Record Curator + Marketing at at LUNA Music. 10+ yrs experience as Design Strategist + Project Manager for web, brand, strategic planning. Play music, eat toast, ride bikes, walk fast.

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EuroVelo #6: Vienna to Bratislava

Maybe a good place to start would be the night before. Yeah, I'd crossed the Atlantic with an accent-so-thick-I-couldn't-understand-a-word Irishman who couldn't turn off the flashlight on his new iPhone and soon after, fell asleep snoring on my shoulder. Made it to sunny Vienna, basked in the park, pounded some train station currywurst, and passed out after a rauchbier and schnitzel.

But an hour after Ben arrived, the weather turned (it would drop 30 degrees in 24 hours) and a bit of dread set in before we even got on a bike. Had I convinced my friends to Do A Thing; only to have weather bite us in the ass? How would everyone fare if we had steady rain, 40-degree temps, and gusty wind for an entire week? I knew how unpleasant it was to commute 2 miles to work in that shit, and I expended way too much logical thinking trying to smart my way out of nature.

Nature wasn't having it. I was wigging – a bit – after cold and gray and rain had driven us from the Museum Quarter back to a pre-dinner nap zone in the hotel, I scoured forecasts and figured the only thing that'd prevent a mutiny was taking an off-day on day two – even though we'd already spent our other off-day as an extra in Vienna (which was the right decision, especially with the excellent late night spent at Jazzland).

(Pre-ride in Jazzland's many-hundred-year-old cellar.
Right after this, a slide flute solo blew my mind, no foolin'.)

The mania passed – Tyler was able to book a second night at the hostel in Bratislava, and the dudes didn't seem as anxious as I, so I finally took their queue and mellowed. Assisted by pints and piping hot goulash down the block at the local watering hole, where we watched the world's sleepiest dog pass out in 8 different formations while his owner & friend absconded for an equal amount of smoke breaks. Back at the hotel, we holed up in the corner nook, me perched in the window, sucking room temperature bottles of lager and listening to our friends' music on cell phones. I was still a bit nervous, but the omens seemed to have turned for the better.

Though this would be our longest ride, we couldn't pick up the bikes till 10, so we woke up early to fully pack, then walking to breakfast at nearby Café Sperl – pots of Viennese coffee service with rolls, butter, and jam – the ornate interior full of billiards and periodicals-on-rails almost made me take up rolling cigarettes and arguing philosophy. The swift servers, tall ceilings, wood paneling, and quiet bustle made it a place where you wanted to stay and read for hours. But we had miles to ride!

(The view from the hotel, just before loading up.
A couple little kids on scooters definitely blazed past us while
we struggled to get used to the gravity of fully loaded touring bikes.)

We walked next to Pedal Power to snag the bikes – getting some efficient tips from the nice dudes at the shop, rolling through a quick test ride, and signing approximately 8 different forms. From here, another walk back a mile to the hotel to load up and check out. Still getting used to our gear, and balancing it on the racks, this takes a minute, and we swing through a bougie grocery for sandwiches and fruit before finally walking+riding bikes across the Donaukanal (not the river!) around noon.

The first stretch was a damp (from 2 days of rain), tree-lined, flowering road through the Prater – a large park that had a few joggers and dog-walkers out mid-day on a Monday. A delicate whippet wore a jacket and trotted beneath the giant bridge that emerged from the trees – his elegant owner, and older woman, turning around, while I made the first of many GPS gaffes riding past and then back to the bridge, where we passed a biker sleeping under the overhang, and crossed the expanse of the Danube via a bike-only bridge underhang. I see you, Austrian infrastructure, and I like what I'm seeing.

(Before crossing the Danube. Vienna graffiti was a highlight of walking around the city.)

The first ten or so miles was mostly silent along a broad path in view of the river. We passed an occasional fitness-focused runner or biker, and a grubbier figure pulling a bike trailer (which had a baguette hanging out) who was fishing the choppy waters. The paths took us past multiple mothballed cafés (one cheesily Jamaican themed; another closed but quietly playing creepy piano music while a single door stood ajar...), where we got the first sense that we might be undertaking this thing a bit early.

Temperatures hovered near 50, and without much wind, it was pleasant once you worked up a sweat. Near a railyard, I gaffed again and took us down the incorrect divergent path...probably 2.5 miles down till it dead-ended on a pier where river barges were tied up. We pedaled back and took the high path across the railyard, crossing a road to ride a narrow gravel spit next to a road trafficked by tanker trucks rumbling into a refinery, the air thick with heavy metals and petroleum; the three of us all reminiscing about the smell of the Continental Steel mill, defunct from our Kokomo childhood but overly ripe with metallic fumes until it was declared an EPA Superfund site and bulldozed.

