Hungary to see the Tatra mountains!

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
The Ginger Monkey Hostel

Flag of Slovakia  , Presov,
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Spirit of Romania
Whilst staying at the hostel in Sighetu Marmatiei i was lucky enough (debatable) to try some local spirits. The first was a plum based spirit, a kind of a plum brandy which is very common in the countries round here. The guy who owned the hostel was English but married to a Romanian woman, so they had made it themselves. It is so common to distil your own spirits that there is actually a local distillery where you can take your fruit down and use their stills. I saw pictures and it was amazing, a little stone building with open fires, brass vessels and old guys that have been doing it for years, stoking the fire to keep it at the optimal temperature for days on end (its important stuff, so has to be done properly). This particular one was about 50% alcohol (which apparently is what the best stuff usually is) and actually pretty tasty. I had tasted rakija before which a friend at uni had brought back from his travels in Eastern Europe. It is very similar however it was much stronger (and cheaper) about 70% and didn't really taste that nice (until you had a few and then you couldn't feel your throat anyway so it didn't matter). We were sitting around having a chat and drinking when another guy who was staying at the hostel came in. He was a pretty interesting guy who was half Romanian and half Hungarian and a semi professional enduro motocross rider who could speak about 5 languages fluently. In his hand he had a small water bottle. "Whats that you've got there" the hostel owner asked. He replied with the Hungarian name and then said "Its peach spirit a friend of mine in Hungary gave me". Obviously we were intrigued and luckily he asked us if we wanted to try some. We agreed and three small glasses found their way onto the table. The guy tried some took a deep gasping breath and said "ooooh yes that's good stuff", it was looking like it might be pretty good. The hostel owner was the next to try it, he took a small sip and also gasped however not in the same way, his was a more shocked gasp and followed by a "bloody hell, how strong is that stuff?". I was now a little more worried about what i had let myself in for. I manned up and took a swig and it was indeed pretty strong stuff (it tasted similar to schnapps), it must have been at least 70% probably a fair bit more, even the fumes made me wince however it did taste pretty good so the rest of my glass disappeared soon enough.

There's foreign cars everywhere

Romanian was very different from the Ukraine. It was noticeably more European, all the cars were European and having the Latin alphabet makes things a lot easier to understand, and of course it also means that there are odd English words everywhere (something that you don't get as much in the Ukraine which is nice). I had enjoyed being in the Ukraine so much it was almost a bit disappointing to be very much back in Europe. There were still some differences and of course there were lots of horses and carts. I particularly liked the large ones used by the Gypsies. I saw one such horse and cart parked up outside a shop in a small village. The cart seemed to have everything imaginable piled on the back, not only the kitchen sink but also a washing machine and numerous other bits of tat. I think he was some kind of Romanian rag and bone man or scrap metal dealer. I am not a fan or horses but i have to admit they looked magnificent. As i was watching he went into the back of his cart and pulled out a big bundle of hay which he preceded to throw on the road in front of the horses. It made me laugh and i thought to myself "this is a very Romanian fuel station!" When they had finished he got back on the front of the cart under a cover (made out of a rug, duvet and a banner which he had obviously "acquired" from somewhere), released the brake and they were off. The noise is really quite special, the clopping of hooves accompanied but the squeaking and rattling of all the chains and tack harnessing the horses. One thing that was confusing me whilst on the border between Romanian and the Ukraine was the number of foreign cars. I had hardly seen any (apart from French campers and Czech buses in ages) it was especially strange as there was a number of cars with British number plates. The first time i saw one of these i was really exited, i said "hi" to the people that got out and asked them where they were from. I was quite surprised when they didn't speak a word of English. It turns out that a very common thing for people to do in this neck of the woods (now Romania is part of the EU) is to go and work abroad, earn some money, then buy a car and drive home. Then they commute by car back home whenever they have holidays. There were a lot of Italian and French plates as these are the most common places for Romanians to go and work (the language is quite similar), I did also strangely see one SUV from Palm Springs USA which was a long way from home and did look a little out place. I saw one guy who had obviously been to work in the UK, the only reason i know this is because as i was leaving town i was cycling down a pretty busy main road when i saw a horse and cart in front. As the road was so busy one of guys driving was wearing a fluorescent jacket. It wasn't until i got closer that i realised on the back of the jacket it said royal mail, it was such a strange place to come across such a recognisable logo, i assume the horse is traded in for a bike or van when he's delivering the mail back home, but it would be quite funny if it wasn't. Talking of cars fans of Top Gear will be pleased to know that by far the most popular brand of car in Romania is of course Dacia. However it is not the Sandero which is popular but the Logan, they are everywhere, estate and saloon versions and are used for most taxis.

