Day 14 – Through fields of sunflowers

The trip is certainly entering the second phase. No more wide, smooth and well signposted trails; now signage is sporadic, where the track exists it is rough cycling, and very often you are just on the road with traffic. And cyclists now are few and far between. Also, communication is a challenge.

After about 10km this morning, passing through a village, I decided to stop for breakfast. A small grocery store seemed to be doing a brisk trade, so I stood in line with the local housewives. I struck it lucky it seemed, as on the wall was a sign offering latte and cappuccino and behind the counter was a mountain of rolls and a well stocked deli counter. This has to be a dawdle. When it came to my turn I said a cheery ‘Hello’. ‘A coffee please’. To which she replied ‘Dah’. A coffee please, a cappuccino.’Dah’. Pointing to the board ‘cappuccino’ I was met with the response ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ (or something along those lines). ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ she repeated, ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ I meekly repeated ‘cappuccino?’. She then threw her eyes to heaven, she may have uttered a few expletives, and proceeded to make me a cappuccino. Progress! The shop was filling up and everyone began taking an interest in my exploits; at least they all started talking about me and laughing.

Well a small cup of cappuccino was duly produced. I then pointed at the mountain of bread and the rolls of meat behind her. ‘Can I have one of those?’. ‘Dah’ Making a slicing motion hoping this would help the penny drop, I got a ‘Felztöltődizk’ response, ‘felztöltődizk’ (the spelling may not be 100% correct!). Well this resulted in the now crammed shop bursting into hysterics, and the shop keeper delighted with the response, played to her audience once more- as if she was auditioning for the local dramatics society. If she was, she was playing a blinder! After a short while, the penny dropped and I was met with ‘A sandwich?’ ‘Yes, a feckin’ sandwich’. A couple of minutes later my sandwich was produced. I moved to the table to eat my sandwich and drink my by now cold cappuccino. Happy that I got breakfast and that I was the subject of such hilarity! Such is one’s lot when you don’t have the lingo.

Today’s cycle fell into three stages. The morning’s cycle took me through farmland and small villages. I passed fields of sunflowers with their yellow faces facing the sun. How can fields of sunflowers not put you in a good mood? The track took me cross country in places, and very rutted in parts. Along one section that brought me through woodland for about a kilometre I had to dismount and push for the track was so churned up. But the upside to this was that early morning hundreds of butterflies were drinking on the path- I had never seen so many. In one puddle no more than 5 metres long I counted 84 Silver-washed Fritillary, about a dozen Small White, eight Holly Blue, six Red Admiral,and a good few Marbled White, Comma, Meadow Brown, Brimstone and another species I was unable to identify. There were also many mosquitoes- one rarely mentions the mosquitos, only the butterflies! It was nice passing through villages to give you a impression of how people live in this part of the world.

I made it to the sister towns of Komarom on the Hungarian side of the river and Komárno on the Slovak side late morning. I crossed the river to visit Komárno, well, because I could. It really is quite an unremarkable town- it has a large pedestrianised area, only it has no pedestrians. But it was a bit of a novelty paying for my iced coffee in euros again.

The next stretch brough me for about 30km along a very busy road, running along a heavily industrialised area. It seemed to be one cement factory after another. The road was narrow, had a very poor surface and way too many articulated trucks. It was the least pleasant cycling I have done for a long time. For my afternoon break I watched cement trucks for a while.

I did stop at a fruit stall at the side of the road to buy a half kilo of cherries from Danyl, Danyl Lászlo. I know this not because Danyl is a friend of mine, but because he gave me a very formal receipt, with the date, his name and the cost 300 forint written on. Not much scope for the black economy in Hungary, or so it seems.

The evening was in stark contrast to the afternoon. I visited Esztergom with its very imposing cathedral dominating the skyline. At one time Esztergom was the country’s capital but the royal family moved to Buda a few hundred years ago. The Catholic archbishop moved into the luxurious pad and the city became the centre of the Catholic faith. The cathedral that was built here is the largest church in Hungary. It is an attractive city with a nice park running along the river front, and the cathedral up there, letting you know the Catholic Church is watching you.

The river south of here is constrained by a rocky ridge to the north, and a lower uneven ridge to the south. You can see how its positioning made Esztergom very strategic in the past. Finished for the night at a small village, Dömös having covered 111km.

