Sore Arse Chronicles #6: Slovakia and Hungary

Day 39, July 21st, Vienna to Bratislava, 60km

There can’t be many other pairs of capital cities in the world that are located as close together as Vienna and Bratislava. It’s quite odd being able to cycle in just a few hours from one major city to another. It was a particularly quick day because much of the route was along a totally straight path. There was little in the way of scenery, no vehicular traffic and few other cyclists, meaning it was about as mentally stimulating as riding an exercise bike…

Bratislava lies just a few kilometres from the Austrian border, and back in the days when it was just another city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a majority of the citizens were German speakers. There’s little evidence of that today, though, besides the fancy old buildings in the historic centre.

There have been a few subtle changes I’ve noticed since crossing the border. Prices suddenly got a lot cheaper, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks! There is less ethnic diversity on the streets. Women dress in more skimpy clothes! There are more beggars and drunks. Outside of the well preserved city centre, everything feels a bit shabbier, a bit more rough around the edges. Of course, it’s hardly the vast contrast that must have existed while Slovakia was still a communist country.

I quite like Bratislava. With the exception of the annoying stag party groups it’s not especially packed with tourists. In the evening I went for a walk through the city, and I’m fast learning that this is the best time of day to appreciate a place. Some cities seem to have so much more character and atmosphere under the cover of darkness. Things that would seem mundane in the daylight take on a slight aura: the sounds of shoes clip-clopping on the cobbles, the relative silence of the backstreets, floodlit statues and monuments standing out against the night sky.

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Bratislava’s most interesting monument, the UFO bridge

Day 40, July 22nd, Bratislava

Today I did a walking tour and learned some cool stuff about Slovakia and its capital!

– As in other formerly communist countries, many older people are nostalgic for the way things used to be before democracy. A lot of them found the transition to capitalism difficult.

– Farm nationalisation during the Communist era drove thousands to leave the countryside and settle in Bratislava. Many of these migrants were housed in a hastily constructed area of the city across the river, which contains rows and rows of concrete tower blocks. Today, a quarter of the city’s population lives there.

– New buildings like these were often built with extremely thin walls, so neighbours could snoop on each other- and denounce them to the authorities if they were watching foreign TV.

– Czechoslovakia did not split due to a refendum. Polls suggested there was no appetite for division, but that’s what they got because of a political dispute between the Czech and Slovak leaders.

– The Czech and Slovak languages are very similar and easily mutually intelligible.

– One of the main differences between the two countries is in religion. While Czech Republic is one of the world’s most atheist nations, Slovakia remains piously Catholic.

– Ice hockey is more popular than football in Slovakia.

– The EU has tried to redistribute migrants that arrived since 2015 using a quota system. Slovakia has steadfastly refused to accept a single one of its allocated migrants. As in the rest of Europe, right-wing sentiment is on the rise…

– Hungary is Slovakia’s most disliked neighbour, as they were under the control of its royal family for centuries

Day 41, July 23rd, Bratislava to Gyor, 91km

After less than two days in Slovakia, today I departed for country number seven of the journey, Hungary. Having only previously used Euros and Swiss Francs, which have an almost identical value, I now have to get used to a strange new currency, the Hungarian Forint. More challenging still is the language- Hungarian words look like they were constructed during a very drunken game of scrabble.

The cycle route was surprisingly good, and most of the route was on a separate path running adjacent to the road. However, the cycling was pretty dull. Hungary is quite a featureless place, and the towns and villages I passed through were somewhat unremarkable. The highlights of my day, as is quite often the case, were the even rest stops. It’s lovely to have a little picnic and a beer under the shade of a tree, to read a book or do a crossword and appreciate the quiet. These may be the happiest moments I remember when I look back on this trip.

Day 42, July 24th, Gyor to Esztergom, 87km

I’ve been reasonably lucky with the weather so far on this journey, but that came to an end today. The clouds just couldn’t make their damn minds up, and it rained on five separate occasions. Fortunately, I actually managed to get through the day without too much of a soaking, by sheltering in any random place I could find: farm buildings, supermarkets, factories, and the like.

For the first day in a while I found myself riding on roads most of the way- looks like I’ll have to curtail my aforementioned mid journey beer stops. The quality of the road surface is alarmingly inconsistent: one stretch might be as smooth as a baby’s behind, yet the next could be covered with potholes, steep ridges and uneven drain covers, crumbling away to stones by the edge.

Most of the traffic gave me a wide berth, but one idiotic bus driver overtook me with what felt like five centimetres of clearance. It would only take a tiny lapse of judgement on his part, or me having to jink slightly to avoid a pothole, and I’d be dead. I just hope I don’t have to encounter such reckless drivers regularly- I subscribe to the law of averages, and I know sooner or later a close pass will bring doom.

And on that cheery note I shall end my ramblings for today!

