Current location: Belgrade, Serbia
Distance travelled so far: around 2540 km
Having said goodbye to Christine’s parents in Vienna, we pedalled on to Bratislava in Slovakia. The distance is only about 40 miles or so, so only took us half a day, but what a difference. Whereas Vienna is full of amazing buildings that are very well preserved, as well as generally being immaculate with good quality public facilities, Bratislava is rather grey and run-down with a very Soviet-style era feel to it. The roads are mostly in a terrible condition, and it turns out that a couple of days earlier Dean, who we first met in the UK and who is doing a similar trip to us (but was a couple of days ahead of us at this point) got his front wheel caught in a tram line, fell off and broke his arm. Not good at all. Our sympathy is slightly limited though by the news that he has headed off to India to enjoy some beaches and cheap beer while his arm recovers, before returning to Bratislava to continue the trip. We hope he is having a good time and that the recovery goes ok! Needless to say we were very careful cycling around the centre of town.
I don’t wish to sound all negative about Bratislava though, it does have a very charming old quarter with lots of nice bars and restaurants, and a well-preserved castle which provides a great view over the city. It also has a lively nightlife and very cheap beer, with the consequence that hordes of stag do descend at the weekends, mostly from the UK it seems. We experienced this first hand as we were there on a Friday night – doesn’t make you proud to be British! All in all certainly an interesting city to visit, but perhaps not at the weekend if possible!
The following day we cycled out of Bratislava with Matt, a fellow cyclist currently on a similar itinerary to us, and with his Slovakian host (via couchsurfer), who kindly cycled with us for the first 30km or so – very useful as otherwise we might have got lost! It took us two days to get to Budapest, firstly along the river and some countryside on the Slovakian side, then through Hungarian countryside and some more riverside. We spent the night at a town called Komarom, which was great because it has thermal spring baths, with several campsites nearby. It was certainly nice to spend some time soaking in thermal waters after a long day’s cycling! The following day into Budapest included the pleasant town of Estzertom, known for its architecture as the Rome of Hungaria, as well as the ‘Scenic Knee’ of the Danube, basically a big bend in the river north of Budapest which is particularly picturesque. The weather was great- summer has officially arrived – so it was a very pleasant couple of days. Arriving into Budapest was somewhat chaotic because it was a Sunday, the weather was great, and there had been a huge cycling event in Budapest the day before. Consequently the bike path north of Budapest, as far as the pretty little town of Szentendre, was absolutely mobbed by people getting out of the city, mostly on their bicycles. All very nice but a little hard work when you actually want to get somewhere! Rather than get stressed we decided to do as the locals were doing and stop for a cold beer to avoid the worst of the rush. Once installed at a hostel in Budapest we met up with Ollie and Tom, who we mentioned in previous blogs – it was good to catch up and hear about their experiences. We then had 2 days off the bikes, during which time we explored the city and generally relaxed – most welcome! Budapest is a lovely city with lots of impressive architecture and a pleasant chilled-out feel to it. One of the highlights for us was visiting one of the many thermal spas in the city – we went to the ones in the main park, and were very impressed. The complex is housed in an old but well-preserved ornate building, and includes around 20 pools of varying temperatures both inside and outside, as well as saunas and steam rooms etc. And all for around £10 each for the day! We took something to read and just relaxed. So much so that at one point we both dozed off in one of the warm pools!
After Budapest we headed south, with the intention of reaching Serbia via Kecskemet and Szeged, but this was not to be – turns out the road we wanted to cycle on is barred to cyclists (not sure why, it is not that busy). Unfortunately we only found out after not one but two police cars (complete with blue flashing lights!) pulled us over – bit of a heart stopping moment but they were very nice and even spent 5 minutes poring over our map working out the best alternative route. Turns out they did us a favour, as the minor roads we ended up on were much nicer and virtually free of traffic, making the extra distance the diversion entailed well worthwhile. Even better we found another thermal spring campsite to stay at for the first night.
