After eating five ice creams in two days I realised that it was about time I got out of Budapest pretty sharpish. I’d had a much needed three days rest, a few niggles I’d had felt a lot better and I was itching to start the next leg of the journey. Furthermore I was getting sick of the lion esque snores emenating from the others staying in my hostel room and one night a drunk Australian girl had tried to get into my bed. I was looking forward to the comfort and solitude of my little tent!
My plan was to follow the Danube river into Croatia. I was keen to get south fast as temperatures in Budapest were starting to fall. I enjoyed a day of tranquil cycling observing the locals relaxing and fishing on the river as I rolled past. One man stopped me to give me four bunches of grapes. Sleepy towns are located quite far apart here and I could go many kilometers without seeing a single soul. This does make wild camping fairly easy though. On the first night I stopped in a field next to the cycle path and nobody came past the whole time I was there.
Cycling along another deserted road one afternoon into a small village I rounded a corner and was confronted with a road jam packed with people and lots of horses and carts. I was taken aback by the crowds, especially as many of the young men seemed to be dressed as women, wearing crop tops stuffed with paper balls. At the head of the party were many women and children in traditional dress taking plates of food to the procession.
I tried to find out what was happening but nobody spoke English, they did keep thrusting food and wine upon me though so I wasn’t complaining. Eventually I found a lady who could speak German who explained it was a Wein Fest celebrating the end of the grape harvest. Soon they jumped back onto the carts and trapsed off to the next village. Before she left she invited me to the big party that evening but as it was not until much later and in the opposite direction I had to decline. Little did I know I had another party to go to myself…
That evening I wanted to camp next to the Danube so I headed down a small track in search of a secluded spot. I was suprised to find lots of houses hidden in the bushes and a couple of people in the middle of the road. I said hello and whipped out my magic letter translated into Hungarian. They didn’t speak any English but said I could stay in their essentially ‘spare’ house which meant a bed and bathroom to myself! They quickly invited me to drink Parlinka with them which was a home brewed schnapps and poured me a huge glass. Although we couldn’t communicate very well it was fun to be around a group of friends.
A few beers and a lot of toasts later and my host (who i think was called Stefan) dragged me off to a house down the river to meet his parents! They also couldn’t speak English but insisted on drinking more Parlinka with me. Stefan managed to call two of his friends, one who lived in Preston and one who lived in New Jersey, to translate for us. After visiting the parents the next stop was the neighbours for yet another round of Parlinka!
Unsurprisingly the next morning I woke up with a monumental hangover. One of those debilitating, can barely move, ‘I’m never drinking again’ type hangovers. That Parlinka was lethal. Stefan had invited me for lunch at midday and it took all my efforts to get out of bed and dressed in time.
He was hosting an end of summer party with 20 or so friends, family and neighbours and they were cooking a traditional Hungarian stew with an 80kg sheep and lots of paprika peppers in it. There’s nothing like a big group of Hungarians looking at you and the smell of cooking meat to fight off a hangover. Luckily two of the guests spoke German and they translated questions and answers for the rest of the party. It was a brilliant lunch and I was treated like the guest of honour. Stefan has invited me back next summer to go jet skiing on the Danube. When it was time to leave they waved me off at the gate with a huge box of cakes and lucky me a bottle of Parlinka!
The next day I crossed the border into Croatia. This was the first time since the channel tunnel that I’d had to show my passport. Finally I got my first stamp kindly given to my by the border guard as a souvenir!
Only a few kilometres into Croatia and the landscape gradually developed a few rolls which were a welcome relief after the flat of Hungary. And a few kilometres later I finally arrived at a hill. It was like finding water after a long drought! In Hungary hills are the stuff of legend. I had barely encountered anything even resembling a gradient since leaving Budapest and the big climbs of Slovenia seemed like a fond and fuzzy memory.
It was only a 1km climb with a short section of 11% gradient but it was good to get the legs pumping again and sweat out the rest of the Parlinka! It turned out this hill was only a kink in the smooth landscape, an advert for hills during a marathon season of flat. Alas it was the only hill I rode in Croatia, the next wasn’t until Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), 165km away.
I was looking forward to BiH, having read about the warmth of its people and beautiful scenery. Unfortunately it didn’t make a good first impression on me. I crossed the border late in the afternoon and soon looked for a place to camp. A fellow cyclist I had met earlier in the day had told me it should be easy to find a garden to camp in. There are also still landmines scattering the country, leftover from the civil was in the 90s, so I knew that wild camping was not a good idea. I must have asked around 1o different people if I could camp in their garden but not one of them said yes. I was flabbergasted. Using my magic letter I had found accommodation in nearly ever country I had cycled through so far. The only time it had failed was in Switzerland, and that was because there was a campsite just down the road, they didn’t wag their finger at me, frown and send me back out alone into the fast approaching darkness. Eventually I got permission to camp on a football pitch in the centre of a small village. I quickly went to bed and hoped for better luck tomorrow.
The following day I set off south in the direction of Sarajevo. I spent the morning on horrifically busy roads with trucks roaring past bellowing smoke into my face and car drivers constantly tooting their horns and making me jump out of my skin! My attempts to use quieter roads were in vein as the surface often turned out to be poor. At lunchtime I stopped and decided it was time for a wee strategy meeting. I had two options:
A) continue on busy road for 150km, not able to enjoy the scenery and reach Sarajevo the next evening.
B) take a route on secondary roads that was almost twice as long and went over the mountains, risking not knowing anything about it’s condition and arrive at Sarajevo a day later than planned.
I choose option B.
Fortunately the gamble paid off. I spent the next day flying over stunning forested mountains and down raging river valleys on silky smooth, quiet tarmac roads. I waved to the smiling locals who regularly insisted on giving me my vegetables for free at the roadside stalls. I was bought an ice cream by a man who was walking from Bosnia to Saudi Arabia and must have been in quite a rush because he shot off before I could engage him in conversation. I was so glad my first impressions of the country were wrong.
The final day into Sarajevo was an adventure in itself. In a continuing effort to avoid the main road I decided to take a very minor road for 30km over a mountain range. Anticipating a poor road surface I set a turn around time akin to climbers on Everest. If I wasn’t halfway across by 11 am I’d turn around and head down the main road otherwise I wouldn’t get to Sarajevo by nightfall.
Sure enough only a few hundred metres up the hill the road turned to large gravel boulders, like cobblestones. Being a gravel conneiseur I can assure you this is one of the worst types of gravel. 7km of steep climbing continued in this manner and I had to push the bike most of the way. I considered turning back but persevered with blind hope that the road might turn to tarmac again. This feeling was similar to that which I had when teaching and hoping my year 7s would grasp the concept of fractions. My perseverance paid off. I had an emotional reunion with tarmac! The road surface changed a lot over the rest of the 30km but by this time I felt like I was on the roof of BiH looking out over the rest of the country and there was no going back.
The final challenge of this leg was a few hundred metres of pitch black tunnel and I had to hail a passing car to escort me through safely. Arriving in the town exhausted but ecstatic I collapsed in the nearest restaurant and ordered six things off the menu. That mornings cycle had required more grit, determination and blind hope that there would be tarmac than any of the rest of the trip. But it was completely worth it, I reckon this is one of the most beautiful roads in the world.