12th AUGUST 2018
I’m leaving Slovakia today and am aiming for a town called Tata in Hungary, where a Warm Showers host has offered to accommodate me tonight. They aren’t home until 6.00pm though, so I prepare for a slow, easy 70km that will have me in my eighth country of the trip by lunchtime.
The border crossing is over the slightly murky looking Danube River which acts as a natural barrier between the two countries. The settlement on the Slovakian side of the river is called Komárno, while the one on the Hungarian side is called Komárom. Back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire it was all one big town that straddled the river, but now it has been cut in two by an international border. Crossing between the countries nowadays is as simple as cycling over the green iron bridge that spans the Danube. I stop halfway between the welcoming flags for each country and see that the blue ‘You Are Here’ dot on my Google Maps has been neatly halved by a line representing the border. As I leave the bridge on the Hungarian side I see an abandoned checkpoint building from when this was a manned border crossing. Today if you fancied going for lunch in Slovakia you can just walk freely across the bridge and be eating potato dumplings within minutes.
Despite cycling with no urgency at all today, I still arrive in Tata by 4.00pm, which means I have about two hours to kill before I can call on my Warm Showers hosts. As always, one of my first tasks in a new country is to find an ATM to get my grubby hands on some local currency. In Hungary this is the Forint which, at 363 Forint to the Pound, is going to be an awkward exchange rate to work out while shopping. At an Autobank I withdraw 25,000 Forint but, strangely, the machine spits out only one 20,000 note and one 5,000 note. This is the equivalent to getting a £55 note and a £15 note, which are going to be enormous fun trying to get rid of.
Riding through town I’m fortunate enough to stumble upon Lake Öreg (Old Lake) shimmering in the afternoon sunshine, and stop here to pass time. It’s a lovely spot with cafes, restaurants and an old ruined castle along one shoreline, while the remaining three quarters of lakeside is undeveloped. I relax on a bench, munch some of my road-food and watch fish jumping in the lake whilst tourists mill around aimlessly. Two hours drift past almost unnoticed.
Leaving the lake, I cycle past a white church that boasts two clocktower steeples and into a quiet suburb to find the house of József, my Warm Showers host. I’m welcomed by him and his wife, Kata, who have just returned from spending a weekend in the country. He had told me beforehand that his English wasn’t very good, but it turns out he was just being modest and can converse easily. Anything he doesn’t understand is typed straight into Google Translate so we are never stuck for more than a few seconds. His longest cycle trip to date was from Germany back to Hungary, following Euro Velo 6 and tracking along the Danube River. This trip would appeal due to its picturesque nature, but my lazy streak would also love that it’s all generally downhill in nature.
Kata’s brother visits in the evening with some ‘Bad News’ which leads to my hosts retreating into their bedroom about 9.00pm. This leaves me on their couch, where I can’t help wondering about the nature of their bad news as I settle in for the night. There is no mention of it again the following morning and I think it better not to ask. József takes a photo of me and the bike outside his house before I leave, which I think must be a little tradition he goes through with all his guests. I thank my hosts and make my way back down to the lakeside where I sit and eat breakfast, before saying Goodbye to Tata.
My target for today is the city of Székesfehérvár, which apparently translates as ‘white castle with a chair’ due to Hungarian royalty being crowned here until the 1500’s. Whatever it means I find it completely unpronounceable, giving the locals a good few chortles at my hopeless attempts. I only have to cycle 77km, but it turns into a bit of an effort battling that troublesome combination of hills and heat. It’s not until I near the city that the road begins to follow the Danube downstream and my day becomes easier.
My accommodation is in quite an affluent looking suburb where I’m given an upstairs room in a large family home that has a sliding electronic gate at it’s entrance. The bike is left outside under a tunnel-shaped trellis which is overflowing with heavy bunches of green grapes that hang temptingly at head height. I decide to try a few to make sure they aren’t poisonous. I shower, then walk to Lidl to replenish my system with fruit juice and various offerings from the chilled cabinet. I swear I’m now addicted to cold pasta and salad. At night my room is unbelievably hot and sticky, but I don’t want to open the window due to the double menace of mosquitos and traffic noise. I lie in an uncomfortable sweat for over an hour before I realise there’s an air-conditioning unit above the door. I’m so accustomed to not having air-con that I completely forgot it may be an option in some places. As soon as I feel the refreshing air-flow, I know it’s destined to remain switched on for the entire night.
