Bratislava, Budapest & Belgrade – three capitals for the three main countries I’ve been through since Vienna. It’s only been 9 days to Belgrade, but it’s been busy – 7 border crossings and covering 800 odd kilometres. So to do it justice, I’ve split the post in half. Part one – Bratislava & Budapest.
Bratislava & Vienna are the closest capitals in the world (Vatican City notwithstanding) so it was an easy jaunt for 40km or so down the Danube from Vienna. Still, having been alone again for the first time in a week and a half I was feeling pretty lonely and grumpy riding out of Austria. Karl, a friendly Englishman who moved to Vienna 30 years ago rolled up and put those feelings to bed, as we had a very pleasant conversation for 45 minutes. When he left I felt much better – having been reminded that no, I won’t be alone for long as I will meet (and have met) so many friendly people along the way. I rolled into Bratislava soon after, to two wonderfully contrasting buildings which could well sum up the city. On the north bank, the beautiful and dominant classically styled Bratislava Hvad (castle) and on the south, the crazy, cold war era “UFO” bridge.
I stayed one afternoon and a slow morning there and it was probably enough, allowing me to visit the castle, the old town and a few quiet churches. All the while, a choir and full orchestra were performing Handel’s Messiah in the main square, adding further tranquility to a hot, lazy Saturday afternoon. All in all, a pleasant stay in Bratislava.
I have been following the bike path “EuroVelo 6” for many Kms now as it follows the Danube for all of its course to the Black Sea. During Austria and Slovakia it was wonderful – clearly signed and mostly on a tarmac strip next to the river itself. In Hungary however, the route is still officially “under development”. What this means is that signs are occasional and the route will sometimes follow paved roads, but more likely off road dirt tracks.
Still, it makes for a fun ride, especially when disregarding any value for the bike and going hell for leather over the lumps and bumps. There will then be a brief respite along a paved road and an EV6 sign, presumably to appease the pesky Eurovelo route arbiters, before diving back off down a farmers track.
I made progress like this for half a day, before growing bored and jumping back over to Slovakia for the smoother version (and an ice cream). I then mixed and matched between EV6 and roads through the rest of Hungary to Budapest, following whichever looked quickest.
The scenery itself was pretty bland, rolling through flat fertile farmland of the Danube floodplain. The highlight was probably a small city called Esztergom, known as “The Rome of Hungary” (to the tourist board at least). Here, the Catholic Basillica dominates the Skyline, looking out over the meandering Danube. The Cathedral’s full name is actually… Ahem… “The Cathedral and Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert” (who says Catholics are pompous anyway?). Like many religous sites, there have been buildings and renovations and rebuildings for many centuries, but parts of the church date back a thousand years. Mostly though, the Cathedral is of the 19th century style, with a new consecration in 1856 and rebuilt to be the head of the church in The Kingdom of Hungary – then part of the Habsburg Empire. I paid the 500 Forints to go up to the dome and was rewarded with beautiful views out over the now familiar Danube.
The Basilica and view from the dome, below
New friends in Hungary
Towards the end of my first day in Hungary I passed through Györ, a small but pleasant Hungarian town. On the way out a French voice calls out “Are you trying to find zis Euro Velo route az well?” – it seems I wasn’t the only one struggling with the sporadic Hungarian signage. I agreed and we then spent the next 15 minutes pretending not to follow each other as we tried to find a bike friendly way out of town. Eventually, the French speaker rolls past and, giving the most Gallic of shrugs exclaims “Boff! We will follow ze road!”. Luc was fantastic company to ride with and a handy wind breaker on the front as well, fast for a chap in his 60s and after 30km or so blasting along a quiet road we stopped for a beer and a chat. He was cycling from Vienna to Belgrade, but hails from Namur in the French speaking Wallonia region in Belgium, a nice talking point as I had passed close by there. He was also wild camping, with just a sleeping bag and roll mat – no tent – so we agreed to camp together under starry skies in the woods that evening. I just had time to see him leave the next morning at 7 a.m. and to wish him good luck with his trip.
Having rushed through Vienna, Salzburg and Bratislava I thought it worth to stop and take a rest day in Budapest to see the city properly. Therefore I had arranged a couchsurfing host for two nights, Máté, who also happened to be hosting a friendly Canadian couple – Travis & Drew. First port of call was the Thermal baths, which my legs very much appreciated, then to a local Vietnamese restaurant for noodle soup. The famous “Ruin” bars came next (trying to dodge the English Stag and Hen Dos) which we walked to and from, allowing me to take in the beautiful buildings by night and to chat to my hosts and fellow surfers. The next day I went into full tourist mode, heading up the hill to the Bastion, the Palace, then back down to the Synagogue and the Basillica of Saint Peter.
Roof of Matthias Church
St. Peter’s, Budapest
The latter is fairly modern by European Cathedral standards, having only been completed in the early 20th century. Still, it was pleasant to sit and relax in, as a string orchestra was playing, occasionally accompanied by a choir, providing a lovely audio backdrop to the very golden and ornate interior.
I headed back and had a relaxing evening, cooking some stuffed peppers and mixed salad and then a game of Catan (on Drew & Travis’ iPad) accompanied by wine. Budapest was a beautiful and charming city and one that I can recommend. It’s certainly busy and I wonder how the prevalence of the (especially English) tourists is changing things – certainly my host had some things to say about them. I was glad to have a local host though and it was fascinating to talk to Máté about the changing nature of the city and Hungarian history (it’s gone through some dark times in the last half century but seems to be on the up, certainly it’s thankful to be in the EU).
That’s it for part one, I’ll write up the next part when I get time and a connection again. Don’t forget you can “follow” the blog to get an email every time I post – just click the Follow button on the right hand side (for desktop users) or down the bottom below this post (for mobile).
More pics below:
A nice lunch stop – yes I did swim here
Interior of St. Peter’s in Budapest
Ice cream stop in Slovakia (free scoop for being from London)