A hat-trick of capital cities in 7 days – Vienna to Budapest

It’s been an interesting last week on the bikes as we’ve been moving further east and cycled through three previously unvisited countries and capital cities.

First up was Vienna, Austria. We had a great couple of days staying with Stef and Angela who treated us to a few episodes of the new series of the Inbetweeners and an array of savage home brewed shots.

Whilst in Vienna we realised that when we’d arranged a date a few weeks ago to meet Bex’s family in Budapest, we’d been slightly over cautious – we now had eleven days to cycle approximately 350km (even going slowly, five days is more than enough). Still, this situation was infinitely preferable to our last attempt at arranging a rendezvous, which left us with 3 days to cycle 400km. Our forecasting skills clearly need some refining…

With clean clothes, a dry tent and fresh legs we cycled out of Vienna down the trusty Danube, entered Slovakia, and crossed the river into capital number two, Bratislava. We wanted to take the following day off to look around the city, but we found out that the campsite had closed for winter the previous day. As a result, we ‘treated’ ourselves to a bunk bed in a six man dorm in a hostel at a budget-destroying £14 per night – the first time we’d paid for a roof over our heads and our most expensive accommodation yet. The hostel actually turned out to be quite nice, and the discovery of a Tesco ‘hipermarket’ next door combined with the hostel kitchen even meant we could be slightly more adventurous for our evening meal than another round of pasta slurry.

Bratislava has a small but attractive old town, with lots of small cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants to attract the tourists. Thankfully the beer is getting cheaper as we get progressively further east (we’re down to just over £1 a pint now), which means it’s beginning to come into the range of our limited budget.

Our body clocks were still on camping mode (sleep at sunset, wake at sunrise), which coincidently was the exact opposite of our two Aussie roommates who were partying hard and living a nocturnal life. A pair of earplugs ensured I had a perfect night’s kip, although they probably thought we were losers for going to bed before midnight.

As you can see on our route map, we only dipped into Slovakia for a few kilometres either side of Bratislava, so shortly after leaving we’d crossed the border into Hungary. By the way, border crossing so far have been far from momentous – if it wasn’t for a wonky sign we’d never have known we’d left Slovakia!

Immediately it began feeling a bit more Eastern European after the weeks spent in Germany and Austria, although this was enhanced by the fact that we were in a rural farming area. Run-down tractors were as common as cars, and signposts forbid bikes, tractors and horse-drawn carts from using the busiest roads. We got a cheery wave as we overtook a renegade farmer in his horse and cart, feet up and smoking whilst ignoring the rules and taking his chances on the A road.

Later that day we were cooking dinner under a tree in a rainy campsite when the owner took pity on us and invited us into his nice warm house. We were given some lethal spirits from an unlabelled bottle and, as he spoke no English and us no Hungarian, tried to explain our journey using school boy German and gesturing. After forcing down the last of the drink (it took a huge effort not to gurn horribly) a beer appeared, and I settled down in front of the fire with Champion’s League football on the TV. Inexplicably, Bex decided that a wet tent was preferable to this slice of heaven and made her excuses.

We arrived in Budapest (capital number three) on Thursday and have spent the last few days exploring the city with the help of our host, Jani, and giving our bikes some much needed maintenance – the ‘bike routes’ in Hungary have taken us down some very muddy tracks, and as a result our bikes were caked in mud after the first day!

The subtle differences noticed whilst cycling through Hungary have confirmed how much I’m looking forward to visiting countries that are completely different to the western world that I know. A large part of the reason for choosing New Zealand as our target was that we would have to pass through a wide variety of different cultures to get there. However, Germany and Austria were great for cycle touring and the perfect way for novices like us to begin the journey, as the similarities with England far outnumber the differences.

Clear skies and cold nights – cycling the Danube

We’re currently in Vienna and since the last post we’ve been enjoying cycling down the Danube, although mostly into a hefty headwind. Bex has become a master of riding 3 inches from my rear wheel – apparently I create a nice big wind shadow. I can hear cries of “it’s SO easy back here” as I’m grinding the pedals into a force 5 gale.

We had a great day off in Passau (where we first joined the Danube) and we were greeted by glorious sun from the minute we arrived. It was hot enough to rival an English summer’s day, not bad for October! Our state of the art, high tech expedition thermometer (purchased from a supermarket for €2.99) nearly exploded when we put it in direct sunlight.

Whilst in Passau we were lucky enough to stay in an amazing flat belonging to Max and Annika, friends of a friend of a friend. Max runs MyMuesli where you can create your own custom-mixed organic cereal online. They also have a small store in Passau and after a couple of visits to taste test, I can confirm it is excellent stuff. Cereal is something we’ve been missing (as we can’t keep milk fresh), so it was a double bonus.

With our batteries recharged (it’s funny how just one day off and a clothes wash can leave you feeling like new) we set off down the Danube, which we planned to follow for the next 700km or so. As we crossed the border into Austria, country number six, it felt like the sort of cycling that we needed back at the beginning of our journey to patch up any holes in either of our equally intensive (cough) pre trip training regimes – short days, flat roads and good weather. Just before arriving in Vienna we had 5 days in a row without seeing a cloud!

We’ve been mostly staying in campsites whilst on the Danube – there are loads on this popular cycling route, and they’re quiet and cheap as it’s out of season. Whilst looking for a campsite one evening an old man picking apples pointed towards what looked like a farmhouse. Apparently their garden was the campsite, although there were no signs to show it. Either way we were happy, and even more so when he gave us some dodgy home brewed cider to sample. His English was poor and our German is even worse so conversation was a challenge, but he seemed impressed when he found out that we’d cycled all the way from London.

The following evening in the next town we were directed to a rowing club – for a small fee we could sleep on the mattresses in the club house, use the showers and kitchen, and even help ourselves to the bar. The lady then left us with the keys to the boathouse and instructions to leave our money on the side in the morning.

The nights are getting colder as autumn arrives – it was below freezing on clear nights in Austria and we could see our breath inside the tent as ice formed on the outside. Fortunately we were nice and warm inside our sleeping bags, although it did make the night time toilet trip swifter than usual.

Bex’s knees have recovered now and we’ve cycled every kilometre together since leaving Munich a few weeks ago. When Bex started cycling again I thought it would be nice if she had the compass and map (we only have one to save money). Unfortunately Bex didn’t fill me with confidence when she took a confused look at the compass and said “what does the red pointy bit mean? Does that show the way we’re going?” “Only if we’re heading north” I replied, trying to remain calm. After a quick compass 101 lesson we were good to go.

Whilst on the subject of navigational issues, our low point so far came when we decided, over breakfast on a village bench, to take a handy scenic shortcut through a forest. Three hours later, after walking our bikes through a shallow river twice, we returned to the same bench for lunch. Horrific for morale and a few toys were promptly ejected from my pram. We stuck to roads for the rest of the day.

After a rest day or two here in Vienna we’ll continue to follow the Danube to Budapest. Now if the wind could just swing round a bit…