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’!