Day 13 – Taking a leisurely day

I stayed the night at the Aqua Hotel and Wellness Centre. Well something must have gotten lost in translation. I got to see it in its full glory at breakfast – there was plenty of food, some of which was barely edible. I had some coffee, but on adding milk it turned a curious greenish brown colour. I realised there and then, I wasn’t addicted to coffee afterall. The guests were a mix of eldery couples and some lost souls. There was also an outdoor area, of sorts, with water and various sheds. Hard to describe the place; a Butlins Mosney for decrepits and introverts is the closest I could get.

This section of the Danube Cycle Path follows the general direction of the Danube, but inland along roads and through small Hungarian villages. All intensively cropped land, mostly wheat and maize, but also some sunflowers and beans (I think). It also ran along straight, straight roads. I had sklarks and the ubiquitous house sparrows to keep me company, and at one place, there was a large number of house martin feeding along the road. The temperature built quickly and by mid morning was 31 degrees. I took it easy, only gentle cycling today, and drank plenty of water. Because of the scale of the sheds and machinery I saw, I assumed this must have been formerly collectivised farmland. I had read about the impact this had on land holdings, but I never realised it must also have obliterated rural communities and culture in these places.

Really, there was very little to interest me in this landscape. For my mid-morning’s break, I watched for a while a man cut grass.

The route was difficult to navigate as signposts were either misleading, or missing.I struggled at a few villages to find my route. At one village I spied a fellow cyclist in the shade pouring over a map; he was an enormous man carrying an enormous load- full to bursting panniers front and back, and more bags piled on top. I don’t know if he packed the kitchen sink, but he had a look of a man that certainly packed the larder. He too was struggling with the heat; he wore a peaked cap with a little patch of cloth at the back to keep the sun from his neck- and was sweating profusely. I approached him to share notes as to where we were, but before I had a chance, he pointed at his map saying ‘Ve are here – definitely here, und ve need to go there’ ‘It’s impossible, the signs, the roads, alles scheiße. Vere are you from? England?’ he ordered. ‘No, no I’m Irish’. As he launched himself on his way he turned and announced ‘I am German!’ You’d never have guessed, I thought!

I came off the Danube Cycle Track- well being truthful, I was already off the path as I was lost again, and headed north towards the Danube. I accessed the dyke once more and cycled along it for a few kilometres, but the grass here was scalped, there was little to see and there was no shade; it was really hot. I came across workmen who were putting more flood defenses on top of the existing defenses- to try to deal with future floods. You really get the sense of how vulnerable local communities here are with such vast quantities of water trying to burst the banks during times of flood.

I arrived in early afternoon and mooched around Győr for a couple of hours, mostly to keep in the shade. It was a nice pleasant town with a large pedestrianised core and lovely traditional facades. By the time I got back on the bike, I was too lazy for the 40km trek to the next campsite so stayed on the outskirts of Győr instead. Good decision, and it was nice to have had a leisurely day. Still covered 77km though.

Day 12 – Crossing the Iron Curtain

I decided to stay in the campsite close to the National Park thinking it might be nice sitting out in the evening hearing owls, perhaps even nightjars churring and watching glow-worms. I should have looked at the map in a bit more detail; wedged in between a motorway intersection and a railway line, you couldn’t find a noisier place for a campsite if you tried. Slept well though.

I’m trying to do my bit to be an ambassador for nature along the Danube, and where better to head to than the Donau Auen National Park that lies just east of the city. This is a the largest tract of undeveloped wetland floodplain in central Europe, where the river flows and floods naturally. It is a huge area, stretching for almost 40km right to the Slovak border. It was established in 1996 after campaigners managed to block the construction of a dam here that would have flooded the area.

I arrived to the Visitor Centre to find it was closed on a Monday and Tuesday; that was disappointing as I thought it best to be well equipped with information before I headed off exploring. Had the Visitor Centre been open it may have prepared me for my first impressions of the Park. Now I can’t say for sure that the Park is popular with naturalists, but it certainly is popular with naturists (I never before realised how important those two little letters ‘al’ are!). All I will say is that nature, generally, is a thing of beauty; naturism on the other hand certainly isn’t! If you did live in this part of the world, it would be worth clarifying early on what was really meant if your mates asked you did you want to just hang out.

