Into the East

by Paul
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In one of my first blogs I said I cycled 30km around Broome as part of my training for this ride. That was a lie, or at least an exaggeration. It was actually 20 Kilometres and I spent a week recovering. It’s quite sad, but admitting this now makes it all the more satisfying that I was able to ride 75 Kilometres on Thursday in 3.5 hours. It’s no world record, but it’s better than I expected from myself, and, having recently had a couple of slow days with knee pain, it was timely reminder that I have at least made some progress in the fitness department.

Thursday’s ride was between Vienna and Bratislava, the capitals of Austria and Slovakia respectively. I expected the difference between the two countries to be obvious and dramatic, being the border between East and West Europe, but for half the ride I wasn’t even sure which side of the border I was on. When I finally crossed the bridge into Bratislava I still didn’t encounter anything that screamed out “wrong side of the Iron Curtain”. There were Audi’s and BMW’s everywhere, nice looking restaurants, and people in nice suits. Granted I didn’t see much else in Slovakia, and I’ve since found out that residents of Bratislava earn on average three times more than the rest of the country, but I was surprised at how clean and modern Bratislava was. Having said that, what was obvious after crossing the border was the level of service. Or rather the lack of service. I ordered a round of drinks at a local bar and the barmaid literally dropped the change on to the bar, from a height, while watching TV and raising a cigarette to her mouth with the other hand – yeah they smoke inside in Slovakia too – we actually kept going back for more because the service was so shocking it was entertaining. I was at that bar with Ross and Lia, who’d come to meet me one last time on their drive back to Bulgaria. We started the night by trying some Slivovica, the Slovak national brew, then went out for a traditional dinner, which consisted of garlic soup served in a bread roll. Tasty, although unnecessary in a restaurant that I did notice also had bowls. Plus not recommended if you’re planning on talking to any of the local ladies, apparently.

I mentioned earlier that I was having knee pain. I’ve had this a bit before, but never to the extent that it hit me on the day I left Melk. Because of that I had to stop early and I was a day late arriving in Vienna. I stopped in a town called Tulln, about 35 kilometres short of Vienna. It was a pretty little town with people sitting outside all the restaurants in the main square. I joined them, ordered sausages and sauerkraut and sat there people watching – a pastime that is becoming less and less socially acceptable the more my beard grows. An hour or so after my first dinner I was still hungry, which is becoming a common (and expensive) theme, so I followed the directions on a poster to the ‘best kebab in town’. When I arrived I was greeted by three Pakistani guys who looked confused about the idea of having a customer, a scenario they eventually remembered how to deal with. They were abrupt and almost intimidating at first, but when I mentioned where I was from they said, in unison, “oh, Brendon McCullum!”. They then insisted I sit with them while I ate and we discussed cricket for half an hour; not an experience I expected to have in small town Austria!

When I did arrive in Vienna the next day I soon realised that I’d grossly underestimated it’s size. I arrived on the outskirts of the city and looked around for my hostel, almost expecting to see its name on one of the nearby buildings. When I didn’t see anything I asked a guy if he knew where exactly it was: “yeah, if you cross that bridge it’s about an hour by bike in that direction.” “Uh, excuse me? Did you say an hour..?” He wasn’t far off the mark either, apparently Vienna is the second largest German speaking city in the world (after Berlin). Cheers, Wikipedia – I’ve made a mental note now to google the population of every city before I enter it – Thankfully, however, Vienna also happens to be an incredibly beautiful city. The buildings, the waterways, and the streets were all immaculate and the footpaths were teeming with people enjoying the last of the Autumn sun. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a city that had so many people out and about. It had a great vibe, and if I were to live in Europe somewhere I’d now put Vienna near the top of the list. I checked in to a hostel and spent the whole afternoon walking the streets taking photos that I was unhappy with, then cursing myself for taking crap photos. Later on I went to the hostel bar for a beer and joined a couple of Scottish guys for the pub quiz, which we won (naturally).

Yesterday’s ride took me from Bratislava, across the Hungarian border and on to Gyor. This time I did notice a difference straight away. The towns, and roads, were much more run-down, and everything seemed to be going at a slower pace, except for any person behind the wheel of a car that is, an observation which prompted me to finally buy a helmet. But the cycle paths themselves for these few days in Eastern Europe have been the flattest, most accurately signposted and easily navigable of the whole trip so far. At least thats the sentence I’d planned to write before today, when I cycled through villages with roads inspired by the surface of the moon, then missed my turn-off and headed 6 kilometres in the wrong direction. But the end result was an amazing beef stew, and an encounter with couple of guys who were also a bit lost. A few hours later, after being ditched by my new friends (I had to stop for a snack), I ran in to an old Hungarian guy who was cycling across the country to find his high school sweetheart. That’s probably not true, but I couldn’t say for sure; I cycled with him for the last two hours of the day and, while we spent the whole time talking, neither of us could understand a word. However, through the grunts and the pointing he convinced me that he knew where we needed to go, so I settled in and followed him. The fact that I now find myself in Tata, 40 kilometres away from the town I was supposed to be in tonight (Esztergom), and facing the prospect of backtracking and adding 40 kilometres to tomorrow’s journey, or cycling over a mountain range to get to Budapest tomorrow would suggest otherwise.

Cover Image is a little lake i spotted just on the outskirts of Gyor.

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