Monthly Archives: August 2010

Gyula

Settled in the hotel bar now with yet another pot of tea I seem to have energy for the blog. What usually happens at around 4 or 5 pm is that Andy gets busy on the wi-fi and I plug in to some music, or a podcast. Sometimes some reading. Or on a good day all of the above, plus tea. Or beer. He seems to need to be busier, and luckily has some spare energy to continue thinking about the route ahead and checking that the gps is well plotted.

Today was a quiet day off, wandering the town, exploring the history where we could, and sitting, eating and resting up. Gyula is now on the border of Hungary but in 1914 was right in the middle of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Our hotel is right next to the castle, medieval but renovated in the last 5 years so another monument that looks like a Disney prop. It has a moat and a dungeon, so has all the necessary, but just seems a bit low lying to me. I wonder how soldiers were able to defend the town when you can only just see over the trees from this fortress.

Gyula castle and moat
Gyula castle and moat

Gyula is a spa town and is geared up to visitors, though there were few around the spa today as the air was distinctly autumnal. We found the oldest cafe in Hungary for coffee and cake this morning, admired the flowers in the many formal settings, and watched the fountains.

Central Gyula
Central Gyula

A quiet day as I said! Overall I have enjoyed visiting Hungary, though it took some adapting after leaving the gang in Vienna. Cycling days over flatlands has allowed for a different rhythm to each day, and it has been interesting to see the crops changing, such as the harvesting of watermelons this week and my first sighting of a field of butternut squash. With all that fruit and veg out in the fields it has been a surprise to find how big people are, a lot like the Uk no doubt. Boy do they eat, pork mainly- schnitzel for breakfast anyone? We saw one woman eat two of them! Even my bean goulash had pork in it too, so vegetarians must have some trials. And drinking too- great beer drinkers here, and even the Post Office sold alcohol, mainly liqueurs with some of that fruit from the harvests, especially apricot in a drink called palinka. But tomorrow we shall start the Romanian adventure and head to the mountains, the really big effort of the trip. Wish us luck, we are going to need it!

The round tower terrace bar - a lovely place to sit
The round tower terrace bar – a lovely place to sit

We have been something of a curiosity this side of Budapest and get a range of reactions from bemusement to a ‘what the hell are you doing here’ look, giggles and waves from kids, and at times we have both felt a bit self-conscious. However, we have also had some good conversations at bars and hotels as people are interested in the trip and what we are doing on bicycles, and a number of the younger generation have been proud to demonstrate their language skills. I even met a woman who had spent 6 months in Huddersfield so spoke English with a Yorkshire twang, wonderful. Everyone tells us that the mountains ahead are beautiful but there are bears. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Helen’s track of the day: Sting, Moon Over Bourbon Street, version from album All This Time with the trumpet solo by Chris Botti.

Oroshaza to Gyula

A shorter day today – but still the weather stays cool, so it was pleasant enough for cycling. And we have made it across the Great Plain, to the very edge of Hungary. We are celebrating with a 4 star hotel and a day off tomorrow.

Today’s cycling began with a 10 mile long straight section of road across the plain – no villages, hardly any houses, no junctions, just 10 miles of tarmac with a view flat to the horizon in each direction. It seemed to take a long time to cover. We nearly had to resort to playing I-spy to pass the time.

One strange feature were several light aircraft travelling east at only about 150 feet, towards Romania. It reminded us of cold war ‘under the radar’ spy stories. Helen said they were smuggling goulash out of the country.

Gyula is another spa town – this time with flowers and fountains that are reminiscent of Harrogate (though the buildings are very different – mostly single story, even in town). On the way in we came across another familiar sight – not just from home but from just about every Hungarian town.

Tesco in Gyula - it's so interesting to travel to different cultures
Tesco in Gyula – it’s so interesting to travel to different cultures

We are getting ready for the rigors of Romania to come – so we felt that we needed some last comforts in the shape of the 4* Elizabeth Hotel. Helen has been drinking afternoon tea in the lounge and I have had a spa session in the steam room and sauna. This is the life! Somehow we don’t seem to have been out to explore yet. There’s always tomorrow – a day off from cycling.

Helen’s track of the day: Brahms, Hungarian Dance No.5, in celebration of the crossing of the Great Plain, and that I am still going strong-ish.