I did manage to explore part of the Park in the morning- what I saw was a mix of wet woodland, reed-fringed pools and open heathland. Particularly on the heathland, it was alive with insects; every step taken resulted in a squadron of grasshoppers fleeing for safety. In my guide book the Danube Cycle Path brought you right through the centre of the National Park- 38km of nature. However, soon there was a diversion from the National Park taking me north through farmland. Try as I might I was unable to get back to the Park. I finally made it to a junction of paths to be informed that the cycle path through the Park was closed for three years to be upgraded. It meant retracing my morning’s route or head to the river and cross to the southern side of the Danube. The good news was there was an enterprising local boatman that offered this service – at make your mind up time advertising the boat crossing for €4- only 5 minutes away. Great. As I got to the pier I saw the cost had risen to €4.50, and on the ferry I was charged €5. Despite all the efforts of fiscal union, inflation seems to be running rife in this part of the EU.

The afternoon cycle brought me through intensively managed farmland- miles upon miles of wheat, maize and some potatoes. Not a hedgerow or treeline to break the vista, or provide shade. It was a hot afternoon with temperatures in the 30s, and the air was full of dust for the harvest was in full swing.

I crossed the Austrian/Slovak border in late afternoon. This was the old Iron Curtain, for decades the boundary between west and east, and it is nice that the original gate remains to mark the spot, symbolically now kept open the whole time.

I skirted south of Bratslavia, keeping south of the river. The cycle path then took me along the river dyke for miles- a wide elevated path used by cyclists and roller bladers- I couldn’t get over how many there were, and how fast they were moving. Not being able for the tedium of this path any longer, I headed south east, to rejoin the Donau Cycle Path. If I thought the embankment was tedious little did I know the final 10km of the route took me along a dead straight road. Not only was it tedious where I was, I could also see the tedium 5km further on!

Stopped for the night in a rather unassuming small town called Mosonmagyaróvár. I strolled through the town for a while and I was struck by how many signs there were with pictures of teeth on them. I was in Hungary now so was struggling to understand, well everything! Then I noticed everywhere there were business plaques saying they were a dentist. Now I don’t just mean a cluster, I mean they were everywhere. I checked this out later; apparently Mosonmagyaróvár has a higher rate of dentists per capita than anywhere else in the world. How I should end up here is beyond me.

I went for something to eat and watch the football. I ordered a big dish of past. ‘And to drink, sir’? ‘Nothing with sugar, I’ll just have some water’!

Day 11 – Vienna by the back door

In Ireland, we are all terribly sophisticated now, but that used not always be the case. Indeed, I remember pre-sophisticated days vividly. We only had the single television station and that ended for the night around 11pm with the playing of the national anthem. Dinner, which we eat at midday, consisted of meat and too veg. Then an American college friend of my brother came to stay for the weekend, and he cooked us the most exotic dish we had ever eaten – spaghetti bolognese! The kids still crack up when I tell that story, but it is true.

That is a long-winded way of telling that anytime I find myself staying where there are vineyards outside the bedroom window, I still get that flutter of excitement of being somewhere exotic. Grapes, paths lined with cherry and walnut trees, and apricots, apricots of all thing, growing in the fields; Wow! This is the scene I woke up to, and the first part of my morning’s cycle brought me through this beautiful vineyard country. A couple of the more picturesque villages were stopping off points for cruise ships, so I had to weave my way through crowds on occasions.

The cycle as I got closer to Vienna took me along dykes and over dams, criss-crossing the river. I rested for a while, looking across the river- is there a name for the syndrome of always wanting to be on the other side of the river, I wondered? Seated by the river I saw an otter come into view, swimming just out from the shore. That’s nice to see, I thought to myself before suddenly realising that wasn’t an otter but a real live beaver just swimming along minding its own business. I must have moved suddenly with the excitement for it dived and disappeared. I remained there for quite sometime scanning the river for another sighting, but it was gone.

Another thing I noticed is that the Austrians have a big problem with invasive species. Everywhere along the river is infested with Japanese Knotweed, and in parts, giant knotweed and Himalayan balsam. But rather than doing anything about it, they seem to just cut it vigorously where it grows onto the grass strips, taking no care whatsoever with the cuttings. Already there are extensive stretches where access to the river is hindered by these invasives and it can only get worse unless serios action is taken.

