Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Cycling Down the Danube

'Late-onset cycling mania' is a common complaint in the twenty-first century. It strikes down men (mostly) who are either too old or too fainthearted to buy a motorcycle and take on a nineteen year old mistress.  I am a sufferer and suffer to such an extent that I am currently planning to cycle the length of the Danube, some 1700 miles in total. At an average of fifty miles a day that is 34 days on the road, with days off for blisters and tourism that makes six weeks away. My wife can't do without me for that long so I have decided to make the journey in two hits, the source (at Donaueschingen) to Budapest  in the spring and from Budapest to the Black Sea in the autumn. I have never in my life cycled fifty miles in a day and to plan to do so for a number of consecutive days might seem foolhardy but I am in training and the well established Danube cycle path is mercifully flat unlike the countryside that surrounds Basingstoke where we live near the top of a hill and any bike ride must end in a cardiac inducing climb. When I say well established I am perhaps understating the status of the Danube Cycle Path which is probably the most popular in Europe and is undertaken by many thousands of portly Germans every year. It takes in Ulm, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade  and the mosquito infested Danube delta. It passes through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia and forms the border between Roumania and Bulgaria.

Why the Danube? Like so many things in my life it is all because of a book that I read.Unimaginatively called Danube, it was written by an Italian, Claudio Magris, and published in 1990. I picked it up at random,I was reading a lot of travel books at that time and was walking the canals of England, perhaps this would be a cultured towpath guide. Absolutely not. In many ways it is an irritating book, it purports to be an account of a trip like mine from source to delta, though the details, the mechanics of the journey, remain obscure. Sometimes he has companions, Amedeo, Maddalena, Maria, sometimes not. How does he travel? Train? Car? Does he actually travel at all? Did he write the whole thing in a library somewhere occasionally popping out to the payphone to call a Danubian station master or hotelier to check on local details or the weather? However it was created, Mr Magris certainly managed to pack in a great deal of intriguing information about those who fought, died, wrote, composed, tortured, loved or philosophised along the banks of the Danube and while bemoaning the lack of mystery and adventure in modern travel he includes the following sentence on page one "To be on the move, however, is better than nothing: one stares out of the window of the train as it hurtles into the countryside, one raises one face to the breeze and something passes, flows through the body." Maybe he did it by train.

For a while a 1700 mile walk appealed to me, influenced by Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water in which he describes a nineteen-thirties walk from the Channel to Constantinople. Instead I got married, had a family and forgot about such foolishness but Danube still had its place on the shelf in the downstairs loo and about eighteen months ago while browsing in Stanfords I came across a packet of maps, The Danube Cycle Path from Budapest to the Black Sea. Unputdownable. So then I started to search the secondhand book site Abe and bought almost anything with 'Danube' in the title. First I read Down the Danube  by Guy Arnold, published in 1989, written before the fall of Communism. He travelled by bus, train and barge and it's a dull rather sour read. He takes most pleasure in making cheap jokes about Germans which as we all know is as easy as shooting ducks in a bucket. Next I had a go at The Danube by Emil Lengyel. This is much more interesting, published in 1939 in the months between the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March and the fall of Poland in September, the maps that are the endpapers of the book show Czechoslovakia already absorbed into the Third Reich but Poland uninvaded. Lengyel, a Hungarian American historian, didn't write a travel book but did start his account of Danubian folklore and history at the source and work his way downstream with the emphasis being on the area out of reach of the Nazis, east of Vienna. Then there was Dawdling Down the Danube by Edward Enfield (Harry's Dad) who rode a bicycle from the source to Passau on the German border with Austria when he was deep into his seventies. A charming book and for me, ten years younger than he was, rather encouraging. I also bought a couple of duds. On the Banks of the Danube turned out to be a slim volume of verse in Hungarian by Attila Jozsef. The blurb on the back states that this collection ".....offers a faithful record of a courageous poetic voice defying despair and projecting far beyond the shadows cast by the harrowing circumstances of a tragic life". Straight to the charity shop I think. Finally I had a go at The Glance of the Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube) by Peter Esterhazy  is described as "not quite a novel, not quite a travel book" and which is probably avant-garde and to me at least incomprehensible.

That's enough bibliography. The mechanics of my trip are pretty straightforward. I travel with my bike to the source by train. Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Strasbourg, a local train across the German border to Offenburg and then another to Donaueschingen. I have booked hotels, gasthofs and pensions on the way. I am travelling alone and while it would be nice to be able to say that I am giving up my precious time and putting myself to a gruelling endurance test in a selfless attempt to raise funds for charity nothing could be further from the truth. I am doing this because I want to, for sheer pleasure. To be on the move is better than nothing. I love to travel and the fund raising, I am ashamed to admit, was an afterthought but a worthy one nevertheless. Here is the link to my 'Just Giving' page where you can donate to the Alzheimers Society should you wish to. . I start from the source on May 15th and should arrive in Budapest on June 3rd.


1 comment:

Peter Maccoy said...

Won't you get a bit wet?

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map