This is the mostly true story of a 250 mile, four day cycle ride along the River Danube from Passau in southern Germany to the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Tim Hill: retired retailer; leader
Sarah Leaver: pharmacist
John East: retired engineer and power station maniac
Alex Shearer: author, play-write and intellectual
John Goodman: retired business executive and scribbler
Monday, Sept 16th: 6 a.m. Tim, Sarah and John G board the Eurostar to Brussels. We have had to stay in London overnight to ensure we do not miss this early departure from St Pancras, so mildly frustrating that the train pulls into our home station of Ashford for an 'unscheduled' stop to take on passengers! An announcement apologises for any "inconvenience".
In Brussels, a quick dash across the platform takes us onto the high speed German ICE ( inter city express ) to Frankfurt.
Our seats are right behind the cab, where the driver sits behind a glass screen through which the track ahead is visible. He is surrounded by all kinds of buttons and switches, and effortlessly controls the mighty 'iron horse' with light touches on two or three small levers on the desk in front of him. The responsiveness of the locomotive to these controls is remarkable. The lightest of touches produces a surge of power that smoothly propels the train from standstill to high speed in seconds. Then a gentle finger movement slows us to a sedate glide into a station, and a gentle stop by the platform.
Tim is concerned that 'The driver has got a woman in the cab'. In fact one of the hostesses pops in now and again to take in a coffee and have a chat.
After the long but enjoyable journey, we arrive in the southern German town of Passau, which last June saw some of the worst flooding it has experienced since the sixteenth century. Much of the town was underwater for weeks on end. A mere fifty years later, in 1662, a devastating fire destroyed most of the town in and it was gradually rebuilt in the Baroque style so prevalent in this part of Europe.
During the renaissance and early period, Passau was one of the largest producers of swords and bladed weapons in Germany. The local smiths would stamp their blades with a wolf, taken from the emblem on the city's coat of arms. Superstitious warriors believed that the 'Passau wolf' gave them invulnerability in battle, and thus Passau swords commanded a premium price.
From the now dry railway station to a nearby hotel to meet up with an already arrived John East, for a briefing from our tour company about the ride. A little later, Alex Shearer arrives after a delayed flight into Munich.
Tuesday: After a good night's sleep and hearty breakfast in Passau, John E leads us on a brief tour of the old town, including the magnificent Cathedral. The floods have left their mark, with the 'high water' stains still clearly visible on many of the buildings.
In the centre of town we find a wall painted with the various levels the confluence of the 'three rivers' has reached over the years. The 2013 flood beat all previous records. The last one to come close was 1594.
It is good to hear that John's wife Judith has arrived safely back in the UK in the camper van in which they had travelled the previous week, and that her attempt to go the wrong way up a one way street in Belgium has been handled sympathetically by a local policeman. I wonder if it was the same Belgian policeman who saved me from 'sleep-riding' into an oncoming high speed peloton of racing cyclists in Bruges last May.
We eventually set off down the cycle path bordering the Danube under a dark grey sky, but thankfully no rain. The first thing we notice is that the Danube (Donau) is not blue, but a murky grey. Was Strauss colour blind or browbeaten into spinning the truth by some Mandelsonian bureaucrat at the Ministry of Tourism? Or was it once indeed blue? We may never know.
A coffee stop in a delightful riverside inn is taken, and then onwards for a visit to a mightily impressive power station which harnesses the awesome force of the Danube's volume and flow. At this early stage of our ride, none of us 'non power station nerds' could have the faintest idea how many of them there would be on this river. By the time we arrive in Vienna, there is nothing we don't know about the hydro-electric generators.
Alex takes a tumble after sliding on some damp leaves, but bravely ignores a badly bruised knee, broken ribs, a near drowning in the Danube, and bravely continues the ride in good spirits.
