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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A Long Road Through Germany

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It is hard to put into words my experience in Germany. It felt like we were in the country for so long (just over 3 weeks)! It defined this trip as ‘not a holiday’ for me because you would never spend this much time getting to know a country and visiting as many small, sometimes not so likeable, towns as we did unless you were travelling in the way we are. For the first time in our trip we had some bad weather and we had that feeling of being a bit stuck. At the same time never in my life do I feel like I have I spent enough time travelling in a country to feel familiar and in many ways not like a tourist.

I wanted to make sure I spent time on this post because although in all honesty Germany has never been a country I have been desperate to travel through, I am sure that I will look back at our time in Germany after this trip and remember it as one of the most endearing, honest and beautiful countries we ever visited.

We entered Germany on the Eurovelo 5 route from Luxembourg at Remich and travelled to Merzig on the northwestern side. The Eurovelo 5 only goes through Germany for 80 kilometres before re-entering France. It is not the most beautiful of riding, but also not very difficult. Some acquaintances in Luxembourg told us to visit Trier (the oldest town in Germany) if we had the chance and we found a quick train directly from Merzig to get there. This seemed like a good option for a rest day.

Merzig, as a town, definitely wasn’t as beautiful and quaint as what we had become accustomed to in France and Belgium, but it was refreshingly friendly and inexpensive. After checking into our room we went to enjoy a beer in the sun and were surprised when our hotel owner showed up because he had wanted to give us the wifi code and buy us a drink. This was the first unwarranted bit of generosity we had experienced on the trip. He then preceded to introduce us to his friend, Halil, another local business man. We had a long conversation with Halil, who was Turkish, about what to expect, if and when, we would ever arrive in Istanbul. Then, again in an unmitigated kind gesture, he asked us to come and watch football, have drinks and dinner in his restaurant, all on him. We said we would join him the next evening as we were getting up early for Trier.

Trier was beautiful, but smaller than I expected. There are medieval and Roman ruins but what was probably the most impressive and exciting part for me was the access you had to the ruins. We visited the Amphitheatre and Coliseum and unlike ruins that I have visited in the past you had full access to the underground levels. This really changed the experience for me and made the ruins much more exciting. We made it back to Merzig that evening to meet with Halil who did indeed treat us to drinks and dinner in his beautiful bar/restaurant.

Our entry back into Germany from France was stressful from a planning perspective. One of our Warm Showers hosts in Luxembourg had told us we should visit the city of Freiburg, which is just before entry into the Black Forest, and whilst we were there stay with his relatives. We were both really intrigued with the idea of cycling through the Black Forest but riding over the mountain range seemed daunting. We were slowly increasing our kilometres per day at this point but we hadn’t even attempted this kind of climb yet. We would need to get over the Black Forest mountains to reach the Danube river and pick up the Eurovelo 6 which would make up the majority of the rest of our journey. The other option was to continue on the Eurovelo 5 to Basel and pick up the Eurovelo 6 from there, which just didn’t seem as appealing.

After much consideration we decided we were going to go with our gut and visit Freiburg and cross the Black Forest to the Danube. We contacted our Warm Showers friend who gave us his family’s contact. Unaware of what Freiburg had to offer, we rolled in with unexpected excitement and appreciation and immediately knew we wanted to spend more time in this city.

Gunta and Gerdy (the family of our Warm Showers friend) welcomed us with open arms, homemade cake, coffee and a lovely room to stay in. Although neither of the retired couple spoke English, and we don’t speak German, they spent hours trying to communicate with us and welcome us into their home. They made us dinner after we came back from exploring the city and in the morning put out an unbelievable breakfast spread for us. I don’t know that I have ever experienced generosity like this from total strangers before. Gerta and Gerdy made us feel at home with family, who weren’t family, and I think we really needed that feeling at that point in our journey.

We quickly fell in love with Freiburg. It is a beautiful city with small museums, cobblestone streets, cafes, bars and restaurants and obviously a reconstructed medieval old town. Pretty much everything you could want from a European city. Freiburg has a large university population and we enjoyed an evening in the student quarter with beers on the street and live music. Much like Amsterdam the city has been overtaken by bicycles, but in my opinion in a much more natural way. Everyone is on a bike and there are bike paths throughout the city, but there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the bikes, cars and pedestrians of the city which makes it work really well.

