Day 1 -- Passau to Schlogen

We arrived in Passau on the evening before our bike tour was to begin. It was raining. It had been raining ever since I had arrived in Berlin three days earlier. The long range forecast was for rain every day. It was also rather cold.

We had taken a train from Berlin -- three trains, actually. I had my doubts that we could make our connections in Fulda and Nurenberg. We had 11 minutes for one connection and 5 minutes for the other. In the US it couldn't have been done, but the German train efficiency was impressive, and after about 8 pleasant hours on the trains we arrived in Passau.

I had the worry that when we arrived at the designated hotel they would say that they had never heard of us. Other than an itinerary, we had no paper proof of having paid for the bike tour. But in fact, we were greeted warmly. The woman at the counter immediately handed us room keys, an information packet, panniers and water bottles. I suppose she had done this hundreds or thousands of times before.

We handed her back the small red panniers. They were suitable for a day trip, but not to carry baggage for a week's tour. We had brought our own panniers, holding 2400 cubic inches, and intended to take our own luggage, rather than have it carted by the tour company from hotel to hotel. For the sake of pride we were going to lug about 25 pounds of extra stuff with us wherever we went. In addition to the panniers, which held all of our clothes and toiletries, we each had a handlebar bag for carrying cameras, guide books, and valuables. When I park my bike in a city, I take the handlebar bag with me. I could afford to have the panniers stolen, but not the handlebar bag.

We pawed through the information packet. It included a copy of the famous guide book to the Danube bike path, but since we each had bought copies months earlier, we returned this extra copy. (This turned out to be a mistake later when I lost my own precious copy.) In addition to the guide book there were detailed instructions on how to find the hotels each night. (Later we found those instructions to be almost totally useless.) There was a sheet of emergency telephone numbers and locations of bike repair shops along the path. There was a book of vouchers for the hotel rooms that we would use, and most surprising, there were two tickets for the subway in Vienna and train tickets from Vienna to Passau. We laughed at this latter discovery. Why would they give us train tickets to Passau after we had arrived at Passau?

After dumping our stuff in our rooms we went out for a walk in the light rain. I got my first view of the Danube. This river would be my constant friend for the coming week.

First view of the Danube -- in the rain at Passau

Earlier that morning I had run into a friend in the hotel lobby in Berlin. When I had said that I was going to Passau, he was enthusiastic. "Did you know that the church there has the largest organ in the world?" he asked. No, actually I hadn't known that, but now that I did, I felt that I should check this out. We walked up a hill overlooking the river to the large church that dominated the city.

St. Stephans Church in Passau -- Housing the World's Largest Organ

I wanted to see the organ in St. Stephans, but the door to the church was locked. However, there was a sign saying that there was an organ concert at 6:45pm. We debated -- organ concert or dinner? Dinner won. I never did see the organ, although after dinner I heard bits of the concert through the locked doors. It's supposed to have 17,388 pipes. Use your imagination.

We got an ice cream cone in town after dinner, which became a kind of ritual for the rest of our trip. While we ate the cones we debated: were we in Germany or Austria? I thought Austria; Len thought Germany. We hesitated to ask anyone. How stupid would that be? "Could you tell us, please, what country we're in?" We checked license plates, but saw both countries represented. Len suggested we look for signs about URLs -- would they be "de" or "at"? We saw both. Later we decided we were still in Germany.

The next morning dawned darkish and threatening rain. So what was new? We were supposed to meet with the tour guide in another hotel at 8:30am. We loaded up our panniers, filled our water bottles, and carried our handlebar bags four or five blocks over to a hotel across from the train station. Inside, we were told that the meeting with the tour guide would be in the upstairs bar, where we waited for the appointed hour.

Slowly the bar room filled up with the other bikers -- all older couples. Len and I were feeling a little sheepish about being in such a group. No one said anything. No one looked at anyone else. I counted 16 people in all. Shortly after 8:30am, a youngish man walked in swinging an empty pannier. Len and I decided afterwards that the pannier was a stage prop.

The tour guide started brusquely with a spiel in German. Soon he was interrupted by a white-haired man at a center table. "In English, please," he said. I was glad someone else had asked, but I also was willing for the whole thing to be in German and to go out without learning anything. That way we could still be innocent of the package thing.

After all the emergency instructions, the guide gave directions on some various parts of the trail. I wasn't paying much attention, and it didn't look like anyone else was either. "Now let's get the bikes," the guide said. Those were the magic words -- we would have our freedom.

Later Len and I were chuckling about how the guide probably felt about us. We imagined him saying to himself, "Now let's get the bikes, and I never want to see you again." The guide looked like a real biker being made to meet with a bunch of amateurs and wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.

The group walked out of the hotel, down a sidestreet and into a kind of warehouse. There were the bikes.

Lots of bikes to choose from

This was bike heaven! We had worried about the quality of the bikes, but these were just fine. Moreover, there had been some confusion about our reservation for bikes, and I may have accidentally cancelled our reservation by email. No matter -- the bikes stretched as far as we could see.

