With visions of rolling hills, fine coffee, Royal palaces and beer gardens, we cycled into Austria via the north of Slovenia. Little did we know how circuitous our route would be as we searched for scenic cycle paths and memorable towns and cities.
Although we had felt that Slovenia offered terrific cycling infrastructure and signage, Austria took it to another level. As soon as we crossed the border we found impeccably designated routes leading every which way. We followed a quiet bike lane into Graz, the second largest city in the country, about 50km north of Slovenia.
The altstadt (or historic downtown) is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. In a relatively small area it is jam packed with jaw-dropping historic architecture while interspersed with ground breaking modern developments. And of course no shortage of beer gardens, including a prominent one perched on top of the hill overlooking the scenic city below. We enjoyed a selection of tasty pilsners, lagers and weissbiers in the city, although wishing they were at Slovenia prices. Goodbye 2E beers!
Graz is similar in size to Ljubljana (about 300,000) but boasts a much larger university population, creating a noticeable energy in the city centre. We had a leisurely evening stay with family in the city, and were introduced to the local specialty of pumpkin oil, an ideal calorie-rich addition to pasta dinners for the road ahead. We soaked up as much of Graz as we could in one day then followed the Mur River north towards the hills and eventually to Vienna.
The meandering riverside pathway gradually gained elevation as we left the city behind. Although not quite “alpine Austria” with cows grazing in high meadows, the area was nonetheless very scenic, with small towns dotting the quiet forested landscape.
The following day we felt as if we were pedalling through molasses, as we could never get any momentum on our way towards the alpine town of Semmering. The route appeared flat but the subtle incline was just enough to make for an exhausting 70km of riding. We gained about 600m of elevation before cresting the pass at Semmering, and spent the night indoors while the rain clouds unleashed their pent-up moisture.
We enjoyed a thrilling 20km descent the following morning, catching quick glances of the precarious railway route through the mountains around us. The early engineering feat was so impressive that today the train line through Semmering is another World Heritage Site.
We arrived in Vienna after a long and relatively dull ride through miles of suburban sprawl. But it was worth it. Vienna is undeniably one of the most impressive cities in Europe. It’s historic downtown is like walking through a perfectly polished outdoor museum, with churches, theatres, palaces, and museums complementing the intricately detailed residences and storefronts in the core. Any one of the dozens of dazzling buildings could be the main draw of any city.
We spent three nights in Vienna to savour the city, visiting the famous Schonnbrunn palace and gardens, along with the tributaries of the Danube, on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. We also enjoyed the most hospitable stay we could have asked for with our first “Warm Showers” experience. The online home-sharing platform is designed to host and receive cycle tourers around the world.
We stayed with an incredibly friendly and generous host whose boyfriend was in the midst of a cycle tour in Tajikistan. She made us feel like we were at home, making for a memorable and refreshing stay at the halfway point of our adventure.
We shared dinners and breakfasts together, and enjoyed engaging conversation about travels, life and politics, discovering that the presidential election that weekend was a hotly debated contest. The Austrian run-off system resulted in a dead heat between two candidates at the far ends of the spectrum, reminiscent of a similar situation in America.
We had noticed a proliferation of signs for the right-wing candidate in the rural areas we passed through, contrasting with the support for the left-wing candidate in Graz and Vienna. The country seemed to be holding its collective breath for the results. The vote proved so close that it came down to the difference in mailed votes, giving a fractional edge to the previous leader of the Green Party on the left.
Having cycled in a roundabout way to Vienna, we cast our eyes further east towards Budapest for a side trip before continuing our northerly route to Copenhagen.