I left my riverside campsite in high spirits and ready to face the next day. The path was on roads and gravel tracks and, at one point, a rutted, bumpy, hideous tractor path. But before that point was a fairly hard gravel track far from the road and with no crops around and I let Scout off the lead to run alongside the bike at her own pace as I wasn’t hitting much over 11km per hour. She galloped happily alongside me and occasionally dipped into the grass for a sniff and then rushed to catch up, head-banging with excitement. When she nipped off into the bushes I imagined she’d be out again shortly and continued dodging potholes and choosing the path of least resistance along the track. But when she didn’t emerge and I was a good 60 metres from where I’d seen her last I stopped the bike and started to call her. Ten seconds passed and then I saw the bobbing head and flapping ears as the black and white blur came closer. She ran up to me and as I patted her I realised she had something sticky and muddy on her neck and side, and front, and head, and harness, and bandana. The smell hit me. Something rotten, dead, decaying, long, long, departed but reeking its lasting mark on the world. And it was greasy. Under the reddish dirt was a grey fatty smear. It had saturated the bandana, mashed itself over the harness and worked its way into Scout’s fur. It. Was. Hideous. I whipped off the bandana and gingerly put it in a poo bag and stashed it in the trailer pocket, used the few wet wipes I had to wipe down the harness and Scout and threw her in the trailer hoping she wouldn’t stain the whole thing with her stench. And it was on my gloves. I was pretty sure some of it was on my gloves and therefore on my hands and holy christ it was gag-makingly rancid. I would like to make clear, if I can, that I have dealt with my share of fox poo and other dog related odours but this one was beyond anything else. The fact that it was not water soluble just meant it was pervasive as well.
I then rode through a bumpy, hilly, multilevelled tractor path that would I’m sure entertain mountain bikers but was a fair old annoyance to me. For once, I was actually quite far from the river. I kept praying for a road and a town and one of those adorable blue water pumps that occasionally sat at the side of the road for all to use. And then suddenly, as soon as I met tarmac, a glorious light blue water pump emerged in front of me and I dragged Scout under it to douse her in (regrettably) clean drinking water (sorry for taking your good water, little village). But it was actually quite tricky.
The pump only gushes water when the handle is being depressed and I needed one hand to hold a squirming Scout in place and the other to try and agitate some of the grease free of her fur. I did my best. My nose told me, quite plainly, it was not good enough. The next few hours I spent stopping at two supermarkets to buy first wet wipes and then kitchen cleaning wipes. I used my sports bottle to squirt water on her and my shampoo in her fur but I could never shift the smell. As I neared Györ, a point I had hoped to camp north of I sought out a hotel. I wanted her in a shower, soaked head to toe and lathered in washing up liquid, I was not sharing a tent with that thing as it was. I found one and within 45 minutes of checking in we were both squeaky clean and happy and I was definitely looking forward to the luxury of a mattress and a duvet for the night.
Györ is also where I met up with KD. She’s a filmmaker from Australia who heard about my trip and outrageously offered her services for a week to get some good footage and help the cause. There are some bloody good people in the world. We can easily forget that but I promise you; they’re there.
So from that point on I had someone meeting me along the road, pointing a camera at me and asking me where we were and what had just happened. She’d race along the road and try to find a place the cycle path intercepted it and set up her tripod for an action shot. When we met at one point I discovered one of the trailer tyres was flat and so we got a good bit of footage of me fixing the puncture in the sun at the side of the road. If it hadn’t been so clearly a thorn that had caused it I might have suspected her of engineering some drama. She promised she had documentary-maker integrity although the number of times she helped me out over the next few days suggests she was not holding herself strictly to the ‘do not interfere’ documentary code.
She offered to take some of the weight from my panniers, I used her trainers almost everyday to save me from the unbearable experience of walking around a town in crocs, and on one very cold morning she had woken early, showered and warmed up and then threw her sleeping bag on me and took Scout for a walk so I could double up the sleeping bags and grab an hour of snugged up sleep. Legend.
From Györ with a good night’s sleep and without the faff of tent drying and breakfast making we were on the road and made it to Bratislava by 5.30 to sit at the river bank festival eating a massive tortilla wrap and listening to live music. Nice work, Bratislava. There was no fanfare as we passed into Slovakia – it’s part of Shengen and the open borders countries so I had to check the map to see if we had crossed over. I took a picture when I figured we’d done it which was when I began riding on this big, wide, recreational road.
It was Thursday evening and everyone was out and about on their bikes or roller blades making the most of the evening and being total outdoorsy awesomes. I even passed a little lake with beach-like edges one half of which was clearly for the naturists, right there, at the edge of the cycle path. Go Slovakia, I guess! I was knackered, the day had been hot but I had only thought about getting to Bratislava; I hadn’t thought about where to stay and then realised that campsites were so very rarely in the centre of cities. The nearest one was 10km out the wrong way…last night’s hotel bed had been so wonderful that KD and I jumped on our phones and tried to find the cheapest, nearest pet-friendly place to stay. We took the opportunity to charge our computers and various bits and bobs and steal the toiletries.
It was a big hotel, we were on the third floor, and there were long carpeted hallways to the lifts…when I took Scout out for a wee she um…didn’t quite make it. I guess she’s never been anywhere quite like that before and was a little confused. She did go next to a plant so maybe she figured she was actually outside? I lifted her up to try and stop her mid-flow and ended up with a few more things to wash in the bathroom sink. Good job I love that pooch!
From Bratislava the cycle paths were mostly great and clearly marked. But it was hot. We’d spent the morning in town and didn’t get going until about 2pm when it was creeping up to over 30 degrees. Once again I had to guess when we crossed into Austria, but it was around about the time this butterfly decided to chill with us in a shade break.
We made fair progress and then left the recommended path as the evening drew on to get to a campsite that was on the other side of the river. A brief stop in a pretty little walled town for a cup of tea brought back memories of an Austrian town I’d stayed in when on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I told myself that not all Austrian towns were alike and besides, lots of things were different, there were just some similarities in the town square and such. Onwards; it was 7km of hilly, wind blown gravel tracks and I felt like I was going absolutely nowhere. When we eventually arrived we found a tiny little campground attached to the back of an indoor tennis centre with changing rooms and showers. A German family were on their second night there, a foursome of young cyclists were lounging in hammocks in a back corner and there were two camper vans with fairly elusive inhabitants. The evening was clear and warm and I sat down to clean my bike – something I hadn’t actually done yet and with a tip from Michael and the baby wipes from Scout’s moment of disgrace I did an alright job I reckon. The whole thing certainly felt smoother and happier the next day. But that night, oh that night was so beautiful. The stars were so bright that we sat out staring up at them for ages.
The next day I messaged my cast mate to ask where it was we’d stayed on tour and she sent back: Hainberg an Der Donau. Exactly where we’d stopped for tea! We actually hired bikes and cycled along the Danube on a day off…I’d post the pictures if I had them with me. If I’d had any sense of the symmetry I’d have had them prepared and done that thing of recreating old photos but…yeah. Nope. The next day dawned with a threat of rain and the wind that had pushed so hard at me the day before. Vienna and apfel strudel were waiting and I was about to get my first taste of wet-weather riding. Tune in next time for the short and sharp story of my front tire meeting a Viennese tram track….