I’ve been busy since my last update – cycling ten days straight around Hungary’s borders with no less than five other countries.
I was looking forward to a ‘social-break’ from the Couchsurfing routine, and had treated myself to a couple of nights in a hostel in Vienna. I was looking forward to an early night and not having to talk to anyone but that wasn’t to be – the hostel (which was a converted family home) was having a mid-week party to celebrate reaching 300 likes on facebook (or something like that). It didn’t seem particularly fair to those paying for a good night sleep, but I was happy to have a few drinks and celebrate my ‘halfway across Europe’ stop.
The following morning I took my bike to a local shop to change my gear cable which was dangerously close to snapping. The guys in the shop had a look at my derailleur and said they could order a separate hanger to help strengthen my bent one. I hadn’t thought that would be possible, so I happily left my bike with them for the day. I’d met a couple of backpacking Brits my age who’d also arrived at the hostel the night before, so I went exploring the city with them.
Vienna is a gorgeous town – just like I imagined. Everywhere you look there’s an impressive building that’s both huge and overly ornate. The castle in particular was really amazing.
The sun was out and so we wandered about aimlessly, just about catching the main ‘sights’ in between stopping at bars en-route.
The next day I went back to the bike shop but they were still waiting on my part to arrive. I thought it would be too late to get to Bratislava so I decided to wait an extra day and explored some of the areas we’d missed the day before.
The next morning I set off for Slovakia in the rain. The weather was disappointing but I was looking forward to cycling along the Danube and joining the Eurovelo 6 route for the day.
My host for that evening had told me that there was another cyclist also staying – a guy from Hong Kong who was cycling from his home to London… Pretty much the opposite to what I’m trying to do. I hadn’t met a single other long-distance cyclist in over 2 months of cycling, (apart from one guy going the opposite direction near the Dutch/German border), so I was looking forward to meeting him. But he wasn’t to be the first – an hour into my cycle along the Danube I noticed a cyclist ahead of me with fully-loaded bike. It turned to be a 19 year old French chap called Paul, who was on a 9 month Euro-tour. He’d been cycling for 5 months already, and had gone head-first through winter in Scandinavia & the Baltic States. Hearing about the cold he’d suffered made my frosty experiences seem tame in comparison.
I was the first touring cyclist he’d come across as well, and I think we were both happy to have some company for the day. I asked my host if he could crash with us and so we ended up having some strange kind of international cycling convention for dinner in Bratislava.
The guy from Hong Kong had spent 8 months cycling from Asia, through China, Tibet and the Middle East. My plan is to go much further north than that – I can’t get access to Tibet like he can so Central Asia is the only realistic route I can take. He was an interesting character – his family didn’t know he was doing this trip, they thought he had flown straight to the UK (so I’ll refrain from naming him or linking his faceless blog). He’d also stopped cycling for a month to fly back to take part in the Hong Kong protests, which I thought was pretty admirable.
The French cyclist, Paul, had a far more serious blog than mine – Juste Un Petit Tour. His tactics for accommodation were pretty different to my own. He just stopped in a village when he was tired and knocked on doors asking for somewhere to sleep. He had an introductory letter in the local language explaining his cause and needs. I’d been thinking a lot recently about the limitations of using Couchsurfing – the planning a couple of days in advance, only meeting the most welcoming people etc. Paul reckoned that his way was the best for really experiencing how the average local lived – which is probably true. The next day I thought about it further and decided that my method is better – knocking on doors puts people on the spot and I wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone came to my house inviting themselves in. I’d be stressed about being rejected, or not finding anywhere to crash. With Couchsurfing I do stay with incredibly open-minded people but that’s fine by me. They are still local in every sense and they all speak decent English so I can learn so much more than if I was just communicating with someone through sign.
They both headed off in the morning, but I stayed a day to explore Bratislava. I joined a free walking tour which took me through most of the points-of-interest.
I also walked up to the castle, from where I could see the Petrzalka area across the river where I was staying. Apparently it’s the largest uniformly built residential area in Europe – housing 120,000 people in 40,000 apartments. There are only two types of building though – so it looks wonderfully Soviet.
From Bratislava I cycled back into Austria, from where I weaved in and out of the Hungarian border southwards and stopped for my first night in a small place called Fertod. I was excited at having reached country number 10 of my tour.
The next day I continued south to a larger town called Szombathely. The day was slightly hilly, as I was still navigating the Alps’ foothills. To the west were snow capped mountains, but to the east the endless Hungarian plains.
