End of the Line

A lot has happened since we went olive picking so a quick run-through is in order.

We left Thessaloniki by bus to the slow-paced capital of Bulgaria; Sofia. Autumn finally punched into our realities with a vengeance as we stepped off the bus, laden with our multitude of grocery bags, into low single-digit temperatures. However, since this was our first taste of impending winter, we had that excitement that accompanies the first really crisp day each year.

In Sofia we stayed with Americans Jackson and Emily overlooking one of the main traffic circles in the city. It was mesmerizing to look down from above at the endless turning of cars while a huge neon sign blinked “Be Happy” at us day and night (and there certainly is a lot of night at this time of year). From Sofia we attempted to hike up the neighbouring mountain “Vitosha” but arrived at the base by bus to learn that the gondola that would have made this possible was under repair. We had been accompanied by a fellow couchsurfer and also American, Paul. We still enjoyed a pleasant Fall walk around the base of the ski area and some backroads.

Paul, the fellow surfer, and Emily, the mutual host, in the kitchen in Sofia.

Sofia itself is quite beautiful and the weather was perfect for enhancing the grey-feeling of the city. Is grey-feeling positive? I mean it to be. Nobody seems hurried and the lack of a major body of water coupled with the yellowish surrounding mountains had a Calgary-like feel. It was also eerie to fly out of an airport that seemed almost deserted. Perhaps that is why they had the time to confiscate our roll of tape.

From Sofia we returned to Vienna to reunite with our backpacks (stored since August), and more importantly, to see Johanna and Paul. This time we were not preoccupied with locating lost luggage so we were able to do a much better job of seeing the city. After two months of eastern countries, the sterile feeling of Vienna was a blast to the consciousness. Is sterile positive? I mean it to be. Vienna is all beautiful architecture with accent lighting and no graffiti or overflowing trash bins. I don’t think that makes it feel soulless, rather you are overcome with romantic notions as you stroll through the city by day or night.

The most interesting thing we did in Vienna was participate in St. Martin’s day with Paul and his friends. Traditionally children make paper lanterns and walk down the street singing songs about St. Martin. Apparently some grown-up children make elaborate lanterns (such as a working foosball table lantern) and go on a pub crawl. The other difference is that they seem to shout songs rather than sing them. The final stop on the crawl was a music club where some members of our procession performed the play commemorating when St. Martin gave half of his cloak to a beggar. We also stood on the stage to sing a few of the songs though I mostly had to fake it since I knew exactly 3 words in just one of the songs.

My peach tin elf lantern.

Lindsay with her rainbow spiral effort.

From Vienna we took a train and a tram way out to the edge of the city, we were actually standing next to the city limits sign, to try to hitchhike to Prague. With a sign in both German and Czech we waited for a little over an hour with nothing to show for it except for a few encouraging smiles and waves. We trudged back to public transport for the hour long trip to one of the train stations where we tasted the bitter taste of defeat in the form of 120 euros worth of train tickets.

A beautiful fall rose garden in Prague.

Prague lived up to its reputation of beauty with the majestic and plodding Vltava river being the central focus. In this way the city more closely resembles Budapest than Vienna. In Prague you can find the largest castle complex in the world perched on the a hill to the west of the river. You can also find the oldest operational astrological clock. Prague is interesting since it is geographically “Eastern Europe” but is one of the most-visited cities in Europe. This means there are around 100 hostels to choose from and the prices are much higher than other cities we have visited. The biggest anomaly is beer, which continues to be priced around $1.50 CAD for the pint in a restaurant. The Czech Republic is known for its beer consumption so it was surprising to learn that the majority of establishments serve only a light pilsner, a strong pilsner, and an unfiltered beer. Supposedly the other plethora types of beers have only started gaining popularity in the last two years.

The Charles Bridge in Prague on a misty morning.

And now it has come to the end of our last post about our shared travels. As many of you will already know, Lindsay and I have gone our separate ways. Lindsay left yesterday to Berlin and I headed to Munich. Ironically, I have never been to Berlin but I have been to Munich and for Lindsay the opposite is true*. At this point we expect to meet in Athens in a month to pack our bikes and then each of us will likely head to our respective home towns for Christmas. We will continue to update individually, Lindsay next week and me again the following week. Don’t lament even if you have only ever known us as a couple! The past five years have been unforgettable and I, for one, will look back on them fondly.

*This may be inaccurate. I’m now pretty sure that Lindsay has been to Munich.

The view from the apartment in Sofia and some good advice.

Age of Aquarius

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga) at 2827 km. We have had the pleasure (mostly) of riding 60 km of it in Austria, 150 km in Slovakia, 280 km in Hungary, 140 km in Croatia, 380 km in Serbia, and 450 km in Romania. During that time the local name of the river has changed from Donau, then to Dunaj, then to Duna, then to Dunav, and finally to Dunarea. We have also passed through five European capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest).

Pedalling along can be hypnotizing and recently, since the traffic has been light, I find myself daydreaming about the towns that whiz by. Each of them is like a carbon copy of the last in rural Romania but I feel that the number of people in any given town which venture even 10 km in either direction is small. This lead to me wondering about how these locals view the mighty river to the south. Here the river is wide and lazy, very lake-like in its still appearance. There isn’t any indication of the many faces we have seen of this waterway since the start of our journey.

The first of many crossings leaving Vienna.

