Keen to see the Donau valley but wanting to avoid driving its twisting and climbing roads, we chose instead to stay at Mengen and use the local train service that follows the river’s path. We hoped for a gentle afternoon of a comfortable train ride and a short stroll at our chosen stop of Thiergarten.
Plans went awry immediately on our arriving at the pretty lakeside aire and realising that the train left in less than an hour. With the bikes hastily off we pedalled furiously the three miles into town against a bitingly cold breeze and promptly missed the sign for the station. Cycling up and over the town’s ridge we eventually spotted the bahnhof and skidded down onto its platform to the surprise that we had more than half an hour to wait. Clearly legs were feeling stronger and fitness levels were improving!
There was time to source a picnic so we did a tour of a nearby Lidl and were inevitably held up by the long queue at the one checkout that was open. Jogging back to the station there was only time to jump on the train without deciphering the puzzle of the ticket machine. This presented a problem. Catching a train without a valid ticket is called ‘schwarzfahren’ or ‘black travel’ on the German rail network and is immediately punishable with a hefty fine. Its threat is enough to ensure that stations do not require barriers or ticket inspectors as passengers instinctively buy tickets as a form of self- protection. Except that we hadn’t, and nor did the train stop at Thiergarten.
Nervously awaiting public humiliation and the decimation of the trip’s remaining budget we eagerly leapt off in relief at a place called Hausen im Tal. It was our trip luck that we were on a driver-operated train without a conductor and, ironically, the subject of much commuter pain at home. On this occasion we warmly embraced the idea!
The return service was in two hours so we ventured out of the empty station, crossed the road and began the steep hike up to the riverside Schloss Werenweg. The narrow woodland path wound up more than 200 meters and we gamely kept up a pace scrambling over fallen leaves and tripping on unseen roots and rocks, before emerging out of the canopy of trees and onto a wide service road across parkland.
Schloss Werenweg turned out to be privately owned and not open to visitors. It looked expensively maintained and was surrounded by a courtyard containing an enormous stone farmhouse and barn, and several wooden cruck framed buildings. Its spectacular setting is on a crag of limestone cliff high above the Donau.
We headed off across the parkland following signs to see ‘ruine Hausen’ and passing grazing deer. Wooden hunter’s hides lined the dark edges of the surrounding forest and we met with some surprise a group of six rather grumpy and tired looking men all dressed in black. They weren’t holding guns but we had the impression that they had been. Otherwise we saw no one.
At one point the trail wound out onto the edge of the limestone cliffs and we stepped gingerly out over the drop to the Donau below, whilst looking back for a wonderful view of the Schloss.
The river seemed small, narrow and shallow and not at all like the wide and deeply flowing water that we had followed on its course through the cities of Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade last year. We later discovered that we were near to its source at Donaueschingen further west in the valley.
The path then split four ways at a cross roads without signage. Gambling, we continued in our direction of travel, but quickly became lost. We were now in managed forest land and passing gigantic stacks of felled trees that had numbers and insignia sprayed onto them. The path had become a gravelled service road so at the next two cross roads we opted for the way that went down but were increasingly heading further away from the direction we had come.
With half an hour to go until the train arrived we dropped onto a main road and began marching downhill crossing sides ahead of meeting speeding cars on hair pin bends.
Having spotted the rather disappointing ‘ruine Hausen’ up above us we got our bearings and saw some roughly hewn steps winding off the road and down a steeply wooded bank. Leaping down them and plunging into the upper village we then had 12 minutes to jog the mile or so along the main road out to the station.
We arrived with two minutes to spare. A sign informed that the ticket office was closed (actually for sale) and there was not a ticket machine at the station. Oh good grief.