Day 20- A meal with Mirko

The priority for today was to cross into Serbia and have someone give the bike a bit of an overhaul. Nothing serious just a few adjustments and some lubrication.

The border was only a couple of kilometres from where I stayed, so first thing I crossed the bridge over the Danube into Croatia. All very straightforward just a stamp in my passport.

Bačka Palanka, the town on the Serbian side, proved unsuccessful for a bike shop so I would have to until the regional capital, Novi Sad, about 50km further on. It was back on the flood dyke again, more wide open spaces and a reasonable surface for cycling. At one spot there were a few men fishing- it was a lovely sheltered inlet, so I had my break here. I watched as one man sitting in a boat at the shore caught a few small fish; over the space of about half an hour he had takes from about three much bigger fish, but he failed to catch these. For the first time ever I began to appreciate the challenge and perhaps the allure of course fishing. As I watched a Black-crowned Night Heron flew into the inlet and quarried around owl-like scanning the water’s surface. That was a surprise and a delight to see.

The approach to Novi Sad is met with a cluster of high rise appartment blocks that have seem better days. Around one, a peregrine falcon screeched- I wondered had anyone else noticed from the busy street? I found a very obliging bike shop, Fanatic, who took my bike from me and gave it the once over- charged me only for parts, which was very decent. Novi Sad has been chosen as European City of Culture for 2021 – in the short time I was there I got the sense it is a quirky city and could offer a lot in that role.

About 20km or so from Novi Sad, I came to roadworks where the main road was completely dug up- in true Craggy Island fashion, they took the road in for a few months to repair it. This resulted in cars turning off onto farm track and general travel chaos. Finally, I arrived to where four cars had come to a dead end. You always know things are bad when all the locals are out of their cars and on their mobile phones looking for some assistance. Certainly I hadn’t a clue where I was to go. One local finally had it nailed, and gave everyone there detailed descriptions of where to go. To be fair to the man, he didn’t ignore me. It can be difficult enough at times to get direction you can understand from a farmer at home, but one with a Serbian dialect was a bridge too far. I rode on in the vague direction the cars went, but of course was stumped at the first cross roads. Finally, when completely and utterly lost, and arriving to the end of a lane in some hillside in the back of beyonds, I spied a sign for what looked like a guest house- a very welcomed sight.

It is often the way with travel that when you are at your wit’s end and most in need of bit of a break, that you fall on your feet. I arrived as a lost soul on the doorstep of Mirko Jevtović’s home, to be greeted with true hospitality. Mirko house was small but homely. He lived here with his wife, but she was away for the evening. He gave me a room overlooking his garden – a long orchard with meticulous maintained fruit trees and bushes. Coffee was produced first thing, and with a mixture of English, German and Google translate were got chatting. He was an interesting man, with a nice manner. It was easy chatting to him. I was shown the garden and he treated me to peaches and nectarines from the tree. Gardening was his great passion. He invited me to eat with him and a great plate of meat, cheese and vegetables was produced. I also tried some of his homemade plum schnaps; that went down smoothly! He handed me a pepper. I was about to bite into it but he warned ‘It is angry’. Heeding his advice, I took a sliver to taste- angry, indeed it was! A good expression I though for something that would blow the head off you.

We broached a few topics that would have been interesting had we a greater range of vocabulary. I didn’t need to know much Serbian to get the gist that Mirko was not a fan of the EU!

Our evening finished up watching Argentina just managing to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup, and exchanging photos and news of our respective families.

Day 19- Wounded Vuckovar

Headed off for the morning to visit Kopački Rit Nature Reserve with a load of tomatoes the landlady, Helena, picked from her garden. The Nature Reserve is a vast expanse of wetland – lakes, marsh, reedbeds and flooded meadows – that extends for miles on the Croatian side of the Danube. This area has an interesting history in its own right. It has long been used as a hunting area and Tito had his Hunting Lodge here – which is now open to the public. The area was taken over by Serbia during the Yugoslav Civil War, and was heavily mined. There are still no-go areas here, but not anywhere near where I was. After the ceasefire, the land was given by the UN back to the Croatian government and it is now being actively promoted for eco-tourism.

