Perched in a stilted wooden hut, two conscripts kept watch. Their miniature outpost was fixed several yards from the border and on their far left flowed the Danube River, eastward into Slovakia. They looked down on a dirt path, trodden down by the feet of refugees making a run westward into Austria, attempting to flee the confines of Communism. The soldiers reportedly had orders to shoot the 'runners' on sight.
No one can say exactly how many people tried to dash across, sneaking past the army hut and chancing the shot of a gun for a shot at freedom, but the well-worn path speaks as much of their numbers as of their desperation.
The hut is still there, though often unmanned. Already a generation has passed since the Iron Curtain was pulled down, when some Austrians and Slovaks celebrated at their shared border with chocolates and tears, welcoming Slovakia into freedom and toasting the end of a geography mapped in sorrow.
The dirt path used by the runners has since been paved and has found a new life as a bicycle route. Now it’s an added link along the most popular cycling route in Europe, the one that hugs the Danube throughout Austria and into Germany.
The now iconic army hut lies on the outskirts of Hainburg, Austria, a medieval town of nearly 6,000 that felt itself at the edge of the world during the decades of Communist occupation in neighbouring Slovakia. For hundreds of years before that, this whistle-stop had been central to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its legacy being the castle ruins that top the town’s Schlossberg (Castle Hill) like a crown.
A Bohemian king married into Austrian nobility here, vastly expanding his power base. Composer Josef Haydn lived in Hainburg as a boy and his grandfather is famous for having narrowly escaped the devastation of the second Turkish invasion that decimated this region.
From the top of the castle ruins you get a fantastic panorama of a small and storied town, towered with legend and tumbling toward tomorrow. Along the mighty Danube that runs beside it, cyclists pass in ever-increasing numbers.
"The cycling tourism in our region started about 20 years ago,” says Michaela Gansterer, a local politician who also runs the premier hotel in Hainburg, Zum Goldenen Anker. “The number of people who stay [at the hotel] hasn’t necessarily increased, but we get more international tourists – from England, Ireland, Scandinavia and the USA.”
Many hotels along the route, incuding Zum Goldenen Anker, will store guests’ bikes overnight and work with a luggage service to deliver bags that cyclists can’t carry with them.
Hainburg native Yvonne Greslechner is wistful for the days when the cycle path here was a well-kept secret and nothing more than dirt and gravel. “The path along the Danube was like it is today, but it wasn’t paved and it was even narrower,” she says. “It wasn’t so good for cycling and there were a lot of scraped knees and elbows, but it didn’t matter.”
“It was along the Danube that we taught our daughters how to ride a bicycle. My husband and I would walk alongside them and it was great because there were no cars. But since the border with Slovakia opened, it has become very popular and a lot busier.”
The usual direction to ride the route is from west to east, with the wind and setting sun trailing behind, the Hainburg region as a final treat at the end of a path that takes about a week to cover.
Ambling along past fields and steep valleys, through wine and castle country, the Danube route from Passau, in Germany, to Hainburg is pancake flat. Thought by many to be the most beautiful of all of Europe’s cycling tours, it’s certainly the most popular.
From pretty Passau, where three rivers meet, the path soon crosses over into Austria, where breathtaking gorges rise up around the Danube. Further along it passes through Baroque-soaked Linz and onwards to picturesque Grein, the site of Austria’s oldest theatre. Heading on into the treasured Wachau region, it enters storybook Austria, with apricot orchards and plush vineyards rolled out between medieval castles – including the one that held Richard the Lionheart captive (his ransom was used to extend Hainburg’s castle). The spectacular abbey in Melk and the chocolate-box cute town of Ybbs ensure that cyclists look up at the sites instead of down at the gravel.
Pedalling into Vienna, the trail branches off into the city. The Viennese are avid cyclists, the city having set up a system of free bicycles several years ago. These can be picked up and dropped off by anyone wanting to navigate the downtown area on two wheels. Hans-Juergen Oberwald, a 32-year-old project manager, cycles to work every day and rode the bulk of the Danube route on an outing a few years ago. “It was a lot of fun,” he enthuses. “I took the train from Vienna to Passau and spent three days cycling about 350km back. It was awesome to see the nature, the culture and the people. The goal was fitness and we only had a weekend, so we had to rush it a bit.”
Heading east out of Vienna, past windmills dotted through neon yellow fields of rapeseed and acres of sunflowers standing straight and proud and happy, the cycling is soft and steady.
Several miles further down the route is Petronell, known in Roman times as Carnuntum. About half a mile off the main path, this is where Marcus Aurelius barracked his armies and it’s awash with Roman ruins. The area teemed with upwards of 60,000 people during the Roman reign, many of whom were tradesmen who found the Danube quite handy for transport.
Just a shout across the river is the Donau-Auen National Park, a floodplain that protects the largest acreage of wetlands in Central Europe. Cyclists coast into Hainburg, dropping tired bodies into chairs at outdoor cafés to sip the famed drink Radler –half beer, half lemonade – which Austrians claim brings good health.
At the end of the trail, cyclists from around the world sit with the Danube behind them, the Schlossberg before them and their friends around them.