16th AUGUST 2018
I’m all ready to go again and feeling almost refreshed after my lazy Rest Day in Dunaföldvár. The only physical weirdness I have is a chubby, swollen finger as a result of a mosquito bite. It takes me back to something I was told by a guy in Finland – he reasoned that there are many different types of mosquito and only certain ones will cause a reaction until you get used to them. I thought he may have been talking nonsense at first, but now I’m not so sure. Mosquitos in the north of Finland were huge, ravenous and descended within seconds, whereas Hungary’s are tiny and flit around teasing you for ages before they decide to bite. It seems strange that it’s the smaller ones who have caused a reaction.
I check out of my funky pottery accommodation and have to cross the Danube River for the second time as I leave town. After a few kilometres I’m able to join the Euro Velo 6 cycle path as it runs alongside the road for a while. This route begins on the Atlantic coast of France and runs for 3,650km all the way to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through ten countries on its journey. I could simply follow this track all the way down the Danube and into Croatia if I wanted to. However, it has an annoying habit of degenerating into a dirt track or meandering through fields, which means I usually just stick to the road. For now though I’m happy to tag along as this section is so gorgeously smooth and well kept it’s like cycling on a marble floor. I even have a tailwind, so I’m on course to get to my Warm Showers hosts way ahead of our 5.00pm meeting time. I don’t want a long wait outside their house, so stop in a village called Dusnok and find a riverside park with a shady tree to sit under.
Ironically, after not wanting to arrive early, I miscalculate how long it will take cycling to Baja and arrive an hour late. My host is a man called Roland who has just moved into a large modern bungalow with security gates in a brand new housing development. He’s cooking when I arrive and offers me a shot of palinka fruit brandy as a welcome greeting. I say ‘a shot’ but it’s probably closer to half a glass. This particular one has been home-made by his father-in-law so there’s no telling what the alcohol percentage is. My God it is strong ! I can feel a warming sensation in my throat afterwards as if I’ve just eaten chillies. Roland seems to be channelling Keith Floyd while he’s cooking and pours a second palinka as soon as we’ve finished the first. I’m going to end up trashed on an empty stomach if we continue at this pace !
In between mouthfulls of palinka, he fries some meat cubes and veggies in two separate frying pans, before breaking six eggs into each pan. The process looks similar to cooking an omelette, but the eggs haven’t been beaten and just cook slowly amongst the meat and vegetables. He tells me most Hungarian recipies call for lashings of paprika and proceeds to sprinkle handful upon handful of the red spice into each pan. The dish is then served along with a hearty feast of bread, chorizo, salami, peppers and cherry tomatoes. It tastes deliciously fresh and I attempt the difficult task of trying not to look greedy while at the same time eating like a horse.
We eat at a long dining table along with his wife and five children, who gabble away in Hungarian while Roland speaks to me in English. Not for the first time I find myself wondering why someone would act as a host and what they get out of it. For Roland it is simply a case of wanting his kids to grow up seeing as many different people and cultures as they can, which is really refreshing in this age of nationalism and xenophobia. What marks him as unusual amongst Warm Showers hosts is that he’s not a cyclist himself. He says he used to host couchsurfers but gave that up as he felt most of them were just after a free bed for the night. Now, I’m not about to get all righteous here and pretend that I don’t care about getting free accommodation. I do. It makes a huge difference on a trip like this. What I value just as much though is getting the chance to spend some quality time with a Hungarian family, chatting, sharing their food and seeing how they live. This way I feel I get a proper feel for the country and I think it’s one of the best parts about travelling.
Roland’s wife and children depart the table in dribs and drabs as they finish their meal. One of his younger children then returns to show off a hedgehog they have adopted and that is now effectively a family pet. Roland cracks open a bottle of red wine, complete with genuine cork, and we sit chatting till after midnight. A lot of his conversation tends towards the dull field of politics, which wouldn’t be my first choice of topic. All the wine and palinka in my system, coupled with the boring subject matter, means my concentration is lacking and very little information finds its way into my slow brain. I’m barely able to keep my eyes open by this point and make my way sleepily to the spare room / office where a fold-out sofa bed awaits me.
