I’ll be honest up front: As a traveler, I’ve generally shied away from both cruising and large-group travel. So when I tell you that my eight-day Backroads-AmaWaterways cycling cruise down the Danube subtly changed me and the way I saw Europe, I hope you’ll understand that this is coming from, not a cruise acolyte, but a skeptic who saw the light.
Ironically, the light first dawned at 4:30 in the darkness of early morning. It was the second day of the trip, which had started in Prague, and I woke to the gentle growl of the ship’s engine, my jet-lagged mind tricked into thinking that it was much later than it was. It became clear that further sleep was out of reach. The possibility of getting a cappuccino while my 149 fellow passengers slept, however, was very much within reach. I pulled on a few layers, left my comfortable, river-level cabin, and headed to the lounge. As I walked past the sliding doors that lead to the deck, they slid open, washing in a wave of cool, sweet-smelling air.
Cappuccino in hand, I headed for the uppermost deck. It was empty with only a few crew members standing near the bridge. One of the crew helped me pull up a chair to the bow of the ship and brought me a fleece blanket. I settled in.
We were sailing the stretch of the Danube that flows between Passau, Germany, and the Austrian city of Linz, and there wasn’t a single light on the riverbanks. It had never occurred to me to wonder how a ship navigates at night. Now I did. Of course, the AmaViola has all sorts of fancy navigation instrumentation. But as I watched, the captain also used the ship’s massive spotlight, just to my left, to illuminate buoys along the way. I spent the next 90 minutes watching in fascination as the crew noiselessly guided us down the serpentine river, featureless riverbanks gaining nuance as the sun rose, revealing ancient castles, small Austrian towns, and eventually the Nibelung bridge as we arrived in Linz.
In that time, we had crossed—without fanfare—the border that separates Germany from Austria. I, too, felt as though I’d crossed a border. I’d started to realize that a cruise, specifically a river cruise, is not just a floating den of good eats and pampering (although it is that). It can also be an engine of discovery, of the slow-travel kind, offering the opportunity to visit towns you’d likely not see otherwise and a bird’s-eye view of a waterway that feeds eight countries. Add days spent on a bike—not in a bus—and experiences arranged by a company known for its ability to connect you with locals (as Backroads has done for 39 years) and you have a recipe for a travel awakening (a very mellow one, admittedly).
The beauty of this kind of cycling cruise is that it really is for everyone. We had the option to ride an e-bike or a regular bike or a fancy bike with clip-in pedals. Each day, two to three routes were available; we could go leisurely or burly, depending on our energy levels. Heck, we could even skip the bike altogether and just get a massage on the ship. The day prior—our first day of riding—I’d picked the moderately hilly 35-mile ride, from Vilshofen, Germany, to Passau. Traveling on a bike, to me, is like absorbing the world with your body. You feel the vibration of the road in your hands and bones, you dip in and out of pockets of scent, you feel the wind on your neck and ears. Thanks to first-day jitters, I have especially strong sensory memories of that initial ride: fields of dried cornstalks curving under the weight of the breeze; the complex scent of manure, fennel, pine, and wildflowers; the burn in my thighs as we climbed mini mountains, the Austrian Alps mocking us in the distance.
As the trip wore on and I settled into my bike, I had more space to think about places we were riding through. For example, I knew that Europe has the United States beat when it comes to cycling infrastructure. But I grasped it fully on our first day on the Donauradweg, the legendary bike path that follows the Danube for nearly 2,000 miles. Dotted with inns and taverns that cater to riders, the Austrian portion of the Donauradweg draws 38,000 cyclists every year, from families to hardcore Tour de France types. And it’s one thing to read about post-Soviet development; it’s a very different thing to get a visceral taste of it, as we did the day we crossed the Bridge of Freedom (which was nearly crowned the Chuck Norris Bridge, thanks to the Internet) from Austria into Slovakia, a former Iron Curtain country. Immediately, Austria’s smooth, well-maintained roads gave way to overgrown trails so pitted and bumpy they made my teeth chatter. Goats and sheep appeared at random.
By the end of the trip, I had warmed to the pleasures of cruising and traveling with a large group. It was a relief to know that after a morning of riding through the rolling Austrian hills—starting in one city, ending in another—I had a room waiting, with all of my things just as I left them. I’d come to love the sight of our ship bobbing in the harbor, waiting for us at the end of each day. For someone who once associated cruising with limitations (like, say, being trapped in a bus), it was an appealing realization. And I loved that each adventure brought with it new bonds, from the day I rode 14 miles in the rain, getting deep into life stuff with a fellow rider, to the day a small group of us celebrated Oktoberfest by making up German words and getting creative with soft pretzels. How can you not call someone you’ve made pretzel glasses with a friend? It was like freshman orientation, but fancier and with better beer.
Our trip ended in Budapest. On our last evening, Backroads arranged for a night sail down the Danube and, to celebrate, they hosted a white party (one of those elegant affairs to which you wear white clothing) on the top deck. At the beginning of the week, I’d been apprehensive about traveling with such a large group. But 192 hours, 180 cycling miles, and five countries later, my fellow passengers felt like family—a very large, extended family with branches I didn’t totally know or get. Still: We felt connected. It was cold that night, so in order to maintain the dress code, many of us wrapped ourselves in our white AmaWaterways bathrobes. As we stood on the top deck, warmed by the robes and the sparkling wine, I soaked in the lights of Budapest, fully onboard with whatever was to come next.