3. Rainy days in Hungary
4. Some more rain in Slovakia
5. Banská Štiavnica
6. Šahy, a Hungarian town in Slovakia
After almost a month cycling in Czech Republic, I cross the Austrian border with Vookie. Despite the wind, the ride from village to village in the Austrian wine region under the sun is enjoyable. We can spot numerous deer and hares rushing across the fields. We intend to stop for the night in Poysdorf, a village renowned for its wine. Our host for tonight mistakenly gave us a wrong phone number and nobody seems to be at home so we get rid of our shoes and sit in the late afternoon sun, on the pavement in front of his house. Most locals stare at us with amazement. Two cyclists sunbathing by the road is probably a quite unusual sight in Poysdorf.
Before sunset, Jakob shows up and offers us a beer, shower and food. In the evening we head to Jacob’s uncle’s restaurant where we enjoy a free wine tasting and some local delicacies. Jakob’s uncle is a wine enthusiast. When he closes the restaurant, he invites us to visit the wine cellars and explains us the whole winemaking process from harvesting to fermentation. Once more, I have this sensation to be at the right time in the right place and with the right people. It is hard to describe but I am amazed how situations can turn out so well when you don’t plan. Just give the opportunity for good things to happen and let them happen.
On the way to Vienna, we ride once more on small roads and cycling paths, enjoying the usual landscape of hills and fields. The sun is shining, spring is here! Never in my life I have been watching the seasons so closely. Soon we reach Vienna and meet Solène, a French girl studying in Vienna. After a very quick but much needed shower at her place, we get back to our bikes and head to a picnic in a park with some friends of Solène. I’m eating cakes, drinking wine having the usual talk about how the world goes mad with Aurélie, a French girl who lives since years in Austria. Before we leave, Aurélie kindly offers me a bottle of wine for tomorrow’s camping.
On the way from Vienna to Brastislava, we follow the Eurovelo 6 (European bike path). We are riding fast because the road is straight, flat and absolutely boring. I am so glad I don’t usually stick to bike itineraries. After 60 kilometres, I am starving so we stop in Mainsburg for some croissants before entering Slovakia. I was only once in Slovakia but all I remember is having lunch in a field with my friends. This year I want to take more time to discover Slovakia, meet people, cross villages and sense a bit how is the life in this country.
Most of the Slovakians I met so far advised me to go to the mountains in Northern Slovakia rather than spending much time in Bratislava. However, Bratislava is right on our way so we decide to spend there a couple of hours. The architecture of the historical centre reminds me a bit of Budapest but the city is much smaller. Nothing attracts much my attention but I know I would need to stay a longer in Bratislava to get a feel of the city. We quickly eat something in a small street before continuing our way East. After riding for couple of kilometres on some stony path across the fields, we notice on the side of the path a tiny Hungarian flag. Is this already the Hungarian border?!
Since Bratislava we were riding in a kind of no-man’s land and we did not find any shop to refill our empty food stock. In a couple of minutes the sun will reach the horizon line and disappear. It is too late to look for a shop, so we pitch the tent in a field nearby. We eat some old bread and drink the bottle of wine Aurélie offered me yesterday. I lay on the grass, watching the blackness of the sky, few stars appearing from time to time between the clouds. It is dark and chilly but I am enjoying the silence, feeling the earth under me, trying to listen to its music, I think of all people all around the planet, so many lives… I am here, lost in this universe, free… but kind of melancholic tonight. I probably had enough wine.
When we wake up, we feel relieved to see that it wasn’t raining. We swiftly pack the tent and before we even finish packing our panniers, it starts to rain. We continue our way east, cycling slowly on field paths. We originally wanted to ride on the Slovak side of the Danube but the Danube is so wide that bridges are scarce, therefore we decide to stay in Hungary for a while. We progress slowly and get lost many times on stony trails around the villages. My map of Hungary is absolutely inaccurate and often displays imaginary roads. In a village, we witness some workers repairing the potholes on the road with a horse cart and shovels. This probably is the first situation I encountered that I could really not imagine in Western Europe these days. Later we see a shepherd sitting near his flock of goats. In the villages, many old people with craggy faces are still wearing traditional outfit. Time seems to pass much slower here.
The area gives the impression to be wealthier when we get closer to Győr. I have been passing near Győr many times but I never visited the city. Cycling in Győr centre, I have the feeling that this town is somehow authentic. Tourist crowds head to Budapest and forget about Győr. I like the relaxed atmosphere of this town, the nice and colourful buildings in the centre. Unfortunately it is still raining and we are not in the mood to spend much time here, we are not so cold when cycling.
