15 Jun Trip Diary – Slovakia to Budapest
When I last left you on my way out of Prague, I’d had a pretty rough week. A run of poor sleep and weather that changed daily from constant downpours and low temperatures to sweaty days in the saddle in temperatures above 30 degrees had taken its toll on my morale and energy levels. But, a couple of days rest at a free campsite in the southern Czech Republic along with my first proper shower in almost a week renewed me and I was on my way to the Slovakian border.
Crossing the border
It took me less than an hour from leaving the campsite to cross over into Slovakia, the last 20km being an easy and unremarkable pedal along the 431 highway through the town of Hodonin and over the Morava River which acts as the border between the two countries. Crossing between countries is all the more vivid when there’s a physical barrier between the two, rather than just a signpost. There’s a certain joy that comes with crossing a defining feature like a river, standing on one side and knowing that things are done differently on the other. The landscape may not be all that different but people, languages, mannerisms, and cultures change almost as quickly as it takes to reach the other bank.
Slowing the pace
From north to south, the direction I was heading, Slovakia is pretty small at just over 200km wide. That’s the kind of distance I could do quite comfortably in three days but it seemed a shame, especially as I wasn’t in any rush, to just power through in such a short time so I decided early on that I’d slow my pace and enjoy the country. Despite this, by the end of the first day, I found myself already 70km into the country, pitching my tent just off the road outside Trstin under a small cliff. The roads had been fast and flat that day with little in the way of worthwhile stop-offs.
Over the next five days, I continued my journey south, riding anywhere between 30/50km a day – half my usual distance. Finding camping spots wasn’t too difficult and most evenings I was spoilt for choice. On the third night, I stumbled across a free camping area by the side of a lake just outside Komjatice. I’d spotted the lake on the map and had planned to stay close by but the camping area wasn’t marked. I ended up staying here for two nights, camped on the lake edge watching the fishermen and with just the wildlife for company in the evenings, listening to the carp roll on the surface during the night. Only on one night did I struggle to find somewhere for the tent and ended up pitching up just after dark on the side of a railway embankment. Needless to say, it was a noisy night with trains passing within meters of the tent all night long, with long rows of carriage lights flashing through the tent walls. But, it wasn’t the trains that made that spot bad, it was the thousands and thousands of mosquitos that descended on me before I’d even slowed the bike to a stop, with that immediately recognisable, irritating, buzzing noise filling the air between the trees. If there’s a more annoying noise in this world than that, I’m yet to hear it.
The weather during my time in Slovakia had been great; days always broke with clear skies and by mid-afternoon, the temperature would be comfortably in the thirties. Soon I started to fall into a routine, waking early around 4.30am with the sunrise and riding till around 11am or until the heat made cycling hard work. I’d find a shady spot, sometimes in one of the smaller villages or towns and other times out in the coolness of the forest, have lunch and relax for a few hours before setting off again and stopping for the day where I pleased. I always tried not to rush, stopping off more than I had done so far at any town or village that took my fancy and wandering around. On day four, I found myself on a footpath cycling for hours around a huge lake. At times, it was hard to see the other side. Its banks were littered with people enjoying the weather – most lazed around and, from time to time, would cautiously dip a toe into the water before deciding the murky depths and steep drop-offs weren’t for them, while others took a more energetic approach, running or cycling the many footpaths that circled the lake. It was evening before I left its banks and the light made the lake glisten in the most beautiful way. It wasn’t easy to leave and rejoin the traffic back on the roads.
Sometime early on in the week, I had my first real scare of the trip that didn’t involve strange noises in the night or fast descents. I’d decided that day to put my earphones in and listen to a couple of podcasts whilst I rode along. Normally I don’t like doing this, but the day looked to involve a lot of open, flat farmland without much visual stimulation. A few hours into the ride and the back roads I’d been following most of the day had become busier; instead of the three or four cars I’d been seeing every hour, they now passed by nearly every minute or so. I discovered quite early on in the trip that if you give drivers just enough room to pass, they’re going to take it. If they believe they can squeeze past you and oncoming traffic, they will. This time, a screeching of tyres behind my left shoulder was loud enough to hear over the soothing voice of the Italian presenter in my ears and I instinctively veered sharply for the mass of crumbled tarmac, stones, and dirt at the edges of Romanian roads, clattering over the debris to stop in a cloud of dust. The car had tried to squeeze between me and the oncoming traffic but changed his mind at the last second. I’m not sure how close he got to me but judging by the angry look on his face (yeah, because it was my fault, I suppose!) and the dismayed faces of the drivers behind, it must have been pretty close. I’d read that it’s better to ride out into the road so it’s obvious that passing isn’t an option until there’s a gap in oncoming traffic. So far I’d ignored that, feeling safer tucked in close to the edge, but it’s a tactic I’ve now taken since I arrived in Romania and although I worry I’m holding people up (British roots again), I don’t get passed anywhere near as close.
One of my overriding memories of Slovakia is the blossom. Springtime anywhere in the world is a magical and beautiful time to be out riding a bike but the blossom in the forests and tree-lined streets of Slovakia really is something special. I’d ride all day in the strange juxtaposition of it being scorching hot but appearing to be in a flurry of snow with the blossoms falling so heavily in some parts of Slovakia. Forest floors were covered inch-deep in places and as I whizzed through; it would whip back up again and swirl around the bike. I’d wake from a nap at lunchtime to find myself covered in thousands of little blossom flakes, like someone had sprinkled cotton candy on me whilst I was sleeping. It made everywhere it fell that bit prettier.
