A Bumpy Road through Hungary

We entered Hungary on a high, cycling from the fabulous Bratislava and living on the excitement of knowing we were now getting solidly into eastern Europe and more intense travelling. We spent a good bit of time reorganising ourselves and purging a lot of weight with the happy realisation that we didn’t need to carry as much food and camping equipment, as travel suddenly became a third of the price when we crossed the border into Slovakia and went further south into Hungary. Our next major destination was Budapest and we planned to get there four days after leaving Bratislava. Unfortunately all these plans were quickly dashed when my partner came down with a virus in our first Hungarian town and two days later I came down with the same.

The riding in Hungary was an eye opening experience, unlike our happy, well signposted, comfortably paved roads that we had become accustomed to in Austria, I am not sure that some of the roads we road through in Hungary were actually roads (in fact I am pretty positive they were fields that other cyclists had made tracks through). For the first time we were forced to ride on major motorways with huge trucks and traffic. It should be noted the roads did get better in southern Hungary outside of Budapest. In fact, some of the roads were actually the best we had. I’ll settle and say 60% of the roads were good roads and 40% were bad.

Not feeling great and trying to cover pretty hefty mileage in the first few days in Hungary, wound up being a bit of a disaster for us. Our comfortable two week journey through Hungary turned into a 3 week mission. I was really surprised how much feeling ill on this trip brought me down. Usually at home when you are sick you take a few days off and settle into days of being nestled under the duvet watching MTV. On a cycle tour it is a totally different experience, there is a real, and palpable, feeling of ‘you’re not doing good enough’ and your letting your partner down. There is the worry that you can’t risk spending money on a nicer place to stay and you are delaying your planned travel. Overall, as I am sure you can tell, I found the experience to be pretty traumatic; which is worrying since it was only a minor sinus infection. It definitely highlighted for me the necessity to stay well during a bike tour, and the fact that although you are probably cursing the extra weight of your first aid kit while you ride. It is better to have it!

Despite these set backs, Hungary itself was a wonderful surprise. We had no idea the hidden treasures that existed in this country. As we rode through beautiful town after beautiful town and saw beautiful restaurant after beautiful bar after beautiful cafe, we wondered over and over again how we didn’t know this country as more of a tourist destination. Starting with the surprising town of Masonmagyarovar, followed quickly by Gyor with it’s cobblestone square and Baroque architecture where we enjoyed cold drinks in the sun on the main square. We meandered towards Esztergom which is surrounded by the remains of a Gothic castle. On to Vac, which is a beautiful little beach holiday feeling town on the outskirts of Budapest. Until we rolled into Budapest itself, whilst all the time taking in sneaky peaks at the slow moving Danube through the forest.

We had visited Budapest before so I wasn’t feeling like we would see anything new and we planned on spending most of our time watching the start of the World Cup. Feeling ill, we indulged ourselves and decided to extend our stay and ensure we would be in the city for England’s first game. We spent our first few days recovering and watching never ending games of football. After a couple of days we did start venturing out and rediscovering this amazing city, realising that if you have already been to a city and taken in the tourist attractions you can go back and just enjoy the life of the city itself. We walked all around the Jewish quarter and famous ruin bars down to the impressive Parliament building by the river stopping at cafes all along our way. Budapest soon became my favourite city we had visited yet on this tour with its comfortable, laid back vibe, making it feel like a city you could easily settle into and live in.

Finally feeling better, we pushed through the remainder of Hungary in only three days, in retrospect I regret not spending more time in Baja in the southernmost bit of Hungary where we finally jumped, full heartedly in our underwear into the Danube (After a day of riding in 35C (96F) heat).

Highlights of Hungary which I will always remember was:

  1. The food – We ate great food in Hungary! Maybe this was over romanticised due to the fact that we could actually afford to eat a meal out and we were delighted to have a break from our every day fair of chicken and cheese rolls on the side of the road, but I think it was more because the food in Hungary is just really good, honest, home cooked grub, like Goulash and Chicken noodle soup. We also started to buy real treats for ourselves in Hungary like fresh herbs and even butter!
  2. Technology – I had a very simple minded idea that Eastern Europe wouldn’t be as modern with their technology as Western Europe and that as soon as we crossed the border I would run the risk of bad wifi. I can tell you now that this is absolutely not the case! The wifi in Hungary was much better than in Germany (sorry Germany but your wifi sucks). Oh and they take credit card everywhere unlike a lot of places in Western Europe.
  3. A more relaxed way of life – From my experience in Hungary there seemed to be a very relaxed way of life. People went about their business, and actually kept businesses open on Sundays, but they seemed to be enjoying their surroundings, through fishing, walking and relaxing in the town squares. It is definitely poorer than Western Europe but I wouldn’t say less comfortable.
  4. Bad roads – As I discussed earlier the roads were sometimes very difficult, but as I reflected on this I realised how easy it was to forget the bad. When you are on a bike tour it is like you are always living for the moment, so those horrendous memories of the field which disguised itself as a road for 5km is quickly forgotten when you are riding on a river bank on a paved path 10 km’s further on.
  5. We started meeting other serious cycle tourers – It seemed as soon as we got past Budapest the serious cycle touring had started and we started meeting more, hard core, cyclists on the road. It has been refreshing to finally be able to ride a while with other cyclists that are on similar journeys to ourselves and share in their experiences. Like the cyclist we met who was on his way to Egypt (or maybe Israel, he wasn’t sure) with a guitar on his back. He had left his home town in France two and a half years to travel the world and go wherever people recommended he should see. And that was his life. As free as a bird.
  6. Fields of sunflowers – In Hungary we started riding into fields of endless sunflowers. The beauty and happiness of these flowers have had a profound effect on me and I know these fields will be a highlight of all my memories from these travels.