I spent the morning here doing some bird watching, first along the boardwalk area that allows you to get really close to the reeds and pools, then out on the flood dyke to get an elevated view of the miles upon miles of the reserve. It was nice to see there were plenty of information boards about the reserve and some of the important aspects of wildlife, in Croat and english which was helpful. Some of the birds I saw included pygmy cormorant, purple heron, ferruginous duck, great white egret, black stork and Savi’s warbler. It was also nice to see both middle-spotted and lesser-spotted woodpecker within minutes of each other. I couldn’t get over the number of Grey Heron here; along one flooded field, albeit a long field, I counted over 150 birds. I also saw a stoat coming out of the jacks; must have been a surprise for anyone in there!

The afternoon took me through a region that saw some of the worse brutality of the Serb-Croat conflict- names like Osijek, Vukovar and Nemetin that I would have remembered from news items on the war, which was really just a few short years ago. Such brutality and slaughter in a place that now seems so normal. There are a few memorials to this period that I passed and there are derelict buildings pock-marked with bullet holes still as a reminder. Vuckovar Train Station still lies in ruin, with the station sign hanging over the door. Vuckovar itself was largely destroyed during the conflict and is a sad, strange place. There is no centre, rather the centre was destroyed and is slowly being rebuilt with modern purely functional buildings. There is no sense of any master plan or concept of urban design. There is a strange sedate air to the place, as if people speak in hushed tones. To me it seemed like a town whose heart and soul had been destroyed. I felt the whole experience difficult and impossible to comprehend how quickly things can escalate when the right/wrong conditions prevail. A couple of days ago I was worried about my grey men in suits; today I am glad it is not men in military uniforms that I have to answer to.

The last leg of the cycle to Ilok, just at the border with Serbia, brought me over a succession of ascents and descents of 8 percent, as the road followed the undulating landscape. Finished in Ilok for the evening having covered 110km. Had a beer looking onto the Danube and across to Serbia.

Day 18 – Crossing to Croatia

I awoke and was packed up early, but as I passed the centre of the town I was surprised to be met by hoards of kids on bikes making their way to the start of the triathlon. Today was the day for the young ones and obviously you need to get up early if you want to be a triathlete. There were kids of all ages, some really young; they seemed to be moving around by different age groups. I didn’t see the group with stabilisers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had one.

I didn’t know there was such a palaver about triathlon. First the bike needs adjusting, then re-adjusting. The numbers need to be fitted on the competitors and their bikes. Then the bikes are checked that their brakes are working, the seat is secure, as is the helmet. There seemed to be a question over the size of some of the wheels, so they had to be measured. Then there is a ritual around finding your bike stand slot, fixing your shoes to the pedals, ensuring the straps are just loose enough for your feet to slip into. And the helmet just exactly on the bike where it can’t fall off. Then running shoes and another race number are laid out, like a sacrificial alter, neatly beside the bike. And all this was only the nine year olds! Anyway eventually the race got underway and there was great excitement.

This morning it was once more onto the flood dyke, but along the edge of a Nature Reserve. Beautiful tall woodland and luxuriant backwaters and creeks, with the background sound of croaking toads. The grassland on the dyke were rich in diversity and colour, alive with insect life. Lizards, basking on the warm track surface scurried to safety as I passed. Butterflies and day flying moths too basking on the grass soaking up the morning sun. A deer bolted for cover and a bit further on, a marten bounded across the track. I don’t know which one, for it could have been any one of a few different species that occur here. Think of the terror it would strike in the pine marten campaigning Longford Councillor knowing there are more than just pine martens to contend with should he ever decide to holiday in these parts!

A short ferry trip brough me to the last Hungarian town before the border with Croatia. I had some Forints left over so I decided to have a meal. Having a nose for such things, I noticed that there were quite a few well dressed families in a restaurant on the main street, eating their fill. It was a buffet, all you can eat for 2,400 Forints, expensive enough but at least I’d be well fed for the rest of the day. Well there were three main stew options; a brownish-red one, a cream one and what can only be described as a snot-green one. The colour alone put me off the latter, but I definitely wasn’t going to touch it when what seemed like a fish eye there looking up at me. I went for the brown option with chips. The gloop I got defied description. What I though was meat certainly bore no resemblance to anything I had eaten before. I couldn’t touch it, but the chips were good. I returned to try the cream option, taking only a small amount this time. Whatever it was, was equally unappetising. For a third attempt I chose some of the roasted bits, notice I didn’t say meat bits, as these proved to be from parts of the animal (what animal I’m not quite sure) which I understood the EU had outlawed for human consumption some years back. It gave ‘all you can eat’ a whole new meaning. I did have some fruit though which was good. Not only was the food inedible, it was pricey; I can safely say it was the most expensive banana and chips I ever had.