Kecskemet to Oroshaza

This was a lovely day’s cycling across the Great Plain. We are feeling pleased with ourselves – having clocked 60 miles for the second day in a row. We’re flying!
Kecskemet turned out to be a lovely small town. Yesterday evening we went out to find food and found that the town hall was doing a roaring trade in weddings. In addition, there was a beer festival going on – with stalls all over the square. Drunk people in suits – just like Ripon on race days. We felt very much at home.

The town hall (the following morning)
The town hall (the following morning)

The place we stayed was also brilliant – Fabian Panzio. A series of ‘garden rooms’ round a small, central courtyard garden. And lovely people. Highly recommended if you are passing through Kecskemet.

So to today’s cycling. The Great Plain turns out to be quite cycle friendly – with cycle lanes in many of the towns. The fields were lush and full of vines, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, sunflowers and so on. This is very fertile country. It is also much more prosperous than the little plain before Budapest. Here is a shot of a typical village street.

Village street in the Great Plain
Village street in the Great Plain

Just before lunch we came to a bridge over the Tisza (the second largest river in Hungary). This was a single-track, floating, wooden pontoon bridge and, because the water was low, we had to ride down a steep ramp onto the bridge and back up again.

The pontoon bridge over the Tisza
The pontoon bridge over the Tisza

Then an unexpected bonus. Instead of the expected section of main road, there was a brand new, European-funded, flood dyke with a cycle track along the top. We were able to follow this for about 4 miles to the next town. Excellent. Here there was another remarkable sight. The road had a cycle path painted in yellow along the side of the main carriageway (i.e. not separated entirely from the traffic). It was a residential area with street parking. But instead of parking by the kerb and blocking the cycleway, the cars were parked 8 feet out – part blocking the road and leaving the cycle lane clear. I often bend the wing mirrors of cars parked in bike lanes – but I couldn’t think of anything constructive to do to here indicate my approval. Give the car a hug? Leave a note for the owner?

How to park when there is a bike lane - residents of York please take note
How to park when there is a bike lane – residents of York please take note

And then the last leg. This was longer than would have been ideal because of the lack of accommodation where we wanted it – but at least it will be a shorter ride tomorrow. In this final stage the Great Plain became even flatter, and the roads straighter.

The Great Plain (well, a bit of it - it's rather large)
The Great Plain (well, a bit of it – it’s rather large)

Hungary is proud of its thermal springs, many of which are spa resorts. We had already stayed at one in Komorom, and this is another, at Oroshaza. The advantage for us is the presence of tourist-orientated hotels – and tonight’s is excellent. Gyula tomorrow.

Helen’s track of the day: Dire Straits, Your Latest Trick, with Knopfler’s miserable lyrics rescued by the sax solo of the incomparable Michael Brecker. Just what is needed at the end of a long day.

Budapest to Kecskemet

We were back to English conditions today (18 C, cloudy and raining gently) and it was a welcome relief from the heat. Particularly since we had 60 miles to pedal.

And this was a significant day, because we said goodbye to the Danube (though we will cross it again on the Romania/Bulgaria border) and goodbye to the comfort of an official bicycle trail, with green signboards (if you are lucky).

I had carefully worked out a route to get us out of Budapest that would avoid the main roads. By and large it worked – with just one section where we had to take to a bumpy pavement for safety. The suburbs got gradually leafier and richer until we got out of Budapest altogether. The worst lorry traffic was from the gigantic Tesco distribution centre on the edge of town. Tesco has a lot to answer for!

The rain made it not very photogenic, but here is our lunch stop!

A 4 star lunch break
A 4 star lunch break

After lunch the scenery changed and we entered an area of heathland – not completely flat, and with a sandy soil and scrub ash trees everywhere. It was very attractive. But the calm was shattered by a rally event taking place on the dirt tracks over the heath. We were stopped by marshals where the cars were crossing our tarred road. Sorry – I failed with an attempt to get a decent photo.

In the early afternoon we found our grottiest bar so far and stopped for beer (Andy) and coffee (Helen).

A 5 star tea break
A 5 star tea break

The final leg into Kecskemet even had a decent cycle path – and now we are holed up in a really nice small b&b. Excellent. Just another 60 miles tomorrow!

Helen’s track of the day: Frank Sinatra, You Make Me Feel So Young, yes the old ones are coming out now the going gets tougher.

Budapest

One day is really not enough time to see Budapest. This is a truly magnificent capital city and we have just skipped over the highlights today. We spent the morning in the old town of Buda – having crossed the Chain Bridge on foot.

