A ride-through country

Day 55 – Sunday 18th of August – Krakow to Budapest (393km)

Poor Slovakia. It is a beautiful country, with some of the best roads and landscapes I have seen on this trip, but it only gets a few lines and some pictures that do not do it any justice at all.

Our next stop was Budapest, which meant that we were going to cross Slovakia from north to south to get there but we would not spend a night in the country, so everything we saw was from the road. It made a great impression, the road was really enjoyable and there was very little traffic, so we had a great time riding through it.

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Also, I would like to congratulate the driver of a dark gray Suzuki Gran Vitara for his excellent driving manners. I was going to say ’99.9% of drivers…’ and most people who know me would think I am exaggerating, as I usually do, but if you take into account that I have been driving or riding for 15 years and have only seen two drivers behave like this, maybe even 99.9% is too low a figure. Anyway, 99.9% of drivers can drive fast on a straight line, any idiot can drive a modern car fast in  straight line – they just have to put their foot down and the car goes, not much more to it. However, the moment they see a corner approaching, they slow down to an irritating crawl, apparently thinking that their 60.000-thousand euro Audis equipped with a whole alphabet of safety acronyms are going to suddenly decide to fly off the road and send them and their beloved families through the gates of hell engulfed in a fire ball if they take the corner at anything other than walking pace. These are the most annoying people you can find on the road, as you are trapped behind them, suffering their total lack of driving skills, but the moment the road becomes straight and you have a chance to overtake them, the very limited part of their brains related to driving that controls their right foot makes the connection ‘straight line – safe’ and they floor it and disappear until they find the next corner. There is an extremely rare type of driver, however, that is aware that there are other people using the road, people who might want to travel faster than them on corners, and who tries to be as little of an annoyance as possible, This driver will go around corners at a reasonable speed in order not to make much of a nuisance of himself, but come a straight bit of road, he will slow down to let you pass. So thanks very much whoever was driving that Suzuki, and if there were more drivers like you in the world, the roads would be a much nicer place.

We stopped a few times in Slovakia for petrol, some food, an ice-cream, the country sticker, etc. and made it to Budapest in the early evening. We went back to that wonderful place that is BikerCamp, and before putting up the tent or even thinking about doing some shopping for dinner, I had a shower and we sat down to chat with some Italian bikers and enjoy a few beers.

Unfortunately, this meant that by the time we thought about the shopping, the supermarket was closed, so we had to go to one of those 24h grocery stores that always seem to have a few dodgy characters at the door drinking beer 24/7. Once we had filled the basket and were going to pay, they told us that they did not accept credit cards, and we did not have any local currency, so we had to leave the food there, find an ATM and then go back, all with an empty stomach and five beers affecting our reasoning ability.

In the end we managed to cook a meal that properly restored our energy (bacon, lots of bacon), and then went back to the beer and the interesting conversation.

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Biker Camp

Day 5 – Saturday 29th of June – Budapest (0km)

Biker Camp is, as the name says, a campsite for bikers and cyclists in the center of Budapest.

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It was founded by Zsolt Vertessy, a biker himself, who sadly died in an accident in 2004. The place has been run by his widow ever since, and offers a space to camp, toilets and showers, a washing machine, cooking facilities, wifi, tools, a self-service bar and the chance to meet fellow bikers. It is six underground stops from the city centre and is a great place to spend a few days.

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I got here at about half past six in the evening and was shown into the camping space by the owner. There is room for about ten or twelve tents plus the bikes, but there was only another tent, which belonged to a Norwegian family who are on a cycling holiday.

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I chatted with them over breakfast today and they told me they flew all their gear to Venice and are cycling back home from there, doing from 50 to 60 kilometres a day… with two kids! The youngest is only seven years old. When I think that most people back in Spain say that you can practically do nothing once you have had children…

After breakfast I took the underground, which is a couple of streets from the camp and went to explore Budapest.

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The city is as beautiful as I expected from the tales of all the people I know who have been here before me, and today the weather was wonderful, which meant that I was a bit too hot at times!

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I spent the whole morning walking around the city, exploring the most popular places and taking lots of pictures, and by lunchtime I went a bit off the tourist trail in search of a good place to eat. I found a small pub where I had a full traditional Hungarian meal for only 11€ – A very spicy paprika sauce to spread on bread, goulash soup, paprika chicken with cream, salad, coffee, traditional Hungarian bread, an enormous apple pie, and a pint of local beer. Delicous! The climb to the citadel was quite hard after that…

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I was thinking that there were very few tourists in the city, until I reached the top of the hill and ran into an army of Japanese sun-allergic  tourists hiding under their umbrellas and huddling together near their respective guides, seemingly afraid of getting very lost if they wandered too far on their own.

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After spending some time there and taking some more pictures, I went back down into the centre and decided to explore the non touristy neighbourhoods between the centre and the place where I was staying. Not far from where most tourists were, the streets changed quickly and I was in an area of run down buildings with a very high proportion of drunkards, homeless people and very dodgy looking characters.

