Archive for the ‘Europe 2010’ Category

The Transfagarasan Highway

28 August 2010

27 August. We made it! We are at Cabana Balea Lac, about 2000m above sea level.

Lac Balea sunset

We left Sibiu early and rode in the cool sunny morning through quiet countryside and villages to avoid the main road. We passed several flocks of sheep that were watched by shepherds and had another dirt and grass road section for awhile. A couple of times dogs chased us in a threatening manner but we were able to outrun them pretty easily. Cartisoara is the village at the northern end of this road where we stocked up with water and prepared for the climb.

The road is really an engineering folly as there are other easier routes over and through the mountains. The first 12km up to the Balea Cascade are well graded through forest that provided welcome shade. There are many souvenir stalls here, eating establishments and a cable car to the summit. The final 12km is the most dramatic section where the road ascends to the top of the waterfall, then enters a hanging valley above the treeline and snakes its way up with switchbacks all the way to the top. The views are incredible.

Transfagarasan Highway

This is a popular tourist road and there was quite a lot of traffic, but adequate road space for us as well. Some people who travel this road appear to be happy to leave it in a worse state for the next travellers by leaving their rubbish along the way. An area like this in many other countries would be a national park. Romania is either not able or not willing to protect this place and this is understandable given that it probably has few resources and other priorities. It is sad to see Lake Balea, a beautiful alpine tarn, just below the summit, overwhelmed with tourist development. That said, we are staying here ourselves. It is a popular hiking area and you can walk to the top of Moldoveanu, Romania’s highest peak. We also saw a flock of sheep grazing above the lake, then watched them being shepherded down at dusk (don’t know where to).

A day in Sibiu

26 August 2010

26 August. Sibiu is a major town in Saxon Land, an area of Transylvania that for centuries had a mainly German population. This is no longer the case but the Saxon heritage endures and it is a centre of tourism and culture. It is justly proud of its award of European Capital of Culture in 2007. We have taken our tourism duties seriously today and have followed the guide book closely. There is a fine view in all directions from the Town Tower and we have visited the churches and three town squares.

View of Sibiu from city tower

Tonight is the opening of the annual medieval festival so there is much preparation for the program that will continue for the next three days. We are staying in a lovely pensiunae that is run by a family. Our clothes have been washed in a washing machine. We are preparing for a big ride tomorrow to Cabana Balea Lac at the top of the Fagaras range at just over 2000m. An early start will be made!

To Sibiu

26 August 2010

25 August. We left Pietrele early and descended the rough track, then the newly re-sealed road to Salasu de Sus. Here we collected our gear and met a few other couchsurfers including two young women from Georgia who are working on a volunteer project in Arad. They are both graduates but were unable to find jobs so signed up as volunteers with a Georgian NGO. They said that the project was not really satisfying but they had been able to implement some of their own ideas and were making some short films. We also met Jos, a Dutch maths student and photographer who has travelled a lot by bicycle around Europe.

After returning to Hateg, we headed for Hunedoara, the location of Transylvania’s most famous gothic castle. Our guide book instructed us that this should not be missed on any account. The route was through beautiful countryside, over a couple of small saddles, marred only slightly by roadside rubbish. A descent took us into Hunedoara, past an area with many houses that the guide book refers to as tin roof palaces, and some call gypsy palaces. They have rooves decorated with fancy metalwork and are very distinctive but not all in a state of completion. The castle is an impressive building with pointy towers. It reminded me of Schloss Neuschwanstein with its dramatic architecture and its capacity to attract tourists.

Hunedoara Castle

Hunedoara and the area to the north, however, is seriously blighted by a vast area of abandoned industrial sites and factories. This was a bit hard to take in after the pleasant country we had just seen. We pushed on to Deva along a busy road where the presence of road works gave us an empty lane for much of the way. We had intended to cycle to Alba Iulia, but hot weather, concerns about traffic and time getting on resulted in a decision to take the train to Sibiu from Deva. We then had a few hours to wait.