In general southern Hungary is really rather pleasant, the part we cycled through is a great wide plain which although completely flat still manages to be quite scenic and pretty, without being too agricultural. The whole area has an extremely rural air about it, but you are never too far from a town with well-stocked shops (including Tesco hypermarkets which quite randomly are everywhere in Slovakia and Hungary, complete with Tesco own brand food) and most other things you might need. Serbia has been a little differerent. We reached the border at lunchtime on the second day, and had our first proper border crossing complete with stamp in passport. When you think about it, it is quite impressive that we have come this far and this was the first time anybody had looked at our passports, aside from a cursory glance in Dover. No doubt we will miss how easy it has been travelling from country to country from now on! We arrived almost immediately in Subotica, which is nice enough, but it quickly became clear that Serbians aren’t too fussed about putting up road signs; they just seem to assume everybody knows where they are going. I can only assume they don’t get too many visitors. To make matters worse, our GPS mapping system doesn’t include Serbia (actually, it is meant to include major towns and roads, but it has hardly any detail even in central Belgrade, I will be having a discussion with Garmin about that!), so we had to ask for directions several times to get us out of Subotica. Even then we ended up on a diversion – not impressed! Since then the roads have been better signposted, although now we are in Belgrade it is a nightmare because the street names are only in Cyrillic – everywhere else signs are in both the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets – we don’t understand the Cyrillic alphabet so the only way to get round is to establish where we are (usually by asking) then to count the blocks in the right direction – great fun! Anyway, northern Serbia is much like southern Hungary i.e., very flat, but much more agricultural so not so great to look at. To make it worse, we had a headwind the whole way to Belgrade, which was hard work. However we did see lots of great wildlife, particularly huge storks and enormous hares. We also had our first night wild camping – not intentional, we were aiming for a campsite marked on our map, but it turned out not to exist. Not a problem as we are perfectly well equipped to wild camp, and the weather is great (30c every day, 10-15c at night – did I already mention that?!), so we found a nice spot and set up camp in time to watch a lovely sunset. Had a bit of a fright later on in the night though, we were very close to a railway line which we knew was in use, but didn’t necessarily expect trains on it at night; some time after going to sleep we were awakened by a deafening noise and a bright light as a huge freight train rushed by, giving us both heart attacks!
The next day we pushed onto Belgrade, a very long day (155km with a headwind = sore everything and tired legs!), but it meant we arrived a day earlier than planned so we have 2 days off here which is good. Also we had been warned not to cycle today because it is a big national holiday in Serbia, and apparently the roads are likely to be full of drunk drivers! Not sure how true this is, but definitely a good incentive for pushing on and getting in and off the roads a day early. Our first impressions of Belgrade were not good – the last 10km or so into the city were very industrial, busy and polluted, not what you want at the end of a long day. Plus then we had the navigational issues mentioned earlier. However now we are here and have recovered it is a lot more pleasant. The old town and fortress are nice to wander round, and provide great views of the surrounding area, which is quite pretty as Belgrade is at the confluence of two rivers. We spent today pottering around and treated ourselves to a leisurely lunch in an open-air cafe – things are so much cheaper here it is much more feasible to do that sort of thing from time to time which is nice. We then went to the park for an ice-cream and a snooze, very relaxing! Because of the holiday it seems the whole of Belgrade was out doing a similar thing so we also spent quite a bit of time people-watching. Some other entertainment has come in the form of the official Belgrade tourist guide, which is rather refreshingly honest in places, e.g., ‘Belgrade is a fairly safe place. There is not a single part of the city where a girl should not be walking on her own in the middle of the night. However, hazards do exist. In particular, while strolling round the old town, beware of the bits and pieces that may fall off the buildings awaiting their restoration’. ‘Unless you have a penchant for the Dakar rally experience, you had better abandon the idea of driving round Belgrade.’ ‘Doctors and medical staff in state-run hospitals are professional and reliable. The worrisome part are poor maintenance of the hospitals, a result of insufficient funds. If you are ill, you are advised to see a private doctor in order to avoid an agonizing wait’. ‘The toilets in this restaurant are best avoided unless in an emergency.’ I could go on, all in all quite amusing.
Next on our itinerary we head East over the mountains (not looking forward to this) into Bulgaria, which we cycle all the way across until we reach the Black Sea and Turkey. And then leg one of the trip will be complete!