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I put the camera back into its bad, as it was the only thing giving me away as a tourist, as my clothes are quite simple (I can’t really carry much) and the cropped hair and growing beard seemed to blend in quite well. I stopped at a small fruit shop to get some oranges and apples and then got the underground for the last three stops, because my feet were killing me. I was glad to have spent the day walking for a change, but I would not know what is more tiring…

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This has been a shorter post than the previous ones, I will let the pictures do the talking here. By the way, since this is a blog, and not a photo album, I will be posting extra pictures on the Facebook page, so if you are interested, you can see them there.

Here’s a selection:

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Three countries in one day

Day 4 – Friday 28th of June – Smrjene to Budapest (532km)

What a day! One of the things you hear about trips like this is that it is when you start having problems that the real adventure begins. Well, it must sound like some kind of twisted logic, but it is true – I had my first fall today, and despite this, it has been another wonderful day.

The fall was not serious, but it was quite embarrassing… I had just left Smrjene and went back into the city to cross it and get on the road to the border following the instructions on the GPS. The traffic was quite heavy again, it was the morning rush hour and I was stopped at a red light behind a panel van that blocked most of my view forward. The light changed and traffic started moving when suddenly the van slammed the brakes and so did I to avoid running into its back. I was just starting to move, so the bike was leaning slightly to one side, not having gained enough speed to stand upright by itself, so when I braked it leaned to far to one side and past that angle, the fall was inevitable. It crashed onto its side in the middle of a fully crowded main street in the city center. I got up, made sure I was OK (I was) and quickly tried to lift the bike to get out of the way, but soon discovered it was too heavy fully loaded to be able to lift it myself.  Fortunately, a young guy ran across the street and through the traffic and helped me pick it up. I started it and moved to a bus stop to check for damage. It had landed on the BarkBusters, which did their job very well and protected the clutch handle and on the left pannier, which had a very small scratch. The outer bottle holder had broken free from its lower bolt, but that seemed to be all the damage. I restarted the bike and went on.

I have been told that on such long trips, you need some time to get into the rhythm of the whole thing, and I started to find that to be true today. I had a long way to go again, but this time I was not worried about wasting time if I stopped to take a picture of something I liked or took a rest more often. I knew I had all day to get there, and I had to enjoy the road.

With this new mindset, I stopped for the first time shortly after leaving the city, and discovered that the left pannier was not closed properly. On closer inspection, I saw that the fall had pushed it into the frame, bending it enough for the shape of the opening to be deformed, so it did not line with the lid any more.

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It was quite cloudy and Franci had checked the weather forecast in the morning and told me there was a possibility of rain in Hungary, so I was worried about water getting into my luggage, especially as that pannier contained my camping and sleeping gear. I decided to try to find a repair shop and see if they could bend it back into shape. I got back on the road keeping an eye open and soon spotted what looked like a garage. I rode up to it and when I got off the bike and into it I saw it was a kind of MoT station. As I was already there, I decided to ask where I could find a place to get it fixed, so I approached a man who has coming out with his car documents on his hands. He listened to me and had a looked at the pannier and immediately took his mobile phone out and called a friend who had a body repair shop. Unfortunately, he was not able to reach him, so he took me next door, where there was a car wash.

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The guy at the car wash called his colleague, who had a small workshop behind the building, and he came and gestured me to remove the pannier from the bike and give it to him. I did, and ten minutes later he came back with it, straight enough for the lid to fit and close properly. I thanked them profusely and went on. A couple of hours later I found an old workshop by the road that had these photogenic relics outside and I stopped to take some pictures.

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The roads were great again, and I was wondering whether petrol would be cheaper in Hungary or in Slovenia when suddenly, coming out of a corner and going up a very steep hill, I came upon a sign that took me by surprise.

You can unexpectedly run into people, into trouble, into a lamppost if you are not paying attention, but this was the first time in my life I had run into a country. I had, apparently, come across Austria.

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When I checked on the map, there seemed to be a fairly straight line from Ljubljana to Budapest, but my GPS had apparently decided that I would like the scenic route better, and I did. It had taken me north, to Graz, and then east over the Orségi Nemzeti natural park and into Hungary. I really enjoyed spending some kilometers in Austria and I took the chance to get yet another sticker and fill the bike up, as petrol was cheaper than even Spain. So much for the biking holiday I someday wanted to take in Italy… at those prices I would much rather tour central Europe! The landscape is better, too. Once I crossed the border everything changed.

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The road was still narrow, but in quite bad condition, and everything had an air less taken care of. I stopped at a petrol station right after the border to change some money for the first time and get yet another sticker.

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It had been slightly overcast all day, perfect conditions for riding, no rain, not too hot… but in the afternoon the weather deteriorated and it seemed as if it was going to rain. I kept thinking I should stop and put the waterproof layers on the jacket, but that meant unstrapping the rack pack and my optimistic me kept seeing that the sky was clearer ahead. I had to change from summer to winter gloves, though, because it was getting colder.

In the end I made it to Budapest dry and found the place I am going to be staying at for the next couple of nights without problems. If you come to Budapest by motorbike or bicycle, this is the place to stay! I set up camp, borrowed a set of three precision tools (also known as hammers) and spent the afternoon banging the pannier back into shape.  But more on that tomorrow, it has been a long ride today, about ten hours, and it is getting very late.

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