On a rainy morning in June, with a hint of snow on the Mellweg mountains around Salzburg in Austria, we set off for Vienna. The temperature stood at a crisp 17 degrees Celsius. The European summer would creep in in a couple of days. Our plan (read How to plan a cycling holiday) was to do the 295km journey in leisurely fashion, going along the Danube river, through little towns and villages like Unterach, Altmünster, Linz (not small at all), Grein and Spitz. On a bicycle. I can remember one thing clearly when we wheeled into Vienna on Day 7: my body hurting with oxygen
Let me back-pedal a bit. Three of us, two friends—Sunil and Srini—and I, had been dreaming of bumming around on bicycles in Europe. Back in Bangalore, we go cycling on most weekends, doing 40-80km rides across fields of marigold and dry lake beds, through eucalyptus forests and down tiny hills. We told ourselves, wouldn’t it be wonderful to do the back roads of Europe while the euro was tanking? A poor excuse, true, but we so wanted to be out there, behaving like vagabonds, with no responsibilities and no particular destination in mind.
Since we wanted to extract all we could from the euro’s southward journey, we had decided to give ourselves three weeks cycling through Austria, Slovenia, Germany, and Switzerland. And so, here we were, recklessly hurtling through the Austrian countryside.
We had spent a wet, rainy day in Salzburg picking up our bicycles, riding along the Salzach river, when we stumbled across a street-side chicken biryani stall at Mozart Square. You do know that Mozart lived in Salzburg and it is where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music unfolds, right? And right there on Mozart Square we found a high-energy Austrian rock band performing with, of all things, an accordion player with the pizzazz of Carlos Santana. To add to the disorientation, the chicken biryani stall appeared to be a popular hot spot, going by the crowd around it. It was a little like India Rising in the middle of a Hollywood set made up to depict Ye Olde Medieval Towne, while Austria rewrote the rules of rock.
It gave us the first glimpse of what is possible when you wander around a city on a bicycle, not taking in the sights like normal tourists would, but soaking in the sounds, the smells, the history, and the culture.
Setting off through Austria’s famed Lake District, the Salzkammergut, was in itself unreal. This is where The Sound of Music opens, with a panoramic aerial shot of the lakes. The Mellweg is where Julie Andrews makes her first appearance in the movie. With truly romantic notions crowding our minds, the three of us set off like the three musketeers—we headed out for Unterach, a lakeside village with a population of 2,500.
Unterach has over 80 beautiful yachts on Lake Attersee—roughly one for every eight families! It’s a quiet village, with cafés that have fetchingly pretty owners brushing non-existent grit from street-side tables. There, I had my first real wiener schnitzel, a glorious, light, crumb-fried veal cutlet, and washed it down with a glass of Riesling. In a trice I had forgotten the pretty owner and the fictitious crumbs she was clearing. The wiener schnitzel is Austria’s great contribution to culinary excess. You can have it at fancy restaurants around the world, but there is no equivalent to having it in a tiny Austrian village on a lake front, surrounded by Bavarian mountains. It does things to the cutlet that no amount of restaurant “service” can. That night, tired from the ride through the mountains, I dreamed of gliding down the blue Danube, made so famous by Johann Strauss.
The next day took us to Traunsee, a lake in Altmünster which happened to be hosting a regatta on the afternoon we reached. I don’t know a thing about sailing, but with a small biplane buzzing in the clear blue sky, the sight of all those colourful sailboats racing, the snow-capped mountains forming a backdrop, and a bottle of beer, I swear I could have been convinced to take to a lifetime of sailing. Blame my fickle mind for forgetting that cycling was my true love. But that’s the kind of place Traunsee is: It can make you forget who you are.
From Traunsee to Linz, the third largest city in Austria, is a ride through spectacular rolling meadows. It’s like cycling straight into a picture book. But it decided to rain all day and by the time we reached Linz, we were soaked and chilled to the bone. Fortunately, the hotel had radiant heating in the bathrooms. You might have let that observation pass under other circumstances. But for me, that radiant heater was a godsend. All three of us got down to drying our shoes, socks and underwear in right earnest using the heater. Sunil, the wealthy one among us, had to also dry his stack of euros!
Linz is famous for Linzer torte. By now you have probably guessed this—the ride to Vienna was an excuse to eat without guilt, remorse or regret. So, at 6am, I was out on the streets looking for a bakery giving off the aroma of plum butter. It’s worth hunting down the torte early in the morning, when it smells fresh, tastes fabulous, and your stomach is empty. It also helps if you are going to be spending the next 4 hours doing 60km on a bicycle!
Linz is also the city where we began to follow the Danube. And if you must know, the Danube isn’t blue. But what a river! It took us to the tiny-tiny-tiny picture postcard town of Ybbs which has a bicycle museum (did I forget to mention that we are drawn to anything to do with cycling like moths to a flame?). The museum is a wonderland for bicycle lovers. My favourite was a wooden bicycle from 1817, and it took quite a bit of persuasion to unstick me from it.
The next two days were spent cycling through Grein, a village with a population of 3,132, visiting the Schloss Greinburg, one of the oldest castles in the German-speaking world, and through the quiet vineyards of Wachau and Spitz. By now, it was growing hot, and as we approached Vienna, we had hundreds of bare-chested, sunscreened bicyclists for company. We stopped at cafés frequented by cyclists, getting into the core of the European cycling frenzy, loading up on cheap carbs, protein, caffeine and beer wherever we could.
The moment we were in Vienna, we headed to the Hotel Sacher, said to be the place where the Sacher torte—a chocolate cake with apricot jam—was first made for an Austrian prince in 1832. It helps that Vienna has possibly among the most celebrated coffee-drinking traditions and is the kind of city where you are encouraged to hang around doing nothing in the wonderful street-side cafés called kaffeehäuser. Actually, having cycled from Salzburg to Vienna, we were quite grateful to hang around doing nothing other than soak in the rich art and architecture of this fantastic city.
We stayed back in Vienna for a couple of days. Not that it took much persuasion. After all, we were in no hurry and had all the time in the world to tramp around the city’s cobbled streets, enjoy the street performances, grab the newspapers at the local kaffeehäuser and watch the world go by. But soon enough it was time for us to move on to Slovenia, and then Germany and Switzerland remained on our bicycle map. We were keen to see what awaited us as we made our way through those countries. But that’s another story. For the moment, all I can say is, give yourself a chance—go find your own story. Hope to see you in Prague or Bratislava soon!
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