Deva has a ruined castle on a hill overlooking the city but is mostly a modern socialist era city. The railway station can only be described as dilapidated, but the booking system was computerized and the train left on time. It was similar to one of the French trains we travelled on with plenty of space for the bikes and it was uncrowded. The train line follows the valley of the Mures, through a beautiful rural area. It took 3 hours to go the 130 or so km so it was after 10pm when we arrived. And just one other thing – this morning we saw two teenage boys scything in a field with their father, so maybe I’m wrong about the younger generation’s interest in this activity. Also, the pipes along streets in towns mentioned before are gas pipes.

Romanian trains
Contrary to some warnings we’d received we’ve found Romanian trains to be pretty good. While they are a bit scruffy, they seem to arrive and leave on time and travel faster than any passenger trains in Australia!

Bicycle route:
Pietrele – Deva (we did the rest by train)

Riding to Salasu de Sus

25 August 2010

We were not sorry to leave Caransebes, a town of few delights, and the only place we have been to that had no outdoor cafe. It transpired that no train service existed to Hateg and our only option was to ride there. We had received advice that the traffic wasn’t too bad.

At about 10km along the road, Ian experienced a sense of curiosity about the location of his wallet and sensibly decided to stop and check. He examined the contents of all four panniers without luck. He then re-examined all panniers – still no luck, this despite a habit of rigorous inspection before leaving our lodgings. This is the experience that travellers dread – the possible loss of an essential item. Bicycle travellers dread also the prospect of backtracking as it goes against all instincts to waste effort needlessly -especially on a potentially futile errand along an unpleasant road back to a vile city. Before giving way to despair, another search was done and the wallet was there. That was a good moment.

We breakfasted another 10km along in Otelu Rosu, where there was a supermarket and a town market. Our route took us along a gradual climb through farmland in an area that is more intensively farmed than we have seen so far. It was quite beautiful with corn fields, orchards, roadside apple and walnut trees, conical hay stacks and neat villages with flowers on the verges. The scythe is being put to good use in rural Romania. We saw people scything paddocks of grass and raking fields by hand. A couple of times we saw men cycling along with a scythe on the rear carrier. Somehow, though, I don’t think that the younger generation will be scything as much as the older. Another unusual sight was a horse drawn cart (we have seen a few of these) with a load of cut grass.

The most unusual sight was a dead horse on the roadside in a village, we think hit by a car. It was refreshing and spirit-lifting to see this area, surrounded by hills and with towering mountains on the horizon, and to be away from the direness of the towns. At the top of the climb (600m) we stopped to rest. And an old wrinkled woman with head scarf was sitting there, no house or other habitation nearby. Her name was Ida, aged 77, Hungarian, no English of course, very sad because of tragedies in her life, greeting us and saying prayers in Latin.

Roman ruins were by the roadside further down the other side, nicely and neatly preserved with concrete holding the old stones in place. Probably not archaeology best practice but good for a tourist stop. We bought supplies in Hateg for a couple of days off the beaten track.

We are in the small village of Salasu de Sus with Mihai, a couchsurfing host and friend of Raul. He has open house here for couchsurfing and travellers. It is a simple setup here with a one room house filled with couches, stream beside the house for washing and long drop toilet out the back. Kazu, a Japanese CS is here too.

Mihai’s place

Bicycle route
Cranasebes – Salasu de Sus (some how missed the last bit of the route but you get the idea)

Observations about Romania

25 August 2010

Romanians like loud music with very fast melodic lines and lots of repetition. Our Caransebes hotel was hosting a wedding reception so we had several hours to enjoy the band. Car parking is no problem: you do parallel parking if there’s room and if not, you do angle parking. The reputed dangers of travelling here are overstated. We have been careful but do not feel at risk, except from traffic on highways. Modern supermarkets are present in most towns – Tesco, Spar, Carrefour. Mobile phone shops such as Vodaphone and Orange are numerous. WiFi is frequently available. Bars selling beer, soft drinks and coffee, but no food, are common in towns and villages. Food and coffee are generally good. We can get espresso in most places. The only bad faux coffee we have had was at the train station in Arad. It is not easy to find good bread. Smoking is allowed in cafes and restaurants. Accommodation is generally of a good standard. Three large towns we have visited, Arad, Lugoj and Caransebes, have big new Romanian Orthodox churches. We have seen one or two new sections of road with a bicycle lane. This seems incongruous and we guess it’s because of EU requirements.

