I’ve finally left Western Europe, crossing the line where the Iron Curtain once stood, and have really started to feel that I’ve cycled quite far from home.
After a couple of relaxing in days in Vienna, stuffing myself with Apple Strudle and Sachertorte, at the wonderful company of my friend Ronnie and his partner Chris’ flat, I set out on on the days ride to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
Just as a quick sidetrack I have a couple of anecdotes from Vienna. Whilst having dinner one night Chris brought up some of the weird sculptures in the Vienna Madam Tussauds. He said that they have a wax work of Anne Frank, sat in her attic, looking all cheerful and said that it seemed in poor taste. I laughed and jokingly said, having just read Nelson Mandels autobiography, that do they have one of him in jail? Shockingly Chris said they did!
A couple nights later, after dinner, me and Ronnie walked past the Opera house and he told the story of how after it had been designed someone decided to raise the road in front by 3m resulting in the ground floor of the opera house looking like ti has sunk into the ground. Emperor Franz Josef, on his inspection of the building, stated this fact which led one of the architects to commit suicide. After that the emperor would always compliment finished works…
Back to the cycling.
Fairly straight forward ride with a good tail wind. A pretty non-descript cycle path on top of the river’s dyke so was a bit bored. Eventually crossed over the river into a town called Hainburg which my map showed as being an old fortified city with some impressive gates. I had a quick ride around, took some photos and decided to have one slice of Western decadence before riding into the East. More Apple Strudle. The Austrians also serve a little glass of water with coffee, a brilliant idea as it combats the dehydrating effect of the coffee.
It was only a few km from the town to the border, you don’t get a great impression at first and it took me a second to realise why. The first thing you see is a dilapidated border complex. Whilst kind of nice in that it is a monument to the luxury of freedom of movement in Europe, created by the Schengen agreement, it is also ugly. Nevertheless I got my cheesey border photo, much improved having figured out my cameras self timer.
I quickly realised I’ve seen the end of quality cycle paths. Whilst some of them in Slovakia are good they are not as frequent, or of the same standard, as Germany and Austria. Surprisingly though there are a lot more cyclists, both recreational and transport.
Off to the left of the cycle path I noticed a bunker that was labeled as a museum. It felt weird to think I’ve literally just cycled over the Iron Curtain, at the same time you are greeted with a view of the classic jungle of soviet apartment blocks. These still look a bit depressing despite the cities valiant effort of painting them in cheery colours, I’ve seen these buildings still as plain concrete in both Mongolia and in Chernobyl and it is a very grim look indeed.
I pushed on into the city and cycled over the main bridge with the eerie UFO on top, again a classic bit of soviet architecture and I vowed too see if you can go up there later on. The centre of Bratislava was pretty simple to navigate and soon found myself in the courtyard of the Patio Hostel. I was delighted to see the dorm beds were only 10.50 EUR. A mere 70km away in Vienna a hostel bed is nearer 30 EUR. It’s going to be a lot easier to stay on budget from here on.
Got chatting with the only other person in the dorm, Ke, a Japanese guy living and working in Poland. We decided to head out for some beers, which are also nice and cheap (1 EUR), and Ke told me some stories about bad experiences he’d had with the website couchsurfing.com, namely older men only willing to host young guys leading to some awkward situations…
The next morning I saw that it was 6.50 EUR to go up to the UFO and that there is a bar up there where a beer is 3.50 EUR or so. A bit pricey but worth it I think since I’d gotten it into my head to go up there. Ke fancied coming along too but said there is a cafeteria style place I have to try for lunch first. I got an absolutely huge meal, soup, schnitzel, potatoes, grilled cheese roll, salad and a Kofola for less than 5 EUR. Kofola, if you are wondering, is a Slovakian cola drink made in one of the local breweries. It’s a bit like a low sugar, low caffeine Coca-Cola with a hint of Ginger to it. Really nice, especially when half a litre of it is 40c instead of 1.50 EUR for a Coca-Cola.