It was then off for Croatia. After what seemed like an eternity cycling across land without any building, I finally arrived at the border control, and I duly took my place in the queue of cars waiting to be ushered across. There were two tiny kiosks next to each other, with a customs officer in each; first the Hungarian then the Croat. I handed my passport to the Hungarian who didn’t make as much as eye contact with me, never mind speak. He checked my pasport on a computer then handed my passport, behind his back, to his Croatian colleague. I could tell by his demeanour he was finished with me, and I could move on.

Two feet away, across the border in sunny Croatia, I was met with a cheery ‘Hello sir. Where have you come from?’ I told him. ‘And where are you going by bike’? I mention Bilje, my planned stop for the night. No, he wanted to know about the bike trip. ‘Cycling the Danube’ he repeated with some interest. ‘And why did I want to do that?’. Fair question, I thought, but I just shrugged my shoulders. Now, with half of Hungary backed up trying to get out of their homeland, I was beginning to feel a bit self conscious- should we not speed things along a bit? He was having none of it; he was full of chat and no matter the reams of policies and legislation there are across the EU to assist the free movement of people and goods, wasn’t going to let these get in the way of being helpful. He asked me what route I was taking to get to Bilje. When I mention the Danube Cycleway he grew concerned. I should not go that way, a shorter route was to go via – and here he lost me listing about a dozen incomprehensible village names all ending in -vac or -vic. He knew I was struggling so asked if I had my map- that duly resulted in me fumbling in my paniers, fishing out the map and Mr Croatian Customs Officer and I pouring over a map, with half of Hungary and by now quite a few homeward bound Croatians looking on. When he was sure that I would save myself 10km or so, he waved me off as if we were long lost buddies.

In Croatia, off to my right I could see a ridge of high ground, the first I’d seen for days. The route took me towards this, a small ridge of mixed cropping, including wine production. I had to climb this ridge. My legs had forgotten how to go uphill, so I had to give them a stern talking too.

Later I saw my first Black Stork of the trip, which was nice. Spent the night at a lovely guest house in Bilje. The landlady couldn’t have been friendlier or more obliging. She insisted that I have a plate of homemade sponge cake with apricot jam. I guess she thought I needed them!

I had covered 110km by the time I stopped for the evening.

Day 17 – To the capital city of fish soup

There are two things that can be said about the Great Hungarian Plain, it is flat and it’s not for the agrophobiac. It is hard to appreciate the sense of space the place gives you, added to by the knowledge this extends far beyond the horizon. And it is a striking linear landscape with either horizontal or vertical lines taking your perspective to the horizon or skyward. But, to be honest, this great outdoors is doing my head in a bit. As you know I’m all for the great outdoors, but my late father used to say you can get too much of a good thing. I never really agreed with that, but after a couple of days of these vast open vistas, he may have been right; in future perhaps I’ll just settle for the outdoors, we can forget about the Great bit.

My first stop of the day was in a town called Kalocsa. I had great hopes for Kalocsa, not because it is one of the oldest towns in Hungary, or because it has a long tradition of local crafs, or because it is at the heart of paprika pepper cultivation, but because I hoped I could get a sandwich or something else to eat. All along the main street there were cafes, with people drinking coffee. I chose a busy premises attached to a hotel and ordered a coffee. No problem. Could I have a sandwich? No, we don’t do food. Don’t do food at 12.30 of a Saturday morning? I did, however, manage to get food on the outskirts of the town; apparently I had just been looking in the wrong place – main street is only for coffee drinkers.

The afternoon’s cycle was a strange experience. The route took me onto the top of the flood dyke, along a loose gravel path. I was on that elevated path for about 35km without seeing a sinner. Just me and my thoughts- great trial for a cycling trip to Patagonia, if I was ever to plan one! I couldn’t help it but my thoughts wandered onto work and grey men in suits, one of the things I was hoping to escape from for the month. Grey men, self important and focussing on the wrong things, can really become a pain in the arse. But I am sure they are lovely men with their grandchildren.

