Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Friday, 7 June 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Budapest and Home Again

My arrival in Budapest was anticlimactic, the mayor didn't turn out with the keys to the city, the chairperson of the Anglo-Hungarian Cycling Club, Helga Tandem-Ecsterhazy, was doing her weekly shop at the Omigoszh supermarket and it took me a couple of attempts to get a German tourist to take the photo of Doris and I in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Later as I pedalled erratically through Budapest's mid-morning traffic I pondered whether the experience of the last three weeks have changed me. So let us start with a body report:
Feet: unperturbed by the whole thing and happy to not have been made to walk much
Calves: like piston rods
Knees: good when cycling, less so when walking
Thighs: like steam hammers
Arse, crotch and attachments: not bad at all considering. The bum did hurt at the end of the day but as for the rest perfect and I put this down to the judicious use of ladies' knickers. At no point did I have recourse to vaseline, creams, ointments or unguents. Not a single blister.
Wrists: took a lot of stress and did hurt and were probably the biggest problem. I may look at a better handlebar option next time
Hands: I will invest in better gloves next time.

All of which was much better than I thought it would be. But what about the head? How much psychological damage had I sustained in the 'Doris-Smashed-Gear' trauma on Day 1 or in the unrelenting rain of Day 16 (or indeed of most days)? The answer is simple. I was sent to a particularly brutish boarding school so that I would be able to cope with this sort of thing and I did. One thing that did occur to me as I rode across the bridge from Buda into Pest was that for three weeks, apart from the occasional phone call home, the only conversations that I had had were "My name is Irwin, I have a reservation", "A large beer please", "Another large beer please", "No, it was delicious but please take it away", and so on. I talked to myself a great deal but why not, didn't Wilde (Oscar not Marty) say “I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments.”

So, sound in mind and body, I check into a rather nice modern business hotel with a separate bedroom and lounge. There is a washing machine and there is a bath in the bathroom. There is a pleasant bar next door where I can drink and write, which sounds a bit Hemingwayesque and why not.

I had two days to kill in Budapest and unusually for me I didn't go straight to the art galleries, first on the list was was a railway museum in a park a couple of kilometres from the city centre. What a joy, locomotives, rolling stock and other bits and pieces all scattered round a large park site. By and large there wasn't a 'don't touch' notice in sight you could clamber over everything. Great for kids and train-struck adults. Back in the hotel I watch newsreel of flood footage from upstream on the Danube It appears that I am about three days ahead of the main surge. Is it me? Am I one of the Four Cyclists of the Apocalypse bringing terror and inundation in my wake?

Finally what to do with Doris? I researched bicycle shops in central Budapest and was about to set out on a selling mission when I happened to mention that I had a bicycle for sale to the hotel receptionist. Hey Presto! Within an hour I had done a deal with one of the hotel's assistant managers and in scenes no less harrowing than anything in Black Beauty,  I had parted with my mistress of the last three weeks. I hope the smart young man who bought will be a kind master despite the fact that she can be a literal pain in the arse.

More loafing, no culture, just more loafing and Budapest is a pleasant city for a loaf. I had one excellent meal. I made the mistake of walking into a a rather dressy restaurant in the city centre. The tables were peopled by regiments of cunningly folded knapkins and glasses that will be removed as soon as you sit down. There were Americans dining there and a pianist playing what are known as 'standards' but known by me as shite from the days before rock 'n roll was invented. The head waiter looked visibly pained as I stumbled through the door, I made the Americans look well dressed and worst of all I was wearing sandals, sandals with socks. Unimaginable! I have no excuses other than the shoes I normally wore were still sodden and so foul smelling that I had binned them that afternoon.  There was a chill wind from the East and my feet had been wet for days. I have no other excuses for the socks and I know that I have let the nation down. I should have made my excuses and left but I was tired and hungry so I let myself be led to a table not far enough from the pianist. There was a flurry of ritualised glass removal and crockery rearrangement  to placate the Gods high up on the Olympus of Waiterdom. I ordered Goulash Soup and Leg of Goose, the pianist played con brio, at least I think that is the correct musical term for something that, apart from sprightly keyboard work, involves finger snapping and "Oh yeah"ing every so often. A waiter brought a basket of warm fresh sour bread. Was it the best bread that I have eaten? Possibly. Then the soup, spicy and sensational with herbs that I wasn't familiar with floating on the surface. And the goose? Cooked to a tee, crunchy skin, with spiced cabbage, roasted onions and rosti. Absolutely brilliant and served with panache by the grimrr faced waiters who are hoping for the Hapsburg Empire to be revived so that they don't have to serve oiks like me.

