Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Slovakia  ,
Sunday, October 8, 2006

I left my hostel in Bratislava reasonably early, but was twice delayed leaving the city. The first delay was the discovery that the Cross-Tatra Classic Car Rally was beginning in the city centre that morning. If, like me, you've never heard of this event, it is (shockingly) a classic car rally across the Tatra mountain range in Slovakia. Most of the competitors seemed to be English or American and some of the cars were interesting even to me (i'm not a car freak). I wandered among the cars waiting to start (the event is apparantly too small to warrant any kind of security) for about twenty minutes, before setting off again. Within two minutes I was hailed by another cycle-tourist (this happens sometimes) who wanted to swap stories and statistics. He, it transpired, had done 10,000km in five months on a European circuit, his bike only cost him 300Euros and he slept in woods. I congratulated him, wished him well, and was on my way at last.

In general my plan for the day was simple, follow the Danube in a Budapestwardly direction until I'd had enough. Most of the route simply involved following the bike lane on top of the levees that defend against the rivers wilder moodswings. However, between me and this scenic, easily navigable pathway lay a labyrinth of Bratislava suburbia and industrial estates. While I was pondering two equally erroneous routes I was overtaken by Heinrich, a 50year old Austrian HGV driver, who was weilding the Holy Grail for which I had hunted in vain in Bratislava bookshops- a dedicated guide and map book for biking along the Danube from Bratislava to Budapest, exactly like the one I used to get from Dresden to Prague along the Elbe.

We exchanged pleasantries and, having ascertained that he was also heading for Budapest, I asked if I could follow him for a while, as I wasn't sure of the route. He didn't mind and for the rest of the morning I enjoyed the luxury of letting someone else make all navigational decisions. After the first 10minutes, it must be admitted, there were few decisions to be made: left=fields, right=river, straight on=the path- still good then.

We stopped at a snack hut at about 1pm, where Heinrich had a pint (he scoffed at the idea of sticking to water, saying he tried it once but 'water didn't give him energy') and I ordered some food, since I hadn't managed to pick up breakfast in Bratislava. Not having any means of communication with the woman at the counter, I adopted emergency menu procedures and ordered the middle one. Heinrich had finished his pint and headed on by the time what turned out to be deep fried cheese and chips arrived, so I was alone again for the afternoon. The weather was glorious and the route was easy and scenic. Since this time I'm following the river downstream it's downhill all the way!

Around 4pm I stopped to change maps. While I was thus engaged who should ride past but Heinrich! He stopped to say hello and we continued together again. We arrived at the town where we both intended to stop and parted ways, me following signs for "MotoCamp" and he saying he knew how to get to his hotel. The campsite, it transpired, was attached to and run by a hotel, and even as I was registering at reception Heinrich appeared at the door. Since fate had conspired to keep us together, we arranged to meet for a drink later in the evening. (I after all, had to celebrate clocking my 2000th kilometer!) For the second night in a row all my drinks were paid for and I became almost as fluent in german as that night by the campfire.

I didn't get back on the road again until about 10 the next morning, so I was sure I wouldn't see Heinrich on the road again (he'd said he'd be off around 8.30). The ride to the Slovakia/Hungary border was less picturesque than yesterday, as I was following a 'main' road out of sight of the river. I crossed into Hungary at Estergom, over a bridge that my map assured me didn't exist.

Anyone who has ever had a paper round will know that October can be one of the worst months to do that job. Not only are the mornings colder and darker and with the taunting memory of summer still fresh, but spiders seem to spend all night spinning webs between fenceposts across driveways, deliberately to capture sleepy paper boys. I don't know if the sensation of walking into a spiderweb is as irksome to others as it is to me- so subtle and gently clinging, combined with the vague worry about the precise location of the spider (I'm not arachnaphobic, the worry is more that I'll be chatting to someone later in the day and a spider will crawl from my hair. I don't think there's anything you can say to mitigate harbouring arachnid parasites). I always had to stop after each entanglement on cold October mornings and rub face and hair vigorously for fully thirty seconds or more to shake off the creepy feeling. I mention this because the pavement of the bridge from Slovakia to Hungary had clearly not been crossed that morning, and from the outer fence to every upright of the bridge was a different spider's playground. After stopping twice in the first meter to grimace and rub, I decided the only thing for it was to power through to the end. By the time I reached Hungary I was comprehensively ensnared in wisps of silk.

The afternoon ride followed the "bend of the Danube", a scenic route through one of Hungary's biggest tourist areas, drawing campers, hikers, seekers of river-based thrills and those interested in the few small historic towns. After exactly 100km, on the outskirts of Budapest, I stopped to eat the sandwich I had been saving for just this milestone. While I was stationary, who should appear behind me but Heinrich, who had indeed started early but had taken a more off-road and mountainous route the other side of the river, to end up just behind me. We only chatted for a minute or so, before he was off again, this time for good, needing to find lodgings before dark. I don't know if he succeeded but it was already dark by the time I crossed Margaret's bridge into Pest (the east bank of the Danube) and went in search of my hostel. The view from the bridge was breathtaking, a better first impression even than Prague, with the gothic Parliament spotlit on the Pest side of the river and on the Buda side the Palace and Citadel illuminated, the Chains Bridge lit like a christmas tree downstream and lights along the river banks reflected on the water.
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