We take a detour to visit a spectacular nearby Trappist Monastery. The guided tour by one of the Monks is less than enlightening as the Trappists are of course bound by a vow of silence, although he occasionally smiles and points elegantly at several interesting treasures, including the tombs of local Saints, whose skeletons are displayed in glass cabinets draped in what had once been fine costumes, but which are, after so many centuries, now past their best, and unlikely to attract much interest at a boot sale.
Sarah is fascinated, and not a little unsettled, by the array of ornate rings adorning the ossified fingers on one of the corpses. The reclining figure appears, in a most macabre fashion, to be beckoning us to join it behind the glass.
Lunch is taken in a gemütlich little Beisl ( cosy little tavern), which also gives warm shelter from the rain. As the pretty young barmaid comes to take our order, John G notices a sign behind the counter which reads "I kiss better than I cook". You can guess what happens next. The food was good too.
Above our table is a blackboard on which has been chalked "The people who sit at this table, ALWAYS sit here!" Not today I think.
On to the next overnight stop at Aschbach, where there is a warm welcome from the proprietress of Gasthof Dieplinger. The young waiter at dinner has a great sense of humour, which is just as well when we show him the extremely rude list of German insults in Alex's phrase book.
Incidentally, Alex meticulously looks up every single word on every menu in his little book. Will his next novel be about a flawed Austrian chef?
Among many anecdotes which the dinner companions share this evening, are several by John G about his experiences with former Dutch colleagues.
What a surprise then that the lone diner at the next table (whom John had identified much earlier as being of typical Austrian appearance) turned out, when we engaged him in conversation, to be a fluent English speaking Dutchman! Fortunately he was also deaf; or perhaps very polite.
Our new friend - Dutch Wim - was a chemical engineer specialising in wet milled grain, for which expertise he is almost constant demand in any part of the world where there is a need to mill grain in damp conditions.
Wednesday: Early breakfast. Spirits somewhat dampened by heavy rain outside.
Frau Dieplinger is, however, a tower of strength; insisting that we stock up with every possible comestible source of energy for the day ahead, since the rain is forecast to endure the whole day.
Sarah's night has been disturbed by a nightmare, during which a skeleton draped in jewels chases her down a dark corridor from which there is no escape. Just as the bony fingers are getting closer, Sarah wakes up screaming, only to find sleeping Tim's long fingered hand caressing her shoulder.
As we prepare the bikes for the challenge of the day ahead, there is momentary unpleasantness between John E and Tim. John had found a small chocolate bar in the pannier provided by our tour organiser. It was no bigger than half a credit card - but being frugal, prudent, and a good husband- he had been saving it for an emergency or Judith.
Tim is therefore "disappointed" (in a foot stamping way) that John steadfastly refuses to give it to him. However in a touching display of fraternal affection Tim is later visibly moved to find that the little choc has been discreetly slipped by John into his pannier.
A stop in the picturesque and historic university town of Linz. At a coffee house in the main square we enjoy authentic fruit strudels. John E makes light work of a giant crepe laced with syrup, cream and several bananas.
Linz is the 3rd largest city in Austria, founded by the Romans who called it Lentia. A famous inhabitant was Johannes Kepler, who as we all know, while cycling home from the Beisl one evening, and gazing up at the stars discovered the "third" law of planetary motion, or distance-cubed-over-time-squared. He was so excited that he rode into the Danube, and had to be rescued by strong swimmer and composer Anton
Bruckner, who fortunately had mastered time travel, and three hundred years later was on his way to play the organ at the local church.
A less often discussed fact is that little Adolf H grew up here.
Linz was a key location in the Austrian Civil War. On 12 Feb 1934 the police arrived at the Hotel Schiff looking for weapons. We are not told whether any were found.
After the 2nd world war, the Danube became the border between the Russian and American troops, and the famous Nibelungen Bridge over the Danube was Linz's version of Checkpoint Charlie.