Then it was time to go home. Time for bed, literally in my case as I was booked on a sleeper leaving Budapest Keleti Station at 9.20pm, due into Munchen Hauptbahnhof at 5.45 the next morning. I had booked a compartment just for me and it was comfy and well laid out with all the 'foldaway' ingenuity that I love. No dining car but I had bought snacks and three episodes of  The Politicians Wife and 2012 to while away the hours. It was all going well until I actually tried to sleep. The train clattered and banged its way out of Hungary into Austria, pausing for a bit of shunting in Vienna. Not a chance of sleep until we crossed the border into Germany at Passau when immediately the ride became as smooth as silk. It's called infrastructure investment I think. An hour and a half wait at Munich before a connection to Cologne on an ICE which is a very sleek way to travel unlike the Thalys which is hot, cramped (all to do with Belgian tunnel size I think) and smelly but does get me to Paris with an hour to spare before my Eurostar back to London. I cannot explain why this journey, which to most normal people would be tedious in the extreme, gave me so much pleasure so I won't bother.

That's all folks. Part two starts in mid October, starting from Budapest and ending at the Black Sea. The mileage is almost exactly the same as the first leg, nine hundred miles and  if I could and if my family would let me I would start tomorrow.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 20 - Szentendre to Budapest (25km)

Made it! Here I am next to the Danube opposite the Hungarian Parliament.
There is more to come on Budapest, what Doris did next and the way home but for now I have the problem of what to do tomorrow morning. I have rather got into the habit of getting on a bicycle and riding somewhere that I have never been before. The essence of good travel.

Here's the link for contributions to the Alzheimer's Society.

I know many of you have already made donations and many thanks for that.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 19 - Esztergom to Szentendre (56.5 km)

 I flee the worst, but cheapest hotel, of the last three weeks and get in the saddle on a glorious morning. The path runs close to the river and even though the sun is out I can see that the Danube is rising. I stop at a point where the water has crept halfway across the path and I can see that it is only surface tension stopping the Danube going whoosh all the way across and of course surface tension is no match for Europe's second longest river (the Volga is the longest) and even as I watch the path is covered. As I ride on some sections of my route are almost axle deep and I hear from some faint hearted riders that I meet later that they turned back. It is an act of faith to ride into a very large puddle when you have no idea how deep it may be in the middle. I nearly came a cropper earlier in the week when I ploughed into water and only just in time noticed the handrails of a small footbridge poking up through the surface. In fact as I write this a couple of days after the event you may be watching images from Germany, in particular from Passau, where the antique shop where I bought a few postcards must be completely under water. All day as I ride along the Hungarian Danube people are preparing for the torrent that is moving inexorably towards them. Householders with property that backs on to the river are busy putting out sandbags, soldiers and local authorities are using diggers and bulldozers to either build up dykes or open them up so that the waters flown into prepared flood pounds where they will do little damage. It's a relatively short uneventful ride to Szentendre which is a Budapest residents day trip venue. There is a long pretty street (cobbled needless to say) lined with souvenir and arts and crafts shops. There are stalls serving food in the middle of the street. It's crowded on a Sunday afternoon and the atmosphere is relaxed. The hotel is good and the day is good.

This short entry does give me space to relate one Viennese Cafe Central anecdote that I enjoyed. At some time before the First World War Trotsky, travelling under the alias Bronstein, was a regular at the Cafe Central. The Austrian foreign service were discussing the possibilities of a revolution in Russia. The big cheese chairing the meeting said "...and who pray is going to start this revolution. Next you'll be telling me it's that idiot Bronstein who sits in the Cafe Central all day".

