Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bicycles belong in Hungary

Ruth: The Hungarian plains are the land of the bicycle. Not only is the area flat and well suited to riding, but everybody rides one. The more I looked around the small town we have been passing through the more I realized that the majority of homes do not have cars in their driveways. Oh of course there are cars on the road ranging from posh BMWs and Audis to rusty Ladas and even some Trabants, but most of the people are on their bicycles. Whenever a critical mass of cyclist exists, communities build bike paths. The last few days whenever the roads have felt like they are getting busy with trucks a bicycle path appears linking towns that are several kilometres apart. In the towns, there is always a well maintained bike trail crowded with ladies heading off to the store for their morning shopping. 

In my books this is civilization! Today as we rode towards the Romanian border our entire trip was on a separated bike lane. As we approached customs with a highway choked with trucks queuing to cross the border we smoothly sailed through in our own lane. Once in Romania the lane continued all the way to our destination of Oradea.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The biggest biplane

Gordon:  One of the delights of slow, self-propelled travel is the unexpected sights between the known ones.  Today we had such an experience.  We were poking along on a small road in the middle of nowhere when we spied an airplane in a field.  "That's the biggest biplane I've ever seen" Ruth said, "I'm going to have a look at it."  On approaching the plane we noticed one man engaged in a cell phone conversation, and another scurrying to get some pants on.  In response to our questioning looks the man with the phone waved us towards the plane.  While we were walking around it he completed his call and came over to talk to us in broken English.  He was the owner and the pilot of the plane, and he was clearly proud to talk about it.

The plane is an Antonov An-2, which the Internet tells us is the largest mass-produced single engine biplane in the world.  It was manufactured in large numbers by the USSR, China, and particularly Poland from 1947 to 2001, which is apparently a record run for airplane production.

The pilot said that this particular plane was built in the 1950's, and that he and his colleague (the fellow without pants) have been flying it as a crop duster for 30 years.  It obviously had a previous life as a passenger plane operated by Slovakia Airlines.  The pilot invited us to sit in the cockpit, which is accessed by squeezing past the pesticide hopper that sits in the centre of the former passenger compartment.  The pilot unlocked the control stick and encouraged us to move it about.  He said the controls are heavy, and require a bit of strength, but the plane is very stable and can fly very slowly.  It is a bit expensive to operate, as the 1,000 hp rotary engine has a prodigious thirst for gas and oil.

We chatted for a while with the pilot about the changing nature of agriculture in Hungary and other topics, before thanking him for his time and heading back down the road.  You just never know what sort of minor adventure is awaiting for you around the next corner.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Soviet Spa Experience

No wonder the Ottomans were determined to possess this area, it's a geothermal gold mine. Every town we pass seems to have thermal pools. None of them anything like the ancient Ottoman one we visited in Budapest, but all promising a range of medical benefits from these healing springs. 

In order to maximize the placebo effects of these spas I have been remarking on how I can almost feel the restorative qualities of the waters. "You know that is complete horseshit," Gord mutters with a look on his face that instantly sabotages my goal. Healing or not we have been enjoying our dips. It's hot these days so the cooler pools are the ones we are seeking out. 

Today we are staying in a bungalow right in the outdoor spa complex. The main pool is a disturbing brown color but that is consistent with the general Soviet holiday camp vibe of the entire complex.

The canteen restaurant here could be right out of the Soviet Era. It was cheap and all you could eat, but with no attention to decor or hospitality. Three older unsmiling women continued to shovel food into the buffet trays. As we are hungry cyclists we managed to overlook the indifferent institutional setting as we refilled our plates.  Some knowledge of the Hungarian language would have helped me avoid a rather large helping of liver stew, and no Mom, I didn't eat it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Across the Hungarian plains

Gordon:  We have read that the Danube valley is not the most interesting area of Romania.  As a result we made the decision to leave the Danube in Budapest and for the past two days we have been heading east towards Transylvania.

The plains of Hungary have turned out to be a pleasant cycling experience.  The land is largely flat, with fields of ripening sunflowers and forage crops, as well as patches of woodland.  The towns are charming, each with a treed square and a number of benches.  These provide excellent habitat for hungry cyclists to fall upon fresh bakery goods.

