Triplogue - Slovakia and Hungary

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Craggy castle

4 September, Picim, Poland to Dolny Kubin, Slovakia, 109 km

It was easier getting out of Poland than into it. Today’s border protocol was downright casual compared to our entrance from Lithuania. We were waved through on both sides. The Slovakian passport control dude was a rotund Santa-esque old dude and was visibly drunk. I wonder if he even noticed us.

Getting to the border was the hard part, since it involved traversing the Tatra mountain range. This morning I decided we’d avoid the truck-filled highway and take side roads. My map showed that this would only add ten kilometers of distance; what it didn’t show was that my diversion also entailed over 600 meters of additional climbing. After a coffee-free breakfast (the pre-menstrual waitress brought us tea and refused to deal with us any further) and squeezing our bikes back out of the raccoon-piss-smelling shed where they’d spent the night, we began our day on blissfully tranquil roads, ascending gently through verdant valleys. We witnessed the usual interactions between peasants and livestock, and noticed a significant increase in roadside chapels and shrines, many of them elaborately carved wooded structures with a mountain chalet sensibility. Some housed statues that were garishly painted and looked like they were made of marzipan, yet what astonished us most was Jesus’ posture in these. Never have I seen so many representations of the Son of God on all fours, lying down, or propped up an elbow like a reclining Buddha. Another striking feature of these valleys was the density of the population. Most of the villages ran into one another, a seemingly endless string of four-story dwellings. Ubiquitous schoolchildren made no effort to disguise the fact that they found us hilarious, and squat old peasants walking down the middle of the road and bent over under heavy vegetal burdens were a constant hazard. Despite all the activity, there were virtually zero cars, making for near-perfect riding conditions.

The only thing that kept today from being totally perfect was passing from one valley to the next. This we had to do five or six times, and each time involved coronary-inducing climbs. The worst of these took us up to an elevation of nearly a thousand meters and was like pedaling up the side of a wall.

Back at the border, 62 kilometers and three gallons of sweat since this morning’s start, I began to think about the country we were entering. What distinguishes Slovakia as a nation? I once spent an uninteresting day in dreary Bratislava, an accidental capital if there ever was one. Other than that touristic mistake, all I know about this land is that it is or was considered by many Czechs as a poor relative, a polluted, industrial wasteland. On the map it looks brutally mountainous, which could make the 300 and some kilometers from here to Budapest very long. Riding across the invisible line that divides Poland and Slovakia, I also began to reminisce a little about Poland, a country I wish we’d had more time to explore. I’d miss its vitality and quirky people, but I definitely wouldn’t miss Poland’s drivers, which must rank among the world’s very worst.

I was thinking these thoughts and pedaling along the interminable line of trucks waiting to get into Poland when my tire exploded. Fred says it sounded like a toy gun or a champagne cork this time, while it reminded me of a burst balloon. Whatever the case, it was a big drag to replace. I had rotated my two tires in Warsaw, and getting the Helsinki-purchased Nokia tire (they don’t just make cell phones anymore) on my rear wheel was an opera in five acts. Getting it off was no easier; even using a knife and wire-cutters, the whole process took the better part of the hour. On the positive side, we provided entertainment to a number of bored truck drivers.

A new tire in place and rolling down the road, I was able to drink in my first impressions of Slovakia. It actually looked distinctly different from anything we’d seen in Poland. The landscape looked more rugged and pristine, full of tall pines clinging onto the steep slopes, yet at the same time it felt more urban and industrialized. Even the smaller villages had high-rise apartment blocks on their fringes, but most of the housing was rustic wooden structures resembling barns, different from those of Poland by their close-set proximity to one another and their orientation vis-a-vis the street. The main door of these houses is always on the long side of the dwelling and perpendicular to the street. Some looked very old, in stark contrast to the apartment blocks and factories that loomed behind them. Catholicism is still very apparent here. Elaborately domed churches and lurid roadside shrines abound. As for the roads, they’re much better here than in Poland, and upon them are far more cyclists, many of them sporting helmets and lycra.

We were exhausted and starving when we rolled up to yet another communist-style hotel in Dolny Kubin, a monumentally unattractive hole of a town. We rushed to dinner. To distract our brains from our gnawing appetites, we played backgammon as we waited for the food to come. I was ahead in the game and bearing off when Fred’s appetizer arrived, a delicious crepe stuffed with barbecued pork. I was so hungry that I agreed to his ridiculous demand of placing a man back on the board for every bite. It was well worth it; I still won the game and feel satisfied knowing that Fred has screwed up his backgammon karma for months to come.