On into Hungary
By the evening of May 2nd, I’d made it to the Hungarian border but I wanted one more night amongst the forests of Slovakia. I turned off the main road 5km before the border town of Sturovo and followed the banks of the River Hron, an offshoot of the river Danube, the mighty river that separates Hungary from Slovakia. Within twenty minutes, I’d found a small lake and settled down amongst the tall reeds to make some dinner. I bumped into a fisherman later on who was just packing up for the day. We spoke for a while in a mix of hand gestures and broken English. He asked if I was from London and although I’m not, I felt it was a bit too complicated to explain so I nodded. He looked happily at me and uttered words I really didn’t expect: “Kate Middleton – Superb.” I agreed and he left without another word. From my camp that night, I could see the huge dome of the Esztergom Basilica, the neoclassical church that sits on the hill on the Hungarian side of the Danube. Its beautiful emerald roof bounced the last rays of sunlight and formed my first impression of what waited for me in the morning when I’d cross the river into country number 8.
Over the Danube
I was up at 4am the next morning after having spent the night being constantly visited by a group of inquisitive deer that were intent on sharing the same two-meter square patch of forest my tent was pitched on. Time and time again, the moon would cast her shadows on the fabric of the tent as they tentatively nudged closer and closer until I thought they’d come inside. By 7am, I was crossing the Danube under clear blue skies and on my way down to Hungary’s capital, Budapest. The roads weren’t much better; the broken edges had been replaced by long deep ruts cast into the tarmac from years of hot weather and heavy use. It was like riding lengthways down vast sheets of corrugated iron – steer off to the left or right and you bounced along over a series of little hills that made it difficult to regain the road’s edge. The traffic was heavy as people made their way to work, made worse by the many logging lorries that work the forests in the area, and after an hour of breathing in exhaust fumes and negotiating crazy tarmac formations, I was ready to find a quieter path down into Budapest. Luckily, I spotted a track on the map around the town of Pilisjászfalu but within minutes I wished I was back amongst the traffic. The track I’d spotted had looked like a rather nice 10km or so jaunt through pine forests and indeed started out that way, but very soon the path changed from hard mud to tyre grabbing sand and I spent most of the next hour having to push the bike as riding was impossible.
Eventually, after a few taxing hill climbs, I had Budapest in my sights. By this time, it had been a good six days since I’d been able to have a proper shower and the heat, sweat, and dust of Slovakia combined with a mixture of sun cream and mosquito spray had left a layer of grime over my skin that was now quite clearly visible. I was longing for a decent wash. As I always tend to do when wanting to explore a place like Budapest for a few days, I opted to find a campsite so I could leave the bike in safety and take to my feet. By 6pm that night, I’d found one 5km from the city centre at the reasonable price of 2400HUT a night (about £6) and went to bed feeling the cleanest I had done for some time.
Over the next four days, I paid the €1 bus fare for the round trip into the city. The feeling of being whisked up hills without using so much as an ounce of my own energy made me smile and, at one particular steep section, even laugh aloud at the joy of it all, causing one or two nervous glances in my direction from other passengers. I walked the length and breadth of the city happy to get lost in the maze of streets, unfolding my brightly coloured little tourist map, full of joyful cartoon-like little pictograms denoting museums, boat trips, etc. Whenever I felt the need. I walked along the banks of the Danube that separates the Buda and Pest sides of the city, marvelled at the intricate stonework and towering spires of the Hungarian Parliament Buiding (unmistakably modelled on London’s Westminster) and up into the hills where the Buda Castle stands, providing amazing panoramic views over the city.
Somehow, Budapest is able to achieve something most cities can’t. Just like others, it’s busy with traffic and crowded with people, but it maintains a peace about it that I haven’t experienced before in big cities. It helps that the inner city is pretty much devoid of cars and almost solely designed for pedestrians with few roads. But, wander just a street off any of the main thoroughfares and you’ll find yourself in a world of tree-lined avenues surrounded on either side by unbroken rows of tall apartment buildings, each a mixture of beautiful architecture and each looking fit to be the facade to any museum or government building. But, the best quality of these streets is the almost total lack of noise. The height of the buildings and the sound-dampening quality of the trees means almost utter silence; the only noises that drift along come from doors and shutters closing or hushed conversations at any one of the small cafes that occasionally break up the rows of residential doors. Walking around these streets, I’d pop back out, quite unexpectedly, into crowds of people busy shopping away amongst a jungle of neon signs and be amazed at the change.
Tomorrow I leave the city and carry on my journey south towards Romania. I’m usually not one to stay around in big cities for long. We get on well for a couple of days, but after that, I’m ready to leave the hustle and bustle; the dirt and noise are a bit too much for ears used to the tranquility and calm of the countryside. Yet, and I never thought I’d say this about any city, let alone a capital, Budapest could well just tempt me to give city life another shot.
This diary enter covers dates from 29th May – 6th June, 2017
For more photos from this part of the trip visit the gallery age or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry