As I cycled past beautifully tended rows of vines and fruit trees heavy with plums in Austria’s Wachau Valley, I was struck by how activities such as hiking, cycling and canoeing can give you a whole new perspective when on a river cruise. These days many guests enjoy staying active on their holiday, not only for health, but perhaps because you can give yourself permission to try all that delicious food and wine from the region! On my recent Avalon Danube cruise I was able to enjoy one of Austria’s prettiest regions while trying out a more active approach to sightseeing.
Canoeing in the Wachau Valley
One of our cruise stops was at Durnstein, a town made rich by the tolls of medieval merchants passing through and best known for the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held to ransom for a winter in 1192. Along the river, vineyards clothe the hillside, and the orchards of apricots are used to make the apricot jam, liquer and schnapps that you’ll see on sale in the shops.
From Durnstein I tried one of Avalon’s Active Discovery canoe excursions, with our group being taken up river to a spot where our canoes and guide awaited us. With canoes set two abreast and a board between them, this was canoeing the easy way, since the arrangement made a pretty unsinkable raft. I did notice that a couple of Canadian guests, who were natural born canoeists, took the option of individual kayaks instead, perhaps finding the rafts a little tame.
Under the watchful eye of our guide on a paddle board, we paddled our canoes down the Danube. We were passing through the classic romantic landscape, beloved by artists, with castles poised on rocky outcrops overlooking the river and vineyards clothing the hillside in neat rows. Every local we met had told us proudly, “You must try our wine” and on such steep slopes, tended by hand, the wine has to be high quality to justify the work involved.
Since our two canoes took six people, I sat on the middle board and designated myself group photographer, so I’m afraid I didn’t do too much paddling! Even if we hadn’t paddled at all, I feel sure that we would have drifted back to the ship eventually.
When the canoeing became too relaxed, we would veer towards the bank and have to paddle frantically to get back on track. The guides seemed to know when a river boat was likely to come up the river and guided us to one side of the river to keep out of their way.
Every so often we would have a friendly bit of competition with the other group, as if we were doing a leisurely Dragon Boat race. Mostly though, we chatted, took lots of photos and watched the scenery drift by.
We stopped for a while on the bank opposite Durnstein to look back at the town and see a ship passing by, then it was time to paddle a little further downstream beyond the ship. Arriving at a shallow inlet at the side of the river, we brought the canoes in and jumped ashore, then walked along the river path to reach the Avalon Visionary again.
Cycling down the Danube
After our morning canoe trip we had the chance to try another active excursion, this time a three hour cycle ride along the river to Melk, with a stop for a picnic lunch. On the quayside by the ship, our bikes awaited us and we set off with a guide at both front and back to ensure that no-one got lost.
The road took us along the river, then curved a little higher on the northern bank through pretty villages, where we could admire the houses and wine terraces set on the hillside. I found myself most often at the back, because I wanted to take lots of photos of the scenery. At least that’s what I told myself as I watched guests who were older but a lot fitter than me whizz by!
The scenery was impossibly pretty and I could understand why the Wachau Valley has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural landscape. Our guide pointed out the sculpture on the hillside that imitated the so called Venus of Willendorf, a small female figure dating back to prehistoric times, that’s said to be a fertility symbol and is now in the museum in Vienna.
Further along we cycled along the broad path beside the river, past the ferry stations and could see the river defences, that protect the riverside towns and villages in case of flood. For lunch we stopped at Susi’s Donaustueberl, a cafe overlooking the river, where we ate our packed lunch provided by the ship. While we were there, the Avalon Visionary passed by and we ran down to the shore waving frantically, although I’m not sure that the guests on board knew who those crazy people were on the bank!
After lunch the scenery became less picturesque, the path flatter and after an hour Melk Abbey came into sight set high above the river. I was glad to get back on board the Avalon Visionary, somewhat sweaty after the three hour cycle ride, for a quick change before visiting Melk Abbey which was a short walk away from the ship.
Visiting Melk Abbey in Austria
Melk Abbey is one of the treasures of this part of Austria, dating back to the 11th century when the ruling Babenberg Dynasty gave their fortress to the Benedictine order to found a monastery. There is so much to see here that to do it justice you need at least half a day, to enjoy the abbey and the pretty town that sits in its shadow.
By the early 18th century the monastery church was falling into disrepair and plans were made to rebuild it in the ornate baroque style that we see today. The abbot however had even more ambitious plans, proposing the rebuilding of the entire abbey which was done between 1700 and 1740, to create the baroque masterpiece we see today. Our guided tour took us through the main areas of the abbey, starting with the rooms bathed in coloured light that house some of the abbey’s treasures; golden chalices, holy relics and vestments used in the church, to tell the story of the Abbey’s history.
The display rooms led us into the magnificent Marble Hall with a ceiling fresco depicting Hercules and Athena, the gods of strength and wisdom, representing the rulers of Austria. In the centre of the room is a metal grill, which is the best spot to look up at the ceiling and see it in the correct perspective. Although the ceiling looks domed, this is due to the trompe l’oeil effect of the fresco, since it is actually almost flat.
From the Marble Hall we walked across the rooftop balcony with views over the town of Melk to the river below, and into the monastery library. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in the library, but the ceilings and gilding were quite magnificent, with an ornate spiral staircase leading up to more of the twelve library rooms, housing books that date back to the 9th century.
The final part of the visit took us through the monastery church that was decorated in similarly ornate baroque style, with more gilding and ceiling frescos to dazzle us. After all this over-the-top magnificence it was a relaxing change to visit the monastery gardens where the tea room was housed in a beautiful classical pavilion. My favourite spot was the peaceful herb garden with medicinal plants and flowers and a view over the abbey buildings and courtyards. More information on the Melk Abbey Website.
It had been a day of contrasts, a peaceful start as we drifted down the river by canoe, a 3 hour cycle ride to get us moving and the cultural highlight of Melk Abbey to stimulate our senses. Perhaps most guests wouldn’t try to pack in quite as much into one day (I haven’t even mentioned the evening wine tasting!) but I love to have a healthy balance of activities for the body and mind when on holiday. If you think the combination of activity and relaxation sounds right up your street, check out the Avalon Active Discovery options on your next river cruise.
Read about more River cruise experiences
Information to plan your cruise
The Avalon Waterways 9 day ‘Active Discovery on the Danube’ cruise from Linz to Budapest (and reverse itinerary) is priced from £2483 per person to include a selection of activities (based on 16 October 2017 departure). Cruise highlights include Linz, Grein, Durnstein, Krems, Vienna, Bratislava, Visegard and Budapest. Discover more on the Avalon Waterways website.
If you require a hotel in Austria at the start or end of your cruise check out HotelsCombined to compare prices. If you require any airport parking services, I recommend APH Airport Parking and Hotels, a leading UK provider of airport parking, hotels and airport lounges.
For more information to plan a holiday in Austria, visit the Austria Tourism website
If you’d like to try canoeing or paddle boarding in the Wachau Valley as an independent traveller check out Kanu Wachau who provide canoe excursions.
Thanks to Avalon Waterways who hosted Heather for a 4 day taste of the Danube cruise from Austria to Linz.
Note: Some of the links above are affiliate links, enabling me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.