This is my first proper post as the others were written by Jenn, so here goes.
We were a bit nervous. We had not attempted anything like this before. Cycling from Vienna to Budapest along the Danube river was a challenge we thought, but not impossible. The route is part of the much longer Danube cycle route which follows the Danube from Passau in Germany to the Black Sea. This 340 km stretch would take us through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, sometimes running along the river itself and sometimes veering away from the river and out through small towns and villages as well as the city of Bratislava and ending in Budapest. We had allocated 8 days to do it which averaged at 40 to 50 km per day. I use km rather than miles as all the distances on the road and in our guide-book are in km and I gradually got to like working in km because if feels like you have gone further. Riding 24km feels better than the equivalent 15 miles. We rented bikes in Vienna from Pedal Power who allow you to drop them off in Budapest. With most of our belongings stuffed into two panniers and the rest in a back pack strapped on top we headed off with our trusty Vienna to Budapest cycling guide-book which details the route.
The first stretch was through Vienna’s Prater, a beautifully shady tree-lined pathway through parkland. This eased us into a cycle path running right alongside the Danube. We drifted into a meditative state of legs rising and falling and the tumble of rubber on gravel as the breeze offered us smells of cut grass, bark and wild flowers. As a naked man strolled casually across our path we woke from our cycling daydream and realised that we were riding through an area assigned for nudist sunbathing. I didn’t know where to look as in every direction were the wrinkled and generally sagging flesh of a mainly older generation of nudists. One old guy ahead of us bent over to pick something up, his backside facing us, and Jenn almost fell off her bike. After about 20 minutes of this (sorry, no photos were taken) we left the nudists and Vienna behind and rode out into the countryside.
For most of the journey so far we had booked accommodation in advance but for the cycle ride we hadn’t booked any as we weren’t sure how far we would get each day. We would just find places to stay as we went. Jenn said she felt this liberating not to have a fixed place organised for each night. I just hoped we would always be able to find something.
Along the way are many turn offs and alterative routes to take. Just as the evening sun warmed the landscape with its golden glow we turned off into the village of Eckartsau and stumbled upon a baroque mansion-house. We rested in the grounds, the warm breeze blowing gently on the long dry grass of the meadow around us. We decided to phone up a few of the places to stay from our guide-book. The first place, fully booked. The second place, fully booked. Luckily the next place had a room (their last one) so we headed off to the town of Bad Deutsch Altenburg passing through several quaint Austrian villages on the way. Our hotel was a bit odd. Walking in the door we came across the owner sitting in the dark at a makeshift desk in the hallway watching a performance of traditional Austrian music projected on a large screen. After being shown to our room we went off into the town to find a place to eat. We found one restaurant where we were told that they didn’t have anything on the menu apart from one thing which we weren’t sure what it was but guessed it was a local pork dish. Jenn doesn’t eat red meat so we went off to what seemed like the only other place open. Here the very helpful owner explained in an extraordinary example of underselling himself that they had a few things to eat but we might be better off going to the hotel down the road if we wanted proper food. The owner was so good-natured and willing to help that we decided to stay and eat what they had which actually turned out to be pretty good although there was a bit too much ham and cheese on the menu but this is normal for these parts. We returned to the hotel pleased with our progress so far of almost 50km in one day. Would we be able to keep it up for eight days in a row?
After a breakfast of ham and cheese we left our hotel, passing the owner still watching traditional Austrian music on the big screen in the hallway. It was a gloriously sunny day and we set off towards Bratislava. We stopped off in Hainburg on the way. This ancient town still has 2.5 km of old city walls remaining as well as 3 city gates and 15 towers. The grand city gates were financed in part by a 23000 kg of silver ransom that was paid for the release of Richard the Lionheart. We had a ride around the town and ate ice-cream at a local cafe.
We left Hainburg and made our way along cycle paths south of the Danube until we crossed the border into Slovakia passing the remnants of the old soviet border control buildings. We crossed the Danube and entered Bratislava, a city which was once the capital of Hungary. The Hungarian capital then moved to Budapest and in 1993 Bratislava became capital of the newly independent Slovakia. It’s a good-looking town of winding streets and cobbled lanes with a large city square surrounded by impressive buildings. We stopped at the tourist information to ask about accommodation and were told about the cheapest hostel in the city.