Reluctantly we left Freiburg on our quest to get over the Black Forest mountains. My partner got a route from an acquaintance on Warm Showers that supposedly took us on quieter easy to manage roads over the mountains. I don’t think I had really conceptualized what it meant to climb pretty much straight up a 1200 meter mountain with a fully loaded bike in 26 degree Celsius heat. Luckily as we climbed, the forest surrounded us and the temperature became more comfortable. Stupidly we didn’t bring enough water that day, but the excess of fresh streams and my partner’s water purifier saved us. This day was my biggest physical challenge with much of the road being 15% gradient (which meant for me I was pushing the bike). Unfortunately in reality the physical challenges of bike touring can inhibit your experience of the place your visiting. The forest is beautiful with old trees, bubbling mini waterfalls, ferns and grasses and birds singing all around you. But for most of the time all I could think of was getting to the top. A few hours later that is exactly what we did! I would highly recommend going through the Black Forest if you are physically inclined. It felt like a mountain getaway and the small towns around the area were quaint and beautiful with a refreshing atmosphere.

After the Black Forest I noticed a real change in my physical ability, my legs were no longer achy on the bike in the mornings and I didn’t need a nap in the afternoons to recover. It was like all the sudden I passed over that physical hurdle that had been making the journey very difficult for me. I really did cross over a mountain physically and mentally in the Black Forest.

Following the Black Forest we were anxious to push through and finally join the Eurovelo 6 (by far the most popular and busiest Eurovelo route) and see the Danube, which we planned on following for another 4000 kilometres. We did this in the small town of Donaueschingen, following the then very small Danube river to Ulm. I think we expected to be on a beautiful paved river path as soon as we joined the Eurovelo 6, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Much of the route is beautiful, taking you through small country villages and letting you meander back and forth over the Danube, but much of the path in Germany is unpaved and difficult to manoeuvre. It is also hilly and our dreams of coming out of the Black Forest to a flat river path were dashed. When speaking to local Germans about the route they would often tell us, the area closest to them, was the most beautiful section of the Eurovelo 6, and although the Austrian bit is very famous, it is boring to ride and the German bit is much more interesting. We have now come to enjoy this local pride in ones area and take the advice given to us in this way with a pinch of salt.

For the next two weeks we went through Germany on this route stopping at various not so memorable towns. During this time we regularly heard the Cuckoos that are famous in the area, and truly do sound like their namesake. We tried what felt like hundreds of different types of beers, noticing that when in Germany they tell you that ‘this is the local beer’ it literally means it is probably made within 5 kilometers of where you are having it. We got to understand Germany’s new obsession with e-bikes and often were frustrated to be passed on the trail at a break neck speed by a couple who looked like they were octagenerians.

We found Germany to be modern, efficient and clean. Our train to Trier informed us with big flashing signs that it was going to be late which wound up meaning it was a whole 3 minutes late (I’m pretty sure that is incredibly on time in the UK). All the toilets were spottlessly clean, even in campsites. And to our surprise we even spent an evening in a hotel that allowed you to check in yourself via a computer at reception that had no humans watching it.

During our time in Germany the weather did turn and we experienced some days of non-stop downpours, which, excuse the pun, can dampen your experience on a cycle tour. We desperately hurdled towards one of our final stops and the 2nd largest city in Bavaria, Regensburg. Bavaria really does have it’s own culture, with the famous beer gardens everywhere you go, a slightly different dialect (closer to Austrian we would soon find out) and Dultz festivals which we would happen upon, just to name a few differences.

We rolled into Regensburg with the expectation that it would be a nice small town to have a rest day in and fortunately for us our Airbnb host offered us an extra night’s stay for free. He also informed us that Dultz was on whilst we were there. We had never heard of Dultz so we quickly looked into this intriguing festival. In Bavaria in May and in August there are Dultz festivals which is similar to what we know as Oktoberfest. There is live music, (often traditional) rides and beer tents with drink and food. The locals dress in traditional Bavarian dress and celebrate these festivals for around 3 weeks.

Needing a break from the recent weather, and small unexciting towns, we were really ready to experience Bavarian culture and enjoy ourselves off the bike. Little did we know how beautiful and enchanting Regensburg would be, nor did we know how wild the Dultz would get. Heading into a beer tent we instantly made friends with some locals and wound up drinking, singing and dancing on tables for the rest of the evening.

All in all I would say I was surprised by Germany and I also learned a lot from our time there. The riding on the Eurovelo 6 wasn’t always as beautiful as I expected it would be, but the riding through the Black Forest was more beautiful than expected. The villages and cities were more unique and individual than expected. But more than anything the people were welcoming, and kind, and open to new friendships. I would say the main lesson I learned from Germany, which I hope I will continue to learn throughout the trip, is that people really do make the place. I enjoyed every experience where I got to know the culture through the people, better than seeing the place only through the typical tourist perspective.