Strolling through Linz we encounter a group of canvassers for Austria's equivalent of UKIP, though much further to the right. John G agrees to be photographed with two young female activists. Tim unwisely questions why I should want to be pictured with a group of 'f..cists', however pretty they might be, and was obliged to make a swift dash for the bikes to avoid being lynched. Although his disapproval did not extend to refusing their gifts of sweets and chocolate biscuits! I am given an email address in case I ever want to start a similar movement in England.
From Fascists to Texas. Lunch at a Wild West themed bar called the Longhorn Saloon, run as might be expected by a fanatic of all things 'cowboy' , even serving Wyatt Earp's favourite 'pork and beans'. The post prandial leg of the ride was spent staying upwind of those who had made this flatulent choice, although the resultant protein energy boost turns out to be a godsend as the last leg of today's ride is extended by a thirty mile detour caused by part of the cycle path sliding into the Danube!
Thursday: Another fine day. In high spirits we re-join the path alongside the banks of the still not blue Danube.
Did we mention that we are approaching Austria's general election? Every few yards we are confronted with posters promoting the values of the various - and numerous - candidates. The right wing OVP party is fielding two hopefuls in this neighbourhood called Andreas Hanger and Christoph Trampler. Absolutely true.
On through the town of Enns, which was settled 4000 years ago, and later by the Celts in 400BC, who were most put out when their Kingdom of Noricum was peremptorily "incorporated" by the Roman Empire in AD 15.
Revenge was sweet when they drowned a Roman army commander in the Enns river on May 4th 304.
Lunch stop in the pretty town of Melk , after which a brief visit to the famous and enormous baroque Benedictine monastery. Tim, Sarah and Alex opt for the full tour, while the two Johns take coffee in a sidewalk café.
Louis the German christened the town Medilica in 831, presumably because he was fond of herbal remedies, and the surrounding area was given to Margrave Leopoldo the 1st in 976 so it could be used as a buffer between the Magyars to the east, and Bavaria to the west. Although there must have been a Margrave Leopoldo the 2nd (because of his Dad's name), little or nothing is known about him.
John G has been exercised for many years about the difference in meaning between two words meaning a Pub, Inn or Tavern; namely Beisl, and Kneipe.
Light is shed today by an impromptu lecture, over a cup of coffee, from a retired history teacher in this particular little Melk Beisl.
Before the Second World War, there was a significant Jewish population in Vienna (ca 200,000) and many Yiddish words and phrases were in common use of which Beisl is one, and the word is universal here. Not in Germany however, where such places are called Kneipe (K'niper).
Talking of taverns, we have been unpleasantly struck by the fact that in every single one of them here in Austria, the majority of locals are smoking inside. In one place we peer round the door to find the smoke so thick that we can hardly see. We are offered a non-smoking room, which turns out to be a gloomy cupboard with a few chairs. We decline.
In fact in the vast majority of cases, the smokers get the best tables in the nicest rooms. Why should we be surprised that here again is an example of a European state flouting the bureaucrats of Brussels, while in the UK we slavishly obey every pettifogging dictate from the size of chipolatas to the shape of organic cucumbers!
The final scheduled stop is a wine tasting in Weissenkirchen (Whitchurch), at a quaint establishment run by the eccentric Ferdl Denk (loosely translated as Fred Think).
Inside the large wooden gates is a group of large, rosy cheeked men standing round a copper 'still' in which Apricot brandy (Marillen Shnapps) is being made. The leader (wearing an enormous Big Boss tee shirt) agrees to be photographed.
Back to Ferdl Denk. In stark contrast to the jolly little group outside making hooch, Ferdl's demeanour is of a very different order. He cuts a nervy, often exasperated figure. A diminutive, bespectacled, elfin. Bald, and with a goaty beard, he is the quintessential 'busy man'. He rushes everywhere on the two spindly broomstick legs which protrude from his oversized leather shorts down to a neat pair of little feet.
Tonight is not a good one for Fergl, as we arrive late waving vouchers for the wine tasting session. No matter that we are anxious to get on. He is 'busy and we will kindly wait please'.
