Last weekend, Beloved and I rode our bikes along the Danube river in Austria. It was one of our best multi-day bike trips we’ve had so far. With just enough clothes for two nights out in our Panniers we rolled at a leisurely pace down the north side of the river. I’m slow and we took our time anyway. I love seeing the world go by at a bike pace. It is still a very human time frame for examining the country side, the river, the birds, the sky, the clouds, the path, the farmer harvesting the wheat in his or her combine.
I like knowing I can cover distance under my own personal power. Maybe not fast (that would be the bikes who pass us and who look like they took a long detour from the Tour de France) but persistent. And then, (bonus!) I find out I can do more then I thought I could. On the last day I took on a sustained gentle slope for a mile and at the same gear as when I’m on the flat path. (does a little victory hand dance). I’m not a lazy slob, just a slow but steady rider.
The Danube is one of Europe’s big rivers, especially as it leaves Passau and heads toward Vienna and Budapest. A canal links the Danube to the Main and Rhein rivers which means both tourist crafts and commercial shipping can run from Amsterdam to the Black Sea but most tourist runs end in Budapest. I became fascinated with the river traffic that powered past us in the current. These boats were huge – one even had an overgrown hot tub on the back end. It looked like some sort of meta moment of floating in water while floating on water. Later, I looked up the fleet and the routes and the cost of the floating vacations. I think its a nice way to see a cross section of Europe as well as the spectacular Columbia River Gorge like scenery but I loved being on my bike more. We rolled through farm house yards, alongside the fields of maturing corn and harvest ready string beans. We rumbled over the cobble streets of farm villages. We saw the river and its edges up close and personal.
I think that is one of the gifts of our extended life here in Germany. We get to see Europe at a human speed that allows for thoughtful observation. We rolled past a house where the front yard had been given over to a giant garden gnome party. We rolled through the center of towns filled with small stores and cafes. People just sitting out and visiting with each other. We saw houses sharing walls with the barn and the whole structure lined with brilliantly red geraniums rioting out of their window boxes. We are passed by men and women twenty years our senior, their marketing basket on the front handles, thank you very much. We stayed in a pension in a small town where the owners took off on their bikes for a local music festival, telling us that we’d settle the dinner bill in the morning when we checked out. We saw an ongoing love for an old fishing dingy style, passing hand crafted boat yards along the way. The smell of fresh wood flashed into our noses much like sometimes flashed the evidence of a cow farm or a freshly mowed lawn.
What we did not see was as many other bike riders as I thought we would see. I had heard that this part of the river is very popular and sometimes crazy crowded. Yet, on a great weather weekend in Mid-Summer we were on our own for significant stretches of our ride. I don’t have the exact numbers but I think tourism everywhere in Europe as well as along the Danube Bike path is taking a hit. Recent British media headlines have declared that since the value of the Pound has dropped (due to Brexit), the Brits have discovered the joy of the staycation.
I think its a long way for Americans to come spend their short vacation breaks on the river and perhaps a bit daunting to arrange the details if one hasn’t been to Europe before. I think everyone in Europe is staying closer to home because the world, even the back yard of the world, has turned a bit scary right now. Where are the bombs going to explode next? Or the big truck drive rolling down a closed festival street? Or the kid, the 18 year old kid with multiple mental health hospitalizations, where is he going to show up with an axe, a knife, or a gun next? This is a tough year for realizing just how close we all stand to unexpected outbreaks of chaotic violence.
The Danube winds through some steep hills and even cliffs down river from Passau. There are castles and palaces built up on top of several strategic positions where the local baron could keep an eye out for taxable river commerce as well as unfriendly invading armies. The now crumbling stone buildings reminded me of other deeply troubled times of war and random violence. The fortresses could be seen as beacons of safety and protection or sources of danger and death, or even all of the above, depending on who was doing the looking. Random mass violence was not invented this century. One thing about careful observation in Europe is that there’s always something near by to remind us of how both good times and bad times come and go over the centuries. Which kind of times we experience is in part governed by when we are born, and what is now, changes and changes again.
Beloved and I were born in a time when the current rate of murder is about 1 out of 100,000 people in Germany. That rate was closer to 50/100,000 when the castles were first built.
Beloved and I were born in a time when it is possible to ride our bikes as a form of recreation, tourism, exploration, and exercise along one of the mother rivers of Europe.
It is a beautiful ride.
It is a great time to be alive.