Well Budapest was incredible, a city I am already craving going back to. I really should have stayed one more day as the hostel was only 8 Euros and would’ve meant I could have gone on a caving trip under the city.
I spent one day aimlessly wandering around drinking coffee and trying Hungary’s famous Paprika laden Beef Goulash, which is excellant by the way. The next day had a bit more of a plan and I visited the House of Terror, the main interrogation/torture facility from when the Communists were in power and now a museum to the affect both Nazi and Soviet rule had on the country. From the top floor of the museum to the basement you travel in a very slow moving lift whilst being shown an interview with someone involved in the executions here, as he describes the steps being kicked away from the gallows a loud knock hits the elevator floor which scared the life out of some tourists from Japan!
Afterwards I went for a walk in the park to perk myself after what was quite a heavy couple of hours in the museum and headed towards one of Budapests famous thermal spas, the Kiraly Baths. This one seemed to get a lot of flack online as it hasn’t been refurbished to luxuriant modern standards, like some of the other baths, and features an original 500 year old turkish dome bath house with adjoining soviet changing facilites, sounds perfect to me.
I’ve never been to one of these places before but they’re absolutely incredible, several big pools at various temperatures that you keep switching between and I eventually ended up in a zoned out trance staying for nearly 3 hours instead of my planned 30 minutes. If you google the name “Kiraly Baths” you’ll get some good pictures of the place. I didn’t want to go taking pictures inside, as that’d be an odd thing to do, but that didn’t stop a couple of other tourists doing just do that. But not just a couple of quick photos, they spent the best part of thirty minutes taking an albums worth of photos by every facility the place offered. I joined in the locals who were shooting them disapproving looks, very British.
Afterwards I was off to try Budapests most famous dish, Chicken Paprikash. Basically some Chicken in a extremely rich cream and Paprika sauce served with small potatoes dumplings. I saw that the menu had Goose Crackling as a starter, as a fan of Pork Crackling I thought I had to try it. The waitress asked if I was aware of what Goose Crackling is and I explained that Pork Crackling is popular in England and asked if she’d every tried it. It was at this point I was informed I was in a Jewish restaurant and that she had not tried Pork Scratchings. Anyway both dishes were wonderful, the Goose Crackling in particular.
The next day I was up and out the hostel early on my way south to Dunafoldvar were I’d managed to find a campsite that was still open. Made my way out of Budapest quite easily but soon learned that either Hungary’s road infrastructure is being invested in rapidly or my map is very out of date. I imagine it’s a combination of these as my map and the sporadic Danube Cycle path signs pretty consistently conflicted with each other. At one point I opted to follow the signs instead of my map and ended up doing a big circle in the town of Tokol. An old man stopped to offer some very suspect directions, I thanked him, waited til he had cycled off and then ignored them.
I eventually found Highway 51 which is what I was mostly cycling down and my map told me to stay on it pretty much all the way to Dunafoldvar and this is what I tried to do. At some point east of the town of Dunaujavros this road had been redeveloped into a rather large bypass. Luckily I found a turn off into the city centre just before a sign saying no bicycles beyond this point. I figured I was now sandwiched between the river and the highway so as long as I headed south I couldn’t go too far wrong.
I reached the campsite and spotted a huge Soviet army memorial right next to it, it’s quite surprising to see something with the logo of the Red Army on it still standing here. After getting all setup in my tent I realised it has gotten a lot colder then I remember it being. I quickly did some math and realised I hadn’t camped in 11 days! No wonder it is colder. I decide camping isn’t really going to be an option until I buy some warmer gear but I managed to get an OK nights sleep.
The next day I was heading to Baja. I stopped at a supermarket in Dunapataj and a guy was eyeing my bike a bit weirdly. He came over and asked if I spoke German, I said a little (I don’t why I said that as I don’t) but his question seemed to be where I’d come from so I said “London” and he made the shocked face I’m starting to get used to.
I next stopped in a town called Kalosca purely because it was the first town in two days that my map marked as being “scenic”. It had a nice cathedral (I’ve seen enough of these now) and a huge Paprika museum. Paprika seems to be serious business here.
I then spent about 30 minutes attempting to find my way out of the town which proved much trickier than I had imagined. After eventually finding the way my map was then planning to send me back up on to a dyke marked as gravel. My experience from Slovakia made me not too happy about this but the only other option was a huge detour. You can imagine my delight when I reached the dyke road to find it had recently been re-done as tarmac. Heaven! I flew down this all the way into Baja.
