Little Tour: Part 1 - Hungary
Life doesn't get much better than holidays and riding bikes in my opinion. Just thinking about three weeks of cycling on new roads is pure bliss for me. This was my first attempt at planning a bicycle tour. I booked some flights and made a Strava route. I had all the stuff the internet told me I would need. I was too excited.
The plan was to fly from London to Budapest, spend two days there then take a train to Lake Balaton and start cycling. We would need to cover at least 30 Miles per day to make that cheap Ryannair flight back to the big smoke. The route had insane amounts of climbing and I'm pretty terrible at climbing. I'm also not used to riding with fully loaded panniers or riding in heat. I was a little worried.
Stan had been ill the week before we left, spending hours in NHS waiting rooms, hoping for some kind of solution to his pain. With no final diagnosis he was given pills and advice to stop cycling for a few days. This wasn't boding well with the plan. All packed and kind of ready. We agreed that we wouldn't cycle much until he felt better. The plan was ditched.
We did some serious touristing in Budapest. Travelling by foot hitting up all of the holiday hot spots; Parliament, Heroes Square, Margit Island, Central Market, the New York Coffee House, Gellert Hill and of course the famous thermal baths; the Szechenyi and the Gellert. Four days later and we were itching to ride and adventure outside of the city. Stan was feeling a little better so it felt like the right time to make tracks.
It had taken us a little longer than planned to reach the station. We made it on to the train just in time for take off. With the bikes all loaded we were ready for action. The journey was roughly one hour. The train was modern and reasonably comfortable with air con but still no one wants to sit on a train. As soon as the lake appeared out of the window we were off. I can't even remember the name of the station where we got off but it was happening. We were finally cycling. We pedalled our way straight to the lake. It's the largest lake in central Europe, yep, it's pretty huge. It's wonderfully green, pretty clear and super still so it's perfect for swimming.
With no mobile data we used remnants of half loaded Google Maps to navigate our way to the cycle path. I had my Garmin with me but it stayed in my pannier the whole time, you know - no Garmin, no rules aka I forgot about it. The cycle path around the lake is relatively flat and well sign posted. It was easy wheeling. Stan still wasn't feeling great so we decided to find a campsite pitch up and go for another swim.
The days spent at Balaton all blurred into one. We were both still anxious about Stan's health. We had spent four days rolling along the lake. We swam as many times as possible each day. The cycling path for the majority runs right next to the lake, hence all the swimming. It was also insanely hot. There was no need for towels as the sun would dry your skin to a crisp within minutes of leaving the water. The little distance we covered each day felt like a huge achievement thanks to pedalling our way through an oven. The humidity was hard to take and dips in the lake were sweet rewards. In terms of bicycle touring it was bordering on pathetic but it still felt like a small challenge and triumph at the end of each day.
The second night on the lake we had wild camped. We cycled to Tihany, which in my opinion has the most beautiful part to the cycle path on the north side of the lake. We hadn't checked the map much or done any research we just presumed we would find a campsite nearby. Oh, how we were wrong.
We made it to Tihany and realised the cycle path didn't carry on as we had thought. The path was heading across the lake via the ferry. People we asked only knew about campsites 6km the way we had just came. It was evening and the sun was almost ready to begin setting. We took a chance and cycled back out of Tihany, up a small but meaty climb into the village and carried on heading east. The lake was in the distance and the cycle path was meandering in land through rolling luscious countryside but sadly next to a highway. We found a plot in a field and set up camp quickly while the glowing sun settled down for the night. One thing we hadn't considered was mosquitoes. We were being ambushed, they were biting us through our clothing. It was still hot and humid but we were wearing almost all of our clothes; leggings, socks, hats and t-shirts around our heads. There was no stopping them. It made wild camping rather unpleasant, it was even hard to enjoy dinner as we ate taking refuge in the tent.
On the fourth day on Lake Balaton we headed to nearby lake Heviz. A thermal lake, the second largest in the world to be precise. Just like Lake Balaton, it's also stuck in a time warp. It was sadly left in the 70's. Before travel became so accessible for most people this must have been a sought after holiday destination for those not so far. You can see remains of grander days. That's not to say it's not full of tourists but it's a different kind of clientele than what you would find elsewhere. Everything feels as though it has been forgotten. The town, the people, the food, the decor. They've all been left in the past. I guess it gives the place character and charm.