In the morning I leave town by heading back towards Lidl, feeling like a local by using the same little side streets that I walked last night. I had plans to get through Hungary via the shores of the massive, touristy Lake Balaton, but that route looks like it will be expensive and busy in August. Instead, I decide to take the simple and more direct option of following the Danube River downstream. The first 50km of my ride today is spent heading towards the river, then a further 20km has me in the small riverside town of Dunaföldvár just as rain is threatening.
I’d booked myself into a room above a restaurant, but when I arrive I’m told they are fully booked. Even when I brandish my phone to show them my booking confirmation it makes no difference. They insist the company that I booked through has made a mistake, although it’s clear that they’ve just given the room to a walk-in customer rather than pay commission on my booking. This discussion goes back and forth a few times but I know it’s not going to get me anywhere, so I admit defeat and take a slow ride through town. I’m all set to make my way towards a campsite when I see a sign for the Tourist Information office and think I’ll try that first. The girl behind the desk isn’t particularly helpful, but she does give me a flyer for a guesthouse in the next street which, fortunately, turns out to be just the ticket.
I’m welcomed into the courtyard of what looks like a working pottery by a laid back, bohemian couple in their fifties. The old guy is more interested in rehydrating me with a couple of raspberry soda waters than sighting passports and other such check-in formalities, which means that I warm to them straight away. This relaxed attitude from the owners adds to the chilled, quirky ambience of the surroundings – A brick courtyard runs back from the street entrance and sports a disjointed assortment of pottery, trinkets, paintings, shells and old books for sale. This area doubles as their workshop / garden and is home to an affectionate tabby cat and a lovely fat sausage dog with the nicest temperament.
My room is low and narrow with wooden beams in the ceiling, ancient novels in a glass cabinet and a writing desk complete with quill and ink. Just inside the door there’s a wooden stand displaying an album cover by a man called Sardy Janos, who looks a bit like a Hungarian Elvis. The owner bloke tells me he was a well known writer and singer who used to live in this very room before he became famous. Goodness knows how he lived in such a small space for any length of time though. Bizarrely, there is also a bird cage hanging from the ceiling in one corner with a stuffed budgie sitting on the perch inside.
I leave the door to my room open and watch a fierce thunderstorm that lights up the sky and has rain absolutely battering off the brick pavers outside. Incongruously, this savage downpour is accompanied by the jaunty sounds of 1930’s swing music that the owners seem to favour. By evening the elements have calmed down and the only sound I can hear is from the TV in the room next to mine. I hear the theme tune to ‘Allo ‘Allo! drifting through the night and some dubbed Hungarian dialogue shortly afterwards. I have no idea what is being said but the lady owner sounds like she is just about wetting herself with laughter. Once I turn out the light I’m pestered by the awful whining sound of mosquitos, and take to spraying myself from head to toe in repellent.
I’ve just cycled fourteen out of the last fifteen days and definitely feel like I need a Rest Day. I’m also liking the feel of this oddball accommodation so I decide to spend an extra day amongst the kookiness. The only blight on the surreal tranquillity of this place is that the owner smokes like a chimney and therefore spends a large proportion of his day hacking and coughing like a consumptive.
Apart from food shopping and wandering around the town’s castle, I treat my Rest Day very literally. I do spend time sending about a dozen Couchsurfing requests in an attempt to find a host for the days ahead, but to no avail. Couchsurfing really is shit. Luckily, there is the cycling-oriented Warm Showers site – I send two requests on there and get two hosting offers almost immediately. I accept the first offer and tomorrow I’ll be heading for a town called Baja on the other side of the Danube. Night time brings a sense of déjà vu as the comforting strains of ‘Allo ‘Allo! filter through from the room next door once again, along with badly dubbed Hungarian and an almost uncontrollable laughter.