Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Monday 4 June - Cycling the Danube: Day 10

Current location: Vienna, Austria
11.11am, Checking out.

Today was the last day of our trip. I woke up feeling:
Luxurious in a big, proper, soft bed;
Clean, having not slept in a tent in my mouldy clothes;
Sad, that the holiday was ending;
Achy, after cycling 350km;
Excited, to explore Vienna.

Andy wanted to show us a really nice brunch place he knew of so we checked out of our lovely hotel, put on our raincoats (it was VERY rainy today) and braved the outdoors. We treated ourselves to a yummy brunch to say well done for getting to Vienna, and also because it was potentially our last proper meal together.

After lunch, we headed in to the city to look at St Stephen's Cathedral, which had some kind of light effect in it, making it look like it had been tie-dyed. David and Val went exploring while we went to Prater, a big fairground on the outskirts of Vienna. It is one of the most bizarre things I've seen in a city. It was a very fun, kind of run-down place, with hundreds (literally) of rides to go on, games to play, amusement arcades, restaurants...the place is massive and free to go in to. We went on the dodgems and on a ghost train and spent a lot of time trying to win sweets in the amusement arcade.

A whistlestop visit to a supermarket to stock up on our favourite Austrian food to take home (and spend the last of our Euros), and it was time to head to the airport.

The sad feeling came back then. This has been the most amazing holiday. I completely underestimated how beautiful it would be, and how much I would love the cycling and camping aspect of it, the food, the weather, the history, the churches, the wine (maybe I hadn't underestimated that part).

Riding every day, and being with such an incredible group of friends and family was so good for the soul. For anyone even considering a holiday like this, I would say DO IT. An unforgettable and, very possibly, unbeatable trip. Thank you Team Danube! xx

Sunday 3 June - Cycling the Danube: Day 9

Today's journey: Tulln-Vienna
11.11am, At the lake.

Today was ace, as we packed in so much. Yesterday when we arrived in Tulln, we intended to search out the lake that we were apparently camping near. Other things got in the way (food, wine, laziness) so this morning we were determined to at least see it before we began our journey in to Vienna.

Amazingly, it was about 10 metres from the entrance of our campsite. Not only was there an incredible huge lake but also basketball courts, volleyball courts, running tracks, bike tracks, slides, a mini beach, a cafe, a barbecue area, baseball courts...and hardly anyone was there. Tulln is about 20 minutes from Vienna (by train, not bike!) and I quickly decided that, if I ever lived in Vienna, this was where I would live. It was so good!

Andy, Jack and I went for a quick jump in the lake then went back to the campsite to tell the others how awesome it was. We all came back and spent the next few hours jumping, sliding, swimming, sunbathing...this was definitely my 'happy place'! We didn't want to leave but, after a few hours, hopped on our bikes and began the journey to Vienna.

Today was so so hot and we had to stop more often than usual to have a drink and a rest. Andy and Jack sped ahead, powered by drum and bass tunes and about 5km out of Vienna, we finally caught up with them for a Radler (shandy) and to plan how we would get through the city to our apartment. It was still pretty hot but I'd had a quick splash in the Danube along the way (the only time I actually got in the river, the whole trip!) just before the bike paths gave way to roads.

It was so strange coming in to Vienna and having traffic around us after so long of being by the river or in the countryside. It wasn't too hard to find our hotel and, as we cycled up the last street to get to it, there was an overwhelming sense of sadness. We had done it. We had reached our final destination; hot, tired, and so so proud and happy.

Any sense of achievement or joy quickly disbanded however as we went to check in and were caught up in a 20-minute confusion about how much it would cost to park our 'buses' (€20 a night if you're interested in ever bringing a bus to the Josefhof Hotel in Vienna - or eight buses, which is what they thought we had brought?!). We eventually laughed, went to check in and had a shower.

I can't describe the feeling of finally having a proper shower, shampooing, moisturising, and not having to get back out and put on clothes that smelt of mould. Good feeling! The hotel was lovely and really central, so we were happy. An hour later and we were all back outside, as the 'kids' were off to an M83 gig. We found our way across town, having a lovely 20-minute walk in the sunshine after an easy tube ride, and found the gig venue. Cue more time of sitting in the sunshine drinking beer and making friends with random Americans through the medium of the 'Tonight Matthew' game. 

