Dober dan Serbia!

On 22 May we cruised into Serbia, after a good nights sleep next to the Donau dyke just outside Ujmohacs. Bye bye Hungary, dober dan Serbia!

Our first ‘real’ border crossing: two checkpoints and the first stamp in our passport. A huge sign that welcomes cyclists to the country greets us upon arrival. Nice!

Welcome sign to Serbia
Welcome sign to Serbia

We love Serbia

The change in atmosphere is immediate. People smile and wave, sun is shining, the asphalt is smooth, the dogs are cute. Life is good to cyclists in Serbia. We find a perfect well-kept little campsite where we also have a catfish dinner cooked by the manager.

TLC for the bikes at the campsite
TLC for the bikes at the campsite

The next day the Serbian adventure begins for real. The three weeks on the road mark has been passed, meaning we are now beyond the normal time frame for a cycling holiday. Cyril wonders when we will start to feel like real road warriors instead of relaxed holiday makers. Turns out today is the day.

Into the wild boars

First, we head into the Upper Donau national park. It is very hot, well over 30 degrees, but we are going fast on the dykes with a steady wind in our back. We see some (dead) snakes and not many people but enough to be sure of food and water. The landscape is flat but less rigidly manicured than Hungary. We are loving it and devouring the kilometres, we will make 136km in total today, breaking my personal record for daily distance with a fully loaded bike. We cross a woodland and hear little wild piglets squealing, which is cute but also a bit scary since it means big mama is nearby and possibly upset. A bit later we see a big boar crashing across the bike lane. We didn’t see it coming because the grass on either side of the path is very high. Further along the road is a whole family of piglets and boars; the jump into the primordial swamp next to the dyke with big loud splashes and grunts. We disturbed their lazy afternoon nap in the mud. This is starting to feel like adventure.

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Slivovice lunch

After the wild pig excitement we find a little camp with old caravans sitting on the shore of the Danube. It looks like a little collection of man caves for local guys who like to fish and enjoy a beer in the outdoors. Completely deserted because it is a week day, we decide to have a little break in the shade. Turns out there is one older man on his own at his caravan. Nikola ambles over to us and we have a lovely chat even though he only speaks 4 words of German and 2 words of English and we have only just learned how to say hello and thank you in Serbian. He brings out the slivovice and a nice prune brandy ‘for the lady’ and cooks us our first Serbian Turkish mud coffee. Nikola has been a truck driver for 40 years and all it got him was a triple bypass. This sweet old man completely agrees with our mad idea of quitting our jobs and cycling the world for a year. He misses the good old communist days when there was little stress but fishing brings him peace of mind. A lovely man, we are very glad to have met him. Cycling with a shot of moonshine and strong coffee makes everything a little bit surreal. Since there is no traffic we are free to enjoy the buzz.

Kayak camping

Our goal for today is Bačka Palanka where the guidebook promises us a camp site. We arrive after 136km, tired, hot and hungry, but no camp site to be seen. After asking around for a place to stay the local kayak club welcomes us to put up our tent on their grounds. Staying safe within the fence, the club keeper comes to check on us with his torch light after we’ve enjoyed cevapcici and a beer by the waterside. When we are clean, warm, fed and cozy inside our sleeping bags a thunderstorm breaks and it starts to rain. Today was wonderful and we are starting to feel like real bicycle adventurers.

Backa Palanka kayak club camp
Backa Palanka kayak club camp

 

Hungary, also known as Magyarország

Our first taste of culture shock happened a while back. We crossed into Hungary on Monday 16 May and couldn’t understand or read a word of the language, and had to spend thousands for the grocery shopping. We didn’t realise quite how much we had become used to gentrification until it was no longer all around us.

Sneaking into Slovakia

Before crossing into Hungary we spent one night in Bratislava, a pleasant town which is well equipped for the discerning bicycle traveler. Beer, cheap food, interesting architecture and a generally good vibe.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava
The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava

Hungary: our first culture shock

Crossing into Hungary therefor felt like getting out of our comfort zone for the first time. It didn’t help that the weather was overcast and that it was a Catholic holiday. This meant that all villages looked like the zombie apocalypse just happened. The North of Hungary was in Soviet times well known for its large scale farm operations and these still exist. Huge flat fields with the same crops, no animals. We covered 135km since there was nothing to do but cycling and camped in a field. We did not know how we would explain ourselves if an angry Hungarian farmer would find us. Still, there is nothing like cycling for a day to make you sleep like a log.

Next stop: Esztergom, a.k.a. ‘The Rome of Hungary’. A huge kitsch basilica towers over the pleasant little town. We enjoyed a stroll around, pizza and ice-cream, and met up with another bicycle tourer on our campsite.

Budapest

Rolling into Budapest brought us back into our comfort zone with all the creature comforts the city brings. For three nights we enjoyed the hospitality of our charming couchsurfing host Valentine, another new friend we hope to see again when we come back to Amsterdam. I cooked a meal for him, his family and another couchsurfer which made me feel right at home.

Budapest was also the first goal we had set for ourselves. Coincidentally we touched 1000km just before we rolled into town and treated ourselves to a day in the baths to celebrate.

Somehow we didn’t feel like another few days of Hungarian countryside. The guide book promised us the single highlight of a paprika museum set in more flat farmland. We decided to hop on the train and skip one of the most boring bits of Danube. A good decision since we are falling a bit behind and we are scared of running into the winter in Tajikistan. We cycled to the excellent Soviet sculpture garden of Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest and from there hopped on a train to Baja.

