October 16; Odometer 2854mi
Crossing the border from Austria to Slovakia is exciting for a few reasons. I don’t have any experience with the language. I have never been in this country. All the signs are meaningless except for the pictures and numbers. I begin to understand what it is like to be illiterate.
The good news is that the cost of living (and traveling) is far less in Slovakia and Hungary. Also, I find ways of communicating beyond my own language skills.
Leaving the Palace Hostel Schlossherberge, I meet Zora. He is originally from Georgia. He speaks Russian, and German, probably English as well, though we speak in German. He asks many questions about my bike. I enjoy explaining the many advantages. He is originally from Georgia. I assume he is not talking about the state north of Florida.
My plan for the day is to make it across the border into Slovakia. Schloß Herberge is up in the hills behind Vienna. So I will have a good downhill run to the river, and then a tailwind for a good part of the 95km trip to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia.
It is a cool morning start, 6 degC (43 degF). I wear three layers for the decent to the river. I peel one off when I get warmed up and running along the river.
Out in the country beyond Vienna, I meet a cyclist, Mike. We make our introductions in German but quickly switch to English. Mike works for Deloitte in Vienna. He speaks English with almost no accent. I learn that Mike has just this year learned to ride a bike. He is on a day trip from Vienna to Hainburg Austria. A distance of about 50km. It is the longest bike ride he has ever done. We stop for lunch at a castle in the countryside. Mike bought lunch for us both.
Mike has a high level position at Deloitte. He also has a lot of experience in digital security. He has some good stories of demonstrating weaknesses in a system, by simply breaking into them. I think the dark glasses fit his profession.
We meet up with two cyclists from San Francisco, Erin and Brian. We group into a peloton of four riders for the last ten kilometers into Hainburg, Austria. There we say goodbyes to Mike. He will catch a train back to Vienna. The three San Franciscans continue on toward Slovakia.
Erin and Brian are on their first day of a journey from Vienna to Budapest. They have lined up a package deal with a tour group and have their hotels planned out. Their baggage is transported by truck.
As we get close to Bratislava, we split up. Erin and Brian have prearranged hotel accommodations. I check Booking.com to see what is available. I am surprised to find the hotels are significantly less expensive here. I find a place close to the river in the middle of town for less than fifty euros. Nice deal! The place is called Botel Pressburg. Odd name, I think. But OK, I don’t really know the local language at all here.
I follow the GPS coordinates to find the hotel. It takes me to a ship docked semi permanently there. The sign on the ship says Botel Pressburg. In that moment I realize I have booked a room on board a ship. The place is actually surprisingly elegant for the price. I am wondering if I should just roll my muddy bike down the ramp, when I see two other cyclists do just that.
The place has a secure location for my bike, and a very spacious room with a private bath. I am surprised to find that there are at least four Botels here in Bratislava.
At breakfast, Victor and Lena joined me. They are the two cyclists that I saw come down the ramp the evening before. We spoke in English and shared stories of our travels. They are also cycling down the Danube. They had a good story of a flat tire in the rain where they broke the tire iron trying to get the tire off of the rim. It became immediately clear that they would not be able to make it to the hotel where they had already booked a room. Little emergencies make for good stories.
I also learned from them that Germans do not like riding in the road with the cars. Lena recalled being upset when they were forced into this situation. This surprised me. I find European drivers are extremely respectful toward cyclists. I have no trouble with this even on fairly major roadways. I figure these cyclists have never ridden on US roads.
Their original plan was to end their journey in Vienna. They got to Vienna with some time to spare so they continued on to Bratislava. Victor is an electrical engineer. Lena has just finished her studies in law and has plans to become a judge in Germany.
In earlier posts, I have made a point of how inexpensive beer was in Germany and Austria. I didn’t realize then that beer is yet less expensive as one moves further east. In addition there are some quirks in the branding. For instance, there is a long standing dispute over the name Budweiser. In Eastern Europe, Anheiser is not permitted to use the name. The Budweiser here in Slovakia is made by a Check company. More detail below.