When M83 came on, they were amazing. Absolutely brilliant. We danced and sweated and cheered and had loads of fun, then left afterwards to find a bar. Not knowing Vienna very well (or at all) we ended up stopping outside a sausage vendor stall and staying there for about the next hour, trying his various wurst. 

It was hard to believe this morning we were at the beautiful lake, feeling a million miles from anywhere and by the night time we were in the middle of a (albeit stunning) capital city surrounded by people, buildings and noise. 

Saturday 2 June - Cycling the Danube: Day 8

Today's journey: Krems-Tulln
11.11pm, Eating ice cream and laughing.

Today we woke up and packed our tents away while the boys went to Aldi to get us some breakfast treats. Eggs, fruit and yoghurt, lovely. We hadn't really made a plan for today, other than to find some asparagus somewhere. That might sound like a random desire but it is Spargelzeit in this region of Austria at the moment (and in Germany too). Spargelzeit literally translates to 'Asparagus time', when all the crops of asparagus start to be harvested and entire menus are dedicated to the vegetable.

We'd seen lots of restaurants celebrating Spargelzeit but hadn't actually eaten any of it yet so we were keen to try some. Our route also took us within a few kilometres of a dinosaur park, which we were kind of keen for but, as we got closer, we decided to stop for a glass of wine instead. It seems like that was our decision a lot of the time!

We decided to carry on and find our accommodation in Tulln. This was to be the last night of our camping and the place we were staying at apparently had a big lake nearby that you could swim in.

Onwards we went until we reached our campsite. It was massive and lovely, so we set our tents up and then decided against the swim in favour of some card games, more wine, and getting ready to go out for dinner. Having still not had spargel, we cycled in to the town and found a restaurant that was celebrating Spargelzeit. However, after all that, the menu was so huge that most of us decided on other things, leaving only Ruth and Val to try the local delicacy. We all got food envy.

We were all still in a silly, fun holiday mood so went for ice cream later and then cycled back towards where we were staying, stopping off to have some bike races and laugh a lot.

When we got back, we cycled past a family that were camping near us. Not just any family. We had passed them, and they had passed us, a few times on the day between Aschach and Linz. We had been saying Hi to each other, secretly being pleased when we overtook them and then it turned out they were camping next to us in Grein. We were a bit embarrassed then because they were camping and we opted for the comfort of the cabins.

Anyway, we didn't really pay that much attention to them, until we saw them again in Melk. And Krems. From then on, we kept seeing them all the time, so it was funny when they turned up in Tulln too.

We fully intended to keep the night going when we got back to our tents but, after the long day, loads of food and drink, and the prospect of cycling in to the city after so many days of rural leisure, we opted for an early(ish) night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Friday 1 June - Cycling the Danube: Day 7

Today's journey: Melk-Krems
11.11pm, Sitting outside David and Val's cabin, talking about the day. Today has to rank as one of the best of not only our trip but also my life! It really was incredible.

Today was our trip through the Wachau, the wine region. It was meant to be the short day of riding but, due to my rubbish calculations, it was about 40km more than we initially estimated. Fully intending to get an early start, we got up and packed the tents away (complete with our first argument of the trip as the boys went to get a coffee and left us to pack our stuff away in the rain, and we turned in to whingy girls). Then we did what we always do: went for a really nice breakfast and spent ages looking around the gorgeous town. So when we finally got on our bikes, it was about midday – but the rain had stopped, so that was a bonus. Thanks to almost a week of cycling, we were getting stronger and less sore, too.

We went through a little village and thought what we found was a perfect place to go for our first glass of Wachau wine. However, it wasn't open yet and just up the lane was a church. As we got to it, we started reading a sign about it and found out that it was the site of a pagan sacrifice. Skulls and bodies had been preserved there, and the church warden let us in to see. It was so eerie and quite sad, but an amazing thing to see nonetheless.

We rode on to the next town, which had lots of vineyards and wineries (are they the same thing?!). However, in the Wachau, each vineyard is open to the public for about two weeks a year, and they all rotate so there are always some open. It turned out that one of the ones that had opened that afternoon was right at the top of the hill. As we all began the ride up, it got steeper and steeper and most people got off and pushed. However, if there is one thing that is going to power me up a hill on a bike, it is the promise of wine at the top so I managed to get all the way up still pedalling and found the most beautiful little winery waiting for us.