Now that's what i call a mountain pass
From Romania i was planning on heading into Hungary, riding across the northern end into Slovakia, riding across Slovakia to the Tatra mountains. I was then going to ride over the mountains to Zakopane in Poland, where i had a rendez vu with a Polish girl called Emilia who i had met in the hostel in L'viv a few weeks previously. It was unusual for me as i actually had a schedule for a change, its nice to have something to keep you motivated but it does put the pressure on when you look at a map and realise you still have 500km to go, i did keep thinking to myself what happens if i get injured or break my bike. To make it more complicated I wasn't sure how hard the mountains would be to cross so i was always slightly unsure of how much more riding would be required to get there. My first proper days riding in Romania was an amazing one, i had to ride over a mountain pass however this was a little different from the others i have been over so far. The road was pretty flat then suddenly it started to climb and there was a sign saying bends for the next 20km. We'll these bends were something else. It is basically a road which goes straight up and then straight down a mountain, the pass was nearly 1100m high and this all meant that they needed to use really really impressive hairpins bends. From the top of the pass to town it was about 25km and i did it in about 40 minutes. I was going so fast that for the first few km no cars could overtake me as i was going the same speed as they were (faster round the bends). Some of the bends were so tight i was having to brake really hard into them and pick a racing line in the middle of the road. One thing that many people don't realise is that one of the most enjoyable things you can do is descend a hill on a fully laden touring bike. People assume that it must be hard with all the luggage affecting your balance. The truth is that the extra weight means that you have a lot more grip and can really throw the bike into the corners. When you are cycling the faster you go the more stable you become (you will notice this if you try and ride without your hands, its much easier down a hill than on the flat). This means that faster you go the more fun it is, the more stable everything feels and the faster you get there (basically a winner on all accounts). As for cornering I favour motorbike style with one knee out (although you can only go so far, if you start to hear your panniers scraping on the ground because you are leaning over so far its probably time to back off a bit!). Of course you can go too fast so you have to make sure you take some care (i had to put this bit in to stop my mum having a go at me). The only bad part of the day was being robbed..... by a three year old!!! i was at the start of the pass and had just started to climb. These was a young Romanian guy chopping wood outside his house by the side of the road. He had his wife/girlfriend on the bank watching him and their young son was running round butt naked. As i went past he said "hey hey" and started smiling and waving for me to come back, i was a little hesitant as he did have an axe but i was 90% sure he just wanted a conversation. We chatted for a little while when he noticed his son staring at the back of my bike. The reason for this was the packet of crisps i had strapped to the top of my rack ready for lunch. He pointed at them and asked if his son could have some (or so i thought) i of course was fine with this and waved the packet towards the kid who promptly grabbed them and scarpered. I laughed and waited a little while as i hoped he was just messing and would bring them back or his father would ask him to give them back. However i soon realised that this was not going to happen and i would not be having salami and crisps sandwiches for lunch anymore (i often do this as the crisps are usually all bashed up and too hard to eat on their own). I guess it could have been worse and i decided that 20 pence packet of crisps was probably the best thing to have stolen whilst in Romania!