From Szombathely I cycled into Slovenia. There everything was a little ‘neater’ again, and I stopped in a charming place called Lendva to stay with a Hungarian-Slovenian family for the night.
From Slovenia I rode east and back in to Hungary. I stayed with an English guy in his 50s called Phil, who had retired early to settle down abroad. He was renting out his place in Scotland, and he could live off the money he earned from that in Hungary.
Phil also had a place 80km away in Croatia and offered to put me up for the night there as well which was perfectly on my route.
I crossed the Drava river into Croatia and cycled through some beautifully rural areas. I’ve explored a lot of the Croatian coast over the last few years, but here it’s a completely different place. There’s no tourism glitz and so many of the houses are abandoned. The whole area felt pretty, but lonely and neglected.
In Hungary the dogs had been getting more and more feisty in the villages, but fortunately they were all behind fences. As soon as I crossed into Croatia the fences disappeared. A few dogs gave chase to me down the road – nothing particularly intimidating, but for the first time I decided to clip my pepper spray to the outside of my handlebar bag – just in case.
That turned out to be a good move. Just 10km from my stop destination I cycled past one farm house on a slightly elevated country road. Out of nowhere about 7 dogs came charging across the field towards me barking aggressively. I was so exposed and couldn’t outrun them, so I just stopped my bike 50m away and waited for them to get tired of barking at me. I assumed an owner would call them in, but no one did. After 10mins they slowly retreated and I decided to go for it. After 10 metres they noticed me again and came charging back. It was clear I couldn’t outrun them, and within a few seconds they were all around me, barking and snapping at my ankles. I was really scared – I hate dogs and these weren’t the smallest things. I shouted as much as I could and drew for the pepper spray – a couple of well aimed headshots and they were sent away, whimpering and rubbing their eyes. I was glad that it had worked – but not pleased that I was getting this kind of dog trouble so far ‘west’ in my trip.
Phil’s place in Croatia was very much a ‘work in progress’ – it was liveable in, but very basic and without the heating working I was very pleased to have my bulky sleeping bag with me as the temperatures were still dropping below zero at night.
The next day I cycled across the Drava again. I saw signs for a cycle route along the river so decided to check it out. Bad move – the path was a real mud trail in places, and would have been a frustrating ride even on a mountain bike.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, the road disappeared in front of me. A huge tree had fallen, uplifting some foundation pipes for an underground stream. The whole thing had opened up and was impossible to cross.
I didn’t have a map that showed these forest trails so I had to backtrack and guess my way north along tiny woodland paths. It was frustrating, but eventually I hit the main road and after that I was happy to cycle on the busy road the rest of the way to Kemes.
There I stayed with a bunch of EVS volunteers – my host was a Romanian girl and her housemates were from Spain and Portugal. I was surprised to find them in such a random and small village, but I think they were equally surprised that I was passing through.
I then crossed the Drava again and cycled to another small village in Croatia called Jagodnjak. My host introduced me to his family and at his aunt’s place we were given homemade sherry and sausages. They had a box of chicks that were living under the oven, so we sat sweating in their kitchen accompanied by chirping chickens.
We went for a few (too many) drinks at the village pub and then to another village where a Serbian pop-duo were providing the soundtrack to the night. I hate getting in cars with people who are drunk, but that’s unavoidable when you go out drinking in these rural areas. I guess it’s really normal for them but I really don’t enjoy it.
My host donated me a pile of food which made the hungover cycle into Serbia a little more bearable. I stopped in Sombor, where I stayed with a Serb-English couple. She was from Sombor, and he was from Stoke. They had three year old, but he was at her parents so we went for a few drinks in town.
As a result I cycled hungover again. The ride to Subotica was meant to be easy but the head wind made it horrible. I struggled to get above 12km/h and the scenery was incredibly boring. In Subotica I stayed with another international couple. This time the girl was local again, but the guy was from Holland. A Serbian band called Eyesburn were gigging in town who were apparently a big deal, and I was invited along. The band was a weird fusion of hardcore punk and reggae – but everyone was clearly into it. The lead singer/guitarist spent half of the time playing his trombone.
The next morning I left hungover again! This time I was really exhausted – I’d been cycling for the last 10 days (and averaging 100km most of them) and I was shattered. I’d booked a day off in Szeged, so just had one more push north. I think I’d already crossed the Hungarian border 5 times now, and all of them have been easy until this one. It took about an hour to pass with all the cars, but eventually I made into Hungary for one last time and reached my current location – Szeged.