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Austrian Wine Country

Austrian Wine Country

It is a bittersweet day.  I am sad that this is our last day of cycling.  But my body is tired after eight straight days of cycling and I need a rest.  Both Craig and I have begun to feel a little sick with sore throats and headaches.  Maybe an aftereffect of our cold rainy ride on Friday.  It is a full day with 37 miles of pedaling and several stops along the way. Our entire route today is on the EuroVelo Route 6, part of the extensive European cycle route network.  Some day we hope to come back to Europe for an extended stay and cycle as much of the network as we can.

Grapevines silhouetted in the morning sun.

Grapevines silhouetted in the morning sun.

We left from our hotel and pedal through the rows of grapevines, silhouetted as the sun rises behind the thick morning fog.  The scenery here is stunning.  Terraced mountain orchards rise up all around us and the Danube is ever present at the bottom of the valley to our left.  We cycled through village after village.  Always the smell of ripe grapes surrounds us.  Morning chores were underway.  Men harvesting grapes.  Another man hammering at a board on the side of his house.  Two women lean out of their windows and yell their morning gossip to each other across the street.

Bones of the soldiers who protected the village of Sankt Michael during the 30 years war.

Bones of the soldiers who protected the village of Sankt Michael during the 30 years war.

Our first stop was at the old gothic church in Sankt Michael.  This 12th century structure is much older than the baroque castles and cathedrals we’ve toured before now.  It is a dark grey hulking structure covered in black moss.  A cemetery sits at its base with ancient engraved tombstones and ornate iron crosses.  We peeked through a thick window to view piles of skulls and bones on a table, remains of the soldiers who fought to protect Sankt Michael in the 30 Years War during the 1600s.  We climbed the long staircase that runs up the inner walls of the tower and were rewarded with brilliant views of the village, bike trail and Danube far below.

Posing with the Venus of Willendorf statue

Posing with the Venus of Willendorf statue

Next was the village of Willendorf where the famous “Venus of Willendorf” fertility figurine was found.  The tiny statuette is estimated to have been made around 23,000 BCE.  It is now in a museum in Vienna, but we were able to pose for photos with a much larger than life-size version of it up on the hill at the excavation location.  I have been astounded at how ancient this land is, but everything I’ve seen so far is brand spanking new compared to the age of the Venus figure.

This land is glorious, GLORIOUS!!!  The beauty of it is too wonderful.  I always feel that I must be dreaming.

This land is glorious, GLORIOUS!!! The beauty of it is too wonderful. I always feel that I must be dreaming.

Our first van stop (COOKIES AND SNACKS!!!) was at Aggsback Markt.  Richard had a surprise for us – STURM!  We’ve been hearing about sturm (pronounced stur-dim) since our guide, Barbara, told us about it when she picked us up at the airport in Prague.  Sturm is a carbonated drink created during the winemaking process after yeast has been added to the grapes but before the first press.  The  grapes ferment rapidly during this stage; the sturm only lasts a few days and cannot be stored in a closed bottle (or the bottle would burst).  Because of this, sturm is only available for a short time and can only be bought directly from the wine sellers or local restaurants.  We are fortunate to be cycling through Austria during the peak of sturm season.  We had heard how delicious it is and I wholeheartedly agree.  It is a milky colored drink and tastes similar to sparkling grape juice only it is much better.  I had two glasses!  It is deliciously addicting.  I’ll now be craving sturm until I’m able to get it again and who knows when that will be?  I’d never heard of it before.  Do our Missouri wineries make this divine nectar???

The Benedictine Abbey at Melk

The Benedictine Abbey at Melk

Back on our bikes through another little village and over the Danube on a long river bridge… EuroVelo 6 all the way!  It is usually a separated bike path with its own signage and painted lanes, and meticulously maintained.  HEAVEN!

Our lunch stop was in Melk where we dropped off the bikes with Richard and hiked up to the colossal Melk Benedictine Abbey.  We will take an hour tour of the abbey before lunch.  All the lavish ostentation of all the buildings we’ve toured put together cannot match the baroque extravagance of the Melk Abbey.  It is unrestrainedly over-the-top.  Every square inch covered in gold leaf curly-cue something or other.  Maybe it was that our tour guide talks too fast and I had trouble understanding her Austrian accented English.  Maybe I was not feeling well.  Maybe I was just all castled and cathedralled out.  But I didn’t really enjoy this tour and kept wandering off on my own.  I must admit that I found the excess off putting.  I wasn’t expecting it.  Craig and I stay at a Benedictine Abbey in Missouri a couple times a year for meditative retreats.  I prefer its peaceful subdued austerity as a place to observe the Benedictine disciplines.