The last section of the cycle brought my to the edge of the Gemenc National Forest reserve, part of a huge expanse of wetland and woodland similar to what would have been the original natural vegetation along much of the Danube. After days of seeing little wildlife to interest me, I was delighted to see two White-tailed Eagles and a Black Kite fly past, close enough to get excellent views. I couldn’t get over the number of Yellowhammers singing and flying across my path- certainly their populations are not threatened here, unlike in Ireland. When stopped for my afternoon break, I watched a dozen colourful Bee-eaters messing about on a bit of recently cultivated ground.

As I eat, it was lovely to hear three bird species that are exotic to an Irish birdwatcher; the Bee-eater with it odd lilting calls from the field, the harsh, nasal call of the Red-backed Shrike from the bushes at the edge of the wood, and the glorious flute-like song of the Golden Oriel from high up in the trees. Worth travelling to experience this, I thought.

I began to see the first small herds of cattle here- I hadn’t noticed any since I began my trip. They were all fairly scrawny looking; perhaps well suited to their environment here but I’m sure Teagasc wouldn’t approve.

I spent a couple of hours visiting the Gemenc Forest Reserve. It is difficult to get a good impression of the place in such short time, but it is lovely to see a bit of wildeness in a sea of maize and sunflowers. Woodlands of tall majestic willows, poplars and oak trees, with a rich understorey of shrubs. River channels lined with reeds and covered in lush growth of a water weed with a bright yellow flower. Plenty of Blackcap and Chiffchaff in song, but I got a bit frustrated that there were a couple of other birds singing and calling that I didn’t recognise. I must brush up on these over the coming days.

I made it to Baja for the evening, the place was a hive of activity for the Hungarian Triathlon Championships were taking place. There were athletes everywhere. Things were winding down by the time I arrived but there seemed to have been different races for different levels, for there was a real mix of talent; super fit and not so fit, slim and not so slim, young and not so young, everyone doing their best. It was a nice atmosphere, different I think from similar events in Ireland. Felt at home for once in the campsite with my lycra. Mind you my pale skin showed me up as not being native.

Did a quick internet search about Baja – under the heading ‘Merry-making of Baja’ is its claims to be the ‘Capital city of fish soup’ – apparently each July they have a festival where they make vast quantities, 2,000 pots of, well, fish soup. I kid you not. Now that’s something for the diary.

Day 16 – Across the Great Hungarian Plain

I awoke to a wet and overcast sky- yes! After being cooked yesterday, I welcomed the change in weather. And what a dramatic change; whereas yesterday it was in the low 30s, today it would reach only 17 degrees!

South of Budapest there is a 50km long island, called the Csepel-sziget, which separates the main Danube from a smaller eastern arm of the river. The cycle path follows the eastern arm of the river, between houses and the riverside, looking onto the island. The houses appear to be weekend homes, and many could best be described as cabins. But this is a fisherman’s paradise. Every 10 or 20 metres there is a fishing platform, with somewhere to lauch your boat. 30km or so of fishing heaven, where peace and solitude are the order of the day. You get the impression that there is rarely any excitement here, other than if someone lands a specimen carp. Even today, with an unpleasant wind blowing from the river, there was a great amount of fishing activity. Well, hardly activity, they were just sitting there.

I took it easy this morning – well had little choice really as the surface of the track was poor, but that was no harm. Stopped for lunch at Rackave, the gateway town to the island. And to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s difficulties on the bike, sat down to a big feed of pasta- that set me up for the day.

The afternoon cycle took me across a very flat landscape- I was now entering the Great Hungaria plain where hills of any kind are in short supply. At one stage I looked around 360 degrees only to see flat and dull landscape stretching to the horizon.

The villages here all have much of the same character, a church at the centre then streets leading from there in a grid pattern. They don’t seem to do curves very much, but nice to see there are still many Trabants on the road. And there never seems to be much happening once the women have done their shopping.

I am struck how many collared doves there are in the villages. It was from this part of the world that in the 1950s collared doves spread there wings and began to colonise northwest Europe, arriving in Ireland sometime in the 1960s. It is also nice to hear Great Reed Warbler singing in the reeds- always reminds me of a sedge warbler on steroids.

There is not much wild land in these parts, it is all fairly intensively farmed. I did however stop at a few places along the way, but didn’t see much for it was cool and windy. At one stage I took to photographing grasshoppers, and testing how many hops it takes to tire a grasshopper. I reckon after about four it is easier to photograph at least the bigger ones! Of course this is not proper research; you never know if they tire or they just stop playing this silly game.