I got to the Baja campsite and asked to camp. The guy at reception asked if I was sure as it’s freezing outside and it costs 6 euro to camp but only 11 euro for a private room. At that price I am taking the room. Whilst out food shopping in Baja I spotted a weird drink in the supermarket called “Hufbrau” which seems to be half lager half grapefruit juice and it turned out to be really nice.
Up early in the morning for what was to turn out to be a rather long day. My map marked the distance as 100km but I had planned a detour as the normal route takes a boat across the river at one point and these boasts run very irregularly at this time of year. The mistake I made was not factoring in the extra distance this detour made as I would now be doing over 120km, a very long day for me. Anyway I headed west over the river and then south towards the Croatian border post.
Just before the border I spent my last 250 forints (£0.65) in a petrol station where they didn’t seem very happy about having a customer. I was a little nervous about the border as it was my first proper one on this trip (England/France is easy and the rest of the time I’ve been in the Schengen area). I was waved out of Hungary very expediently and cycled the 50 metres to the Croatian post where I was met by a stern looking woman. She took my passport and asked where I’d come from, I said from london and she went “woah”. Then she asked where I am going and I said Istanbul and I got another “woah”! She says I didn’t need one but asked if I would like a stamp, I said yes and then she tells her co-worker where I’m going… Another “woah”!
They wished me good luck and I rolled into Croatia. They must’ve been the friendliest border officers I have ever met. I did my now routine cheesey border photo and headed off.
A few metres down the road was the first of the Croatian Danube cycle route signs and it said I had 59km to go until my destination of Osijek. What!? I’ve already done about 60km I should only have 40km to go? I quickly realised the aforementioned mistake about my detour. I was not helped at this point by the route being very hilly with a few decent climbs combined with very strong head and crosswinds, not fun on a bicycle with luggage weighing a total of 40kg.
At the top of one rather long climb I was excited to see that the descent was a steep 10%, this should be fun…
… Nope. The descent was a very hair raising cobblestone road.
I pressed on on a very nice tarmac road with a section marked on it for cyclists almost all the way to Osijek, it would’ve been a lovely ride had it not been for the wind. I stopped to eat some food and get some cash out in the town of Knezevi Vinogradi. I realised at this point that I was absolutely shattered and still had quite a way to go. I had no option to carry on anyway focusing on the though of a comfy bed.
I reached the hostel and probably should’ve paid more attention to the fact I had to walk through a club to get to dorm, I was just happy to be checking in. Once upstairs I looked up a review of the place and find out to my horror the club is open til 6am and that the music makes it impossible to sleep as well as cigarette smoke leaking into the dorm. This is not a good omen for a man in my state.
I decide that I can get 6 hours sleep before the club opens and then I’ll just have to stay up all night. Worrying about this prevented me from falling asleep. After two hours I gave up and went back to reading the reviews, one of which mentioned there are no doors between the dance floor and dorms (something I had not noticed) and that people sneak up there all night to hook-up, including the owner. Right, I can’t deal with that. I look at other places in the area and find a hotel with good reviews costing only £22.
Five minutes later I was in Maximilian Guest-house where they said they had a single room available and somewhere for a bike. Extremely friendly service and they got a good giggle out of my predicament. I left promising to be back in 30 minutes with all of my gear.
Now, not being one to cause a scene, I decide I wasn’t fussed about getting a refund in the other place, my fault for not reading reviews, and attempted to sneak out. As I was loading my bike outside I hear a sudden “You are leaving.” Not a question but a statement. A very awkward conversation ensued with the owner insisting the noise is not that bad and me saying I have to sleep I’ve cycled 120km today. I put my key through the letter box and headed off to my much nicer accommodation.
The next day was to be a fun ride to the town of Ilok. I mentioned to the guest-house owner that I’d be staying in a hostel there and she informed me it is owned by the guy from last night and is a similar place. It is above a Pizzeria but on weekends the Pizzeria is turned into a club. Really!? She recommends a very nice hotel but says it may be a bit pricey at £35 but that it is a good place to try local fish from the river. I cave in before even leaving, I don’t think I can mentally bring myself to cycle there knowing I’m staying somewhere I won’t be able to sleep.
The first half of the days ride was flat and on quiet roads, not much to mention really except for some fun I had on the approach to the Historic halfway town of Vukovar. I was cycling pretty fast on a good road and noticed a tractor that was struggling as hard as it could to catch up with me. Just as it passed me I noticed the two guys driving it were smiling and the passenger was guiding the driver around me so that they wouldn’t hit me. Nice guys. Just as they went passed I realised I could slipstream behind them and was now flying along at 30+kmh or so without putting in much effort. After a while I think the passenger realised what I was doing and we had a laugh about it. I managed to get ahead of them at a roundabout and get a quick photo as they passed, frustratingly if I’d snapped the photo half a second earlier they were both waving.