Day 43, July 25th, Esztergom to Budapest, 73km

As the clouds had rained themselves bare overnight, I had a quick look around Esztergom before I left in the morning. The city is known as the “Rome of Hungary”, but I think the marketing people might have been getting a bit carried away with that nickname. The gigantic basilica atop the hill was well worth a visit, though. According to Wikipedia it’s still Hungary’s tallest building. I doubt there are many countries where a religious building is still the largest.

Insteadnof following the Eurovelo 6 route into Budapest, I took a more direct path on a quiet, sinuous road through the forested hills. After two weeks of almost constantly flat cycling, it made a nice change, and the hour of battling uphill was probably worth it for the long, rapid downhill that followed. I hit a new top speed of 65kph!

I visited Budapest already seven years ago, but I forgot quite how spectacular it was. I think it could be the most beautiful city of the journey so far, with its huge, grandiose buildings and wonderful location on the river banks. Of all the Danube settlements I’ve cycled through, Budapest is the first where the river flows right through the heart of the city, where it feels like an integral part of what makes the place special. I suppose that’s because it was once the boundary between to separate cities, Buda and Pest.

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Why must cities always go with lion statues? The whole animal kingdom to choose from and it’s always the same pick…

Day 44, July 26th, Budapest

It rained a lot this afternoon. Normally, I would consider myself to be a total rainophobe, and the wet stuff is simply an annoyance. But on this occasion, I was grateful for it, because it created one of the most impressive visual spectacles I’ve ever seen.

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The storm clouds roll in…

I had a walk up a hill rising above the west bank of the Danube, and noticed a pack of fierce, swirling clouds swooping in from the countryside. The wind picked up, the sky grew ever darker, and then the inevitable rainstorm set in. An hour later, with the rain subsiding but still falling, the sun poked through the clouds. From my spot at the Fisherman’s Bastion viewpoint, I had the perfect view of a huge rainbow forming a complete arch across the city, bridging the Danube.

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… And the sun makes a brief return

Day 45, July 27th, Budapest

I’m writing this from atop the biggest hill in Budapest, even taller than the one I visited yesterday. I’ve been here before, but my memory totally failed to do the view justice. It’s absolutely stunning!

I can see my future from this vantage point (wait, hear me out). To the north west, where I travelled from two days ago, the horizon is covered with a spread of hills. But to the east and particularly the south, it’s as flat as a pancake. Pannonian cake flat, you might say, for I believe that is the name of the plains that stretch down from here into Croatia and Serbia.

I decided in recent days that I was going to skip the section between Budapest and Novi Sad by taking a train, but I was earlier informed that this wasn’t an option. Informed in an unfriendly manner, I must add- Eastern Europe apparently hasn’t subscribed to the “Service with a smile” and “The customer is always right” mantras.

Anyway, as I was leaving, a Dutch guy waiting in the queue came and offered some advice. He had overhead my difficulties, and suggested I take a domestic train to the border, and then go by bus from there. I decided to take him on the first part, so on Tuesday I will take a train to a town in the south of the country, thus saving myself a day or two of riding through a fairly dull part of the world. I’ll end up cycling away from the Danube for a day and a half, but I’m sure it’ll manage without me.

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The view from the hilltop Citadella

Day 46, July 28th, Budapest

Last night, my dad arrived in Budapest all the way from the UK. Together we’re off to see the Hungarian GP this weekend!

After an early start and a long trip out the to the Hungaroring circuit, we walked all around the venue and were able to get a view of pretty much every corner, except turns two and three. Each area had its own appeal. The pit straight let us see the cars at their quickest, the final corner was a good spot for watching the drivers accelerate out onto the straight, while the long twisty part at the back side of the circuit was a good spot to see high speed cornering.

The best viewing spot was probably right at the far end of the circuit, overlooking turns four to eight. It gave a good mix of speed, acceleration, heavy braking and fast cornering, and that’s probably where we’ll watch the action from tomorrow.

It was quite notable how muted the sound of the current, hybrid power F1 engines are compared to their predecessors. The F2 cars were so much louder and thus arguably more of a thrill to witness, while the sound created by the pair of two seater F1 cars, presumably dating from the early 2000s and thus equipped with V10s, was just exhilarating

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A rare smattering of clouds above the racetrack.

Day 47, July 29th, Budapest

Day 2 at the Hungarian GP. We watched qualifying and a bunch of support races and it was another enjoyable day.

There are so many nationalities present in the stands at the Hungarian GP. It’s wonderful how so many people from far and wide are coming to the event, and I really enjoyed just making a mental tally of the countries represented. If my memory serves me right, the nationalities I noticed through flags, car registrations plates and languages spoken were as follows… Ahem:

UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico, USA, Australia, China, India, and… Zimbabwe.

And no doubt there were plenty of other spectators from even more countries that weren’t advertising their nationality, too.

