First a taste of Slovakia, a big difference to the absurd neatness and maddening quantity of agriculture in Austria, where I cycled a mere 25 kilometer through. Cycling through a corner of Slovakia goes via a levy surrounded by thick lofty forest. A forest with such an easy access I am tempted to ride right in, if not I have no food. I am cycling for hours without seeing people nor steeples nor villages. When I do see people, I am happily surprised to see they have lost their Czech ‘fearful’ expression.
I meet a woman at Tesco supermarket who begs for a euro, which startles me. ‘Why would she want a euro in Slovakia’, I wonder. She tries to explain to me, while I watch her from up close, her teeth are broken and rotten, her cheek has a clear scar of a mouth once ripped open further than its original size. Her expression is so friendly and honest, optimistic too. And while she almost moves in a skipping mode to her companion, I fish a euro from my handlebar bag. I know she’s supposed to sell me the homeless magazine she carries, but I couldn’t read it anyway.
I am astounded by the abrupt change from Austria into Slovakia. The visible difference in agriculture and forest. I see a difference in revenue, in gratification even; smaller patches of fields where agriculture is woven into the already existing nature, however natural that might be.
The Iron Curtain trail cuts right through a nature able to be, growing eagerly with pools of lily’s, wetlands, giant willows, oaks and elms. People are greeting me again. Houses are roughly built, plastered walls unable to hold their foisted layer, bright-colored paint, wild growth of weed, functional gardens instead of flower beds, although bright red roses are popping up proudly. I see old roaring mopeds, nesting storks and many birds. I pass a weasel and a fox and my one-night stealth-camp in a harvested wheat field makes me happy.
Stealth camping in Europe is not always what you’d imagine. A harvested wheat field is perfect but patches don’t always come easy. Certainly not in Hungary. Spots to perk the tent are sometimes a lofty grassy abundance, not the kind of soccer field centimeter stuff. At the moment, it is becoming humid. Each time I squad down for toilet I do so in wet grass, turning my socks and shoes in a marshy stench. Socks which has already collected too many prickly nature particles. Then, I need to cover my poop which is a hard job on non-sandy ground, unless I squad down in a corn or wheat field where ground is loose. My fingers are sticky from the DEET and baby wipes which I try to clean my skin with. Each morning I gather sooth from the pans and rub that all over, due to an inferno of mosquito itching. I am surrounded by snails and slugs, they stick to the pans, the bottle of olive oil, the ground sheet and the tent. Only to reunited with them again in a hotel, as rotting patches spreading the odour of decay. I wake up in a tent where the sun welcomes me and once again I am reminded to set up camp in a shady spot.
I try to refrain from expressing that I experience the country as boring. Or perhaps I am bored with the monotonously landscape. Perhaps it are the people who still appear to be glumly, bored, or absolute jagged. Sometimes the same people surprise me at the last moment with a cracking smile? I don’t get it?
Is it that I don’t fully appreciate Hungary because most of the stealth camps I sleep at are plagued with mosquitoes? So much that I need to seek refuge in the tent, a tent where the zipper starts to break. I can’t get out to pee, so pee in a mug. I can’t make dinner or else I would be a tasty meal for the millions of buzzing, pricking insects. I can’t get out to fetch my earplugs and I have a huge saddle pain. Mosquitoes become a daily addition to our camps and honestly, I could do without the scratching.
Armed with the best mosquito spray I could find: 10% DEET. From now on I’m dressed in long sleeve and a double pair of trousers as soon as I start set up camp. All to avoid being bitten. I couldn’t even make a photo of my different mosquitoes plagued camps.
Is it that I don’t enjoy Hungary to the maximum because the tiny supermarket shops I go in to buy groceries won’t sell me cheese, except if I buy half a kilo? The man behind the fresh-counter wraps half a kilo anyway and walks behind me in a moody, gloomy and unsatisfied way to impose half the kilo on me. Is it that I don’t like Hungary that much because I am not treated as the welcomed foreigner, instead being viewed as a dirty looking, smelling, ridiculous dressed cyclist who pays with all kinds of money except the Hungarian money (entering the country where no ATM is in sight)? A pity I couldn’t make a photo of the man with half a kilo cheese chasing me down the tiny aisles of the mini market.
Is it that I don’t like the language of the country? For me, it is not to pronounce neither possible to read out loud. The landscape is flat and mostly agricultural, there are cycle paths and suddenly I feel back in the Netherlands!
I have a thing to fret about
What I wonder about is the amount of land we, Europeans, seem to need for our consumption. The whole of Europe where I ride through seems to be used for agriculture. If you think about what one person needs, really need, to stay healthy and happy, then all we are surrounded by is madness. So much produce, where is it going to? The people in Hungary doesn’t seem to be blasting with joy and happiness, working on the fields, having a ferocious health. People, as far as I see them, seem to be rather poor. Why does all land need to be cleared for fields? Why can’t it be like in Africa (where people seem to use what they need, if they’re not relying on others)? Why can’t it be like in India (where most land is used for agricultural reasons too but seemingly in balance with the people’s capacity)? All we really need for one human to stay (vegetarian) fed is about 5 acres, certainly not this immeasurable sizes of land!