Couple of days ago, we agreed to visit Banská Štiavnica (in central Slovakia) before heading to Budapest. This means we will have make a detour and ride about 100 kilometres per day until we reach Budapest if Vookie wants to be back to Krakow on time. We eat a fat langós in front of the train station and struggle to find a way out of Győr. Most of the road signs direct us towards big roads and the few smaller roads we try seem to go round and round. We have no choice but to ride on the main road to Komárom for a while. Strangely, the sections with bike lanes alternate with sections forbidden to bikes for no obvious reason. As soon as we can, we get away from the traffic and cycle on a smaller road. According my map, there is a road following the railway until Komárom but we can’t find it… We decide then to try a mud path for couple of kilometres. The wind is getting stronger and when we realize it is a dead end, the sky turns dark. We are heading back to the road, facing a terrible headwind and hail. In less than a minute we are totally soaked and frozen. Hailstones hammer on my helmet like a barmy drummer and I struggle to steer the bike in the mud. Why the hell is there a road on my map? We are totally wet now so we have nothing to lose. We decide to try another mud path thinking this one might be the road we are looking for. After couple of kilometres, the surface fortunately gets a little better. This time it is not a dead end! When the rain stops, we ride fast to keep us warm, looking at the clouds and yearning for some sun to help us dry our clothes.
We cross the border to Slovakia in Komárom, then rest and dry a bit in a café of Komárno (the Slovak side of Komárom). We can’t relax very long because we have to find a dry place to pitch the tent before night. We eventually find a forest which seems to be okay, even if a bit wet and covered with some aromatic plants which smells very strongly of anise. We were riding 130 kilometres today and haven’t seen much sun! In the tent, I read Jonathan Livingstone before falling asleep… “You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.“
In the morning, we wait for a moment without much rain to pack our stuff and go. That day is an endless succession of heavy rain, hailstones, drizzle and every now and then sunshine between dark clouds. We keep on putting on and removing our jackets. The landscape in southern Slovakia is pretty similar to what crossed these last days but at least we can observe some very nice cloud formations. We ride north, reaching slowly the hills of the low Tatras. We are once more crossing a quite poor rural area. In villages, we encounter mainly old people. Before dusk, we cross a village where we see dozens of old women going out of the church in their traditional mountain outfit, a blue or black dress and a great shawl covering their heads.
The weather looks pretty unstable so, as soon as we think it won’t rain for half an hour, we look for a place to camp. I am riding in a field, trying to spot a nice place for tonight when I notice that one of my front panniers is broken! The plastic rail and the clip which attach the pannier to the rack are broken! This is quite serious. I cannot cycle if I don’t manage to repair it somehow. I curse and we have no choice but stay here for the night. We set up the tent and quickly cook a readymade goulash, shivering because of our wet feet. I fall asleep trying to figure out how to repair my pannier.
It was raining all night. The thermometer displays 6 degrees. My shoes are still soaked from yesterday’s rain. I am shivering and cold. I manage to fix temporarily the broken pannier before we start to ride. We know we will have to ascend about 600 metres under pouring rain before reaching Banská Štiavnica. Thinking of spending one more night in our drenched tent is not really motivating us but there is no alternative. Unless we find somebody on the way, we will not have any warm place to stay before Budapest. This is one of these moments where we wonder why, “Damn, why are we doing this?“. I know Vookie feels the same and that makes the situation a bit more enjoyable somehow 😉
After a couple of kilometres with empty stomach, we decide to stop for a hot drink in a village called Pukanek. The only place which seems open is not really appealing but I prefer to be warm than being picky. As soon as we pass the door and penetrate in the smoky room, the shiny eyes of the old people turn toward us for a second before going back to the dusty table in front of them. The waitress is young but sick and looks bored to death. She almost smiles when she sees our soaked silhouettes and haggard faces. We order some tea and enjoy the warmth of the place despite our damp clothes. After a minute, we realise that we are the only ones drinking anything else than liquor or whichever strong alcohol. I check the time: it is 10am. I glance around the room and see only weary faces under dusty worn greyish hats. For a second, I have the feeling to be back in time. We don’t fit to that place. We decide to order some slivovice and add it to our tea, that might help.
I fetch my headlamp to go to the toilet because there is no lightbulb there and I don’t wish to be in complete darkness as soon as I close the door. I find out when I come back that closing the door is not an option anyway because the door frame is much smaller than the door. The headlamp is not much needed finally…
Later on the way, we take refuge under a bus stop shelter and eat some food. I am struggling to drink the nauseating fruit juice in my bottle. It tastes like anything but fruits. I drink it only because it contains sugar. Cycling uphill to Banská Štiavnica is not as painful as I imagined it would be. At least, going uphill keeps our bodies warm. I feel pretty stupid that I packed my winter gloves to the bottom of my back panniers. My fingers are damn frozen. I should not think of it… no… I try to think of the summer days to come, when I will be hot and sunny.
