How do you get teenagers on a cycling holiday? Try the Danube for an easy ride | Travel


In the weeks before we left for our cycling trip along the Danube, through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, I felt a rising sense of dread. Attempting to get two teenagers to ride up to 60km every day for six days seemed an increasingly unpalatable prospect. I consulted friends who cycle regularly. “OMG 60km will be tough for the children,” one texted. The weather forecast promised sweltering temperatures. My children said, repeatedly, that this was not the kind of thing normal people choose to do on holiday. Every time I thought about it my stomach contracted with anxiety.

A few kilometres from Vienna on the first morning, I started to calm down. The Euro velo route 6 between Vienna and Budapest follows the Danube downstream, so the track is either flat or slightly downhill all the way.

Vienna to Budapest map

The asphalt on the Austrian stretch was luxuriously smooth: to start with, cycling felt like gliding and required barely any effort. Since there was no need to concentrate on the cycling, we focused on the view. We saw five men sitting on fold-up chairs turning a baby pig on a spit over a bonfire; then a nudist beach, the sunbathers’ skin roasting like the pig’s in the sun; later there were campers jumping off pontoons into the glittering olive-green river. A local cyclist pedalled beside us for a moment to ask where we were going. “Budapest? A long way,” he said sorrowfully.

We stopped after the first 20km, downing glasses of delicious, cold Almdudler, an Austrian herbal drink, at a riverside cafe. Other cyclists were laughing and drinking beer at 10.30am. We paused again at the church in Orth an der Donau, letting the chilled stone interior refresh us. I was delighted to discover that the cycling was not just manageable but actually quite easy; everything was going to be fine.

On the second day we crossed into Slovakia, freewheeling through what was once the iron curtain, passing remnants of the cold war: a bunker turned into a mini museum, and a collection of anti-tank barriers preserved for tourists. More thought-provoking were the large, abandoned parking and queuing areas by the border – unused since Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 – grass growing through the concrete. Cars were driving through unhindered. Touring three central European countries as Britain prepares for Brexit made me think a lot about borders and how much easier life is without them.

The writers’ children



The writers’ children: ‘the cycling was not just manageable, but actually quite easy’ Photograph: Amelia Gentleman

Further along the river, the border between Slovakia and Hungary runs along the middle of the Danube and we made frictionless crossings several times, only aware that we were shifting countries because of signs on the bridges, and the change in language on the advertising hoardings. We felt the transition between nations in other ways. Austrian cycle paths are smoother and more lavishly maintained; through Slovakia they were more rutted, and we were occasionally pushed on to fast roads; in Hungary there was a 10km stretch of spine-jarring dirt track, which triggered the only furious teenage revolt, soon forgotten over a lunch of schnitzels and apricot pancakes.

Holidays with teenagers (14 and 15) can be complicated – their in-betweenness makes it hard to predict what will make them happy. This organised trip made things simpler, with a daily goal pulling us together, pushing us into the fresh air and keeping mobile-phone addiction at bay. (Snapchatting is hard when you’re cycling – they tried). There was complaining but it was minimal. Besides, they took great, unexpected joy in things adults take for granted, unfalteringly excited by the daily change of hotel, relentlessly enthusiastic about the breakfast buffets: cinnamon rolls in Slovakia, vats of rice-pudding in Hungary, limitless hot chocolate everywhere.

Amelia Gentleman Family holiday for Travel



Amelia Gentleman on her cycling adventure

Whenever we got too hot, we swam. On the third day, about 15km from Győr, north-west Hungary, we saw a shimmering lake by the road, doubled back to a point where we could climb over a roadside barrier and swam in the clear water to a small island in the middle. We paddled in the Danube in Hungary, too worried by the current to swim properly.

At our hotel in Bratislava, we swam in a pool with a view on to the white hilltop castle. In Esztergom, Hungary, our hotel adjoined an aqua park with four waterslides. In Budapest, I fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit the palatial, neo-baroque Széchenyi spa, Europe’s largest thermal baths, which I’d admired in my colleague David Levene’s photograph of chess-playing bathers (see below); I massaged out a cycling-induced neck crick under a hot fountain of spa water.

On a bicycle you have time to notice things you miss in the car. Most of the time we were on cycle paths away from the road, breathing in the smells of wild grass baking in the sunshine, and ripe plums squashed on the gravel. We listened to the rattling of ash tree leaves and the crackling of husks in ripe sweetcorn fields. We stared at farmhouse gardens outside Hungarian villages, with rows of vines, apple orchards and walnut trees. We saw ruined castles on hills, green copper-spired churches, birds of prey circling over recently harvested fields, a Hungarian family riding through the forest with a horse and trap. We were caught in a thunderstorm in woods outside Komárno, and cycled through rain so heavy we had to pour water out of our shoes at the next cafe stop – though no one minded.

Men Playing chess in Szechenyi thermal baths and swimming pool in Budapest.



Playing chess in Szechenyi thermal baths and swimming pool in Budapest. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Some parts were less idyllic – dispiriting stretches through industrial suburbs, offset only by the warm smell of baking from a massive bread factory. Parts of Esztergom in Hungary and Komárno in Slovakia felt mournful, struggling to thrive, but we found nice cafes every evening in the main squares, and played cards.

By day five our energy was flagging and one joyless track took us along fast roads. I began to feel discombobulated by a sixth hotel in six days, and wearied by the morning ritual of helping teenagers repack their whirlwind chaos of socks and underwear in time for the travel company to pick up our cases and drive them to the next hotel. In theory, you could travel light, find your own hotels and do without this service, but I don’t think you’d want to. The hotel booking, maps and bike hire provided invaluable reassurance.

Our triumphant final day began with the kindness of Norbs, a Hungarian teacher with flawless English, who fixed my bicycle chain. This winding stretch of the Danube from the Esztergom basilica to the capital was the most dramatic, with beautiful riverside beaches and cliffs. We took a ferry with dozens of Hungarian pilgrims, nuns in hot grey nylon habits and monks in brown robes carrying a flower-garlanded cross, on their first day of a 100km walk.

We had lunch early, strategically pausing before we got tired and cross, ordering dumplings with sour cream and bacon in a riverside restaurant. Later, on Szentendre Island, we ate pancakes filled with poppy seeds. We caught a boat for the last stretch to Budapest, watching the outline of the neo-gothic Hungarian parliament draw nearer, then cycled the last kilometre to the hotel, notching up a fairly effortless 297km.

That evening in our hotel room, which had an exceptional view over the moonlit parliament – I looked at the map online and saw the tiny wormlike squiggle of central Europe we had completed – and felt both relieved and proud.

The trip was provided by Macs Adventure, whose Danube Cycle Path: Vienna to Budapest trip costs from £525pp, including seven nights’ B&B accommodation, train from Mosonmagyaróvár to Győr (including bike), boat from Szentendre to Budapest (or train when boats aren’t sailing), maps and information pack

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