We went for a walk around the town and then headed up to the UFO. There is a small entrance to an elevator tucked away under the south side of the bridge were a very pretty woman, who looks like she doesn’t enjoy her job, was taking the entrance fee. We boarded the elevator and had that unusual experience of accelerating upwards and sideways at the same time. The view from the top was really spectacular, a lot of the reviews I read online whilst trying to decide if the money was worth it had been extremely critical of it, but I had a good time. Quite weird too as the road runs under you giving a unique view down below. This also leads to the platform wobbling and vibrating when a heavy vehicle passes beneath.
We checked out the bar and got some drinks, I thought if I was being ripped off for a beer I might as well pay a bit more and get something special, a UFOpolitan cocktail. I remembered in the reviews earlier that a lot of them said you absolutely have to go to the bathroom in the bar. I was dying to find out why and made my way in. I was shocked to see the urinals are floor standing and face out of the glass windows giving you a full view over the city! I peaked my head into the cubicle to see that the toilet was also facing out of the window!
I went back to bar giggling like a kid and told Ke he has to check them out. He reappeared a minute later to grab his camera and to go back in again! I need to get those pictures off him.
It only took about another 60 minutes to see the remainder of the cities sights, a quick glimpse in the cathedral, which the communists considerately built a highway next to, and went for a walk up to the “castle” (More of a Manor house really).
Later on I wanted to try a famous Slovakian dish called Haluski so we headed to just about the most touristy bar in town “Slovak Pub”. Haluski is really nice, it consists of really small potato dumplings in a sheep’s milk sauce and the result is really quite similar to Macaroni and Cheese. Topped off with some grilled sausage that tasted quite a bit like Chorizo and I was in heaven.
Up early the nest day to cycle down to Komarom and cross over in to Hungary, a long day at around 105km. The start of the day was about 70km on really, really, really boring straight cycle paths on the dykes next to the reservoir but I really should of savoured these while they lasted. I stopped to check my tyre pressure and couldn’t be bothered dealing with the Schrader valve on my front tube so replaced it with a Presta which are much easier to pump up with my compact pump. I should’ve thought about the 20 minutes I would lose changing the tube but we’ll get onto that later.
After a while I was diverted off the dyke on onto some unbelievably quite roads around the town of Cicov. I also stopped in a Co-op supermarket here to grab some lunch supplies, it felt a lot more basic then the ones in Austria but still had everything I needed. As I approached the town of Male Kosihy I noticed some weird looking structures in the field next to me (see picture below). I can only think of two possible things they could be, one, extremely precarious water towers, or two, some kind of localised gas store? If anyone knows please comment, I’d love to have that question answered!
Once I reached Male Kosihy there was an eerie woman’s voice seemingly coming from everywhere. Slovak numbers are similar to Russian numbers, which I know, and recognised it as a countdown from ten. What the hell is going on? I noticed small loudspeakers on some of the houses and up some utility poles and decided to get out of there. At this point the map marked me going back onto the dykes all the way to Komarom. Great I thought, it’s getting a bit dark so a nice easy ride will be appreciated. Wrong. The path on top of the dyke was gravel.
I persevered thinking it would end soon but no, more and more gravel. After 15km it’s getting very dark as I’m going so slowly and probably doing some damage to my skinny tyres. I see a road running parallel that heads straight into town, it looks a bit busy but is probably still a better bet than this path. I put my lights and head towards it. Turns out the road has a two metre wide hard shoulder which has quite a few cyclists on it! Most seem to be cycling out of necessity but it’s still nice not to be alone on the roads as it lets me know drivers in the area and probably used to cyclists.