Second hand shops that sell clothes from western Europe are in most towns. Arad has one in the main shopping street. Larger towns have big pipes along the footpath. We wonder if this is for hot water for heating – more research needed. Towns and cities can be grim places with bad roads and pavement, crumbling buildings regardless of their age and spaghetti style overhead wires, but most of them also have redeeming features, such as shady parks, pleasant outdoor cafes and at least some historic buildings and churches in good repair.

We can communicate adequately in English for basic things. We have seen Roma but usually sole operators who ask for money but move on when refused. Astrid spoke to us about the deportation of a number of Roma from Denmark recently, an action that apparently sparked a great deal of public discussion there, which she felt was constructive.

Romanian turkeys in a tree near Tincova

I wonder what it’s like for people to live in Romania with its many problems and its reputation as a poor and dangerous country. Raul is happy in his situation where he works from home for clients in Canada and the US. He said he wouldn’t mind going to live in Canada. Anita has lived in Germany and Greece for several years, and has returned to Arad to be closer to family and friends. Kristina has also lived elsewhere and returned. They are aware of their country’s difficulties but the things that keep them there are connections, obligations, their own history and a kind of acceptance that it’s their country for better or worse.

The Retezat

24 August 2010

[Editorial note: inadvertently left unpublished since 24/08/2010]

Mihai has a cabin in the Retezat Mountains, a national park, one of only 3 in Romania. It is 12km up the road from his village, then a 5km trek up a rough track that is only passable by tractor and has wrecked some 4wds. We decided to go up by bike and stay overnight. It was quite a climb, about 1000m. There is a cabana, cantina and camping area at the end of the road, then you have to walk up the track to Pietrele, where there are more cabins and a cantina serving meals and drinks.

As we walked up, pushing our bikes, we were accompanied by Emil, a retired mining engineer who, although aged under 50, is now a volunteer ranger in the Retezat NP. He was cheerful about his circumstances that gave him a satisfactory pension and the freedom to do what he enjoys. His wife is a teacher and he has an academically gifted daughter aged 18, who is destined, according to him, to be a judge. Not a lawyer or magistrate, a judge. Hope she makes it. He was friendly and helped me up some particularly steep stretches. We bought him a beer at the cantina.

Emil favours the Putin look!

The day had started with a minor disaster as Ian had left his cycling shoes outside the door overnight, and in the morning only one was there, the other having been taken by a dog. We found it, badly chewed, the tongue mainly destroyed. The velcro strap was still OK and the sole was fine, so with the addition of a shoelace he was back in action.

At Pietrele we took a brief dip in the freezing water, enjoyed the views of the tops appearing above the trees and rested. In the evening we were joined by Maya and Yoav, from Israel. They had walked further up to one of the numerous alpine tarns on top of the range. They are travelling without mobile phone or internet, finding their way to interesting places as they go by talking to people and seeing what is around.

Cabin at Pietrele

To Lugoj and Caransebes

22 August 2010

Blue sky, no wind, quiet road out of Timisoara.

We stopped briefly in the small town of Bacova to admire the church. A parishioner with few teeth spoke to us in German and explained that it was a Swabian church that had been renovated with funds from Hungary (except don’t quote me on that as I only got the merest gist). It was nicely decorated inside. A short distance further along was the slightly larger town of Buzias where an Orthodox church was holding Sunday service. This was a small church, but richly decorated inside and with two water taps outside, one  dispensing normal water and the other holy water.

Our road  was  undergoing repairs in some sections. It is alarming to see a drop of about 30cm from the edge of the bitumen to the unpaved shoulder.

After a lunch stop in Lugoj, a good sized town with similar characteristics to others we have seen (ie decaying historic buildings, Ceaucescu era fringes), we found a more rural road for awhile, along the valley of the Timis river. This road carried little traffic but varied in its quality. Our landscape was different too with hills nearby and high mountains in the distance, a welcome change after many days of cycling through flat country.

One village we passed through, Tapia, seemed to have been denied a sealed road, as the seal ended at the entrance and a bad bumpy metal road began and continued for some kilometres. The houses here were built from bricks that have what looks like a ceramic surface in different colours, arranged in geometric patterns. Other villages along the way had these too. In Tapia there were many people in the street, more than we have seen anywhere else. In most villages there are people sitting alone, or in twos and threes, watching the passing traffic.

