Budapest, a city of two sides (Buda and Pest) which is also it’s own county. My weekend there certainly felt like a microcosm, a world away from how I have been approaching previous cities on this journey. After starting to consider myself to be slowly earning my travelling ‘stripes’ as I traverse Europe in winter, my weekend activities scream more ‘Brit abroad’ than adventure cyclist. Although, being a Brit abroad was great. ‘Baz’ from Marbella would’ve been proud of me signing up for the infamous Budapest city bar crawl and heading down to the Irish pub prior to that. Jack Doyles pub was packed to the rafters with a sea of green rugby jerseys, Ireland has just beaten Wales in the six nations and the chants were being belted out as I arrived. Attempting to reach the bar was like trying to swim up a waterfall, and about as wet as one too with all the lager flying from jovial glasses around the room. The atmosphere was buzzing and the scene set for the England Scotland game. Of course everyone in the room was supporting Scotland bar a mere handful of us, but it made for some good banter and a slight consolation for the humiliating defeat we suffered.
That evening I made my way over to a ruin bar to begin this bar crawl. The ruin bars are buildings in the old Jewish quarter of the city that were left to become derelict after World War II. In the last 10 years these have been given a new lease of life in the form of quirky bars consisting of courtyards and labyrinths of rooms and corridors plastered in random objects all finished with a dense covering of graffiti. I had visited a couple on previous trips and knew most were filled with tourists, but the atmosphere is electric as these venues act as social melting pots for travellers coming from across the world. In short, the perfect place to meet some people.
It wasn’t long before the lonely Brit was no longer lonely, and definitely not the only Brit. It felt like every man and his dog from the UK had come to Budapest this weekend, people from Rochester, Swindon and High Wycombe… I felt all those arduous miles on the bike seemingly disappear, had I actually managed to get anywhere away from home? The bar crawl was a good laugh and with some new found friends, we promised to grab a pint (half litre doesn’t sound as good) the following night. Usually these plans don’t actually materialise but on this occasion we all pulled through, found another ruin bar and had a good old natter. I’ve been finding that when travelling alone it really helps to throw myself in the deep end a little, making an effort to talk to new people everyday keeps the loneliness at bay, and so far, I haven’t really felt its effect. I genuinely loved hanging out with these guys in Budapest, with my mind feeling refreshed I grabbed a late tram back to my hostel, found a comatosed Albanian man asleep on a wooden box next to my bed, swiftly woke him up and directed him back to his bed before catching some z’s.
The next day was Monday, the day I usually breach the city limits to follow the country contours to my next destination. Today though, I was waiting on a package to arrive with an old friend who lives just outside the city. Aron and I were paired up on my schools Hungarian exchange when we were 13, spending a week at each others houses, experiencing what life was like in each others country. We arranged to meet, grab a beer (are you noticing a common theme in eastern Europe?) and pick up the care package of spare bike parts my parents had sent over (thanks guys). It was great to see him after 10 years and a really nice way to round off my time in the city. The beers provided a necessary warming for the temperature was already dropping down to -10’C that night and forecast to go even lower throughout the next week.
The next morning was cold. Bloody cold. It was to stay at -10’C for the whole day and a dense snowstorm had engulfed the city in its apocalyptic midst. Gritted roads and bike paths were home to settled snow and ice, it had all the ingredients to be an ‘interesting’ day. Sheepishly I navigated my way out of the city by means of the Danube. Knowing I had a host 70 miles south of the city I knew I had to put some miles on the board. I really struggled to make headway with the state of the the roads deteriorating with the further out the city I went. If it was -10’C in the city it definitely had dropped a few degrees at this point, my feeble beard now caked in rather impressive array of icicles and Tina had become more ice than bike. Use gears or lose gears was to be the motto of the day, and eventually the week. On the roads that were clear of snow, the tarmac had a lovely layer of water which instantly froze onto the bike like some cruel magic trick. This meant the chain couldn’t hop between sprockets and I was glued in gear. Not being a polar bike veteran, I quickly clogged every cog with a healthy layer of ice riding that day but thankfully there were no hills to really unsettle me. Instead I found myself cycling and eventually pushing the bike through a foot of fluffy snow which was enough to convince me to stick to the main roads from now on. Constrained to my one gear, I rolled parallel to the Danube through small Hungarian towns and villages as I slowly made my way south.