As it was at the top of the hill, it overlooked miles of rows of grapevines, and was surrounded by other hills and mountains. A really spectacular setting. We all tried a different wine and decided to have lunch here too: meats, cheeses and breads. It was perfect.

The best thing about going up all the hills is going back down them again and, after a couple of glasses of wine, we thought we'd better carry on throughout the wine region. Ten km later and we were just about ready for another glass of wine. This time, we tried a Muskateller that tasted like elderflower and was so good, we all bought a bottle to take with us! We sat in a gorgeous little sunny courtyard, and a random bagpipe player came and played to us. Very bizarre but funny. 

Another 10km on and we found a gorgeous sunny garden and played Cheat while sampling more of the local delights. By this point we were in a beautiful little village called Weissenkirchen... and were quite a few wines down so decided to carry on to Krems before we got too wobbly! As we cycled through the village, we had to get off our bikes to push because there were quite a few people in the village square. Nicky was first of us all and, as she tried to negotiate her way through people, someone handed her a glass of wine.

It turned out that a bank was opening (the first in the village), and the street party was to celebrate that. Everyone from the village had turned up, as well as the local wine-maker, the mayor, the bank manager from Krems and lots of other people. Within seconds, literally, it seemed as if we had become guests of honour. The wine-maker, Manfred, took a shine to Nicky and, as he waltzed her around the square, the rest of us were offered food, wine, and were introduced to everyone. Most people only spoke German but, luckily, my German-speaking skills are directly proportionate to how much wine I have drunk so I thought I was fluent and was happy to chat away and translate when needed.

Andy started talking to the local priest, who it turned out had lived in the same town Andy had lived in, in Austria. Before long, he had to go and say mass (the priest, not Andy), but told us if we were still here in an hour, he would give us a tour of the church and show us the view from the clock tower. We said our goodbyes to him, thinking 'Of course we won't be here in an hour.'

Of course, an hour later, we were still there. Charming the bankers, drinking the wine and generally thinking Weissenkirchen was the best place we had been. Ever. Seriously, everyone was so friendly and welcoming, the sun was still out and so warm and the village was the prettiest. After Val had a dance with Manfred, her and David decided to carry on and try and get to the campsite before dark, while the rest of us went to the church to find out if we really could have a tour.

Mass had just ended and so we found the priest (whose name we still don't know!) and went in to the church. It was beautiful. He began to tell us a bit of the history of the church and, as he didn't speak English, Andy and I found ourselves translating words we didn't even realise we knew! Jack, Ally and Ruth all had a go on the organ, which sounded amazing, and then we climbed up the ancient stairs and in to the clock tower. From up here we could see for miles. It was so surreal and we felt really privileged to be up there.

Around 45 minutes after our tour began, we gathered outside to say goodbye and listen to a final, thoughtful prayer in German. We were all kind of awestruck as we cycled off, shouting goodbye to our new friends and promising to come back on the same day next year, 1 June 2013. It's an annual tradition now, apparently!

As we pedalled on to Krems, the sun was going down and we arrived to find that David and Val had sorted us the best spot on the campsite. We had hot goulash soup for dinner and sat around talking about what a ridiculously incredible day it had been. Despite (or because of) the extra 40km!

Thursday 31 May - Cycling the Danube: Day 6

Today's journey: Grein-Melk
11.11am, Having a wander through the main street of Grein while the others went for a coffee. We'd had such a relaxing night's sleep in our cabins and woke up fully rested and ready for the journey to Melk. Grein was a beautiful little town with a peaceful and ornate church in the centre. I've been going in to lots of churches on this trip; I didn't realise I found them so fascinating but I really do!

When we were all ready, we caught a boat across to the other bank, where we found the route to be very green and lush. We powered on for a good few hours, stopping for a drink in one place that had a trampoline and then carrying on. When we were still about 20km from Melk, where we were camping that night, we decided to stop for 'lunch' (at about 4pm). We had bought stuff for a barbecue the night before and so were amazed to find a perfect spot right next to the river.

The Lawrence family took the reins and got a fire going quickly, and it wasn't long before we were eating like kings! Meat, vegetables, red wine, all alongside the river. We've definitely been living well this trip.

