Posts Tagged With: cycling

Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

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Views From the Wonderous Wolkersdorf Wanderpuzzle

I’ve liked Wolkersdorf from the start. From the moment Chris and I stepped off the train, people have been extremely friendly and have gone out of their way to be kind and polite. (A free ride from the train station is especially appreciated after nearly 24 hours of travel with 50-plus pounds of luggage.)  The quaint town is impeccably clean with the perfect combination of preservation of the historic and introduction of the modern.  The scenery, both in the village and on the countryside is stunning, and you can’t help but notice that none of the bicycles contributing to the high cycling-to-driving ratio in this town are ever locked up.

As though I wasn’t already contemplating ways to make a semi-permanent move here, we came across Wolkersdorf Wanderpuzzle, a network of biking and walking trails throughout the Wolkersdorf village and countryside. The trails led us through charming neighborhoods and up hillside vineyards to a view of Wolkersdorf’s pride and joy: their windmills.  Although I’m not normally a fan of the rotating steal monsters, in this setting I see them for the majestic, powerful, looming giants others claim them to be. It may be partially because clean energy they provide fits in so organically with this pedestrian heavy, environmentally conscious and seemingly pollution-free town.  While I know this first location is setting the bar high for things to come, it is always nice to start out on a good foot.

View of Wolkersdorf and its windmills.

Victoriously biking up the giant hill

Chris becoming one with the willow tree.

Apparently what Austrians keep in their garages?

Practically an Austrian Hobbit Hole 🙂

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