It was a huge grey building of crumbling plaster with a very stern woman on reception behind a glass screen. She didn’t speak any English and slowly we worked our way through the mountain of paperwork needed to stay. The hostel felt like something from communist times and inside were corridor after corridor, floor after floor of rooms. The hallways were dark, grey, with a dank smell and resembled a prison. Bare is too generous a word to describe the cell-lıke rooms. There were two small single beds with the thinnest hardest mattresses I’ve ever felt. There was one bathroom per floor, white tiled with stubborn ground in dirt that no modern chemicals could remove. I think this place was some sort of school dorms from the 50s which hasn’t been updated since. But all in all it was an OK, fairly cheap place to stay and we were more intrigued by it than disappointed.
There are a lot of odds and ends we took with us just in case we needed them such as string, a marker pen, super glue, wıre etc. some of which we may never use. The item that has been the most useful is our special travel sink plug which can be used in any sink if we need to do some clothes washing by hand. Unfortunately we discovered during our stay in Bratislava that we had left the plug at the last hotel, which led Jenn on a quest over the next few days to buy a replacement plug. More to follow on this…
We walked up to the castle stopping in at a cafe / bar for a snack on the way. They had a choice of a toasted ham and cheese sandwich or they could do one with just cheese. I quite liked this little bar with its laid back sofas. We ate and drank very cheaply as it was away from the tourist areas. After visiting the castle the weather changed and it started raining. We grabbed our rain coats and headed into the town centre. By night Bratislava is a labyrinth of pedestrianized streets lined with cafes, with restaurants tucked away in small courtyards reached by vaulted passageways. We ate at a wonderfully atmospheric Brazillian-themed place, which pleased Jenn immensely as it was sort of close to Mexican food (her favourite). We ate our second ice-cream of the day in a bar playing mostly obscure Erasure b-sides, then returned to our cell to sleep.
The weather on our trip had so far been more British summer than Costa del Sol. We would have that feeling, familiar to anyone holidaying in Britain, of slight trepidation when pulling back the curtain in the morning as to whether it would reveal glorious sunshine or pouring rain. Today it was pouring rain so we put on our rain coats and set off. We had breakfast at the more western sounding ‘Coffee and Bagels’ where they had some not ham and cheese options and, full with energy, headed off into the rain.
The cycle path continued by the Danube on the top of a dyke protecting the huge flood plain. We started to see other cyclists doing the same route such as a couple who were attempting to do it in 5 days (we were doing it in 8). We were glad to have longer, as it gave us more time to look around the towns and villages.
We entered Hungary and at the next town got Forints from the ATM and went to eat goulash soup at the next cafe we found. Jenn had the vegetarian option of a bag of crisps (potato chips for our American readers). From here we headed off into Hungary stopping only at a bathroom showroom to enquire unsuccessfully about a sink plug. From here the cycle route runs away from the river along small roads and paths through farmland, towns and villages. Most of the villages were simple and down to earth but all quite pleasant with some pretty gardens and interesting old buildings here and there.
Thoroughly soaked, we rode into the wonderfully named town of Mosonmagyarovar to find somewhere to stay. The tourist information lady kindly pointed us in the direction of a room in a private house. There are many of these in Hungary identified by the sign ‘Zimmer Frei’ which is actually German for ‘room free’ and are like a bed and breakfast without the breakfast. We were greeted by a kind gentleman who made us feel very welcome. He gave us a very thorough tour of our room (in broken half English/half German) which was actually a self-contained little flat. He explained in minute detail the workings of the gate to the property giving a demonstration of how to open and close it “SLOWLY!”, making Jenn repeat it just to make sure. He then went to great lengths to explain what could and could not be put down the toilet but thankfully without the demonstration. We walked into the town which like many of the towns has a pedestrianised centre. Something they should try more of in Britain. We bought cereal and milk at the local branch of Tesco (yes, Tesco is taking over in Hungary too) and had a good meal at a surprisingly cheap restaurant. Mains are around 3 pounds (5 dollars) (can’t find dollar or pound signs on this Hungarian keyboard) and beer less than a pound a pint.
