It’s a little over two hundred miles from Passau to Vienna and the only hard words you could say about them was that they pass too quickly. The sheer loveliness of the scenery drew you into it, while the seductive simplicity of the Danube bicycle path made it awfully easy to cover ground. One long pleasurable day in the saddle, stretching my legs as it were after riding in company these past few days, from Vohlburg to Passau, saw me cover nearly the whole of it in a single bound, and without really meaning to. Almost before I knew it I found myself approaching the outskirts of Vienna, the greater part of the Austrian Danube having spooled by in a kind of cinematic blur.
It was my first century ride of the journey, and I made it a big one – a hundred and forty miles, maybe a hundred and fifty; hard to say since I don’t have an odometer. The river was magnificent the whole way, the fertile valleys through which it flowed were rich with vineyards and terraced orchards. Castles sat atop just about every crag that commanded a view. And where there weren’t castles to marvel at there were beautiful old churches and Benedictine monasteries, their copper-domed spires rising above the treetops or reflecting in the water.
The weather started out fine in the morning and mainly stayed that way, segueing into a warm and sultry afternoon, with frescoed skies and occasional growls of thunder in the distance. The thunder grew nearer as the hours passed and late in the afternoon, or perhaps by then you could say early evening, a monumental summer storm caught up with me in the woods not far from Tulln.
With the kind of sleekness and surety that seemed to characterise everything that day, I’d rolled up to a large sheltered picnic area just before it broke and waited out the storm in the company of at least thirty other cyclists, Germans mainly, but Dutch and Swiss as well, young couples and solo trekkers like me, and families on holiday, the kids on scaled-down tourers, Mum on a city hybrid, Dad towing a trailer laden with camping gear and toys.
It was a jovial gathering, with snacks and dinners broken out, shared laughter among strangers, and boisterous shouts of the drenched latecomers who raced up to the shelter rattling down the trail in the pouring rain.
I shared a picnic table with a German family: father, mother, three kids and a portly old grandfather with a bright blue eyes, red cheeks and bushy white beard who looked like a woodcarver from a storybook or Santa Claus in mufti. After they’d eaten their sausage-and-cheese lunch, and with the operatic storm showing no sign of abating, the old man calmly unrolled an oilskin pouch containing a selection of carved, large-bowled pipes and selected the one he felt most suited the occasion. With relaxed deliberation, a man with all the time in the world, he charged it with tobacco from a dilapidated leather pouch, lit it with an old-fashioned flint lighter and puffed fragrant clouds of smoke toward the roof and the sound of rain.
There was something homey about it all this – the self-contained little world of life along the well-catered-to Donau Radveg – that I was going to miss when I reached Vienna, which I realised with a start was only twenty miles away. I didn’t cover them that evening, but feeling suddenly tuckered out after my long ride, and frankly, not really wanting to arive in Vienna and bring this Donau Radveg chapter of my journey to a close, I took a room at a guesthouse in Klosterneuberg. The next morning I rode into the city.
I’ve read somewhere that a cultured man is one who can listen to Rossini’s William Tell Overture from beginning to end without once thinking of the Lone Ranger. I am not a cultured man. And so I should have guessed that Vienna and I were going to be at sixes and sevens, for this is not a city to let culture pass you by – far from it; here in Vienna it is always at your side, tapping you on the shoulder, clutching at your lapels, wheedling, reminding, beseeching.
I rolled into St Stephansplatz not long after lunchtime, having dawdled away the morning in the Viennese woods, and straight away I was accosted by Mozart, or rather a man pretending to be Mozart, in powdered wig, silk stockings and brocaded coat. He was very insistent that I see that evening’s performance of The Magic Flute at the Stats Opera, and to that end produced a clipboard with a seating plan of the opera house and began to point out the various possibilities that were open to me.
I respectfully declined and edged past him, but before I could push my bicycle more than a few paces through the crowd, another voice chirped up at my elbow – a young girl Mozart this time, her peruke absurdly askew on a mane of strawberry blond curls. Did I wish to take in tonight’s performance of The Magic Flute? Don Giovanni, perhaps? A concert? A symphony? Listen to a man play the spoons?
