4 Countries, 2 Wheels, 0 Experience

“But, we haven’t even sat on a bike for four years!”  My response to my wife’s idea to embark on a two-week cycling adventure down the Danube was hardly enthusiastic. 

But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed. What’s not to love about cycling along beautiful paths beside one of Europe’s greatest rivers, and passing from Germany, through Austria and Slovakia, before ending up in Budapest in Hungary? By now, I was forgetting about obvious pitfalls like a basic lack of fitness, the toll that cycling takes on the backsides of inexperienced cyclists, and the logistics of carrying all our clothes for two weeks on our bikes. Those were problems for later. 

Actually, the logistics were surprisingly easy. Rather than go through a tour company, we decided to do everything ourselves — surely if someone carries your luggage for you, that’s cheating? We found a bike rental company in Vienna that allowed us to leave our bikes with a sister company in Budapest at the end of the ride. They would also provide locks and panniers that could fit our clothes (if we packed extremely lightly). 

Jon and Tracey Fleming in Budapest | Photo: Jon Fleming

We looked at various online resources, and the route seemed fairly obvious: Fly to Vienna, catch the train upriver to Passau, Germany (this was the most beautiful section), and then just follow the course of the Danube, stopping every 30 to 50 miles. The important thing was that we were following the path of the river, so it was ever-so-slightly downhill — something that you’re very grateful for when you’re cycling for 2 weeks solid. 

The biggest daily dilemma was whether we should be on the north or the south bank of the river. It turns out that the paths are sometimes better on the north and sometimes on the south, or that the sights are more interesting on one side or the other. We got plenty of advice on which side to cycle on, and which bridges to cross or ferries to catch, from our hotels or the helpful local tourism offices.

The most vital piece of equipment we took turned out to be our padded cycling shorts (although, as a cycling novice, I initially couldn’t work out which way to wear them!), but even so, there’s no denying that our rears were quite tender at the end of a long day of cycling. 

But the whole experience was more than worth the pain of a couple of sore bottoms. It was so invigorating to start each morning enjoying the fresh air as we cycled along the misty river. Sometimes the river was mirror smooth, the green hills reflecting mysteriously in its dark waters (in our experience, the Danube never was blue!), and sometimes it was fast-flowing. The wonderful thing was that the landscapes kept changing as we progressed. We moved from enclosed valleys to wide flood plains, from open countryside to large cities, passing by occasional industrial complexes and hydroelectric plants, so there was always something to see. 

Although most of our time was spent on paved cycle paths directly by the river, we were surprised to find out that sizable parts of the well-marked Danube Cycle Path weren’t actually.…

By Jon Fleming


This is an excerpt from the latest issue of Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine. To continue reading, click above for a digital or print subscription.

Jon Fleming lives in London, U.K., and has been traveling all his adult life — from a month-long round-Europe rail trip when he was 18, to a year-long round-the-world backpacking trip for his honeymoon. For the last 17 years, he has been traveling by cruise ship as a destination lecturer, visiting 130 countries and sailing on 11 world cruise itineraries.