The story of Vienna to Budapest actually started many days before reaching Vienna; it started less than two hours after leaving Salzburg. There we were enjoying the stunning vista of The Alps with the wide-open expanses of alpine meadows dotted with villages through the lenses of our cameras when something peculiar happened; my bike just curled over and appeared to die right in front of us (it has reminded me on more than one occasion since, of the time that Hans’ Tauntaun gave up the ghost). The reason for this peculiar behaviour was because the bolts that were holding my bike stand to my bike, and hence my bike in an upright position just snapped clean off, leaving the bike languishing on the bike path. For those of you who have toured, or at least have some sort of imagination, trying to live out of panniers on a bike that is not supported by a bike stand is beyond infuriating, particularly after you have just got used to living out of them… therefore the absolute top priority on getting to Vienna was to find a replacement.
Vienna, like most cities in Europe that we have visited did not disappoint, and provided both vertical and horizontal rain for 85% of the time we were there. It was a case of Choose Your Attitude (CYA) and get on with it. Both forms of rain however did provide us with a high level of satisfaction that our beloved tent can withstand quite a bit over a long period of time, which stands us in good stead moving forward (currently sitting in Belgrade where it is belting down and flooding the Danube, so I guess we will find out soon enough; I hasten to add that we are actually sitting in a very nice apartment looking at the rain through the safety of a window). Due to the extremely high levels of precipitation, most of the normal tourist attractions were out of the question, so we set about the task of finding a bike shop that could replace my stand. The bike shop we found was excellent, it was just a pity that the (very) expensive bike stand that was fitted lasted all of 22.5 hours before I had to remove it and place it nicely in a bin; the lesson here is to avoid “patent pending bike stands”. On the flip side the bike shop did give away free cappuccinos, which were in fact the best coffees we have had en-route, and pointed us in the direction of a very fine restaurant serving many excellent craft beers, which we consumed with gay abandon (as it was too wet to be outside).
Vienna was also the location of meeting up with the peleton, who had jetted in from the real world to help us along the Danube to Budapest. It did not take too long for the cohesion within the group to gel, and we were soon outdoing what we thought would be achievable on day one. Travelling with the peloton also opened our eyes to how people on a two week jaunt cycle tour; hotels, restaurants, spas, bars, and wine touring. The budget took an absolute hammering, but sitting down at the end of each day and celebrating our success (or at least perceived success) over a jar or two and a nice meal was a pleasant change and I suspect we will look back on these days longingly when the going gets tough.
The Danube cycle path from Vienna to Budapest is simply fantastic, slightly challenging, but fantastic. Before starting out from Vienna I had almost no idea of what to expect, so much so that Katie and I were both putting our trust in the cycle path signs that have been the cause of many an extra mile in the past. Thankfully, with the newly assembled peloton, a tour leader appeared; equipped with map/guide book, faulty map holder (that we later fixed), and a fondness for making sure every member of the peloton knew about each and every village we passed through.
The first two days out of Vienna we were blessed with irresistibly blue skies, no wind, very flat (and very straight) paths, and a heat that was unrelenting; it was brilliant. We stopped often, and we stopped for long periods; sometimes for a lesson in Baroque architecture from the newly appointed tour leader; sometimes for a long coffee break, but mostly to quench our thirst and soak in the wonderful views and surprisingly good wildlife (slugs notwithstanding).
