Noth­ing blue about the Danube

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Travel@wash­post.com

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.

COUR­TESY OF ALEXAN­DRA FAIR­FIELD

ALEXAN­DRA FAIR­FIELD

TOP: The au­thor, look­ing out over Schlo­gen, Aus­tria. ABOVE: Her view on a river­boat cruise down the Danube.

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