For the last few days I’ve had a Les Miserables song in my head, the snippets that I remember anyway. “In the rain, the pavement shines like silver,” “all alone, I walk with him till morning” or something like that, “all my liiiife, I’ve ooonly beeeen pretendiiing.” It wasn’t until I sat down to this blog just now that I worked out why that song. It’s called On My Own. And I’ve been on my own for five days. I’m clearly quite preoccupied with the fact.
So, Emma and Anthony packed us on our way with a tear and a wave along a safe and vaguely shady Hungarian cycle path next to a big main road heading North West to the Danube. I absolutely did not cry, it was definitely the wind making my eyes water and my voice shake. Wind does that, guys. Especially in Hungary – you don’t know! It was hot but we had water and a plan to take shelter and a couple of campsite spots to aim for come the evening. As we turned off one main road to another the cycle path disappeared, the road was busy with lorries and there was little to no shade – the sun was on the other side of the road and so was the shadow and it was approaching one pm. But all was well as I saw a petrol station sign with little pictures of WCs, showers, Wifi, coffee, the works, and I pulled into the forecourt and set the bike in the shade so we could settle in for our midday siesta/sun avoidance. About ten minutes later I decided togo into the shop and buy something cold and then discovered it was and had been very closed for a while. There were two cars there which had thrown me but it was most certainly not currently open for business. There would be no coffee or ice-cream. Devastated. Unsure what to do I hid out for a little while longer before deciding to make a push for a station just up the road that was marked on my google maps. It was also closed. So I kept cycling along this hideous road in the baking sun looking for shade or an establishment of some kind. I passed two other closed petrol stations (seriously, what happened to the petrol market?) and pulled into a track that looked like it might be a shady place to stop for a few hours but there were clearly dogs at the house at the end who were none too happy at our presence and so I ventured back onto the road.
This road was heading mostly North. I’ve observed a thing or too about North/South roads in Hungary. The tarmac clearly heats up throughout the day and the final assault of the sun’s east to west trajectory is thrown full throttle at the far right hand side (if you are looking Northwards.) This means that the tarmac gets hot and soft and the heavy and constant traffic manages to squish and push the tarmac so that it rises in a line about two foot in from the edge of the road. Exactly where my bike tyre wants to be so that my rear right trailer tyre stays on the road but not too far into it. So I was forced further into the road than I’d like. Still, with flashing lights and flapping flags people appeared to see me in advance and mostly give me a wide berth. Thanks, driver-folks.
I eventually, at long last found myself a petrol station with some picnic benches and water for sale. We set up camp, read, ate, slept (Scout). We drew stares and puzzled looks. No other cyclists passed and I was dreading getting back on the road. Which eventually I decided I had to do, just after six pm and just hoped that pedalling fast would get me somewhere, anywhere, and away from the zoomy road. Progress was slow and my original camp destination was clearly too ambitious, I thought, as the sun began to finally dip and diminish. There was another place, closer but off the route a little and I pedalled my little legs off to get there just before eight pm and with just enough sunlight left to pitch the tent. It was still warm and close and uncomfortable. The campsite was large and well managed and popular, situated right next to a lake with paid entry and water slides and inflatable islands and stuff. I also think no-dogs were allowed but as the day had drawn to a close and darkness had almost fully descended I just walked confidently through the gates with Scout at my side and strode out into the lake. Oh lord it was delicious. It was warm and cool at the same time and Scout enjoyed the more gradual entry to the water for her second swimming lesson. It was so warm that after cooking and sitting out she was mostly dry by the time we got into the tent…wet dog smell was not as overpowering as I’d feared. We woke and packed up and were on the road by 7.15 and Scout ran beside me along the cycle path before hoping in the trailer and hitting the roads again. I desperately wanted to find the Danube and the Euro Velo bike route that would take me all the way toGermany as safely as the EuroVelo people could devise.
I knew I was close because of the map but my Garmin was taking me parallel to the river but not next to it. And as the temperature raised I took shelter at a little bar to hunt out my evening campsite, a man arrived on a bike and had a beer and then left. He came back about thirty minutes later and did the same. He offered me an ear of corn. I was touched but politely declined, unsure what to do with it. The nearest campsite on route was too far to reach when the temperature dropped and I decided to head back on myself, camp by the river, get a good night’s sleep and make an early start for Budapest – about 85km or so.
