Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Signing off: December 17th, 2012

We left Budapest at about 4:30 p.m., drove out along the M1 and crossed the border into Austria at about 7 that evening. I suppose that is the point at which our Hungarian adventure officially came to an end. Three years on.

I started this blog back in January 2010, when, arriving in a frozen, grey city I struggled to make some sense of the world I found myself in. I thought the blog would be a good way to capture my first impressions of Budapest, to keep in touch with friends and family and to fill the lonely hours in my garret before I found any sort of social life. And so it proved.

But as time went by the unfamiliar became familiar, the incomprehensible obvious and the challenges routine. Then Helen arrived, followed by Open University courses and suddenly I had little time to write and the creativity of mystery faded away. From time to time new things happened and I managed to put some words together, but the output has been slow and difficult for a long time, and only the challenge of the bike ride from Sheffield to Budapest has led to any content in many months. I take my kalap off to people who can keep a blog going month after month, year after year.

But the blog has brought rewards. In its early months it led Marta, a Hungarian √©migr√© in Sheffield, to contact me, asking for advice about returning to Hungary. I offered what opinions I had, and in due course she returned to Budapest and we became good friends. We would meet regularly in Budapest and chat, and Helen and I enjoyed her hospitality at Lake Balaton many times. Another time I had a call from the BBC, who asked me if I was interested in doing a piece on living in Budapest for “From our own correspondent”. My five minutes of international fame.

So as Budapest recedes behind me along a wet and snowy autobahn what am I bringing with me?

Memories of friends made, fun enjoyed with them and the spark of small encounters. I was lucky to have some good colleagues in my office, with whom I shared many laughs and beery conversations, Friday evenings at the Pozsonyi Sorozo, dancing and downing Jagermeisters as the sun rose over an open air bar somewhere in the city. Anna, who gave me my standard “harom millimetre” haircut once a month for three years, and with whom I measured my slowly developing competence in Hungarian. Daily encounters with unknown Hungarians, whom I at first found cool and unfriendly, but whom in recent times I found to be friendly and cheerful if I was the same. Perhaps at first my nervousness was obvious and made them behave likewise; after a few years everything seemed like home, I had a smattering of Hungarian and the mutual wariness disappeared.

The beautiful city, its Art Nouveau treasures stretching along the Danube as it curves between Buda and Pest. I particularly appreciated its honesty in growing old, the buildings in varying states of repair, the occasional signs of damage from the war and the 1956 revolution. This beauty came home to me when I visited Vienna, with its all-too-perfect structures and frontages giving it a cold, do not touch feel: Budapest, on the other hand, says come and play with me, enjoy me.

The Danube. I always lived close to the river, cycled along its banks to work and in the final year lived in an apartment overlooking it, from where I could watch its level rising and falling, the pleasure boats weaving in and out as they showed tourists the riverfront buildings, the barges carrying their wares up to Germany and Austria or down to the Black Sea. And in my last months I felt a special affinity with the Danube after cycling many hundreds of miles down the river from Kelheim in Gemany. The river and the light it reflects gives the city a special character: I would sometimes rise early and take photographs of the morning sun casting a red glow over Buda and the reflections it cast in the still waters. By night the light shining off the river turned the illuminated bridges and buildings into a Disney-like fantasy land.

But now new adventures beckon. At the moment I don’t know what they will be, but I know that from time to time I shall think back to Budapest, its people, its buildings, its river, and smile fondly.

Bryan, the Budapest Blogger blogs his last, 19th December, 2012

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Day 15 - And he's climbing the stairway to heaven ...

Nesmely - Budapest (using
 A peaceful night and good sleep. I woke up at about seven o'clock and could sense that the sky was grey.

I had a morning wash and as I walked back to the tent a light drizzle started. Thinking that I could dry everything out when I got home in the evening I packed up the tent, loaded the bicycle and set off. It was all very quiet.

For some reason my bottom felt very tender this morning: for the last week it had felt tough and resilient but now perhaps my adrenaline was running out and it felt uncomfortable on the saddle.

The rain grew heavier. It felt good to be heading home on the last leg but it was slightly dispiriting to be doing it in such poor weather. However, I appreciated the irony and the symmetry: I had left Sheffield on a cold, damp, grey day and was now completing my journey in the same conditions.