Traffic has been light on most of the roads that Pocket Earth has sent us down.  The drivers are a little less courteous than they are in France or Spain, but still much less threatening than the yahoos in Canada.  Today we spent almost half of our ride on the paved lane ways on type of flood dykes. This was idyllic cycling, with views over the plains, a good riding surface, and only a handful of other vehicles per hour.  

At one point during the ride today I noticed a car apparently parked astride a rail line.  When we went over to investigate, we realized that the rail line, including a kilometre long bridge, was also the highway.  A barrier and traffic light at each end allowed one way traffic, when a train was not also using the same stretch of tracks.  A bit funky, but an efficient use of infrastructure.

We ended our ride in the water sports resort town of Abadszalok.  The temperature was over 30 degrees again today, so we happily joined the locals for a swim in the lake.

We are staying in a small guest house a few minutes walk from the lake.  Although our host speaks only a few words of English, she gave us an enthusiastic welcome, and insisted that we immediately sit down for some "schnapps" with a beer chaser.  As we had just come from lunch, where we each had a half litre of beer, a mid-afternoon nap became essential.  Such are the rigours of travel in Hungary.  

Our tripometer turned over 3,000 kms today.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A True Rest day in Budapest

Ruth: I love Budapest. We have been enjoying  the city and our little apartment just a few blocks from the Parliament on the Pest side of the river.  

After two busy days of walking, art museums and sightseeing, this afternoon we shifted fully into rest and relaxation mode at the Király Ottoman thermal baths. Ahhh, now that was a true rest day. I really could be a Sultan. Of course I would try to be a progressive one with only a few wives and no eunuchs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

59 years old and I still can't keep up with him!

Yesterday was Gord's 59th birthday and I wanted it to be special so we cycled  for sixty kilometres in steady rain. The forecast kept being revised throughout the day, pushing the time back on when the rain would  actually stop. We were mostly up on a dyke with loose gravel that we had to wallow and plow through  before we finally opted for the wetter but faster road. We were  soaked by the time we checked into our room in the town of Komarno and spent the evening sipping on hot tea after our equally hot showers.

Today we woke up to a changed world with sun and not a cloud in sight. I proclaimed the day Gord's Birthday take two, as we cycled off through the quickly disappearing puddles from the day before. Slovakia is a much nicer place in the sunshine, but even the sun can not hide the fact that this is a region of ruins. 

The youngest of these ruins are the unfinished houses abandoned during  the recent economic crisis. Next are the carcasses of the Soviet era factories and apartments that litter the urban landscape. On the Slovakian and Hungarian side of the Danube, there are also lots of crumbling Victorian gems reminding us of more prosperous times.

We are now in the town of Visegrad where the Danube makes a turn to the south towards Budapest.  After our 80 km ride I settled in for a much needed nap just as my old and retired husband grabbed a bottle of water and the camera and set off to climb up the steep hill to see yet another ruin. This one is a 13th century castle ultimately destroyed by the Ottomans.

Gord may be retired, 59 years old, and 11 years my senior but he is showing no signs yet of slowing down in any way.  Maybe some year I will be able too keep up with him, but that time has not come yet. 
Happy Birthday Gord. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Crossing Over into Slovakia

 Gate in Hainburg Austria

As we said goodbye to Austria we were into Slovakia  and Eastern Europe before even noticing a border crossing. Freedom of movement is now a reality in Europe and only traces are left of the Iron Curtain that cut of the Eastern Block from the West. 

Old town in Bratislava

It was a rainy day today, but only our third  on this entire trip. At our Pension in Gabcikovo we dove into a fabulous meal of Hungarian Goulash. Even though we are in Slovakia the Hungarian population is significant here. We chanced upon the town's bread or harvest festival with lots of folk dancing featuring much boot slapping and twirling. Small children passed around bread and grapes to the masses gathered there to watch. 

Friday, August 19, 2016


Gordon:  We are enjoying a "rest day" in Vienna, if resting is going to three art museums in 24 hours.  We are staying in the Museums Quarter in the city, so we are within walking distance of a surprising number of museums ... and palaces.  I cannot recall visiting a city with so many monumental buildings.  Our guidebook suggests that the Habsburgs may have focussed on monument building at the cost of other aspects of governance, and it certainly appears to be a possibility.  In any event it is a beautiful city to visit, with a partially pedestrianized area within the ring road that is a pleasure to wander through.