We knew at this point we needed to make some serious choices on where to head next and how to get there. We had lost days spent swimming and rolling along but still had a flight to catch. A sleeper train across the border to Croatia was what we decided. We checked train times and made our way to the train station at Keszthely. The woman in the ticket office didn't speak English and the girl at the information desk only spoke a little. She informed us that we would need to change trains at a town nearby but we couldn't take bikes on the train. It wasn't clear which train would not allow bikes. We presumed the small train to the next town wouldn't allow bikes and so off we cycled to buy tickets for the sleeper train at the next town. It was evening time and the sun was slinking down the hot sky. We got to the ticket office and were faced with another language barrier. There were some other cyclists there and luckily one spoke English and was nice enough to help. We were in the same situation, no bikes allowed on the trains. No one had any idea why not even the woman in the ticket office. I was starting to worry a little. How would we get across the border and make up for lost time? We weren't overjoyed at the idea of cycling across as the closest road was a motorway and this was a fair distance away too. Things weren't looking great. Time was ticking. We decided it was best to go to Nagykanizsa, the next big town closer to the border and stay there for the night, do some research and make a new plan.
We were chatting to our fellow cyclists and together we all went to clamber on the train. There was a whole carriage for bicycles. Everyone helped each other put the bikes on and I stood on the platform patiently waiting for everyone to secure the bikes and get on the normal seated carriage just like we do in Blighty. One of the other cyclists made a joke about helping me on the train and I had a chuckle. The train door was wide open and the train slowly started to pull away. I quickly threw myself on the train as I suddenly realised no one was going to the other carriages. One of the other cyclists helped me up and everyone had a cheeky laugh. A few scratches and bruises on my knees. I couldn't believe I was almost left behind completely stranded with no phone or money and no idea where I was. That was a little surprise for a Sunday evening.
When the train conductor came along we asked why bikes were not allowed on the train across the border, she was clueless just like the rest of us. She told us she would find out. Off she went. She reappeared with the news that there is simply no agreement between Hungary and Croatia. She said if we take the train and ask the conductor nicely they shouldn't turn us away. It was all a bit up in the air. How were we going to make it out of Hungary?
The friendly cyclists began calling hotels in Nagykanizsa. There weren't many and most were full due to some military event over the weekend. There were no campsites and it would be dark when we arrived. Eventually one hotel answered and they had some space for us. The cyclists guided us to our home for the night. We would have been completely stuck if it wasn't for those kind people. We were staying at the 'sport hotel', it was an old bar and hotel at a beautiful running track on the edge of town. The owners couldn't speak English but they had wifi and it was €10 for both of us for one night. Inside was shabby and old, the beds were made with bed sheets from the 70's. This was another forgotten place also left in the 70's and it looked as though not much cleaning had been done since. The bathrooms were shared, the shower didn't work well and the water was cold. It was a bit rough around the edges but we were relieved to have somewhere to sleep and wifi to make a new plan. We were set on taking the train as we were sure the roads would be more beautiful once we were deep in Croatia. The plan was to get up early and somehow get on that train.
We woke early, eager to leave the small sleepy town and Hungary too for that matter. We got some snacks and got back to the station we had arrived at the night before. To the ticket office and once again the same problem. The woman didn't want to sell us a ticket to Zagreb for our bicycles. She told us what we already knew, bikes are not allowed across the border. This was getting ridiculous. Eventually the woman caved in and swapped us some tickets for some cash, she told us to speak nicely to the conductor.
We showed our tickets to the conductor, he checked them over with a stern face, looked at the bikes and gave us a nod. Off we went to board the train, there was no carriage for bicycles and not much storage space either. We took our wheels off and stashed our frames, wheels and panniers around the carriage still feeling a little unsure about the journey ahead. The last town before the border, Gyekenyes, was what we were waiting for, hoping we wouldn't be kicked off. The train pulled into Gyekenyes, it didn't look like a town, it was a lonely train station. There were police and military people at the station. The Hungarian police boarded the train first, checking everyone's passports, it was a long and slow process. The train was behind schedule. Next the Croatian police boarded the train, again checking passports. Some people were made to exit the train, I have no idea why and I'm not sure if they were allowed back on. It was a tense half an hour or so spent melting in the midday heat of the stuffy old train carriage. Everything seemed fine and the train rolled away. Off we went to Croatia. We took ourselves to the food carriage for a celebratory drink. It was pretty empty. There was air con and the carriage was sweetly decorated as though it were a grand dining place. With rich, warm coloured velvet curtains and chairs, clean white shiny table clothes, a plush carpet and low lighting, it was a welcomed scene to celebrate our little adventure so far. We drank a few too many beers as we happily crossed the boarder and admired the sunny views that whizzed passed. Next stop Zagreb.