I approached Vienna late afternoon with the cycly track getting busier with cyclists, joggers and roller bladers.The intention was to try to get to the far side of Vienna for the evening. I approached the city in an unusual way, coming in along the waterway, then following a metro line before arriving in very heavily graffitied urban scene. I got the sense that many of those around me may not have been entirely happy with their lot in life. The cycle path took me through the heart of the city, past bars where punters were engrossed in the Germany v Mexico football match, under balconies with fine diners, and across the river from revellers sipping cocktails and eating icecream. I felt a bit like a sewer rat, close but passing unseen.

Getting to my campsite east of Vienna proved a bit challenging as I took a couple of wrong turns bringing me where I didn’t want to be. That’s the problem with big rivers, there are islands and canals, and islands, all of which have to be navigated. At one stage, tired and really wanting to finish up for the day, a woman wearing a skimpy miniskirt and little else stepped onto the path and asked ‘ Did I want a good time?’. Now as there was no earthly way she was going produce a wiener schnitzel and a cool beer from that outfit, I kept on going.

Arrived to the campsite on edge of the Donau Auen National Park, where I did get my beer and wiener schnitzel; two beers in fact.

Managed to cover 139km for the day.

Day 10- I blame the wife, myself.

Today’s cycle took me along the Danube valley, almost all on really well surfaced cycle paths, or on country roads. From my perspective the route was not all that interesting as it took me through intensive agricultural land, across many dams and through the numerous towns and villages along the Danube. And as it was Saturday cyclists of all types and shapes were on the road, which was nice to see. Everywhere I looked there were cyclists stopped at cafes, putting more calories into themselves then they could possibly use up, at least not without breaking into a major sweat. Which they didn’t; apart from myself I didn’t see a bead of sweat on anyone. The challenge for me was not to get too detracted by the cakes and ice cream on display; I succumbed once for a small (ok, large) slice of apfel strudel but it was by way of a cultural experience.

The early part of the cycle brought me along a very flat and quiet road leading from one of the towns. It obviously was used as a training run, for I met many cyclists with their tri-bars and carbon-rimmed wheels. God, I love the sound those wheels make when in the hands of a powerful cyclist on a good road- the Vvooo- Vvooo- Vvooo as they power along. I began to regret bringing my trail bike on this trip, for think of the fun I could have with my road bike on these roads. But after the forth or fifth of these lads powered past me leaving a whiff of aftershave or lynx in their wake, I came to the conclusion they were all a shower of poseurs, and my trail bike was perfectly fine, thank you!

I pulled into a small village next to the dyke around midday. As I cycled down the main street a really load siren went off- scared the lining daylights out of me. Must have lasted for 15 or 20 seconds. I was wondering had Trump finally initiated WWIII or had some other calamity befell the world of which I was unaware. A couple of minutes later an old man walked up the street. I stopped and asked him what was the alarm? He looked at me quizzical – What alarm? The siren, just a couple of minutes ago? Ah! 11.55 was it? Each Saturday- it is a test alarm to make sure the flood alarm works. Well it works alright, but I suspect the locals no longer hear it.

At another one of my stops, eating a snack by the river shore, a young family of goosander swam past. Unlike our common mallard, which are a dabbling duck (Ogden Nash famously noted that ‘…when it dines or sups, it bottoms ups’) goosander are a diving duck. The family of a mother and ten chicks moved upstream, no more than 10 metres from me, like a troop of highly drilled synchronised swimmers, diving and sufracing in unison. That was a special treat to see, for goosander are a scarce duck in Ireland, with ony a handful breeding each year in Wicklow.

Later on in the day I came to a patch of wet marsh, and the toads were in full voice calling away. They really do make a racket when they get going.

It was only for the last 10km or so of the day that the route brought me to fruit growing region. The cycle track was now lined with cherry and apple trees, and there were stalls selling apricots, peaches and strawberries every so often. Then I arrived to a valley with vineyards creeping up the steep slopes.

