Cheryl and I were up early on Sunday morning. We each packed an overnight backpack, grabbed some breakfast (same great food and same crappy music), stored our luggage (we were returning to Vienna on Monday), checked out of our hotel and were on a train to Melk (in the Waccau Valley) by 8:30. Just over one hour later, we were standing on the platform at the Melk train station greeted by the amazing chimes of the Melk Abbey calling everyone to Sunday morning service. The chimes were absolutely beautiful.
Once off the train, we located the NextBike location right in front of the train platform. NextBike is the national bike rental company that allows you to rent bikes in one location and return them to another. The premise and the actual working program are simple, efficient and easy to use. Before we left the U.S., I set up a NextBike account providing NextBike with my credit card info and my telephone number. Once we reached the NextBike location (a bunch of bikes locked up with a sign that read NextBike and no human worker in site), we selected our bikes, called the NextBike hotline, inputted the bike numbers attached to the bikes, were given a code to release the locks on our selected bikes by the nice Austrian robot and presto … we were in business.
Now the plan was to ride our bikes along the Danube River through the beautiful Waccau Valley from Melk to Durnstein. The Waccau Valley is the wine region of Austria and I had read that the bike ride through the vineyards to Durnstein was one of the highlights of any trip to Austria. The ride was approximately 20 miles, a fact I did not tell Cheryl since I was afraid she would be scared off. So once we got our bikes and found the trail, I finally told Cheryl it would take us about 3 1/2 hours to ride to Durnstein. She seemed fine with it, although I suspect she was wondering how she was going to make the entire 20 miles.
Anyway, the guidebooks all recommended that you set off on the south side of the Danube, cut across at Spitz (just over the half way point to Durnstein) and then continue from Spitz to Durnstein. As luck would have it though we actually didn’t have a choice since the trail from Melk to Spitz on the north side was blocked for the Waccau Valley Marathon. Turned out to be a huge bonus for the trip because each of the little villages on the north side of the Danube had bands and music playing as the marathoners passed through their village so while we road on the south side, we could hear the music. Score!
The first part of our bike ride was through forest and along the banks of the Danube (watch out for beavers). The Danube was very fast moving and we were riding downstream with the current. We saw a number of river cruise boats (think Viking River Cruises) going in both directions as well a barrages and a couples small pleasure boats. We passed through a few villages and paralleled the road at times. We only hit one hill, but for the most part the ride was flat and easy. We finally reached the crossing point to Spitz, but had to wait about 20 minutes for the ferry as we just missed the boat.
Now the ferry to Spitz is not the type of ferry you would see on the waters of the Puget Sound or departing from Schwartz Bay to Tsawassen. This thing was barely big enough to hold two cars (which it did) on the flat deck, which was slightly smaller than half of a basketball court. The trip across the Danube took all of 10 minutes and when we reached the other side, the marathon was in full mode. There was music, and police directing traffic, and runners, runners and more runners. There was finally a break in the runners and we were able to cross the road with our bikes, and ride around the town for a bit looking for a place to rest and have a bite to eat for lunch.
We immediately learned that Austria shuts down on Sundays and but for the marathon, I am not certain we would have found a restaurant for lunch. Not to worry though, there was a restaurant right beside the course catering to the marathon crowd so we sat down, ordered a couple Gosser beer, a plate of meat, cheese and dark bread with some spreads as well as bread toasted with cheese and tomatoes. Given that we had just ridden about 12 miles, we figured we earned our calorie laden lunch.
The meal turned out to be wonderful and we watched the last of the marathoners pass as we finished up. We paid for the meal (nice waitress), unlocked our bikes, found the trail connector and set off again. Now this part of the ride was something else. Village after village with amazing churches, tyrolian style houses, vineyards and tiny little heurigers (the family owned winery and restaurant).
What was particularly awesome were the vineyards built into the hillsides. How they pick those grapes is beyond me. I think it is safe to say that the scenery we passed was simply indescribable (so I will let a couple of the pictures do the talking). Needless to say, the trip far surpassed even my expectations.
We finally pulled into Durnstein at about 3:00 p.m. (We actually caught up to the last of the marathoners and cheered this elderly lady on as she shuffled through Durnstein.) Anyway, after finding the NextBike rack and calling in our location (by site number) to return the bikes, we set off on foot up the hill to our hotel: Hotel Schloss Durnstein. This was one of those “wow” hotels. Set high above the Danube we were given a room with an amazing view, antique furniture and very comfortable beds. We set our baggage down and promptly collapsed on the beds.
Two and half hours later we awoke. Yep, we were a little weary. I immediately put my hiking boots back on and told Cheryl we were going to hike up the to ruins of Burgruine Dürnstein, the ancient crusader castle atop Durnstein. Cheryl looked at me like I was nuts, but she agreed to go along with me. We wandered through the narrow alleys in Durnstein to the end of the old city gate, took a left and looked up (wayyyyyyyy up) to our destination. It was going to be a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, the path up to the top was a back and forth switchback, which made the steep climb a little easier. (There were two ways up: stone stairs or the path. We opted for the path.)
Now the Burgruine Castle was no ordinary castle. It is famous because the English king, Richard the Lion Hearted was imprisoned there between December 1192 and March 1193 following his capture when he was returning form the 3rd crusade. I won’t go into all the political wrangling about why Richard was captured, but suffice is to say that he pissed off Duke Leopold V of Austria during the Crusades and Leopold had Richard arrested and imprisoned when he made the mistake of returning to England through Austria. Richard was held prisoner at Dürnstein Castle until he was finally released to the German Emperor, Heinrich IV.
Anyway, Cheryl and I made the 20 plus minute hike up the mountain and got to the top just as the sun was setting. The view was spectacular. (I think Cheryl got over the fact she had to hike all the way to the top once she saw the view.) We walked around the ruins. Saw the cell where it is believed Richard was imprisoned, took a bunch of pictures and then decided it was time to head down this hill. This time we took the stairs down and boy am I glad we hiked up the pathway. The stairs were missing in many places, were slippery in other places and just plain dangerous.
Anyway, after some careful stepping we made it back down to the old town and wandered the narrow alleyways for a bit. Most of the shops had closed. (Unlike other towns in the Waccau Valley, the Durnstein shops were open on Sunday because it was the main stopping point for all the Danube river cruises. Fortunately, all the day trippers had gone by the time Cheryl and I were out and about (although we ran into a “boatload” of them as we were returning our bikes when we arrived in Durnstein). I have nothing against folks who pop into towns on cruises. The problem is they all arrive at once and it makes for a very crowded environment.
However, like I said, they had all left and we had the town pretty much to ourselves. We finally headed back to the hotel and decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. I had read that the restaurant was a 4 to 5 star treasure and the reviews were spot on. We had a five course meal complete with prosecco and apricot juice as an apertiff (unbelievably yummy), a fish appetizer, warm caesar salad (I had prawns and Cheryl had mushrooms on top of the salad), a spicy coconut Thai soup (awesome), pumpkin ravioli with mushrooms, and gelato for desert (I had banana and Cheryl had kiwi – Cheryl’s was better). We also drank a bottle of 2007 Riesling from one of the local wineries. It was simply a superb meal. The portions were perfect and the service was impeccable. It was a fabulous way to end a tiring, but incredible day.