Leaving Vienna, with our first of 14 crossings of the river so far, and through much of¬†Slovakia the river has artificial banks and is monotonously straight. In Slovakia a huge reservoir is formed downstream of Bratislava before a hydroelectric dam which meets 8% of the country’s power needs. At other times, like in Budapest, the river is the focal point with beautiful buildings and bridges pressed together and Buda hill overlooking the whole scene.¬†At still other points, the river is integral to heavy industry like the steel mills (currently shut-down) in Smederevo or the huge smelting operation in Dunaujvaros. Finally, the Danube gorge. Its sheer cliffs plunge straight down into the water and serve as an intimidating international border as the river winds its way toward two more hydroelectric dams. The gorge may have been even more impressive before the installation of the dams since the reservoir caused a 35 m rise in the river height nearby.

Budapest with the Chain Bridge and Cathedral.

But in small-town Romania the face of the river is as regular and unobtrusive as the endless fields which border it. I started to wonder if the local people ever gave the Danube a second thought or knew what lay beyond the sunset. However, when I realized the enormity of my own ignorance I was knocked off of my high horse. We have seen just half of the river and only from one bank at a time. We neither started at its origin in the Black Forest, nor will we continue to the delta where it empties into the Black Sea. There is always more to see and always more to learn.

Shamelessly stolen picture of the Danube delta we will never reach.

Austrian Invasion

August 27, 2012 – September 1, 2012

Total Biked: 77.5 km

For this post I am going to try summarizing the sections here at the top so you only need to read the sections you might think are interesting.

Section 1: Describing our first few days in Austria and some of the local foods

Section 2: Factual biking information

Section 3: Some thoughts/feelings/observations

Vienna, Austria

If it had been a race to Vienna between us and our bikes, then there definitely was no need for a photo finish. They must have made a wrong turn in the bowels of Heathrow because they didn’t stroll in to Hohlweggasse in District 3 until Friday (a frustrating 3 days later).

We don’t need to have bikes to have fun though. Within ten minutes of arriving at Johanna’s apartment and being met by her boyfriend Paul (a pair of couchsurfers we had hosted a year ago in Vancouver) we were being whisked around the ring road to join in a scavenger hunt around Vienna intended for exchange students at the university. The irony here is that the two of us had been talking just the week prior about how we both enjoyed frosh week six years ago but couldn’t imagine doing orientation all over again. However the hunt was the perfect way to get familiarized with the city and some of the small language differences in the local dialect while also pushing the thought of being tired to the back of my mind. We even managed to place second in the hunt against a strong opponent (which also happened to be the only opponent).

The following few days were spent trying to deal with a third party luggage tracking company that seemed uninterested in our problems in between discovering the local neighbourhood. Only five minutes away from our host’s flat is the last residence of Franz Ferdinand; Belvedere Palace. I hope our trip to Sarajevo doesn’t end the same way as his. We also got to accompany Johanna to a rooftop party overlooking Vienna and had a barbecue at Paul’s childhood home in the countryside outside Vienna. This was especially exciting because it meant the opportunity to walk dogs in the woods far from the hustle and bustle. A few of these activities also featured Lindsay’s good friend Roya who is also travelling.

Local delicacies:
-Radler, a mix of lemonade and beer
-Weiner Schnitzel, a local classic made with veal (weiner just means from Vienna, who knew?)
-Sturm, a light alcoholic drink with a season that is only a few weeks long. To me it tasted exactly like the infamous first batch of cider from fourth year.
-Kasekrainer, a sausage with cheese inside (not invented in America as it turns out)

The Bike Adventure Begins
Palaces and opera houses are all well and good but the trip didn’t really start until today’s 75 km ride to Bratislava, Slovakia along the infamous Danube. The ride was kilometer after kilometer of straight, flat riding along a well-surfaced path atop a dyke after crossing the river straight out of Vienna. About 20 km from Bratislava we crossed the river for a second time to enter the town of Hainburg through a single lane gate, the “Vienna Gate”. It had been a drizzly and cold morning so we stopped and considered staying for the night but the sun started to push through so we remounted for the last 16 km to Slovakia and our third crossing of the Danube into Bratislava over the Novy Most.

Getting in the saddle after the hiatus was exciting. We were both pumped but with the rain have started to worry about what November might feel like. When we first crossed the bridge onto the island in the center of the Danube outside of Vienna I started to shout out of pure giddyness. This same phenomenon seemed to repeat each time the scenery changed.

We only met a few other cyclists out today and although no one was local, everyone was extremely friendly. Lindsay spoke to three of them in French and learned that the older couple had biked this route before. They seemed to be a little bit older than my parents but they were much faster than us.

Touring (all one day of it) has not disappointed our expectations of being able to absorb the scenery. This might not always be endearing though. Even with the novelty of our first day, we were glad to see the 30 km of nearly identical, straight, flat, tree-lined path put behind us. At the same time, we got to see toads and infant-fist-sized snails a half-meter away from rows of dying sunflowers (there is no shortage of sunflowers in this area. I wonder what they looked like a month ago).

We have only just arrived so there is not much to report. Below are some of the highlight photos from our first few days and a link on the right should lead to more photos as we update the album.

Bye!

Fixing her first flat courtesy of a thorn during packing/shipping.

A send-off dinner that didn’t stop impressing by host Johanna.

Our first sighting of a Eurovelo 6 signpost.

The Danube looking toward Hainburg on our second crossing.

Sad sunflowers because of the rain.

Austria

Facts:

A landlocked country of 8.5 million in Central Europe, Austria has existed in its current form since 1955. The official language is standard German but the majority of the population speak local dialects. The currency is the Euro. The largest city and capital, Vienna, is considered a gateway to Eastern Europe.

Route

Eurovelo 6 on dyke roads next to the Danube.

Impressions:

While not always seeming to be warm, the people of Vienna seem exceptionally willing to help tourists. You don’t even need to know how to ask if someone speaks English; just hold a map and within seconds someone will ask you if you need help. In general Austria seems to be similar to any western city, just a bit denser than those in North America. Very clean and very easy to find what you need.