Flood tourism and cycle tourism meet by the Danube

high water levels, Danube flooding, June 2013, Bratislava

Bratislavský hrad Slovakia Eurovelo 6

I have written before about how much I love being by the Danube with its promise of travels through history. However on this trip we saw another side of the great river, a treacherous beast only just held in check by mankind.

The recurring nightmare running up to our trip to Bratislava was that the city might be flooded by the surge of rainwater heading down after torrential rains right across central Europe. We were due to arrive Friday night and the peak flood waters were due just 24 hours earlier.

Consider that this is June. A month’s rainfall fell in two days across the high ground that feeds many of Europe’s great rivers, ground already saturated from the wet spring. Anyone who has been watching the Giro d’Italia bike race knows that it has been an appalling month across much of the Alps. Quickly the news showed the German town of Passau flooded by the Danube and its confluence with the Inn and Liz rivers. Then Prague was swamped by the Vltava River and all along the Danube and the Elbe communities were waiting for the surge.

Vienna itself was almost untouched because it has some of the most extensive flood relief systems in Europe, but now it was heading for Bratislava and Budapest. This was a particularly difficult time because after massive floods in 2002 the new flood defences in Bratislava were only a few years old and had never been tested.

During the week running up to the ECF AGM a planned cycle tour from Bratislava to Vienna was cancelled as the Eurovelo routes became impassable and nobody knew what condition they might be in when the waters dropped.

On Saturday morning we couldn’t resist a bit of voyeurism by walking down to the banks of the river in Bratislava. I was an extraordinarily impressive sight and one that made me realise just how precariously we try to control such massive bodies of water. According to reliable sources (our taxi driver) the river was carrying five times its normal volume of water.

High water levels, Danube river, Bratislava June 2013

One day after the peak we could look across the giant expanse rushing powerfully by the city centre, almost on our eye level behind the flood barriers. It was clear from the lines on the side of the temporary flood barriers that this must have been a very near miss.

Danube SlovakiaShip traffic was banned because of the levels so there were working boats moored all along the banks, but most striking were the floating hotels, keeling over to one side because their entrances were moored below water level. Police were patrolling the banks to stop idiocy – people climbing onto the barriers or trying to get across to the boats I guess.

And it was all such a contrast to the scene behind the barriers. All along the banks are extensive cycle paths and there was an excellent foot and pedestrian bridge slung underneath the main car bridge into the city.Bratislava Cyclists danube bridge

Child cycling by the Danube Bratislava Cycling by the Danube BratislavaIn the stunning warm weather we were among hundreds of people all out for what would have been family and friends bike rides around the river bank. However it was apparent that almost everyone just needed to linger that bit longer to take in the power of the river, and maybe to contemplate just how close they had been to another serious flood.Slovakia

Bratislava Old Town charms us

View over the Danube from Bratislava Castle

Bratislava old town

The missing posts before I started blogging about Velo-city and our summer holiday were the two days we spent en route in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

We were there for the annual general meeting of ECF, my employers, when we bring our members together for a couple of days to do the formalities of running an international association, but also to catch up with old friends from the cycle campaigning world.

Bratislava was selected because we wanted to be in proximity to Vienna so many people could travel on the following week, but to give us a chance to meet in a different environment with a different community.

The meeting itself fulfilled all those expectations but a residing memory will be the number of people who said “Wow, Bratislava, I never knew”

The old town and the castle that overlooks it have been charmingly restored to provide a historic and largely car free environment that are a delight to wander. Bratislava Square

Much of the restoration is quite recent, friends from neighbouring countries were as surprised by the centre as us first timers, reporting that even twenty years ago Bratislava was dark, dirty and industrial. Outside the centre are apparently some of the communist era’s largest housing estates and old industrial centres but as a tourist in the centre one would never know.

The castle overlooks the city and has a great panoramic view over the Danube. It was a hot walk up to the top, especially the staggered staircase but once up there the view over the river and the red roofs of the old town was great, especially from the lovely terrace café.Bratislavský hrad Slovakia Roofs of Bratislava old town

June 2013, Slovakia

The warm weather was also particularly welcome because lets face it we have had a truly awful winter and spring. Time to take a bowl of one of the local delicacies, sheep’s cheese with pasta, and chill out.Slovakia

I have been told so many times by cycle tourists that they get so fixed on the riding that they forget to stop and actually appreciate the towns and cities they ride through. I can imagine that riding the Danube cycle route (part of Eurovelo 6) one could just forget to turn into the old city set just back from the waterside in Bratislava or avoid climbing the hill to the castle.

That would be a huge mistake. And it would be unfair to our hosts, the Ekopolis Foundation (Nadácia Ekopolis, known also as the Slovak Environmental Partnership) and Slovenský Cykloklub who certainly showed us a new destination to enjoy. Bratislavský hrad SlovakiaSlovakiaBratislava Old Town Marks Gate