He radiates nervous energy; shakes his head impatiently when it becomes clear that we are not all of one mind. One imagines he is occasionally to found sobbing bitterly in a corner of his kitchen at the injustice of it all
Ferdl's first mistake is to assume that we all want the wine and the snacks. In fact some of us want both, some want snacks with water, and some don't want anything at all. As this is explained to Ferdl it is clear that - for him at least - the little world of Ferdl Denk has been hit by a piece of space debris.
As he walks back to the kitchen his body twitches, the palms of his outstretched hands are turned to heaven like a priest about to bless the sacrament, his head rolls and shakes as if in a deep voodoo trance.
Nonetheless, the wines are delicious, and the 'snack' turns out to be a copious plate of cooked meats garnished with salad on caraway seeded brown bread, and a generous sprinkling of finely shredded something or other that looks like cheese, but is actually the culinary equivalent of rocket fuel.
By the time our wine tasting ends it is twilight. On the way out, in the half light, we almost trip over the schnapps team, who are now slumped around the 'still', incapable of coherent speech and able only to grin and wave in our general direction.
John E calculates that the odds of us all facing an early death at the hands of short sighted, inebriated Austrian motorists driving recklessly along cycle paths, have now shortened dramatically.
We glide through the damp, dark streets of the outer suburbs of Vienna in virtual silence. For some reason I inwardly hum the Dam Busters March.
On arrival at the hotel, the kitchen is thankfully still open.
Austria is a country where one lives to eat. Not a place to lose weight.
This is the land of dumplings, noodles, spaetzle, bread, cakes, pastries, and strudels. Resistance is futile.
On the way back to our rooms, we notice a Mark Twain quote framed on the wall:
"Give every day the chance to be the most beautiful day of your life".
(He also said that a German joke 'is no laughing matter').
Friday: The last cycling day. Soon another power station comes into view! There are only so many power stations one can take. Fortunately John E is distracted by a noisy drain, and chooses to investigate that instead.
Over lunch there is an impassioned debate about whether the Third World War has already started. More confusion over who is having what for their meal.
A smooth ride to the 'end Station' at Langenzersdorf, close to Vienna, where we are warmly (as always) greeted by our hostess and enjoy an excellent dinner, slightly marred by yet another roomful of smokers.
With a tinge of regret we bid farewell to our bikes, which have performed well for the most part. We've done a respectable 250 miles in four days.
Well done Tim!. All the arrangements have been impeccable, and the trip great fun.
Saturday: Sans Velos, we stroll down to the station to take the train into Vienna. Most of us buy the amazing value 24 hour 'go anywhere' ticket for €7.90.
In 36 hours my ticket is never checked.
The hotel Austria Trend is modern and conveniently located near a large shopping mall with tram, metro, bus connections close by.
Trams are brilliant. By far the cleanest, quickest and most comfortable street level public transport system. Our ancestors who invented them all those years ago must be shaking their heads in disbelief that we could have been so stupid as to rip up the rails thinking we knew better.
Saturday afternoon sightseeing in Vienna. Dinner in a cosy 'Heuriger' restaurant in the nearby suburb of Stammersdorf. On the way, the tram stops at "Shuttleworth Street". Have we been beamed to Bradford?
Sunday: Tearful breakfast farewells. I have the day in Vienna and decide to walk to the Donauturm (GPO Tower equivalent) to see the city from above. On the way I stroll through the beautiful, sunny and peaceful Donau Park. Acres of manicured lawns and colourful flower beds (not a weed in sight), sprinkled with statues of heroic figures like Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, Simon Bolivar. A haven of tranquillity in stark contrast to the skyline of the city on the other side of the river.
The 252 metre high tower was built in 1964 under the direction of architect Hannes Lintl for the Vienna International Garden Show. The tower weighs 17,600 tons and is supported by foundations 8 metres deep and 31 metres in diameter. 3,750 cubic metres of concrete and 514 tons of reinforced concrete were used for the building. That doesn't seem nearly enough to me, especially as the top floor revolving restaurant must make it very top heavy. 776 steps (I counted them!) in the centre of the tower lead to the top.
