Danube Bike Tour Day 35-37: Budapest

by Cassie, January 10th, 2010 | No Comments

Saturday, October 31, 2009

We left the hostel this morning to walk by the bike shop and see if it actually existed, but we couldn’t find it! We went back to the hostel and double checked the address, and we were looking in the right place. We went back, and we found it! You couldn’t tell it was a bike shop when you walked by because all the windows had big wooden doors over them. We waited until it opened at 10, and we asked about bike boxes. They didn’t have any. But, we asked if they knew of another place where we could get them, and they directed us to another bike shop that was only 500m away. Our entire conversation took place in minimal English and German. The guy at the bike shop said he didn’t speak English or German, but he actually spoke and understood enough for us to communicate. We went to the other bike shop, and they had boxes! The man actually took the new bikes out of the boxes and gave the boxes to us. We offered to pay for the boxes, but he refused any payment. We were so relieved to get the bike boxes because we weren’t sure how it would work in Budapest to get boxes. We disassembled our bikes tonight without a problem, and they were ready to mail from the post office on Monday.

With our big task for the day completed, we headed out to explore Buda. Budapest is actually two cities that have been merged into one. Buda is the city on the west side of the Danube, and it is very hilly with the royal palace and the citadel. Pest is on the east side of the Danube, and it is flat and densely populated. Our hostel was in Pest. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we took advantage of it. We climbed to the top of Gellert Hill for the best views of the city. Gellert Hill was named after Bishop Gellert, who was sent to convert the pagan Magyars to Christianity. They did not respond very well his preaching, and they threw him off the hill to his death. Now, there is a big monument for him on the side of the hill.

View of Budapest from Gellert Hill

View of Budapest from Gellert Hill

The citadel was at the top of Gellert Hill, and it still shows damage from the siege of Budapest during WWII. The Nazis used the citadel as their bunker during the war. The Soviets easily moved across the flat terrain of Pest and pushed the Nazis west across the Danube to hilly Buda, which was more easily defended. We went inside the old Nazi bunker under the citadel, which has been turned into the museum. It was crazy to wander around where the Nazi spent their final days in Budapest. The bunker had photos on the walls of Budapest from the siege, and it was crazy to see the destruction. The city was heavily bombed, and much of the city was destroyed. Today, the city has been completely rebuilt, and you can hardly see any damage from WWII.

War Damage to Citadel

War Damage to Citadel

Nazi bunker

Nazi bunker

We descended from Gellert Hill, and we crossed the Danube back into Pest to find some lunch. We went inside the Great Market Hall, which was a huge building with food stands, souvenir stands, and much more. It was too hectic and crowded to get lunch, so we found an gyro place instead and got some delicious gyros.

Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall

Next, we headed over to Castle Hill. On the way, we walked along Vaci Utca tourist district where we were accosted by multiple hawkers trying to sell us tours. We went to the furnicular that takes people up to the top of Castle Hill, but it was 3 euros to go on it! It only costs $1 to go on furnicular in Dubuque, Iowa! So, we decided to walk up the hill instead. Castle Hill was a neat place, and we planned to return to walk through the labyrinths under the hill.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This morning, we walked along Andrassy Utca with its neat old buildings and mansions. It lead us to Heroes Square with large sculptures of the seven horseman of the Magyar tribes and Archangel Gabriel giving the crown to Saint King Stephen.

Heroes Square

Heroes Square

Budapest was founded in 896 by the Magyars, and for their millennium celebration in 1896, they built lots of buildings and monuments to celebrate the occasion. We walked around Millennium Park, and it was huge! There was small pond with ducks swimming in it, and there was steam coming off it. Budapest is known for its thermal baths, and this pond also had water that came from the thermal springs.

Thermal pond at Millennium Park

Thermal pond at Millennium Park

We tried to find a place for lunch, but everything was closed because it was Sunday. We were almost forced to go to an American fast food chain restaurant after avoiding them for our entire trip. However, we managed to find another place to get gyros! After lunch, we headed over the Terror Museum, but it was closed due to the All Saints Day holiday. It would also be closed on Monday, our last day in Budapest, so we wouldn’t be able to go to it on this trip. However, the Terror Museum was the only place that we wanted to see that we weren’t able to while we were in Budapest, so it was fine.

Terror Museum

Terror Museum

We went to the Basilica, and we went to the top of the cupola where we had an amazing 360 degree view of the city.

Basilica

Basilica

Us on top of the Basilica

Us on top of the Basilica

View from Basilica

View from Basilica

We also walked around the inside of the Basilica, and it was really neat with the dome and beautiful red marble columns.

Basilica Dome

Basilica Dome

The Basilica was also where the mummified hand of St. Stephen was kept. However, it was so strange because they had the mummified hand in a glass case, but you had to insert two 100 forint coins into a machine to turn on the light to actually see the hand. The light stayed on for two minutes after paying, so we were hoping that someone would come by and put in the change to turn on the light. No one did, and we didn’t have the exact change. So, we looked at a dark display case. :)

Sign explaining the cost to view the mummified hand of St. Stephen

Sign explaining the cost to view the mummified hand of St. Stephen

We also went by the Synagogue, which is the second largest synagogue in the world after the synagogue in New York City. We walked around the Synagogue to check out the Tree of Life monument for the victims of the Holocaust. However, they had a big, iron gate around the monument that was closed, so we weren’t able to walk around the monument. We had seen a lot of vandalism and graffiti around the city, so we thought they might be preventing the monument from being vandalized.

