Cycling side trips are growing more popular on river cruises, and Tauck, the Connecticut-based tour operator, recently added a slate of new ones. On a weeklong sail along the Danube, Howie Kahn fuels up for the ride by sampling the local delicacies.

By Howie Kahn
January 14, 2019
Tauck river cruise passengers on a shore excursion in Austria’s Wachau Valley.
Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

One ride, one schnitzel.

That was the rule I set for myself before I boarded Tauck’s 130-passenger Joy in Vilshofen, Germany. I would have the chance to cycle five times over seven days as we made our way to Budapest, passing castles, vineyards, and monasteries. The schnitzels would be my reward.

The 130-passenger Joy runs weeklong cruises through the Central European countries along the Danube.
Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

I definitely needed some pan-fried goodness before ride number one, a hilly 18-miler. At Gasthaus Engelszeller Stüberl, a treasure of a restaurant attached to a gas station in the whisper-quiet port of Engelhartszell, Austria, I ordered the Kürbiskernschnitzel vom Huhn. The dish sounded like a schnapps-driven, prewar art movement, but it was actually a piece of chicken, pounded thin, breaded, and studded with pumpkin seeds. It proved to be instant energy.

A dozen or so of us set out that afternoon from the ship, each taking things at our own pace as we began to climb a steep stretch of road. Steve, a new friend from near Buffalo, New York, broke to the front of the pack. He’d had one knee replaced, and yet he attacked our first hills as if he were riding in the Tour de France. My sweat smelled like schnitzel, but I managed to keep up with Steve as we descended along the highway, where the air was redolent of fresh timber, and through small Austrian villages.

At dusk, we zoomed into Aschach, a tiny town with a population of around 2,000, where the lights were on inside the Red Berlin. I assumed it was a bar. The booths were covered in red velvet; the walls displayed grainy photographs of musicians. Turns out, Red Berlin is an ice cream parlor. I ordered the Heisse Liebe. Translation: “hot love” — a sundae with warm raspberries. After dessert, we headed back to the plush boat, its deluxe cabins stocked with 400-thread-count sheets and Nespresso machines.

“We were getting worried about you,” said one of my other new shipboard friends. The older crowd was universally friendly. It was like having 129 doting parents. I mean that as a compliment. Tauck succeeds in sustaining an upscale, familial vibe where guests are taken care of seamlessly — and even come to take care of one another.

A couple of days later, we saw signs for more “hot love” as we biked over cobblestones in the district of Krems, whose capital was founded in 1305. Our group that day numbered in the dozens, and our spandex-clad guides told us we were at the gateway to the Wachau Valley, home to some of Austria’s best wines. Pedaling through rows of Grüner Veltliner vines, I spotted Steve again, sprinting along with his wife, Cathy, on what he’d later tell me was their 47th wedding anniversary.

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After the ride, which went for an easy and flat eight miles and concluded after sunset, Steve asked me if I wanted to hike to the top of the castle in Dürnstein, where the English king Richard the Lionheart was held for ransom in the 12th century. I was still charged up from my most recent schnitzel, eaten 24 hours prior in the Blaue Gans restaurant in Salzburg. It was Wiener schnitzel that time — veal pounded paper-thin, with a breading that had properly puffed away from the meat and possessed a golden topography of peaks and valleys.

Lighting the steep trail with our iPhones, Steve and I made our ascent. Thirty minutes later, we reached the top. We looked toward Vienna, where we would soon ride for nine more miles around the Prater, the city’s most famous park, and along the Ring Road, stopping at the Hofburg palace. The great schnitzel reward of this leg of the trip would come at Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a café that dates back to 1618, where the Wiener schnitzel was so on the mark that the meat practically levitated within its breading.

But up above Dürnstein, there was no schnitzel, no rules. It was just me and Steve among the ruins on a cool fall night. Up there, it was more about the centuries, the passage of time, how we all got here and where we’ll all go. Steve boiled our adventure down to its essence: “How cool is this?”

To book: tauck.com; seven-night Danube sailings with two-night stays in Prague and Budapest from $5,990 per person, all-inclusive.

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