Rest of the day was uneventful, just covering the distance. Stopped for the evening in small town, Harta, somewhere in the middle of the Great Hungarian plain. Walked from where I was staying to the centre of the town for something to eat. It was a beautiful evening and a song thrush and blackbird were in full song- sounded almost like home except they were joined by a serin and black redstart. I’ve come a long way to hear a serin and black redstart, I thought.

Day 15 – Budapest after breakfast

I stayed in a campsite in Dömös for it is opposite the ‘Danube Bend’. Now the Danube Bend is a big deal down this neck of the woods, so I checked it out first thing- yes I can confirm that it is a bend, but other that that I have little to report. Seems like they are grasping at straws to promote areas in this part of the Danube.

Today’s spin took me to Budapest, about 50km down river. It is nice to be back following the course of the river. Here there are no dykes or other flood defences, the river is wide and has a gravel shoreline. Certain spots seem to be favourite places for swimming, and everywhere there are fishermen, just fishin’ and chillin’. Fishing seems to be a very popular pastime here.

Early in the day I stopped to explore a bit of the shoreline. There were about a dozen Scarce Swallowtail butterflies flitting by the shore, landing on occasions- they must have been drinking before the day heated up.
Apparently Scarce Swallowtail are a threatened species in Europe so really nice to see these. They are like the common Swallowtail but with a long tail and tiger striping. Also spotted some skippers doing the same; they are difficult little devils to see and identify- they are small and very flighty. Think I saw Grizzled and Dingy Skipper, but I couldn’t be sure.

The rest of the morning was uneventful, the main challenge was to keep to the route. Judging from how they signpost the route, these Hungarians must have a great sense of adventure. Myself, I signed up for cycling not orienteering.

The river becomes an important recreational resource the closer you get to Budapest. Boating and rowing are big here, and the rowing clubs seem to have kiosks by the river where you can have a beer and a snack. Some of the houses here too are nice; nothing ostentatious just comfortable looking. Obviously beside the river is a desirable location.

The cycle way takes you along the river bank, right through the centre of the city, under the chain bridge (which is considered the halfway point of the Danube Trail) and past the magnificent parliament building. This must be one of the most beautiful buildings of Europe. But there was a bit of chaos in the city when I arrived, with much of the main thoroughfare blocked. There was a meeting of the Visegrád 4, a political and cultural alliance of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, taking place and the promenade in front of the parliament building was being readied for the Red Bull Air Show; consequently the city was full of police and cool dudes.

Made it to the southern suburbs of the city for the evening, having first heading off on the wrong cycle path. So it was a choice of risking it on the motorway or doubling back. Took the latter option but it was soul destroying cycling past street upon street of grim apartment blocks, for the second time.

Today was a really tough day on the bike. I was expecting days like this, actually I though I would suffer one earlier on in the trip, so I can’t complain. It was like a training spin, a day long training spin, with the lads from the Kells Angels Cycling Club; unrelenting and unforgiving. Obviously I am tired but I knew from the outset that today would be difficult- I just couldn’t get into any rhythm, which is what cycling is all about. It was exceptionally hot. One of the signs in Budapest said it was 34 degrees; I don’t think it was as warm as that, but it wasn’t far off. I also think I messed up with either not taking enough water or food, or possibly both. And messing up with directions at the end of the day, to cap it off. Very happy to find a guesthouse for the night, and was surprised I still managed to cover 100km.

Two beers, a plate of food and football (Croatia v Argentina) in that order and life was looking up. I think Croatia would be a good bet for the World Cup, and its not a great time for goalies.

Day 14 – Through fields of sunflowers

The trip is certainly entering the second phase. No more wide, smooth and well signposted trails; now signage is sporadic, where the track exists it is rough cycling, and very often you are just on the road with traffic. And cyclists now are few and far between. Also, communication is a challenge.

After about 10km this morning, passing through a village, I decided to stop for breakfast. A small grocery store seemed to be doing a brisk trade, so I stood in line with the local housewives. I struck it lucky it seemed, as on the wall was a sign offering latte and cappuccino and behind the counter was a mountain of rolls and a well stocked deli counter. This has to be a dawdle. When it came to my turn I said a cheery ‘Hello’. ‘A coffee please’. To which she replied ‘Dah’. A coffee please, a cappuccino.’Dah’. Pointing to the board ‘cappuccino’ I was met with the response ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ (or something along those lines). ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ she repeated, ‘Kzérszmégvalazmimást’ I meekly repeated ‘cappuccino?’. She then threw her eyes to heaven, she may have uttered a few expletives, and proceeded to make me a cappuccino. Progress! The shop was filling up and everyone began taking an interest in my exploits; at least they all started talking about me and laughing.

