MAUTERN, Austria - Think of it as a workout where frequent wine-sipping breaks are a must.

With paths that wind through vineyards, fruit groves and fairy tale villages overlooking the Danube, the Alpine republic's world famous Wachau region is best explored by bike.

Hop on and off your cycle to sample the UNESCO World Heritage site's internationally acclaimed Gruener Veltliner white wine, indulge in sweet, apricot-filled dumplings and trek up to the ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive.

A perfect place to kick off your two-wheel tour is the village of Mautern - about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Vienna - that boasts a Roman history museum and, not so incidentally, is home to one of the country's best restaurants.

The family run Landhaus Bacher - which also rents out rooms - creates delicious but pricey dishes from local products in a low-key yet chic setting.

Diners can choose from sophisticated multiple course menus that, if space allows, can culminate with a dessert of two supersized "marillenknoedel" - traditional doughy delights dusted with bread crumbs and sugar that, when split open, reveal steaming apricots - locally grown, of course.

Expect to pay upward of 250 euros ($318) for a multiple course dinner for two with wine. Prices are more reasonable at lunchtime, when about 100 euros ($127) will get you and a date a three course meal each and wine. Dishes can also be ordered individually.

But first back to biking.

As you pedal upstream from the town of Krems - across the bridge from Mautern - you'll soon hit the romantic village of Duernstein that, with its cobblestone streets and pastel blue church spire, is a major tourist draw. It was here that King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned for ransom from December 1192 until March 1193. Centuries later, the ruins of where he was held can still be explored.

History lesson complete, head down the hill to Weissenkirchen where a peak into Christian Loidl's Wachauer Bauernladen store will get your stomach growling.

"We have regulars who come a few times a year to stock up," the 38-year-old said during a recent visit. "On average, they'll spend about 300 euros ($381)."

Not surprising, considering what's on the shelves: homemade jams and pasta, apricot nectar and, of course, crates and crates of wine.

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With your mouth watering, keep heading west to two well-known wineries - Jamek and Holzapfel - housed in lovely buildings complete with outdoor tables to soak up the scenery and ease sore muscles.

Both make for perfect places to grab a bite accompanied by - what else? - a glass or two of the wine of your choosing. Not sure which concoction is best? Don't be shy and ask to sample!

Next, head over to the hamlet of Willendorf where a voluptuous statuette dating back to the Paleolithic era was discovered more than a hundred years ago and has been celebrated for her undeniably curvy, feminine figure ever since.

While the original is just 4 inches tall, visitors can pose next to a larger-than-life replica of the 25,000-year-old beauty while enjoying a stunning view of the Danube down below.

Exactly what the Venus of Willendorf represents - or who carved her all those thousands of years ago - remains a mystery. Was she a fertility symbol, a lucky charm, a goddess - maybe even a prehistoric piece of pornography?

Ponder that as you head uphill through Emmersbach to a delightful donkey troupe where kids young and old can take tours with Bonifaz, Fridolin and Willibald or one of the other gentle animals. Those who have the time and speak German, can even apply for a make believe "donkey license" after answering fun trivia questions and guiding one of your new furry friends through some exercises.

Sweetening up the steep climb about halfway is a stunning view of the Melk Abbey - an impressive, vast structure that houses a church, museum, library and magnificent marble hall complete with fascinating frescoes - on the other side of the Danube.

Too tipsy or tired to continue? Then head back down and jump onto one of the many boats that take less fit tourists up and down the river. Within an hour and 40 minutes you are back in Krems.

 

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