I stepped off the train in Vienna and reached down to rub the back of my knee. It was dark when we exited the station and we headed straight for the cab stand to ask for advice on cheap hotels. As we made our way down the signed bicycle paths that led towards the hostels, I tried pedaling with only one leg to relieve the increasing tightness behind my knee. Alan noticed and insisted we stop riding at the first hotel we saw- regardless of price.
The smiling face behind the desk reassured me that staying in a nice hotel would be a real treat for us, and we gratefully accepted the hospitality. It turned out that Soren was the owner and he told us the story of how he had always wanted to own a hotel like this. The timing of the sale of this hotel had played perfectly in his life and he took it as a sign, left his job and took a chance on his dream. I’ve honestly never met someone who seemed to love their job more than he. Soren invited us for a glass of complementary wine, which turned into three (courtesy of his beautiful wine cellar at the hotel, where he also displays some of his antique map collection), and paired his tasting notes with some lively conversation before we collapsed into a huge, comfortable bed.
My knee had been sore for some weeks, but it always felt better after a night of sleep. That next morning, it felt worse. Vienna has an excellently rated public hospital, and we traded our plans to see the city for plans to ensure that I didn’t have a blood clot in my calf (a dangerous problem that can occur in long-distance cyclists). I didn’t, and in the afternoon we went for a short walk to try to loosen up my leg muscles and see the city a bit.
I cannot think of a better way to describe the way Vienna feels than “rich”. We were there for only a day, but this was what we saw: Baroque palaces, classical music venues, slices of cake so sweet they make your teeth hurt, meticulously lit art galleries, velvety bike paths, high-ceilinged restaurants draped with sparking chandeliers, and cherry red trollies from which one can access it all. We gawked at the Hofburg Palace, and sat for minute in Café Central, an elaborately decorated Viennese Coffee House where Freud, Hitler, Trotsky, and Lenin all reputedly took their coffee, and where Peter Altenberg wrote so often that he used it as his official mailing address. Vienna certainly has history, and a day is only enough to taste a sliver of it, but our visas were ticking and we had to press on.
The next morning we headed out of Vienna at five. We cycled past the imposing architecture and parks filled with meticulous topiaries, to pick up the famous EuroVelo 6 route, which runs from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. The EuroVelo 6 is famously well marked, mostly comprised of cycling trails, and runs along the rivers that wind through Europe. In short, it’s cycling heaven. The water was still and the sun broke through the fog as a pair of swans flew beside us before breaking the glass of the river. It was like Austria was trying to pull out all the stops. We kept exchanging looks that said, is this country for real? We passed a couple more palaces.
About 10 miles into cycling heaven, I knew something was wrong beyond a pulled muscle. Twenty-five miles in I found myself sitting on the sidewalk against a grocery store crying. My leg wouldn’t straighten and I was in serious pain. Alan asked a couple grocery shopping where the nearest hospital was, and they graciously offered to drive me there.
It was the first doctor of four that I would see over the next week. Slowly it was ascertained that I had a tear in my meniscus, and that synovial fluid was leaking into the back of my knee, causing pressure. I should have stopped earlier. The only option was rest and if that failed, surgery.
We hemmed and hawed for a couple days over what to do. The idea of going home was too expensive and too sad to bear. We had worked so hard to come this far. It seemed unfathomable that this was how the trip would end. We thought about heading to the UK, where we would have a fresh three months of visa time, but in the end we decided that since there was no way of tell exactly how long I’d need to rest, that it would be best for me to head to Germany by train, and for Alan to ride to meet me. This plan would give me a week of rest, and would still allow the project to continue. I could catch up on some administrative work, and Alan could ride. After the week, we’d revaluate.
So we said goodbye to the family who had brought me to the hospital and had generously shared their home with us for a few days, and I boarded a train. Alan took off again along the beautiful EuroVelo 6, and we agreed to meet in Ulm, Germany.
Austria for me was just Vienna and the inside of some (very nice) hospitals, but the photographs that Alan took of the riding show a lush, green landscape that seems to perfectly balance the opulence of Vienna. The hills rolled and the river wound and farmers took him in and fed him homemade bread and honey on silver trays.
“Was it lonely?” I asked, of riding solo.
“A little,” he admitted, “but it sure was beautiful.”