Friday, 27 July 2007

Hungary: northwest to Slovakia

The Hungarian version of a BBQ is goulash over a fire. All campsites and most parks have fireplaces for goulash making but even when they don't people can be found cooking goulash in the most unexpected places in pots suspended by a tripod.

Goulash for lunch

After Budapest we followed the Danube cycle route upstream, detouring from the route to visit Győr. We were now entering a serious heatwave. The temperature rose over 35 degrees for the next six days in a row. The cycling conditions were terrible between about 1 and 4pm. In Győr we followed strains of latin music to find an excellent band from Cuba performing in the central square accompanied by sweat-drenched local salseros. Unfortunately we had the wrong shoes on for dancing...

Cuban band in Győr

Back on the Danube and the heat persisted, and we fought off dehydration and heat rash the best we could to the Slovakian border.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Hungary: Eger to Budapest

Eger is a touristy city with lots to see. Back in the 16th century, the Hungarians successfully fought off a Turkish invasion from here and they're still proud of it, despite the Turks winning again 40 years later. So there's a great castle to explore, a humming old town, spas, as well as world-famous red wines.


Europeans take their bathing very seriously. Thermal spas are everywhere and each offers cures for different ailments depending on the mineral content (and smell?) of the water. The number of crutches and wheelchairs surrounding thermal pools is astounding, and some baths are only accessible if you have a doctor's prescription!

Roger in thermal spring

Sunset over Eger

From Eger we headed west to Gyöngyös - pronounced jernjersh - through rolling countryside (read: hills) and then to Hatvan. The westerly headwinds were still tiresome so we opted for another train to Budapest.

Scenery between Eger and Budapest

Budapest! Wow, what a city!

This is a great place to hang out so we took the opportunity to rent a great apartment for five days. The apartment is in a renovated old building, has 15 foot ceilings, and modern furnishings. It's also about the same price as two dorm beds in a hostel. We've been catching up on domestic things such as shopping, as well as visiting the sights, of which there are many.

Looking east to Pest from Buda Castle

Budapest by night

A nice building

A nice church

Since the end of communism in 1989 the Hungarians have been collecting all their old statues and putting them in a park near Budapest. These huge soviet-era monoliths are worth the trip.

Communism lives

We spent an afternoon cycling along the World Heritage Andrassy Avenue to City Park where there are more thermal baths, museums, art galleries and a zoo.


The reflected Fisherman's Bastion near Buda Castle

Hungary: Romania to Eger

Entering Hungary was a relief. There was a bike lane directly from the border and everything just seemed easier. We had been used to Romanian cars and trucks using their horns to get us off the road. But in Hungary the drivers were courteous, except for the odd Romanian truck. By the end of the day we were able to discern which trucks were Romanian before even looking at the number plate! There was still the occasional "no bikes" sign on busy roads. It took us a while to find a map that indicated where these roads were.

No bikes, tractors or horses and carts

Our first meal in Hungary was basic and traditional. We found a small restaurant in a tiny town and sat down, expecting a menu. We didn't speak any Hungarian yet but that didn't seem to matter because there was only one meal option. This was soup followed by a kind of pasta cooked in pork fat, topped with white cheese (thanks for the warning Matt).

Most meals in Romania and eastern Hungary consist of pork and potatoes. The differences between restaurants are the different ways they cook these two ingredients. We tried to order a meal without potatoes once but failed. We'd ordered enough dishes but none of them contained potato. The concerned waiter approached us and kept pointing to the potato dishes until we ordered one.

Sunflower field

The westerly headwinds continued as we cycled through Hungary so we thought we'd take a train to Nyíregyháza. This was surprisingly easy. The train wasn't really meant for bikes but the conductor helped us get the bikes on anyway. This attitude was so different to what we'd experienced in Romania.

We headed north to Sóstó, a holiday region with lakes and lots of greenery. From there it was an easy cycle to the wine region of Tokaj, known mainly for dessert wines that comes in 6 grades of sweetness. We hung around the little tourist town tasting and learning about wine production.

Wine tasting in Tokaj

By now we'd obtained a cycling map and the route to Miskolc looked difficult. Most of the roads were prohibited for cycling and we'd have to do a big detour. So we thought we'd try the train and again it was easy. We camped near the Miskolc-Tapolca spa region and then headed west into the hills.

The Bűkk plateau is a national park and ski region. We explored the gateway town, Lillafűred, and then climbed into the hills. It was a long, hard climb but well worth the effort. At the top we found a private campsite run by a very fit looking Hungarian and his family. He'd built a beautiful wooden house and a few huts on his hilltop paradise and was living a very happy existence. His dog was happy too.

Roger and friend

From there we traversed the plateau on good forest roads that are open only to bikes, horses and feet. We didn't really know what to expect but it was a beautiful ride through grassland and beech forests.