Well a small cup of cappuccino was duly produced. I then pointed at the mountain of bread and the rolls of meat behind her. ‘Can I have one of those?’. ‘Dah’ Making a slicing motion hoping this would help the penny drop, I got a ‘Felztöltődizk’ response, ‘felztöltődizk’ (the spelling may not be 100% correct!). Well this resulted in the now crammed shop bursting into hysterics, and the shop keeper delighted with the response, played to her audience once more- as if she was auditioning for the local dramatics society. If she was, she was playing a blinder! After a short while, the penny dropped and I was met with ‘A sandwich?’ ‘Yes, a feckin’ sandwich’. A couple of minutes later my sandwich was produced. I moved to the table to eat my sandwich and drink my by now cold cappuccino. Happy that I got breakfast and that I was the subject of such hilarity! Such is one’s lot when you don’t have the lingo.

Today’s cycle fell into three stages. The morning’s cycle took me through farmland and small villages. I passed fields of sunflowers with their yellow faces facing the sun. How can fields of sunflowers not put you in a good mood? The track took me cross country in places, and very rutted in parts. Along one section that brought me through woodland for about a kilometre I had to dismount and push for the track was so churned up. But the upside to this was that early morning hundreds of butterflies were drinking on the path- I had never seen so many. In one puddle no more than 5 metres long I counted 84 Silver-washed Fritillary, about a dozen Small White, eight Holly Blue, six Red Admiral,and a good few Marbled White, Comma, Meadow Brown, Brimstone and another species I was unable to identify. There were also many mosquitoes- one rarely mentions the mosquitos, only the butterflies! It was nice passing through villages to give you a impression of how people live in this part of the world.

I made it to the sister towns of Komarom on the Hungarian side of the river and Komárno on the Slovak side late morning. I crossed the river to visit Komárno, well, because I could. It really is quite an unremarkable town- it has a large pedestrianised area, only it has no pedestrians. But it was a bit of a novelty paying for my iced coffee in euros again.

The next stretch brough me for about 30km along a very busy road, running along a heavily industrialised area. It seemed to be one cement factory after another. The road was narrow, had a very poor surface and way too many articulated trucks. It was the least pleasant cycling I have done for a long time. For my afternoon break I watched cement trucks for a while.

I did stop at a fruit stall at the side of the road to buy a half kilo of cherries from Danyl, Danyl Lászlo. I know this not because Danyl is a friend of mine, but because he gave me a very formal receipt, with the date, his name and the cost 300 forint written on. Not much scope for the black economy in Hungary, or so it seems.

The evening was in stark contrast to the afternoon. I visited Esztergom with its very imposing cathedral dominating the skyline. At one time Esztergom was the country’s capital but the royal family moved to Buda a few hundred years ago. The Catholic archbishop moved into the luxurious pad and the city became the centre of the Catholic faith. The cathedral that was built here is the largest church in Hungary. It is an attractive city with a nice park running along the river front, and the cathedral up there, letting you know the Catholic Church is watching you.

The river south of here is constrained by a rocky ridge to the north, and a lower uneven ridge to the south. You can see how its positioning made Esztergom very strategic in the past. Finished for the night at a small village, Dömös having covered 111km.

Day 13 – Taking a leisurely day

I stayed the night at the Aqua Hotel and Wellness Centre. Well something must have gotten lost in translation. I got to see it in its full glory at breakfast – there was plenty of food, some of which was barely edible. I had some coffee, but on adding milk it turned a curious greenish brown colour. I realised there and then, I wasn’t addicted to coffee afterall. The guests were a mix of eldery couples and some lost souls. There was also an outdoor area, of sorts, with water and various sheds. Hard to describe the place; a Butlins Mosney for decrepits and introverts is the closest I could get.

This section of the Danube Cycle Path follows the general direction of the Danube, but inland along roads and through small Hungarian villages. All intensively cropped land, mostly wheat and maize, but also some sunflowers and beans (I think). It also ran along straight, straight roads. I had sklarks and the ubiquitous house sparrows to keep me company, and at one place, there was a large number of house martin feeding along the road. The temperature built quickly and by mid morning was 31 degrees. I took it easy, only gentle cycling today, and drank plenty of water. Because of the scale of the sheds and machinery I saw, I assumed this must have been formerly collectivised farmland. I had read about the impact this had on land holdings, but I never realised it must also have obliterated rural communities and culture in these places.