Unusual river crossing
My second day in Romania started as any other but it wasn't long before it had taken the usual turn to the bizarre. I had looked at a map and programmed a route into my GPS to avoid the main road. The route meant following the main road for a while then turning off and crossing over a river to a much quiet road which went straight to the border and would be much nice to ride on. The roads were all in my atlas so i assumed it would all be signposted and pretty easy. I found the turning off and followed it down through a village i continued down and the road began to get smaller and turned into a dirt track. I wasn't too worried as it looked like it might be an unsurfaced road from the atlas. I kept following it and it got more rutted and started to head through fields, i was now getting a bit worried. I saw a car coming and decided i would avoid repeating my mistake in the mountains and ask before i was too far from the main road. I waved my map and the car duly stopped. The car was an old Dacia, they look similar to old Saab's or Skodas, it was quite tatty and obviously well used. Inside were two men dressed head to toe in camouflage. I would normally be worried if it wasn't for the fact they were also wearing sun hats, with fishing lures hanging off them and waistcoats on with more lures on and millions of pockets, i could tell that they were hardcore fishermen, my suspicions were confirmed when i looked in the back and noticed a pile of fishing rods. The driver wound down the window and said "English?" i replied "yes" and amazingly he spoke pretty good English. He was an odd looking chap, his eyes were too big for his head and one wandered slightly giving him a bit of a goofy look, this was accentuated by very large glasses and a moustache. Despite his slightly wonky eyes he was a very nice chap and when i showed him where i was trying to get they both started to shake their heads and said "No, No, No" he continued "there is no possibility to cross the river, you must go back". Obviously i looked a bit surprised and started looking at my map, after a few moments he came out in a beaming smile and said "i have plan you can cross river, 300m follow me". before i had chance to reply he was off his suspension squeaking as he made his way along the rutted track. After 200m or so we were back on the edge of the village when he suddenly veered off the cobbled street and into a field. I started to get a tiny bit worried and wondered if i should be following two men dressed in camouflage away from civilization. The field was very very rutted and a few times there were scrapes as the bottom of his car hit one of the bumps although he didn't seem to mind. After about 50m we reached a dirt track and i could see there were other people fishing along side the river. I breathed a small sigh of relief and continued to follow. There river was quite big but as it was marked that the road crossed it on the map i imagined that there would be a small road bridge up ahead. We arrived at the gates of what looked like an old industrial yard and he pulled his car to a halt. "Right here we are" he said. i looked around but could see no obvious bridge, only old rusty machinery. He pointed to a rusty set of steps in front of us. As i looked up i realised that they lead up what looked to be a conveyor belt. He helped me carry my bike up the steps and i saw the way across the river. It was indeed a conveyor belt running across the river which was probably 50m wide. The "bridge" was only about 5 or 6 feet wide and most was taken up by the conveyor belt so the walking platform was only about 2 feet wide. It was made more interesting by the fact that the walking surface was not solid so you could see down though the gaps between the bars to the swirling torrent below. I couldn't believe that this had been marked as a road bridge on the map. It was only any good for pedestrians (or really enthusiastic cycle tourers). I pushed my bike across and when we neared the other end he started to point out how to get to the road on the other side. The "bridge" was obviously part of an old gravel mine however now it was surrounded by fields with a few cows wandering around grazing. He pointed at a church spire a kilometre or so away and said you have to head that way, the road goes past the church. After he was convinced i knew where i was heading we continued to the end. Getting off was a more interesting procedure as the steps were really narrow. We ended up having to lift the bike onto the conveyor belt and roll it down (although i fell off backwards luckily the drop was only a few feet so i didn't do any damage). To make matters worse just as we were in the middle of this complicated operation he made a wincing noise and said "sorry my back is bad" and pointed to the support belt he was wearing. I was praying that he wouldn't do his back in as he wasn't small and there is no way i would be carrying him back across the bridge to his car not to mention how bad i would have felt if he did his back in trying to help a crazy British cyclist. Luckily we got my bike off with his back remaining intact. He said goodbye and was off back over the bridge. Once again it proved how people are always willing to go out their way to help out, especially when you are in the middle of nowhere and quite obviously lost. I was a bit annoyed that this bridge was marked on the map but equally delighted that i really had gotten off the beaten track and im pretty sure i can say im the only cycle tourer to have made that bridge crossing and ridden the roads leading up to it!!