I begged off, turned away, and ran straight into the welcoming arms of a heavy-set middle-aged Mozart in crimson brocade and that old hale and hearty encyclopaedia salesman smile. Sensing what a lover of the arts I must be he offered me excellent seats at the State Opera that evening, and at a great prices too – if he said so himself, which he did, and often. I explained that, sadly, I’d have to pass on this occasion, that I was utterly Baroque and out of Monet, a feeble attempt at humour that passed him by.
No sooner did I escape his spiel (and he, mine) than I was hearing another, this time from a green liveried Mozart, and after that a Mozart in peacock blue and Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses. And on it went. There were thin Mozarts and chubby ones, black Mozarts and Mozarts who looked like they might be Turkish, Mozarts who addressed me in Spanish, Mozarts who spoke English with broad American accents, and French speaking Mozarts wearing Bolle sunglasses and Nike trainers. It was like Graceland on Elvis’ birthday, but with a Habsburgian twist. They all carried clipboards, had racetrack demeanours and were anxious to see me comfortably settled with good seats at the Stats Opera or Concert Hall that evening, or the next, or the one after that, or just about anytime between the next five minutes and the Second Coming.
It was flattering, I suppose, to think that anyone could look at me just then, wet and weatherworn from a thousand miles on the road, most of them in rain, pushing a pack mule of a bicycle through the square, and immediately think to themselves: now there’s a chap who’ll scrub up well and who’ll no doubt be wanting a box at the opera this fine evening; probably has a Henry Poole dinner jacket and black tie rolled up in those oilskins, and a pair of opera glasses in the bar bag.
Alas, they missed the real me: the garlic and onions saddle tramp who wanted nothing more than a cheap hotel and a bath. After picking my way through the gauntlet of Mozarts I found my way to the tourist office on Kartnerstrasse and asked the woman behind the counter there if she had anything suitable. She must have had a shrewder eye than the culture vultures walking the streets for she wasted no time regaling me with the merits of the Hotel Sacher but instead promptly showed me a list of eligible two-star flops in the northwest corner of town, outside the fashionable Ringstrasse but still, as she gamely pointed out – one never knew – happily within cooee of the State Opera. I asked if The Third Man was showing anywhere in town, but she didn’t know; Harry Lime wasn’t a flavour the Viennese tourist board was promoting that month.
While she was sorting my hotel booking, and I was opening my wallet and watching the moths flutter out, a man whom I took to be the office manager, a tall suave ruthless-looking individual in a dark suit, strode out of his cubicle and demanded to know whose bicycle that was leaning against the wall in his foyer. He spoke rapidly, in German, but I recognised the word “fahrad” – bicycle – and raised a timid hand.
He fixed me with a glare that must have stuck a yard out my back and was about to follow it up with something unpleasant when his eyes lit upon the pale blue thousand-shilling notes in my cautiously raised hand, the cash I had been in the process of handing over in exchange for several nights’ accommodation in his town.
I won’t say his eyes melted and became puppyish – it wasn’t that much money – but obviously the sight of large denomination bills had a soothing effect on him, that and the consoling thought that since we had evidently reached the paying stage I would soon be gone anyway. After a few seconds of frosty silence, he drew himself up with a deep, shuddering, anger-managing sigh, whirled sharply, clicked his heels, and returned to his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Actually he didn’t really click his heels. It just seemed like he did. He ought to have; it would have suited him. I stared at his closed door feeling as though a cuckoo had just poked its head out of a carved clock and blown a raspberry at me. The girl behind the counter smiled as she handed me my change. “Enjoy your stay.”
Voucher in hand and with my free fold-out city map, I set off to find my hotel, grateful now for those years I’d spend cycling to work in Melbourne and pleased to find that I still possessed the old knack of negotiating slithery tram tracks on a bicycle. There are a lot of those in Vienna, particular along the Ringstrasse, and the trams move much faster than those in Melbourne, but I slipped through them unscathed and found my way to the address on the card.