Black Sea or Bust - Day 18 - Radvan to Esztergom (36.5 km)

A short run today, a deliberate choice. I have read that Esztergom is worth visiting and I would like to see a bit more of Hungary. The sun shines all day and some of the early part of the route is along the river bank. I come across a tiny market where a local trio play and strawberries, honey and green peppers are for sale. I cycle slowly round wanting to buy something but I have no space and what am I going to do with a kilo of green peppers. It's worth saying at this point the peppers that I have eaten here taste like the peppers that we ate when I was a a child, they have some flavour, unlike the one's we buy from Tesco which taste of nothing. Tesco buyers take note: get your peppers from Hungary not from a greenhouse outside Rotterdam. Further on down the road I see a young man energetically changing a tyre. I offer help and he has the good sense not to accept. He is Korean and is cycling from Amsterdam to Istanbul. Respect! He tells me that this is his twelfth puncture since Donaueschingen. Something wrong there surely.

I get to Sturovo, the last town in Slovakia before Esztergom. It has a large and shabby terminus station with some choice rolling stock rusting in the sidings. I am particularly taken with a pair of charming diesel railcars that I haven't come across before. I stop for the first beer of the day in celebration. I cycle down to the riverbank, to almost under the bridge that will take me back to Hungary, in order to take photographs of the massive Basilica at Esztergom, on the other side of the river. As I do so a voice from above me shouts "Hey English". It is the the Korean waving frantically from the bridge. I call back "stay there I'll come up". We meet like old friends as opposed to two men whose origins are forty years and ten thousand miles apart but this is Danube Path camaraderie in action. He too has met the French couple. Where are they now? Were they stopping in Vienna? He asks me where I stay and when I say cheap hotels he looks envious as he tries to camp most nights. I give him my old line "if it hasn't got room service or a mini-bar then I'm not fucking interested". He nods sagely. I think that perhaps his English is not very good. His tent which travels on top of his panniers looks suspiciously like one of the modern variety that you can erect with the flick of the wrist. What's the point of a tent without guy ropes to trip over. When I was a boy you had to slacken off your guy ropes if it was going to rain in case they shrank in which case your tent would explode or something. I think Yenoshi, if I heard his name right, is happy to have someone who speaks English to talk to, Amsterdam to Istanbul is a long way if you have none of the languages en route. We cross the bridge into Hungary together and almost immediately I find my hotel and we part, Yenoshi disappointed that we were not going to go out drinking together but he was pressing on further that day.

I check into what turns out to be the worst room so far, at some point it was part of a corridor I think and yet again the bed is too short. Then I do what one does in Esztergom which is visit the Basilica, the interior is magnificent, if you like that sort of thing, but the view from the cupola away across the Danube valley is superb. It is also a testament to how fit one gets if one cycles for eight hours a day, in that I wasn't even breathing hard when I got to the top unlike the party of school kids that I was following. I had thought that there would be more to do in Esztergom but apart from eat (I had something Transylvanian), drink (too much beer) and visit the bus station (no buses to see), I did nothing.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 17 - Gyor to Radvan (76 km)

And it rained. My shoes were still sodden and I only carry sandals as spares so I start the day with wet feet. Not good. Trench foot could be a distinct possibility. The Danube Path has diverted away from the river itself for the last day and I won't get back to it until lunch time but what on a sunny early summer's day would be a pleasurable ride this morning is a nightmare. The torrential rain of the previous two days has left three long sections of the path a quagmire. Picture those early flickering silent newsreels from World War One with artillery pieces up to their axles in mud, well that was Doris and I. There were some earnest Germans in the mud too which I am ashamed to say gave me some pleasure.