Synagogue

Synagogue

Tree of Life Monument

Tree of Life Monument

Our final stop for the day was the labyrinths under Castle Hill. At 6pm, they turn off the lights and give people oil lamps for wandering around. It was so spooky to be wandering around underground rooms in the dark. They had different sound effects in each set of rooms to add to the spookiness of the place. While we were walking around, we suddenly heard the noise of chains rattling, which was the creepiest sound effect of the evening. There were  a couple rooms where you had to walk through a bunch of chains hanging through a doorway, and people ahead of us that we couldn’t see were rattling the chains as they walked through.

Wandering around the labyrinths in the dark

Wandering around the labyrinths in the dark

We walked back to the hostel at night, and Budapest was a beautiful city at night! We wandered around the Royal Palace at night before heading back and checked out the spectacular view of the city from Castle Hill.

Chain bridge and city at night

Chain bridge and city at night

Monday, November 2, 2009

This morning, we carried our big, heavy bike boxes several blocks to the post office. We filled out the forms to mail the bikes, but when we put the boxes through the window to be weighed, the mail clerk got out the book with all the rules on mailing packages. We knew this wasn’t a good sign at all. He gave us the bad news that our bike boxes were too big to mail from the Hungarian post office. However, the boxes were only slightly too large. So, we had to carry our bikes back to the hostel and figure out how to get them to the airport. A really helpful woman named Tini worked at the hostel, and she called some taxi companies for us to ask about a vehicle that would be big enough to take two bike boxes. She ended up finding an airport shuttle service that thought they could take the bikes. But, we had to call back with the exact dimensions of the boxes before we could make the reservation. Fortunately, the shuttle service said they could take us and our bikes to the airport! It was a great relief to have that figured out. However, we had no idea how much we would be charged to take the bikes home with us on the plane. We were flying with Northwest, and they do not operate directly out of the Budapest airport. Our flight from Budapest to Amsterdam would be operated by Malev Hungarian Airlines. We weren’t sure if we would be charged the fees for Northwest or Malev or if we would be charged twice by both airlines. Malev charged 6o euros per bike, and Northwest charged 300 euros per bike. We actually were charged 300 euros for both bikes, which was much less that we were expecting to pay flying on Northwest, so we didn’t argue with them. We have no idea how they calculated how much it would cost to take the bikes on the plane.

Once we had our bikes taken care of, we went on a walking tour of the Statue Park. We happened to be the only two people that showed up for the tour, so we ended up having our own private guide for the tour. The woman who was our guide was really good. She grew up in Budapest during the Communist regime, so she told us what it was like to live in the Eastern Bloc. It did not sound like a pleasant way of life. People had no choice in anything. All the companies were nationalized, so they produced the same type of goods. Everyone had the same furniture in their houses, and the kids had the same toys. You also had no choice in where you worked. You were assigned a place of employment by the government. After the collapse of communism, it was a huge adjustment for people because they were not used to looking for jobs. You were also living in fear all the time because there were secret police and informants everywhere, and you could be taken by them at any time.

After the collapse of Communism, the people of Budapest took down all the old Communist statues that were all over the city. However, they wanted to keep the statues as a remembrance of what it was it was like to live under Communism. They didn’t want the statues kept inside the city, so they built the statue park on the outskirts of the city. The design of the park was symbolic. There was a big, brick wall around the park with a main gate that is closed. Instead, you enter through a side gate. This symbolizes the corruption in the communist system. You were not able to do things through the normal channels. You needed to have connections with the right people to actually get things done. As you enter the park, there was a main path, but there was nothing along the main path, and it ended in a dead end. This symbolized that communism is a failed ideology that leads to nowhere. At the end of the main path, there are two statues of men waving flags, which symbolizes the jubilation at waving goodbye to communism. The park is also shaped like a figure eight, which has two meanings:

(1) It is the infinity symbol because communism seemed to go on forever without an end in sight.

(2) It is symbolic of Lenin’s famous saying: “8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours of sleep.”

Waving goodbye to Communism

Waving goodbye to Communism

Throughout the park, there are the old communist statues. Some of the statues are enormous, which was intended to make you feel small and unimportant. There was a statue of only two huge boots. It used to be an enormous statue of Stalin, but it was torn down after the 1956 uprising against communism in Hungary. They had trouble taking down the statue because it was so large, so they finally just cut the statue at the knees. The statue was completely demolished, so the boots at the park were a replica. Our guide said that many people took a piece of the Stalin statue home with them as memento.

Stalins boots

Stalin's boots

Many of the statues were of poor quality and rusted. People did not take much pride in their work since everything they produced belonged to the state. One statue of Lenin was placed outside a huge metalworks factory that employed 60,000 people. It was placed there to “motivate” the workers. However, it was ironic that the statue was of such poor quality that in a couple months, it began to rust. They didn’t want people to know that the statue needed to be replaced, so they put a new, identical statue in place of the old one in the middle of the night. The workers became very attached to the Lenin statue. After the fall of communism, the workers of the factory removed the statue and hid it so that it would not be damaged. Each district in Budapest donated a statue for the park, and a different statue was placed in the park until they found the Lenin statue hidden in the basement of the factory.

