Into Eastern Europe

SLOVAKIA/HUNGARY border Darlene is sprawled  on the ground, close to tears, I am unclamping my fingers from the brakes.


Darlene is sprawled  on the ground, close to tears, I am unclamping my fingers from the brakes.

After being waved on by one official, a sudden bellow “HALT!” brought me to an emergency stop and Darlene slamming into my bike. 

The second official insists on seeing our passports.

Though his English does not run to apologies, when he sees Darlene’s tears he is clearly embarrassed.

Across the border the bike path soon ends.

The signposted bike route continues along lanes and small roads, away from the Danube River (Duna in Hungary), to the town of Gyor.

It is a big, prosperous town, with a touristy centre and industrial suburbs that have us puzzling over a street plan, looking for a campground.

In the first of many acts of Hungarian kindness, a man cycling home from work, detours a couple of kilometres to lead us to it.

The campground is basic and its adjoining dilapidated, broken windowed motel is less than promising.

While we cook dinner, we watch the motel occupants arrive.

They are all single working men, maybe immigrants, spilling out of vans and pickup trucks in threes and fours.

They walk indoors slowly, with the slumped shoulder tiredness of labourers after a hot day of hard work.

Unusually, we are not the only cycle tourists at the campground.

There is a group of four middle-aged German men, travelling lightly because they are accompanied by a sag wagon, and a younger couple who tow their big dog behind them, in a trailer meant for children.

We leave Gyor as we arrived, with more route-finding help from a passerby, to begin a memorably pleasant section of our European tour.

Out in the countryside, lanes take us between fields of sunflowers or grain, spotted with bright red poppies and other wildflowers.

The only Canola we see is as an introduced weed in the ditches.

A farmer, sitting hunched over the reins of his loaded horse cart, waves as we ride by.

The weather has been warming up, hitting 30 Celsius today.

We end the day on a restaurant terrace, in the warmth of evening, sipping Dreher beer, watching the river change from blue to grey as the light fades.

This is how we dreamed cycle touring Europe would be.

The Duna takes a big turn south, cutting through hills, which we avoid by sticking to minor roads close to the river.

In the millennia-old city of Ezstergom we stop only for an ice-cream lunch.

Romans, Attila the Hun and Turks have all overrun this place in the past.

We are put off by 21st-century invaders: the tourists bused from Budapest every day.

On the quiet streets of many villages, cherry trees laden with ripe fruit line the sidewalks, overlooked by power poles crowned with stork nests.

The storks are busy feeding their young, swooping down to the fields, then flapping awkwardly back up.

During an afternoon snack stop on the bench of a bus shelter, a friendly grandmother tries to explain, in a mixture of Hungarian, German and English, that she is waiting  to meet her granddaughter from school, with a present of a bag of cherries.

Her husband takes Darlene home so she can pick herself a bag of cherries.

The granddaughter doesn’t appear so we get that bag as well.

Another time, when Darlene is caught picking cherries in the street, a villager takes her into his garden and sign languages her  to “take these cherries, they are better.”

Szentendre is also on the day trip bus route from Budapest because of its tradition as an artists’ centre.

Arriving in the afternoon and leaving in the morning means we can wander around the town while it is quiet.

Art galleries and museums spread around the tiny cobbled central square and nearby streets, as well as shops selling embroidery, crystal glassware and jewellery.

Probably the most unusual museum is the Marzipan Museum.

It’s marzipan creations, include a model of the Hungarian parliament building, a Cinderella coach and a metre-high wedding cake.

It is rumoured to once have had a two-metre-tall model of Michael Jackson, done of course, in white marzipan.

Budapest reminded us of Prague; one part of town (Pest) sits on the east bank of the river connected by an historic bridge to a castle overlooking the west bank (Buda).

It is an easy to enjoy, sophisticated, cosmopolitan city with a list of attractions that could go on for pages.

Here are some we relished: sitting outdoors for dinner on tree lined, pedestrian boulevards; taking the oldest metro in Europe, still running original carriages between tile walled stations, to a magnificent opera house of brown stone, hiding an ornately painted and gilded interior; paying only $4.70 to watch Tosca performed by a full company of singers and a 50-strong orchestra.

And in a country swamped with thermal baths, the Szechenyi  baths in the central park are a crowning glory.

There are 27 pools in the spa complex.

The three biggest are outside, one is for swimming, another has water jets and aeration  and the third is for relaxing, absorbing the warmth while watching old men play chess in the pool. 

An afternoon wandering round Statue Park is an entertaining glimpse into recent history.

Showing a rebellious disdain for their Russian past masters, the statue park pokes fun at monuments hauled away from the streets and squares of Budapest.

There are concrete, larger-than-life statues of worker heroes, soldier heroes, women heroes and a group featuring Russian heroes of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

This is a piece of black propaganda as the victims (and real heroes) of the Uprising were Hungarians.

There was time to enjoy all this because we were waiting for Russian visa applications to be processed. 

With the help of an agent, who boasted that for $500  “friends” and “partners” in the Russian embassy would get us visas, it took five days for our applications to be refused.

We were advised to try again when we got to Kiev.

Leaving Budapest and our last view of the Danube, on a quiet Sunday morning, we stop often to ask directions.

Everyone is glad to help.

A lady leads us in her car through a section too complicated to explain and a drunk is so anxious to help he won’t let go of the map until it rips.

We ride northeast over the next few days, towards Ukraine, through dead, flat country, watching farm workers hand-cut hay with scythes and pitchfork it onto horse-drawn carts.

Part of a series.

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