I set up camp by about 2.30pm, lay down and couldn’t get back up again. So. So. Tired. When I finally managed to get up and shower I came back with my hair in a towel which Scout voiced her embarrassment at (she did the dog thing of really not enjoying head-gear and barked at me for a second). An older French couple had come the opposite direction that morning and warned me about small fast roads on the route ahead. Damnit. It was awfully hot and it was hard to get an early night – it wasn’t until eleven pm that it started to get windy and the stagnant air shifted and cooled enough for sleep.
I was up and on the road just after 6.30 for the great Budapest push. I found and lost the Eurovelo twice and then lost it a third time for good. I found myself instead on a fast, narrow road and thought ‘this must be what the couple had warned me about’ it can’t last. And oh my god, the wind. The WIND. I was honestly being blown off the tarmac. The road ended abruptly with a four inch step off onto gravel and scrub and I was constantly in danger of losing a wheel or two off the edge. The wind was coming diagonally from North West and occasionally WNW which I and the trailer absorbed like a sail. Surprising gusts left me fighting to stay in a straight line but, I reasoned, at least it’s blowing me off the road rather than into it. It was also blessedly cooler and I could cycle through the hottest part of the day. And so I just kept cycling. I kept on the fast roads, desperate to see directions to the Eurovelo, or to find an alternative, constantly surprised my flagpole survived as it was bent nearly horizontal by the wind, and greatly perturbed when I saw a big sign depicting NO HORSES, NO TRACTORS, NO CYCLES. I turned off onto a smaller road but that led to basically falling over in dirt sand and having to push the bike and so it was back to the scary fast zooms roads instead.
After every junction and no cycle path I sighed and pushed on but it was exhausting. I could make good time but it was stressful cycling – I had to pull off on the verge about five or six times because there was someone barrelling towards me trying to overtake a line of cars and I couldn’t be sure they’d seen me. Eventually about 25km from Budapest I googled ‘why can’t I find the Eurovelo 6?’ and found there was an app that could show me where it was. And it was on the other side of the river.
Found it! It was pretty rough and bumpy in places though and I had been making much better time on the fast roads, albeit in fear for my life. Some friendly guys helped me over a poorly sized barrier, lifting Scout ensconced in her throne. I met a Belgian guy on a bike and we travelled a while towards town on the worst bike paths ever – cobbles, tree roots, bushes, mud, massive pot holes, paths with barely enough room for a bike, let alone a trailer. How on earth was this the official bike route 5km out of the capital city?
Budapest seemed so close for so long and then it was there. My old uni friend and director, Tom was visiting our other uni friend, native Hungarian theatre designer and director Eszter, and he was cycling to meet me. What a thing to turn up in a new city to a friendly face. What a thing. We had food and drinks at an outdoor park where Scout had her first park walk – she did pretty well, she stuck close and came to me when she was scared by another dog. And the next day Eszter walked Scout while Tom and I went to a Thermal Spa and put our bodies through a cycle of differently heated baths and steam rooms so that when we left I felt both rejuvenated and utterly exhausted – my mileage had reached 103km the day before and for the first time my legs really knew about it. We saw some touristy things and I bought a laptop so I could keep up the blogging and when Eszter and Tom headed off to the festival that Eszter’s show was at I made my way back to my campsite, on my own again, with a dog wearing a muzzle because that’s a Hungarian public transport regulation.
I nipped out on the bike with Scout running to the local supermarket only to realise it was Sunday evening and everything was closed apart from a pet store where I bought some nice meaty treats and a new rope toy (to divert Scout’s tendency towards the tent guy ropes) and Scout played with a 5 month old chocolate Labrador puppy like they were best friends. She’s so tall and lanky I forget that she’s still a puppy sometimes. I grabbed some food from a petrol station instead and settled in for the night, on my own again and with 250km to Bratislava – the next thing on my mind – having had a ‘rest day’ that more thoroughly exhausted me than my 103km day. I envied my fellow camper’s chairs and back rests and their company. A lovely couple from Oxford on a euro tour with a pair of bounty black dogs were in a campervan next to me and had offered me a chat and a proper cup of tea that morning which was a tonic I didn’t know I needed. They had left on the rest of their trip when I returned. The internet failed me again and late arrivals next to me cooked and caroused together late into the night, tent walls are thin. I wanted more time in Budapest but didn’t feel I could have it – I’ve given myself a punishing schedule and little wiggle room for stopping to smell the roses. It seems at odds with the entire ethos and method of cycle touring. I made a decision to say yes more and make more connections with fellow travellers. I was on my own, yes, but I wasn’t alone.