The Hungarian people had several jokes about the statues. During Communism, all pornography and erotic materials were banned. They used to joke, “What is Communist pornography? Lenin without his hat.” :)

Lenin with his hat

Lenin with his hat

Lenin without his hat

Lenin without his hat

There is another statue of a man holding a Communist flag that became emblematic of Communism and was frequently used in Communist propaganda. The Hungarians would joke that the man is actually holding a beach towel and saying “Vamos a la playa!” (Let’s go to the beach!).

Vamos a la playa!

Vamos a la playa!

They also had an old Trabant car at the Statue Park. You could go inside the car and also take a look under the hood. Apparently, you can buy one for $50-100! They are terrible for the environment because they have a two-stroke engine, but they are super cheap to buy and run. We saw quite a few of them still being driven when we were riding in the countryside.

Were driving a Trabant!

We're driving a Trabant!

After the fall of Communism, the people of Budapest renamed the streets that were named after Communist figures. Many were renamed after the Austrian rulers, implying that Hungarians would rather be ruled by the Austrians than to live under Communism. Our guide said it was really confusing when they renamed the streets, and many people had more than one address for a while.

When we finished the walking tour, we walked around Budapest a bit more. We visited the statue of Imre Nagy. He served as Prime Minister of the republic that was formed after the 1956 rebellion. When the Soviets crushed the rebellion, he was executed as a traitor and buried in a hidden location in the hills of Buda. After the fall of communism, the location of the grave was revealed, and Nagy was rehabilitated and reburied with an elaborate funeral ceremony. Nagy is a beloved figure by Hungarians, and at the statue, there was a huge pile of flowers and wreaths for him.

Statue of Imre Nagy

Statue of Imre Nagy

We walked by the Parliament building, but they had some kind of official proceeding going on there. There were lots of soldiers posted around the building, and they watched us as if we were terrorists.

For our last evening in Budapest, we planned a celebratory trip to an Eis Cafe. Tini recommended a place by the Elizabeth bridge, but they only served ice cream during the summer months. So, we went to dinner instead, and we both had dishes with chicken and sheep cheese that were really good. After dinner, we returned to the ice cream place by the Basilica we had visited yesterday. Their sign said they were open until 8pm. However, it was only 7:30pm, and they were already closed! The places in Europe have terrible hours! Even when they say they’re open, they’re not open. We were disappointed that we didn’t get our celebratory ice cream, but we didn’t give up! We went to the grocery store, and we got a Vienna strawberry ice cream cake. It wasn’t quite the same as going to an Eis Cafe, but we still got our ice cream. :)

We returned to the hostel and began packing up to leave tomorrow. I was sad to be leaving Europe because we’d had a great time on the trip, but I was ready to go home. We’d been gone a long time, and I was looking forward to returning to familiar surroundings and sleeping in the same place every night.

Danube Bike Tour Day 34: Vac to Budapest

by Cassie, January 10th, 2010 | No Comments

Friday, October 30, 2009

Distance: 37km

Today was our final day of riding! It was a beautiful, sunny day! We started off by crossing the Danube on a ferry at Vac, and then, we rode down the Szentendre Island, which was where the Danube splits into two streams at the Danube Bend or Knee.

View of Vac from ferry

View of Vac from ferry

Trabant car on the ferry!

Trabant car on the ferry!

We had a nice, easy ride through the countryside of Szentendre Island. Then, we took the second ferry of the day across the Danube to the mainland and the city of Szentendre. Then, we rode along the Danube towards Budapest. The ride was easy until we got into the city. We had to wind through the city streets to follow the bike route, but we made it Budapest!

We made it to Buda!

We made it to Buda!

Budapest Parliament

Budapest Parliament

Budapest Chain Bridge

Budapest Chain Bridge

We found the first hostel on our list, the Boomerang Hostel. At first, we weren’t sure where to go. We knew we were at the right building because it was the right address and the same building on the hostel pamphlet. Finally, we found the door to the building, but we had to push “11″ on the buzzer to talk with someone at the hostel. The only room that had available was actually an apartment. It was more expensive than a room. But, since we were going to be staying in Budapest for several days and needed to pack up our bikes to send home, we decided to go ahead to book it. The apartment was really nice! We had a kitchen, TV, private bathroom, and a loft for the bedroom.

Apartment in Budapest

Apartment in Budapest

Awesome stairs in our apartment

Awesome stairs in our apartment

Our goal for the day was to figure out how we were going to get the bikes home. Since it was so expensive to take the bikes on the plane, we decided to try to mail the bikes home from the Hungarian post office. We went to the post office to see if it would be possible to mail the bikes. We talked with three different people, but we finally talked with someone that told us that it would not be a problem as long as the bikes were under 30kg. Then, we tried to find packing tape and a marker for packing up the bike boxes. We found the marker, but no tape. Finally, we tried to get bike boxes from one of the bike shops marked on our bike map. We walked a long way to go to the bike shop, and we looked all over and couldn’t find it. So, we decided to be smarter about our search for a bike shop that would have bike boxes, and we looked up bike shops online. We found a bike shop that was literally across the street from the hostel. Tomorrow, we hoped to find a bike shop where we could get bike boxes and also packing tape!