I was dressed up in so many layers I resembled a blue Michelin man pedalling an ice block, but for the most part I was actually warm. The usual candidates in the form of my hands and feet protested at points but I began curling and uncurling them both in attempt to get the circulation back. I counted 500 curls aloud which seemed to slowly bring them back to life. It is only now when I recount how absurd this sounds that I do question my sanity. Strangely though, there was a small part of me (a very small part of me) that enjoyed taking on a tough ride that day. Fighting hard to make any ground at points, sliding all over the place made it all the more sweet when I arrived, pushing my bike, at Milans Farm. He took a quick look at the thermometer which was now reading -14’C, told me I was crazy before handing me a shot of local Palinka. Insides very much warmed, he asked if I’d like to taste some wine, how could I say no? We walked up to his vineyard with his brother Leo and took refuge for the next half an hour in the wine cellar with a gorgeous looking line of barrels. Explaining what they were, how they were made and of course tasting them, I was having a great time. The day was turning into a tale of two halves and this continued with some very generous helpings of local Hungarian cuisine dished up by Milans mother.
I’d asked Milan if I could help out on the farm for the following two days to keep out of the cold and get a small taster of what life is like in the rural regions. He happily accepted, conceding that there wasn’t that much work to do in -15’C apart from peeling beans. No problem, I shall peel some beans then. Peel beans I did. Spending a few hours each day removing ‘Sand beans’ from their pod seemed like a small price to pay for a bed, some hearty meals and shelter from the cold. In the nights it was tipping -21’C so I was very glad not to be camping out in that.
When not peeling beans, we went out for snowy walks around the village and his farmland. Milan proudly showing me his neat rows of fruit trees at various stages of growth, explaining what they were and how he grafts them up. Interestingly, most of the produce he grows is just for the family to eat, with only a tiny fraction being sold at local markets. This idea seemed strangely novel to me, I can’t imagine anyone in the UK not trying to expand their business to make more money, instead spending time growing quality food just for the family and friends. Somewhat enlightened by my time spent on the farm, the surprises didn’t let up there. Milan told me that he’d just received a request to stay at the farm that night from a young English lad cycling across the country. Wait, there are other people stupid enough to be cycling in this weather?!
Jack is a 25 year old lad from Chester who left just two weeks before I departed, with his mind focussed on cycling to India. He arrived out of the cold later that afternoon and we immediately hit it off discussing our trips, experiences and routes. It turns out we’re both heading the same way for at least the next few weeks and immediately we decided to ride out together the next day. Milan seemed very happy that we were off together, as over the past few days he’d expressed concern that gypsies in the region may target a lone rider to nab a few bits and bobs. Feeling marginally safer, we defrosted our bikes before taking a goodbye photo and pedalled back into the thick snow and -10’C. It was fun to be riding with someone else, the boring roads livened up with a bit of light conversation and familiar British banter. Slowly we fish-tailed our way back to a bridge to cross the Danube. Here we picked up the highway 51 which we followed for the whole day.
Endless snow covered fields backed onto the road with little change seen for hours. We took refuge in bus stops, quickly wolfing down our sandwiches before riding on. Eventually we made it down to Baja and the location of our host for that night. Roland managed to spot us in Aldi just picking up some food for tomorrow’s sandwiches. We said hello and soon set off to make our way to his house. This proved difficult. Whilst attempting to ride through some extremely slushy backstreets, the heavens then opened treating us to quite a serious bout of freezing rain. I have never experienced anything like this, thinking it would only take us a few minutes to reach his house neither of us had bothered donning our waterproofs, and soon we were both soaked but also cocooned in an icy shell. Shedding small slabs of ice with each movement, we traipsed our bikes to his street to find none of the houses have numbers. By this point it was pitch black and knocking on what we thought was Rolands house, produced a confused Hungarian face at the window. A man answered the door and after asking for Roland he eagerly exclaimed ‘yes’ before grabbing another man who we recognised not to be Roland. Soon there were four ‘non-Rolands’ at the door asking us where we were going, why are you doing that? Then came the killer for me, are you cold? Are we cold? Are we cold? It is -10’C, we are up to our knees in snow on your doorstep and covered in a rather thick layer of ice yet somehow still soaked through, of course we’re bloody cold you fool! We currently resemble a pair of frozen fish from Iceland, are we cold? Of course, retaining my inner Britishness I replied with a very short ‘yes’ before wading off this guys doorstep to knock on another door. Thankfully that one belonged to Roland. We gorged ourselves silly on food that night, soon forgetting about the freezing rain which had now become an incredibly funny episode.
