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 grim
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.