Despite our limited success in getting our bikes ready to send home today, we had a great time walking around Budapest. It was a really neat city, and we were looking forward to spending the next few days here. However, we would enjoy our time more once we got the task completed of figuring out how to get our bikes home.

Danube Bike Tour Day 33: Esztergom to Vac

by Cassie, January 10th, 2010 | No Comments

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Distance: 40km

Today, the weather took a turn for the worse. It was cold and rainy when we started out in the morning. We hiked up to the basilica in Esztergom to check out the view of the city and the Danube. Since it was raining, we could not see as much, but it was still a neat view.

View from Esztergom Basilica

View from Esztergom Basilica

The start of the ride from Esztergom was nice along a bike path following the river. However, soon we had to ride along a busy road, and that was not much fun. Fortunately, we were able to turn off the busy road to cross the Danube where the bike route was mostly along bike paths instead of busy roads. When we turned off the busy road, there was a beautiful field of sunflowers with mountains in the background, so things were already looking up for us. :)

Sunflower field

Sunflower field

We rode to the ferry crossing, and checked the schedule. We had a little while to wait before the next ferry, and we could see the ferry boat on the other side of the river. However, since we were the only ones waiting for the ferry, we were a little worried that the ferry was not running since it was late in the season. There were a couple cars that came up to the ferry crossing and then turned around. Fortunately, on the hour, the ferry boat started crossing the river to pick us up. The ferry boat was really crazy. It was a big platform that was being pushed by a tugboat, and it looked really hard to maneuver with the strong river current. We were the only ones waiting for the ferry, so the ferry boat did not stop at the crossing and anchor the boat. As we went up the ramp onto the ferry boat, the boat was moving with the current of the river, and the tugboat driver was revving the engine to keep the boat from being carried downstream. Just as we left the shore, another bike rider arrived at the ferry crossing only a few minutes too late, and he/she would have to wait another hour to cross the river on the ferry.  When we reached the other side of the river, we found out why the ferry boat stayed on the opposite shore of the river. There was a bar on there, and there was nothing on the other side. The people working on the ferry boat only had to do one trip an hour, and the rest of the time they hung out at the bar. :)

Ferry boat crossing at Szob

Ferry boat crossing at Szob

The rest of the ride was very pleasant. There were a few short stretches along busy roads, and we primarily rode along bike paths and quiet country roads.  Despite the weather, this was one of my favorite sections of the Danube bike route. There were big mountains rising from both sides of the river, and the leaves of the trees were changing color making the scenery very beautiful.

Visegrad Castle

Visegrad Castle

We stopped in Vac for the night. We stayed at a pension that was run by the most friendly older couple. When we arrived, the man offered us shots of really strong cognac. Jonathan did not want his shot, so the man drank it for him. :) He also gave us apples, and told us to eat them for “good vitamin”. They had a son that worked as a dentist in Atlanta, so the man spoke a little English.  We talked to them a little bit about the United States. In the morning, the woman cooked a huge egg and ham breakfast for us, but I do not eat ham.  However, I felt bad refusing to eat the breakfast she had cooked for us, so I ate it. It was really good despite the ham. :) The couple were so friendly and helpful that they also helped us load our bags onto our bikes in the morning.

When we were relaxing in our room at night, we were watching Hungarian television, and we happened to catch an old episode of American Gladiators from 1991!  It was so funny to watch a show in Hungarian that we watched as kids.

We were only 37km from Budapest, so tomorrow we would finally arrive in Budapest!

Danube Bike Tour Day 32: Komarom to Esztergom

by Cassie, December 8th, 2009 | No Comments

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Distance: 56km

Originally, we were planning to continue on the Hungarian side of the Danube and go through Tata on the way to Esztergom. However, after reviewing the bike route, we would have to ride along busy roads for most of the way. We checked out the bike route on the Slovakian side of the Danube, and the ride seemed much more pleasant with more of the route along bike paths and quieter roads. As we were about to cross the Danube to the Slovakian side, we saw an enormous store that looked like a Super Wal-Mart. We stopped to check it out, and it was huge and just like a Super Wal-Mart! We were surprised to such a large store since the other stores we had seen were much smaller, so we thought Europe had escaped from big Wal-Marts shutting down small shops. But, apparently, there were Super Wal-Marts in Europe, too.

Tesco, the Super Wal-Mart of Europe

Tesco, the Super Wal-Mart of Europe

As we crossed the Danube to enter Komarno, Slovakia, there was another border checkpoint that was no longer in use. However, this border checkpoint was not vandalized like the other border checkpoint we passed. There was a money changing station still open at the border checkpoint, but it will no longer have any function once Hungary switches to the euro. We were impressed how prosperous Komarno was. Slovakia’s economy is transforming the fastest in the EU, and it seemed to us that in several years it will look like the other countries in Western Europe.

Europa Square in Komarno, Slovakia

Europa Square in Komarno, Slovakia

We enjoyed the bike ride today. Most of the ride was on a gravel bike path along a dike by the river.  We had to ride along busy roads for a few short stretches, but it wasn’t too bad. As we were riding, we passed these wonderful artistic creations made out of hay bales. For one of them, they used hay bales to create a witch with a broomstick made out of a cornstalk.

