Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Bike from Vienna to Győr

On Jeff's 66th birthday, 33 days after leaving Seattle, we finally mounted the tandem to start our bike trip on the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers.  If all goes as planned we will ride 1,300 - 1,500 miles in Europe followed by about 500 in England between now and August 15.

It certainly started well with a send-off from Konrad and Zosia and their parents Cordelia and Jazz.  We rode about 100 meters on their busy street, then got onto this bike path and others like it that guided us right through Vienna.  There were busy streets to cross, but it was all on bike paths.  Once in the Prater district we rode down the Hauptallee, a grand boulevard now closed to all motor vehicles.  That took us to still more paths through parkland and ultimately across to the north side of the Danube, where the third photo was taken.  To jump ahead a little, by the end of day 3 in Győr we had pedaled 160 km, 150 of them on bike paths and bike trails!

Day 1 was 73 km/44 miles, a bit of a push for folks who haven't been on a bike in over 5 weeks.  However, the trails were mostly flat and smooth-surfaced and we had a terrific tail wind.  An otherwise dull ride going in a straight line for miles with trees on each side gets more exciting when you see that you're moving along at 28-32 kph / 18-20 mph.  We also were excited to see many long-distance bike tourers, mostly on single bikes but a few couples on tandems like these folks from Holland who are camping their way across Austria and Hungary.

Though following the Danube, for the middle 40 km of day 1 we were in fact mostly in the forest of the Danube River Floodplains National Park, on the north (left) bank of the river.  We crossed back to the south side at Hainburg, a fascinating place.  There are three gates in the city wall.  The Vienna Gate is indeed on the western edge, and was built in 1460.  It's one-way, traffic lights letting cars go first east-bound, then west-bound.  The Hungary Gate on the east side was similar, but the traffic now goes through a breach in the wall next to it.  The third opening, the Fisher Gate that leads to the Danube, has a tragic story attached.  As the Turkish army approached in 1683, townspeople rushed to the Fisher Gate, hoping to swim across the Danube to escape.  But the door opened inward, and got jammed by the mass of people.  Only 100 out of Hainburg's 8,000 inhabitants escaped, and this narrow street is now called Blutgasschen,  'Bloody Alley.'

One of those 100 lucky ones, however, was Thomas Haydn, later to be the grandfather of composer Josef Haydn.  The town square in front of the church is now named for him.

For a few km the Danube is the border between Slovakia to the north and Austria to the south, then for 200km more it separates Slovakia from Hungary.  But Bratislava, on the north bank, is the capital of Slovakia, and in the Treaty of Versailles it was given a semicircle of land on the south bank about 10 km in radius.  Thus as we approached on the south bank, we came to our first border crossing.  It was a non-event.  Under the Treaty of Schengen, border crossings in Europe are no longer needed.  Grass was starting to reclaim the area where cars once queued up to enter Austria from Slovakia, and our bike trail did not even have a sign telling us when we had crossed the line.  Soon after we started seeing some of Bratislava's recent urban sprawl, moving west along the river and south across the river, from the ancient red-roofed Castle of Bratislava.  As we got closer, we could see the new building next door to the Castle that is now the seat of the Slovakian parliament.

Our first lodging was a "botel," the boat with the red roof.  We had a comfortable room on the river side and watched the barge traffic go by, about 2-3 mph going upstream, more than twice that going down.

Our botel was right on the edge of Old Town, an area about 5 blocks north-south and east-west where no cars are allowed.  It was filled with ancient buildings, a few of them historic, almost all of them intriguing.  Plazas popped up here and there, today filled with phalanxes of tables for outdoor dining.  Sadly, it had not gotten out of the 50s all day, so we dined indoors.

The next morning we left our packed panniers at the botel and headed past the St. Michael's Gate that looks like a church and the building next to it that the guidebooks claim is Europe's narrowest house, at 1.3m (51").    Our destination was the Castle, 85 steep meters above the Danube.  We were looking down at the main bridge into town, the one with an observation deck known as "The UFO," when we noticed a procession of bicycles led by a police car with flashing lights.  On and on they came, about 500 of them, for some sort of local bike event.  Car traffic didn't resume for about 5 minutes.


Day 2 was an easy 40 km to Mosonmagyarovar, Hungary.  Lunch the day before in Hainburg had put Jeff to a test of his German, which he last studied in 1966.  Since neither his high school nor college German teachers thought it important to know the German vocabulary for restaurant menus, he was pretty lost until he fished out a pocket phrase book.  We enjoyed a flavorful lunch, and just as importantly, one where we actually knew what we were eating.

Now Bratislava is in Slovakia, and Slovakian is not a language we could make head or tail of.  But we found a restaurant with menus in Slovakian, German and English, and did just fine. 

