Trains and Bikes

Travel and the Unexpected

While waiting for my train from Munich to Vienna I sat at a counter at a small sandwich bar watching a woman make the sandwiches I had been eating.

A cuddly, cheery dame, with tuckshop ladies’ arms and a sumo’s waistline, she was meticulous in donning a new pair of latex gloves every time she returned to the task of layering cheese and tomato and salami and rocket onto sliced baguettes. A little concerning, however, was her habit (and perhaps explaining her generous Michelin tyre shape) of nibbling on her donut as she worked, licking the sugar off her fingers, and popping left-over crusts of bread into her mouth … and then going back to the task in hand – or in mouth.

7a-onion-dome-churchThe train left on time – of course – and zoomed through pretty Bavarian countryside of endless cornfields, little villages and onion-topped churches. Shaggy sheep and horses were corralled behind temporary electric fences while contented clotted cream brown and white cows lazed and dozed in larger fields beside pretty houses with geranium-filled window boxes. Tiny red Opel Corsas scuttled along dirty roads between farms. Near Salzburg we saw a nun with a dirty habit gambolling up random hills while singing geographical songs:

– The hills are alive …

A quick lunch …

 Lunch on board was a bit of a treat with a local Domäne Wachau Riesling and a traditional Viennese paprika chicken dish with buttered noodles, as the countryside silently slid by at 235 kmh. This sort of thing gives a whole new meaning to fast food. We slowed to a relatively sedate 195 kmh when passing through stations and occasional tunnels. Distributed through the carriage there were route timetables that showed the arrival and departure times at each intermediate stop. An overhead video display let us know not only the speed of the excellent OBB Rail Jet, but also the time to the next station and the estimated time of arrival.6a-train-timetable

People speak of Swiss efficiency but this journey saw us arrive and depart on the minute with only one exception. In Thailand, my adopted country, the rail services are not quite so punctual or predicable and arrival times are usually measured by the approximate day.

–        Tuesday morning’s train is now expected to arrive tomorrow.

The last couple of hours of the journey were through increasingly heavy rain and I rather feared an unpleasant day following my arrival as I had booked to go on a bicycle tour through Vienna’s Wachau Valley and its numerous vineyards and wineries. Although the rain continued for the rest of the day – my first day in Vienna – the Big Bike Day was as close to perfect as I could have hopes, with blue skies, mid-twenties temperatures and a gentle breeze.

About twenty of us gathered at the city office of the bike company (www.viennaexplorer.com) where our guides, Jose from Spain and Marco from Italy, gathered the group of Americans, Colombians, a newly-married couple of Scots and a sprinkling of others from New Zealand, Australia and Italy, and took us to the nearby Underground station, then to the mainline station for the hour-long train out to Krems on the Danube, the starting point of the ride and where we collected bicycles and set off … wobbling even before the wine tastings. Perhaps it was because of the old cobblestones and even older knees.

En Route

 4a-grapesAfter quite a short ride we arrived at the Domäne Wachau winery. Perhaps it was not really a coincidence that I had tried their wine the day before: this place turns out about seven million bottles of booze each year, using the grapes from many small independent vineyards in the area. Harvesting at some of the vineyards had just started when we were there in September. (www.domaene-wachau.at) Their main wines are varietals from the Grüner Veltliner grape but they also do a Riesling or two and some apricot liqueurs.

Sniff, sip, gargle, spit

–        Oh – sorry – forgot to spit. Next time, I promise.

I was reminded of a wine tour I was part of several years ago in Germany. A group of Australian school Admissions Officers, Registrars and hangers-on were guests of the Australian Trade Commission for a series of education expos and trade fairs, but to get a feel – and a taste – of the country, our first day was spent exploring several wineries along the route to our first trade show. I forget the name of the particular vineyard where we went through a series of natural underground caves in which the wine was stored. Our local tour guide – a tiny, energetic grey-haired frau – explained how some of the caves had a type of fungus growing on the walls and that this fungus was responsible for giving the wines a unique flavour. We were asked to “drink to the fungus” in the first cave as she topped up our tumblers with the local drop. By the time we tried the fourth or fifth tumbler of wine, drinking all the while to the fungus our elfish guide was quite tipsy

  • Lesh dhrink to zhe fungass!
  • Lesh dhring to zhe fungass! We all chorused

Lunch yesterday – no fungus – was in the lovely small village of Dürnstein, high above the Danube River and sheltering below the ruins of the castle where, in 1192, King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) was held prisoner by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. From the village it is a very steep 700 or more steps to the ruins and I got as far as the path that leads back to the village or further up into the castle itself – perhaps another 700 steps – and decided that lunch was a better idea.1a-richard-lionheart-castle-durnstein

There is, of course, a Richard-themed hotel in town: the romantic Hotel Richard Löwenherz is a four-star place offering better food and softer beds that the old king would have had in the twelfth century.

Off after lunch – breezing down a lovely long downhill slope, although one of the women from Chicago said that she was going to need more than a breeze behind her to get back up the hill on the return. More vineyards and pretty villages popped up until we reached the compact and historic town of Weissenkirchen, dominated by the thirteenth century towers of its white churches.

The Familie Hermenegild Mang winery (www.weingut-hermenegild-mang.at) has a beautiful garden where Jose and Marco worked as our taste guides, leading us through three or four more whites and a surprisingly nice red.

Sniff, sip, gargle, spit

–        Oh – sorry – forgot to spit. Next time, I promise. Really!

3a-vineyardsThe return to Krems was surprisingly easy as we stayed closer to the riverbanks and by-passed the steep hills up to Dürnstein. We stopped for the obligatory group photo and a bit more Grüner Veltliner at a river landing. As well as sunscreen and hats and suitable cycling clothes (no one wore Lycra!) we had been told that there would be an opportunity to swim in the Danube, and this stop was it. But as the river was both very cold and very fast, no one did more than dip a toe or two. Perhaps next time I can go skinny dipping in the Danube! It certainly would have been a shock to the ancient citizens waddling down the riverside path back to their Danube cruise ship.

Ships that pass in the night …

It is interesting how a group comes together for a specific purpose – a bike ride and a wine tasting – and then disperses. I was soon to leave for Zagreb and Croatia. The Kiwi was leaving that night on a train to Cinque Terre in Italy, the oldest couple – 70-year-old retired NY school teachers – were off to Rome and a cruise through the Greek islands, and the sunburned newly-weds were going back to Scotland at the end of their two-week honeymoon and back to work. Paths cross and divide but I am pretty sure I will not make any attempt to renew my acquaintance with the two couples from Chicago where the murder rate has today hit new heights.

Thirty or so kilometres in the saddle left a few numb bumbs, but the fungus and the Grüner Veltliner helped the pain go away after a really lovely day. And as my sister-in-law Denise (an enthusiastic bicycle traveller) said:

–        Be careful: you might get addicted to touring by bike!

I can see how easy it is to find delight in the simple things. And I can’t wait to do another tour by bike – with or without wine – or fungus.

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Featured image at left shows the writer and a friend cooling off after the bike ride …

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  • Journey: September 2016
  • Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016
  • If you enjoyed this story please scroll down to see earlier stories and forward the blog address to your friends hallomega.com
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