Really, there was very little to interest me in this landscape. For my mid-morning’s break, I watched for a while a man cut grass.

The route was difficult to navigate as signposts were either misleading, or missing.I struggled at a few villages to find my route. At one village I spied a fellow cyclist in the shade pouring over a map; he was an enormous man carrying an enormous load- full to bursting panniers front and back, and more bags piled on top. I don’t know if he packed the kitchen sink, but he had a look of a man that certainly packed the larder. He too was struggling with the heat; he wore a peaked cap with a little patch of cloth at the back to keep the sun from his neck- and was sweating profusely. I approached him to share notes as to where we were, but before I had a chance, he pointed at his map saying ‘Ve are here – definitely here, und ve need to go there’ ‘It’s impossible, the signs, the roads, alles scheiße. Vere are you from? England?’ he ordered. ‘No, no I’m Irish’. As he launched himself on his way he turned and announced ‘I am German!’ You’d never have guessed, I thought!

I came off the Danube Cycle Track- well being truthful, I was already off the path as I was lost again, and headed north towards the Danube. I accessed the dyke once more and cycled along it for a few kilometres, but the grass here was scalped, there was little to see and there was no shade; it was really hot. I came across workmen who were putting more flood defenses on top of the existing defenses- to try to deal with future floods. You really get the sense of how vulnerable local communities here are with such vast quantities of water trying to burst the banks during times of flood.

I arrived in early afternoon and mooched around Győr for a couple of hours, mostly to keep in the shade. It was a nice pleasant town with a large pedestrianised core and lovely traditional facades. By the time I got back on the bike, I was too lazy for the 40km trek to the next campsite so stayed on the outskirts of Győr instead. Good decision, and it was nice to have had a leisurely day. Still covered 77km though.

Day 12 – Crossing the Iron Curtain

I decided to stay in the campsite close to the National Park thinking it might be nice sitting out in the evening hearing owls, perhaps even nightjars churring and watching glow-worms. I should have looked at the map in a bit more detail; wedged in between a motorway intersection and a railway line, you couldn’t find a noisier place for a campsite if you tried. Slept well though.

I’m trying to do my bit to be an ambassador for nature along the Danube, and where better to head to than the Donau Auen National Park that lies just east of the city. This is a the largest tract of undeveloped wetland floodplain in central Europe, where the river flows and floods naturally. It is a huge area, stretching for almost 40km right to the Slovak border. It was established in 1996 after campaigners managed to block the construction of a dam here that would have flooded the area.

I arrived to the Visitor Centre to find it was closed on a Monday and Tuesday; that was disappointing as I thought it best to be well equipped with information before I headed off exploring. Had the Visitor Centre been open it may have prepared me for my first impressions of the Park. Now I can’t say for sure that the Park is popular with naturalists, but it certainly is popular with naturists (I never before realised how important those two little letters ‘al’ are!). All I will say is that nature, generally, is a thing of beauty; naturism on the other hand certainly isn’t! If you did live in this part of the world, it would be worth clarifying early on what was really meant if your mates asked you did you want to just hang out.

I did manage to explore part of the Park in the morning- what I saw was a mix of wet woodland, reed-fringed pools and open heathland. Particularly on the heathland, it was alive with insects; every step taken resulted in a squadron of grasshoppers fleeing for safety. In my guide book the Danube Cycle Path brought you right through the centre of the National Park- 38km of nature. However, soon there was a diversion from the National Park taking me north through farmland. Try as I might I was unable to get back to the Park. I finally made it to a junction of paths to be informed that the cycle path through the Park was closed for three years to be upgraded. It meant retracing my morning’s route or head to the river and cross to the southern side of the Danube. The good news was there was an enterprising local boatman that offered this service – at make your mind up time advertising the boat crossing for €4- only 5 minutes away. Great. As I got to the pier I saw the cost had risen to €4.50, and on the ferry I was charged €5. Despite all the efforts of fiscal union, inflation seems to be running rife in this part of the EU.

The afternoon cycle brought me through intensively managed farmland- miles upon miles of wheat, maize and some potatoes. Not a hedgerow or treeline to break the vista, or provide shade. It was a hot afternoon with temperatures in the 30s, and the air was full of dust for the harvest was in full swing.