Woven fence near Tincova

Eventually the road deteriorated into a rough unsealed track, but on the advice of a young boy and his family we pressed on. Henri would be proud of us, riding on grass, through puddles into which frogs leapt as we passed and along faint car tracks. Garmin didn’t know this road at all so navigation was done the old-fashioned way.

Exactly which way is Tincova?

Once past the village of Tincova we crossed the river, stopped for a paddle to cool off, then rejoined the brand new EU funded highway. Fast traffic, no lines marked, big drop off the edge… this does not make for enjoyable or safe riding. We are now in the unremarkable town of Caransebes considering our options for escaping more highway riding tomorrow.

Bicycle route:
Timosoara – Caransebes

Timisoara, Romania

21 August 2010

On the recommendation of both Raul and Astrid, we decided to come to Timisoara, a city renowned for its history and architecture. There is only one route available and we tried it for a short distance, on a shoulder less than a foot wide, with cars, trucks and buses thundering past at high speed. After travelling less than 10km out of Arad we turned back and went to catch the train instead. This was a good idea.

The train left on time, travelled fast and we were here by 1pm. There was no place for the bikes so we just piled them in and hoped for the best. The ticket man said we had to pay extra but he did us a special ‘unofficial’ deal.

It has been quite warm and we have spent most of the day in a shady outdoor cafe doing some planning and checking the election results. Timisoara is famous for the role played by people here in initiating the 1989 revolution that ended Ceaucescu’s regime. An earlier claim to fame for the town is as the birthplace of Johnny Weissmuller (the Olympic swimming champion and actor who played Tarzan for uneducated readers).

The past glories of the town are evident but there’s a lot of urban decay and bad 1970s housing. Today has been a big day for weddings with bridal parties everywhere and car convoys roaring around town blowing their horns.

Timisoaran evening skyline

Arad, Romania

21 August 2010

Oroshaza was quiet with cool breeze and blue sky this morning. We breakfasted on hamburger and Hungarian taco (only one cafe open) and chatted with a friendly Hungarian couple who helped us with some vocabulary and pronunciation. Our road was quiet and flat, fields of corn, sunflowers and watermelons. We saw some oil rigs presumably pumping oil.

A setback occurred when Ian’s rear pannier bolt sheared off, requiring a reassignment of luggage and a cable tie fix. We were unsure whether it would be easy to fix this, but a stroke of luck! In Battonye, far eastern Hungary, a small quiet town on a national holiday, we happened to see a bike shop open (social gathering place for assortment of blokes), and in a short time the problem was fixed, free of charge. (We tried fairly hard to pay.) One of the blokes had a sickle in the carrier on the back of his scooter – more Aussie blokes should get into scything and sickling I reckon.

Mirakel Bike shop in Battonye, Hungary

Entering Romania was pretty straightforward involving getting passports scrutinized, and telling various officials about our trip. They were all friendly. Turnu is the first Romanian town so we stopped for a drink to celebrate our arrival.

The city of Arad could be seen from here and we rode on the shoulder of a busy highway through the ugly industrial area (similar to approaching Adelaide along Main North Road actually). Then through the Ceaucescu era residential highrise and into the centre. There are some grand buildings here and a pleasant atmosphere with shady trees, grass, cafes, trams.

The river Mures flows through the city, brown and muddy like the Tisza which it joins in Hungary. Arad has clearly had better times. Many buildings are in a decrepit state, but the main civic and historic buildings are well maintained.

We met Raul, our couchsurfing host, who lives in a flat on the 6th floor of an apartment building on the main road from the border. He is a real gem, an enthusiastic host who has lots of CS visitors. We joined Astrid, a Danish journalist who was also staying with Raul.

Together we went to a small local festival behind the apartment buildings where there was dancing, music, food and beer. The dancers and costumes were very good and we were also impressed by the saxophone and accordion players.