How would we do in Hungary?  Slovakian is an Indo-European language with at least a theoretical relation to English or German, though we saw scant evidence of that in any signs we saw while walking about.  Hungarian has several Siberian languages as its nearest linguistic relatives.  What hope did we have that we would know potatoes from pig's knuckles (a Hungarian favorite, by the way) on a menu?  As it turns out, almost all Hungarian menus are in at least two languages.  If it's only two languages, however, the second one is . . .  German!  So the first five soups on this menu are Liver Dumpling Soup with Beef Broth, Cream of Garlic Soup, Bean Goulash Soup, Bone Broth with Homemade Noodles, and -- you figured this one out yourself, didn't you? -- Hungarian Goulash Soup.

Since we crossed the Danube near Vienna, we have been on Eurovelo 6, one of 14 marked bicycle routes that criss-cross Europe.  EV6 starts in France but meets the Danube in Germany and follows it downstream all the way to the Black Sea, long past where we hop off in Budapest.  As it turned out, we followed the easy-to-spot blue EV6 signs all the way to Győr, and for about 80% of the following kilometers to Budapest.  We'll be following other Eurovelo routes later this summer along the Main and Rhine Rivers, so getting lost this year is going to require a real effort.

And what a route it is!  On day 1 and the start of day 2, much of it was on river dikes.  Then we moved a bit inland and followed country roads, but always on marked bicycle paths a meter away on one side of the road or the other.  Since the trails themselves are 2-way, it didn't really matter whether we were on the north or south side of the road.  Crimson-red poppies appear to be the dominant wildflower here, often forming a colorful border to our bike path.  At other times, we noticed mistletoe above us in the trees.

Coming into Mosonmagyarovar, the EV6 signs sent us onto this ancient street.  Around the bend was the entrance to the "old castle," across what was once the moat.  Parts of the castle have been converted into a small college.

We were totally unprepared for our next discovery.  Mosonmagyarovar has 350 dentists, even though the whole city had only about 3,500 inhabitants!  It's not that they have a candy factory in town . . . Rather, it's that "Moson" is close to Austria and not that far from other European countries with expensive dental care, and one of Hungary's positive legacies from communism was a large supply of dentists and dental assistants willing to work for much less than their western European colleagues. In short, the town has a thriving "dental tourism" industry, with people coming from all over Europe and the U.S. when they need extensive dental work done.  Our hotel, in fact, turns out to be owned by a dental partnership, and we could have gotten an even better lodging rate if we'd only needed some crowns replaced or dental bridges repaired.

We had a large, attractive room, as you can see, and downstairs was another local treasure, an attractive massage therapy room and an accomplished massage therapist who gave Louise a 30-minute Swedish massage for about $15.  Just as we were about to leave Vienna two days earlier, we noticed that Louise's seat suspension had broken.  A tandem stoker (the person on the back seat) needs a suspension seat post more than most cyclists because the geometry of a tandem is such that the bike gives the stoker less cushioning from jolts.  Then, as we were riding out of Vienna, Louise spotted a large bike store that was already open.  They had a perfect replacement.  Because it was shaped a little different than the post it replaced, however, Louise rode half a day with her saddle set too far back, and her leg started to complain about that, fairly insistently.  The Mosonagyarovar massage was just what we needed to have a happy stoker once again.

We walked a few blocks to a pedestrian street full of restaurants that were empty.  It was about 6 pm on a Saturday.  When we mentioned to the hotel desk clerk that a fellow could fall aleep in the middle of that street and not get hurt, she laughed and said he'd get trampled later that night when all the young people got up from their Saturday afternoon naps, where they've been getting ready for a full night of partying.  We didn't go back to check out her theory.

Next day was another easy one through small towns, such as this one that had two reimagined visions of the past.  First was a family mansion that was begun in the 16th century, recently renovated as a hotel.  A few doors away was a thatched-roof house, recently renovated by the addition of a satellite dish. Hey, time marches on.

Our third night, where we will end today's entry, was Győr.  It has long been an important city, protecting the upper Danube from invaders from the East.  In 1529 and 1683 it failed, however, to stop the enormous Ottoman Turkish attacks that were in both cases eventually stopped at Vienna.  So Győr has had to rebuild, in fact to repopulate, a few times.  Our lodgings were suitably historic: a cloistered Carmelite monastery built in 1725.  It is attached along one wall to the Carmelite church.  It was a Sunday, and when we poked our heads in about 5:15 Mass was being said and the church was packed.  We headed instead to the nearby basilica where we photographed the stained glass windows, but by 5:45 people were arriving for 6 o'clock Mass and a choir of three voices    sang verse after verse of a haunting hymn that had us transfixed for a while.

Győr started renovating even before the great changes of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and we found in 2013 a large well-restored historic center of town that was closed to cars but not entirely a tourist area, more like a residential district with a lot of history.  Its quiet charm made it, in retrospect, the high point of our journey from Vienna to Budapest.

The jaunt to Budapest changed in character a bit as we left Győr behind.  We'll explain more in our next blog post.

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