We reached Sturovo, Slovakia and crossed the Danube River to get to Esztergom, Hungary. The Maria Valeria bridge we crossed over the Danube was blown up by retreating German troops in WWII on December 26, 1944. However, due poor relations between Czechoslovakia and Hungary after WWII, the bridge was not reconstructed for over 50 years, and the bridge was not reopened until 2001. Esztergom was known for its basilica as it was the Roman Catholic church’s capital in Hungary. There is great view of the basilica form the Maria Valeria bridge.

Esztergom Basilica

Esztergom Basilica

We tried to stay at the campground in Esztergom, but it was closed for the season. After a couple tries, we found a pension for the night.  The room was really nice, and they had a computer where we could use the Internet for free!

Now that we had reached Esztergom, we were only 70-75km from Budapest! When we first started on our bike tour, Budapest seemed so far away, so it was amazing that we were so close to reaching our final destination.

Danube Bike Tour Day 31: The woods outside Gyor to Komarom

by Cassie, December 7th, 2009 | No Comments

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We had a fun day of riding through rural Hungary. The official bike route followed a busy road for part of the way, and it wasn’t much fun riding along it. As we were riding along the busy road, we saw a Danube bike route sign that directed us to turn off the main road onto a quieter secondary road. We checked our map, and the bike route sign did not match the route on our map. But, we were tired of riding along the busy road, so we decided to try it. That was the last bike route sign we saw, so we had an adventure finding our way back to the official bike route. We rode on dirt roads through tiny farm towns. We passed people in the towns, and they stared at us like we were from outer space. It didn’t seem like they got many bike tourists. The dirt road was surprisingly well maintained, and we realized the reason was the building of a new wind turbine.

Riding through rural Hungary

Riding through rural Hungary

Wind turbine in rural Hungary

Wind turbine in rural Hungary

Once we passed the wind turbine, the road degenerated into something that could not be called a road. It was mud track that was used by tractors to get to their fields. Fortunately, we had our mountain bikes because it was bumpy, rough ride. But, we had a lot of fun going through it! It was more exciting that riding along a paved bike path. :) We made our way to Acs, and we joined the official bike route again. However, the roads weren’t much better once we were on the official bike route. I would recommend riding a mountain bike if you plan to do bike touring in Hungary. :)

Riding along muddy, dirt road on official bike route

Riding along muddy, dirt road on official bike route

We reached Komarom by 2pm, and it was another 20km along busy roads to reach Tata.We didn’t want to get into the same situation as last night, so we decided to stop for the night in Komarom. We actually found a campground in Tata that was still open for the season! The campground was next to the thermal baths, so we could use the baths as part of our camping fee. We spent a couple hours relaxing at the thermal baths in the evening. The thermal bath complex was huge! There were several rooms with pools with different water temperatures. We spent most of our time in a wonderfully hot outdoor pool. The thermal baths were a popular place, and they were packed with people.

Campsite at Komarom

Campsite at Komarom

Danube Bike Tour Day 30: Lipot to the woods outside Gyor

by Cassie, December 7th, 2009 | No Comments

Monday, October 26, 2009

Distance: 34 km

Today turned out to be more of an adventure than we expected!  When we left Bratislava, the clocks were pushed ahead one hour, so it got dark at about 5pm now. We made it to Gyor by noon, and we spent a couple hours exploring Gyor. It was neat city with a large pedestrian area in the city center.

Gyor City Hall

Gyor City Hall

We also got our favorite food for lunch: kebab!

We love kebab!

We love kebab!

By the time we got groceries and checked the Internet, it was mid-afternoon when we left Gyor.  Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but it was a nightmare to get out of Gyor. It took us longer to get out of Gyor than it did to get out of Vienna! There were no bike route signs, and our map was not detailed enough to find our way out of the city easily. The other problem was that once you left the city center, there was a lot of traffic, and we also rode through a big industrial area.  We felt awful from breathing in the exhaust from the cars and the pollution from the factories. We were really ready to get out of Gyor, and we managed to find our way out of the city. By the time we got out of the city, it was already 4pm, and there were no places to stay for another 20km. We passed by a sign for a pension in the first town outside of Gyor, and we stopped there. However, they didn’t have any rooms available. We didn’t want to continue riding to get to the next place to stay since it would be getting dark soon, and we would have to ride along a busy road. We also didn’t want to go through the hassle of riding back into Gyor. Instead, we decided to camp in the woods we passed along the bike path. We actually found a great spot! The woods next to the bike path were actually a tree farm, and the trees were planted in rows spaced to fit our tent perfectly. Also, the ground was really level for putting up the tent. Fortunately, our tent was camouflaged to blend in with the woods. Jonathan went to the bike path to see if he could see the tent from the path, and he couldn’t see it. The night went really well, and we weren’t not bothered at all by someone kicking us out. We got up at first light in the morning and packed up, and no one knew we were even there. :)

Camping in the woods!

Camping in the woods!

Can you see our tent in the woods from the bike path? Were well camouflaged. :)

Can you see our tent in the woods from the bike path? We're well camouflaged. :)

Danube Bike Tour Day 29: Bratislava, Slovakia to Lipot, Hungary

by Cassie, December 6th, 2009 | No Comments

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Distance: 55km

Today, we woke up to a beautiful, sunny day!  I actually was wearing my sunglasses all day long!  As we were getting ready to leave the hostel, we met Ken Roberts from England, and he is doing a 4-year bike tour around the world. He biked along the length of the Danube bike tour like us, so it was fun to hear about his experiences. Check out Ken’s blog to follow his adventures as he bikes around the world.