Romanian dancers in Arad

Accompanied by Raul’s friends, Anita and Kristina, we went to the city centre where there were food, drink and handicrafts stalls. We talked about Romania, relations with Hungary, European Union, Roma, the economic situation, Ceaucescu. Both Raul and Anita are self-employed, running businesses from home, in 3D computer modelling and wine cork importing respectively.

After all we’d read and heard, we were feeling some trepidation about entering Romania. We thought the roads would be wrecked with horse-drawn carts and knife-wielding gypsies. We’re pleased to report Romania a nice place to visit (though poor and run-down). Free WiFi is much easier to find here than Hungary or Western Europe.

Romanian has experienced a lot of history in the last century – many events from the Treaty of Trianon, Soviet era, Ceaucescu era, globalisation and financial crises are all adding weight to the country’s yoke.

Bicycle route:
Oroshaza, Hungary – Arad, Romania

The Great Hungarian Plain

19 August 2010

Thursday 19 August. Well we are almost across it now. Today started cool and overcast and became sunny and hot. We passed through the towns of  Lakitelek, Csepa, Szeleveny, Csongrad, Szentes and Fabiansebestyen and we are staying in Oroshaza tonight. We have crossed the Tisza three times. Interesting things from today:

  • Low traffic route on minor roads for most of the day;
  • Storks in the wetlands near the Tisza, and in the town of Szeleveny;
  • A conversation with teenage girl, Barbara, and her grandmother, who were selling home grown fruit and vegetables near the Csepa co-op;
  • Two communist tractors;
  • Three men using scythes to cut grass;
  • Riding along a dike beside the river Koros;
  • Conversation with Hungarian man driving along aforementioned dike in which he gave us a lot of population statistics about Transylvania;
  • A decrepit pontoon bridge over the Tisza near Csongrad;
  • Shady leafy town of Csongrad;
  • Tail wind;
  • Hand operated railway crossing barrier in Szentes where the man operating it gave priority to bikes and pedestrians.

Pontoon bridge near Csongrad
There is an enormous amount of utility cycling in rural Hungary and in towns and villages. People of all ages ride bikes loaded with shopping, fishing gear, tools such as shovels and brooms, children. We saw a team of workers who were cutting road side vegetation. They all had their bikes and had carried brushcutters, rakes and equipment on them.

Long-horned Hungarian cow

Oroshaza is a spa town. We took the waters by having a shower that smelt distinctly sulphurous. Tomorrow, 20 August, is Hungary’s national day.

Cycle route:
Kecskemet – Oroshaza

Kecskemet

19 August 2010

Wed 18 August It’s pronounced Keshkemet. Birth place of Zoltan Kodaly. There’s a lengthy Wikipedia entry that you are advised to read for further historical information. Today began with bad breakfast. First breakfast was at our regular cafe (ie the one we went to yesterday) opposite the synagogue, but jackhammering was occurring over the road, so we moved on to have second breakfast at another that served ok coffee and dry pastries. Ah well, New York Salon one day, bad croissants the next. We found a large indoor market selling fresh fruit and veg, meat and Hungarian sausage in large quantity.

We bade farewell to the Duna, until we cross it again later. Then on the road and out of town. This obliged us to use a busy road for awhile with trucks and fast traffic. On one section of this road, something we hadn’t anticipated was the sight of young women standing by the road, scantily dressed at 10 in the morning. We have not seen this elsewhere.

Our route took us through Ocsa, a small town with brand new supermarket and carpark, then Dabas, a larger place, both pleasant with gardens full of flowers, vegetable gardens and laden plum trees on the verges.

Load of chilcren and watermelons

We arrived in Kecskemet around 4pm and found it in full festival mode with food and drink stalls in the city centre. There is a mixture of new and old buildings here. We found Agnes, our host, who lives near the centre, and also met her daughter (just arrived home from Boston where she is studying) and her mother who lives over the road. We walked into town in the evening and had lepeny, kekfrancos (wine) and said egeszsegedre (cheers). There were hundreds of people there, eating and drinking, a big stage with rock band and it was a lovely mild night. A monument nearby to the Treaty of Trianon shows the extent of Hungary before and after, in concrete. The loss of territory is still keenly felt by Hungarians. We enjoyed staying with Agnes who was generous and hospitable and accepted us at short notice.