Len and I picked out a couple of 21-speed bikes with frame sizes that matched our needs. We wheeled them out into a parking lot by the river and began to mount our equipment -- the handlebar bags, our GPSs, and the panniers. Soon we were fully equipped and ready to go. I complained cheerfully about the combination bike lock that I had been given. Each bike lock had a metal disk permanently attached with a coded combination. In the information packet was a table of how to convert the alphabetic characters on the metal disk to the numerals on the three rotating tabs of the bike lock. The code for my combination was "AHH". Well, this code could be broken inside of one minute. Since you know the last two digits are the same, all you have to do is to try the ten possibilities of the first digit, then holding the other two tabs together spin them while pulling the lock to see if it will open. One minute, tops. Since the bike was a rental, I didn't consider it my problem, not that I seriously thought anyone would try to crack the lock. The whole country was awash with these rental bikes!

The bikes are loaded and ready to go

Right away I had a serious disappointment. The GPS I had mounted on my handlebar didn't show anything on the screen except the country outline of Germany. I had gone to a lot of trouble in loading all the relevant detailed street maps of the territory that we would bike, using the Garmin MapSource software back home in New Jersey. Now that the GPS was actually where it was supposed to know about, it apparently knew nothing. On the other hand, Len's GPS (a better model, I might add) showed all the streets around us. Len and I messed with mine, changing options and so forth, but nothing showed up.

Of course, I hardly needed the GPS to follow a river, but that's part of the fun, and I felt cheated. So off we went with Len and his good GPS leading the way. No sooner had I gotten a few blocks but the odometer that had been supplied with my bike quit working. Something in the wiring was bad, and there was no fixing it. All of my props were collapsing about me, and we hadn't even started!

The first order of business was to cross the river to the north bank at the suspension bridge in Passau. This much we had gotten from the guide. We biked along the river bank, threading our way precariously through a lot of pedestrians who were swarming about the tour boats parked there.

A Danube tour boat approaches the Passau bridge

The bike lane across the bridge at Passau

Soon we were clear of the traffic from Passau and began to bike along a solitary path along the river.

The bike path near Passau

If it looks like I'm headed the wrong direction, it's because I turned around for this picture. Soon after this we saw several statues on the bank of the river. I thought these would be a commonplace, but in fact we seldom saw anything similar in the days to come.

A stone mermaid waits by the river bank

Now that we had established that Passau was in Germany, we were checking the maps for the Austrian border. It should be around here somewhere, and Len's GPS confirmed this. We had just crossed the border without any fanfare or even any sign. I was wondering what they did about customs on the bike path before the EU was formed. I still don't know.

I thought I'd check my useless GPS to see if it at least knew about the border. When I turned it on, I got a pleasant surprise.

My GPS comes to life as I cross the Austrian border

See the crosshatch on my GPS display on the upper left? That was Germany. It turns out that my GPS knew nothing about Germany, but now that we were in Austria it was prepared to be informative. Now you can see the black outline of the Danube snaking downwards on the display. I was back in business with knowing where I was! Moreover, the weather had started to turn beautiful. The day had started bleak, but now we took off our jackets and basked in a warming sun and a sky turning blue and cloudless.

We stopped at a Penny Markt -- a grocery store -- to buy something for lunch. We bought some fruit, rolls, and slices of ham. The whole thing only cost a couple of euros and made a good meal. This set the tone for the rest of our trip, where each day we'd find a grocery store and get a cheap good lunch.

The guide book said that there was a monastery worth seeing on the opposite bank of the river. Also, we could see that there was a little ferry that would take us across, and we wanted the experience of using one of the little ferries. At first we rode past the ferry, which looked rather small and forlorn, but then we returned and pushed our bikes down the ramp. A woman in a little shack on the boat took our money -- 3 euros for the roundtrip -- and started the small boat across the river.

A bike ferry crosses the Danube

On the opposite shore we visited the Engelszell monastery.

Interior of the Engelszell Monastery

I think our trip across the river got the ferry-lady into business for the day. When other bikers saw us going across, they started to line up to cross also. It looked like fun.

We returned to the north bank using the ferry again and had a pleasant run along the river on a bike path for another four or five miles.

Typical path on the Danube near Schlogen

The day has turned beautiful

Soon we reached the loop in the Danube at Schlogen. This is where the Danube makes a hairpin turn and curves back on itself before returning once again to flow eastward. It was also where our hotel was located for the first night. Since we knew our hotel was on the south side of the river, we took another ferry -- a bigger one -- across to the right bank. We could see a large hotel on the far shore, but I didn't think that was ours.

Len checked his hotel listing against the name of the hotel, the Donauslinge, and found that it matched. We were there! I checked the mileage on my GPS. It was only 27.4. This was the shortest day of the trip, which meant that other days would be longer runs to make up for the shortfall.

After checking into our rooms, the first order of business was drinking a celebratory beer on the porch overlooking the Danube.


Celebrating our arrival at the hotel in Schlogen

Later we ate dinner at this same place. While we ate, we saw a succession of tour boats cruising up and down the Danube. They were all almost empty. I counted only a dozen people on one boat that would have held close to a thousand. I suppose the awful weather before this day had kept the tourists away. In the clear evening sky we could see the contrails of airplanes heading west. Where were they going, we wondered? Maybe Paris.

A succession of tour boats works the Danube

We were entertained while we ate outside on the porch by a group of tourists inside the restaurant, singing Austrian folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. All the songs sounded the same to me, and they went on for hours. They were all white-haired people with big smiles. Their enthusiasm was infectious. We could see their big tour bus parked outside behind the hotel.

It was time to go to bed. It had been a great day. As usual, the forecast for the morrow was more rain. Fortunately, it was not to be!

Proceed to Day 2 of the Danube trip

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