The ride out of Bratislava was really nice.  We rode along a dedicated bike path the entire way, and the bike path was full of people out enjoying the beautiful day. As we approached the border between Slovakia and Hungary, we turned off the main, busy road to a secondary road.  We were able to cross the border without a problem, and there was just a beat-up sign announcing we were entering Hungary.

Border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary

Border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary

At the border, we met Steve from the University of Arizona who was also out for a bike ride. He was the first American we had met while biking!  He was studying in Bratislava for a semester as an exchange program. We talked to him about studying in Bratislava, and it was much different from our experience at Grinnell.  He said masters students don’t show up for the first couple weeks of class.  Some people only go to class a few times a semester, and they still manage to pass. He had been at school for a couple months, and there had been a few lectures, no assignments, and no tests.  He said it’s a great way to have lots of time to travel and see the country!  We bypassed the main border checkpoint by turning off the main road, and Steve suggested we check out the abandoned border checkpoint.  We decided to check it out, and it was crazy! It was strange that they didn’t board up the windows when the checkpoint was shutdown.  All the windows were broken, and people had gone in and completely trashed the place. It was strange walking inside the building because some things had been left there since the closing of the checkpoint.  They still had a calendar up in one of the offices, and there were old documents that were scattered all over the floor.

Abandoned border checkpoint between Slovakian and Hungary

Abandoned border checkpoint between Slovakian and Hungary

Smashed windows inside border checkpoint

Smashed windows inside border checkpoint

Trashed room at border checkpoint

Trashed room at border checkpoint

We had a wonderful day riding through the Hungarian countryside. They had harvested the fields, and they had pyramids of straw bales stacked in the field. The funniest part of the day was getting ice cream from an ice cream truck.  The truck was playing music like an ice cream truck, and it stopped on the side of the road for us. However, when we reached it, it looked more like a frozen food delivery truck than an ice cream truck. But, they opened up the back of the truck, and it had a big, picture menu with all their items, which included ice cream. :)  This was an adventure for us because this was our first day in Hungary, and we didn’t know any Hungarian. Also, Hungary was part of the EU, but they had not switched to the euro yet.  So, we also were dealing with a new currency and had to pay in Hungarian forints.  The men in the ice cream truck didn’t speak English, but they did speak German. We managed to get ice cream and pay for it in forints. This was my first time getting ice cream from an ice cream truck, so it was really funny that it was in rural Hungary. :)

Hungary was a whole different experience for us. It was clear that Eastern Europe was not as economically advanced as Western Europe. As we were riding, we passed several wagons that were being pulled by mules, and we only saw tractors when we were riding through the countryside in Western Europe.

When we reached Lipot, it was such a nice day that we tried to camp at the campground. Unfortunately, it was closed for the season, so we got a room for the night instead. There were also thermal baths at the place we stayed for the night, so we spent the evening relaxing in the baths.  The thermal baths were really nice after weeks on the bikes. :)

Danube Bike Tour Day 28: Petronell-Carnuntum, Austria to Bratislava, Slovakia

by Cassie, December 3rd, 2009 | No Comments

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Distance: 26km

In contrast to yesterday’s nice weather, today was a cold, gray, wet day.  Last night, the sky was so clear that I was surprised to wake up to the sound of rain on the tent.  Jonathan had a pretty miserable night because his Thermarest was punctured last night when he sat on the pot holder that was lying on it.  He patched his Thermarest, but it still leaked air.  It was cold last night, so he didn’t have much insulation between him and the cold, hard ground.  This morning, Jonathan tried re-patching the Thermarest.  However, after he re-patched it, it was still leaking air. It was really frustrating, and we wouldn’t be able to camp again if his Thermarest was busted.  Then, Jonathan realized that the Thermarest had been punctured through to the other side. He only patched one side, so air was still leaking out the other side.  However, we had used up all the patches for the Thermarest.  But, we still had lots of bike patches, and he was able to patch the Thermarest with them.  His Thermarest seemed to be fixed, so we would still be able to camp. :)

We got a late start with Jonathan fixing his Thermarest.  Petronell-Carnuntum had a large archaeological park with Roman Ruins, but we didn’t have time to check them out.  Instead, we rode by the Roman Heidentor (Heathen’s Gate) on the way out of town.  It was not actually a gate, but one of the four entrances to a victory monument for Caesar Constantine II around 354-361 AD.

Heidentor at Carnuntum

Heidentor at Carnuntum

We had a wet, cold ride to Bratislava.  We experienced the most defined border crossing of the trip between Austria and Slovakia.  There was a large border checkpoint, but it was no longer in use since Slovakia joined the European Union.

Border checkpoint between Austria and Slovakia

Border checkpoint between Austria and Slovakia

Originally, we were planning on continuing on to Hungary today, but it was such a miserable day that we decided to stop for the night in Bratislava. We found a great hostel near the city center.  The hostel was run by Hostelling International, but it was much different from the Hosteling International places in Germany and Austria. The hostel was located in an old building with lots of character, and it was conveniently located. We got a large double room with high ceilings, and it even had a balcony!

Our awesome room with a balcony!

Our awesome room with a balcony!