Though it’s only nine thirty now, I’m dog-tired and aching big-time. Hopefully tomorrow’s ride will be all downhill…

5 September, Dolny Kubin to Sturovo, 105 km

I had great expectations for breakfast after dinner the night before. I was more than disappointed when I saw an enormous buffet filled with food that looked inedible. The weirdest item on the buffet was a little tin full of sausage spread. If I hadn’t been awake I might have mistaken it for a container of plum jam. Thank goodness I had the wherewithal to avoid it.

The day before we’d passed through an enormous river valley and today we’d continue along it towards a town called Martin some 45km down the canyon. The valley became a gorge and we were close enough to the river to hear it roar like a caged lion just below the roadbed. Soon we joined a busier road with a wide shoulder and the valley opened up once again revealing the fields of grains.

At the outset of this day we’d decided that this would be a mixed mode travel day. I was keen on being in Budapest on Saturday so we could go out and have some fun on a weekend. Andy and I agreed to cheat a little on this day in order to make it a reality. In Martin we arranged our train travel and set out to have some lunch while we waited. A walk down Martin’s main pedestrian street revealed little of interest for lunch. We eventually settled on a substandard hamburger and fries. Downing our lunch we watch people ogle our cycles as though they were space vehicles.

The train would prove to be more interesting than lunch. First was the drama of getting our bikes on the train. When we went to the baggage office they demanded that we remove our bags and leave the bikes with the baggage handlers. Not satisfied with this idea I enlisted the support of an English speaking passenger to translate for us. It turned out that we would have to pay another fifty cents or so to have the panniers travel with our cycles. We gladly paid and helped the two aging women put the bikes on the train to the amusement of all on the platform.

On the train the only drama was the countryside. All of which would have been great riding which made both Andy and me a little sad that we hadn’t relied on pedal power. Transferring the bikes to the second train proved to be as weird as mounting them on the first. After providing amusement to yet another crowd of passengers we found a compartment near the baggage car and settled in to read and write. We met our compartment mate, a young engineer off to do his military service in Bratislava. He was very opinionated about Hungary. He said that it held little interest for him and that the whole country had "maybe one town of interest and that is Budapest." His main reason for preferring his native Slovakia was its proximity to Austria. We left the train at our destination as he was getting warmed up to dish on the rest of Eastern Europe.

From Levice we still had an aggressive travel day ahead of us. We’d planned to do another 80km to the border and hoped to spend the night in Hungary. That would make the day 125km on bike and 150km on a slow train. Leaving Levice (the ugliest burg in since the border of Poland and Lithuania) was relatively painless. Within a few moments we were on the edge of a large and lovely valley weaving our way along. Every few kilometers we’d ascend the wall of the valley 30 or 40 meters and then roll down to the its floor. Often we’d race through little villages where locals watched us pass with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Dogs barked at us, children fled to the side of the road and their parents glared. As the sun began to approach the horizon we had entered a grape growing region. We looked across the vineyards to the Danube Valley to Hungary, our ultimate destination for the day. A massive baroque church stood on the Hungarian side that served as a landmark guiding us to the border. (the largest church in Hungary, this town had once been the capital of the nation)

Finding the ferry was a little more challenging than we anticipated. Finally a family on bikes was enlisted to escort us dockside. On the way the Father shook his head and looked at his watch. Sure enough, the last ferry had left some time before our arrival. Admitting defeat we set out to find a place to stay. We came upon a series of signs advertising the Motel Non-Stop and followed them up a side street and down an alley. Soon we came upon an unlikely gate marked with the name of the establishment. We buzzed and were about to give up when the manager came out to find us. Looking at us sort of confused he told us he had a room in a mixture of German, Slovakian, Hungarian and a little English thrown in for good measure. He talked to us constantly in this language cocktail while escorting us through what appeared to be a foundry to an unlikely entry to a hotel. He reeked of alcohol. Staggering a little he helped us hoist the bikes up the back stairs into the hotel. All three of us had cause to laugh when he pointed out that the front entrance to the hotel was on the mains street. Both Andy and I had failed to see it when we drove by.