I dig deep and get to town quite quick as it’s now fully dark. I roll across the bridge into Hungary, too dark to get a cheesey border photo and head towards a campsite I have marked on my map. I reach the reception at 5:15pm and there is a sign saying “Closed at 4pm”. Why close so early!?! I look and I can’t even get into the camp to stay and pay in the morning without a key. I remember there being two more camps nearby but stupidly didn’t put them on my map. I saw a few hotels down the road so decided to try and leech one of their Wifi networks to find somewhere to stay. Turns out the prices of the hotels on this road are cheap, one of them is only 26 EUR. I quickly cave in and check into the “Aqua Hotel”, polish off my lunch supplies as I can’t be bothered to fire up my stove in the bathroom and relax on the free internet for the night.
Up early the next day and decide to check out the town quickly as I only need to do 70km to get to my Warmshowers.org host in Esztergom by 6pm. Back on the Slovakian side of the river is an apparently famous sight called Europe Square where there is one building to represent each of the 45 European countries, each one styled appropriately. I cycled back over the bridge to find the square pretty much dilapidated. Must not of had the desired affect on tourism! As I cycle back over the bridge I stop in the middle of the lane blocking traffic and managing to get a poor photo of the border sign.
After stocking up in Tescos (exotic I know) I slowly make my way towards Esztergom arriving at around 3pm. It rained nearly the whole way so I didn’t see much as my view was fixed firmly a few metres in front of my front wheel. Frustratingly my camera has been playing up so some of the photos below are from my phone and a bit poor. I checked out the famous Basilica in Esztergom, which is supposed to be one of the largest there is. I didn’t appreciate the scale of the building as I approached due to the poor weather but once I stepped inside, after locking my bike to a construction site, I was gobsmacked by the grandness of the space. I’m not a big fan of ostentatious religious buildings on principle but was taken a back momentarily.
I went back in to town and killed a few hours with coffee in a cafe before heading to my host where I was expecting to camp in their garden. Once i got there my host, Gabor, said they did have a bed I could use and offered me a shower. After some food we then went out for drinks with his uncle. Beers quickly appeared from nowhere along with a couple of rounds of shots of two of Hungary’s national drinks. Palinka, a very strong (40-70%) spirit made from various fruits, and Unicum, a herb spirit in the similar family as Jaegermeister and Riga Black Balsam. More and more beers appeared and I eventually managed to return the favour by buying a round when no one was looking. During the drinks Gabor invited me to a family christening the next day, gobsmacked by this I thought it’s too much of a unique experience to turn down even if it means cycling to Budapest in the dark. On top of that he very kindly offered to host me again the next night in his student accommodation in Budapest.
The next morning I was experiencing the first hangover I’ve had in about 5 weeks. Not good with the, relatively small, 80km into the city. We headed off to the christening and once we get there I realise we aren’t just guests sitting at the back. It’s Gabor’s nephews christening and he’s the godfather. I ended up sitting right at the front between his mother and grandfather. Everyone was more than welcoming and friendly I was just a little bit surprised. After the ceremony I was invited to the family celebration but I really needed to head off despite how much fun it would’ve been. We had another round of Palinka shots (at 11:00am) and I packed up and headed off receiving a very generous bag of sandwiches from Gabor’s Mother as well as some homemade wine from his Grandfather! I hope I managed to convey my gratitude through the language barrier. I cycled off down the river detouring via Tescos to get a pile of much needed energy drinks.
First half of the ride was on roads and the second was on the long cycle path into Budapest. I powered through to the start of the cycle path thinking I could take a break there as it’ll be safe to cycle in dark once on the path. A lovely little picnic was had with the sandwiches and wine.
As I rode on to Budapest the cycle path was in a dire state, full of potholes and as the light fell I found it hard to spot them as my headlight has broken (will replace in Budapest). After several body shattering hours I finally reached the city and was rewarded with an absolutely spectacular night view of the cities Parliament building. Words can’t describe how it looks lit up at night, hopefully the picture below manages to capture some of it.
After a coffee I made my way to Gabor’s apartment to catch up on some seriously needed sleep.
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.