Feeling peckish in Hungary
I had one really frustrating day in Hungary. I had managed to find a campsite although i was the only person camping. It was slightly scary as the campsite was part of quite a large holiday park which was obviously quite busy in the summer (it had a swimming pool and lots of apartments) so the facilities were suitably sized. Its very odd being the only person in a massive facility block in the dark stumbling around for a light switch (i also hadn't paid at this point so just imagined the owner bursting in and having a go at me as i was stood there in the shower). Luckily despite looking like the set of a horror film i survived the night and managed to pay in the morning. I set off across the mountains towards Slovakia. I didn't bother buying any food as once i got over the mountains there was a couple of small villages so i decided i would stop there and get some lunch. This is something which you may not have considered about cycle touring, because you can only travel so far, you are very dependent on services in small towns and villages. The only problem is that you have to guess if there will be a shop of bankomat (ATM) based on the size of the place on the map. To make things more confusing my atlas covers the whole of Europe but seems to mark places based on how big they are compared to the other places in the same country so a small village in Germany might be a decent sized town with 4 supermarkets and in Romania a places marked in the same sized text might be 4 houses with a cow for milk and a bar (they always have a bar no matter how small the place). My GPS is no help either as it marks all places in the same sized text so then i have to guess how big a place is by looking at the number of streets it has and how many main roads go past. The point I'm trying to make is its always a guessing game as to what you will find in the next village, sometimes its a surprise as you find a mini shopping mall with everything you could ever need, other times its very frustrating when there is nothing (especially when you are hungry). I was heading into the mountains on this small back road wondering what supermarket or shop would be in the next town (some are better than others, so after using a few you will get really exited if you find a Billa or a Eurospar for example). As i was pondering this a familiar story started to unfold. The road narrowed and got worse and worse as it headed further into the mountains. Soon it had obviously become a forestry track and one that only people with a knackered 4x4 and a lot of will would consider using. I kept going telling myself that i was on a cycling adventure so i should just enjoy it. Looking back this was not the most wise of things to do and it wasn't until the road go so steep i physically couldn't get enough grip to ride up it i realised i might not be able to cross this way. By this point i was really hungry (and therefore angry, its about the only time i really do get angry) and not best pleased at the prospect of turning back. The damaged.... i had done 14km into the mountain range meaning i had done 28km as i found myself cycling back past the campsite once again, this was most definitely not a good start to the day! i had some food which calmed me down a bit, the sun was shining too so i was quite chilled out by this time. This was lucky as i left town and discovered that the alternative route was part of the European international system of cycle paths and was a purpose built cycle lane away from the road winding through the countryside it made for perfect cycling. I must admit i did laugh to myself a bit when i thought back to the road i had been riding on just hours earlier, and realised what a gross miss judgement i had made.

The thing i will remember most about Hungary is the snakes. Whilst i was there the weather was great, really hot and this hadn't gone unnoticed. I saw a large number of flattened snakes on the road and was busy thinking to myself ''I'm glad they are flattened" when i noticed a tail disappearing into the bushes. After seeing that i couldn't take my eyes off the side of the road just in case there was one there that i might run over. I soon began to notice loads curled up on road sun bathing. I'm not totally sure what type they were probably just different type of grass snake however snakes all look evil to me so it made no difference, they really freak me out and even though i was riding i made sure i gave them a wide birth. Unfortunately however i did have one slight mishap. I was on the for mentioned cycle path which was away from the road so i was paying less attention than normal. My ipod had be playing really slow unmotivating music all morning (it was on shuffle) so i decided to do something about it. I was busy going through my tunes looking up occasionally to check i was still on course. It was on one of these occasions that i saw a snake slithering across the path in front of me. It was too late to do anything about it and i ran straight over its middle which a horrible bump. I saw it writhing away in my mirror, it was not very nice and made me go slightly weak at the knees, I'm glad i was going fast enough that i was past it by the time it lashed out.