I crossed the Austrian/Slovak border in late afternoon. This was the old Iron Curtain, for decades the boundary between west and east, and it is nice that the original gate remains to mark the spot, symbolically now kept open the whole time.

I skirted south of Bratslavia, keeping south of the river. The cycle path then took me along the river dyke for miles- a wide elevated path used by cyclists and roller bladers- I couldn’t get over how many there were, and how fast they were moving. Not being able for the tedium of this path any longer, I headed south east, to rejoin the Donau Cycle Path. If I thought the embankment was tedious little did I know the final 10km of the route took me along a dead straight road. Not only was it tedious where I was, I could also see the tedium 5km further on!

Stopped for the night in a rather unassuming small town called Mosonmagyaróvár. I strolled through the town for a while and I was struck by how many signs there were with pictures of teeth on them. I was in Hungary now so was struggling to understand, well everything! Then I noticed everywhere there were business plaques saying they were a dentist. Now I don’t just mean a cluster, I mean they were everywhere. I checked this out later; apparently Mosonmagyaróvár has a higher rate of dentists per capita than anywhere else in the world. How I should end up here is beyond me.

I went for something to eat and watch the football. I ordered a big dish of past. ‘And to drink, sir’? ‘Nothing with sugar, I’ll just have some water’!

Day 11 – Vienna by the back door

In Ireland, we are all terribly sophisticated now, but that used not always be the case. Indeed, I remember pre-sophisticated days vividly. We only had the single television station and that ended for the night around 11pm with the playing of the national anthem. Dinner, which we eat at midday, consisted of meat and too veg. Then an American college friend of my brother came to stay for the weekend, and he cooked us the most exotic dish we had ever eaten – spaghetti bolognese! The kids still crack up when I tell that story, but it is true.

That is a long-winded way of telling that anytime I find myself staying where there are vineyards outside the bedroom window, I still get that flutter of excitement of being somewhere exotic. Grapes, paths lined with cherry and walnut trees, and apricots, apricots of all thing, growing in the fields; Wow! This is the scene I woke up to, and the first part of my morning’s cycle brought me through this beautiful vineyard country. A couple of the more picturesque villages were stopping off points for cruise ships, so I had to weave my way through crowds on occasions.

The cycle as I got closer to Vienna took me along dykes and over dams, criss-crossing the river. I rested for a while, looking across the river- is there a name for the syndrome of always wanting to be on the other side of the river, I wondered? Seated by the river I saw an otter come into view, swimming just out from the shore. That’s nice to see, I thought to myself before suddenly realising that wasn’t an otter but a real live beaver just swimming along minding its own business. I must have moved suddenly with the excitement for it dived and disappeared. I remained there for quite sometime scanning the river for another sighting, but it was gone.

Another thing I noticed is that the Austrians have a big problem with invasive species. Everywhere along the river is infested with Japanese Knotweed, and in parts, giant knotweed and Himalayan balsam. But rather than doing anything about it, they seem to just cut it vigorously where it grows onto the grass strips, taking no care whatsoever with the cuttings. Already there are extensive stretches where access to the river is hindered by these invasives and it can only get worse unless serios action is taken.

I approached Vienna late afternoon with the cycly track getting busier with cyclists, joggers and roller bladers.The intention was to try to get to the far side of Vienna for the evening. I approached the city in an unusual way, coming in along the waterway, then following a metro line before arriving in very heavily graffitied urban scene. I got the sense that many of those around me may not have been entirely happy with their lot in life. The cycle path took me through the heart of the city, past bars where punters were engrossed in the Germany v Mexico football match, under balconies with fine diners, and across the river from revellers sipping cocktails and eating icecream. I felt a bit like a sewer rat, close but passing unseen.

Getting to my campsite east of Vienna proved a bit challenging as I took a couple of wrong turns bringing me where I didn’t want to be. That’s the problem with big rivers, there are islands and canals, and islands, all of which have to be navigated. At one stage, tired and really wanting to finish up for the day, a woman wearing a skimpy miniskirt and little else stepped onto the path and asked ‘ Did I want a good time?’. Now as there was no earthly way she was going produce a wiener schnitzel and a cool beer from that outfit, I kept on going.

Arrived to the campsite on edge of the Donau Auen National Park, where I did get my beer and wiener schnitzel; two beers in fact.

Managed to cover 139km for the day.