The next stage of the expedition was to continue east from Vienna and into Hungary, “the gateway to Eastern Europe” as one Austrian bloke put it. We would follow the Danube as far as Budapest and then cut directly south towards Serbia, leaving the river in favour of the main trunk road across the country. But first we took a good couple of days in Vienna to sightsee and rest our bodies (see the previous post!) and owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kerrin and Leisa for hosting us. A couple of 12hr sleeps and a wash made us socially acceptable once more – so it was time to leave before we got too comfortable with the idea.
The route out of Vienna is on the Eurovelo Cycle Path number 6 – a bicycle route which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea along the Danube. Immediately we began to spot a whole bunch of odd characters. Coming across a stark naked rollerskating Austrian man at 9am was a bit of a shock to the system (jewels swinging freely in the breeze) – a warning that we were about to cross the nudist section of the Austrian Danube. We quickly realised that the types of people you might possibly want to see on a nudist beach are definitely not the ones who bare all, so we moved on rapidly. Next on the oddity tour out of Vienna was a bloke with a white beard on a dogsled who looked uncannily like a Father Christmas figure. He even raised a puppy Rudolph to the heavens before disappearing off back towards the nudist beach. Luckily we’d met up with a few other bicycle tourers following the same route at that point, who can confirm the story. Otherwise I’d have started to wonder if I’d been slipped something in my cereal at breakfast!!
We managed to cross into Slovakia for lunch just beyond the 2000km mark from London, and we took in the view from the castle in Bratislava. Confident that we had no need for maps anymore (“We’ll just follow the river!”) we rather awkwardly found ourselves in Hungary that evening, having cruised over an (open) border without realising. Awkward because our euros were now completely useless (Hungary has the forint and Serbia beyond it uses the dinar) and we couldn’t speak a word of Hungarian between us. I’m not sure if any of you have tried speaking Hungarian, but it is a long way from Spanish or Italian!!!
In fact from then on the smooth sailing we’d had all the way through Western Europe with maps, currency and language seemed to take a significant hit. At the first maths hurdle the team faltered (thank God for the card limit on withdrawals). Google Maps became unusable and Hungary didn’t seem to sell old-fashioned paper maps, so we relied on asking people. Pretty much all the way to Budapest. Now once quite a long time ago I thought it was hilarious to misdirect people who were lost in London (this was a long time ago I promise). Well now I believe in karmic retribution – nobody seemed to have a clue how to direct us!! Either that or our sign language needed serious improvement. So we spent a lot of our time in Hungary either lost or getting lost. Best moment was when we flagged down a police car at speed which then did a handbrake turn and mounted the curb to help us out, cutting straight across oncoming traffic.
We did miraculously manage to get to the outskirts of Budapest more or less on track, largely thanks to a dramatic improvement in our sign language. The usual evening routine was to spot a field that looked suitable for camping far enough off the main road, i.e. flattish, limited crops, no farm animals and few gypsies. This night should have been no different, except for some reason we were late on our sundown estimate (it sets earlier as you go further east, that was our geography hurdle) and found ourselves looking by torchlight at options which became less and less suitable. Luckily we were approaching a tiny little town which can’t have been more than ten houses, so asked the only lady still outside if we could camp in a patch of grass next to a house with a vineyard.
Phone calls were made and the owner summoned, a bloke who matched the Hungarian stereotype I had lingering in my head: crew cut, white vest hanging off a huge upper body, and tracksuit trousers tucked into white socks. He asked a few pointed questions, grunted agreement and left for his house again. It was then that we simultaneously realised just how scrawny we’d become, especially compared to our gym monkey host – cycling like we’ve been doing basically wastes away your upper body. So we pitched and ate quickly and silently in the dark, aiming to stay out of trouble and leave first thing the next morning. To the whole team’s surprise however, Gym Monkey emerged out of the darkness carrying not a mallet but a bottle of homemade plum brandy (palinka). He’d relaxed considerably and was keen to hear stories from England while exchanging a few of his own, with a shot each in between each story. One bottle down and the whole situation seemed a lot less threatening, my personal highlight being when we asked Gym Monkey about Hungary’s neighbours – as we reeled off countries in the Balkans he became increasingly rude about each one, until I slipped in France (to lighten the mood) and he produced his strongest reaction, spitting the name out on the ground in disgust. He claimed France and the Treaty of Versailles were the reason Hungary lost its empire to the @$#”! other Balkan countries, to which we nodded vigorously, so he produced another bottle of palinka for the road. We slept extremely well and were only woken up when the bloke tending to his grape vines next door let out his geese in the morning.
The approach to Budapest was on terrible roads right up to about 5km from the city centre, where they then clearly fell under city jurisdiction and were transformed to match any other Western city standard. Not wanting to break a good trend we arrived after dark to another capital city and dodged traffic as best we could to find our hostel. Budapest was my favourite city so far on the tour: we spent a great couple of days exploring and eating, a bit shocked to find ourselves amongst so many other tourists after the Hungarian countryside.
It was in Budapest that we decided to leave the Danube in favour of the main road south into Serbia, which would cut significant mileage from our route and hours of faff for navigation. This turned out to be a cracking decision as we left our navigation issues behind (the low point having been a diversion into Horsefly Field very early in the morning as an attempted shortcut) and the traffic wasn’t bad at all. There were signs every few kilometres forbidding horse and carts but judging by the type of traffic we came across these were completely ignored. On the approach to the Serbian border we found a Chinese man on a touring bike trying to decipher a sign in Hungarian (see video section!) – this guy had been on the road for two months across Europe and spoke literally not one word of English. He’d claimed to have travelled to each Chinese province by bike as well as the whole of Southeast Asia, relying on just a compass and the sun for navigation. For this trip he had a one-page foldout map of Europe with him. A true nutter.
Our last couple of nights in Hungary were spent amongst hay bales in a farmer’s field – he turned up the next morning with his bailer a bit bemused to see us emerge from the straw – and on a young guy’s farm about 20km from Serbia. He introduced himself as Norbert, which didn’t seem to fit very well with the little old tractor, geese cows pigs and horse that he looked after. Two years younger than us (though he looked about 16), he was already in charge of his girlfriend’s parents’ farm. He showed us his newborn calf of two days in a tiny stable near where we slept before offering us beers and having a long chat about Hungary and his plans for the future.
His parting words the next day were to be extremely careful in Serbia as we entered that day. The people were very different and “could be dangerous”. With baited breath we left Norbert’s farm and headed south, out of the EU…