It turned out to be a great old mausoleum of a place, built of concrete and tucked away in a shabby neighbourhood of migrants and students and low-rent travellers such as myself. It was grey and soulless, as dreary as a wet week and had the general appearance of having been designed by a Warsaw Pact architect who’d defected back in the Sixties and later suffered a fit of homesickness. The lobby was dead quiet. A redolence of cabbage and gravy and bad coffee came from the adjoining cafeteria. I checked in, arranged to store my bike in the basement and then took the slow, creaky, manually operated lift six floors up to my room.
It was bigger than the lift, but not by much, and exuded the same sort of charm. The bed sagged like a hammock, and the sandbag the hotel was pleased to call a pillow smelled strongly of mildew. Still, it was fairly clean and what’s more, it was dry, which was more than anybody was going to be able to say for the streets of Vienna in another few minutes. In a reprise of the previous day’s storm on the outskirts of Tulln, a mass of purplish-black cloud had crept in and was menacing the city. Lightning cracked in the foothills and when I opened the window the air outside had the familiar foretaste of rain. I leaned against the sill, and gazed down on the street six floors below, revelling in my immunity. Backstreet sounds carried eerily in the pre-storm calm – voices, a radio playing somewhere, a dog barked. A man in an old army jacket crawled beneath a broken down van by the corner. Directly below a bratwurst wagon in front of the hotel churned out its smells of grease and fried onions.
The storm broke while I watched. I didn’t bother closing the window. The air wafting in was fresh, and I liked the immediacy of the sizzling rain and crashing thunder, particularly since I didn’t have to be out in it, pedalling along some dripping forest track wondering where I’d bed down for the night.
It was dark by the time the rain slackened enough for me to want to venture out and pick up something to eat. I found a grocery store a few blocks away, bought a few things then started back. Instead of turning in at the hotel though I wandered on, drawn by the pleasant intrigue of walking the streets of a foreign city on a rainy Friday night.
I’ve no idea where all I wandered – down long dark silent streets, and up bright and busy ones, bustling with shoppers and smart restaurants; there were rubbish strewn alleys and neon-lit café streets noisy with live music; neighbourhoods of big old houses and now-shabby office blocks that had been built sometime back in the Twenties and looked as though they might have amounted to something once, with their elaborate window arches and Beaux Arts curlicues.
I walked for about two hours, plastic grocery bags dangling in my hands. It was late when I got back to the hotel, or rather it felt late to me who was used to crashing at nine; it wasn’t late for that neighbourhood, certainly not on a Friday night. The red-and-white bratwurst wagon, parked out front, was all lit up and open and, on impulse I bought a sausage, smothered it with brown mustard and devoured it as I rode the juddering lift back up to my room. Its greasy warmth was delicious. As I stepped out of the lift I even found myself wishing I’d bought two, and toyed with the idea of going back down and buying another one, but the thought of having to work that agonisingly slow lift again made it seem like too much bother. Instead when I got in I opened a packet of ginger snaps, sat down beside the window and listened to the far off serenade of the city; no Mozart at the Stats Opera for me thanks, just a little night music.
* * * * * *
I idled away the next few days in Vienna, playing tourist and indulging in Sacher Tortes and Turkish coffee in sumptuous Art Nouveau cafés, and generally basking in a sense of arrival, compensating in a way, I suppose, for what might be considered too rushed a journey along the Austrian reaches of the Danube.
The fact is though I’d enjoyed those free-flowing miles, perhaps the most of any of the thousand or so I’d ridden thus far, particularly that stretch coming up through the Wachau Valley, each bend revealing a scene more achingly beautiful than the last, and always with the promise of Vienna waiting just over the horizon. I rode them greedily, and for all the must-dos I’d missed, and the imagined chidings of travel guide authors as I passed them by, I couldn’t bring myself to regret it, not really. I travel for travel’s sake; the great affair is to move, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, and he was travelling by donkey at the time, not astride an elegant black-and-cream tourer as I was, revelling in that aerial sense of liberation you feel when you are whizzing over the ground on two skinny wheels and under your own steam.
And so I did my obeisance to the guidebook gods and after an appropriate interval, and with nicely rested legs, set off once more, picking my way down to the river one cool grey morning five days later, and riding out of town through the Prater, past the old Ferris wheel, towards Bratislava and points east.