Camping

We spent our last 2 nights camping in Hungary, one wild camp next to the Danube dyke (the local campsite no longer existed) and enjoyed a great little campsite just before the Serbian border.

Wild camping by the Danube

I’ll add the skinny about kilometres cycled, budget and accommodation tomorrow, when we get to Beograd tonight. Hungary was somehow a little bit underwhelming, so we might have to go back someday and explore the mountains. The land has been disputed and as a result ravaged so many times there is a lot less visible of the incredibly rich and interesting history then I expected. The people were friendly enough with curt greetings in passing. Cruising into Serbia on the other hand was a case of joy at first sight, what a difference a border crossing can make.

It’s 7am now, time to get up, pack up and get going. We stayed up way past our usual bedtime last night, until 9pm. Who told you bicycle traveling was rock ‘n’ roll!?

 

Austria: Grüss Gotti Österreich

Our brief stay in Austria was one of many contrasts. The elections dominate the news: right wing got into power, yet we see a lot of grafiti welcoming refugees and we talk to kind and intelligent hosts who share this welcoming view. People overall were really nice and sometimes come up to us for a chat.

We visited the Melk monastery and the Mauthausen concentration camp. Both are places of contemplation; Stift Melk overwhelms the senses with Catholic baroque opulence. We find a beautiful quote from Corinthians that speaks to us:

Corinthians quote

Since we are both atheists we don’t pay too much attention to the god bit. It is mostly older Americans and Asian people who visit Stift Melk when they are doing a river cruise along the Donau so we are the odd ones out with our heavy loaded bikes and tight lycra.

Stift Melk
Stift Melk

The solemn Camp Mauthausen is unexpectedly beautiful as it is located on top of a steep granite outcrop overlooking the Donau and the flood plains. The sunlight and noisy visiting school kids make the memory of the violence that happened here all the more incomprehensible. We never looked at the peaceful countryside and lovely people quite the same way again.

Entrance to KZ Mauthausen
Entrance to KZ Mauthausen

Linz and Krems were nice stopovers along the Donau; pretty old towns, well respected modern cultural institutions which create a nice vibe, great ice cream and beer (very important).

Vienna is also a city of contrasts. It is huge compared to the size of the country and the other cities: as it was once the capital of the much larger Austro-Hungarian empire it holds 1,7 million inhabitants. This makes it by far the largetst city of Austria which only has 8,5 million inhabitants. By comparison Graz, the second largest city, has only 270.000 inhabitants. The Austrians sometimes call their capital ‘wasserkopf’ because of this. It is a relaxed place, safe and clean and easy to get around. We visited the Schonbrunn palace gardens (home of Sissi) but were touched by the Rotes Wien legacy of social housing, especially the Karl Marx Hof by Karl Ehn. I visited this hof before as part of an architectural history excursion during my studies and am happy to see a social housing project working out really well and still going strong almost a hundred years after it was built. My socialist heart skips a beat when I think of Rotes Wien and I hope our hypercapitalist days will be behind us soon.

Questions about Brutalist architecture I find en route arise, and today I will visit Wotruba church. How does the sober concrete architecture compute with Catholicism?

Wotruba Kirche - Picture by Wolf Leeb
Wotruba Kirche – Picture by Wolf Leeb

Austria: the skinny

8 days. Sunday 8 May 2016 to Sunday 15 May.

Weather: sunny but strong headwinds all the way. Warm and sunny until we ran into clouds and rain from Krems until Vienna. Nowhere near as torrential as was predicted though.

Route: The Donau in Austria is equally well signposted and largely traffic free. The Donau narrows to a beautiful winding gorge around Schlössing (the ´Schlösinger Schlinge´ but then flattens out to a bit more boring and very windy landscape until Linz. Linz and Krems are lovely towns and we took some time to visit Stift Melk, a beautiful Baroque monastery.

We met some more great people through warmshowers when we stayed with Daniel and Vesela in Linz, and caught up with our own last warmshowers guest. Mehmet managed to show up twice just as we were about to make our ´second breakfast´ espresso by the roadside, impeccable timing! It was great to see him again but this time on the road, with more experience, confidence and joy. We might run into him again as he is also on his way to Turkey.

Etappes

Passau – Linz 92km. WS with Daniel and Velena

Linz – Teuch 77km. Wild camp between road and Donau.

Teuch – Krems 73km. Cyclists hostel: heavy rain predicted.

Krems – Vienna 82km. Friend Marianne´s house for 4 nights.

Vienna – Bratislava 70km.

Total distance cycled in Austria: 400km

Budget, acommodation and food

1 warmshowers, 1 hostel, 1 wild camp, 4 nights in the house of a friend.

Total cost accomodation; 37 euro. Average per night per person: 2,50 euro.

Total cost food: to be updated, but quite a bit more than Germany. Austria is quite expensive and we enjoyed some of the big city offerings while we were repacking and waiting for the rain to pass: a Wiener melange, a lunch in lovely bicycle cafe Velobis. We still did some of our own cooking by the tent and in Marianne´s appartment. Average per day per person: about 10 euro?

We spent about 30 euro on visits to cultural sites: Stift Melk and concentration camp Mauthausen. We can highly recommended both.