Luisa on Bűkk Plateau

Looking down

We descended from the plateau to Szilvásvárad, a town known for it's Lippizanner white horses. We found a Dutch lady who had a great little campsite in her backyard and she organised a horseriding trip with a fellow Dutch lady who'd moved to Hungary two years earlier. We spent four hours wandering the hills on horseback, to little towns, lakes, and through forests. We had to duck our heads on some of the trails to avoid branches and got a bit scratched. The horses were happy and well cared for and they enjoyed roaming the hills and cantering on the flats.

We popped out of the forest to this village


The next night we were joined at the campsite by a group of school children and their teacher on a 6 day cycle tour of northern Hungary and Slovakia. The gas supply to the whole town was cut off for that day so we had to vie for shower time before the hot water tank ran out!

From Szilvásvárad we cycled south to Eger helped by a rare roaring tailwind (!) and found ourselves in tourist country again.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Romania: Maramureş to Hungary

Now in the heart of Maramureş we were lucky enough to be cycling through a string of villages on a Sunday. Crowds poured out of the Greco-Catholic churches in their sunday best: Colourful skirts and headscarves for women and loose white shirts and vests for men. On this Sunday we didn't see a single horse-and-cart, and no one was working in the fields.

Sunday parade

Even the younger generation adhered to the dress code

Villagers in their Sunday best

Greco-Catholic Church

Monastery in Barsana, a popular pilgrimage site

Pot tree of unknown significance

A tourist highlight of Maramureş is the Merry Cemetery. In the 1960s, the local grave builder started creating humourous headstones that told amusing stories about the deceased in poetry and pictures. Unfortunately there were no translations so we missed the poetry, but the pictures were great.

Merry Cemetery headstone

Maramureş is a truly strange region. It is separated from the rest of Romania by a mountain range and hasn't really caught up to the 21st century (or even the 20th). Even the main highway to the west has sections of cobblestone. By now we were cycling into a strong westerly headwind. We ascended the pass through a beautiful forest and found ourselves battling to stay upright in the gusts on the way down. The wind was so strong at times that we were pedalling downhill at 12-13km/h! After a hard day we stopped at a thermal spring hotel.

Cows outside the thermal hotel

From there we had another couple of days of headwind through Satu Mare to the Hungarian border. We were happy to leave Romania. It was a fascinating country but years of communism and poverty have taken their toll on the spirit of the people. We had many good experiences but the majority of the people we met were unhappy to see us and were unwilling to help us when we asked. The contrast with Hungary was apparent immediately.

Romania: Bistriţa and Ieud

Rolling hills and haystacks

Riding into Bistriţa, we had yet to learn our lesson about taking shortcuts. Trying to avoid a headwind, we ventured off the recommended bike route again and ended up riding about 10km on coarse gravel and medium sized rocks. Then over this final hill on a relatively smooth tractor path before the descent (again on gravel):

Path into Bistriţa

In Bistriţa we had stayed in the first of many hotels we nicknamed "mafia hotels". They are characterised by bright paint (orange, pink and lime) and expensive but tasteless furnishings. They are often associated with petrol stations and have black BMWs, Mercs, Audis or Porsches out the front. We learned that they are financed by people who've become suspiciously wealthy since the end of communism.

A more disappointing accommodation option was another "campsite", again without tent spaces, with trucks and the above-mentioned nice cars pulling in at all hours and pumping music that seemed to become louder as the night progressed. On investigation we realised we were at a campsite that doubled as a strip club.

Farming woman

Gypsy children

Horses and carts holding up traffic

The drivers here have to contend with horses and carts, slow tractors, cattle and people wandering on all village streets... not to mention cyclists. Despite this, drivers tended to be intolerant in Romania: It was the done thing to honk as they passed, for reasons unknown, and if large trucks passed we would often be forced off the road.

Rain approaching

Haystack making

Haystacks are everywhere in Romania. Every decent bit of grass is cut multiple times during the summer and either stacked by hand or hauled off by a horse and cart. This doesn't just include farms but also the verge beside train lines, church grounds, etc. Most of the stacks are just round but there are variations.

Wall shaped haystacks

Descent into Maramureş Province

Our biggest climb so far took us to a high pass that lead into the rural province of Maramureş. Luckily we had good weather. In Maramureş the farming population still use horses and carts, work the fields with scythes, draw water from wells and live a largely traditional lifestyle... if you exclude the satellite dishes!

Satellite dish on mud-walled house

The architecture in Maramureş is quite unique. As we learned at an open air museum, the carved wooden gates are a feature of the region and full of symbolism.

Ornate tiled house

Wooden gate carving

The village of Ieud has a wooden church dating from 1365. We stayed with a lady who noted our love of her homemade berry jam and gave us a bottle as we were leaving.

Wooden church