The small town we were in is famous for a monument, Maria Taferl, at the top of the hill. I say 'hill', but it's 4km up, and looks more like a mountain when you're at the bottom! Undeterred, and powered on by all the sausages he'd eaten, Andy decided he was going to cycle up the hill (while David, Val and I caught a taxi up). He was a machine, and got up there the same time we did!! It was amazing!

Once at the top, you could see the view for miles. It was awesome seeing the Danube from such a different perspective and it gave us an idea about how far we'd come (and how far we had left to go, too!).

One of the most fun parts of the trip so far was getting to freewheel the whole way back down to the bottom. It took us approximately four minutes! Once we got back to our barbecue area, we had a surprise waiting for us, as Ruth, Nicky, Jack and Ally had made friends with some local wakeboarders who then offered to take us out on their boat. Of course we accepted and then laughed manically as we sped up and down the river to a hip-hop soundtrack for half an hour. Unfortunately, the guy who was wakeboarding managed to break his cheekbone by kneeing himself in the face during a trick so we headed back to the banks and chatted to them for a while.

David and Val decided to cycle on and find our accommodation and we stayed and had a drink with our new friends. As the light started to fade, though, we though we should carry on, so hopped back on our bikes and found that, with a bit of wine inside us, we were faster than ever! The 20km sped past and 40 minutes later (which was fast, for us), we met David and Val.

Our campsite, we then discovered, was another 10km out of Melk so we learnt our lesson from the night we stayed 'in' Linz and decided to stay where we were. Luckily the only other campsite in the area had space (which may have had something to do with the rainy weather that was forecast?!) so we put our tents up... and heard the distant clap of thunder, followed by some frequent lightning flashes. As we went to bed that night, the storm was above us, which started off being scary but quickly became an absolutely amazing, overwhelmingly loud experience. I've never camped in a storm before but it was brilliant!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wednesday 30 May - Cycling the Danube: Day 5

Today's journey: Linz-Grein
11.11am, In Linz with Ruth and Nicky, having a 1 ice cream. When we woke up this morning, the rain had stopped, thankfully, and the sun was out. We had our longest day of cycling ahead of us (almost 70km) and there were also a few sights along the way that we wanted to see, so we intended to set off early. But considering we hadn't been in to Linz yet, half of us decided to go in and explore the city, while the other half of the group relaxed by a beautiful lake called Pichlinger See. Linz is a really pretty city, I would definitely recommend a visit if you're nearby, but we didn't really have enough time to have a proper look. We went to the main square and ate an ice cream, had a wander and took a tram back to the train station. Whistlestop tour!

As we began our ride, we wove back in to the countryside. We were headed for Mauthausen, which is a very small town that had had a very large concentration camp in the hills above the town. We crossed the river to get to the town then began a very steep climb up the hill. Jack and Andy both managed it, but the rest of us had to get off and push. That was the first time that's happened this trip, though, so we weren't doing too badly.

When we arrived at Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, the sun was high in the sky and we felt  hot and tired from the hill, so probably weren't at our most emotionally stable. But I don't think any of us really realised how awful it would be in there. We had read a little about it but were pretty shocked to find out that is was a 'Grade III' camp, the grade given to only the toughest camps (for reference, Auschwitz-Birkenau was graded II; Dachau was graded I). It was known as a Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination by work) camp and up to 320,000 people died there. What was interesting, and awful, was that so much of the camp was open for people to see so, without really planning to, we all found ourselves in the 'extermination chambers' reading about the things that had happened there. I think it's really important that it's still open for the public to see and learn about – but a warning to anyone planning to visit, it really is one of the most harrowing things I've ever done.

Feeling pretty overwhelmed, we knew we had quite a lot of today's ride to do, so we left at about 3pm in a subdued group. An hour later and we found a beautiful and secluded spot along the river that was perfect for our late lunch. The sun was still out and we were feeling pretty blessed at how beautiful our route was, and how lucky we'd been with the weather.

Of course, as soon as we thought about how lovely the sunshine was, the clouds came over. When we had about an hour of cycling left, the heavens opened and it began absolutely pouring down. We all quickly found shelter in random bus stops/sheds and waited for the worst of it to pass but then decided to plough on regardless, as we still had quite a lot of ground to cover.

