Tour de Danube Part Two

From Brataslava it was a short, very pleasant day's ride to Vienna. The mostly paved cycling path took us through endless, dense forests and brought us right to the edge of town. We stopped to refill water bottles by the river and quickly realized that we had entered a country with a more open, progressive feel. We received a guten tag from an older gentleman in all of his naked glory. A few steps brought me to the edge of the path. From atop the levy I looked down to see a few dozen Austrian sunbathers getting tans where the sun doesn't usually shine, a great introduction to the city!

We spent a few hours wandering before meeting up with our Warmshowers host, Arnaud, at a groovy little cafe/restaurant where you pay whatever you feel is the correct price for the food. 5 € seemed about right for my hummus plate, quite tasty. Arnaud then led us on a mad, night time dash through the city to the Bike Kitchen. Which was by far, the most interesting place I had spent the night this trip.
A community run bicycle action/advocacy group that includes a public bike shop and occasionally hosts the lucky cycle tourer. Every city needs a Bike Kitchen.
Ed led us on a beer tour through the city until it broke the day's budget and then we settled for some site seeing.
Just couldn't get a good pic of the buildings in Vienna, but here are a few anyway. Pretty spectacular Barouque architecture.
Of course we had to have some sausages while in Vienna.
Our second Warmshowers hosts, Felix and Anna, demonstrating their unicycling skills
So much incredible street art in Vienna. Had to hit a few local favorites before getting back on the road.
Incredibly flat, smoothly paved trails follow a winding route along the Danube. This was our glorious scenery for the next few days.
For the next week or so I swam more than I have since I was child in the river and surrounding lakes. It is such a wonderful thing that the water is so clean here. Makes me long for this in Indy.
A night camping beneath the behemoth Abby at Melk. We landed here on a holiday and scrambled to find food as everything was closed.
Reached a campground in a part of the river referred to as Schlogen. The river bends at 180 turns, forming an S, and narrows, increasing the speed that it flows. This campground had a dock where you dive off one end, do your best to fight the current for a bit, then float down to the other end, climb out and do it all over again. SO MUCH FUN! That night is definitely one of the most memorable: Ed, playing guitar and singing, while I got a haircut from another cycle tourer, also a hair-stylist, who I paid with beer, AND a group of Hungarians, who were canoeing down the river, kept feeding us all Palinka. Truly incredible!
The next day brought us to the end of our Danube time at the city of Passau. The Danube, the Inn and the Ilz rivers converg here, beginning with distinctly different colors and merging into the lime blue of the Danube.
We had lunch sitting in the medieval, old-town center of Passau and bounced over cobbled roads before turning south along the Inn. Heading for the Alps!
 

 

 

Tour de Danube – Part One

There is just so much that happened in the two weeks or so that I spent riding the Euro Velo 6 route along the Danube that I can’t fit it in one post. This route included the cities of Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slavakia; Vienna, Austria; and Passau, Germany. Each unique wonders, but the river itself and the beauty of the landscape in between is the real treasure.

By the way, the Euro Velo routes are an EU project that when complete will criss-cross the continent with bike trails and bike friendly streets. http://www.eurovelo.org if you’re interested. Once I wiped the drool from my face after discovering the Euro Velo maps, I began planning my route loosely around the Danube. My understanding is that this route, the 6, is the closest to completion. And it shows! There were entire days where my touring buddy, Ed, and I rode all day on gorgeous, paved cycling trails.

If this post seems a bit Budapest heavy it is because I fell in love with this city. Something about Hungary and Budapest in particular got under my skin. Of course it’s no surprise! It is where I spent the most time, volunteered and developed some real friendships. This city is a wonderful combination of old and new. You would never know that is was leveled when Germany withdrew during WWII. It has since been rebuilt with careful attention given to historical accuracy.

Full of Art Nouveau buildings, all under eight stories or so, it feels like a more rustic version of Paris. Many buildings are in a state of disrepair and some totally abandoned, but this only adds to the city’s charm. They are all still gorgeous and the wear makes it feel more accesible and lived in.

A city about the size of my hometown of Indianapolis, getting around it is about 1000 times easier. It has every conceivable type of public transport. Ok, reaasonably conceivable.

Life and culture congregate on the Danube and the beautiful bridges are the focal points of both.
One of my first stops was a very sobering introduction to the city’s history. The House of Terror Museum inhabits the building where both the Nazis and Communist regimes’ secret police were headquartered. The tour begins on the top floor, laying out the history, and as you descend each room gets a bit more experiential until you reach the painfully slow elevator ride to the basement, where political prisoners were tortured and executed. It was a powerful experience that I will not be likely to forget.
The city market at full tilt.
Hero’s Square, where every statue sports a magnificent mustache!
And while in Budapest I witnessed history in the making. Budapest has now claimed the record for the highest lego tower in the world!
After a raucous evening of sampling local micro-brew, Ed, fellow cycle tourer, and I skipped town by train. We landed back on the Danube and high tailed it for Bratislava. Passed about a thousand roller-bladers along a stretch of paved trail atop a levy that went on and on. As we neared the city we passed soviet-era apartment block after apartment block arriving in a gorgeous old town center just in time for the skies to open up. Camping now out of the question, we found an excellent little hostel with restaurant and bar on thee ground floor a few steps down from street level.
Treated to an incredible jazz set at the bar of Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel.
There was just enough time to get a feel for the city before heading back out and we only saw what we could from atop our bikes. I can’t begin to do it justice, but did get a feel for a city with a thriving art and music scence, a lot of interesting history and a very active population. Would have enjoyed spending more time, but the trail was calling.

