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Biking the Bends of Danube in Austria, Hungary

June 07, 1987|ARTHUR J. WEITZMAN | Weitzman is a Massachusetts college professor .

BUDAPEST, Hungary — "Not blue at all," she said, as we wheeled along the levee, the Danube on our left.

"I would call it gray-green, but still impressive."

Earlier that morning my wife, Catherine, and I had left Linz (the city that gave the world the Linzertorte and a Mozart symphony) on a two-week jaunt down this mighty river through Austria and Hungary on two high-tech multispeed bikes.

Destination: Budapest. Mission: Savor an adventure under our own steam alongside this mighty waterway.

The clever Austrians had built banks of earth along most of this river plain to contain periodic flooding, and on the top had laid macadam paths for cyclists and walkers. These lanes are called treppelweg (towpath), on which at one time plodding horses dragged a barge. Now they provide magnificent views of both the river and the vast alluvial landscape of meadows, farms and woods.

As we rolled past the rich vegetation and wildflowers in the July sun, our sole companions for miles were the swans drifting along the water, the paddle-wheel steamer leisurely navigating the current, an occasional knot of children skipping along the path, or strolling lovers.

In Lovely Linz

The day before, we had boarded the Trans-Alpin Express in Basel with bicycles safely deposited in the baggage car (for a small fee), and arrived as daylight waned in lovely Linz to find a gasthaus and good food at a restaurant.

The first leg of the journey crossed the river to the north bank and turned east. Towns such as Mauthausen, Grein, Krems, Melk and Tullin are all conveniently within a day's biking distance of each other, 35 to 45 miles.

The day had been spent crisscrossing the river as we sought the treppelweg, thus bypassing main truck-bearing roads. A grim reminder of the Nazi past came up in Mauthausen, where a concentration camp had operated in the quarries near the center of town. People understandably were reluctant to point out the direction to this relapse into barbarism. The village exhibited all the serene charm of rural Austria.

Our favorite was Grein, a cobblestone village with an ornate well in the town square, pastel houses and flowers festooning every window.

Arriving in late afternoon and downing a beer at a cafe, we were seduced by its picturesque scene and in no mood to push the pedals another 10 or so miles to the next stop, so we settled in at the convenient Pension Martha, where a comfortable and spotless room with bath cost 340 schillings ($25 U.S.).

Comfortable Inns

Our manner of two-wheel travel does not envision sleeping on the ground under the stars or in a tent when it rains. Sleeping and cooking gear do not weigh down our panniers (saddlebags on front and back of the bicycles). We seek out comfortable inns, guest houses and even two- or three-star splurges for layovers of a day or two.

Nor is our pace comparable to the Tour de France (Europe's marathon bike race). We leisurely poke into this village or that and regularly break for coffee and pastry at the ubiquitous cafes or pubs.

In the next few days our thin bike wheels negotiated a varied terrain of treppelweg, Alpine lanes in the Wachau district near Krems, and ordinary farm roads approaching Tullin. In Melk, at an immense monastery on a brow overlooking the Danube, we glimpsed the splendors of the Austrian baroque style. Drab yellow masonry outside signals no warning of the riot of red and cream Italian marble, religious paintings and gilded columns inside.

In Touch With Nature

After this visual orgy, we felt more in touch with nature in the wine-growing Wachau, often compared to the Rhine with its castles. Treppelweg gave way to back roads, leafy steep banks and terraced vineyards. Straw wheels festooned with ribbons were on display at rustic huts along the way to announce that new wine was ready.

"What sort of wine are you serving?" I asked a white-garbed saleswoman at one of these shops in Rossatz. Instead of answering, she gave us pearly glasses of wine, a very dry white. It cost about 40 cents and was wonderfully refreshing, but one must be careful not to have too much while pedaling. Wine at dinner was another matter.

Food becomes an obsession of a touring biker who burns up more than 300 calories an hour.

Fortunately, Austrian cuisine, a cross between German and Italian, can satisfy the lustiest of appetites. We generally like to picnic for lunch, and every village sold sourdough black bread, cheese, salami (our lunch, for example, in Mauthausen) which we could take to a cafe and wash down with a brew.

Stepped Up Intake

At night we stepped up our intake in restaurants, sampling specialties such as fogash (fish from Lake Balaton in Hungary), served in our inn at Hainburg, and finishing up with palacinka smothered in elderberries.

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