In the surroundings of Banská Štiavnica, we see some remains of gold mines which brought prosperity to this area centuries ago.
When we finally reach the city, we cycle up and down in the centre but the streets are empty. Who would be crazy enough to go out with such rainy weather?! The thermometer now displays 0 degree! I tell to Vookie that we will start losing our toes if I don’t get in a heated place soon… He understands it right: I’m just not in a mood to visit the town. In a café, Vookie writes a desperate message to a random CouchSurfer in Šahy, a town 70 kilometres south of here. I guess he wrote something like “Hi there, we are two guys travelling by bike. Our tent is wet. We are cold, tired and it’s raining. Can we sleep at your place tonight?“
His optimism makes me smile. I can’t imagine we would sleep in a hot place tonight. I drink my beer slowly, shivering, wrapped in my scarf. I might look a bit weird because that guy who stares at the tits of the waitress since half an hour asks me in Slovak if I plan to rob a bank!
As soon as we leave Banská Štiavnica, the sun starts to shine. The road keeps going downhill, following a river, and the temperature is slowly rising. This is heaven? Almost! Vookie eventually receives an SMS from Zsuzsanna, the CouchSurfer he contacted from the café. She says we are welcome to stay at her place tonight! Wow! We can hardly believe this is really happening. Now, our motivation is back, we must reach Šahy tonight! We smile, and ride fast across the beautiful Slovak landscape. The sun declining over the hills illuminate the cherry trees in blossom by the road. I am happy!
Later, we ride uphill once more but this time we keep on smiling. I still can’t believe we will sleep in a dry place tonight. The road drives us south, following another river down a valley. Going downhill, we are flying, so fast that the wind brings me to tears but I keep my eyes wide open to catch the beauty of the scenery. Would I enjoy so deeply this moment if I hadn’t struggled in the rain and cold for the last few days? Do we have to experience such hard time to appreciate fully the good times?
In Slovak villages, we often see the same type of one-storey houses: long and rectangular base with a roof extent on a terrace area where old people sit old day long on a bench, knitting, reading newspaper or just waiting. There are often chickens in the courtyard. Sometimes a goat nibbles by the side of the road.
Arriving in Šahy, we are warmly welcomed by Zsuzsanna:
“Please sit down“
“I make you a tea“
“Do you want hot chocolate? Oh, I prepare you a hot chocolate before the tea! “
“Maybe you can try this chair? It is more comfortable… or this one?“
“… and maybe you want Internet? “
“… or you want a shower before? “
“… here is your hot chocolate, how are you?! “
I am stunned by such kindness and care. I would like to tell Zsuzsanna to take it easy because hosting us means already a lot for us but I have no energy to talk. I just sit, smile and enjoy feeling like at home for a moment.
Zsuzsanna is Hungarian. A hundred years ago, Šahy was the Hungarian town of Ipolyság. It became part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War, an outcome of the treaty of Trianon in 1920. Nowadays, Šahy is still largely populated with Hungarians. This is the case of most of the Slovak cities and villages along the Hungarian border. These days, Slovakia is home to a population of about half a million of ethnic Hungarians. I remember seeing on our way many shops with names written both in Hungarian and Slovak and we met many people speaking Hungarian in the streets. Even if we didn’t discuss the topic with Zsuzsanna, I know there is some discrimination towards Hungarians living in Slovakia. The Hungarian issue is quite often discussed in the Slovak media and this obviously doesn’t lead to more respect and better integration. I don’t blame Slovakians. I know that minorities are always an easy target, maybe the perfect scapegoat to any problem that a country is unable to solve. But that makes me angry, sickened against this system which manipulates people to keep them afraid of each other in order to maintain them under control.
Zsuzsanna is a teacher of Hungarian in a local village school. She travelled extensively and has a lot of interesting stories to tell about her travel in Iran. I am glad to hear her saying she felt safer in Iran than in Slovakia. Her eyes are shining when she talks about the hospitality and kindness of Iranian people: “It cannot be described, it is something like you never experienced“. We talk until late at night, then, because she doesn’t want to bother us in the morning, she decides to spend the night at her mum’s apartment and offers us to stay the night in her bedroom. In the morning, she came in and prepared breakfast for us before heading to work.
On our way to Budapest, we stop by Zsuzsanna’s school and we take part in an ethic lesson. It is an interesting experience even if the kids are pretty shy when it comes to speaking English.
The road to Esztergom is following the Hungarian border and we appreciate every little bit of sun. Esztergom is a lovely town on the Danube, located just on the border with Hungary. I crossed the Danube here when I went for the first time in Hungary. I remember standing on the Mária Valéria bridge and watching a beautiful sunset over the Danube. I never came back here since then. When crossing the bridge, I am the same impressed by the massive basilica standing like a jewel above the Danube and I am excited to enter Hungary one more time.
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