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„Oh yes, the church up there on the hill above the Danube: We have just been there, it’s so beautiful," the pudgy couple enthuse in a broad drawl. „I don’t recall its name, though." The look the woman gives us from behind her large eyeshades is not at all embarrassed.
In contrast to the Americans, who proceed to board a Blue Danube cruise ship, we are about to join the ranks of the Danube Cyclists. The Danube Cycling Route between Passau and Bratislava is by far Austria’s most famous long-distance cycling route, and perhaps the most popular one in Europe. We are going to do only the stretch from Linz to Petronell-Carnuntum, a Roman archaeological site, some 40 km east of Vienna.
"This is shortest way to the Information Centre" we advise a group of Austrian senior citizens panting up from the car park at the former concentration camp of Mauthausen. We have just walked around the barracks, the graveyards, the gas chamber, the memorial park and dozens of over-detailed, tedious 1970s exhibition boards. "But the actual entrance to the camp is over there," we point out the iron gate further up. "Oh no, we only want to …" ‘visit the temporary exhibition about crematories in Nazi concentration camps,’ we complete mentally and nod understandingly. Surely they are locals and have visited the memorial several times before. But, "we only want to have a snack in the cafeteria," the day-trippers continue. "What a place to go for a cup of coffee!" we think. But at one Euro per cup the coffee is significantly cheaper than at the nearby pleasant garden restaurant, and the inflation rate of well over 10 percent for food has been the main topic in the news these days.
On Monday morning, the cycle shop in the small village of Grein is busy with repair jobs. "We can help with any saddle problems," they have been advertising over the past 10 km or so. We watch a group of retirees in too-tight black shorts and neon-coloured tricots entering the pharmacy next door, presumably to treat the other half of the saddle problem. Cyclists have become a major economic factor in the villages along the river, with every second house being a "Cyclists’ Stop" or "Bike Bar." Clever hotel owners advertise their bicycle transfer services to Maria Taferl, a village with a well-known baroque pilgrimage church, which is unfortunately situated on a steep hill. Several bus companies specialise in Cycle Shuttles that ferry the cyclists and their bikes from the lower Danube villages back to their starting point in Passau, and countless tour operators offer organised tours, bicycle, spandex and identical saddle bags included.
The most enchanting section of the cycling route is the 30km section through the wine-growing Wachau area between Melk and Krems. Here the Danube winds through rolling green vineyards, and the occasional castle (or castle ruin) sits high on top of one of the jagged rocks that dot the region. In every village, at least two or three pine bushes in front of yard doors or garden gates show that a local winegrower has opened his house and garden this week as a temporary bar, only serving the local wine. This tradition goes back to a decree from 1784 by Josef II, stating that every Austrian may sell their own homegrown wine and homemade food. Along with the very inexpensive and very tasty red Zweigelt or white Riesling, we taste local specialties such as Mohnzelten (a poppy-filled potato bun), and sweet curd dumplings.
After a five-day sightseeing break in Vienna, we continue through the alluvial land along the Danube to Petronell-Carnuntum. The former capital of the Roman province of Upper Pannonia was situated at a strategic crossing point of the Amber Road and the Danube River. At its peak, the city had 50,000 Roman citizens. In 193 AD, the Roman proconsul in Carnuntum was proclaimed as the new emperor, and he turned out to be quite successful: His name was Septimius Severus – the first North African to become emperor of Rome, whose hometown of Leptis Magna in today’s Libya had impressed us tremendously. Although there is not much left today of the splendours of the past, and the open-air museum is dominated by rebuilt Roman model houses reminiscent of an Ancient Rome theme park, we are thrilled by the realisation of just how big and how connected the Roman Empire must have been: Septimius Severus, for instance, had served in Syria before coming here, and the nearby town of Tulln was founded – as the Roman border base of Comagene – by auxiliary soldiers recruited from Eastern Anatolia.
From Carnuntum, we leave the Danube southwards, to visit Lake Neusiedl and taste yet more of the Roman’s most welcome introduction to the region – wine.