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Bike Touring is not as Easy as it Sounds

In other words it is a lot of work!

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When my husband and I took on this challenge I half expected a gap year experience with a bit of an adult edge. By this I mean I imagined casually viewing city tourist sites, relaxing, reading and writing my blog from about 2 pm. And yes I thought the mornings would have the tough workout vibe about them, and that would be about it.

This has not been the case. Yes we live in the age of GPS and the thought of having to map out your journey seems pretty foreign, but when your bicycle touring this is precisely what you have to do. And it takes a lot of time and energy! We try to stay on known cycle safe routes (the eurovelo routes through Europe are fantastic for this) which you need to map out, road by road (otherwise you end up a muddy path which you can’t ride or you find yourself climbing a 15% gradient hill on a 70mph motorway). Finally, you can then plot your route into your gps system, however then comes the next challenge of making sure you are covering enough miles and your route isn’t too strenuous. Then you have to realise that, unlike the typical student gap year experience, you are most likely not in cities very often, in fact you are usually in the middle of nowhere and you need to find a place to stay.

Bicycle tourist purists generally usurp this problem by ‘wild camping’. For those of you not in the know, this means you set up camp in any open space you find (a little out of the way) usually somewhere along the side of the road, or in a field or you knock on someone’s door and ask them if you can crash in their garden. This method is alluring, however it is illegal in most countries, (I doubt you would get arrested for it, but you might get asked to move on) it’s not as safe for you and your gear and you don’t get the comforts that you crave after a brutal ride like a hot shower and a relatively stench free toilet.

I don’t begrudge cycle tourists that are willing to primarily travel this way, in fact I applaud them. It is just that that kind if travelling was not what we had in mind when we took this challenge on, thus we are desperately trying to find accommodation whether that be campsites or reasonably priced airbnb’s or couch surfing along our planned cycle routes. This sometimes feels like a full time job.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention another option, which is warmshowers.org. Warm Showers (although the branding is not appealing) is an online network of cycle tourers who let other cycle tourers stay with them for free during their journey. Obviously it is a bit rare to find these people along your route, but when you do it is a great way to save on your budget and meet people of similar interests and experiences.

Living out of cycle pannier also takes some getting used to. Every evening you wind up unpacking all of your clothes and toiletries, and other cooking and household items that you need for the evening (if your camping pretty much everything needs to come out!). And every morning you need to repack everything in and orderly and compact manner, which takes time and getting used to.

Now we can talk about the cycling. Becoming a full time bicycle tourer is not like deciding you are going to go the gym 6 times a week and maybe even working out for up to an hour and a half at a time. The bikes weigh about 60kgs and you want to cover at least 30 miles a day. This is a lot of hard work and depending on the condition of the roads and the climbing, covering what may seem like a relatively short distance can take up 4-5 hours (on our worst day so far it took 7 hours to cover 40 miles). This kind of physical strain becomes like a full time job. You constantly need to stay on top of your water supply and you need to eat a lot. When I am finished with the cycling generally I am feeling way too tired to do do anything but take a hot shower and eat as soon as possible. I have also found that after several days in a row of hard riding I start to feel weary and generally temperamental.

Reading back over this it all sounds a bit negative and might be perceived like I am trying to put people off of any epic cycle touring journeys they are planning. Quite the contrary, I am loving the experience. I feel like my body and mind are getting stronger every day. We are getting better at planning and understanding the limits of what we can achieve. Unpacking and repacking begins to feel less like a task and more like a force of habit. And most importantly you learn to appreciate and understand travelling in an entirely new way.

You learn progression is slow. Your full time job isn’t relaxing and travelling, it’s bike touring. You gain a relationship and a dependency on your bike. Your body becomes your machine that you are developing to enable you to explore the world. And you are more open and honest in your relationships.