The most scenic stretch of the Danube River is a haven for epicureans, writes Paul Rush.
"I'm very pleased that you Aussies and Kiwis keep coming back," says Peter, our no-nonsense cycling guide. "You're always welcome in the wonderful Wachau Valley.
"The Russians built this old road, which is now a cycle trail. But stay single file as the locals are fitness freaks and will pass you in the blink of an eye. We'll stop at intervals to regroup, so watch for my signal."
I have joined this cycle tour as a shore excursion from the river cruise ship Illumination, which runs regular sailings between Amsterdam and Budapest. Setting out from the ship's berth at Weissenkirchen (meaning white church) in the heart of the Wachau Valley, we cycle slowly through tightly packed vineyards, terraced on impossibly steep slopes under an evocative landscape of forested hills and rocky outcrops.
"Get ready to enter the 'Pearl of the Wachau'," Peter calls. "Behold the ancient city of Durnstein. It began its life in 1150 as a stone fortress to protect the Kuenring family - just look at it now."
What I see is an eye-catching, pale-blue-and-white bell tower of an Augustinian Abbey, thrusting up above the red-tiled roofs of a castle and a parish church. This tiny town of 400 people qualifies for city status because of its abbey and church enclosed by a fortified wall. I stare in wonder at this utopian ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings that give the town a romantic, fairytale quality.
At the foot of the cobblestoned, one-car-width Hauptstrasse, we dismount and thread our way up the slope, weaving between the laid-back local shoppers and passing cars. Aromas of freshly baked bread, sizzling bratwurst and marillenknodel (apricot-steamed dumplings) fill the air.
The historic street is flanked by picturesque houses dating back to the 16th century. Antique shop and inn signs hang from the pale pastel walls over pretty oriel windows and charming rustic flower boxes overflowing with geraniums. Souvenir shops offer appealing hand-made dolls, artwork, crafts, schnapps glasses, fancy corkscrews and dainty, delectable treats like saffron honey and saffron beer.
Boutiques offer wine and chocolate tastings with delectable chocolate-creme liqueurs and chocolate morsels trimmed with edible rose petals. Apricots thrive here and visitors can discover everything that can be made from the fruit, from dumplings to brandy, cake and strudel.
I get a true sense of the mysterious charm and romance of the Wachau Valley as I gaze up at the hilltop castle called the Kuenringerburg. The ruins have a chequered history as the English King, Richard the Lionheart, was secretly held prisoner here in 1192 after the Third Crusade.
Legend has it that his minstrel, Blondel, went throughout Europe singing Richard's favourite songs under every battlement. At Durnstein he heard the lyrics repeated through barred windows. The happy ending to this story is marred somewhat by the size of Richard's ransom - one-third of England's entire wealth.
Descending a steep medieval lane we arrive at a leafy riverbank cafe decked out in colourful sun umbrellas and a profusion of bright spring flowers. Our lunch of gemishter toast, frankfurter and burenwurst is nicely washed down with an ice-cold Salzburger beer. The meal ends with my favourite schnapps - an apricot fruit concoction, which has the smoothness and potency of a liqueur.
Relaxing in the sun, we watch the Danube swirl and eddy on its relentless run to the Black Sea. The powerful river is not as blue as Johann Strauss' imaginative visualisation but there's a sense of freedom and sublime peace along its cycleways.
In a Heurigen wine tavern I sample an elegant dry, full-bodied riesling that is eminently drinkable. Also a fine pinot noir, which goes by the name of blauburger here. I order a bauernjausen, which means "the works", so the wine samples are served with light, fluffy Durnstein bread rolls, called wachauer laberl, accompanied by local cheeses, ham and sausage.
Later we cross to the nearby town of Rossatz where a grill party has been arranged for cruise guests in the hilltop Rossatz Schloss mansion. Austrian music by the Trachtenkapelle Band encourages us to step out in grand style as we march through terraced vineyards in the soft twilight, fortified by apricot schnapps and a sip or two of local Schreiber wine.
The diaphanous white feather plumes on the headwear of the marching bandsmen dance in the fading sunlight. It's a classic Austrian rural scene with the green wooded hills, orchards, vineyards and saffron fields descending in an orderly procession to the river below.
An elderly group of Rossatz folk are drawn to the roadside to witness the progression of the foreign visitors marching in disarray behind the band. One gentleman wearing traditional attire asks me in broken English where we are from. I proudly proclaim New Zealand and Australia, which leaves him somewhat perplexed. "Ah, Australie," he cries repeatedly as if he has suddenly solved a deep riddle. "And Nova Zelandia," I say trying in vain to bridge the wide gulf of language to no avail. Once I've tried several different ways of identifying New Zealand, I give up. It's clear my new friend has never heard of such an exotic place.
Discovering the Wachau Valley is a highlight of a Danube river cruise. Once you pass the stunning Baroque Benedictine abbey of Melk the landscapes become more and more attractive over the next 40km. The terraced hillsides and forested heights provide an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to every quaint village that we pass.
Wilderness segues into homely, welcoming communities at every gentle curve of the river. Peace reigns everywhere, along with old-fashioned courtesy, a feeling of cosiness and the best coffee cake and apricot strudel you could imagine.
Details: Avalon Waterways offers dozens of different river cruise itineraries across Europe, including aboard its new Suite Ships which offer 30 per cent more cabin space than the industry average. The eight-day Taste of the Danube itinerary between Vienna and Budapest, which visits the Wachau Valley, is available from $2135pp twin-share including a 15 per cent discount if booked by September 15.
The writer travelled to the Wachau Valley courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airlines and Avalon Waterways.