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Alonso fans were few and far between. How times have changed

The two dominant foreign nationalities seemed to be the Dutch and Finns, apparently there to support Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen respectively. There was a pub next to the train station, all decked out in Finnish flags and blaring the Eurodance. We overheard one of them chanting: “I am blue, I am white, I am Finnish dynamite!”

We watched most of the day’s action from up at the chicane again, but it wasn’t a particularly exciting day at that part of the track. Barely a single car went off there all weekend! Qualifying was shaping up nicely, but the grid in the end wasn’t as mixed as we’d hoped, the cars lining up in team order.

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One of the Force India’s rounding Turn 10

Day 48, July 30th, Budapest

Race day at the Hungaroring! After the usual trek to the circuit, we arrived in time for the support races, watching GP3 and F2 from the general admission spot up on the hill overlooking the pit straight. It might have been a good spot to watch the race from, but it filled up so early in the morning there was barely a patch of grass left to claim!..

As the day went on the anticipation for the Grand Prix built up. And yet… The stands were often eerily quiet. The sporting events I’m most familiar with, football matches in England, are full of chanting, applause, booing, jeering, passion, emotion, vitriol, and a buzz of chatter amplified by the four sides of the stadium. At an F1 race, at least at the two I have experienced, there is little of this. It’s an annual event rather than a weekly ritual. Everyone is unfamiliar with those around them, with a mix of nationalities and allegiances. When there were no cars on track, the sudden silence felt strangely deafening!

The beginning of the race, of course, was a lot of fun. To see the cars stream up the hill and then fly through the chicane in formation was a thrill, and it was an unusual experience to see the field spread out lap after lap. Unfortunately, it became a bit of a procession. There was hardly an overtaking move in the whole race, and certainly none where we were watching.

Into the second half of the race things spiced up a bit as the front four cars all bunched up together, but it became clear there probably wasn’t going to be any change of position- except the one Mercedes engineered amongst their drivers, of course…

Towards the end we moved towards the final corner, in order to try and get on the track to see the podium at the end. They kept us waiting, but finally the gates swung open and the crowds poured onto the track.

For me, this was the highlight of the weekend. To be part of this big mass of excited fans dashing towards the podium, on the same tarmac that the cars had been tearing around barely ten minutes earlier, was just amazing. I collected a nice little souvenir- a piece of discarded tyre rubber from one of the cars- and got a great look at the cars up close as they were being weighed in the pits only a few metres away.

On the track, looking up at the drivers on the podium, I finally felt a sense of a football style atmosphere. There were thousands of us crammed into a small space, with flags flying, flares being burnt, airhorns blaring, and fans chanting. It only lasted a few minutes before the drivers departed and we were ushered towards the exits, but it was great fun while it lasted!

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Adoration of Ferrari + adoration of Raikkonen = an awful lot of fans dressed in red

And that was my experience of the Hungarian Grand Prix! Only the second race I’ve ever attended, but it was different in so many ways to the event I visited in China. Next time I’d like to visit somewhere different for the variety, but I could certainly recommend the race to anyone looking for a fun weekend at relatively affordable prices in a wonderful city.

Day 49, July 31st, Budapest

Today was quite a lazy day largely spent indoors, resting after the weekend and hiding away from the sun. But in the evening I did get out and saw a bit of the city at night, including the huge synagogue (Budapest used to have a huge Jewish population) and basilica, one of the famous “ruin bars”, and the wonderful night view across the river.

I also got talking to a Hungarian person properly for the first time! Here are a few of the things I learnt:

– If Hungary hadn’t lost the First World War, its territory would likely be twice as big today. There are still large areas of Romania populated mainly by Hungarians.

– The country remains quite intolerant and racist, with anti Jewish attitudes still commonplace.

– Teachers are poorly paid, and therefore the standard of education remains low.

– A lot of Hungarian university students end up studying abroad.

– Hungarian people can be quite passionate and argumentative.

– The Hungarian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world.

– Hungary has been invaded or occupied so many times over the centuries: by the Mongols, the Turks, the Austrians, the Germans, the Soviets… And I’m probably missing a few!

And with that, I should wrap things up and hit publish. Next stop, Serbia!

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5 thoughts on “Sore Arse Chronicles #6: Slovakia and Hungary

  1. The only capital cities closer to each other that I know of would probably be Brazzaville (of the Republice du Congo / Congo-Brazzaville) and Kinshasa (of the Democratic Republic of Congo) who are right next to eachother, on opposing sides of the Congo River – as you can see in the image here: http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/brazzaville-and-kinshasa-in-background-republic-of-the-congo-picture-id540026846?s=170667a – another good read Greg, enjoy the last leg of your trip!

  2. Talin and Helsinki spring to mind, but apparently they’re a bit further apart. Enjoy the rest of the journey, looking forward to reading the next posts!

    1. Glad to hear that! You see Slovenia was missing from the F1 nations list? I hope you’re very disappointed with yourself :p

      1. Not my fault! 🙂 I was in Prague a month ago and I get exactly what you mean with there’s no customer service in certain countries!

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