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.

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It comes after Cote d’Ivoire and before Cuba

Total km biked: 673
Countries: 4
Stamps in passport: 2! (read it as factorial or excitement, doesn’t matter)

A note before I start: our camera broke and we are waiting until Belgrade to try and fix it so the pictures are not as high quality here.

Budapest
Biking in Budapest is apparently fine based on the sheer number of cyclists on the streets but I certainly found it stressful. The paths are packed with pedestrians and they seem to end and start without any warning. It also doesn’t help that the cracked pavement jars your teeth and it gets worse when your tire blows and you are riding on the rim. However, after biking 103 km to meet our warmshowers host when we had expected to bike 80 km (a theme to be repeated) we could relax.

A note to other aspiring tourers, don’t think sightseeing days on foot are going to help your body recuperate i.e. the days in Budapest were not restful. We did all of the usual things you would expect a tourist to do and one bonus based on a tip from Roya. Szimpla is everything the Foundation wishes it could be. It’s a bar that is multiple floors and is both inside and outside without doors. The walls are painted bright colours and then adorned with all manner of junk and graffitti of the “Chaz wuz here from ‘Murica” type. The different rooms (seating in the form of old kitchen seats or car benches, for example) had somewhat different themes. Our room had a dozen CRTs with psychedelic displays and the guts of computers strewn about. We noticed some buttons on the wall so I convinced Lindsay to press one. Klaxons sounded and “Alert” flashed on all of the screens. Another button brought Gene Simmons with a wagging tongue and appropriate sound effects on-screen. Still another caused a robot dog hanging from the ceiling to bark and wag its tail. Totally worth it when pints are $2 to boot.

Heroes’ Square in Budapest, Hungary

Dunaujvaros
Our next city, formerly Stalinjvaros, is an industrial town south of Budapest on the Danube. To give you an idea of the town, it smelts iron while factories and the colour grey dominate. It was still worth the 12 km penalty to cross the river since we stayed with an amazing married couple through couchsurfing. That 12 km penalty also seems to have magically increased our 60 km day into an 82 km day. I’m starting to question whether I can count any more. Danaujvaros is not a very hip town but our hosts gain some entertainment by stuffing travellers full of Romanian stew, chicken and palinka (a brandy which in our case was made of apricots).

Viktor and Vero in Dunaujvaros

Baja
We arrived in Baja knowing that it had a meat-packing plant that slaughters 300 000 pigs a year. We did not know that it had the best-paved dyke road and a beautiful downtown area that was full of life on a Sunday night.

Here Lindsay flexed her bargaining muscles for the first time. On our way into town someone yelled at me in a language that may have been English. If it was, I said my best guess was, “asdfl HOTEL KAISER sanvoisd”. Soon the town appeared and numerous signs started pointing to a Hotel Kaiser, three stars. We headed there first having not found a host yet. The price was an iffy 40 euro (she quoted in euro instead of the local Forint) so Lindsay asked if the receptionist knew of another hotel that was cheaper. Suddenly the price was 30 euro so we moved in.

Fields of Paprika are ubiquitous in southern Hungary. It is also hung to dry on the sides of houses.

Osiejk
Yesterday we finally left the EU and entered Croatia. The border crossing was uneventful but instantly everything felt just a little bit different. Here we climbed our first hill (I contemplated walking) and were rewarded by a 10% grade downhill on broken cobblestone that required constant braking. Hardly fair. In the town of Batina we were to turn right at the restaurant and we planned to refill our water and get cash (we had the equivalent of $3 when we arrived). In Hungary there is safe running water everywhere and several public taps in many of the towns. In Batina, the restaurant had long since closed and the only safe water was a single public tap. There was also no bank and nowhere to sleep and camping is illegal (see the pictures for the reason). We continued to our planned stopping point (85 km for the day) but decided to press on to the largest city in this part of the country, Osiejk. A quick and contemplative bathroom break on the side of the highway (again, see pictures) was followed by racing the setting sun into town for a total of 116 km, our longest day yet.

See you later European Union

Punishment is swift for those who break the law against camping in the rough.

Hungary

Facts

Hungary is a landlocked nation in Central Europe with about 300 km of waterfront on the Danube. The capital is Budapest and the currency is the Forint (about 230 HFT buys 1 CAD). It has just under 10 million people and has been out of socialism since 1989 though it has existed in some form since the year 895.

Route

Eurovelo 6 as described by the Bikeline guide. This was a mixture of paved, poorly paved, and dirt bike paths for the majority with some low-traffic roads.