Now I know it is stating the obvious but cycling the second longest river in Europe is, well, long. I have been cycling now for ten days, and while I know I’m no Peter Sagan, I have averaged almost 110 km each day. So I have covered more than 1,000km yet I am not quite a third of the way along. There is still just over 2,000km between me and the Black Sea.

To put this in perspective, if I had chosen the Shannon rather than the Danube, I’d have cycled it’s length three time already! So, Im not that sure this was such a good idea.

Now I am married to a wonderful woman, and one of the many things that I love about her is that she is a rock of sense. In my time I have come up with quite a few hair-brained ideas, but she has always been there to bring perspective (i.e. to tell me I’m being daft). She can analyse and synthesize schemes in a blink of an eyelid. But when I first mooted the idea that it would be a good thing to cycle down the Danube, I was expecting more ‘perspective’ – instead I was greeted with a ‘ Well isn’t it well for some?’. Now Josephine is working really hard to expand her SpeltBakers business, so I suspect her finely tuned radar for daft ideas may, for once, have let her down. As I sit by the bank of the Danube, somewhere in the middle of Austria, wondering what the hell I signed up to, I blame the wife myself.

But after the second beer and musing on life, sitting here watching the barges chugging upstream and listening to the swifts screeching overhead, maybe, just maybe, she got it right once again. It is only 2,000km and sure isn’t it all downhill!

Day 9 – It’s tough being a naturalist

I stayed the night in Kesten because I wanted to visit the Danube Valley Nature and Natura 2000 Information Centre in the nearby Engelhartszell. I had heard about it and thought it would be worth a visit. Natura 2000 is a network of the prime natural habitats remaining across Europe where nature conservation is the primary objective – and the protection of these sites is underpinned by the very strict legal framework of both the Birds and the Habitats Directives. All too often, especially in Ireland, these are only perceived as a restriction on development and generally just a nuisance. But there really is much more to them, they also present opportunities. So it was brilliant to have an Information Centre to see how it is done properly. Here there is also an INTERREG project that promotes ways of encouraging people to move away from their cars to walking and cycling to better experience the nature of the Danube Vaĺley. This was certainly the way to go. And as I walked towards the Information Centre I passed a group of American tourists that had just been disgorged from a cruise boat for an hour’s sightseeing – wasn’t it great that they too had the opportunity to visit the Information Centre to find out more indepth information about the area, rather that having only the usual kitsch offerings in such places? Hah! This is the way to do things. And as I turned the corner there in front of me was a swanky new building with a big banner declaring here was the Natura 2000 Information Centre. I bounded up the stair with great enthusiasm, pushed the door- Geschlossen! Offnungzeit 14:00hr bis 17:00hrs. Doh!

Downstream the Danube valley narrows and winds it way through a series of S-bends where it cuts its way through a granite ridge. Here the cycle track switches sides of the river, and you have the option of two small wooden ferries to take you across. I had the ferry to myself so I struck up a conversation with the ferryman. He picked up on the marble (marmor) of the Marble City Cyclers jersey I wore- he was curious about that. He also told me that at one stage the river used to flow as rapids down this section but because of an agreement and with the help of the many dams to regulate water levels, to help barges ply the Danube the minimum clearance at all times was now 4 metres. Where we crossed the river was 10 metres deep. Having seen these massive barges laden down with their cargo, it surprised me that they only needed 4m depth.

The next 30km or so took me along this wooded valley. There was a opening to a forest track just near the cycle path where I stopped for a while. The area seemed suitable for butterflies as it was sheltered, had sunny slopes and gravel areas for basking. To me this was a lovely spot, and I enjoyed seeing and photographing butterflies like Silver-washed Fritillary, Comma, Red Admiral and Map. Mostly they were basking on the ground/gravel just by the cycle path.

Now Middle Aged Men In Lycra are a collegiate family, so when one sees a fellow MAMIL in difficulty the instinctive response is to offer assistance. So as I stood to the side of the cycle track in my lycra, with mobile phone in hand staring at the ground, I was greeted with an ‘Alles OK?’ – Ja! ‘Alles gut?’ – Ja! ‘Haben se probleme?’, Haben sie schwierigkeit?’ Brauchen sie Hilfe?’ – Nein, Nein, Nein! Just leave me be, I’m only photographing butterflies!!