(Riding down what looked to be a popular path in the summer.
Our timing was off – not a single trailside joint was open for a Radler,
although one was piping out hella creepy circus music while open doors
flapped in the wind...)

As the industrial trail ended, we passed two touring bikes headed West – little did we know we'd only see 2 more bikers for the next 30+ miles. At this point, we ascended a river-dike path that ran through national park & forestland in Lower Austria. Completely absent of people, the freshly paved path was extraordinarily silent, except for birdsong in the trees that, for the most part, blocked our view of the river. In the hazy distance, it seemed that we could see the water glimmering, and we rode for hours in its direction, only pausing to pass the occasional construction crew who were working on seasonal improvements to the path.

One required us to "walk" our bikes down a steep hill – pro-tip: walking a fully loaded touring bike down a steep hill is a fool's errand. Most of us ended up bloodied from half-sliding, half-running, half-tripping down the embankment, and then at the trail interruption, we were invisible to the workers. Eventually, we figured out we had to trek a half-mile into the wood, popping out on a country lane that took us back to the river-dike path.

For ten minutes or so after this, silently enjoying the birdsong, the sun came out and it was almost warm. My ass was hurting already, which in hindsight (pun intended) was perhaps an omen that the day was about to turn. The path continued on, but the fresh pavement ended abruptly by a defunct rest area, and the dike path turned to gravel. Normally, this would've been pleasant, but a month of rain had rendered it loamy like a sandbank crusted with gravel that gave your bike tire purchase.

The actual bad omen was, 10 miles from any other human, and somewhat near a moss-covered fifth wheel tucked into the woods next to a stable and small pasture with a few longhorn cattle, we passed a woman pushing a large, black stroller. A mile later, we all confirmed that its sunshade was fully extended such that none of us had seen or perceived a child's presence. Most certainly this was a Danube witch – or, we were suffering the effects of intense hot dog consumption whilst in Vienna, only now suffering the ill visions of withdrawal.

The path continued – and continued – river mostly blocked by a span of trees that gave glimpses of the wind-blown surface, the other side alternating national forest and meadow, just dense enough to be creepy. We must've gone a dozen miles without seeing a soul – and in fact, what appeared to be a bend in the river in front of us for several hours turned out to be a stony bluff.

(Yep, that bluff, visible for miles...looked like the surface of the river.
Look, I wasn't *that* hungover, and my blood sugar was really low
from only eating bootleg eastern euro candy and bougie prepackaged sandwich
...it really did!)

At the same time, the wind began to howl, gusting so hard diagonally across the path that several times I had to plant my foot in the dirt shoulder to keep from tipping over. Meanwhile, the paved path ended and the river dike continued on a small-graveled, grass-median'd path that was extra soggy from a month of rain. It was like riding on sand.

Several times I looked behind me, after feeling like I'd ridden ten minutes into cold oatmeal, and Ben & Tyler emerged around a bend fighting the wind. The two dike paths diverged nearly a quarter-mile apart here, a sunken median in-between. A ruddy Austrian flagged us down from a half-mile away, only to tell us, "American? Yes. These paths not for bikes. Go back to road." We ignored him, to his chagrin, and continued our futile pedal into the wind's teeth.

A figure in the distance eventually drew closer, then pulled off to the shoulder. On two bikes loaded with four saddlebags each, and tent gear balanced on each rack, we passed an arguing couple with Australian accents debating angrily whether to camp in the median or head away from the river in search of an inn. Their riding speed was somehow beneath our own, though, so we passed them with a polite nod and despite an hour delay at the bridge, didn't see them again. I can only assume they murdered each other crossing the median...or found a pension.

Finally abreast of the rocky outcrop that now hovered above the river, we needed to cross the bridge (according to the GPS) to reach Hainburg, the Austrian town nestled between said outcrop and the Danube. Looking into the overgrown riverbank, there didn't seem to be a path up to the bridge running at least 50 feet above our heads. As the energetic one, I volunteered to cross the median via a circuitious, U-shaped path that must've ran a half-mile curve between dikes.

Across the median, the freshly paved dike had a small stair up to the bridge that was blocked by multiple guardrails and jerry-rigged plywood barriers with NO ACCESS warning signs, all overgrown with weeds and trashed with highway detritus. It seemed as though we were too early – that this would likely be opened during peak summer, but for now was off-limits. After calling Ben's cell phone but unable to be heard due to high winds, I rode the half-mile back across the dike, feeling like I was the scout sent ahead.

We studied the GPS and it looked like the next river crossing ...was nonexistent. Otherwise, we'd have to detour miles down country roads, enter Slovakia, and make our way to Bratislava – the route, if it even existed, was the opposite of direct. Not ideal. The wind continued to intensify, with a newfound cold edge and the occasional pebble of cold rain, and dark clouds now hovered menacingly on the horizon.