In the morning I thank my hosts for their hospitality and find that they are a ‘don’t do breakfast’ household. I cannot comprehend this as I’m a fat calorie whore when I’m on a cycle trip. Roland must recognise this as he gives me three bananas to send me on my way.
It’s about 9.00am when I set out and the temperature is already in the high twenties. There isn’t a breath of wind or a single cloud to be seen in the pale blue sky. Today already feels like it has the potential to escalate into a blazing, dry scorcher. I leave town and re-cross the Danube (again) as I need to be on the west side of the river to reach the border crossing into Croatia. The terrain starts out very flat near the river but then begins to climb gradually. I’m soon up a slope looking at countless rows of vines that stretch back into the distance and support healthy bunches of plump, black grapes. Then it’s an easy downhill towards the village of Bár for my last look at the Danube, before a long, sweeping bypass takes me round the town of Mohács and on to the Croatian border.
So far I’ve been used to breezing through land borders without having to even think about my passport, but that is destined to change from this point onwards. There’s only a small line of about ten cars waiting to cross, which is just as well, as I have to join their queue and stand in the blistering sunshine as I wait. Fortunately, I only have to stand for fifteen minutes, but I still keep my helmet on right up until the checkpoint to remain shaded for as long as I can.
At the checkpoint the Hungarian and Croatian border officials seem to be on very good terms; a large round of hand-shaking breaks out when a new batch of officers arrive to begin their shift. When it’s my turn to cross I step forward to a booth and show my passport to what looks like a Hungarian policeman. He barely looks at it because I’m about to leave his country and, therefore, am no longer his problem. I then take two steps forward to the next booth to be greeted by a young Croatian guy who takes my passport and begins examining it. I get the impression that he doesn’t encounter many British passports at this crossing as he seems a little unsure what to make of it. He studies the front cover where it says ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ but that doesn’t help him. Then he begins to flick through the inside pages to look for visa stamps, but only finds ones for Fiji and South East Asia. He looks completely flummoxed and, although he doesn’t actually shrug his shoulders, he might as well have. He just hands me back my passport with a huge smile and says ‘Goodbye !’ I push my bike into Croatia and am met by an old battered sign that reads Republika Hrvatska.
From the border it’s only 25km to my destination of Beli Manastir, which looks quite a run-down town on first impressions. I find my guesthouse but, with the aid of another tailwind, I’ve arrived about an hour earlier than I said I would be. I ring the doorbell to find no-one is home and spend forty minutes waiting on the doorstep accompanied by a faint smell of cat’s piss. The lady owner turns out to be really friendly though, and takes her time showing me around the house. She says to check-out whenever I feel like in the morning and just to leave the keys outside in the post box. On her way out she tells me ‘The house like your own.’
I walk into town to find a bank to withdraw some Croatian money and to see if there’s any truth to the story that the higher the value of banknote in Croatia, the more facial hair the person depicted on the note has. I’m disappointed to find the theory disproved as the bloke on the 200 kuna note has only a goatee, while the hairy chap on the 100 kuna note has bushy sideburns right down to his mouth. I carry on wandering through the streets to find that it is indeed quite a poor, neglected town with many derelict buildings and closed businesses. It’s almost like no-one cares about the place as a lot of cars, buildings and gardens look like they have just been abandoned. I pass a closed down cafe that looks like it has been forgotten. There’s a dead cat on the outside porch which appears to have been lying there for days. The eyes are missing and its stomach has sunk into the pavers as all the organs have started to decompose. It’s a grim spectacle.
My original plan was to head for Osijek, but I’ve decided just to carry on south tomorrow to a place called Đakovo. My passage is going to take me through the skinny, inland part of Croatia, even though I know the prettiest and most touristy parts of the country are on the Mediterranean coast. This may seem like a strange choice, but I want to try and save the Mediterranean till the end of my trip – A sort of reward for finishing the journey. With this route in mind, it looks like my stay in Croatia will only be a fleeting one.