At Aschach, further down the river, the Fire Service were having there annual water sports weekend, when the great fire men and women from across Austria come and test their boating prowess. It was midday Friday, so things were only just hotting up, yet there were fire men/women all over the place carrying paddles, poles and life jackets. The warm up event seemed to be a cot race, upstream for about a kilometre, where the two per boat use poles to push their way up, then downstream for about a kilometre using paddles, before turning for home once more using poles. And all this was done standing. Judging from the spectators, it seemed to be mighty craic altogether, mind you the competitors took it deadly seriously.

Stopped for the evening at Mauthausen- a place with a terrible history. Somehow it felt a bit odd sitting there in the evening having a beer and pizza, while cheering on Portugal in the World Cup.

A local struck up a conversation with me while watching the football. All was going well while we stuck to football and the merits (or not) of Ronaldo, but when we moved on to talk about what I was doing and how I was interested in nature, I could feel the camaraderie dissolve into the night air. He sat beside someone else for the second half. It’s tough being a naturalist!

111km covered during the day.

Day 8 – Auf weidersehen Deutschland

I arrived tired, cold and late to Deggendorf last night, and had difficulty finding accommodation. I could see no redeeming features of this neck of the woods. This morning, however, with a good night’s sleep I almost thought this was a nice place to be. Amazing how your mood is transposed onto where you are. But I soon got over my feelings of goodwill towards Deggendorf and headed out of town.

The morning’s cycle took me through more good agricultural land. I had hoped to spend some time looking around the Seebach Meer, some lake near the Danube, but there was a detour which took me away from there.

At one stage as I cycled I got a distinct smell of chamomile in the air; then when I turned a corner, ahead of me was a few acres of chamomile planted. This intrigued me- was this planted as a cash crop, or for some other reason? A short time later I think I got my answer, as I came across land that was specially managed for breeding skylark, lapwing and grey partridge. A couple of acres of creeping thisle and other wild flowers- the sign said this land wasn’t cut from 15th March till 15th July as an agri-environment measure. To my eyes I thought this blast of diversity and colour in a sea of green monoculture was a delight to see; I could just imagine many of my farmer friends from home saying what a waste of good land….

A bit on further up the road, with no visible signs of agri-environmental management I did see a pair of displaying Lapwing. A turtle dove also landed near me- delightful, as it is years since I had seen one.

Arrived in Passau late morning- I know, towns and cities in this part of the world are generally beautiful, but even against this benchmark, Passau wins out. Situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the Danube and the River Inn, with hugely impressive baroque buildings perched on the overlooking hillsides. The old town is a series of beautiful cobbled narrow laneways meandering under medieval archways, before widening out into stunning open squares. And tourism is a significant business here, and the place generally has a kind of hip scene. Bit of a contrast to the rest of Bavaria; whatever words you would use to describe the parts of rural Bavaria I cycled through, hip would not be one of them.

Left Passau along the southern bank of the Danube. From here, the first large tourist boats are visible; you can travel by boat from here right down to the Black Sea but what fun would there be in that?. The valley narrows here with wooded hillsides. A few kilometres outside Passau you arrive at the Austrian border. Leaving Germany gave me a great sense of finally making progress and moving more into the international waters. Apparently the Danube is the most international of all rivers in the world. So crossing the first border is a start.

Once across the Austrian border the river takes on a different character; the river narrows and wooded hillsides framing the view. The cycle trail now follows a road rather than going through farmland, but the surface is great and the view is not too bad either. Stopped for the evening at a very odd looking guesthouse, but the proprietor was friendly, and the beer, food and view were good. What more could a man ask for? Oh, football! I also watched Russia play their opening World Cup match. Bliss!

Covered 100km today – must be getting a bit closer to the sea.

Day 7 – A bit of culture

After a week of really warm humid weather I awoke to a cool overcast morning- I’d say the temperature dropped by 10 degrees overnight. Bit of a shock to the system.

Spent a bit of time exploring Regensburg, described as one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. It’s narrow cobbled alleyways and open squares of the old town with beautifully maintained traditional buildings makes the city special. The Steinerne Brücke, built in the 12th Centaury, is the oldest bridge crossing the Danube in this section. It is a massively constructed stone bridge, currently being fully restored. I just had to cycly across that.