The chain bridge and the Royal Palace
The chain bridge and the Royal Palace

From the end of the bridge a short funicular railway leads to the top. Buda was populated only by crocodiles of tourists with earpieces. I must have watched too many ‘alien control’ sci-fi movies because I find these quite sinister. It must be the blank faces. Anyway – the best thing about Buda is the view back over the river to Pest – particularly from the Fisherman’s Bastion (a 19th cent mock medieval folly that Walt Disney would have been proud of).

View from Castle Hill, Buda
View from Castle Hill, Buda
Fisherman's Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion

But today was mainly about cafes and relaxation. So we sampled a couple of Buda’s best and then headed back down and across the bridge to Pest. This is the modern heart of the capital – buzzing with shopping streets. We started to walk up the main avenue (think Regent’s Street – very imposing architecture and posh shops) but soon gave up – it was too long. Helen was about to buy a smart bag at Louis Vuitton but then we realised that it didn’t have pannier clips for attaching to the bike.

Getting the tube as an alternative to walking was quite an experience. This line was the first after those in London, and nothing much has changed since 1896. The original stations are intact, with cast iron supports holding up the street, and tickets are dispensed by hand, from a roll, by uniformed operatives. Fantastic. We travelled to ‘Heroes Square’ and had a beer on the edge of the City Park.

Heroes Square
Heroes Square

But the best thing about the underground train was that the return trip spilled us out right outside our favourite cafe from yesterday afternoon – so we had to go in and have posh tea and cakes all over again. It’s a hard life!

Helen’s track of the day: Queen, Don’t Stop Me Now, which was playing on the radio at breakfast and seemed very appropriate!

 

 

Domos to Budapest

Today we went round the bend – the Great Bend that is. It is ranked as one of Hungary’s great scenic attractions but, to be honest, it isn’t really a patch on the gorgeous gorges of Austria. But after 3 days of very little scenic interest it was enough to raise the spirits. The river has cut a wider path through the hills than in the Austrian sections, and there is more development alongside the river.

Our breakfast stop was at Visegrad, with a beautiful view of the river and the local ferry.

Ferry at Visegrad
Ferry at Visegrad

This was the best bit of the bend and from there we made our way downriver towards a section where there is a large island in the middle of the river. We had run out of cash and couldn’t afford the ferry so we pressed on to find an ATM and crossed over on a bridge lower down. But this comittment to seeing the island meant we were off the bike route. We cycled down towards the toe of the island having seen that there was a final ferry for the return. This really was the back of beyond. There were tiny villages and little traffic. Finally we reached the end of the road where there were a scattering of old cars, a house, some bikes and a small ferry. The signboard suggested that it ran hourly so we settled down to wait. Actually, knowing that busy Budapest was coming, this was a lovely wait and a chance to think. It really didn’t seem to matter whether the ferry ran or not!

The ferry terminal
The ferry terminal

It did. Lunch was duly taken at Szentendre on the other side. Then it was the final section to Budapest. There is always something exciting about entering a new city on a bicycle – I love it – and had been looking forward to seeing Budapest. I was not disappointed. The approach was quite tricky, with heavy traffic. There were bike lanes – but they were not well signposted. When we missed one and ended up on a main road drivers drew alongside to tell us off! Calm down please – we only delayed you by about 5 seconds! The final section along the embankment on the Buda (west) side was a joy, with spectacular views of the castle above us and the Parliament building on the Pest side.

Arriving in Budapest - the Parliament building
Arriving in Budapest – the Parliament building

We have booked in at a hotel in a HUGE old apartment building. The hotel is just one small section and is clean and modern and air-conditioned, but the central staircase is huge and decrepit, with a lift that makes the one in our Vienna flat feel modern and safe! You need a head for heights as the lift, the staircase and the internal balconies are all open. We have just been out for a meal and have seen the lights on the river at night. Here is my attempt to photograph the castle. I think it needed a steadier hand – it must have been the wine. We are looking forward to a day off and some more exploration tomorrow.

The palace from across the river
The palace from across the river

Helen’s track of the day: Nina Simone, Ain’t Got No -I Got Life, as celebration of getting to Budapest in one piece!

Komárom to Domos

This was a good day’s cycling. A very pleasant temperature, a bit of a tailwind and some hills to look at. In fact we covered the 30 miles or so on the road beside the Danube to Esztergom before lunchtime. So instead of finishing there, we spent a couple of hours looking round and then pushed on to the start of the Great Bend. Here we have found a great campsite beside the river in spectacular scenery for the first time since Krems.