The end in sight
It was a Saturday, and Hungary was preparing itself for a summer weekend. At one place along the riverside four young women huddled together underneath an umbrella at the entrance to a site where they were obviously planning to have some sort of fun and games. A few yards away a DJ tried to raise damp spirits with some music, but it was hard going. At another place people were having a community clear up, gathering rubbish from the river banks. There was obviously a plan to have a bit of a party at the end of the day, as benches had been laid out and a goulash plot was hanging over what might become a fire later in the day.

The quality of the cycling was inconsistent. In places I cycled along the road and in others tried to follow a cycle path. This was compulsory through one village even though the cycle path was almost completely unusable due to potholes, bumps and kerbs.

I stopped to do some shopping in the Spar in Nyirgesujfalu, and after that decided that Hungarian supermarket checkout staff had won the European prize for friendliness. Having shopped in small supermarkets in Germany, Austria and Slovakia, the staff in Hungary were the only ones who consistently said hello, thank you and goodbye. This felt rather pleasing, given the general perception of Hungarian customer service.

The basilica at Esztergom appears through the rain
I carried on to Esztergom, and by this time the rain was easing off. I had plans to meet my friend Bernadett in Szentendre at four o'clock, and had plenty of time so decided to spend a half hour of sitting in a very pleasant cafe on the main street, drinking coffee and eating pogacsas: I kept remembering the nice things about Hungary, such as these cheesy scones.

The rain was easing off and I decided to take the bike path along the river. There were more citizen groups clearing up along this stretch of river. As I was speeding happily along this stretch of the river bank, bang, my front tyre went flat. This was becoming tiresome. When loaded up with panniers punctures are quite time-consuming, as you have to remove everything, unscrew pannier racks and so on. I found a tiny fragment of glass in the tyre, and when one of the citizen group officials came by in his car I explained what had happened and that it was a result of broken glass. He told me that they were all working to clean up the river bank, and we smiled together at the irony of the situation. "Jo munka!", good work, I said to him as he drove off.

The rain started again in a desultory manner as I cycled on into the deepening Danube Bend. This part of the river looks like the stretches in Austria where wooded hillsides drops straight into the river, and it is a very beautiful stretch. It felt good to be able to cycle along in a more relaxed fashion and not to have to rush, so I stopped off at a restaurant in Visegrad that I had used before, for onion soup. "Love will tear us apart" came up on the music system, and I smiled.

As I turned the corner of the Bend and headed south towards Szentendre it dried out, and the sun almost managed to break through the clouds. Strawberry sellers were out everywhere, and I wished that I could buy several boxes to take home and stuff myself . I reached Szentendre at just before four o'clock, called Bernadett and soon we were sitting having a drink together. Laci arrived and we enjoyed some Greek food while I told them about what I had been doing, my ride and the inevitable work things.

Just after five, I left them and set off on the very last leg. The stretch of cycle path between Szentendre and Budakalasz had to be endured, but then I turned towards the river and followed the paths and roads down towards Romaifurdo. It felt like coming home. I recalled the last miles of my ride from Land's End to John O'Groats, when I floated along the north Scottish coast feeling invincible and able to cycle forever. This felt much the same.
The Varhegy appears
 Shortly after passing under the Arpad Hid the path took a slight turn to the left and the Varhegy and Parliament came into sight. It reminded me that a first sight of Budapest looks like some kind of Disneyland confection; the beautiful buildings, sparkling light, spires and turrets give it a completely magical quality. And I realised that after a day of cycling under damp, grey skies the clouds were clearing and the sun was coming out.

I flew around the cycle path system at the end of Margit Hid, pedalled across the bridge and accosted some poor tourist, asking him to take my photograph with the Parliament building in the background. Then on across the bridge, around to the left, across the road and down to my front door.

Door to door
14 days and nine hours previously I had left my front door in Sheffield. I had cycled 1,182 miles across Europe and was home again.

It felt good.

Day 14 - Back into Hungary

Bratislava - Neszmely (using
 My sleep was filled with an endless montage of places that I had seen over the last two weeks, and I realised that everything was running into a blur. I was grateful for having kept a diary every hour or so along the way, and decided that I would need to get this typed up into a more meaningful format as soon as possible after getting back to Budapest.

It was raining when I woke up. I left the hotel by 7:30 and tried to follow a route out of the city that I had planned from my street map. Of course, things went wrong at the first junction, but I followed the direction of the sun and what the compass in my GPS told me and threaded my way out through the pot-holed, somewhat chaotic outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, I was relieved when I saw a sign indicating a cycle path towards the town of Samorin. That was pretty well the only sign that I did see. The roads seemed to be completely devoid of any signs pointing to other towns and cities or indicating road numbers, and I was some miles out of Bratislava before I discovered that I was indeed on the correct Route 63.