The Danube is at it’s most northly point at Regensburg, and from here it flows in a south easterly direction towards the Black Sea. Regensburg also signals the start of the heavy navigational use of the Danube, for the first large river barges that are used to transport goods can be seen on the river.

Today’s route took me through Straubing and to Deggendort, other towns that had large and beautifully maintained old squares, evidence that this part of Bavaria is not only wealthy today, but there has been wealth here for a very long time. Along here you also pass Walhalla, a huge marble temple built in 1842 and reproducing the Athenian Parthenon. A crazy folly that appears in your sights towering over you as you make your way down the valley. King Ludwig I who commissioned the building obviously had plenty of spare cash hanging around the place.

During the morning I visited Stöcklwörth Nature Reserve, a large flat grassland area that is being managed primarily for breeding waders. Breeding Curlew is one of the target species, so not only are Curlew doing poorly in Ireland and Britain, but here too in Bavaria. The meadows seem to be managed in a patchwork fashion, with a mixture of grassland of different heights available to the brreding birds. As I cycled along the path through the reserve, up rose a Curlew calling and flying overhead- obviously I had gotten too close to her nest or chick, so she was not happy. I moved on quickly not to disturb her any more. Hearing the alarm call of the Curlew took me right back to the 1970s, when I remember lying in bed in my aunt’s house near Abbeyfeale and hearing calling Curlew outside; how much the landscape has changed as the hills around Abbeyfeale have long since fallen silent – a silent spring indeed. Strange what experiences trigger a response from your past.

The remainder of the route followed the Danube dyke to the south and the Bayerischer Wald to the north, with a strip of very good quality farmland in between. At one point there is a steep southeast facing escarpment with some small vineyards. Apparently this is Germany’s smallest wine growing region- from what I could see there were only a handful of vineyards. Would have been nice to stop and try some of this wine, but it was too early in the day for an Irishman to drink alcohol- as everyone knows the Irish only drink after 5pm!

I was cycling out of some village and passed this very elderly man on a Zimmer frame. I remarked to myself that this is a fairly active man of such age to be out on his own, away from houses. Seemed to have a ring of ‘The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared’ about it. And sure enough, about a half a mile further on I met two very flustered nurses, half walking half running, asking if I had seen a man with a walking frame. I said I had, just down to the left. For a fleeting second, in honour of Allan Karlsson, I thought about saying ‘yes, just up to your right’.

The last 30km or so took me through very sparsely populated farmland, where the Danube formed a massive natural barrier to movement. Hemmed in by the dyke to the south, the only people moving here were local farmers and cyclists. I know this is good farmland; miles upon miles of mostly maize and corn, but it is boring. Nothing much here to disturb my ruminations.

Another thing that played on my mind was just how goddam perfect this part of the world is. Everything is in order (ganz ordentlich); the cycle routes are wide and well maintained and the villages are immaculately neat and tidy.There is hardly anything out of place. I can’t but wonder does anyone in this part of the world wake up in the morning and say ‘today I couldn’t be arsed to pull that little weed out of the crack in the pavement’ or ‘maybe I’ll argue with the wife today rather than rake the driveway’? No, I guess not- Bavarians are made of sterner stuff apparently!

Stopped for the night at Deggendorf, having covered 110km. Austria tomorrow…

Day 6 – Back to nature

Just downstream from Neuburg there is a large nature reserve- mostly woodland, but with open heath areas too. I spent the morning here, aimlessly cycling along paths deep inside the nature reserve. At one stage the track narrowed to just a dirt track along a river channel, so I definitely got off the beaten track. Met a photographer here who looked like quiteness and seclusion were what he was most seeking, but while he did tell me kindly that he was trying to photograph wildlfe, I suspect my trundling through his demesne at that time disturbed hours of precious set up time.

In one open area, called the Jeckl-Brenne biotope, I spent some time searching out butterflies. There were plenty of marble whites, map and dark-green fritillary, as well as the usual whites, blues and peacock. Was delight to see (and identify) short-tailed blue butterfly, a new species for me.

I stopped for a break and while sitting there I saw both black and great-spotted woodpecker and was serenaded by a golden oriel, nightengale and cuckoo.