At lunch the rain stopped and we got to Komarom, a city divided both by the Danube and by the border. I had lunch on the Hungarian side then crossed the 'Friendship Bridge' to the Slovak side known as Komarno. Rain clouds loom again so I decide to duck into the local museum. Having chained Doris to a tree I enter the lobby and tap on the glass window of what appears to be the ticket office. A rather grumpy blonde girl opens up and I say that I would like to see the museum. A look of blank disbelief is followed by some scrabbling before she finds the ticket (1 euro). Then she emerges from her office and starts to unlock the doors to the collection. As she turns on the lights in each room I follow her in and she the trots ahead, clunking along in non-sensible shoes, to open the next section. As I finish each section she runs back to turn off the lights and relock. I try and give the collection the attention that is not really its due. There is a natural history section with some rather sad stuffed creatures arranged in a 'Riverbank Tableaux' and then there are the Roman arrow heads, potshards etc. All the captions are in Slovak and Hungarian and it is pointless for me to pretend that I am relishing every word while the blonde runs busily backwards and forwards. I try express some interest, saying "ah yes" or "hmm OK" but it's tough going, this museum is even duller than Dartford's Civic Museum. Finally we are finished with the historical stuff and she ushers me into the tiny art gallery. Apparently all the paintings in the room are by a well known but local artist who was working from around 1900 until the 1930s.  I examine the first group, they all fantastical scenes illustrating fairy stories and they are great, I love them. There are some superb portraits of an elderly man, the artist's father I think, and finally there is a piece de resistance, a large oil, painted as if from the back of the stalls in a 1920s theatre. We see the audience in front of us, the toffs in the boxes, the conductor hard at it in the pit and on the stage is a musical in progress. The title of this work is "A Big Number". It's enchanting. I turn to the blonde and say "This is great. Thank you". She smiles a very big smile, she is delighted to have something in the collection that I genuinely appreciate. We chat amicably as together we go back down the stairs, she in Slovak, I in English. I wonder what we talked about.

Onward for Doris and I on the left bank of the river because we are sleeping in Slovakia tonight. The route is dull, along roads just out of sight of the river but it's not raining and the hotel, when we finally get there, is a gem. Cheery young staff, big room with a balcony overlooking the Danube and a cracking dinner.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 16 - Bratislava to Gyor (82 km)

The last thing that I did before going to bed in Bratislava was to write out the correct translation of the various informative notices in reception that were,when I arrived, in excruciating English. I was gratified to find that when I came down to breakfast that they had all been changed. Doris and I set off back across the bridge towards the Hungarian border less than 10 km away.

What followed was a day of Magyar misery. It started to rain and didn't stop. I had made the mistake of crossing into Hungary without changing some euros into forints (between the wars the Hungarian currency was the Pengo, a much better name for a currency than forint) and so I cycled from village to village until I found an ATM machine. In desperation I took shelter in one of the crummiest bars that I have ever patronised. Filthy, with broken windows and with a clientele to match. How the breasts of the lady who ran it remained in her tee shirt will remain an unsolved mystery. Anyway they were all very jolly and we sat and watched the rain bucket down. I have had an email from 'Concerned' of Oxfordshire who was worried that I was letting my Rock 'n Roll credibility slip the other day wondering if 11.00 am was too early for beer. Rest assured 'Concerned', here I was at 10.00 am knocking it back big time with a gang of toothless Hungarian yokels. Can I get more Rock 'n Roll?

What of the rest of the day? It rained and it rained. By the time I got to Gyor i was hypothermic. However enough whining; here is a list of just some of the very interesting museums that I didn't stop and visit:

Bread Museum (Ulm)
Accordion Museum (Melk)
Broom Museum (Untermarchtal) the world's first apparently
Peasant Uprising Museum (Leipheim)
Museum of Concrete Art (Ingolstadt)
Bavarian Army Museum (Ingolstadt)
Organ Museum (Kelheim)
Danube Shipping Museum (Regensburg)
Golf Museum (Regensburg) the game and not the car I think
Motorcycle Museum (Bogen)
Glass Museum (Passau)
Farrier Museum (Engelhartzell)
Museum of Dentistry (Linz)
Hunting Trophy Museum (Mauthausen)
Bicycle Museum (Ybbs)
Cabinet Makers Museum (Pochlarn) this reads as if this is a museum of embalmed cabinet makers but I assume that it illustrates their trade which is less interesting
Wine Museum (Bratislava)
Clock Museum (Bratislava)
Fire Brigade Museum (Mosonmagyarovar)
Pharmacy Museum (Gyor)

These are just the interesting ones, virtually every hamlet has an archeological or agricultural museum.