As the capital of an empire for a long historical period, Vienna is the repository of a staggering amount of art.  Yesterday we went to the Albertina museum to see their "Monet to Picasso" collection.  This morning we were at the Kunst Historic Museum.  Less female genitalia than you might expect, but the world's largest collection of Bruegels, as well as a large number of works by Dürer, Rembrandt and other old masters.  This afternoon we were at the Leopold Museum, which focuses on hometown art heroes Schiele and Klimt.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Vineyards and cruise boats

Gordon:  Today we had a glorious ride through a hilly region known as the Wachau.  It produces some of the best wine in Austria.  And as we have found in the Douro, Burgundy and other areas, wine is a magnet for tourists.  

The Danube is now frequented by cruise and excursion boats, and the cycle trails are full of day trippers.  It appears to be popular for the cruise boat passengers to cycle through a few villages located in the vineyards.  And why not, as the villages are beautiful and the narrow, paved roads winding between them offer a gentle ride through the steeply terraced vineyards.  Add a number of picturesque castles on the ridges and hilltops, and you have a world class cycling experience.

In the survey course I took on art history many years ago, the first sculpture we studied was known as the Venus of Willendorf.  It is a small limestone figure of a woman, carved about 23,000 years ago.  Today we passed through the village of Willendorf, where the sculpture was found in 1908.  The original is now in Vienna, but an enlarged replica is mounted beside the site of the discovery.  While some archaeologists see the Venus as a fertility symbol, it appears to me to be a remarkably prescient rendering of the 21st century North American body form.

I would like to send birthday greetings to my Dad, who turns 87 today.  We do not have a sufficiently fast internet connection to call him, but he probably isn't at home anyway.  I believe he may be on an equine trail ride in the Rockies, his 30th outing with the same group.  I hope I am fortunate enough to have as many healthy years.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The most popular bike route

Gordon:  The 320 km stretch between Passau, Germany and Vienna, Austria is allegedly the most popular section of the Eurovelo 6, and possibly the most used length of long distance cycle trail in Europe.  We were warned that we would find this area uncomfortably busy during the summer.  Fortunately, this has not proven to be the case.  There is a steady stream of cyclists, but we have had little difficulty in obtaining accommodation or other essentials.

There has been a noticeable change in the composition of our fellow cyclists since we entered Austria.  In Germany the majority of the cyclists were German, while in Austria there is more of an international mix.  Particularly notable are the number of Italian and Spanish cyclists.

The aberrant hours we keep at home (ridiculously early to bed and early to rise) continues to be our pattern on the road.  Just as at home, it puts us out of step with our peers.  We get up before most of them, and, unless we are waiting for breakfast at our accommodation, depart much earlier than the others. There is usually a period of one to two hours in the morning when we are almost the only bikes on the route.  It is my favourite time of the day, with cool air, mist rising from the land, and dramatic lighting.  At the other end of the ride, we are often the first to arrive at our campsite or other accommodation.  It is always a bit of a shock to return to our previously nearly empty campground a few hours later to find a proliferation of tents.

Speaking of our odd hours, the sun has now set and it is time to get ready for bed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Ruth:  Today we spent the afternoon at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.  It was built by its first prisoners shortly after Hitler annexed Austria. Its location was chosen for the granite quarries which would provide the much needed granite for new monumental buildings in Nazi Germany. For a time Mauthausen and its satellite camp Gusen were the only category III camps, with the harshest conditions of confinement and the highest death rates of all the camps in the German Reich. 190,000 people were deported to the camp between 1938 and its liberation by the US army in 1945. At least 90,000 prisoners died here, the majority worked to death in the quarries.  Many others were shot, or executed in the gas chambers. Half of the deaths occurred in the last four months before the camp was liberated. 

Housed in the infirmary, where very few prisoners ever received any treatment, is a wonderful museum that tells the story of the camp from a collection of first hand accounts. The museum is very honest in its telling of Austria's complicity with the Nazis on the national and local levels. The citizens of Mauthausen watched the prisoners unloaded and marched up to the camp as they continued their every day lives in their holiday resort town below. They did, however complain that the smoke from the crematorium was bad for their thriving tourist industry.