Against our host’s recommendation we decided to go to the much advertised Casablanca Restaurant for dinner. We began to order sitting on the terrace, but quickly decided to go indoors after finding that we were more a meal for the mosquitoes. Once inside we began to order food with fervor. Two big beers, mineral water, salads, a main course and dumplings (even though our waitress scoffed at the idea of three main courses for two people.) Just to prove our massive appetites Andy ordered another helping of dumplings which we ate with great enthusiasm. Somewhere along the way we’d ordered a second half liter of beer each and both of us were feeling a little drunk. We knew that we had very limited Slovakian currency left and that we were pushing the limit of our finances. Any time we hit a border it is always a fun game to try to spend every last local agouti (bit of local currency). It is reminiscent of the game show "The Price is Right," where a contestant must buy a goods up to, but not exceeding their budget not knowing the exact price. We knew that we were close to the end of our cash, even so we ordered dessert with abandonment. When the check came we laughed upon finding how close we were to our limit, we had but 19 agoutis left on a 548 agouti bill. We ordered two mineral waters to go and bargained the owner down to exactly our remaining agoutiage. Walking back to town and our hotel we staggered like the manager of our hotel proud of having spent every bit of our currency.

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Train trauma in central Slovakia

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Cycling with our new Hungarian buddies, Joseph, Victor and Atilla

6 September, Sturovo/Estergom to Budapest, 81 km

Another day, another country. One of the most incredible features of Europe is its compact size, especially appreciable after biking 1100 miles across Texas. Sometimes I wonder if Europe was actually created for American tourists like me; it really does feel like Disneyland sometimes. Today we passed from Slovakialand to Hungaryland.

Sleepy Sturovo is the most relaxed border crossing we’ve seen in a long time. Immigration and customs officials from both Hungary and Slovakia share a dilapidated tin building and wander around casually among people wishing to cross or joke with the waitress in the nearby café. We practically had to wave our passports in front of the guards’ faces to get them to take notice of us and motion us through. Still, it took us much longer to get to Hungary proper than we had thought. Estergom and its enormous basilica (purportedly the fourth largest church in the world) loom over Slovakian Sturovo from across the Danube and look close enough to reach out and touch. Once upon a time a "Friendship Bridge" linked the two towns, but all that remains are pylons sticking out of the rushing brown water. The only way across now is by ferry. The operator of the small boat which plies the river seemingly constantly refused to let us take our heavy bikes on board, forcing us to wait an additional hour for the bigger car ferry. We whiled away the time playing backgammon under the disapproving glares of the immigration officials and made a spectacle of ourselves by smearing sunscreen onto one another’s backs; the weather was good enough to ride bareback, we decided, and we didn’t have to impress anyone anymore now that we had already made it through immigration and customs. The bigger boat was really just a barge, pushed rather delicately through the raging brown waters by a tugboat and a tightly organized crew. Fred and I watched in wonderment as three strong men –one looking astonishing like Obelix of "Asterix" fame—manipulated the mooring cables.

When we finally made it across, we were greeted with a heartening sight: a bike path running right along the Danube, toward Budapest. "Could it go all the way into town?" we wondered giddily as we pumped against the wind, riding right alongside the majestic waterway far from any signs of motorized traffic. Alas, after ten or fifteen blissful kilometers, our path dumped us onto the highway.

The road led us around what is known as the "Danube Bend," a favorite weekend getaway spot for Budapestians and a place rich in history and natural beauty. We passed through ancient villages under dramatically steep, castle-topped hills. In a little town called Visegrad we stopped for an early lunch at a snack bar type place by the side of the river. We thought we would eat outside, but when we went in to order, we got caught up in the hype of Princess Diana’s funeral, being broadcast live with extensive commentary in Hungarian. Unaware that we’d be subjected to endless replays of the event on CNN, we munched on delicious sandwiches brought to us by the place’s friendly owner, alternately transfixed by all the royal pomp and admiring the hat collection that covered every inch of the place’s walls.

Our bellies full, we waddled outside to find a yuppyesque family admiring our bikes. The young couple explained in impeccable English that they were cycling enthusiasts from nearby Szententre and that they admired our machines. Even their two-year-old daughter –an avid cyclist herself—seemed enthralled. They insisted on giving us a map of the region with a recommended route, causing Fred and me to remark upon the friendliness of Hungarians.

In less than a minute after leaving this generous family, we met up with a trio of friendly Hungarian cyclists heading in our direction. Victor, Attila and Josef have been friends since kindergarten and take day trips from Budapest at every opportunity. Victor was the most proficient in English of the three and did most of the talking. Pedaling lackadaisically alongside us in the busy road, he explained that he was studying to be a lawyer, while cute young Attila was learning to repair electronic devices. We never learned much at all about Victor, who seemed painfully shy.

The three of them provided a wind block and guide service all the way into town. We stopped a number of times –once in a little village where they knew of a cheap ice cream place up a cobbled street; a couple of times for water to quench our thirst and pour over our sweaty bods; and finally at a café on Elizabeth island for a farewell beer, where they gave us the names of some bike shops and told us to meet them again on Monday.

