From the river's source in Germany down to the Black Sea it is about 1.800 miles. The Danube flows through ten countries along this route today. As a cyclist, you will most probably be interested in the Danube's course through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.
This bike tour's rightful popularity arises from a great concentration of diverse views, and from tourist sights that bring new variety on each day of a ride. Additionally, one rides upon wide bike paths (or very minor roads) apart from traffic, usually right alongside the river.
Worries about the Danube Route
These were our initial worries: the trip was too easy, it was too crowded, and the scenery would be monotonously the same for the length of the river.
As it turned out, there was some small truth in each of these worries, but none was nearly as bad as we had anticipated. As for the path being easy -- there is no doubt that it is. It is advertised as completely flat, slightly downhill, and with the wind at your back as you bike east. What could be easier? However, I wouldn't say that it is completely flat. There are numerous ramps where there are short, moderately steep ramps rising 10 to 20 feet, and there are several steep climbs up to bridges. There is one day (of the six) when biking through the Wachau (wine-growing) region where the path leaves the river for moderate climbs among towns, orchards, and vineyards. But if you really want hills, take any of the recommended sightseeing excursions. If you want to visit a monastery, a castle, or a museum -- well, they are all perched high on hills overlooking the river.
As for being downhill -- the path descends a total of about 400 feet in the space of 230 miles. I'd call this flat. And I waited for the wind at my back, but for at least two of the six days that we cycled the wind was noticeably in our faces. For another three days there was seemingly no wind at all, and on one day we had a tail wind. We noticed a lot of bikers heading the opposite direction, i.e., west, but there is no doubt that most traffic does go west to east, because the tour operators truck the bikes back from Vienna to Passau.
I had read that the Danube bike path is very crowded in the summer months, and that since all riders start from the same intermediary points (the same hotels) at about the same time, there are traffic jams on the path. As it turned out, this worry was greatly exaggerated. The path was reasonably crowded, particularly near the towns on the weekends, but there were other long stretches when we wouldn't see another cyclist for perhaps ten minutes. We did get in "synch" with certain other small groups that we would encounter from time to time, but we never saw any of our own tour group after the first morning. About once an hour we would be passed, or would pass, a "peloton" of perhaps 20 to 30 cyclists, and every fifteen minutes or so a solitary biker, looking like he was doing the Tour de France, would pass us at great speed. On balance, I wouldn't have called the path particularly crowded.
As for the scenery being monotonous, I didn't find this to be the case. You can check the photos given here in the links to the descriptions of each day's travel. About half the path has a certain uniformity, where you are cycling alongside the river on a dedicated bike path. Ahead you see a castle perched on a hill on the opposite side of the river. A swan waits near the bank as you cycle by. On the opposite shore you see small, ant-like figures that are cyclists like you on the path across the river. It may have a sameness, but it also has a calming beauty.
Moreover, the path has more diversity than I had anticipated. It often departs from the river, going through small forests, farm fields, and charming little towns.
I was never bored.
The Danube Cycle Path
The Danube cycle path is said to be the most popular and most beautiful bike ride in Europe. I couldn't argue with either of these judgments. The path begins in Passau, a town in Germany near the Austrian border. It continues through Austria to Vienna, a distance of about 230 miles. For most of this distance there are dedicated bike paths on both sides of the river. The trip is usually done in six days, so the average daily distance is about 40 miles.
The route of the Danube bike path from Passau to Vienna
This map is taken from the guide book that nearly everyone we saw cycling on the path had on their handlebars.
The Guide to the Danube Bike Trail
This guide is indispensible to anyone biking the Danube. It can be ordered over the Internet or bought anywhere along the bike path. I lost my copy during the trip and bought another (in English) at a tiny book store in a tiny town. They had a whole pile of them.
This guide book has detailed (1:50,000) maps of the entire route. That is, one centimeter equals a kilometer, or about one and a quarter inches to a mile. A typical page is shown below:
Typical page in the guide, showing about six miles of the route
The guide book has a ring binder and is sized to fit on a map holder or handlebar bag. I had a lot of trouble keeping mine mounted correctly, but that's another story.
In addition to the detailed maps, the guide book has listings of tourist attractions and descriptions of the route. However, it isn't perfect, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how it could be improved. One thing that was particularly frustrating was the division of maps and descriptions into left-bank and right-bank sections of the book. Unfortunately, the river divides the world into two disjoint halves. You can only cross the river on bridges or ferries that are irregularly spaced at about five mile intervals. So as you bike the constant question you are asking is: which side of the river is it better to be on here? While you are asking this question you are leafing back and forth to whole different sections of the guide, which tries usually to be completely agnostic on the question of which side is better.
One simple change they could make in the guide would be to have the maps use the same legend for both sides of the river. For example, the map page shown above (map 36) is for the right, or south, bank of the river. Consequently, the color codes of the path are only correct on that side of the river on this map. The purple coloring of the bike route along the river indicates that it is a dedicated bike path. But what about the path on the opposite side? Well, for that you have to turn to (you fumble around) map 25.
In addition to being non-judgmental about sides of the river, the guide is fairly non-judgmental about the relative attractiveness of the tourist attractions. For example, the monastery at Melk is a world-class attraction, but gets about the same coverage as very minor monuments. How are you to know?
Although the guide contains descriptions of the path, they seemed pretty useless ("After the gardens the path becomes quite narrow -- stay to the left of the tracks -- behind an old warehouse to the sidestreet -- after crossing the main road take the bicycle path towards Achleiten....") I can't imagine anyone actually reading this while biking, nor can I imagine any value in reading this before biking. In fact, both Len and I found that we couldn't actually read the guide before the trip. It just isn't something you sit down and read.
I don't mean to bash this guide too much. The maps are invaluable, and so are the numerous descriptions of attractions along the way.
Before cycling the path I had the idea that there was a straight, dedicated bike path on each side of the river for the entire length of the path. In my mind I saw this path stretching out to infinity. Well, it isn't so. There are runs of perhaps ten miles where you have an uninterrupted bike path, but soon the path runs into a road, and for a while you share the road with cars (always, however, a minor road). Then for a while the path might be a sidewalk adjoining a major highway. At other times the path would leave the river and circle through farms and orchards. It's probably better that way. Variety is the spice of life.
It's even possible to get lost, at least temporarily. Not only did Len and I have the detailed maps, but we both had GPSs mounted on our handlebars with good maps of the entire area. At all times we could see exactly where we were. Also the signs along the bike path are generally quite good. Moreover, all you have to do is follow the river. How could you go wrong? Nonetheless, Len and I found a way to make several wrong turns each day. We were never lost for long, though. One of us would observe that on the GPS we seemed to be heading the wrong direction. Retracing our route, we would find that we had missed a sign, or perhaps the sign itself was missing. Of course, these were always times when the route had left the river.