Cycling was tricky. The roads were not in good condition and the traffic was heavy from time to time, with the usual heavy vehicles thundering by at speed. Curiously in places there was a de facto cycle lane, where the tarmac had slumped in the centre of the carriageway due to heavy wear and at the side of the road was higher, making it slightly better for cycling.

After some miles the traffic eased off and by the time I reached Samorin the road was actually reasonably quiet. I stopped in yet another Lidl to buy supplies.

I could also see that I was getting into a Hungarian-speaking part of the country. Some places were labelled in Hungarian, and towns increasingly gave both the Slovakian and Hungarian names as I cycled into them. After the small town of Bac I turned off on a side road that ran parallel to the river down towards the town of Gabcikovo.
River in background
I had always been curious to see this part of Slovakia because it forms part of the scheme and that was proposed in the 1980s for creating a massive dam and hydroelectric scheme in the Danube Bend. The Austrian government had offered to fund the construction of the scheme in return for the electricity. Czechoslovakia would build a dam at Gabcikovo and Hungary a second dam at Nagymaros. This would have flooded the entire rally from Videgrad up to past Esztergom, an area of particular natural beauty and of spiritual importance to Hungarians.

However, a small group of environmental activists in Hungary started protesting against the scheme, attracted international interest and eventually the Hungarian government abandoned the plan although the Czechoslovakian government continued even though the absence of the dam lower down the river made the whole scheme much less feasible. In the bigger scheme of things, the sense that citizens could challenge the government had a powerful impact in Hungary and was one of the factors that led to the transition of 1989.

So along the side of this road ran a massive embankment, behind which ran the arrow straight canal that rejoined the main river just south of Gabcikovo. The massive floodplain here contained huge fields of wheat, barley and corn, fields much bigger than any I had seen elsewhere.

The village of Gabcikovo turned out to be a somewhat unsettling place. As I entered it I became aware of someone singing a romantic ballad. This faded away and then picked up again, and I realised that it was being played out of large loudspeakers fixed to telephone poles all the way through the town. When the ballad finished a woman's voice started making what sounded like announcements and this continued until I went out on the other side of the village. I had no idea what she was talking about but it all felt rather uncomfortable and 1984-ish.
I eventually came to the bridge over the Danube into Hungary at about 11:30. It was not the easiest of experiences. The road and bridge are narrow and there was a pretty regular procession of heavy vehicles thundering at speed in both directions. I made my way across on a narrow pedestrian path and posed in front of the Hungarian borders sign.

Then, all of a sudden, it started to absolutely pour down with rain. Fortunately I was right across the road from the decaying remains of the old Hungarian border post so I sheltered in the ruins. It felt rather strange: I wondered what stories the walls might tell.

I waited for the rain to stop and set off along Route 14 into Gyor. After a few miles I came across the old Hungarian cycling conundrum: no cycling allowed along this road, but with no alternative provision, in this part of the world not even an alternative dogleg route through villages. So I just ignored the signs and cycled on as best I could, hoping that these thundering articulated lorries would give me enough space to ensure my survival.

My plan was to go into the city centre of Gyor, which is apparently very attractive, but as I arrived the confusing road system and general noise of the place disoriented me and I ended up following the Eurovelo 6 sign around the west of the city centre. 'Sign' being operative, as the next sign that I saw was about 15 miles further along. The path that was signed had neatly cut trenches across its width every 3 or 4 m which made it completely unusable, so I pushed on along bumpy roads and pavements until I found my way to a small grassy area next to a large roundabout with road signs that I thought might help. They did not. Also, the wind started to become very strong and gusty, the skies darkened and the road noise increased for some reason. I was so hungry that I had to eat, and then consulted my mobile phone sat-nav system to help me get out of this crazy place.

Fortunately, I was heading in the right direction and soon found a much quieter roads take me in the direction of Babolna. The scenery along the road was almost English: small fields, gently rolling countryside, cool temperatures, grey skies and threatening rain. The road passed through several villages that looked as if time was passing them by. People stopped to look at me on my bicycle as if I was some alien and I did not see any other cyclists of any description for many miles.

Rural Hungary
 Babolna was very different. The town centre looked as if it had had some investment, a large sign advertised WiFi hotspots, there were well laid-out cycle paths, a smart new housing estate with a recycling centre. I stopped to eat a banana and someone pulled up in a car to ask me if I needed any help. I thanked him profusely in a mixture of English and Hungarian and it made me feel more positive.