Cycle route:
Dabas – Kecskemet

A day in Budapest

18 August 2010

Tues 17 August

The main problem with being in Hungary is that we don’t know how much things cost because it’s all in forints – thousands of them. We have learnt how to say please (kerem) and thank you (koszonom) and hope to add to this excellent start. We didn’t get this far with the Slovakian language due to limited opportunity and lack of application. However, our extensive knowledge of Latin and Romance languages helped us with Slovakian but is totally useless for Hungarian. With other European languages a few familiar words start to appear after a day or two of immersion. Not so with Hungarian, it is totally alien.

Sunny day in Budapest

Today we found the Australian Embassy (above a washing machine show room) and cast our pre-poll votes. The ambassador was nowhere to be seen so missed the chance to invite us to lunch. The Citadel overlooking the city was the next stop with great views as it was sunny and clear. See photos of inspirational statues.

Then on Margaret’s advice, that she received from Kazzy, we went to the New York Salon for cake and coffee. It is extremely posh and lavishly decorated. I couldn’t help thinking that they must be a bit disappointed in the clientele they are attracting (ie scruffy people like us), when what they are hoping for is more the Audrey Hepburn type of person. Anyway, the cake was good. They served the coffee in tall glasses. It was An Experience to be remembered.

There are a lot of cyclists in Budapest and traffic is often slow moving because of jams. There are trolley buses, normal buses and trams. I guess an underground too but we stayed on street level.

The YH had signs about parking and wheel clamping and we saw a clamped car. Lots of grand buildings, many crumbly buildings, road works and graffiti. We have bought maps and bike spares and some food supplies. And we have done internet homework. As a result of this we are couchsurfing with Agnes tomorrow night in Kecskemet.

In Budapest now

16 August 2010

The aforementioned ferry ride was followed by a stop for lunch and that was followed by a thunderstorm and heavy rain that lasted more than half an hour. We then had 20km to go along bad bike path that included muddy sections through overgrown forest with large puddles and then industrial outskirts.

Entering Budapest

Finally we were approaching the city with the extraordinary parliament buildings in view. It was quite an experience riding to our destination (on the Pest side) as we had to enter the traffic stream and got swept around a roundabout, then over the Chain Bridge in the traffic lane. Sadly photography from the saddle was out of the question. We went past the Dohany Street Synagogue, a striking building that I did not know of but identified later. We are staying in a YH that is a bit frenetic and has No Internet Access. 0 Ukuleles. Is that too harsh?

Cycle route:
Esztergom – Budapest

Not in Budapest yet

16 August 2010

It’s hot and humid again. And getting to the next place always takes as much time as you have. We are on Szentendrei-sziget, an island in the Duna (Danube), waiting for the ferry to take us across. It takes only people, no cars, and runs hourly. The plan was to arrive in Budapest by lunchtime but now it’s 2pm and we have probably an hour of riding to go. Once we get to the other side.  Before leaving Esztergom this morning we visited the Basilica, the largest church in Hungary. We could see it for miles as we approached the city yesterday. It is built on a hill and has a huge dome. Remains of Roman walls are there too. Inside it is impressive with  beautiful decoration and some interesting relics. Outside lots of swallows were flying around – it’s a good nesting spot. The Duna was hazy and misty, bike path not too bad and quite well signposted. We have seen a few other cyclists.

Hungarian horsemen

Hungary

15 August 2010

We have changed countries twice in two days and are now in Hungary. Today’s route along the Donauradweg took us out of range of almost all of our fellow radlers. They were nowhere to be seen. The quality of the path deteriorated into a gravel two wheel track on top of the dike with many car barriers that are designed for bikes to cross, but slow progress quite a lot. Signage was nonexistent so our map and Garmin were essential. The water level in the river is metres higher than the villages nearby.

We needed to find breakfast so ventured into the village of Baka. It met almost all criteria of the stereotyped Eastern European small town with roads in poor shape, drab buildings, single shop with limited range of goods. We bought a few things and then went on to neighbouring larger town, Gabcikovo, where the bars and cafes were just opening (9am on Sunday). The bar we stopped at served us coffee, and quickly acquired a crowd of regular customers who got started on beer. These blokes all arrived on bicycles – Ian reckons they all lost their licences.

