Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Győr to Budapest

The first half of our ride from Vienna to Budapest was on easy, well-built trails.  The second half, starting in Győr, alternated between country roads and rather bumpier trails, with a few segments of busy roads thrown in.
We left Győr following the blue Eurovelo Route 6 signs using low-traffic streets, then a 4 km trail that appears to have been converted from a train line.  For 3 km EV 6 next had us riding on a dirt road that made us happy we had put wider tires on for this trip.  Finally we came to a rural highway that was not overly wide, but not at all busy, either.  A car passed us about once every 2 or 3 minutes, always with no problem to pass well wide of us.

About 25 km past Győr we came to an important turning-point, where we left EV 6 and the directions in our Bikeline Guide to Biking From Vienna to Budapest, and took an alternate route to the small town of Tata.  Jeff had printed out a map on the computer back home which made it look easy, and indeed it was despite Hungary's scarcity of road signs.  Twice we turned to a pedestrian, pointed where we thought we were supposed to go, and said "Tata???"  Each time we got a sentence or two of Hungarian, but a smile and facial expression were easy to translate as "Yup!"

We chose Tata as a destination because the usual overnight destination, Komarom, didn't sound that interesting, and Tata had three possible attractions: an old mansion of the Eszterhazy family, an old castle, and a lake.  It would also be an adventure and force us to climb a ridge 400' above the Danube where we might get some views.  In the end, these last two were the main advantages.  Our small inn was across a mill stream from the castle and a block from the lake, so we did get to enjoy their pleasures, but they were quite modest ones.  The Eszterhazy mansion was in need of so much repair work that we were too embarrassed to even take its photo.  The once grand parish church was in only slightly better shape, and illustrates the reality that Tata is not yet one of the communities prospering in the post-1989 world.  But there were some elegant homes under construction along the lake nearby, so perhaps Tata's day is coming.

The ride over the ridge back to the Danube put our biking preparedness to the test, as it included a kilometer and a half of climbing at 7%, about the limit of what we care to do anymore.  And we did make it in our lowest gear, 27th.  We never had to go to "28th gear," our euphemism for walking.

The descent took us through wine country and indeed past excellent viewpoints across the Danube to Slovakia, including the small town of Radvan, Slovakia.  The road was so steep and bumpy that we had our drag brake on full, and even so we had to use the rim brakes so much that we stopped twice for 1-2 minutes to let the rims cool.  We know three people who have had tire blow-outs from rims that got so hot they melted the tubes!

This now put us on National Road 10, a road no wider than the one we showed you a few photos up, but busier.  We had 9 kilometers that we tried to do as fast as possible, which was 24 kph (15 mph), a speed we were happy with considering we had a headwind.  A fair number of vehicles passed us, 1 or 2 of which felt rather too close for comfort.  We had one more 5 km stretch that day and 4 km the next on busy national roads, and hope similar stretches are few and far between when we start biking west from Vienna next week.

Our next destination was Esztergom, home to the largest and most important church in Hungary.  Cardinal Mindszenty was archbishop of this church and thus leader of the Catholic church in Hungary when he was arrested here on Christmas Day, 1947 and charged with crimes against the state, becoming a pawn in the Cold War for the rest of his life.  The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is the first foreign news event Jeff remembers being aware of as a child, and he recalls how Cardinal Mindszenty was freed from prison during the uprising, then had to take refuge in the American Embassy when Russian troops crushed the rebellion.  He remained there 15 years, and never again saw his beautiful cathedral at Esztergom.

The cathedral is an enormous church, made all the more imposing because it sits next to an ancient castle on a hill that towers over the Danube.  From the old castle ramparts behind the church we could look upriver to the Maria Valeria Bridge connecting Slovakia with Hungary.  It was built in 1895 and destroyed in WW II, but not reconstructed until 2001.

From those ramparts we also looked ahead to the next day's ride through the Great Bend of the Danube, just beyond Esztergom, where it goes from east-flowing to south-flowing,  simultaneously cutting through the Visograd Mountains.

Leaving town we had 6 easy km on a bike trail close to the Danube, then our last 4 km on the national road, luckily not too busy.  The remaining 80 km into Budapest were all on bike trails or side streets, but about a fourth of that distance was fairly bumpy, particularly one 5 km stretch of dirt trail on top of a dike.  But we'll take a bumpy trail over a narrow busy road every chance we get.

