We reached Hungary in depressed spirits. It was cold, rain was imminent and we were both lacking energy having spent the better part of our last night in Slovakia awake and unwell. Our first stop was Lidl; when in doubt head to a budget supermarket. Here we reached a new low of actually eating lunch inside the supermarket. I had no idea how I was going to cycle into Budapest, or even close to it that day.
After a short deliberation (between mouthfuls of ? vegan treats) we decided we needed to go somewhere else and just warm up a bit and make a plan. It was already late in the day, Astrid looked as broken as I felt. The idea of a few more hours of rain and wind, then crawling into a forest somewhere, into our damp tent did not appeal. She didn’t even really need to say anything, I got out my phone and started googleing hostels.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of having a small, cosy, warm space to yourself when you are feeling low and expected to be facing several more hours of cold cycling. It’s moments like these when I just feel so grateful and lucky. To be able to occasionally pay to for a hotel and escape our common reality of outdoor living, is a privilege.
From the obscure border town of Ballasagyarmat we cycled into Budapest the following day, even the unexpected rain couldn’t dampen our spirits. We passed many small villages and were buoyed by the friendliness of the people; there were shouts and waves and big smiles following us all the the way into the grand Hungarian capital. We were so excited to reach Budapest, it felt like a real milestone as we had heard so much about this beautiful city.
We’d struggled to find a host in Budapest, which we only realised later probably had something to do with the city being on the Danube and the Eurovelo 6 (meaning lots of cyclists and lots of requests). Hilariously we’d completely forgotten about the Danube cycle path, and realised with a little embarrassment that we could actually ride all the way to Belgrade on it. Some people spend months planning to ride this rather iconic path. We stumble on it quite by accident. Oh well.
Eventually we did find a host, Zoltan, who so very kindly responded to our last minute request. Not only was he the loveliest human (who had a passion for craft beer like us), but he also introduced us to the Budapest Bike Mafia; an organisation of cyclists who make sandwiches twice a week and deliver them to the homeless of Budapest (by bicycle) in a radical act of kindness. I’d long been feeling like I was missing a something but hadn’t quite been able to place what it was. I certainly enjoy going to museums and exploring sites but I think I have also been looking for something more meaningful; something that would connect me to a place and it’s people in a deeper way. This can be difficult when traveling by bike, our stays are often fleeting and unless you meet the right people or happen to come across something, it can be hard to find out about projects such as these. Luckily Zoltan was exactly the right person and after spending a day exploring Budapest, we spent the evening making sandwiches, chatting to the super lovely volunteers and seeing a very different part of the city. Definitely the most heartfelt thing I’ve been part of on this adventure so far.
Although Zoltan couldn’t host us for the entire time we were in Budapest, everything began to fall into place; Wouter and Margot, a Belgium couple messaged me and said we could stay. Not only that but they literally lived around the corner from Zoltan. Our time in Budapest continued to be magical, the sun shone, we explored the gorgeous city and in the evening hung out with Margot and Wouter, drinking too much wine and generally having a brilliant time.
By the time it came to leave, I was sick. An unpleasant stomach bug would haunt me all the way to Belgrade. To this day I have no idea where it came from. I usually have a stomach of steel and am the only person I know of who didn’t get sick in central Asia.
We set off amongst the throng of the Budapest Marathon and it took us a very long time to get out of the city. Try pushing a fully loaded touring bike through peak hour at a busy London train station. It was pretty much as unpleasant as it sounds. Although the atmosphere was great, and not at all like London commuter rage.
Finally free of the city, it was time to follow the Eurovelo 6. Not always easy or well sign posted, it is mostly a beautiful cycle. Sometimes we were right on the banks of the river, other times high up on the flood barrier, or on a detour through a town or village. Aside from the moments I had to run into the bushes with my stomach issues, I really enjoyed the Hungarian part of the Danube. The seemingly endless summer continued; it was hot. Only the evenings and morning were cool, a hint that this wasn’t to last, that it really was autumn. That and the beautiful colour of the leaves and the hazy golden light of the afternoon sun. Our cycle between Budapest and Belgrade we had calculated would take us about 8 days (it ended up taking 9), however due to my stomach we weren’t exactly moving fast. We also needed to decide which way after Hungary; wether we would take the possibly more developed Croatian side of the river, or the potentially slower Serbian side. These kind of decisions are best made over coffee so we sat in a cafe and weighed up our options. In the end adventure won out; neither of us had ever been to Serbia and it sounded more exciting. Decision made, now we just needed to get there.
At night we began finding some of the best camps of the trip so far, picking out spots where the path lay close to the river. We’d push our bikes down an embankment and invariably find a place to camp right by the water. Then we’d watch the sun set over the Danube, the sky turn a mass of pinks and reds. Sometimes we’d swim, or meditate. Later we’d look up at the stars in the clear autumn sky. I can’t help feeling that this is what life is about. For me anyway. It feels like exactly where I want to be.
Unfortunately Hungary like several Eastern European countries is trending towards fascism. The media is becoming more and more controlled and fear and racism towards refugees is prevalent, especially outside of Budapest. No one we spoke to echoed the government’s sentiment, but as we approached the border we were greeted by scores of police. Literally every few hundred metres, on a basically deserted country road were groups of police. At one point we ducked into the forest to make camp but all night could here them patrolling and see their flash lights. It was eerie and a little frightening. I can only imagine they are there to send refugees back to Serbia, to keep them out of fortress (EU) Europe.
Our last day in Hungary dawned warm and sunny, we emerged from our forest camp, ignored the scores of police and pedalled towards the border. It was time to say goodbye to the EU and head into the Balkans. Thanks Hungary, you have been rather splendid.