Early on we had decided that it would be easily achievable to cut a day off the original plan of getting to Budapest over seven days, thus giving the three members of the team who had not visited before an extra day to soak up this epic city. The side effect of this meant that we had to tackle a 100km day from Mosonmagyarovar to Komarom, which is not a lot if you are used to riding fully laden bikes, but it is a bit of a shock to the system if it is only the third day. This day was one of my favourite of the trip so far; we set off early and smashed out the first 40km before stopping for an extended coffee break whilst Roger had a wonky tyre replaced. It was then on towards our lunch location, where, according to the map, there was a town with at least one restaurant that we could dine at. The place we found uses the word restaurant in the loosest possible way… and I loved it; it highlighted everything good about travelling and new experiences. Essentially it was someone’s house, with the front two rooms converted into a very rough looking pub; adorned with obligatory Playboy calendar, broken pool cues and local drunks. And to think we would have cycled past it, had it not been for a man with a lazy eye, beckoning us in by waving an arm in the air, and winking his good eye. The food was… well food; but beggars can’t be choosers, and by this time of the day I am sure we would have eaten anything. The afternoon also turned out to be a gem as we passed through tiny villages on back-roads, cut across fields, through swathes of forests, and negotiated enormous puddle after enormous puddle on mud tracks. It was both a relief and a disappointment that the day had to come to an end.
Having successfully completed the first few days with no major hiccups it was time to tackle the “highlights” stretch of this part of the Danube, and it did not disappoint.
First there was the city of Esztergom, which is famous for a number of things, most notably once being the capital of Hungary, and the basilica that dominates the skyline. Esztergom will always live in my memory for the place where we stumbled into organised chaos in the form of an annual carnival. We arrived in the city to find it like a ghost town, however, after closer inspection and making our way to the waterfront we realised that the entire population was there, living it large. Living it large is really an understatement, an out-of-control Sunday session is probably more accurate and it undoubtedly resulted in more than one duvet day on the Monday. Suffice to say, after visiting the cupola of the basilica and taking more than our fair share of photos out over Slovakia and around back into Hungary we made ourselves at home in the festival atmosphere.
The next day, as expected was a slow start, but by early afternoon we had rounded the fabled Danube bend and arrived in Vac. Vac is another fabulous location on the Danube, and like Esztergom is probably often overlooked in favour of Budapest; I would certainly recommend adding both cities to an itinerary if you are looking for something more from Hungary than just a quick stop off in Budapest. Vac was also the first time that we had stayed with locals on the trip; up until this point we had been predominantly laying our head at campsites, with the odd free-camping and hostel thrown in for good measure. It is truly remarkable, and never ceases to amaze me how one’s experience can be enriched by giving yourself over to the locals and being hosted in their house. Julius and his wife (whose name unfortunately escapes me) were genuinely interested in what we were doing and even though their English is only slightly better than my Hungarian the conversation was lively and enthusiastic. With the help of some diagrams, much hand waving and talking loudly in our native tongue it was established that we were indeed cycling to NZ; it should also be noted that the first thing Julius did when the pieces of the puzzle fell into place was tap himself on the head, shake his head and then pour some more coffee. It would appear that no matter which language our journey is explained in, everyone thinks we are bonkers.
“Cycling into Budapest is fantastic, and easily preferable to landing at the airport and being whisked to the hotel”… paraphrasing team leader Roger; and I have to admit I agree with him. The parliament buildings in Pest (IMO the equal of Westminster) and the castle in Buda act as sentinels watching over the Danube and it was an absolute pleasure to be reacquainted with them as we slipped silently past and into the first restaurant we could find to get our fill of food. Having visited Budapest a number of years before it was great to see that it was as good as I remembered, as this is not always the case when you return to a place you hold high in your memories.
Our time in Budapest was spent rushing around the key sights in between the ever present rain that follows us into cities; although this time it was nowhere near as bad as Vienna because we had taken the civilised measure of using airbnb and getting our own apartment (thoroughly recommend this service). In between ticking off the main sights there was time to enjoy the annual Budapest Wine Festival (a little too much), the Gellert Baths (scene of an ice bucket challenge of sorts), a truly wonderful Ruins Bar, and a memorable wedding anniversary lunch (thanks a lot for this Roger, it was top drawer).
There were only two downsides to Budapest; one; the peloton pedalling off into a rain shower towards the train station for the journey back to Vienna, and two; the fact we had to leave. Budapest is a city that you can get stuck in if you are not careful, as there is so much to see and do. But the road beckons, as do new adventures, beautiful places and extraordinary people.