Really cycle touring
The early morning sunlight falls evenly onto the hemisphere of the Bazilika on the hill. Down below all is quiet in the town where King St Stephen was crowned way back in 1000. The double towers of the nearby church have eight clock faces between them and all the clocks stopped at 11.35 one morning or perhaps one evening in the past.
There’s a man with a wheelbarrow and I know how he feels
Thoroughly in the present, a man trundles past with a lawnmower on the back of his bicycle, his face red with the effort of pedalling it wherever he is going. Three weeks into our own journey, I know how he feels. A stray dog barks at us both and narrowly avoids a car. Joggers puff and stomp past in time with the ‘ssshhhh’ ‘ssshhhh’ of the brushes in the hands of cleaners on the restaurant terraces.
On the Danube, the cruiser ‘Sofia,’ chugs away on her daily tour of the Danube. I can almost reach out and touch Slovakia on the opposite bank, its terracotta and peach tower blocks a stark contrast to the faded yet still obvious glory of this former Hungarian capital city.
In Esztergom, alone yet so not alone
I am alone, yet not alone in Esztergom at 6.30a.m on a Thursday morning. The town is gearing up for another busy day welcoming tourists on the Budapest trail who come to see its traditional churches, museums and shops. On the Danube in general, tourism isn’t an unusual activity, but it’s the first real tourism I’ve seen since leaving Bratislava, and it reminds me what a well oiled machine it all is.
For the last couple of hundred kilometres, the riding has changed. In the stretch into and through Vienna and Bratislava the number of riverside bars was only overtaken by the number of cycle tourists. Coach parties filled the hotels and dumped daily loads into the towns and cities. Tour boats added to the clamour for trinkets and afternoon teas.
Something changed in the last few days
But in the last two days the cycle tourists have dropped away. Cycle route signs have almost disappeared, and those that remain are shrunken, simplified markers; an occasional number 6 with a euro flag is all that lets us know we’re (probably) heading in the right direction. The myriad regular directional arrows and listings of towns, villages and distances are now far behind us on signs back West.
Out in the East you need your map and compass, and need to know how to use them. The road has shrunk too, sometimes to a sandy dirt track or a loose gravel trail in places. Campsites are friendly and unpretentious, with no washing machines, playgrounds or mini golf. In the villages, there are horses and carts to watch out for, and the stuff they leave behind on the road. The midges come too, looking for dinner as we pedal by.
Now we are really cycle touring
Things get more interesting now we’re off the tourist trail
Off the tourist trail, things can get interesting. We enter a Wild West style café where a Barbie girl sits at the saloon bar, and for a tiny amount of Florints we soon have a massive cappuccino with a tower of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. Another tiny bar with a fishing theme brings us spiced fried jacket potatoes and chocolate filled pancakes with vanilla sauce.
In a typical bar in one of the many small villages on the route the locals stare at us relentlessly. I take Hannah to the toilet and realise from the locked door and the cobwebs that there probably hasn’t been another woman in the bar for some time. Back in the bar, where Hungarian folk music blasts out of the TV, everyone switches their staring from Stuart back to me. We ask for lemonade, and glasses of warm flat ginger ale arrive. The barman looks decidedly unfriendly. He approaches us again and I wonder if it is to ask us to leave. But instead he whips out a postcard of the village and presents it to Hannah, patting her on the head, and departing back to his bar without a flicker of a smile. Hannah, on the other hand, is delighted. “That man gave me a poster. For free! And the man in Munich gave me an orange juice. For free! Two people like me on this Big Trip you know!” she beams.
No treats is a cycle touring treat
This part of life following the Danube might not have the endless and predictable treats of the German and Austrian tourist experiences. But when they come they are memorable moments.