As good as it felt to be on the road again, a kind of out-of-season loneliness began to take hold of me once I put Vienna astern. Call it a sense of anticlimax, of having lingered on after the party was over. For just about everybody travelling the Donau Radveg that summer, Vienna was the end of the line. Without ever meaning to, over the past six hundred miles I had bought into that idea too – Vienna as grand finale.
It wasn’t of course, not for me, nor for the Donau Radveg which, in name at least, stretched on as far as Budapest. Nevertheless there was nobody riding it that morning except me and as the lonely miles unwound beneath cool grey autunal skies, I found myself feeling out of sorts, unable to muster up the old open road enthusiasm.
I made brisk time despite my moodiness, passing through a sombre wood where some deer were gambolling about in the leafy gloom and then through an old castle town called Hainburg. Soon afterwards a line of grey, gloomy looking tenements came into view, a legacy of Communism’s love of concrete, and I realised I must be drawing close to the Slovakian border.
For once there were passport formalities, exits stamps from the Austrians and entry ones from the Slovakians. I pedalled away from the multi-lane customs booth and the mass of trucks awaiting clearance with a sense of having travelled, arrived at someplace new – a sense that was helped along by the spectacle of a giant billboard for McDonalds welcoming me to Slovakia. My inner ironist appreciated it. Here at last, after weeks of pedalling I could begin to feel the romance of distance: where else but in the rump of the old Soviet Bloc could you see such wholesale embrasure of Western consumerism?
From the border crossing the bicycle path left the highway and wound its way back down to the river again through a weedy no-man’s-land, vaguely industrial in feel, dotted with pylons and criss-crossed with high tension with power lines. It was mighty slow going through here, partly because of the strong chilly quartering winds that gusted across the path, but mainly because of the endless series of stiles and speed humps that blighted this stretch of the path. They were brutal little things, made of sharply angled heavy gauge steel – pleats from the iron curtain? – that forced me to dismount every hundred metres or so and ease my bicycle over them. I wondered what all this was in aid of: obstructionism for the sheer glorious hell of it, by the look of things.
Their pointlessness amplified and cast into sharper relief the overall sense of pointlessness that had come over me since I left Vienna that morning. It was an moody and introspective cyclist that found his way into the heart of Bratislava, which was revealed to be a smaller and rather shabbier version of Vienna; baroque gone broke.
I crossed the river on a bridge dedicated to the Soviet Navy’s efforts along the Danube during World War II, rode along a wall covered with spray-painted graffiti of the skinhead variety, then rolled into a cobbled square in the mediaeval part of town, not far from the castle, where a half dozen pavement cafes were doing brisk trade serving up schnitzel and beer to an early lunchtime crowd.
There wasn’t much to pick between them. They all had the same fin-de-siecle facades, and the same dark, wiry, bow-tied waiters wending between the same tightly packed tables, and the same refreshingly budget prices after the eye-watering ones in Vienna. The only overt difference was the brands of Western cigarettes being advertised on their umbrellas. I spotted a bureau de change down a sidestreet, swapped my leftover Austrian shillings for Slovakian crowns, then came back and picked out a table at the Café Marlboro.
I ordered and while I waited for my schnitzel and beer to arrive I had a quiet ponder about the future direction of my journey. My present course was going to take me on to Budapest. Beautiful and evocative though Budapest might have been, and probably was, it was hard for me to imagine it’s topping the arrival in Vienna and that delightful almost symphonic ride through the Wachau Valley – in the cheerful company of so many fellow travellers – I had made to get there. At best, at the very best, it would be a repetition – another two hundred mile ride along the banks of the river and into another, and probably shabbier, Habsburg capital.
As my thoughts ranged from Bratislava to Budapest and further on down the road to the imagined concrete of Bucharest, in Romania, a sudden restlessness came over me. I’d had enough of dark woods and big old rivers, heavy baroque architecture and moody grey skies that rained on me every five minutes. Where were the hot yellow landscapes? The fig trees and olives groves, the miles of sleepy sun-drenched strade bianche flanked with cypress trees?
They’d been part of the vision, too, when I’d pedalled away from home, bound for The Continent. I wasn’t going to find any of that in musty old Budapest, let alone in the dripping forests of Transylvania or the Carpathian Mountains, however magic their names. A change was what I needed.
Snap. The moment I realised it, the metaphorical clouds under which I’d been riding all morning dispelled – even if the real ones remained and growled with thunder. I decided to declare the Danube complete and open a fresh page, start a new chapter, by heading somewhere else, away from the river, towards those hot yellow landscapes of my imagination. Exercise the glorious freedom of a touring cyclist – the ability to steer your own course, change your mind, and do it on a whim.