The road then took me to Acsa and I now found another Eurovelo 6 sign which pointed me down the main street of the village and took me out into a muddy track that ran through fields and woods until it started to run alongside the railway line and Route 1. As I was bouncing along the track my rear tyre gave an enormous bang and it flattened almost immediately. After 12 days with one puncture I was now having one a day. Philosophically I stopped and repaired it, making a mental note to buy three new inner tubes when I got back to Budapest.

Through Komarom and I followed the somewhat bumpy cycle track along the side of the road until Route 10 turned off towards Neszmely. I had now done over 80 miles and was feeling tired but knew there were campsites ahead. As I entered Neszmely I saw a sign for the Royal Yacht Club camping site to the left, but this turned out to be non-existent. A few miles further down the road was the Duna Sorozo Camping, which turned out to be the back garden of a small bar. I was the only camper that night, but it was less than five euros and was a pleasant enough spot. I pitched my tent, had a shower and went into the bar for my evening reward beer. The only people there were the young woman who ran the bar and boyfriend(?). We chatted in a mixture of Hungarian and English and I explained where I had come from and where I was going, and then sat down to enjoy my beer and sort out my GPS information for the day. Looking up I saw that I was sitting underneath a poster for Jobbik, and I remembered that I was out in the countryside and that support for such political groups was strongest here. I felt that advertising that I was doing a sponsored bicycle ride for Syrian refugees might not fall on receptive ears.

I drank up and walked up to the pizzeria on the main road, ordered a beer and a margherita pizza and sat down to take advantage of the WiFi. Various locals came in and out to pick up takeaway pizzas and a group of local youths sat at a table sharing some pizzas. From the way that everyone looked at me as they came in and out it was clear that visitors were rare. However, everyone was friendly enough, and after eating I wandered back to the campsite in the gathering darkness.

I had now done 1,115 miles and tomorrow would be my last day. I felt excited at the prospect.

Day 13 - Challenging preconceptions

Vienna - Bratislava (using
 Perhaps not surprisingly, I did not sleep well. There were noises outside from the roads and the trains and noises in my head about getting back to work, completing my Open University assignment and other reality stuff.

So I felt rather dozy when I climbed out of my tent and started to pack my bags. Doziness turned to irritation when I discovered a flat front tyre. With all the noise around me it proved impossible to find a puncture, so I put in the tube that I had taken out way back in Eindhoven.

I set off at about 9:30. At least I was on the right side of Vienna, and soon found my way out along the Radweg. The path was surrounded by big trees, lagoons with a cacophony of frogs and the very occasional bicycle. Near the village of Schonau I found a little cafe and sat there for coffee and toast. As often happened at these places, I cycled for miles without seeing another cyclist but as soon as I stopped at a cafe dozens appeared.

Revived by my breakfast, I set off along the empty Radweg embankment. After a while I fell in with three French cyclists, who had cycled from Lyon, through Basle and Donauschingen and were heading for Budapest. We chatted for a while in French which was very satisfying. We both commented on the German fashion for butterfly handlebars and an upright riding position as opposed to our more classic drop handlebar, touring bike style.

Eventually I drifted behind them as I stopped to make some adjustments to the bike but caught up again with them in Hainburg, the last town of any size in Austria. I did some shopping in the local Lidl, and as I crested the hill outside of the town caught my first glimpse of the tower blocks of Bratislava in the distance.

It actually says "Budapest"!
Vienna to Budapest was about 200 miles, which I felt was too much to do in two days, so I had decided to have a short day and get to Bratislava, a mere 40 miles. The sophistication of the Austrian Donau Radweg ends at the border, but the path has been improved considerably on the Slovakian side and it was an easy ride into the city. I had always had a bad impression of Bratislava, probably because Hungarians regard Slovakia with some distaste, and Bratislava itself has a reputation of being an unattractive, somewhat decrepit city. I felt I should visit just to clear my mind of my own preconceptions.
Another border crossed
It was clear on arriving that Slovakia is considerably less wealthy than Austria. Graffiti, potholes, the way people dress, all of those things reminded me of Hungary and eastern Europe as opposed to the wealthier west. I made my way to the city tourist office and a helpful lady there set me up with a cheap room in the City Hostel. I pushed my bike through the pleasant city centre streets feeling exhausted, perhaps because of the 28° temperature, perhaps because I was letting my adrenaline levels fall.

I unpacked my bicycle and settled myself into the room and then went out for a wander. Bratislava is not a large city and has the feel of a big town. It felt relaxed, slow, quiet. The city centre, the touristy area, has obviously had a good makeover in recent years and it felt a very nice place to walk around.

