Nothing blue about the Danube
Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world. Who: Alexandra Fairfield of Silver Spring. Where, when, why: I turned 60 last summer and have always dreamed of bicycling along the Danube River. I had to celebrate a year late because I had back surgery, so I went in June. I signed up for a one-week, bikeand-cruise package that went from Passau, Germany, to Vienna and Bratislava, Slovakia. The June weather ran from terrific to terribly hot! Highlights and high points: The Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, passes through beautiful, wooded hills in Germany, Austria and Slovakia, and is spotted with adorable villages. I marveled at the absence of the kind of litter and detritus we often see along riverbanks in the United States. Churches, castles and town halls echoed with the footsteps of Habsburg monarchs, Mozart and Napoleon’s armies. It was easy to absorb the history of the region in these marvelously preserved sites. Europe’s early history is on full display as well, as the Danube served as the northern border for much of the Roman Empire.
The farm fields of the Danube feed much of Germany, Austria and Slovakia, and we bicycled through endless fields of wheat, corn and poppies. The art and architecture of the abbeys, churches and royal buildings were breathtaking to view during our bicycling breaks in the various villages.
Alas, the area bore witness to both World Wars, including the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. One could also see the now-empty temporary housing units for the refugees that flowed into Central Europe in recent years. Cultural connection or disconnect: While aboard the riverboat, we had three scrumptious meals a day. I had to sit in the same lactose-free table seat at each meal to make sure I got the correct plate. My dining companions rotated their seats daily, so I was able to get to know and befriend the group quicker. The chef prepared appetizers, entrees, salads and desserts specifically for me. They were so enticing that some tablemates even asked to go lactosefree as well! Biggest laugh or cry: Our river barge was staffed primarily by young Slovakians, all of whom could easily speak German or English. On our last night, the staff performed a variety show for us, and the acts were primarily mimed to bridge the language gap. Their performance kept us in tears from laughing. How unexpected: We crossed the Austrian-Slovakian border several times on one of our bike tours. It was startling to see the remnants of the Cold War and the Communist era every time we crossed into Slovakia. Playgrounds still had rusty barbed-wire fences around them; crumbling bunkers were visible in the woods; and just outside Devin, we saw the British memorial to the Iron Curtain. From the terrace of Bratislava Castle, capitol of the Habsburgs for centuries, we could also still see the old CIA listening post in the distant hills. Favorite memento or memory: The Wachau Valley is Central Europe’s version of Napa Valley. Gorgeous villages, vineyards and apricot groves lined our bike trail, and offered many opportunities for wine and Marillen (apricot schnapps) tastings. Ferryboats across the Danube also sold this delicious, fruity liqueur.
The group became close and helped each other by reading maps, recommending places to see and, on two windy days, forming impromptu pelotons to help each other save energy by riding in the leader’s slipstream. By week’s end, the English speakers and the German speakers were all one big happy family.
Seventy years ago, my parents were prisoners of the Nazis. I marveled at how wonderful it was to be in the present, befriending individuals from 13 countries in these same lands. To tell us about your own trip, go to washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.
TOP: The author, looking out over Schlogen, Austria. ABOVE: Her view on a riverboat cruise down the Danube.