In the town square of Melk, on the Austrian Danube, stands Johannes Kohl, wandermeister extraordinaire, dressed to the nines in lederhosen and hiking boots. “My wife and I come from Bavaria,” he says. “It’s nice to find some challenging trails.”

But why the funny costume?

“It’s the only chance I get to wear these,” he says. “Do you think I would dare wear them back at home?”

Kohl is just one of the colourful characters to be found along the Danube River. The river itself abounds in sometimes sinister legends, like that of the fisherman whose beautiful daughter was stolen by a genie known as the Prince of the Danube. Nowadays, the Danube’s aura is a little less romantic. Since the opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube channel in 1992, the river has become the freight route of choice for many of Europe’s major companies due to its huge cost advantage. But for the visitor, few places on Earth can match the ever-changing panoramas at every turn of the Danube.

To take in this unrivalled eye-feast at a leisurely pace, a bicycle is the perfect means of transport. Of late, cycling the Donauradweg (the Danube bike path) has become so hip that there’s a whole raft of dedicated amenities – cyclists’ cafés and restaurants, cyclists’ hotels and lodges and even a special brand of beer, Kaiser, the cyclists’ brew. You can rent good quality bikes at more than 100 railway stations throughout the country, with drop-off at any other station permitted for a nominal fee. While most people cycle from west to east along the Danube in the direction of the river flow, the gradient is so slight (less than one metre in a kilometre), that for practical purposes the direction doesn’t really matter.

As good a place as any to start a cycle trip is in Krems, the 1000-year-old de facto capital of the Wachau region. Krems consists of two cities – Krems proper and its newer satellite, Stein. Stein is a mere 800 years old,” says Evelyn Kitzwögerer, a native of the city. “It’s a mere baby among Wachau towns.”

In the village of Oberloiben, a striking war memorial towers over the surrounding countryside, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon’s army by a combined Russian-Austrian force in 1805. But the Russians and Austrians haven’t always been on such good terms. In the historic town of Dürnstein, 15 minutes west of Oberloiben by bicycle, Gerhard Fischer remembers the Russian occupation of northern Austria, from 1945-1955. “Life was very hard,” he says, “and our women weren’t safe on the streets.”

Above Dürnstein, you can’t miss the ruins of Dürnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was briefly imprisoned in 1192. It’s said that a ransom of 35 tonnes of silver was demanded, and that the English king was released only after payment of the first instalment.

Fortunately for the Austrians, they are not still paying off the ransom. Accordingly, it is now possible to dine at reasonable prices in Dürnstein, for example, at the Sängerblondel Restaurant, named after the Sänger (minstrel) Blondel who found King Richard shut up in Dürnstein Castle. But in all probability, neither he nor the King ate as well as today’s visitor to Dürnstein, who can feast on such dishes as forelle mit oberskrem (smoked trout with sour cream) or schnitzel mit kartoffeln (schnitzel with braised potatoes), all from local produce so fresh that the food nearly jumps off the plate.

After this, it’s time to cycle the kilos away. The Danube’s banks are lined with noteworthy, crane-your-neck sights, including castle ruins atop the craggy hills that overhang the river. The historic town of Melk is totally dominated by the famous Stift Melk, the Benedictine Abbey that is today noteworthy for its co-ed, 780-student monastery school.

On the road out of Melk, misfortune strikes. A near-blizzard is blowing as I take to the main road from Melk to Linz, trying to find my way back to the bike path. As I wipe the mud thrown up by a passing road train from my face, it soon becomes clear that I’m hopelessly lost.

“But it’s impossible to get lost on Austria’s bike paths,” says one cyclist some time later. “All you need is one of these maps.” She pulls a voluminous chart from her collection of about 5000. I learn that she is from Leipzig in Germany, and has chosen the Danube for a cycling holiday because of its relatively mild weather. OK, so maybe I’ve succeeded in breaking the “stupid cyclist” record.

The village of Pöchlarn, an easy hour’s bike ride west of Melk, marks the end of the Wachau and the start of the Nibelungen region. Ten kilometres west of Pöchlarn, the hospitality at Radlerpension (cyclists’ hotel) Leeb in the little village of Persenbeug has to be experienced to be believed. Gerhard and Anna Leeb and their family greet cyclists and other guests from across the globe, many of whom come back here year after year.

From Persenbeug, the cyclist has two choices – to cross over to the south bank of the Danube at Ybbs, or continue along the northern side. The southern side is possibly more scenic, offering great river views. The little town of Grein boasts numerous historic sights including Grein Castle, which houses a fascinating Danube shipping museum.

Unfortunately, it’s time to return to Persenbeug. Being super-lazy, I jump on the famous cyclists’ train, which runs along the Danube all the way from Linz to Krems and has a carriage especially equipped for cyclists. As I hang my bike on one of the racks provided, I can’t help wondering why the carriage is nearly empty. “You’re here too early in the season,” says the conductor. “Come July, this carriage will be chock-a-block.”

Indeed, so good are the facilities along the Danube bike path that cyclists can, for just a few days, forget about the usual logistics of life. In fact, you might even say that having a car along the Danube could be a real handicap.

Getting there: From Munich, Passau (the start of the Donauradweg) is 2-2.5 hours by rail.
Bike hire: Good bicycles with excellent 21-speed Shimano gears (or 24-speed mountain bikes) can be hired at more than 150 railway stations (including Krems and Melk) throughout the country. Cost is €10.90 a day with a rail pass, €6.50 without; €33.40-€43.60 a week. For just €3.25, you can drop the bike off at any other station in Austria. Alternately, many hotels will lend you a bike free of charge.”