Esztergom has a complex history, having been settled by just about everybody in Europe at one time or another! It was once the capital of Hungary but is better known now as the seat of the catholic church in Hungary, and for Cardinal Mindszenty, who was a thorn in the side of the communists and spent 30 years holed up in the American embassy out of their reach! The basilica dominates the town.

The Basilica at Esztergom
The Basilica at Esztergom

The bridge across the Danube was destroyed in WW2 to slow the Russian advance. It was not rebuilt until 2001 because of Slovakian resistance to the idea that their southern Hungarian minority would have a link to Hungary. The relationship is currently at a low ebb, with the Slovakians having banned the speaking of Hungarian in public in Slovakia.

 

The bridge from the Basilica
The bridge from the Basilica
Guess who
Guess who

We are getting the hang of Hungarian cuisine. It is brilliant for cycling since it has an enormous calorie count. Goulash and dumplings, masses of chips with everything, and pancakes everywhere. Tonight I accidentally ordered pancakes with cottage cheese in – a Hungarian speciality – and found, to my surprise, that it was delicious! The only downside to this is that, unless you are cycling 40 miles a day, you get enormously fat – as most of the population has done. This would be bad enough by itself, but combined with the Hungarian love of swimming pools it leads to some unsavoury sights (as last night, when we stayed next to the thermal baths in Komarom). Speaking of which, this excellent campsite has a swimming pool and we took our svelte-like forms for a very pleasant swim before dinner.

Helen’s track of the day: Stevie Wonder, As, a song I sang throughout a very jolly day and in celebration of my own happiness but for all those Hungarians who seem very keen on hugs and kisses too. And there was I thinking they would be a dour lot.

Gyor to Komárom

Well here’s a first. I didn’t take a single photo during the ride today. Sorry! It’s just that this really was something of a ‘filler’ day – with bad light and then rain. But I have been out this evening with the camera.

It had clouded over in the night and rain was threatening for the first time for a week. It was also cooler – hurrah – about 18C as we left Gyor. The suburbs were strangely familiar – it was just like riding out of the south of Leeds, but flatter. Similar road surfaces, traffic levels, traffic signs, freight lorries, industrial units, blocks of flats, inner city motorways .. you don’t need a photo – you get the picture. The cycle route was poorly signposted and we would never have found it without the GPS.

Then we were into villages, mostly single story houses always strung out along the main street. There were more people out and about than in the deserted villages of Western Europe, and more everyday use of bicycles.

Just after lunch it started to rain and we abandoned any idea of going on to visit the spa town of Tata. Instead we called it day once we had returned to the Danube in Komárom. (’Returned’ is slightly misleading. Downstream from Bratislava the river used to branch out into a huge inland delta, before coming back together 100 miles on when threading between hills at the Great Bend. Most of the branches have been drained and the main river straightened and channeled, but one old branch (the Moson Dona) remains as an irrigation channel and we had been following it to Gyor and beyond. So we hadn’t really left the Danube).

We found a room in a small hotel that forms part of Komárom’s thermal spa. Komárom has an interesting history. It used to include the cities on both sides of the Danube – connected by a bridge. But with the end of WW1 the border of Czechoslovakia was moved to follow the Danube and the city was divided. The Czech (and now Slovakian) city is called Komárno.

The Danube at Komárom
The Danube at Komárom

Tomorrow it’s back to following the Danube downstream, heading for the Great Bend.

Helen’s track of the day: Anton Dvorak, From the New World, Largo, which we listened to this evening on TV, played by an American orchestra in a concert recorded in Japan for French television and watched by us in Hungary.

The bridge from Slovakia to Hungary at Komárom
The bridge from Slovakia to Hungary at Komárom
Sunset on the Danube
Sunset on the Danube

Dunakiliti to Gyor

This was the flattest day of cycling yet. Pancake flat, with lush green farmland and woodland and 32 C under a bright blue Hungarian sky. And a 20 mph hot headwind. This is just how I imagined the plains of Hungary to be. To be accurate, this is the little Hungarian plain – to distinguish it from the Great Plain that is to come. But either way, whilst it is perfectly pleasant, in all honesty it soon gets monotonous, and it reinforces our plan to leave the Danube after Budapest and find some hills!

The interesting bit is the language. Hungarian is quite unlike anything else – so even if we had acquired a proper classical education, it wouldn’t have helped very much. To our relief, most people speak German as a second language, so the German we learnt over the past month has got us by. We managed to get a bowl of goulash last night, and omlette this morning. Brilliant.

