With our passports desirous of another smudge, we’re off to Europe on a September sabbatical; keen to spend our ‘fallidays’ cycling the Austrian countryside and hiking in the mountains of beautiful Slovenia.
Taking a train from Munich Germany to Passau, we eagerly collect our bikes and set the wheels in motion. Our route will cross the border into Austria, through farmlands, forests, villages and vineyards; right across the country to Vienna. Along the way we smirk at signposts with unpronounceable village names that look more like a bad scrabble hand. However, this is almost like a ‘cycling for dummies’ course, as we go with the flow via a predominantly pancake-flat path following Europe’s longest river; the mighty Danube.
While the Danube River may not be blue, the cloudless skies above certainly are; as the spectacular fall days begin with a chill but warm up to the mid-twenties by mid-day. The scarcity of rain is unusual for this time of year and we’re as happy as cats in cream to be able to leave our rain gear stowed in the panniers.
Pheasants and rabbits scatter in front of us as we cycle by properties guarded by countless red-hatted garden gnomes lurking in the flowers or shrubbery. Using some mental floss, we try removing the cheery-faced dwarf images from our brains to make room for more memorable countryside moments, including a scrumptious wild boar dinner in the quaint village of Pochlarn, the grandiose world heritage abbey at Melk, and a trainload of girls blowing me kisses in Krem.
River swans scull about with their head and necks forming question marks, while fishermen patiently ply their craft along the banks. The surrounding hills are also easy on the eyes, courtesy of the ancient stone churches, forts, and castles neatly sculpted into them. The striking hillsides of Wachau Valley are painted with vineyards, and it’s a perfect spot to step out of the saddle for a little wine tasting! Between Passau and Vienna, our nightly cycling stopovers include lodging in the towns of Linz, Grein, Pochlorn and Krems.
Each day begins guiltlessly grazing at the breakfast buffet, followed by pillaging a cache of goodies to act as fuel for the hours on our bikes. The five consecutive days of riding cover 83, 70, 71, 51, and 45 km. Though our hefty bicycles aren’t exactly Tour de France material, the cycling is a piece of cake given the flat as a flounder terrain. Each day culminates in a new town or village, where our only major task is seeking out a suitable watering hole for happy hour, followed by a place to enjoy a hearty, well merited dinner.
Our cycling days conclude in the romantic and historical city of Vienna, and after dropping off the bikes and checking into ‘Pension Vitis’, it’s time to set off and explore. Our first stop is the funky Hundertwasser Haus buildings. Created with total randomness and drunken angles, each apartment is vibrantly painted differently and the nonsensical scene almost seems cartoon like. Additional stops include the famous Naschmarkt market and a stroll through the grounds of the ostentatious 1,441 room Schonbrunn Palace.
After a few days of roaming about we’re eager to experience a new country, and cross the border into in the Republic of Slovenia; a former province of Yugoslavia situated on the sunny side of the Alps. The impossibly romantic fairytale scenery at Lake Bled has us enthusing at every turn. On diminutive Bled Island, in the middle of the glacial lake, sits a quaint 15th century church emitting random reverberating bongs from a massive wishing bell in the chapel. Nearby, a 1000 year old medieval castle perches atop a dramatic precipice 130 meters above the lake with the towering Julian Alps scraping the sky beyond. Charm simply oozes from this pint-sized town that has the look of an air-brushed cover of some fantasy novel.
Cycling today, we pass through the villages of Podhom and Zasip before locking up the bikes to trek in the enticing Vintgar Gorge; along wooden boardwalks suspended out from the sheer rock walls constraining the flow of the crystal clear Radovna River. Furthering our workout, we return to Bled and scramble like a couple of mountain goats to the top of Velika Osojnica via a steep tree-rooted path; aided by wire hand holds and the longest vertical ladder we’ve ever seen.
Another of our highpoints in Slovenia is a nine hour day trip into Triglav National Park with a lovely guide named Tina Hiti. Our day starts off in picturesque rolling green valleys adorned with grazing sheep, then gains substantial elevation on a narrow military road which happens to be the highest road in Slovenia.
After traversing a dangerous mix of switchbacks, tunnels, and hairpin turns, the gravel road terminates at dramatic Mount Mangart. Indulging in the eagle eye vistas over Slovenia and Italy, Tina whips out a flask of her homemade pine schnapps to toast the beauty of the Julian Alps. Christine and I can now understand why the beauty of these mountains can hook so many folks and turn them into Alp-oholics.
Down out of the muscular mountains, it’s time for lunch, so Tina takes us to a cafe and promptly orders a plate of bread and smoked lard! Now I know this girl has a sense of humor, but smoked lard? Better than peanut butter she claims; stuffing a glob into her gob and talking around it. Our opinion remains that this is none other than a greasy guarantee to have you sprinting for the throne!
I start ribbing her about this cookie-tossing appy and am getting good mileage out of it until Christine comes to her rescue, dredging up my less than divine goat penis wine episode in Vietnam. With the playing field now even, Tina surprises us yet again by ordering us ice cream covered in pumpkin seed oil.
She humorously entertains us with her astute knowledge of her beautiful country, and shares a couple of interesting expressions used by older Slovenians when they want to politely swear. Translated; one means ‘300 hairy bears’ and the other converts to ‘May a chicken kick you in the bum’! Oh, how wonderfully useful; I just can’t wait to work these wonders into a conversation!
With our ‘guffaw-full’ lunch finished, we enjoy one last hike in the beautiful Soca Valley before driving back to Bled. Flopping out on our hotel’s flower filled balcony, we pour a hefty splash of Merlot, raising a glass to another delightful day!
Before leaving town, we circumnavigate Lake Bled on foot to see its beauty from every possible angle. Along the way are amused to see a bevy of boats imbedded in the rowboat shape cutouts on a wooden jetty, giving the dock the appearance it was chomped by the jaws of a mutated megalodon shark the size of a freighter!
Well, it’s now past our Bled time, and time to forge on to Ljubliana. What’s a Ljubliana you ask? Why, it’s the pint-sized capital of Slovenia of course. The charming old city is full of artists, museums, and galleries; but regrettably we arrive immersed in Noah-like rain that sounds like gravel sliding off a shovel.
Christine buys an umbrella, only to have the vicious wind turn it inside-out upon opening, and with the black fabric now draped over her shoulders she bears a striking resemblance to a tangled bat! The cloud’s angry hosing promptly soaks us through to the epidermal layer, and fearing we may soon need a set of gills, we splashily race back to the bus station to unpack some dry clothes for our Slovenian departure.
Though not as adventurous as many of our ‘back of beyond’ trips over the last three decades, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves; especially the cycling trip, and just can’t wait to re-cycle a few more European countries!
Mark Colegrave 2011