Hvidezdoslavova Square, Bratislava
 I made my way to Hvidezdoslavova Square, in front of the national theatre and found a cafe to sit in front of.
Very nice way to spend a few hours
 I ordered a Krusovice beer, wrote my diary, studied my maps and watched people walk up and down. I repeated this with another beer and then some food and then a smaller beer. I realised that for 12 consecutive days I had not stopped at all. I had been continually on the move looking at the world race past me at 12 to 15 mph. This afternoon, for the first time in days I was able to stop and stare. And it felt great.

By 6:30 I knew that I had had enough to eat and drink and decided to walk back through the pleasant evening sunshine to my hotel, where I promptly fell fast asleep until 10 o'clock.

I managed to make a couple of telephone calls and repair the punctured inner tube and then drifted off to sleep.

I was really glad to have visited Bratislava as I enjoyed my few hours there. The people I met were friendly and helpful, the city was calm and relaxing and I felt I could leave with my negative preconceptions expunged.

Day 12 - Oh! Vienna!

Melk - Vienna (using
 Another night of very good sleep but weird and vivid dreams. It wass getting harder to get out of bed in the morning: I guessed this was the cumulative effect of day after day of hard cycling, but the end was not too far away now.

I realised that I was getting more and more aware of how my body was functioning: it is, after all, my engine. Today I was suffering with a very sensitive tooth, lips that were sore from days of sun and wind, eyes that were swollen from the effects of hay fever and miscellaneous aches and tensions within my knees. Apart from that, I was feeling great.

I was the first person down to breakfast and sat at a table with the owner. He spoke good English, and explained that he had worked in an international company most of his life as a buyer, travelling several times to London on business. He suggested that I take a walk up the hill to the Benedictine monastery before starting my ride, and I decided that that would be good advice. It was, indeed.Melk was a very pleasant little town and a street market was just setting up as I walked up and down the main street. The monastery clearly brings in a good tourist trade as there were plenty of restaurants and cafes around.

Monastery at Melk
After this unexpected tourist detour I loaded up my bicycle and prepared to set off. The owner came out to wish me well, saying, "Take care. Especially in Hungary." Again, those people over the border need watching.

The Czech riders were also packing up to leave. As I manoeuvred my heavy bike around in the courtyard I looked up and noticed one of the young women, slim and blonde in her cycling gear, standing framed in the archway elegantly smoking a cigarette. For some reason it just looked very striking as an image.

Plenty of Radweggers on this bridge
I took a bridge over to the left hand side of the river now. The hillsides were again closing into the river but not so closely this time. Next to the river to the right of the Radweg was flatter land, and on this grew apple and pear trees for cider making. On the left side and the steeper slopes were vineyards, this being Austria's premier winegrowing area. All along this stretch of the Radweg I could see signs suggesting that I call in to try out the local wine, cider or schnapps. But dedicated to my task, I pressed on (making a mental note to return to this area on a more sensible cycle tour with Helen).

This is a very popular area for cycle touring, and groups of cyclists started to become more of a problem. As a group they would cycle along side-by-side, chatting, enjoying themselves and oblivious to the world around them. I found it difficult to know exactly how to let them know I was coming: if you called out a warning too early they would not hear you but if you left it too late they might jump like frightened rabbits and lurch unpredictably to one side or the other. This was more of a problem with groups containing people who were obviously not regular cyclists.

As I cycled on my mind became focused on health issues. The health of the bike: the sounds that it was making, the vibrations, the speed at which it wobbled, the noise of the chain, the slipping of the gears and so on. Then there was my health: my teeth, my eyes, my knees, my lips. My hay fever was at its worst today with the warm sunshine and my nose was constantly running which made it hard to forget about health issues, I guessed.

Orchards and vinewards
Along this stretch of the river the Radweg follows the line of the old road, while cars race along a new riverside road. This means that you cycle through some beautiful old villages.

Several of them still had their maypoles standing, tall constructions with red and white ribbons hanging from them. In one village the road turned down a very narrow old street and there stood a small boy, looking up at the swallows darting in and out of the nests that they had built in the eaves, their chirping echoing in the narrow street.
River at St Michel
After the town of Krems the hills again pull away from the river and it flows through a very wide floodplain. Indeed, the main road to the north of the river keeps a respectful 4 or 5 km distance away. I cycled along the south bank, flat and straight, the sort of cycling where your mind wanders. I started to think about how I would look back on the journey. Would I have thought it worthwhile? They say that only experiences buy happiness; if so this amazing experience should give me some degree of satisfaction.