The price list gives beer prices in euros/ half liter. This converts directly to USD/pint because both the euro and the half liter are about 10% more than the dollar and pint respectively. This is the price of beer from the tap served at a beer garden in Slovakia. I can find bottled beer in a supermarket in Hungary for about $0.50/pint. When was the last time you paid $1-2/pint ? Consider another commodity. I am paying $30-50 / night for first class hotel rooms in large cities in Slovakia and Hungary. OK, so they are not big name hotels like Hyatt or such. But they are not dingy places either. Similarly food is not expensive.
While studying the beer at this local beer garden, I ran into a local Slovakian cyclist named Fero. We did not share a common language. So we used a translation app that I have on my iPhone. It is called Speak & Translate.
The app enabled us to take turns speaking a sentence or two in our native language, then after a moment, it would do its best to translate and say the statement in the other language. The app also created text and could accept text as input.
This worked surprisingly well for two important reasons. We both enjoyed each other’s company, and we had no alternative means of communication. The app is otherwise somewhat tedious. Heike and I made good use of it in Germany. More typically people do not want to be bothered. A shared interest in good communication is essential.
It helped a lot that I could read Fera’s facial expressions to gauge how well he understood the resulting translation. It was not always perfectly clear. I’m sure he was also reading my face.
I found Fera to be both curious and level headed. We spoke about a number of things. For instance, he observed that where cultures mix together, there is conflict and sometimes bad things can happen. In these cases, it is so critical to keep a calm head. We both agreed that the mix of cultures is important.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Fera about good places to stay. Though he was headed west, and I was headed east; he insisted on guiding me to the best towns to the east, by bike. This took him about ten kilometers out of his way. I stayed in a town with a natural hot spring. Good medicine for overused muscles. I really appreciated Fera’s guidance.
Somewhere along the way I crossed the border into Hungary, another EU country. Here the Danube is the International border. Slovakia is on the North Side and Hungary to the south. Whenever I cross the river, I have to keep in mind that the currency changes. I switch back and forth a few times. The official currency of Hungary is the Forint, not the Euro. However I found a grocery store near the border which will happily take either currency.
In Hungary many of the merchants speak German, though the average guy on the street does not. It creates a barrier that is sometimes uncomfortable for me. It’s difficult to explain why. I feel sort of discourteous when someone says something and I can only return silence, or say something that will not be understood. I will need to get over this soon.
Lately, when I hear someone speak a language I understand, I want to start up a conversation. I overheard an Austrian couple in the hot spring and chatted. I found a couple of German cyclists on The Cycleway , Peter and Petra from Berlin. Peter had many questions about my odd looking bicycle. It was a pleasure to chat.
Perhaps it is unfair to lump Hungary and Slovakia together. From my naive perspective, I do so anyway.
In general, I find that the drivers here are as respectful to cyclists as anywhere else in Western Europe. The Danube Cycleway is not as well marked, but there is an App that makes this a non-issue for anyone with a smart phone. The road surfaces are not as well maintained as in the west, but certainly no problem for a bike with 35mm tires.
I find abandoned buildings in places. I find shops on Apple Maps that no longer exist. I do not see evidence of crime, though I think people here are more cautious to lock things down. My reference point is San Francisco, where I have lived for ten years and have had four or five bikes stolen. I do not see any stripped bikes chained to a lamppost here.
The cost of living is remarkably low, compared with Western Europe. Yet the quality of service is quite good. Also, the technology is not at all backward.
I remember last year in rural Indiana, my brother surprised a liquor store clerk by using his iPhone to pay for beer. The clerk wasn’t even aware that it was possible. Here in Hungary, the Apple Pay technology is everywhere, and the clerks are not surprised. Along these same lines, the room I slept in last night had LED illumination. The buses and cars seem to be modern.
Technology spreads without boundaries. When cheaper and better solutions become known, they move quickly across borders. It is not like the days of the Iron Curtain. For instance, Apple Pay, Lime scooters are in every large city I have been in. Uber is only in some cities. Essen, Munich, Vienna yes. Linz, Überlingen, no.
I do notice that there are working phone booths east of VIenna. Also, I do not see any electric cars, though they are also quite rare in Western Europe, compared to California. I’m guessing the hard winter may make them less practical.