In the afternoon much of my route took me along the top of the flood dyke constructed often as part of the dam network. At this point much of the Danube has massive dams every so often, giving you a sense of just how important it is for electricity generation. The dykes are great for they give you a great view of the river and the surrounding landscape. The sloping banks are also well drained and full of wildflowers, so there is always something to see. A constant companion is the Banded Demoiselle – they are everywhere within flight of the river. I did have my first encounter with a snake as it slid away in front of my bike – I know I should cherish all wildlife equally, but I really would perfer not to get too up close a personal with them. I also got a bit too close to a young family of greylag goose and the parents let me know in no uncertain terms to feck off and leave them alone.

The higlight of the afternoon’s trip was a short boat trip down the Donaudurchbruch, where the river flows through a rugged gorge with no road. This provided great views of the gorge, while eating a currywurst mit pommes! And it was an effortless way to get to Kelheim.

I decided to continue to Regensburg for the evening, another 30km or so, to get to the nearest camping site. Regensburg is familiar territory for me, for I spent a week here learning German shortly after I got married, so that I could understand my new in-laws. Actually, so that I could speak to my in-laws; as anyone will tell you, you need to be equipped with more than a common language to understand in-laws!

Had covered 119km by the time I rolled into Camping-AZUR that evening.

Day 5 – Mr Bonjour!

I feel there is a bit of false advertising going on with the Donauradweg – the Danube Cycle Trail. You’d expect the trail to, well follow the Danube, right? Well those Fränkische Alb tourist people have managed to get the cycle trail to meander not along the river, but up dell and down dale so unsuspecting cyclists can see their offerings, whether they want to or not. Not that the region isn’t picturesque, it’s just it was a bit of a surprise, that’s all. If I wanted hills I might have opted for the Wicklow 200 instead.

Cycling the Danube Trail is a different experience; although it is mostly you and your thoughts, you do meet fellow cyclists along the way. You recognise people from campsites and no matter what your pace, with stops and detours, you tend to rendezvous with the same cyclists each day. Today I passed a skinny little Frenchman who I recognised from our camp site the evening before. So we greeted each other with a cheery (and heartfelt) Bonjour! Later that morning the same Frechman was stopped at the side of the track – I stopped too for a snack, with the idea of striking up a bit of a conversation- kindred spirits and all that. Unwrapping my snickers I greeted him with another Bonjour! But that was where the conversation began and ended, for I have no French and he had neither English or German. For a minute or two we tried to communicate through babble and hand gestures but soon gave up. We eat in silence, somewhat uncomfortably, until a discrete period of time passed so I could head off on my way.

Well, that was not the end of our encounters; however we managed it we passed at least four more time during the day’s cycle- each time we shared a Bonjour! but it was getting a bit ridiculous.

The afternoon cycle took me through farmland; cropland, mostly wheat and barley, but also alot of maize, potatoes and spinach. There were also strips of sunflowers planted around the edges of some fields so the landscape should look even prettier next month. Interesting that outdoors, there was not an animal to be seen. For a naturalist, the landscape offered meagre pickings; a couple of roe deer, red kites overhead and singing yellowhammers, plenty of yellowhammers.

In the late afternoon I was planning my stop for the evening and decided I would stay in a campsite at Neuburg, about 20km further on. I rounded a corner and who should be on the track ahead of me again but Mr Bonjour. Ah jaysus! Well I slowed thinking I could amble on behind him, but as I slowed, so did he. And he slowed…. I have no idea what kind of a game he was playing but I’d never get to Neuburg at this rate. As the track rose a bit, I saw my opportunity. A short gentle incline of about 50m lay ahead. I powered on, passing him with our by now customary Bonjour! making a break for it. I was pulling away, delighted to see the back of my French friend. And just as I was beginning to feel the exertions of my spurt, what happened but as I rounded a corner what did I see but feckin’ Alp D’Huez rising up ahead of me! Well I don’t know about the French man, but I nearly killed myself on that climb. But as I crested the summit, I achieved one thing, it was Au revoir! to Le Frenchman.

Explored a bit of Neuburg before finding the campsite for the night- it is a walled town with beautiful cobbled streets. Treated myself to a massive iced coffee from an Italian ice cream outlet- felt I deserved it.Then off to the campsite. I registered and was allocated my pitch- as I turned into where I was directed, who was sitting there beside his tent but Mr Bonjour!

Managed 100km for the day.