Lunch spot in Krems
In this contemplative state I decided to stop on one long, long straight stretch where the river was several hundred metres wide to sit and eat my lunch. As I did so, I was aware that the air was taking on that excited quality again. Days and days of being out in the open had made me very sensitive to changes in temperature, light and air pressure and I had the distinct feeling that something was about to happen. Minutes after packing up my lunch and setting off a gentle rain started to fall, thunder started to rumble in the distance and the rain grew heavier. I carried on for a while but when I came to a cafe and it was raining pretty heavily I decided it would be sensible to stop. Surreally the cafe was right next door to a disused nuclear power station, and several of the people sitting eating lunch were Americans, working on the site, discussing radiation hazards with some interested visitor.

I stayed there for a half-hour, but was getting restless and as the rain eased off decided to push on. I cycled onwards for about half an hour and then the rain stopped and the sun came out. Steam started to rise from the Radweg as the sun made the water evaporate.
The Austrians are such wags!
The Radweg continued for some distance along an embankment, and I noticed that the houses on the right-hand side were all lower than the river. It made me realise that even though the river was a living entity it is, for many miles of its existence, engineered and shaped by humanity. The embankments were thick and high, but I personally would not feel happy living below the river level.

My target for the night was Vienna. I stopped at the information office in Klosterneuberg, and they showed me where the best campsite would be for me to stay that night. To get there, I had to cycle into the north side of Vienna, cross the river and then cycle down the Radweg some distance to the far side of the city. They gave me a good map, but when I got to Vienna I found the network of roads, railways, cycle paths and waterways completely confusing and the signposting was inadequate. I kept cycling under the magnificent new dedicated cycle bridge across the river, but could not find my way onto the thing. So I cycled around in circles for some time until I managed to stop a local cyclist and find out how to get onto the bridge.

Once over the bridge I entered a series of riverside parks, which had three or four different paths running parallel to the river, and it was a complete nightmare trying to work out which path to follow. Again I became conscious of the weather, and the sky kept darkening as I switched from path to path trying to keep heading south-east.

At last I found the campsite. It was just after six o'clock, and I was feeling somewhat stressed as a result of the last 10 miles. I checked in, and then discovered that the campsite had no restaurant and that it was surrounded by motorways and railway lines. My tent was pitched on a threadbare bumpy site where it was almost hard to carry on a conversation because of the traffic noise.

The thought of venturing out to find somewhere to eat was too much, but when I looked through my food stocks I discovered half a pot of hummus, two Babyel cheeses from yesterday, 250 g of muesli, a bar of plain chocolate and half a hip flask of Laphroaig. That would have to do. So after putting up my tent I sat down against a tree and munched my way through my evening feast.

Next to me were two tents, occupied by young men whom I took to be eastern Europeans. Their tents looked as if they were well-established, and they arrived in white vans advertising plastering and decorating services. They looked as if they worked in Vienna and lived here on the campsite, perhaps for several weeks at a time, I guess, in between trips home. My gastronomic inconvenience seemed to become less important.

As the sun set over the motorway, I crawled into my tent and tried to get to sleep.

Day 11 - Beauty and a reminder of darkness

Inzell - Melk (using bikeroutetoaster)
I woke early, at 5:30, probably disturbed by the sounds of the first barges going up the river. I peered out of the tent to find that there was a thick mist hanging over the tops of the hillsides and everything was damp.

But it was still and utterly beautiful, and I packed up my belongings and wet tent quietly , desperate not to disturb the peace. I set off down the river just after seven o'clock.
South of Inzell
It was so peaceful and beautiful cycling along the river, just me, some ducks, swans and the occasional polecat wandering across the road, oblivious to the silence of a bicycle. At one point a barge appeared around the corner and came up passing me, its low throbbing engine emphasising the silence elsewhere.

For miles I cycled on without seeing another soul, and then in the distance saw something that I could not initially figure out. As I drew closer I could see that it was a reclining tricycle with a cover over the rider, and trotting alongside this unusual vehicle was an alsatian dog. It was travelling somewhat more slowly than I was so I drew closer and closer, but as I pulled out to overtake it the dog suddenly crossed the road to the left, the tricycle stopped and the rider, a very portly long-haired middle-aged gentleman leapt out right in front of me. I guess he must have been more surprised than me, not expecting there to be another soul in the world but instead finding a heavily laden bicycle bearing down on top of him. I jammed on my brakes and pulled to a halt. He and the dog ran across the road and down to the river without a word of explanation. I carried on my way, somewhat mystified.

