I had not spent a lot of time in Austria, before I took Whereabouts’ week-long cycle trip down the Danube and so I was intrigued to see what the country had to offer on a holiday. I didn’t have any particular expectations going in, but by the end of the trip, I was definitely a member of the I Love Austria club.
You are onto a real winner in Austria because the countryside is so lush. The mountains, which cover most of it, are magnificent in winter and summer, and then you have the glorious Danube if you prefer some flat.
The scenery is beautiful with good snow for winter sports’ enthusiasts and verdant green in the summer.
The wildflowers made a huge impression on me, as they cover every verge and fill every hedgerow with vibrant splashes of colour. They also harbour all sorts of wildlife and I saw many species of butterfly, golden chaffinches and wagtails. There were wild ducks and swans in profusion, and at one stage I had to brake sharply to avoid a stoat galloping across the road. Early one morning, I even saw a fox, trotting into the undergrowth. I was promised that there are dolphins in the Danube but didn’t spot any this time – so, I have an excuse to go back.
As well as the wild side, there is also the pleasure of the carefully-tended orchards, farms and vineyards that punctuate the countryside. There is also not a speck of litter anywhere, everything is pristine.
Picturesque doesn’t really seem an adequate word when describing the small towns and villages of Austria. Brightly-painted houses, overlook central squares, each one of which contains a cake shop. There is a church in every village, some miniature ones which are no bigger than a cottage, some with onion-shaped domes and spires that look Russian, and some filled with rich paintings and ornate sculptures.
Sitting at the heart of Europe, Austria’s history is a fascinating story of the rise and fall of empires from the Holy Roman Empire right through to the third Reich. It has influenced and been influenced by so many religious, political and ethnic movements that every corner of the country is brimming with historical interest.
It is really worth taking a break from the great outdoors to visit some of the sites you pass by. My two favourites when I spent my week by the Danube were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first was the Shipping Museum in Spitz, which covered the history of shipping on the river. I became slightly obsessed with the perfect models of the old boats, which showed details like a mariner’s wife hanging out her washing on board. Huge amounts of wood were rafted down the Danube and the museum also had old, original footage of the rafters at work. It was intensely dangerous and there was a superstition that the first sailor who fell into the river in Spring should be left to die as an offering to the Gods so that the rest could sail freely.
The second was a very sombre but moving experience – the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. During World War II, 190,000 prisoners were held there and 90,000 perished. It is impossible to “enjoy” a visit to such a terrible place, but it was very interesting and all the signs and audio were in English as well as German. Amongst the horrors, there were also many stories of the triumph of the human spirit.
In spite of its waves of conquest and immigration, Austria retains a strong national identity. The food, the beer, the cake and best of all… the lederhosen. I tend to wear padded lycra on the bike, so I was doubly impressed when I saw a tandem rider clad in embroidered leather shorts, well capris really – very dapper.
All in all, it is a great country to spend time in, with a good mixture of things to do outdoors and indoors, an excellent infrastructure and plenty of apple strudel to keep the legs moving!