Not so blue on the Danube

I have a confession to make. I have fallen in love with a river other than the Rhine.

The Danube started inauspiciously, and when I say inauspiciously I mean there were hills.  After a few wonderful days off at the end of the Rhine, in Lake Constance, with my sister and her boyfriend – visiting the flower island of Mainau, messing around on boats, tracing the history of the 15th century Papal Council of Constance, the usual holiday activities – I set off over the hills that separate Switzerland and the Danube valley.

It was 30 degrees and, because I am too lazy to get up early and cycle through the cool of the day, it was agonising. But at 800m it ended with a steep tumble through dark, black forest down to the Danube River at Tuttlingen; it was a town that immediately won me over because of its free campsite and R2-D2 bins.

Despite not being even vaguely blue, the Danube – here small, energetic, nipping around tight meanders and dropping short waterfalls – made a strong early bid to be more beautiful than the stately Rhine as it flowed through the Buchalde-Oberes nature park. 

The steep climbs and descents that chopped off the riverbends looked out over pillows of wildflowers, small streams and a beaver sanctuary (that I completely missed because I had fallen out with the guidebook).

After a night in Sigmaringen the gorge widened out, the plains – the widest I’d seen since Holland – blackened by big grey clouds and rainstorms. After a week of scorching sunshine, the Danube valley was consumed by thunderstorms.

I took shelter on a farm near Riedlingen with cycle tourers Ross and Alessia from Rolling East, who upstaged me both with their cooking (they had a spice rack. A spice rack!) and technical know-how (“You been going over many potholes?” Ross wondered as gave my poor battered bike a free service.)

We parted – they for Legoland, me for my version of Legoland, the German capital of beer culture at Ehingen – with the hope of meeting up again in south east Asia, and I rode on through the rain – through silent, dripping forests that bordered the Danube after Ulm. My next campsite quickly filled with Danube tourers. A large group from Romania (I asked for advice about cycling in Romania: they answered, “don’t cycle in Romania”), a French couple who I caught up outside a supermarket the next day when I stopped to check out an Instagram post by Rolling East.

Don’t get me wrong, the Rhine exceeded all of my expectations. It was wide and stately and beautiful, obviously a major artery running through Germany; and I’ll never forget the breathtaking water-skids passenger boats had to do to clear the rocks at Lorelei. But already the Danube feels more intimate. I want to stop passing Germans – elderly couples sat silently on benches, noisy children feeding ducklings, teenagers screeching from kayaks – and say: “This river goes all the way to the Black Sea. The Black Sea! If you lay, starfished in this river you would wind up near Turkey!”

And the tourists on the way are changing, too; the Rhine was ridden by short-distance cyclists out for a week or two. Here, already, I’ve met people going to Australia; Romania; to the delta at the eastern edge of Bulgaria. It feels almost like a day job, like an endeavour we’re all on together but parcelling out separately. There are the early risers who are cooking dinner when you arrive but have gone before the dew has settled on your flysheet in the morning; the late finishers, who freewheel, exhausted, onto the grass as darkness falls; the socialisers and the people who zip themselves under canvas for 14 hours; there are the sightseers and the racers, the gourmet cooks (Rolling East) and the canned-goods dependent (me). The best thing is that we’ll all make it, whatever “it” is, even though our tandems and our touring bikes and trailers carrying dogs park for the last time on completely different sides of the globe.

 

 

 

 

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13 thoughts on “Not so blue on the Danube

  1. Hi Liz, Just read the article in the Guardian about your travels. I did some cycling through Vietnam as part of my travels and it was a great way to see the country. I totally agree with your leisurely pace leaving time to look up, stop and take in the view. I always thought that the head down looking at the dirt approach was never for me. Enjoy the rest of your travels, you’ve got some amazing places on your route.

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  2. Loving your blog Liz, you’re an inspiring woman! Extraordinary that you met someone else on your ferry who was also cycling round the world – or are there people embarking on this crazy journey every day? Isabel x

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    1. I’ve only met two so far – James and a couple cycling to Australia, their blog at http://www.rollingeast.com is beautiful and well worth checking out! But everyone else I’ve met is cycling for a few days and thinks I’m crazy 😁

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  3. Great blog, incredible adventure!! Ask if you want some recommendations for staying in Vienna! All the best, a Viennese local. P.s. I have been talking about cycling to the black sea for years and havent even made it to Bratislava with my bike. I am so envious and inspired. Keep up the positive attitude!

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    1. Thanks!! I’m very excited for Vienna – do you know of any cheap campsites near the city? Also I might need help translating “camping gas” at some point!

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      1. If you don’t find camping use HostelBookers.com. There are other websites like this. You may know this already but no harm done.

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  4. I’m loving your blog – what a great story! Think you’re doing even better than Mark Beaumont as you’re actually seeing the places and experiencing the cultures instead of whizzing past. Keep it up!

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  5. I’ve just discovered your blog thanks to your Guardian article. I heartily agree with your points about slow travel. To me, it’s like being presented with a beautiful meal – it’s important to savour every mouthful. I cycled through Europe and along the Danube about 30 years ago. (Goodness, is it that long ago!) I was trying to reach Istanbul, having set off from Rotterdam, inspired by Patrick Lee Fermor’s wonderful books. My boyfriend’s bicycle had a drastic mechanical in what was then Yugoslavia, and we couldn’t get it fixed, so we flew home. Just as well as war broke out there shortly after.
    Anyway, I hope you have a truly fabulous journey. You are wise; not crazy.

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    1. What an adventure!! I bet it’s much more tame now, I’d love to know how you think it compares. I’ve not read Patrick Lee Fermor, I’ll look some out – another wonderful thing about this trip is how much time I have to read. Thanks for your lovely comment.

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      1. I think the big difference now when I have hiking and cycling adventures is information – it’s all there instantly, tons of it, including excellent digital mapping. Whereas back then of course it was just paper guidebooks, maps, etc. So each day was more of a surprise. (Especially when we accidentally cycled through a 2 mile long nudist camp outside Vienna on the banks of the Danube! We felt very over dressed).
        But I think that these are superficial changes and that the joys are exactly the same – the freedom, the people we meet, the landscapes, being outdoors, that feeling of getting fitter, etc. I still find I need that bit of courage to get out of the door on a journey, but as soon as I set off, I love it.
        Patrick Lee Fermor walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the 1930s. He wrote two books of his journey – the Time of Gifts and then Between the Woods and the Water.

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