Eventually the hills pulled away from the river at Aschach, where I was able to find a Spar supermarket and buy a big bag of food for breakfast, which I ate sitting on a bench by the river.

With the hills behind me, the skies cleared and the sun came out again. For the next few hours the river flowed through fairly wide open countryside and the Radweg followed an embankment. It was all still very quiet, with very few people out. Even the river seemed to sense this quietude and flowed very gently along.

Eventually the path took me into Linz. This is Austria's industrial capital and is apparently a fine city to visit, but the Radweg follows a very clear straight line along the north side of the river and so there was no reason to detour into the city to explore, get lost and lose time. Instead I carried on along the embankment on the opposite side of the river to the city's enormous chemical factories.

Some miles downstream of Linz lies the town of Mauthausen.. It has a fine riverfront and beautiful buildings but has a dark history. A few miles out into the woods behind the town was one of the Nazi concentration camps, where apparently 140,000 people were worked to death in a granite quarry during World War 2. You can still visit the camp, but I merely sat on the riverfront next to an enormous block of granite against which an old rusting bicycle was fixed, a simple commemoration of one of the grimmest parts of human history.
Mauthausen riverfront
I stayed on the north bank of the river and pushed on at a good speed. The river is wide and slow at this point, and I settled into a good rhythm. The weight of the bicycle makes it slow to get going but once travelling at 14 or 15 mph it moves very easily. I thought that this was a definite advantage of the road wheels and tyres, as I found that I regularly sped past people using heavier bicycles and wider tyres.

My target for the day was the town of Grain, but I reached this by around 3 o'clock, so decided to carry on. I crossed the river bridge and continued along the south bank as the path here follows an almost unused road, whereas on the north bank the cycle path lies to the side of a busy main road. The cycling was good and I decided to make the most of the flat terrain and my energy, so stopped at the Ybbs information office. Within Austria there are regular information offices all along the Radweg, and these provide all sorts of information about local facilities and accommodation, and will also book places as necessary, which is really helpful. The woman working there fixed me up with a private room in Melk, some 20 km further down the track. As we were organising this a young British couple came in and we had a conversation about where we were going. They had been travelling through Europe on their bicycles since the beginning of May and were doing it at an altogether more sensible pace than me. They also had more time, and were planning to travel on to Bulgaria or Serbia, but were concerned about how secure these places were. I had no useful information to offer, other than pointing out that wherever you go people say the next country is very dangerous.

I carried on, with my cycle computer showing that I was heading towards another 100+ mile day. I reached Melk at about six o'clock, and cycled along the waterfront just as a stream of people walked back from the town towards one of the enormous floating hotels that travel up and down the river. I was interested to listen to them, and noticed the mixture of principally American and Australian voices. They had stopped at Melk because it has one of the most significant and largest Benedictine monasteries in Austria, sitting on top of the hillside overlooking the town. Again, I had no idea about this.

However, I discovered that the room that I had booked the day immediately underneath the monastery. My private room turned out to be more of a suite, albeit very simple and functional. It was also empty, but moments after I had dumped my stuff and had my moment of peace the place filled up with a dozen other cyclists, most of them Czech.

I unpacked my tent to take advantage of my enormous space and dry it out, and then walked the dozen yards into the main square and found a very pleasant restaurant offering vegetarian options of asparagus tart and other delights. I washed it down with a couple of glasses of 'most', the local cider, and then walked on home.

I had now cycled 908 miles and was three-quarters of the way to Budapest.

Day 10 - Listening to the rhythm of the falling rain

Straubing - Inzell (from
 I had a moderately good night's sleep, and woke up at about 730 when I heard the other campers moving around. I started packing my bags and folding up the tent and then realised I had a problem.

A few weeks before starting the journey I had bought a motion sensor security alarm. This was to replace one that I had used without problem for many years that had suddenly expired, and I thought that it would be a good idea when staying in campsites where I could not attach my bicycle to some fixed object. The device worked by looping a steel cable through the bicycle frame, locking it in place, setting a combination and pressing a button that activated a motion sensor. When this was done, any time the bicycle was moved it would set off a loud cheeping noise, and if the movement continued a siren would sound. I had used it a number of times before the journey and it worked perfectly.

This morning the combination did not work, and every time I tried to change it and open it the thing chirped at me. I wondered what to do.