Did Hungary lost its signature?
Hungary, to me, seems poor. People look withdrawn and much appears dusty and crumbling. To me, people suggest to be dutiful, obliged and fatefully living their lives. Yet, how much do I know about their history? How much do I interact with them?
This time is the only right time to cycle through East Europe
Like Györ in Hungary, the ride through Bratislava in Slovakia is a sudden mirage. A misconception where I feel like I am in California. Bratislava feels like it is copying styles, like Dubai does too. With huge, green painted bicycle paths (they never last long and they stop thoughtless). Passing young men in front of a deluxe hotel polishing opulent cars and spraying an odour to have it smell new. I pass a guy jogging while pushing a stroller in front of him, a running meter strapped to his bare upper body. It’s all so normal but seeing this after cycling days through a dull countryside is a sudden upswing. I see an old rusty tractor in someone’s garden and fishermen in front of their tent. The difference between countryside/poor and city life/rich is big, the conception between hip and simple old-fashioned is huge.
Both countries boost beautiful architecture, that typical European baroque style. But I also cycle past socialist buildings, I feel a communistic atmosphere, I see depressed factories falling apart yet still producing. Villages I cycle through feel sad and lonely. I cycle mostly on a levy near the Danube with on the other side agricultural land. When I do sneak into a village to find food it’s always an eerie feeling, like the village is inconsolable. I cycle through strange area’s which feels like rural ghetto where so to say outcasts appear mostly into collecting trash. I see very few people in such places. Often dogs barks angrily at me. Sometimes elderly people wave to me, elderly women wearing synthetic apron style dresses, like my grandmother long ago.
Route 6 is pointing me in funny directions, which I am eager to follow. I cycle past railways, over hardened tractor tracks, beneath mulberry and cherry trees, even along the route where people were transported to concentration camps…
Cycling 145 kilometer on one day and I reach Budapest, the big city who’s no representation to the village life of this country. Burden with a broken cycle computer, saddle pain and serious taping of the crease between my legs and bottom, I find a hotel. Washing all the DEET, sooth and dirt off of me is always a very satisfactory job, done twice.
Dazzling architecture, fashionable people, tourists, many flashing camera’s, lot’s of selfies are being made and quite a few cyclists pass through. What a city! I buy a new tent, eat some great food in a cozy restaurant and have a happiness dance in front of a serious palace.
The river as hotspot to live?
Then I move on, still following the Danube river on EuroVelo route 6. This turns out to be rather a depressive experience. Not only ecologic wise is it a catastrophe, socially wise it seems equally sad. The river is built up house after house, all have their own jetty, and all are right at the river. It might be a geographical heaven for many people, living at the water; animal life has no chance. Yet, despite this ‘pleasant’ Shangri-la to live at, people seem deprived of social contact, each to their own: remember to stay at your own fenced area and your own jetty! There’s no visible community, not even a church which any other tiny village sports proudly. No disfiguring water-tower, no shops. Nothing. One thing there’s no lack of are houses for sale, more than half is ‘elado’. Who wants to live in a long string of housing, a track along it?
Lies the art of each one’s journey in appreciating less adventurous surroundings?
Hungary? You got my point of view by now. All I see is flatness, fields, monotonous, steeples and barking dogs. No people, no attracting beauty.
Come to think of it, Hungary is the opposite of India. Food has plenty of salt but other spices than paprika are not used. There’s hardly any sound, except those of flapping wings from mosquitoes and birds. Airplanes even seem to avoid Hungary airspace. Sheep don’t bleat, church bells don’t sound, cars do not honk. All there is to see are decent gardens used in a functional way, a few chickens and neatly chopped wood. Sometimes a goat. Life often isn’t visible, maybe because people like walls around their house…
To end this post in a glorified way would be challenging if I did not take the wrong border crossing into Serbia. I stray from the EuroVelo route 6 and end up in Gara. Suddenly I witness life acted out in this country, although quite expired and rusty. There’s something like a fairground attraction, a one piece carousel from the ’70’s with a wooden trailer next to it, where a curtain flutters in the open door. No one to be seen though. There’s a cafe where I fill up my water bottles at the tap. Cycling through I marvel at the big wooden gateways, beautifully carved in adorned archways. It’s almost Jugendstil style. I even pass a shepard! An old-fashioned image, dressed in a long overcoat, leaning on his stick as I pass. I wave happily to the man and his sheep.
Then I am halted by two police, their English is next to non-existent but I understand the road to Serbia is no more. It just ends here. ‘See for yourself’, says the police friendly and with this my reluctance to police is reduced to accept his words. I turn and once more cycle through Gara, sleep in a tree plantation and enter Serbia the next morning…
TIP When you have come this far in this post, you might be interested in cycling to Hungary yourself. One piece of advise: get the EuroVelo map in Germany because I found it hard to get it anywhere else. It’s printed by a German company called Huber and more info is, probably, to find at danube.travel
The route through Hungary cuts right through, starting at Bratislava, Györ, Budapest, straight down to Baja.