I hosted a Belgian couple that had just finished cycling through South America. They explained that it was common to hear the locals describe the next country on their itinerary as being not up to the same quality as they experience here in this country.
It is a national pride that exists here in Europe as well. I remember hearing that the roads in Slovakia and Hungary are not maintained at all well. This is true. The roads here are almost as bad as California roads.
I arrived in Esztergom, Hungary. It is only about 25 miles from Budapest by the shortest possible route. Here I did not follow the river, but took a hilly route to Budapest. It saved me some time. I also got to see a lot more undeveloped space than I am used to seeing in Western Europe. I traveled 25 miles along a somewhat major road without seeing a town, or even a building.
It was good to get back to the Danube as I approached Budapest from the North. My mode of travel these days is dependent on local services. I like pulling into a restaurant along the cycleway to have a good meal. My first meal back on the river was Hekk. The Germans call it Hecht. I believe this is pike, a large freshwater predator fish. It tasted just fine with French fries and a beer.
Pulling into Budapest came with a gloomy mood for me. I’m not really sure why exactly. It is true that my European trip was coming to a close, and that my daily routine was about to change radically. I think a partner would have been helpful to have in this moment.
I had much to do to prepare all my stuff for the plane to Bangkok. The boxes and tools and supplies I used to box my bike the last time, are all discarded back in Amsterdam. I have to recreate that setup from scratch. I have to do this in a city where I don’t speak the native language and don’t know where to find things.
I have given myself ample time for this scavenger hunt. I did find it helpful to have a photo at the ready to show to the store clerk. It beats waving your hands in the air with or without the sound effects. It took me a few days to find everything. I think I’m in good shape. I also got some expert coaching from Les CycloMigrateurs, my role models.
Dealing with the Aeroflot is also much different than most airlines. For instance, with a bicycle one must call the airline and describe the package dimension and weight and wait 24hrs to see if the airline approves. I went through three iterations on this process. There are no exact guidelines on what will be accepted. I think I got a pretty good deal in the end. It takes time.
After spending a few days here in Budapest, I have found locals with good command of either English or German. English is more common.
I had a good conversation in a local pub with Miklos, a digital artist. By his own description he is a sell out. There was a time that he was supported by the Hungarian government to do his work. Now he is an employee of an online gambling site. His animated cartoon images are used to entice new membership.
He was troubled a little over what his art is being used for. But he likes the pay and feels confident that the gambling industry will survive a recession. I would not call Miklos an optimist. He feels that Hungary is teetering on the brink of collapse. He said that Hungarians are half Balkan. Which I took to mean, they are deeply suspicious. He confessed that when we first met, he thought I might be from the CIA. OK, yes, deeply suspicious.
He was very concerned over the latest developments with the PKK in Syria. I shared with him this concern. He said in the past, the US was a most preferred ally to have. We are quickly losing this reputation in the world.
On the brighter side, I restarted my use of Tinder. I will stay in Budapest for over a week, so it is possible to make this work. There I found Madeline. I went to dinner with Madeline, a Hungarian Native. She is nearly my age and likes to stay fit. She is independent and lives alone. She holds a degree from a Hungarian University, and has a full-time job in communication. I told her I was interested in finding a partner for traveling the world. She sent me a text this morning that she misses me.
Tomorrow we will go on a second date. Her English is far from perfect. We frequently get help from the Speak & Translate App. She would like to learn better English.
It has been a good trip, though I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on this first pass. I had breakfast with three American tourists from Alaska. They had spent some time In Czech Republic.
They visited the town of Cesky Krumlov. There they found a castle with a moat that had brown bears in the moat. They also went to the Bone Church in a different town. It is called the Bone Church because the bones of the monks that were buried there were exhumed and used to create elaborate decorations (chandeliers and the like).
OK so, I was sure they were pulling my leg until they showed me photos. Yup, Grizzly Bears in the moat. Please don’t tell Donald about this.
I would like to continue the journey on to the Black Sea. I am leaving a large part of the route unexplored. It would be great to come back and finish the journey. Maybe I can find a partner that knows the culture and some of the languages.