Now onto Vukovar. Why did I describe it as historic. Well just over twenty years ago during the Croatian war Vukovar, due it’s proximity to Serbia, took the major brunt of the invasion. Once Serbian forces had taken the town they proceeded to massacre the patients at the hospital, indiscriminate of age. The city has now mostly been rebuilt but they have left the battle scarred water tower as it was as a monument to the conflict. As I approached the tower I noticed a big crowd of cyclists at the base being photographed by press photographers. I asked one of the photographers what was going on and he told me this was the Osijek bicycle club and they had just done a memorial ride to the tower. Some of the members were also riding bicycles that were to be donated to the local charity for people with learning disabilities. As a thank you some of the people form the charity, and the people they care for, had baked cakes and made fruit tea for the cyclists before they rode back.
A few of the cyclists spotted the amount of luggage on my bike and I quickly became the centre of attention of a few of them curious about my trip. We had a chat and I was invited to have some of the tea and cake, lovely! One of them told me about a challenge hed did cycling 1,000km in 3 days, he is also the only person I’ve met who was not shocked about a former co-workers 500km in a day challenge and merely responded with “Yes that is possible.” They warned me that rest of the day I had laid out was very hilly but that I only had 30-40km left so it should be fine.
They weren’t wrong. It was hilly, and on top of that was a very weird terrain I’ve not seen before where the landscape is almost flat but every 50m or so his a huge steep ridge like a massive speed bump. Annoyingly the headwind stopped me getting enough speed to roll over these so I had to climb each one out of the saddle.
I eventually reached Ilok where I proceeded to cycle right past the hostel and towards the hotel I’d been recommended. Lovely place with a view over the river and a very cheap restaurant where I absolutely gorged myself on local fish and wine whilst attempting to make up for the miserable few dyas I had had. Whilst relaxing that night I read a bit about the town and found out the local wine cellar had once received an order of over 1,000 bottles of Traminac from the British Royal family to celebrate the coronation of the Queen. I’m not a royalist by any means, or knowledgeable about win, but I think a tidbit like that would make it worth heading there in the morning to see if I can try some of it. Apparently the wine cellar itself is pretty impressive too.
After a generous lie in I cycle up a lovely 11% incline to the wine cellar. Turns out they do a tour with a glass of wine for about 30 Croatian Kunas (£3.30) which was exactly how much money I had to get rid of before hitting the Serbian border. Not bad but I have to wait 30 minutes and from what I can see no one here speaks English. Feeling cheeky, and considering one of the waiters pointed me towards the entrance to the cellar, I made my way in on my own. I got about 20 metres into the tunnels and after a getting a decent photo heard someone shouting at me. I made my escape only to realise I’d left the door to the cellar open and a huge bus of tourists was now pouring in. I squeezed out before carnage ensued, spent my 30 Kunas buying a few quarter bottles of the Traminac and headed off to the border.
I was once again greeted by very friendly Croatian border guards, one of them chatting with me for a few minutes stopping only when another vehicle came up behind me. The “no-mans land” between the Croatian and Serbian border posts was quite wide, maybe 500m, which surprised me. Maybe a legacy of the war? I got a photo by the Welcome to Serbia sign which was in this no mans land.
The Serb border guard was not as light hearted as his Croatian counterparts. I was quickly questioned on my itinerary in Serbia before getting a stamp and having my passport returned to me. I said “Thank you” and he didn’t seem to know what to make of that so just walked back to his hut and went inside without responding.
Serbia feels a lot more rural and the fact the signage is now primarily in the Cyrillic alphabet makes it feel a lot more distant from England. Fortunately I can read Cyrillic so the town names on road signs are still understandable, you may have a tough time getting around rural Serbia if you can’t. I also spotted a bunch of pigs eating in the street who seemed quite interested in me…
Also many houses seem to have these huge Corn stores, I’m not sure if this is to dry it out or just for storage?
The rest of day was spent constantly climbing and descending into little valleys. I was quite exhausted when I reached Novi Sad which is what probably contributed me missing a turning on the cycle path that would’ve kept me by the river instead of sending me up a 100m 8% climb and onto a two lane road. However, this was a blessing in disguise as I received an absolutely wonderful view over the city and had much fun flying down the hill past the old fortress and towards my hostel.
Time for some of that wine I think.
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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.