On paper the next day was to be an exciting one, two border crossing and three countries. Except the following morning we immediately picked back up our least favourite road and continued towards the Serbian border. I had been in Hungary for the last 10 days, the longest I’d been in any country since starting the trip and I now felt ready to move on. Before I could do that we had negotiate some of Hungary’s more deranged drivers who seemed intent on buzzing our elbows, covering us in a lovely layer of grit and spray from the roadside. I think the driving style of the region is best summed up by a bus driver we saw driving whilst on the phone and smoking a cigarette. He was paying so little attention that he missed his turning, no matter, he simply reversed the bus back down the main road still smoking and chatting before turning the right way. I cracked up, this was going to take some getting used to.
The border crossing provided a nice rest bite from the cycling, fielding questions of ‘Croatia, why would you want to go there?’ being a particular favourite. I was quite excited to cycle up my first steep hill just to bring about a bit of change from the flat roads we’d become accustomed to. Croatia gave us one in the form of a wet cobbled 10%’er that pushed us nicely above the snowy plains, allowing us to look out over the fields as we rode. The sun almost came out and we had a great time riding fast through the undulating countryside towards the tiny northern city of Osijek. Greeted by an old city wall and the river Drava, the city looked beautiful and very different from the soviet ‘cube’ houses we had become accustomed too. That night we had to split up because no host was able to take both of us, so agreeing to meet at 8 the next day I headed to Barbara’s apartment and Jack went to meet Marko.
Barbara was a bit of an academic wizard, studying simultaneously for a Maths and completely separate Biology masters degree, suddenly my single my Chemistry masters seemed slightly futile. Keen to steer the conversation away from academia we settled on music for a few hours before I had to get some shut-eye at the incredibly late hour of half nine. The next day I met Jack in a carpark, after helping push an old mans car out of the snow we set off ourselves. Now growing familiar with these long straight roads, I amused myself with the art of finding my headphones and plugging in whilst riding. Incredibly stupid I know, but then isn’t this whole trip a bit crazy? Now plugged in, I began to work my way through some albums, music spurring the both of us on as we decided to really put the hammer down to reach the Serbian border once again. Legs feeling a slight burn, we tore into Serbia but soon decided to treat ourselves to a cup of tea inside by a log fire. It was hard to leave the warmth behind but today was to be a big day if we were to reach Novi Sad. Opting again for ‘fly and die’ tactic, we pushed on hard for the remaining daylight hours.
Serbian drivers are mental but some of these mentalists are also extremely friendly. Riding into our destination city, a woman with kids pulled up alongside us, now completely blocking off a dual carriageway she proceeded to ask for my name. Completely baffled by the reply ‘Pedr’ she smiled and drove off. Interactions like this were becoming more common and we were learning to tell the difference between a ‘get out the way’ horn and a supportive one. Night fell as we were continually honked at on our way into the city, eventually finding Vladimirs apartment as the cold kicked in. After an uneventful night we made our way into the city to take in the sights and to grab some additional breakfast. Streets lined high with monstrous looking soviet tower blocks gave the outskirts of the city a very dystopian feel, something I hadn’t experienced before. Eventually they gave way to small beautiful centre, although my memories of Novi Sad will always be associated with those soviet style streets.
Our host Vladimir had told us that the way to Belgrade was completely flat, and when immediately out of the city we found ourselves toiling up a four mile 5% hill we questioned whether he’d actually been to Belgrade. The day was to be a battle against the headwind. Taking turns at the front we edged along the plains at a snails pace being constantly buzzed by lorries which acted as momentary shields from the relentless wind. The Garmin didn’t do much for morale at this point, turn left in 17 miles to be followed by continue straight on in 18 miles was hardly enthralling navigation. Excited at the prospect of being in Belgrade that evening, we cracked a few jokes at our expense and plodded on, counting down the kilometres. The traffic began to increase as we closed in on the city and we found ourselves weaving around cars at full pace when a huge wild dog decided it liked the look of us and gave chase. This dog was rapid and we were really struggling to get away to the amusement of the spectating commuters. Finally we shed the thing by spraying its muzzle with some water. Well that’s one way to be welcomed to the city…
The driving craziness level had been cranked up yet another level, the icicles on our panniers now being regularly polished by crazed Lada drivers. Horns constantly blaring we decided the get stuck in by hurling a few good natured verbals of our own at the passing nutters. It was a case of look around constantly or you will genuinely get flattened by bus. Jack narrowly escaped losing his third dimension and I was forced throw the anchors out to avoid colliding with the same bus. All this roadside action was taking place to the suitable backdrop of weathered soviet apartment blocks. Happy to be alive we took refuge in a central park and cracked open a few cans of the cheap local larger ‘Lav’. Never has crap beer tasted so good. We gave a cheers to one crazy week, and I think there will likely be a few more to come.