We took a ferry across the Danube right after the Slovakian border turned away from the river, i.e. where it began to be Hungary on both shores.  The current is so strong that the ferry crosses by pointing upstream and just a little towards one shore or the other, to keep from washing dwnstream.  Looking upstream, the hills on the right are the last we will see of Slovakia until we return through parts of it on our train trip back to Vienna.

15 km downstream we were about to finish our passage between the mountains when the high point, literal and figurative, appeared: the ruins of the Visograd Castle, up there above Louise's right shoulder.  Quite a few boats went by in the hour we lingered over lunch, including a typical ultra-narrow river boat that the local ferry had to wait for by running in place in the middle of the river.

Our next overnight was on an island in the Danube, in the countryside 2 km from a village with the intriguing name of Szigetmonoster.  All our overnights in Hungary included breakfast, always with cheese, cold cuts, a few fresh veggies like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, plus yogurt, pastries and eggs.  The Rosinante Country Inn, however, had an omelet chef with various veggies before him.  You pointed, he cut, he cooked, you enjoyed.

With help lowering our big bike on, we took a foot ferry to Szentendre, hoping to visit an open air museum outside town where old buildings from around Hungary have been gathered.  However it rained all morning so we parked our bike at a pension (a cross between a small hotel and a B&B) and walked the town instead.  It was very quaint, but because it is and because you can get there by suburban train or boat from Budapest, it had far too many shops selling tourist kitsch.  One such shop caught our attention, however.  It had knickknacks with reproductions of famous Gustav Klimt paintings, including "The Kiss" that we saw a week ago in Vienna, and "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," a painting that was stolen from the Bloch-Bauer family after the Nazis annexed Austria and only returned to them after a bitter lawsuit, less than a decade ago.  In fact, we both just read a wonderful book about it all, "The Lady in Gold."

At last, Budapest! We arrived coming down the west bank, and stopped for a view across the river of the over-the-top gothic masterpiece that is the Hungarian Parliament.  That evening we walked up closer along the east bank for more photos of it and of the city taking on its nighttime magic.

By the time we returned to St. Stephan's Basilica, it was night.  We rented an apartment that looked out at the basilica (it's just to the left of the church in the photo) for less than the cost of a mid-range hotel in an inconvenient location, thanks to Booking.com.  It was a great base for exploring the city.  In three nights and two days we hit most of the sights.  Here are a few of the best shots.

Since we had an apartment, we cooked in two evenings and made an interesting discovery: tourists visit restaurants, so restaurants have menus in multiple languages;  tourists do not visit grocery stores, so . . . We did a certain amount of guessing as to what we were purchasing.  It all tasted fine, though.

Then there was the washing machine.  In this case, you had to figure out the meaning of some fairly cryptic icons.  Our first batch put in creases, so we ended up ironing most of it to get the creases out.  Then we tried what we guessed was the delicate setting, and it didn't spin the clothes out at all -- they were drenching wet!  Jeff tried a few things and one of them spun out some water.  This time we ironed the clothes in order to dry them out!

With our clean clothes, we took a walk on Budapest's most elegant street, Andrassy Avenue, past various embassies, the State Opera House, and an assortment of elegant buildings, some still looking great, some needing a bit of work.  We came back underneath Andrassy, on the world's second oldest electric subway (after London's).  The stations are very short (the photo shows about half of the platform across the tracks), as are the subway cars (3 short cars per train).  The stations have been restored to look much as they did in 1896 when it opened in time for Hungary's 1000th birthday party for itself, based on the first arrival of Magyar tribesmen in 896.

 Our last two special moments in Budapest had to do with the Saint Stephen's Basilica across the street from our apartment.  On Sunday morning there was a procession out the church just as we came out to the plaza. We gathered that it was a special event, not something they do every Sunday, but never could figure out what the occasion was, or where the dividing line is between church and state in modern-day Hungary, for that matter.

That evening we returned to the church for a concert by a 7 piece string orchestra that filled its vast space with sound.  At times there was perhaps a bit too much echo, a minor matter when the heart is filled with awe at the architecture that surrounded us.

After one day in Slovakia and nine in Hungary, it was time to head back to Austria.  At the time, our biggest worry was getting space on the train for our tandem.  As it turned out, that was no problem at all.  HOWEVER, a huge problem awaited us in Austria, one which would fundamentally alter our plans for the next two months.  We'll tell you more in our next entry, once we ourselves have figured out just what those changes are to be.

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