Bungie jumps are available from an overhanging platform at the top of the tower to any so-inclined passing lunatics.
Two rows of seats are arranged around the bouncy castle safety device on the ground. An elderly couple sit patiently at the front, occasionally glancing upwards, and then going back to their newspapers.
I take the lift and am fascinated by the glass top through which you can see the ascent as if travelling at speed through an illuminated tunnel. I persuade the lift operator - Miss Frosty - to let me go up again so I can film it. She might be related to Ferdl Denk. After pretending not to understand my request, and then muttering that no-one had ever asked that before, and much huffing and puffing, she agrees.
The views across Vienna on this bright clear morning are spectacular.
Time is getting short, and I decide my last excursion will be the Riesenrad (big wheel) in the Prater Amusement Park. The Riesenrad featured extensively in Carol Reed's The Third Man, and, according to my guide book, a James Bind (sic) film called 'The Living Daylights'! The park is now much like any other big funfair, but with the special extra atmospheric ingredient of being in Vienna. Because of its rich history, the giant wheel seems to preside over more recent attractions such as the terrifying roller-coaster, with the dignified authority of a wise elder.
The wheel was built by English engineer Walter B Basset in 1896. His company had already built similar 'giant wheels' in London and Blackpool. Today, two of the fifteen carriages are occupied by couples enjoying an extended lunch with full waiter service. At an appropriate moment, when the diners' carriage arrives at the drop off point, the wheel is stopped to allow the waiter to jump in, serve the next course, and recharge wine glasses.
It occurs to me that since passengers in the other carriages can look down at every mouthful of food and sip of wine, the diners must enjoy the attention as well as having deep pockets, to eat in what is effectively a revolving goldfish bowl.
Tim and Sarah must be well on the way to Bratislava as I wait at the hotel for the Airport Bus.
Alex is back in Bristol, planning his next novel. John E is in the air.
Best thing about Austria: impeccable service, always cheerful (except the Danube Tower), always efficient.
Worst thing: smell of tobacco smoke EVERYWHERE. Inside and out. No wonder the population is shrinking.
Best investment in Vienna: the 24hr ticket to ride anywhere on all public transport for €7.90.
Worst investment in Vienna: the 'hop on/ off' tourist bus for €20. Lousy commentary; stiflingly hot; poor vision; couldn't wait to get off!
Sarah Leaver: Sigmund Freud Prize for Best nightmare
Tim Hill: Margaret Thatcher Award for Best Leadership Skills
Alex Shearer: Richard Wagner Operatic Endurance Award for Bravery and carrying on in spite of the pain.
John East: Lloyds of London Award for Best Risk Assessment Skills
John Goodman: Mark Cavendish sprint medal for achieving the highest flat surface speed recorded on the trip: 43.9Km/hr (27.43 mph)
On the way to the airport now and taking a nostalgic look from the bus at the lumbering giant which has guided us unerringly on our journey over the past few days; 'auf wiedersehen ' River Danube. Last June you showed how destructive you can be. This week we have seen the best of you.
Check in to find that good old BA is delayed for one and a half hours due to 'undercarriage problems'. I am consoled by the fact that at a nearby gate, two hundred angry travellers have just been told their flight has been delayed for 24 hours!
At Heathrow there are neither steps or buses to meet our aircraft. After 20 minutes we are bussed 20 yards to a terminal.
Thanks to confusing signage I narrowly miss a Heathrow Express to Paddington.
15 minutes later our 'express' trundles into London. Up 700 steps to the Hammersmith/City line, and starting to wonder whether I'll get the last HS from St Pancras at 23.42.
I do; with 7 minutes to spare.
Thank you Vienna! City of dreams, spies, and Harry Lime
All your trains, trams and buses run on time!
Dozing on High Speed train to Ashford. I dream that our house is a hotel, and that I check in to find Dydiane at reception saying that our room isn't ready yet.