The only saving grace for this miserable day was that while eating something rather disgusting in the cafe opposite the hotel I was able to watch Nigella Lawson dubbed into Hungarian. Even sexier than English because being incomprehensible it all sounded like a come on.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 15 - Vienna to Bratislava (67 km)

With a heavy heart I leave Vienna. In the best early morning weather of the trip Doris and I find our way around the Ringstrasse to the Prater Park where I stop to take a photo of the Riesenrad, the Big Wheel, a symbol of Vienna since 1897, when it was built by a British Naval engineer Walter Bassett Bassett. I return to the river after a gap of two days, the Danube canal is all that runs through the centre of Vienna itself. The city authorities, at some point in the nineteenth century, decided that the Danube itself, with all its related flood issues, was more trouble than it was worth and diverted only a controlled portion of it through the city centre.

The Danube Path takes us to the left bank past the suburbs of Aspern and Essling and onto Lobau Island. It was here in 1809 that Napoleon and the Austrians fought an inconclusive battle, though military historians have concluded that Napoleon came off worst, his first significant setback. The French, who had occupied Vienna, were trying to cross to the east  using Lobau Island as a staging post. Day and night French engineers battled with the current to build pontoon bridges to get the army across. To make things worse the Austrians were busy upstream heaving massive tree trunks and barges into the river which smashed into the fragile bridges.  At times artillery could be hauled across, at times a single column of infantry could tiptoe over and there were times when Lobau was completely cut off from the west bank. The French managed to hold the villages of Aspern and Essling but only because the Austrians failed to press home their attack. After two days the battle ended due to the sheer exhaustion of both sides. It's a sunny morning and Lobau Island is a peaceful nature reserve but, being a romantic old fool, in my head I can hear the trumpets and the drumbeat of the Imperial Guard.

After Lobau Island the path runs along the top of a dyke that runs dead straight for 24 km. The scenery on either side, woodland, never changes and after a while it becomes hard to maintain one's concentration in the face of such tedium. Worse, as the morning wears on a head wind gets up which gets stronger and stronger. It feels as though I am pedalling up an endless hill. The warm weather brings one compensation, for the first time there dragonflies in the air, the most impressive being rather fat and pale blue. The life cycle of dragonflies is, like most insect's life cycles, remarkable. From egg to larval nymph, which gram for gram is one of the ferocious predators in the animal kingdom, to spectacular and equally carnivorous adulthood. In human terms Mum and Dad have sex in midair, Mum drops a load of eggs into a pond, they hatch and grow into Great White sharks which eventually drag themselves out of the water, split down the back and Rita Hayworth steps out. I also see the first lizard of the trip which scuttles across the path ahead of me.
The only other distraction is that I have a puncture. I settle down on the grass by the side of the path to change the inner tube which takes about ten minutes. I know that 'Anxious' of Guildford, who seems to believe that I am a totally incompetent cyclist, will be reassured to hear this.

Despite the sunshine the ride to Bratislava into the wind with a couple of steep climbs near the border is a grind. The border itself is completely unmarked and the only clue is that the language of the advertising hoardings on road next to the path change from German to
Slovak. I cross the bridge into Bratislava which is unfortunate in having a dual-carriageway built slap through the middle which cuts tho historic old town off from the commercial centre. I am welcomed at my hotel by two very pretty and cheerful girls and joy of joys there is a bath, the first that I have seen since leaving England. Showers are good but when you have been in the saddle all day a bath is what you want. I luxuriate for over an hour.

Bratislava has many beautiful buildings but at the end of World War Two the city was heavily bombed so the gems, many of which are in need of restoration, are interspersed with concrete office blocks. I have dinner at a table on an upper gallery in an old fashioned restaurant where they are having a 'Tango' night. Maybe in Slovak 'Tango' means dull third rate music and there was certainly nothing Argentinian about the evening. I order Fish, Zander (perch) with Paprika sauce and it was delicious.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map