We were really glad that we decided to stop in Bratislava.  The old city was really neat, and it was closed off to cars! It was fun to walk around, and there were a lot of other tourists. I didn’t think that Bratislava was big tourist destination, but it may be a tourist stop because of its proximity to Vienna.  We got roasted chestnuts from a stand in one of the squares.  I had never had roasted chestnuts before, and they were really good.

Bratislava old city

The old city of Bratislava was really neat, but the rest of the city was not so nice. Once we left the city center, we encountered the dull, gray, ugly Soviet apartment buildings. Slovakia was the first Eastern European country we visited, and it was a whole different experience from Western Europe.

Abandoned Soviet apartment building

Abandoned Soviet apartment building

However, in the midst of all these dull, concrete apartment buildings, we found a beautiful, blue church. I think it was my favorite church we visited on the trip.  The design of the building was very unusual, and it reminded me of the buildings that Hundertwasser designed.

We also went to the observation tower on the New Bridge.  It is called the UFO because of its shape.  It looked similar to the Space Needle in Seattle.  We had a great view of the city from the tower.  It was so windy at the top of the tower that I felt like I was going to be blown over!

UFO on New Bridge

UFO on New Bridge

View of Bratislava from UFO

View of Bratislava from UFO

Petrzalka was the city across the river from Bratislava, and there were Soviet apartment buildings as far as you could see.  A guy we met told us that Petrzalka had one the highest concentrations of Soviet apartment buildings in Eastern Europe.

Petrzalka

Petrzalka

I was worried about going to Slovakia when we didn’t speak any Slovakian. We were only going to be in Slovakia for a day, so it didn’t make sense to try to learn the language. Fortunately, it was not a problem at all!  Everyone spoke English really well, and a lot of the signs were in English, too.

Danube Bike Tour Day 27: Vienna to Petronell-Carnuntum

by Cassie, December 3rd, 2009 | No Comments

Friday, October 23, 2009

Distance: 53km

Today was the first nice day we had in a long time.  When we left Vienna, the sun was shining!  We rode out of Vienna through Prater Park.  When we had walked around Prater Park last night, we only explored a small part of the enormous park.  It took a long time to ride through the huge park!

Riding through Prater Park

Riding through Prater Park

Just as we got out of Vienna, I got a flat tire.  When I took the tire off, I found a big shard of metal that had pierced through the tire.  There was a big gash in the inner tube that was really easy to spot.  This was only our second flat tire of the trip caused by a puncture, so our Kevlar tires did a good job of preventing flat tires.

We rode along the Danube once we left Vienna.  Since it was a nice day, there were people hanging out at the park by the river.  I saw an old man that appeared to be sun bathing in the nude, but I did not want to check to be certain. :)  We left the river to ride through a chemical plant with big tanks, but after we passed the chemical plant, we ran into road construction that completely blocked the road.  We had an adventure riding on gravel roads to get around the construction.  We were so close the first time we made it back to the main bike route, but the road was still blocked off for the construction.  But, we finally made it back to the bike route! The bike route went through the Danube National Park, and it was really pretty riding through the forest along the river. The bike path was absolutely straight, and it reminded us of driving down I-88 in Illinois on the way to Chicago. :)

Absolutely straight bike path!

Absolutely straight bike path!

When we arrived in Hainburg, it was so nice outside that we decided to take a detour and go to Petronell-Carnuntum where there was a campground.  We had not been able to camp for about two weeks, so it was exciting to have weather nice enough to camp! We had some trouble finding the campground.  We went to where the campground was marked on the map, but all that was there was a big field.  We were about to ride into town to stay at a guesthouse when we saw a sign for the campground. We found the campground, and we realized that it was not marked correctly on the map.  The campground was together with a restaurant and indoor tennis courts, which was an interesting combination. :)

Tennis and Camping - a fun combination!

Tennis and Camping - a fun combination!

Danube Bike Tour Day 25-26: Vienna

by Cassie, November 27th, 2009 | No Comments

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We spent the morning at the Habsburg’s summer palace.  It started off as a “simple” hunting palace, but Maria Theresa had it completely redone in the rococo style to rival the palace in Versailles.  They had the most complicated system for touring the palace. They had four different tours with different prices.  The 20 room tour was 9.50 euros, but you could see an additional 10 rooms for only 12.50 euros and so on.  Once we had selected the number of rooms we wanted to tour, we also could only enter the palace at the specific time stamped on the ticket.  Fortunately, we were there during the off season, so we only had to wait a few minutes before we could tour the palace.  We did the tour of the imperial apartments, and they were incredibly fancy.  The Habsburgs spent a lot of money on the palace.  The walls and ceilings were covered in gold leaf. Each room had a ornately decorated ceramic stove for heating.  The stoves were refueled by servants from behind, so all the walls had passageways behind them for servants to keep the rooms heated.  It was interesting to see Franz Joseph’s rooms.  He prided himself on his simple lifestyle and his strict discipline towards serving the empire.  His rooms were plainly decorated with only a simple bed and desk. However, it seemed contradictory  that he was still living in an enormous, fancy palace.

The summer palace also was surrounded by a large set of gardens, so we walked around in the gardens for a while.  While we were walking around, the sky started to clear up, and the sun actually came out!  It was sunny for the rest of the day, and the temperature reached double digits for the first time in days: 12 degrees Celsius.  It was the nicest day in a long time.