Impressions

Again, nearly everyone speaks at least some English or is at least friendly enough to sign language with. Unfortunately, here we don’t seem to be able to even approximate the correct pronunciation of any phrases so we are stuck asking everyone if they speak English, in English. While maybe slightly more expensive than Slovakia, Hungary is still exceedingly cheap to travel in, especially the smaller towns. Right now Lindsay and I are staying in a hotel that cost us about $35 but is nicer than we really need or deserve in our current state. We also had amazing luck with both couchsurfing and warmshowers which is a huge bonus.

Bratislava to Budapest

Total km biked: 352
Bike problems: Two flat tires (one Greg, one Lindsay)
Countries: 3
Stamps in passport: only one 😦

Soon after our arrival in Bratislava, we realized that we had luckily happened upon the city during a yearly cultural festival which featured traditional Slovak food, crafts, music, dancing and singing. Thus our first night was spent wandering the old town and observing the various acts going on. Specifically, we enjoyed a young slovak band playing while we drank a beer at the nearby cafe. The band was what I would call (using my extremely novice musical judgement) a mix between Celtic rock and funky eastern european music twang. They were really fun!

Our second day in the city we checked out the Bratislava Castle and ate breakfast on the hill underneath it overlooking the city. The impresive sturcture was the center piece in our first glimpse of Bratislava as it came into view along the bikepath. We also took a walk up to the Slavin a WWII memorial perched on top of another one of the hills in the city. Luckily, because it is a bit out of the way and required some effort to hike up to, the crowds were fewer and it was a great spot to stop and take in the city. Greg and I both agreed it was one of the more imposing memorials we had seen and had a very Soviet Union feel to it.

The Slavin – note the lack of other people in the picture. Apparently people don’t like climbing hills..

In the afternoon we had a late Slovakian lunch complete with some locally brewed beer, and delicious garlic soup (including bread bowl!): our favourite new dish so far. Unfortunately the over-eating monster struck again and we both left feeling quite full. The rest of our time in Bratislava was spent with some more wandering as we enjoyed the relaxed but excited vibe going on in the city due to the festival.

Awesome garlic soup complete with bread hat.

On biking day #2 we made our way from Bratislava to Komarno via the Slovakian route in our guide book (there was a Hungarian route option as well). We completed a total of 113 km 17 of which we bike on our first un-paved gravel trails… FUN!

A typical “un-paved” section of the route.

We were both pretty exhausted by the time we arrived and took a much needed rest in the shade to enjoy a Radler (lemonade beer) just in time to meet up with our couch surfing host Tamas. Tamas turned out to be an exceptional host. Not only did he cook a traditional pork and sausage stew dinner for us, he brought us out to a few locals bars where we met up with some of his friends , and he played tour guide in the morning (quite well I might add) as he brought us around Komarno giving us his account of the people and history of the area. We finished off our time with him at a Hungarian restaurant he recommended for lunch before heading off biking again. Although Komarno is on the Slovakian side of the Danube, it is essentially a Hungarian city and most people there relate more closely to being Hungarian. Many learn Slovakian if they are working or own businesses out of necessity. The city has changed hands/nationalty many times throughout it’s history.
Intersting tidbit: the junior high/high schools are refererred to as Gymnasiums. This is essentially the place where from age 10-18 you are taught in a non specific way (not as many course options) to prepare for University if that is your chosen path. We visited Tamas’s Gymnasium and then got locked in so we exited by going through the adjacent Slovakian Gymnasium. The apparent rivalry between the two reminded me a bit of when the french and english classes of my elementary school referred to each other as “the french fries” and “the english muffins”.

Greg and our host Tamas on our morning tour.

Yesterday, Greg and I completed another 55km and made it to Esztergom, a small but very enchanting city, where a castle and basillica are perched on a hill (surprise) overlooking the river. I would say this combination blew the view of the Bratislava Castle out of the water. We had a “romantic” dinner on the stone wall surrounding the hill as the sun set over the city.

View of Esztergom Basillica and Castle from the Danube.

Today Greg and I got up early(ish) with the end goal of making it to Budapest which according to our guidebook was approximately 80km away. In the end we rode over 100km as we didn’t realize that our warmshowers host (the couchsurfing equivalent for cycle touring) lived over 10 kms from the center of the city. Thank you gps (generous courtesy of Graham Wynne) for guiding us there on nice bike routes:)

Off to explore this beautiful city for the next two days. Let us know if you have any recommendations!