Eventually I realised that the only thing I could do was to carry the bike, alarm chirping away irritatingly, over to the reception and ask the campsite manager for help. Fortunately, the device had malfunctioned to the extent that the siren did not sound as I walked as gently as I could across the campsite, desperate to avoid waking up the mobile home campers. Fortunately, the campsite manager knew just what to do. He snipped the cable with some wire cutters and used his penknife to prise open the battery cover and lever out the batteries, silencing the siren that had now started to go off.

He gave me a look that suggested weary exasperation and went back to his computer. I threw the now useless device into a bin. Less weight to carry at least. I wondered if this was a sign that this would be one of those days?

The excitement had made me hungry, and as yesterday had been Sunday and the shops had been closed I had not been able to buy any food. I set out away from the Radweg to follow roads into the nearby villages to do some shopping. From a distance I saw the magical sign of a Lidl, but arrived to find it closed. It was, unknown to me, a public holiday.

So, somewhat despondent, I set off and eventually found a petrol station where I could buy a coffee and some croissants, which I munched disconsolately sitting by the side of the road.

Bike takes a rest
On I went and rejoined the Radweg. The land around here was very flat, and the Danube floodplain was very wide so for much of the morning I cycled through fields of young corn. With the wind behind me I was able to keep up a speed of over 17 mph for some time. The flatness of the river meant that it meandered backwards and forwards, so I checked the map and took a more direct route through villages some distance from the river.

Then the hills converged towards the river again as I approached Passau. The Radweg crosses the Danube here at a massive hydroelectric power station on the river and then drops down into the old town itself. Passau marks the confluence of the Danube with the River Inn and the cycle path crosses this river to resume on the South bank of the Danube.
River Inn at Passau
 I paused on the bridge to look at the jade-green colour of the Inn, fresh from its speedy descent from the Alps, and very different from the muddy Danube that it was about to join.

On the bridge I noticed that the westerly wind was now distinctly cooler and the clouds were thickening, and this continued as I crossed the border into Austria and followed the path along the busy Route 130 towards Linz.
Hello Austria - better stick to the 100kph limit
 The air became excited, the wind gusted, the skies darkened and the rain started. This was really the first rain I had had since Day 2, and felt somewhat surprised by it. The effect of the dramatic weather was to heighten the intensity of the river's appearance at this point. For some distance now the river would wind between steep-sided wooded hills and the scenery became increasingly dramatic.

When the rain started falling more heavily I decided to call in at a cafe and have a cup of coffee and consult the guidebook. The Radweg in Austria is of a generally much higher quality than in Germany, and is paved everywhere, usually on both sides. This means that there is a choice of side to follow, and despite reading and rereading the guidebook I would usually find that I was on the wrong side of the river over the next few days. Anyway, my first mistake was to cross the river at the Niederanna bridge and follow the left bank down. This would not have been such a problem but it was getting late in the afternoon and I wanted to find a campsite, and realised that the campsites were all on the right bank. Hah.

But this left bank the road was empty apart from one or two other cycle tourists, and it was really beautiful despite the increasingly threatening sky. Some miles south of the bridge the river performs a U-turn and doubles back on itself between the hillsides and at this turning point there are several bicycle ferries. These are cheerful little boats that fly backwards and forwards just carrying cycle tourists for 2 euros. I found the map explaining the different ferries somewhat confusing, and fell into conversation with an Austrian father and his two sons. Why we were trying to puzzle it out another group of cyclists appeared, and we all decided to get the same ferry across to the village of Schongen. They were curious to know where I was coming from and going to, and were astonished when I explained that I had cycled from Britain and was on my way to Budapest, a distance of 1800 km. The father translated my story into German for his sons and their jaws literally dropped at the thought that someone would contemplate doing this.

The bike ferry to Schongen
They were staying at Schongen, but I decided to carry on for a little further to a place on the map called Inzell, a few kilometres further on. As I cycled along the rain started to pour down and I tried to shelter a little under the trees. It eased off a little and I pushed onto the village where I found two gasthofs and a simple camping site.

Feeling damp and dispirited I decided to get a room, but inside the gasthof everyone was too busy to deal with me so I wandered back outside to find that suddenly the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. The place changed completely, and I headed for the campsite, a simple flat area right next to the river. I pitched my tent and as it was getting late decided to go up to the restaurant and eat straightaway.

It was a simple place but the food was good and after a couple of beers I felt happy with the world again. I managed a shower before sliding into my tent, and listened to the barges and floating hotels throbbing up and down the river before I drifted off into my own world of sleep.