Some people are doing very well in this part of Hungary. As well as the brand new 4* hotel right next to our (basic) campsite last night, we keep seeing brand new Dallas style mansions.

New build Dallas style
New build Dallas style

You can tell how it was monotonous, because my next news is about the local water towers. Not just your concrete monstrosities, but space-age creations in shiny metal.

Space age water tower
Space age water tower

In fairness, Mosonmagyarovar was a pleasant town boasting 17 bridges across its many waterways. But I forgot to take a picture. After that it was 20 hot and headwindy miles south to the large town (or small city) of Gyor.

Church in Gyor
Church in Gyor

Here we have booked into our first Hungarian hotel – a 7 story concrete block with hundreds of rooms. It is comfortable enough though. Gyor still has a little of its medieval centre, but the rest was bombed in the war. We spent a quiet evening wandering around the newly pedestrianised centre and enjoying the kids enjoying the dancing fountains.

Main square in Gyor
Main square in Gyor

Helen’s track of the day: Mumford and Son, Sigh No More because that was in my head from the start of the day.

Petronell to Dunakiliti

This was another red hot day, packed full of interest and ending, in Hungary, at our most basic and cheapest campsite yet – three pounds the night. The strange thing is that it is right next door to a brand new 4 star hotel, even though this is the middle of nowhere.

This morning we completed our none-too-thorough tour of the many Roman sites of Petronell Carnatum by whizzing past the amphitheatre on our bikes. It was being prepared for a day’s gladitorial combat (widely advertised) and there were marquees and stands of seats going in. But breakfast was calling, and was duly found in an elegant spa town just down the road. It was like Sunday morning in Betty’s – and the best ham and eggs of the trip. There was also a grand spa hotel – with all the trimmings. I made the usual, ritual offer to Helen to book us a place (safe in the knowledge that she doesn’t do posh pampering) – and, to my astonshment, she said yes. Next time we come to Vienna, without bikes…..

From there it was a short hop to Hainburg. Here we saw the fast hydrofoil ferry from Vienna to Bratislava roaring by. (It had been fully booked when we were in Vienna, else we might have had a day out. But by the looks of it, it would have been a very noisy, and probably bumpy, journey).

The fast ferry
The fast ferry

Approaching the Slovakian border we had our first glimpse of Eastern block housing complexes across the Danube.

First view beyond the Iron Curtain
First view beyond the Iron Curtain

And then we reached the border itself. It was quite a let down really for people of our generation. This was the fabled iron curtain – except there were just same falling down huts and no one around.

Helen looking at the weed-infested holding area    where cars used to wait to enter the West
Helen looking at the weed-infested holding area where cars used to wait to enter the West

Bratislava was fun though, despite the second puncture of the trip. We arrived on the opposite bank to the city and headed straight for the beach bar and a drink! Here there were great views of Bratislava across the river, and of various bikini-clad girls showering/posing in between sunbathing. But here is a photo of Helen at the beach bar, and a view across the river.

with the kids at the beach bar
with the kids at the beach bar
View of the castle
View of the castle

Once across the bridge, Bratislava was a lovely place to spend a lunch time. We wandered round the central squares but it was too hot for serious sightseeing. A cool bar for lunch was needed.

Central Square in Bratislava
Central Square in Bratislava

Leaving Bratislava behind we headed on down the Danube flood banks. It was Sunday afternoon and the cyclists and rollerbladers were out in force. But this was a different generation from the mostly elderly naturists that we encountered yesterday in Vienna. We travelled about 10 miles or more in the middle of a throng of beautiful young people. Bare torsos were the order of the day for the young men, and bikini tops for the girls. I love Slovakia!

But all good things must come to an end, and soon we were spilled out onto a main road heading again for the border. Cue another, even more decrepit, ex border control point, and we were in Hungary – our third country of the day and our sixth of the trip.

Another border - Hungary
Another border – Hungary

Strangely, once back on minor country roads this seemed more like England than anything so far. The roads were black, decaying tarmac with potholes, just like at home and quite a contrast with the superb surfaces so far encountered on this trip. After a few miles we turned off to find a small campsite and to take a break. Who knows what, if anything, we’ll find to eat in this small village on a Sunday night.

Helen’s track of the day: Beyonce, Crazy In Love, because this was playing when we reached the beach cafe in Bratislava.