We have a difficult time falling asleep. Maybe it's the heat or perhaps the cars gunning around the corner below our window. Perhaps it is the normal excitement a person feels before setting off on an eight day bicycle trip. Our unsettled slumber is further interrupted by the bedside alarm clock, which sounds at midnight. Mary spends a frantic minute trying to work out how to turn it off, by which time we are well and truly awake. A couple of hours later the thunderstorms kick in, great flashbulbs of lightning, rolling kettle drum calls, and finally, the worst sound of all, the lash of torrential rain on our windows. A thoroughly bad omen.
Dawn arrives slowly: gray clouds, packed low, block the sunrise and spread a layer of gloom over our expeditionary task force. We eat a quiet German breakfast: plain yogurt poured over granola for me, while the girls experiment with the hard boiled egg maker. 9:00 comes all too soon and it is time to hit the road. We roll out onto the bike trail, past the Scharding sewer treatment plant. The morning is cool, and if it was not for the threat of rain in the air, would be perfectly lovely for cycling. The air is still and I can hear the slow tolling of monastery bells downriver at Vornbach.
We cross a red suspension bridge over the River Inn, which brings us into Germany for the second time on the trip. I feel the first drops of rain striking my hat. Moments later the heavens open and the downpour begins. We take shelter under some trees for a couple of minutes, but as the deluge soaks through the branches, we realize that there is no advantage in lingering. The heavens unleash their fury. Thunder rolls and cracks in the hills around our river valley; lightning flashes and rain sluices down from the great celestial fire hose. Rain turns us into mobile sponges, every bit of fabric we wear grows saturated. Finally I see an octagonal timber shelter, specially designed for bicyclists caught out in thunderstorms. These Germans think of everything. We duck into it as the weather continues to rage.
After a while the rain abates somewhat – it doesn't stop, mind you, but it does slow down slightly. We decide to take advantage of this moderation to make progress toward Passau, our lunchtime stop. Rain-sodden nettles bow down on either side of the path, stretching out to brush our bare legs as we pass.
Passau turns out to be absolutely lovely. For a few minutes the rain moderates enough for us to enjoy our surroundings. We have lunch in a pizzeria near the cathedral, and then take a short tour through the cathedral itself. This is the largest baroque church north of the alps and contains the largest organ in the world, 17,900 pipes. It is a magnificent confection of white carving and beautiful murals. I could have stayed for hours (or days), just taking it all in, but time pressed us harshly.
We still have 27 kilometers to go before 5:00 PM, when a van will pick us up to carry us to the hotel. As we leave Passau behind, the rain returns – not a thunder-stoked downpour – but a steady, relentless, soaking drizzle. On the outskirts of Passau we pass large excursion boats – maybe 200 feet long. I can see people enjoying their meals in comfort, gazing out their portholes at the river swimming past. Passau is located at the the intersection of the River Inn and the Danube. From here onward, we will be following the Danube. As I pedal along, I cannot help but feel that the people on the river boats have chosen a wiser way to see this river. Swank and sophisticated, one of the riverboats even has a violin and sheet music stenciled on its side. We could be enjoying a string quartet while alternating sips of Montepulciano and bites of Pasta Arrabiata.
As we continue east through the rain, I notice that a great number of slugs and earthworms have crawled out onto the paved cycle track to commit slimy suicide. Perhaps they are fleeing the rising water level in the grass. I worry about our invertebrate friends. The mortality rate on the tarmac is high: I do my best to thread between them, but many people have not been so careful. Unfortunate smears of slugs discolor the cement from time to time.
The last segment of the day's route takes place on a road that is shared with automobiles. This worries me: a fast, impatient driver could do a lot of damage to one of the girls. Fortunately the road is little-used, and we escape without any incidents. We rejoin the cycle track just past the Jochenstein power station. A few minutes later and we reach the bike ferry, a small wooden barge that specializes in conveying bicyclists across the Danube to the town of Engelhartszell. Goodbye Germany. We and a group of Italian bicyclists (who are doing the same tour) climb aboard and are ferried across to the southern bank of the Danube. We find shelter near a small museum and wait for the van that is supposed to pick us up at 5:00 PM and carry us to a nearby town (Sankt Aegidi) where our hotel and luggage await.
The van arrives on schedule, and not a moment too soon for the girls, who are freezing in their soaked clothing. Fifteen minutes up a long hill, away from the Danube, and we reach our evening's lodging. Hot showers for all the crew, followed by dinner in the hotel restaurant (it appears to be “Italian Week,” so no extra points for guessing what we ate). Our hotel is rather lovely: new with a spacious golden oak interior. Apart from us Danube cyclists, it appears to be empty. Hotels in remote spots like Sankt Aegidi must get most of their business from bikers on the Danube trail. When I ask the owner about it, he confirms that there is not much else to fill the rooms.
“Is there snow in the winter?” I ask. “Do you get skiers?”
“Plenty of snow,” he replies. “But no mountain.”
“Why else do people come here?”
He mimes picking up something heavy and sliding it. He doesn't know the English word for the sport and we cannot work out the German term.
Finally we decide that it must be like curling.
“Yes,” he agrees. “But no brooms.”
“Any other reasons people come?”
“There's the drinking,” he says.
And the fine weather. No wonder people drink. 43 kilometers under our belts, cranked out under inclement conditions. Tomorrow we have another 43 in store, but maybe the weather will be better.