Free WiFi was available (good for a family Skype call). WiFi is fairly easy to find. The long ride along the dike on the bad bike path inspired a singing session. We got through a good selection of songs from the AUAS and NFBM repertoires with a few assorted old faves. Lunch in Komarno, nice city with interesting centre and history (we take the just-in-time approach and look up Wikipedia). Then across the river and into Hungary. A thunderstorm was brewing and we sheltered in a bus stop with a Hungarian woman while it rained and hailed.

On the road in Hungary under thundery skies

Then we stayed on the road all the way to Ezstergom. Interesting sights: piles of watermelons for sale by the roadside (sorry no photo); muddy torrents resulting from rainstorm; more of those manly bars serving beer (we stopped at one and found out that forints, not euros, are the currency here); beautiful city of Ezstergom which we will explore tomorrow.

View of the Danube from the Esztergom basilica

Cycle route:
Samorin – Gabčikovo
Gabčikovo – Esztergom

Slovakia

15 August 2010

It took us ages to extricate ourselves from Vienna which we did by taking the industrial tour, and then receiving assistance from a woman, aged probably in her 70s, who led us to the Donauradweg. The bicycle path took us past an area that’s popular for Viennese nudists who were stripping off to lie in the sun. Then along a long dike with forest on both sides. Our last Austrian town was Hainburg with Roman ruins and fort on the hill top. We could see Bratislava in the distance and crossed into Slovakia past the now disused border post.

Outpost on hill overlooking Hainburg

So we have arrived in eastern Europe. It is a distinctively different place from its neighbour. There was not time to become closely acquainted with Bratislava, but we stopped for a drink in the central mall and then began another gritty tour through high rise suburbs, then low rise outskirts and countryside that featured chemical factories, bad roads and dumped rubbish.

Bratislava street

Eventually we made our way back to the Donau, now a vast expanse with wetlands and recreational beaches, people fishing, roller blading, cycling and picnicking. We had to find a place to stay so left the path to go into the town of Samorin.

It has many blocks of flats, the old town centre a little neglected and lacking the charm that we are accustomed to. There were no tourist facilities or accommodation at all, so we returned to the river which does have these things. Our pension in Cilistov was comfortable and we dined at the Hotel Kormoran. This area is called the Riviera.

Cycle route:
Wien – Samorin

Vienna

14 August 2010

Vienna is Mozart Central. It’s full of people dressed up in Mozart costumes flogging concert tickets to tourists. The tourist groups here walk around with wireless receivers and earplugs listening to their tour guide – at least better than the system where the tour guide has an amplifier. Going around in a horse-drawn carriage is also popular. Vienna gets 3 Ukuleles for having the largest number of unusual museums, including the Museum of Crime, Museum of Torture, Museum of Contraception and Abortion, Funeral Museum, Esperanto Museum and the Third Man Museum. We went to the Museum of Torture – not sure why really except that it was nearby. It is not recommended as it only displays dusty old scenes of medieval torture and ignores any contemporary situations. It is linked with Amnesty though and has a display about human rights. Next stop: St Stephens Cathedral. It is being repaired but the hoardings have the image of the walls they are covering, so well done the person who thought up that idea. Like all the great cathedrals there was a stream of people walking around, including us. Incredibly there was a wedding ceremony taking place – it seemed an enormous intrusion to have tourists talking, taking photos and milling around, even though the front area of the church was off limits.

roof tiles of Vienna's cathedral

After a rest we decided to go on a self-designed Third Man tour so we went to the spot where Harry Lime didn’t get run over, and then headed to the Prater. Only the Garmin took us to another Prater, the Laaer Berg Prater, a kind of permanent side show alley, via the gritty area of Vienna, seldom seen by tourists. No Mozart costumes here. We had to ride through a lot more grit to get to the desired destination so that we could go on the Wiener Riesenrad, the giant ferris wheel, that is featured in The Third Man. I played the theme tune on the ukulele as we ascended. A violent thunderstorm descended shortly afterwards with torrential rain.