The fabulous view of the Danube and Melk from the roof of the Abbey

The fabulous view of the Danube and Melk from the roof of the Abbey

When the tour ended we walked through the abbey gift store and the jar for donations (are you kidding me?) and down to the town of Melk to find lunch.  A group of us settled on a little Austrian deli and descended upon the rather rude lady working behind the counter.  She didn’t seem happy at all to have customers.  Nothing was in English and I was too afraid to ask her what anything was so I just pointed to things that I thought looked good.  I pointed to this orangish spread in a bowl that looked similar to a delicious pimento cottage cheese we’d enjoyed at dinner the night before.  “Do you want on your sandwich?” she asked and when I said no she gave me the most severe eye roll I’ve ever received.  Maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was or maybe she just didn’t want me to have any but she didn’t give it to me and so I’ll never know what it was.  She did see fit to give me a patty looking thing that I pointed to on sandwich buns and potato salad.  The patty turned out to be a homemade veggie burger and it was delicious as was the potato salad.

Slogging through the headwind to our next stop at the ferry crossing.

Slogging through the headwind to our next stop at the ferry crossing.

After lunch we all walked back down to the bikes.  About half the group were tired and decided to skip the rest of the ride.  The weather was getting colder and we had been assured that the most beautiful part of the ride was behind us.  But Craig and I and another couple, Bonnie and Ken, decided to go for it.  So we put our heads down and slogged off into the headwind for about fourteen miles to the ferry where we would cross back over to the Weissenkirchen side of the Danube.  Craig was on a mission and pedaled ferociously off into the distance, Ken on his heels.  Keeping up with them was hopeless but Bonnie and I resolutely pedaled on.

We were quite relieved when we finally reached the ferry.  As we stood around remarking on how fast our time had been to cover the distance in a headwind in an hour, Craig noticed that we were at the Spitz Ferry.  We were supposed to be at the Weissenkirchen Ferry.  ACK!!!  Richard had told us it was the second ferry but it must be the THIRD ferry.  Back on the bikes and more ferocious pedaling into the wind.  Our time hadn’t been as impressive as we’d thought.

Waiting to cross the ferry.

Waiting to cross the ferry.

Finally we got there and Richard was waiting for us with snacks of course.  Fresh pineapple this time.  YUM!  I wolfed down a bunch of slices, trying to get some extra vitamin c into my increasingly puny feeling self.   The ferry was at the other side of the river and we had to wait for him to get enough customers to come back across.  They don’t run on a schedule.  While we waited, several others from the group joined us: our chemist couple, Marta and Steve, along with Yvette, Laurie and Andrea, our other guide.

The ferry was interesting.  It is attached by a long steel cable to another cable extended across the river.  The water current pushes the ferry out into the river and the ferry cable slides along the other one.  The motion of the river arcs the ferry over to the other side.  Ingenious.  No engine needed at all. These Europeans are so smart.  Always coming up with environmentally sound solutions for everything.  There are solar panels and wind turbines everywhere.  Their governments give great incentives for using solar and wind power.  C’mon U.S.A., get a clue!

Hiking up to the castle ruins

Hiking up to the castle ruins

After we crossed the river, we turned away from Weissenkirchen for our final section of the day’s ride into Durnstein to see the castle ruins where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned in 1193.  We locked our bikes together at the base of the trail and began our ascent to the castle that overlooks the village.  And boy was it a hike.  Up and up and up and up and up the winding stone steps higher and higher above Durnstein.  The boots I was wearing to cycle in weren’t good for hiking and I was carrying my beloved Detours bicycle purse.  I was woefully unprepared for this arduous mountain climbing trek.  But we kept climbing and climbing and eventually did reach the castle ruins.  They were interesting and the views from that height were indeed spectacular.  But maybe not spectacular enough to justify the hike.  Andrea had tried to warn us.  “Wouldn’t you rather stay in town and enjoy some wine?” she had asked us.  But would we listen to her?  NOPE!  We snapped some photos and trekked back down to our bikes for the final four miles to Weissenkirchen.

Ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.

Ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.

As I skidded back into Weissenkirchen I knew that I had milked absolutely every bit of adventure available from our final day of cycling.  Craig and I pedaled every mile possible.  We certainly got more than our money’s worth that day! I was satisfied but also so sad to say goodbye to my bicycle.  It carried me over many miles and amazing adventures.  It was so comfortable and it was a boy’s bike!  I will miss it.

We all enjoyed another delightful dinner at an Austrian restaurant.  Our group is quite close now and we get along exceptionally well.  Lots of laughter all around.  I will be sad to say goodbye to all of these wonderful people. We stuffed ourselves once again with marvelous food and delicious wines.  After dessert, we tasted the local apricot schnapps.  WOW it had a KICK!!!  I drank two shots!

Tomorrow morning we take a bus to Vienna for our final full day in Europe.  See more photos from this day on my Crazy Guy on a Bike journal HERE.

Here’s Craig’s little video about our day cycling in the Austrian wine country. I love the Chili Peppers song he chose for this video. It talks about a girl named “Blue.”

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