 

 

A Global Village indeed!

What a week I had volunteering with the Global Villiages Program of Habitat International! I am still in awe of how much time, energy, money and spirit went into making one Hungarian family’s home warm in the winter and cooler in the summer. I began asking my friends and family to offer financial support half a year ago and to think that each of the nine volunteers did the same is amazing. Hailing from the U.S., Canada and Australia, from many backgounds and experiences, supported by Habitat International and locally, Habitat Hungary, we arrived to help an incredibly kind and sweet family.

In Hungary, a shortage of housing is not the issue, instead it is a lack of effcient homes. As is the case for many Hungarian families, the global economic crisis had a devastating impact on families like the Joo family. The situation for the Joo family was made more dire when their furnace wet out. Combined with expensive medical costs related to the yougest daughter’s complicated medical issues the family turned to Habitat Hungary for help.

Our work began with coating all walls of the house with a 4 cm layer of styrofoam insulation, securing it with nails, and sanding.
Our local expert/foreman, Tomas teaches us how to apply plaster, post insulation.
Our team leader Chris and I enjoying Tomas’s praise for our completed wall.
Tomas also introduced us to the Hungarian liquor, Palinka, in reward for our hard work. I think the pear was my favorite variety.
My dog, Cooper, has some serious competition for best dog ever from the family dog, Lizzy!
We enjoyed several excursions during the week led by Habitat Humanity staff, Nora. Above, to the castle Visegrad. Below, to the closest town of Vac.
Enjoing a final meal with the family and Habitat Hungary staff. We ate an incredible traditional gulash and enjoyed an extremely generous dessert wine, a gift from the family. The evening began with some shared tears of gratitude and ended with songs around a campfire. Couldn’t hav imagined a better way to end our work.

Travel broadens my worldview and creates a deep appreciation for the variety of life and thought on our planet, but combining it with volunteering provides opportunities to share in quiet victories over our common struggles. As is true each time I do this, my heart has grown and the distance between us was made smaller. Thank you Habitat, all of the supporters that helped make this happen and the most amazing group of volunteers!

 

 

Back home again in Indiana?

Tornados and all! Or what felt like one anyway. Entering Hungary from the west, the hills of Slovenia quickly give way to open fields. And every Spring high winds tear across these plains making life very interesting for unspuspecting, northbound cyclists. I later learned from my Warmshowers host, Peter from Zalaegerszag, that this weather pattern goes for a few days just before the warm temperatures arrive and that these were a bit stronger than usual, 100 kmph in some places!

The landscape, the foliage, the meat and potatos kind of diet, the hospitality, all reminders of Indiana. Current Hungarian borders even make them the same size. Maybe I was a bit homesick as well, but I was so glad for the familiarity.

I've never been so grateful for a Warmshowers host as I was when I arrived at Peter's. He and his mother live on the fifth floor of a Soviet-era apartment building. It is very much what you'd expect from the outside, but the apartment itself could not have been more warm and welcoming. I ended up staying two days; stuffing my face with soups, prósza (a latke like potato pancake), homemade cake, and other good stuff. Thanks again Peter for the hospitality, the cycling information and the guitar lesson!

Peter opens a secret room in the elevator to fit our bikes.
Prósza! I got the recipe!
From Peter's, I braved the rain and winds for a short day's ride to another host near Lake Balaton. A note to cyclists, water proof gloves and shoe covers are always worth the extra weight. Apparently, I needed to learn this lesson one more time before it really sank in.
Alfreda, “Frida,” lives on a little piece of heaven among the Witnesses, a group of dormant volcanos in the Balaton uplands. Full of vineyards, great local food, and general laid back lake life; this is where Hungarians from the city escape for rest and relaxation. Again, I was treated to great food and a cozy, welcoming place to stay. Thank you Frida!
Stayed two nights in order to give my buddy Gerry time to catch up. We met riding the U.S. west coast last Fall and when he heard what I was up to, decided to join me for a portion. Unfortunately, he arrived in Italy and developed a case of pneumonia. He got some rest, some drugs and a train ride and we were at it again. Gerry brought glorious weather and we enjoyed what is probably the best cycling I'd experienced so far this trip.
If you are a cycle tourer and you want an incredible short-term trip in an exotic location, consider making a circuit of Budapest, the Danube bend to the north and then dropping down to do a loop of Lake Balaton. More bike lanes than bike trails, but drivers are respectful and you'll see an incredible amount of sites, pay a bit less for great food and alcohol than most of Europe and meet some incredibly kind and welcoming people.
First site of the Danube.
Best fried trout I've ever right on the river and Gerry made a friend 😉
Ferry crossing from Szentendre Island.
Charming little town of Szentendre. Post WWII, many Hungarian artists fled Budapest in search of commuunity a bit closer to traditional Hungarian living and nature. Today it is full of art galleries, interesting little shops, narrow cobblestone alleys and great food. I was lucky enough to visit twice and would go back again.
First siting of Budapest
Final good-bye to Gerry.
My Portuguese camping neighbors. They had been riding since Portugal and several of them planned to go as far as Nepal by bike! When they learned my last name I was embraced as a long lost cousin. Next travel abroad will definitely include Portugal. This was a pretty ideal way to end this portion of the trip. From here I go to meet my Habitat volunteer group.