News Europe By bike following the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava

By bike following the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava

It is advisable to leave early in the morning, when Vienna wakes up and sequences reminiscent of Paolo Sorrentino emerge. In Prater Park, high-society ladies go jogging in makeup and young Amazons from riding clubs walk their horses. In the upper rooms of the Hotel Sacher, onlookers gladly watch the ballerinas of the National Ballet stretching on the top floor of the Opera building. In the cafe of the Urania building, with a cinema since 1910, they begin to serve the first coffees of the day with views of the Danube canal. The route can start here, the symbolic space where the Vienna River flows into the Danube in the heart of the Austrian capital, just 75 kilometers from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

From this point, just follow the current towards the Danube Island —Donauinsel in German— to leave the city. This is not just any island, it is an artificial work created in the seventies of the last century to equip Vienna with a monumental park for bathing and leisure. They are 21 kilometers long with trails and river beaches that divide the riverbed in two and protect against flooding. Already on the other shore, the great beauty Vienna is transformed into a film by Kusturica. On weekends, entire families of Balkan and Turkish origin, along with immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan who have arrived in Vienna in recent years, set up their barbecues here in a spectacle of fumaroles and the smell of spices and grilled meat. The EuroVelo 6 lane passes through its improvised garden, the long-distance cycling route that travels 4,450 kilometers between the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea, and which is the one that leads us to Slovakia. Not to be misled by signs: the EuroVelo 6 Danube Cycleway is known in German as donauradweg and in Slovak as Dunajska cyklisticka basket.

Since last fall it has had a new section that circulates shamelessly between the gigantic tanks that store the strategic reserves of the Austrian oil company OMV. It is a branch of barely a kilometer and a half, enough to feel a certain industrial vertigo, but it allows direct entry to the jungle of Lobau and shows that, if you want, you can create bike lanes even in the most unexpected places.

The Danube Island, an artificial work created in the seventies of the last century to equip Vienna with a monumental park for bathing and leisure. Alamy Stock Photos

Lobau is a unique 2,300-hectare wetland on the outskirts of Vienna. A landscape of enormous biological wealth that is part of the Donau-Auen National Park, one of the six large protected areas in Austria. This floodplain ecosystem is home to beavers, herons, cormorants and more than a hundred nesting birds, including the charismatic kingfisher, and the occasional cyclist with binoculars.

Once you have passed Lobau, it is time to ride with a big chainring through endless straights – in reality they are 27 kilometers – between groves and farm fields and more wetlands of the Donau-Auen green corridor, the great protagonist of the journey, on an exclusive track for cyclists of route that seems designed with square and bevel by a colonial geographer. Here the Danube is intuited, but not seen.

Aerial view of the Danube city Hainburg an der Donau, with one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Europe.
Aerial view of the Danube city Hainburg an der Donau, with one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Europe.Alamy Stock Photos

Everything changes when one approaches the next stop, which forces us once again to cross to the other shore via the Andreas Maurer bridge and circulate, parallel to some superb sand terraces, perfect for swimming, until we reach a typical Danube villa: Hainburg an der Donau. The city welcomes you with one of the best-preserved medieval fortifications in Europe, including a nearly three-kilometre wall, 15 13th-century towers and the ruins of the old bastion. Pleasure boats sway to the dock as cargo ships pass by. The image of the meander formed by the river next to the exuberant tropical forests, as described by Claudio Magris in the danube (1986), would fit in the movie Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog.

Bicycle path in a forest near Bratislava (Slovakia).
Bicycle path in a forest near Bratislava (Slovakia). Peter Vrabel (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

After leaving Hainburg along a Wagnerian road (Nibelungengasse), the landscape fills with fields of sunflowers and cornfields and Bratislava glimpses for the first time on the horizon, with the colossal stamp of the castle on top of a rocky hill. The figure of him becomes omnipresent both in the surroundings ―seen from Austria―, and inside the urban area while strolling through the Slovak capital. Napoleon also saw it, who ordered his troops to sew it up with cannon fire in 1809. Or the troops of the Warsaw Pact, who occupied it to put out the reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968.

A group of cyclists in front of the presidential palace in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
A group of cyclists in front of the presidential palace in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Alamy Stock Photos

The fortress as an emblem on the banks of the Danube reminds us that this is a border territory at a time when European borders have been erased, a fragile privilege as Brexit or the pandemic demonstrate. The cycle path and the freshwater course advance to meet the Slavic world, at the place where the Iron Curtain was once lowered. From the road one last postcard is imposed, a dreamlike setting with the aura of Andrei Tarkovsky: in the suburbs the masses of the panelaky, a colloquial term used for blocks of flats built in series with prefabricated concrete panels. The main aesthetic heritage of the former Soviet bloc is the creation of urban planners: its silhouette is familiar in most cities, from the former East Berlin to Siberia.

Indicator sign of the EuroVelo 6 route as it passes through Austria.
Indicator sign of the EuroVelo 6 route as it passes through Austria. Alamy Stock Photos

Our route marks the Danube without demanding much in return, around five or six hours in the saddle depending on the stops and the physical form. At the end you can spend the night in Bratislava or return by train to Vienna in a journey of just one hour. There are those who continue by bicycle to Budapest. Some continue in search of great beauty to the Black Sea.

  • Bicycles can be transported on the railway line (oebb.at) between Vienna (Austria) and Bratislava (Slovakia).
  • If in Vienna we stay at the Sacher hotel, in Bratislava we can stay at the Marrol’s Boutique Hotel.
  • If in Vienna we drink coffee in the historic Urania building (Uraniastraße 1), in Bratislava it is worth sitting in the Next Apache (Panenska 674/28).

*David Granda is the author of the book ‘Plans to conquer Berlin’ (Libros del KO).

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Source: EL PAIS

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