfect for a family interested in a bit longer ride. We originally had intended to bike this section of river in the spring of 2015 on our way back from Asia, but a combination of factors made it impossible at that point. We always said that we would come back and do it at some point, and this summer was our chance!
When planning our routes, we typically scour websites, guide books and tour company itineraries for ideas – both for what is interesting and what is possible. If a bunch of tour companies stop in a particular town for the night, the chances are that there is something interesting there and the infrastructure for tourists will be pretty good so we are likely to find a decent hotel or campground. They also tend to be very reasonable in what is able to be biked comfortably in a day. As we learned in our Guarda climb, sometimes the devil is in the details and the macro perspective needed to plan months of traveling can overlook key specific details. Using their knowledge makes our planning much easier, so we based our Danube route and timing on what the majority of the bike touring companies do for this section. With more than 600,000 people riding this section of the river each summer, the tour companies have plenty of experience with it.
More than five years after its inception, we were excited to finally on the Danube. Like a well-drilled army squad, we loaded the bikes, double-checked that we had enough food and water, and fell in to our typical riding order with Colburn in the lead setting the pace and doing navigation, Mac closely behind learning to modulate his strength so he can stay with the group, Lucia following him with her effortless perfect body positioning and me at the back to I can keep an eye on everyone. For most of our riding, we naturally fall in to this paceline – a single-file formation with less than a bike length between each person – because it is both easier to ride and takes up less space on the road or path.
As we rode out of Salzburg, I was admiring both our ability to function like this as a family but also in our new-found physical fitness. We were flying down the path. It felt amazing! Then it hit me. With a pit in my stomach, I realized that my desire to ride the Danube hadn’t taken in to account that the intervening years had dramatically changed our family dynamic and the past eight weeks had changed our overall fitness. We are no longer a typical family. It is the kind of thing you don’t see when you are immersed in it every day, but only when you can step back and look at it with objectivity. Lucia and Mac are no longer little kids on oversized bikes who need distractions, playgrounds and ice cream to make it through the day. As I found out when I was sick in France, they are now strong and capable adolescents experienced in the challenges of long, difficult, physical days and are even enjoying it as they learn more about what their bodies are capable of doing. In 2014 when we rode the Rhine, the kids could only ride 35-40 km per day both because of their attention span and physical ability. Four years later, we are doubling that on a regular basis and still done by early afternoon. Even the difference from just a few months ago is substantial. When we started this tour, we averaged, including stops, around 10-12 km/h. We are now able to average 22-25 km/h, depending on the terrain. This means that our 75 km day is around three hours of actual riding.
These changes, combined with our tendency to have a singular focus, led to some interesting on-trail riding dynamics. Our sister-in-law once commented, “Colburn and Deb, somewhere between a marriage and a task force!” and, I must admit, it is very true. We have, unfortunately, passed this on to our children too. For us, biking is no different – make the process as fast and efficient as possible. This became obvious to me on one particular day when Lucia, our extremely cooperative and non-competitive child, was leading the paceline.
There were a couple cyclists a few hundred meters in front of us when she picked up the pace. As our pace-setter, we simply follow her lead, so similarly sped up. As we neared the group in front of us, she geared up and quickened to a race-pace, sling-shots past them before settling back to a quick pace. “Wow, that was unusual for Lucia” I thought. A few minutes later it happened again – quickened pace to close the distance, gearing-up and race pace to pass, then slowing back to a quick pace to set the distance between. When it happened the third time, I realized that Lucia was doing this intentionally. We have now dubbed the process fishing for she casts her hook when she sees the group in front, reels them in with speed, then releases them back to go about their business without our interference once we have passed. Our non-competitive child most certainly is competitive on the path!
With most of our reservations made based on the 50-60km days that the bike tour companies suggest and not having the emotional energy to totally re-work the entire schedule, we had to adjust to a more leisurely pace of bike travel. The first few days we would make it to our destination before lunch and have a few hours to kill before we could even check in to our accommodation. In Mülheim, we went to a thermal spa and spent five hours swimming and having poolside drinks. Just outside of Linz, we stopped at a riverside pebble beach and spent a couple hours swimming and people-watching. Usually so focused on doing things and getting places, we sometimes forget to just enjoy the mundane. The slower pace changed this. Because there are only so many Baroque buildings, churches, and art one can admire before they all begin to look the same, we switched our focus to the more modern aspects of street art and food, even trying our hand at making our own (legal) graffiti in Vienna.
Once past Vienna, the bike tourist crowds thin substantially. While still a well-trod path, it is not over-run with cycle tourists making for some enjoyable days. The EuroVelo 6 continues all the way to the Black Sea in Romania but is much less developed outside of Austria. The paths are not as well marked and vary greatly in surface quality. What you get in exchange for the lower level of infrastructure is a much more genuine, friendly experience.
Almost without exception, the people we met were friendly, helpful, and seemed to be genuinely glad to see us. As we cycled our heavily laden bikes across a bridge one day, a woman walking the other way cheered us and gave each of us high-fives. While crossing a different bridge with a very narrow path for pedestrians and cyclists, each time we pulled off to the side between the girders to let the walkers pass we would receive a friendly köszönöm(thank you) for both young and old. In Mosonmagyaróvár, we saw a billboard for a small barbecue place so went there for lunch. As we stood in front of the menu, paralyzed because we could not decipher a single word on the menu but intrigued by the smells, the owner figured out that we don’t speak Hungarian or Slovak so quickly translated the menu, making us feel very welcomed and at ease. Their story of innovation and entrepreneurship is inspiring as they expand the types of food available in Hungary. If you’ve never had BBQ beef cheek, Más is definitely the place to try it! Similarly, in Komárno, our waiter/crepe chef welcomed us warmly to his city and made us feel as if we had just met up with a long-time friend.
The hospitality we received in both Slovakia and Hungary was wonderful, and a beautiful way to end of our journey. Eastern Europe is definitely a place where we would like to spend more time.
By the numbers:
- Distance cycled: a little more than 2,000 km (we didn’t keep track of everything)
- Crashes: 1 (Lucia clipped a tandem bike but no injuries)
- Flat tire/punctures/repairs needed: 1
- Countries visited: 10
- Baguettes, ham and cheese lunches eaten: too many to count!
- Major illness/injury: 1
- Bee stings: 5
- Butt blisters: 0
- Days spent sweating in >39C/100F heat: 6 (but many in the 35/90+ range!)
- Times we sang something from Sound of Music: ~ 50
- Times we said, “today was a good day” at the end: every day.