Our pre-outing goal for the evening was to put our numerous pages on Poland up on the Web. Finding a hotel that would accommodate this task wasn’t as easy as it should have been, and we ended up in the ultra-glam Kempinski, lured by their weekend rate and reliable phone connection. I went out in search of supplies –a bag full of whoppers and more liquids than you can shake a stick at—while Fred set it up. Like many aspects of this trip, we have found a routine that works for us.

It was just around midnight when we had finished all the HTML and headed out to Budapest’s premier homo club, the Angel. The attitude was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Only two boys seemed approachable at all, a couple from Dublin who told us all about being robbed in Prague. They invited us to join their table, where we were treated to an excellent view of what is probably the best drag show I have ever seen in the western world. The highlight was a tribute to "Hair", with expert choreography and excerpts from virtually all the show’s songs –in Hungarian. It was refreshing to see drag performed without any lip-synching at all, and one girl’s voice was so good it sent shivers up our spines.

Budapest/Siofok to the agouti hut in Balatonfenyves, 62 km

Staying out until 2 a.m. drinking heavily is seldom a brilliant idea the day before you plan to get up early and bicycle. We could hardly resist going out just one more time before leaving so we showed especially bad judgment on our last night in Budapest. We had to. This city has a contagious energy like New York or Rome and it had infected us. The busy streets filled with Hungarians and foreigners milling about at all hours begged us to come join them. The cafés and restaurants hummed with feverish conversation on this warm September night. The night before we’d foregone the night out. We were too exhausted emotionally from the movie we saw. David Lynch’s "Lost Highway" left my brain aching and wondering what David’s universe looks like.

Similarly, my head was ringing at seven when the sun first woke me in our little Victorian furnished apartment in Shandor’s guest house. I’d only had five hours of sleep and the beers and scotch I’d consumed the night before weren’t helping. The one saving grace is that I had packed the day before. At least there was once chore I’d been spared this morning. While Andy packed I went to seek breakfast. We both were craving an EggMcMuffin and some delicious Hungarian pastries. I scored on the pastry front but struck-out on the McDo fare. Seems that Ronald only serves burgers etc., in Hungary. Surprisingly at eight in the morning they had a full house of locals munching this fare in lieu of a real breakfast.

Again, the TrainBrats decided to use another form of transportation to avoid Budapest’s traffic exiting the biggest Eastern European capital we’d been to. Even so on the way to the train station we had more than one incident. First a bus ran us off the road, not surprising, it was the fifth time for me and I’d come to expect it from the charming horn honking bastards. Just a little later I stopped my bike to allow a merging motorist to pass. She stopped her smoke belching Skoda and I motioned her to go. She gesticulated wildly insisting that I go in front of her as traffic all around honked. I did as she asked and as I passed in front of her commie car she lurched forward, clipping my rear pannier. I lost control and fell to the ground in the street. Unhurt but shaken up I got up launched into a diatribe against her while she hid her face in her hands.

After my drama the rest of the trip to the train station was uneventful through my hangover haze. As usual it was a challenge get bikes to the tracks, but Andy somehow managed to find a way to sneak up the baggage handlers ramp. Once on the train I dozed after eating a few bites of the nasty sandwiches I bought in the station. In our car a chainsmoking woman grimaced at us and acted angry about our bikes. She changed her seat in the car three or four times before settling in behind us, coughing consumptively and blowing smoke in our direction.

Soon we arrived at the huge lake which we intended to ride along. We managed to find quiet little paths along the lakefront for most of the afternoon. The enormous pale green body of water was obviously the big Hungarian tourist attraction. The beaches and roads were quiet; few tourists remaining this late in the season. All of the signs were in German, sometimes accompanied by Hungarian. This must be where Franz and Hiedi spend there summer every year because it is cheap. We lunched lakeside in a café where you could order in any language as long as it was German. Still suffering from the night before but feeling better after a beer, we decided we’d make it a short day. Actualizing that plan was not as easy as it seemed. Many of the campgrounds and hotels were only interested in having us as guests if we were interested in staying more than one day. After some search we found a little place advertising tourist information. They tried to refer us back to the Hotels we’d just been to. We pointed to the sign that indicated that they had a "Zimmer Frei". A little flustered, the staff finally showed us a tiny cottage just next to the office. It was just big enough for us to fit our bikes downstairs and barely pass upstairs to sleep. I slept poorly even though I was exhausted. I couldn’t have a shower because the water was cold and was uncomfortable as I stuck to the sheets. Andy loved our agouti hut by the lake and slept soundly, dreaming of how cheap it was.

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Lake Balaton

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