From Bratislava, where I sat, I had a choice. I could either turn around and ride back to Vienna, buy myself a new set of maps to cover the grand southerly sweep I was contemplating, or I could press on into Hungary and take a change of bearings there. Retracing my steps to Vienna didn’t appeal, even though it was only about forty miles. I decided to ride on into Hungary, buy some new maps there and head for Trieste.
And so I set out from Bratislava in a much brighter frame of mind than I had ridden into it, following the wild, marshy and lonely Slovakian bank of the Danube. Having made up my mind, settled on a course of action, I was suddenly happy and upbeat, and kind of grateful for this quiet grey afternoon all alone on the riverbank – a last farewell to the big friendly old river that had been my travelling companion for the past six hundred-odd miles.
I met no other cyclists, wentthrough no villages; it was the loneliest stretch of the river I had yet run along. The only traffic I saw was out on the water, way out mid-stream: tugboats pulling long trains of barges, their flags – German, Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian – aflutter in breezes I couldn’t feel in the shelter along the shore.
I slept in the woods that night, in a copse of hardwood near the bank. The dusk hummed with mosquitoes, and a chorus of crickets and frogs. It felt a world away from the night sounds of Vienna I’d grown used to, ninety miles back. The river shone like pewter in the dull afterglow of the sunset, and although the skies had been cloudy all day a few faint stars were now sifting out of the gloom. To complement them, a scattering of lights twinkled to life in villages over on the Hungarian side of the river.
I pitched my tarp against a sapling, made dinner out of the grab-bag of groceries I’d bought on my way out of Bratislava, and sat up watching the river, saying my goodbyes and thinking ahead to how I would find my way down to Trieste, the venerable old Italian seaport at the head of the Adriatic.
From there it would be a matter of heading down the Dalmatian Coast, through Croatia and Montenegro, Albania and all the way to Greece. As visions arose of myself pedalling my tourer along sun-drenched corniches, through one romantic travel poster scene after another of hot blue skies and flowers and crumbly antique towns, and with the azure sea sparkling beside me, I found myself marvelling I hadn’t thought of this sooner. And delighted I’d thought of it now. Tomorrowwas the first day of the rest of my journey.
Eager now as a kid on Christmas Eve, I turned in and woke the next morning to silvery skies and warm hazy sunshine. Half an hour’s pleasurable riding along the river bank brought me to Komarno where an antique iron bridge crossed the river. I pedalled over it, showed my passport and was stamped into Hungary. Then I went off to hunt up some breakfast and buy myself a new map and a fresh start.
I found the very thing for a hundred forints in a musty stationer’s shop and twenty minutes later, over a steamy latte and slice of poppy seed cake in an old dark-wood café, I was plotting my way through the unpronounceable villages in the Hungarian hinterland, south by west towards the hills along the Slovenian border. A glance at a bigger-picture map of Europe, when I was back in the shop, suggested that I was probably no more than five hundred kilometres from Italy and Trieste. Three long days in the saddle should see me there. I set myself a goal of getting as far as Slovenia by nightfall, a hundred and twenty miles perhaps. After my big ride along the Danube the other day, coming across Austria, I fancied my chances. Eager to be away, off to the sunny Adriatic, I finished my coffee, forked up the last crumbs of poppy seed cake, and started shifting the scenery.
It was considerably slower and hillier on these Hungarian backroads than it had been when I was cruising along the Austrian reaches of the Danube, and the scenery was nowhere near as grand, being more like Magyar version of Appalachia, shabby villages with piglets rooting around in front yards, chickens pecking in the dust and even the odd bit of horse-cart traffic. The few cars that sputtered by were mostly decrepit Trabants which left a filmy blue stink of exhaust in their wakes that hung in the air long after the rattling of the engine had died away in the distance.
For a while I found myself riding behind a man in a flat cap who was transporting a bouquet of red roses clipped to the rack of his ancient utility bike. He set a cracking pace on such a rickety old thing, clearly putting in some heartfelt effort into delivering those flowers. I wondered who they were for. As the miles passed, up hill and down, through one gloomy stretch of forest after another, that solid hundred yards or so always remaining between us, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued and wondering what the story was here: The shy courtship? The loving anniversary? The craven apology – he just lost the Trabant in a crap game?
Alas I’ll never know. He swung down a side track, and rattled away out of view, still pedalling vigorously, while I continued along the main road towards a town called Sarvar, the next of my way points to the Slovenian border and on to Trieste.