Today the curtain revealed a bright sunny day and after eating cereal out of coffee mugs because there were no bowls in the kitchen we set off on our way closing the gate behind us without incident. Passing some small towns we cycled on to the spa town of Lipot. I like the feeling of travelling slowly, able to see every tree and building as you go, unlike the high-speed of plane or train travel. You feel the day progress from morning to evening hearing and smelling every detail. The smells through some of the farming towns, however, were a little too detailed. It was a hot day so at Lipot we stopped at the thermal baths there. It is a water park with several swimming pools as well as two thermal pools which tap the naturally occurring hot water below the earth. One pool was luke warm and the other as hot as a bath. The water was green and we sat in it hoping it would relieve our aches and pains.
We cycled on in the heat and into the early evening. Jenn stopped at a plumbing shop to ask about the plug again. She drew a picture of it to show to the people who worked there who, after finally realising what it was she was going on about, told her they had none.
By the time we arrived at the final destination of the day of Györ, it was getting late so we went into the first Zimmer Frei that we came to which was a house which had a small campsite in the garden as well as some rooms. It suprised us that in this part of Hungary a lot of people speak German as well as Hungarian. This was really useful as Jenn speaks a bit of German. Making use of Jenn’s language skills we were shown to a very nice room with distracting wallpaper. We walked into the town which has been settled since Roman times. Like many of the cities in the area it was damaged badly in WWII but still has an impressive Old Town area with many baroque and neo-classical buildings. We walked through the square and along pleasant streets to a restaurant with great food and even better desserts. After eating, we wandered back to our beds tired as usual from the cycling.
In the morning we went back to have a quick look around the town by day. We found a stall selling a Hungarian snack called Langos which is light crispy fried bread topped with cheese, garlic and mayonnaise. We just went for the plain cheese topping as we were having difficulty coping with the generous amounts of cream and garlic that the Hungarians like to include in most dishes. Jenn searched without luck in an outdoor clothing shop for the sink plug and we were on our way. We got a bit lost trying to get out of Gyor and were helped by a friendly woman who pointed us in the right direction. On the way out of town we passed a giant supermarket and after a quick check for a plug we were on our way, still plugless.
Travelling mainly on small roads, we passed a particularly interesting village which was just a narrow dirt track with small houses on either side, most with a little land containing chickens or vegetables. Some of the buildings were just allotment sheds but others were permanently lived in it seemed. The houses were mostly a bit broken down and overgrown but many had beautiful displays of flowers adding colour to a street where nature seemed to dominate. It’s great to get the opportunity to see not just the tourist towns of Bratislava and Vienna but also these everyday towns and villages who normally see no tourists.
We stopped off at Babolna, famous in the horseracing world for its stud and horse training ground. Unfortunately, the horse museum was closed by the time we arrived so we decided just to have lunch at a cafe and move on. Also at the cafe, after a failed visit to the museum, was an American family also on bikes, probably on the way to Budapest. Like the Griswolds they were on their European vacation, with the dad, kitted up with all the latest biking gear proudly leading the way, trying to generate enthusiasm in the wife and two kids who were obviously fed up and not enjoying it as much as him.
We were running a bit late and arrived in Komarom, where we planned to stay, at around 6.30pm. We didn’t see any Zimmer Freis on the way so went to a hotel which was a lot more expensive and not that good but as the hotels in this town seemed to close their doors to new customers at 7pm as the day shift clocks-off, we didn’t have time to look around further. The receptionist was a bit annoyed with us wanting to stay as she was clearly a bit flustered but we persevered. We asked about restaurants and the receptionist looked a bit resigned saying there wasn’t much, just a couple of places in the street and a kebab shop about a mile away. We went to what looked like the least bad restaurant and was served alright food by a very grumpy waitress. I have a theory about the lack of enthusiasm of the locals. Komarom is a town right on the border with Slovakia. A bridge over the Danube joins Hungarian Komorom to Slovakian Komarno, a town just over the border. It’s like a town split in two by the river. Whereas Komorom is a one street town with a strip of overpriced hotels, Komarno is a lively little town with beautiful buildings and a great town square. The receptionist at the hotel (who, to be fair, was more helpful and pleasant the next morning) and the waitress were just not that happy about living in Komorom when just across the bridge lays Komarno. But then maybe the grass is always greener somewhere else. And maybe that’s why we are doing our trip. I have to say that I actually enjoyed the ordinaryness of Komarom but I suppose we are all striving for that Komarno over the brıdge, which is a little better.
Look out for part two of the bike trip, when disaster strikes!