Ian on the giant wheel

Cycle route:
Langenlebarn – Wien

Melk and the Wachau

12 August 2010

Before leaving Ybbs, we went to the church to see if we could find the carved tomb of Hans, Knight of Ybbs, from 1358, as described by PLF (A time of gifts, 1977, p.159 Penguin edition), and there it was! Gilt and cherubs were there in good quantity too. Onwards to Pochlarn beside the wide Donau, then the abbey of Melk could be seen high in the distance. Melk is Tourism Central with bus parking, tour groups and souvenir shops. The bicycle parking area had luggage lockers so bicycle tourists are well catered for. We mainly osmosed the history here – it was either that or join a tour or do a degree in European history. After leaving Melk, it was hard to make progress as we needed to stop many times to eat fruit, rest, see things, find shade (it was quite hot and humid). We chose the worst cafe where, despite being open for business, they didn’t want to serve any food. We had a toasted sandwich no better than you can get in a Tailem Bend roadhouse. This tragedy aside, the Wachau was beautiful with orchards, terraced vineyards, river enclosed between hills on either side, villages with narrow streets, views, lots of bike riders and cruise boats on the water.

Wachau valley on Danube

After Krems the river valley broadens and becomes more industrial with factories and power stations. We had a headwind too. Now we are at Langenlebarn, just past Tulln, for the night and will go to Vienna in the morning.

Cycle route:
Ybbs – Langenlebarn

Ybbs

12 August 2010

Today we cycled from Aschach to Ybbs. Our zimmer in Aschach was a room in a family home, one of two rooms that are available for radlers (riders on the Donauradweg). The first part of the route took us along a flat and open section of the river  valley. We arrived in Linz before 10am and were happy to find free WiFi in the stadtplatz. Public internet access is not easy to find and unsecured WiFi is rare. According to Fabian, it used to be more widely available in cafes and other public places, but people would camp all day with their laptops, so it has tightened up a lot. Travelling as we are, we have little time and energy to seek it out. Once we leave Austria it will probably be harder to check emails and update the blog.

We ate linzertorte and apfelstrudel before continuing. The weather was fine and warm and the cycle path full of cyclists with roller blading, Nordic walking and cross country ski training also featuring. We spent a bit of time getting slightly lost as we crossed the Enns, and found the Donau again near Wallsee, a pretty town with square on top of a hill and a fountain with cherubs. Soon after this the gorge closes in again and the path returns close to the river.

Shady gorge on Danube above Ybbs

We are reading Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked here in the 1930s. If we run out of money, Ian intends to do sketches as PLF did to keep himself solvent. Only Ian says he will use the available technology to make it quicker and to produce a better likeness (digital camera and Gimp for various hand-drawn effects).

Cycle route:
Aschach – Linz
Linz – Ybbs

Deggendorf to Aschach

11 August 2010

Tues 10 August

Pension Pielmeier was pretty good but we had to mark it down because of the breakfast which included kraft singles-style cheese slices. You expect that in Australia but in Germany it’s not really good enough. Tough, yes but we need to be if we’re to retain the trust of our readers.

There is a lot of water in the Donau. After leaving Deggendorf we encountered a number of ‘hochwasser’ signs (high water), where water was over the path. Some of these we ignored, resulting in wet socks and shoes. Some we could not ignore. We had one detour along the edge of a muddy field and another along the road.

Arrived in Passau in time for morning tea before attending the organ recital in St Stephens Church (Bach, Tartini, Flor Peeters, Schutze). This church is thoroughly decorated in the rococo style with a high cherub count. This style is growing on me – I think it could inspire the next kitchen renovation.

Passau cathedral organ

The Inn River enters the Donau at Passau adding more water to the torrent. The river flows through a forested gorge from Passau to Aschach making this a spectacular section of the route, especially at Schlogen where there is a big bend. There are gasthofs, restaurants, pensions and all kinds of facilities for the hundreds of cyclists. But the route is not overcrowded. We have seen people of all ages, including small children, cycling the radweg. Child trailers are common – one carried a dalmatian!

We have noticed the beautiful palette of pastel colours of buildings in the towns we pass through and believe that this must be the result of some kind of regulation. It seems unlikely that it could occur by chance. Does anyone know if that’s true?

As we dined by the river in the evening a man walked by with a falcon on his gauntleted arm!

Bicycle route:
Regensburg to Deggendorf to Aschach