We climbed the tower of the St. Stephans Cathedral.  The top of the tower was like the Belfort tower in Bruge.  We were not allowed to walk around the outside of the tower, and we could only look through the small windows on each side of the tower. Nevertheless, the view from the tower was neat.  Vienna was a big place!  The city went on as far as we could see from the tower.

After climbing the tower, we got ice cream for the first time in days.  We celebrated the warmer weather with three scoops of ice cream. :)  We wandered around the city for the rest of the day.  We stopped by the large fountain by the Belevedere Palace, and while we were there, we saw two balloons similar to our trash bag balloons released from the statue by the fountain.  Their design was similar to ours, but they used tissue paper instead of a trash bag.  They seemed to have a different type of fuel, too. One of the balloons went really far until we could no longer see it.  The other balloon didn’t do as well, and it got stuck in the tree and burned the tree a little bit.  We were surprised that these people released these balloons in the middle of big city considering they are a fire hazard if they get caught in something.  When we did our trash bag balloon, we kept control of it with a kite string.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Yesterday, the weather had been nice, but today it was rainy and cold.  It was a good day to spend inside of museums.  We went to the Hofburg palace to tour the imperial apartments.  First, we had to figure out which of the many doors went to the imperial apartments in the enormous palace complex.  We finally found the entrance to the museum. :)  The museum began with the Habsburg silver collection, which consisted of room after room of tableware.  The Habsburgs had an obscene amount of tableware.  When they traveled, they brought their tableware with them since they wouldn’t have sufficient tableware where they were going.  They had big carrying cases for the tableware.  The most interesting part of the silver collection was the exhibition of the foot washing ceremony.  Before Lent, the emperor would wash the feet of 12 poor old men, and the empress would wash the feet of 12 poor old women.  The symbolism of the ceremony was that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  Each person was also given 30 silver pieces, the same amount Judas received for betraying Jesus.

The next section of the museum was dedicated to Empress Elizabeth, or “Sissi”.  It detailed her life from her carefree days growing up as a Duchess in Bavaria to her life as empress of Austria and her assassination. Apparently, Sissi was very shy and timid, and she was not well-suited for the duties of a being a public figure.  She resented her lack of freedom, and she disliked all the attention she received.  She mostly left the politics to Emperor Franz Joseph, but she did intervene when Hungary was struggling for independence from the empire.  She was influential in convincing Franz Joseph to sign the agreement creating the dual monarch of Austria-Hungary.  This was a substantial change in Franz Joseph’s policy towards Hungary.  The Hungarian rebellion was brutally repressed, and Franz Joseph had paintings of the defeat of the Hungarian armies in his meeting room in the summer palace.

Once Sissi’s only son committed suicide, she started wearing only black and became completely withdrawn from court life.  She became more melancholy and depressed and talked about the end of her life.  She was assassinated by Italian anarchist while she was traveling.  She was only stabbed once in the heart by a small file.  After being stabbed, she actually boarded the boat that she had been waiting for before she was stabbed.  The boat left shore with Sissi on it, and it only returned to shore later when they realized that she had been stabbed.  She died shortly afterwards.

Hofburg palace

Hofburg palace

Vienna was the home of an amazing artist/architect named Hundertwasser.  We went by the Hundertwasser Haus built by him, and it was one of the coolest buildings I have seen.  Hundertwasser disliked straight lines, and he said, “Straight lines are godless.”  His buildings were full of curvy lines.  Hundertwasser was very opinionated, and he believed in getting back to nature in the way we live.  The Hundertwasser Haus had trees growing from the windowsills.  We also went to the Hundertwasser museum, and the curvy floors were the coolest part about the museum.  Hundertwasser said that straight floors are for engineers, not people, and it wasn’t natural for people to walk on straight floors since nothing like that occurs in nature.  He had an awesome futuristic architectural design for a city where all the houses were halfway underground with green roofs you could walk on.  There was also a stream running through the city that you could paddle a boat down.  It seemed like a wonderful place to live.

Hundertwasser Haus

Hundertwasser Haus

Awesome curvy floors at Hunderwasser museum

Awesome curvy floors at Hunderwasser museum

No visit to Vienna was complete without a ride on the Giant Ferris Wheel at Prater Park.  We thought it would be neat to go on the ferris wheel at night to see the lights of the city, but Vienna does not have a lot of city lights that you can see from the ferris wheel.  However, it was neat to see the lights of the Prater Park amusement park rides.  Prater Park used to be the Emperor’s hunting grounds, but the Emperor turned over the hunting grounds to the citizens of the city.  It has been a popular place for people of Vienna to relax and have fun ever since then.  However, everything at the Prater Park was overpriced.  We were thirsty and got a completely overpriced Coke at the gift shop.  They had Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and it was 7 euro for a pint, which is about $10.50!

Prater Giant Ferris Wheel

Prater Giant Ferris Wheel

View of amusement park roller coaster from ferris wheel

View of amusement park roller coaster from ferris wheel

View from ferris wheel

View from ferris wheel

We had a long walk from the ferris wheel back to the hostel.  Biking shoes are not comfortable for long days of walking.  The soles of biking shoes are stiff for comfort during biking, but they do not provide any cushioning for walking.  My feet were so sore from walking around Vienna for two days, and I was ready to get back on my bike so I wouldn’t have to walk around in my bike shoes. :)