As we were approaching Grein, our mood had shifted again slightly. Though we were still on the beautiful route, we'd had a pretty full-on day, both physically and emotionally, and were looking forward to reaching our campsite. It was still raining – a lot – so the thought of putting our tents up wasn't a great one, though. However, when we reached the campsite, the owner told us he had room in wooden cabins if we wanted them, for not much more than the price of camping. As you might imagine, we jumped at the chance and started to feel a lot better at the thought of a warm, dry, comfortable bed. We all had hot showers, treated ourselves to putting some clothes in the washing machine, and headed to the restaurant for dinner and wine.

A kind of challenging day but a really interesting and fascinating one, and we all slept very well!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tuesday 29 May - Cycling the Danube: Day 4

Today's journey: Aschach-Linz
11.11am, On the road (well, the bike path). Today was a bit of a mixed bag.

We started off quite early this morning, bidding a sad goodbye to the amazing campsite and starting our 60km-ish journey to Linz. With coffee and pastries in our bellies, we had only been going less than one kilometre when we stopped at a Spar. As the past two days have been public holidays, no supermarkets had been open so we were pretty excited by the opportunity to load up on snacks. Even more excited to find out you can buy white wine spritzer for 80c a need to fill our water bottles up with anything else!

With our panniers packed with fruit, bread, cheese, ham, crisps and some random Austria treats, we got our pedal on once more. Today's ride took us slightly away from the river and through some amazing farmland, with crops growing high on both sides of the path. The sun was shining at this point and we were all loving the hot weather! We were joined for a little while by a local 70-something man who spoke to us in German about the potato plants while staring at Ruth's legs as she cycled. We left him behind and joined the river again, cycling for hours along a long, straight path.

Our track took us past a big play park so we stopped for a rest and a go on the slide and the swings, before joining a main road. We were nearing Linz and it was definitely not one of the most beautiful tracks as cars and lorries thundered past us. We were pretty hungry (although we were getting used to long lunches) so decided to off-road it for a bit and find somewhere to eat our picnic. The boys came up trumps as they managed to a find a beach (albeit with pebbles)! Cue an hour of scoffing, relaxing, skimming stones and rescuing most of our belongings as a freak wave made its way up the 'beach'. Refuelled for the rest of our journey in to Linz, we carried on, expecting only another 10km or so.

Unfortunately, as we approached Linz, the heavens opened. We had to get through the centre of Linz to find our campsite (which was on the outskirts) so carried on, leading to our first casualty of the trip as one of the girls fell off their bike thanks to some slippery tram tracks. With only dignity hurt though, we all carried on, then took shelter in a big bike shed.

We thought we must be getting close so, even though we were all pretty tired by this point, decided to keep going through the rain. How wrong we were. Around 45 minutes later, we were still cycling and starting to lose our excitement at reaching Linz, when we saw a sign saying we had now left Linz. Hmmm. Andy and I went in to a nearby bar to find out if our campsite actually existed and found out, with some relief, that is was 3km away. Weary and wet, the eight of us just wanted to get there so found ourselves ploughing on up a huge hill with more lorries thundering past...when the thunder and lightning started. Somehow, we managed to keep our smiles on and actually started to find the situation quite funny.

Like a mirage, our campsite appeared in the distance. It was still raining so so hard, the most rain we'd seen so far, but we didn't care because we'd made it. Luckily we had a half-hour respite from the rain, which gave us just enough time to put our tents up, before the storm started up again. On any other night, this would have been pretty miserable, but next to our tent was a big wooden gazebo with picnic tables underneath, so we all huddled in there while Andy went off for provisions (wine). Sitting at our schnapps to keep us warm, Andy returned with wine and the bad news that all the food shops were closed so we were facing the prospect of only wine for dinner (after a 60km ride!).

Luckily, our campsite had a restaurant, so we asked if we could have pizzas to take away. After what could have been a really miserable night, we ended up having a brilliant one – a pizza each, loads of wine and games of Trivial Pursuit, and the rain stopped just in time for us to crawl in to our tents. Today really was a testament to how awesome our group is; no one got grumpy or complained, despite some testing times, and we saw amazing things, covered a lot of ground, and went to sleep with smiles on our faces (and wet clothes).