And then there were two
My first full day of riding in Slovakia was going to be a tough one. I could tell from the twisty roads on the map that it was going to be up and down the whole way. My suspicions were confirmed as soon as i left Kosice the road started to head up a river valley. It was a good way up this hill that i noticed someone cycling behind me. It didn't take long before he had caught up and pulled alongside me. He had rear panniers on his bike and it was obvious that he was also on a tour. He said "hello"and soon we were busy chatting away. He was a German guy called Matthias just on a short tour for his holidays, he had also been in Romanian and had done lots of tours before so we had loads to talk about. It was the ideal place to meet someone because as soon as we started talking i forget i was still climbing and the miles passed so much faster. After a while we reached the top of the climb and stopped for some lunch. He had a ticket home booked however the place he wanted to get to was probably only just over a day's ride away and he had 3 days of holiday left so was unsure what he was going to do. We realised that we would be heading the same way for a while at least. He was travelling really light, he had a tent but no cooking gear and very minimal kit. I was going at a good pace to begin with but after a while the persistent hills slowed me down quite a bit. I felt really bad that i was slowing him up but he didn't seem to mind, he did have two days to kill and the weather was great. Although the road was hilly it was really nice and the views were spectacular, there were a couple of really good downhills with nice twisty bends. He had much thinner tires and the difference was noticeable as he sped away from me down the hills. Halfway along the road we came to a big yellow sign which appeared to say that part of the road was closed, we screeched to a halt and pulled out multiple maps and GPS devices. Road closures pose a dilemma when you are on a bike, often you can get past however there is always the one time where they have dug a hole right across the road and you have to turn round and go all the way back. We were busy deliberating and looking at our maps when a guy on a bike came the other way. We decided to ask and as luck would have it, he didn't speak English but did speak some German (i knew there was a reason i bumped into Matthias!) he said it was ok for bikes to pass and so off we set. The road works were quite impressive and pretty major they had a couple of massive drills boring huge holes into the current road surface. I didn't know where i was going to camp and Matthias wanted to use his tent as he had carried it all the way and only slept in it once so far (i think he felt a bit annoyed at carrying that extra weight all the way). We found a campsite on the map that was in a good position for both of us so we decided that it was a plan and we would head there. We stocked up on supplies and (luckily) bought some beer. When we arrived we found a perfect mountain resort with lots of chalets, lovely big meadows to camp in, the only problem was that there was no one there and everything was locked up. We found a group of people sat outside one of the chalets so Matthias went to ask them if we could have some water while i checked if any of the buildings were open. As he got near he realised they didn't actually have a key and were just sat outside. Not surprisingly they confirmed that there was no one around and no facilities or water. We had a search and found the perfect spot to pitch our tent, a chalet surrounded by trees with its own bench a fireplace, this was definitely luxury wild camping. We hardly had any water between us possibly just enough to cook with (it always pays to buy some beer just in case you can't get any water, its actually got me out of a few similar situations in the past). It was getting dark so we decided i would set up camp and start cooking and Mattias would go and see if he could find a stream to get some water. He was just heading off when the guy we had spoken to earlier came over holding a massive bottle of bright orange drink. He waved us over and said "multivitamin" pointing at the bottle. We went over and he preceded to pour some into our bottle. After he had given us a bit we said "Ah that's enough" but he was very persistent and we soon had a bottle full of very tangy very orange squash which supposedly had some health benefits. Matthias managed to get some water later which we used for the rest of the cooking however i ended up having to use the crazy orange squash for making my porridge in the morning, it tasted... interesting and i decided it should be renamed bionic porridge due to its rather strange orange tint.

The next morning we were greeted with a wet and misty forest, it wasn't the nicest weather for riding but i had a plan and only a short days ride ahead. Matthias on the other hand had about 5 different options about what to do and couldn't really decide between them and as he was in no rush he decided to stay put for a while. We said our farewells, exchanged contact details and i was off once again the lone rider!
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