(Porting bikes up to this bridge was probably physicallythe most difficult part of the entire trip. On the last hill, Ben and I gripped my doubly-loaded bike–yep, my idea to frontloada backpacking trip with a bike tour...–and heaved the last 10 feet up,shoes slipping on the muddy embankment while I grabbed a woodenbarrier for purchase. After steadying myself, I noticed that the sharp-endof rusted nails protruded every 2 feet out of the barrier. Though I'd grabbed it blindly while slipping, I managed not to impale myself and incur a tetanusshot in Slovakia. Whew.)

The group mood was low, and exhaustion was setting in. We rode across the median and, eyeing the blocked stair, began porting our bikes, full up with gear, up the muddy, overgrown hill, poison ivy and warning signs be damned. Turns out that carrying fully-loaded touring bikes up a muddy hill is a fucking workout. Not only were my shins bloodied, but at some point, we had to two-man every bike under a crudely-nailed barrier to access the bridge's bike-lane (thank you, EU infrastructure). Soaked in sweat, bloody, grass-stained, freezing, and anxious from dealing with the first day of normal touring shenanigans, we crossed the fuckin' bridge, victorious, pumping fists with adrenaline found from pedaling on pavement instead of wet gravel.

The path into Hainburg was near bucolic (not to mention, shielded from the winds!) – the bridge leading down to some riverside marshy farmland, green and redolent with the recent heavy rain, which followed single-lane roads (flat! firm!) into the walled town, where we skirted a river cruise picking up vested, older Austrians before heading down a gravel farming lane. Spirits were high–so high that we cursed the God of Wind (Windseidon, obviously)! The fields opened up and we could see, in the distance, a mass of residential towers that we thought were the bloc-style Communist apartments of Bratislava. The end was in sight.

(Riding down a single-lane farming road just before leaving Austria. Right before shit turned atrocious and we almost found outwhat the laws on international murder were.)

The gravel lane eventually turned into a cobblestone path, then bike lane that merged onto a stressful 2-lane road that would take us across the border into Slovakia. Not only was traffic heavy, but the wind was back with a vengeance, not to mention a cold, wet edge, and ominously black clouds hovered in the distance above Bratislava. Occasional spats of rain slapped my helmet, and my quads, 45 miles in, threatened to seize up from the suddenly frozen winds.

Crossing the border into Slovakia, the path veered to a wide bike trail astride a roaring 6-lane highway. The traffic noise, auto detritus, road debris, and complete lack of people minus a few hardcore joggers made everything seem more gritty. We passed behind a shuttered border station and abandoned roadside casino, where we paused to adjust saddlebags and hide from the wind for a moment. Silent minus cursing and breathing for the last couple rough miles, Tyler flatly stated, "Well, Drew, you have two options. I'm going to murder you behind this roadside casino – or I'm going to lay down here and die, in which case, please tell Pamela I love her."

(Entering the cold streets of Bratislava's old city.Not cold enough, however, not to admire the fantasticstone mosaic walkway that made up this plaza ringed
by bars and restaurants, terminating at the Slovak National Theater.)

He did not appear to be joking, but soon enough, we rode on, passing beneath the expressway, ending up beneath the passenger bridge to the city. Due to construction, we walked bikes up the ramp and across the Danube, depositing ourselves smack in the middle of Bratislava's old city. From here, the weather continued to get worse, the rain now falling intermittently – but we still had an awkward 15-minute walk to the hostel, down narrow sidewalks and cobbled streets, soaked in rain and sweat and grime.

But there it was, just as dusk fell – an American Blues Rock themed hostel, tucked in a small brutalist block on a 4-lane road with streetcars and a Tesco. Never felt so good to roll into a place that, gratuitously, had the vibe of a YMCA with skimpier towels but beanbags and a small, cozy bar. Ben and I secured the bikes to an iron door leading to the basement laundry while Tyler checked us in. After passing the passport checks, we plopped at the bar and immediately pounded two 75-cent beers.

(This isn't the hostel, but was the view from my hot bun of an empty hotel across the street. There was a club called LUNAbar at ground level, which seemed like a positive omen. Also, Tesco carried room temperature corn pizza in the bakery case.
Word to the wise.)

Nothing had ever tasted better. Despite the near-mutiny in the last hour, as the pils went down and our asses (mine felt aflame) melded with the barstools – spirits returned. We lived. We rode 50 miles, in 20% terrible / 60% not good / 20% decent conditions, and made it through. Backslapping commenced, and after the 2nd beer slid down, headed upstairs to peel off bibs and grab a pre-dinner shower.

(These men almost murdered me.
I can promise that laughter rang out soon afte this photo,
depicting our mutual rise out of a nadir, was taken.)