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  • Writer's pictureClaire @ fromthegrapevine

Dabbling in the Danube

Flying Easyjet from Bristol is as straightforward as jumping on a bus, and 2 hours later, we find ourselves in the Austrian Capital.

Our mission was to cycle from Vienna to Budapest via Bratislava - three countries, three capital cities in less than seven days. Roughly following the Danube downstream, the mileage is around 200 miles, but the terrain is flat, and with a tailwind, we were hopeful of an easy ride.

Vienna struck me as clean and orderly, proud and showy. The pedestrians won't cross when the red man shows, even when there are no cars in sight. The train from the airport left within a second of its departure time. Our hotel was ideally placed for the Prater; a large public park that comes to life after dark with the screams and thrills of the permanent fun fair.

In terms of drink, there wasn't much evidence of a pride in their wines. Whilst we only had 24 hours to explore, wine lists and wine bars weren't obvious. Where there were house wines, the local grape varieties Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch featured, and this is no bad thing, they are ripe, fruity and gluggable. Beer was far more prominent.

We tracked down the food though; the Nachsmarkt is a mile long stretch of market stalls in between the two carriageways of the ring road to the south of the Old Town. There are two strips of bright colour, the stalls selling a rainbow range of sticky cake, spices, naff market tat, fish, nuts, sweets, cheeses and dried fruits.

Although we didn't notice at the time, there was a big difference between Vienna's relationship with the Danube compared to Bratislava and Budapest. In Vienna, the main flow of the Danube lies along the north of the City and isn't a feature for tourists. Whilst many river cruisers stop here, that's all the river is. A place to moor the boats. A canal sized off-shoot breaks away and meanders through the City, providing a place to walk alongside.

There was a riverside establishment where we felt compelled to stop for a drink. "The View" restaurant cafe bar sits on the banks of the main Danube, and is as pricey as the location demands. On a sunny evening, drinking here would be a classy and enjoyable experience but unfortunately the coolness of the evening air got the better of us after one drink.

Day Two - Vienna to Bratislava

We had picked up two hire bikes and installed our own pannier bags. Eurovelo route 6 runs over the river, and follows the north bank of the Danube - flat, straight, smooth tarmac, with a tail wind we are pedalling quite speedily. Rain was spitting in the air so stopped to pull on the waterproof trousers in the hope it would scare off the rain. It didn’t.

There are lots of cafes for the first 5 miles or so (not open - it still feels out of season in mid April) along with barbecue spots and picnic areas. Once around an industrial zone, the path enters a forest bit, but the path continues flat, smooth and straight.

At Schonau the path was closed (we had been warned) but the diversion was well signed through sleepy deserted village after sleepy deserted village. Flat farmland and the occasional treat like a Schloss (castle) kept our interest.

We hunted for coffee in said deserted sleepy villages, and on the brink of desperation we thankfully saw a light on in a Bavarian looking place in the tiny village of Stopfenreuth. It was doing a brisk trade with locals and forestry workers and was warm, friendly and served decent coffee with a biscuit. We were dismayed to find the rain had got harder during our stop, so the short pedal on to Hainburg was enough to cause soggy feet.

We parked up the bikes and found a downbeat cafe, which was thankfully warm, albeit thick with smoke inside (the smoking ban clearly not made it to Austria). Wine (fruity Zweigelt) and frankfurters warmed us us, followed by coffee and biscuits- the cream cakes looked sickly.

Once out of Hainburg the path continued flat alongside rail tracks, roads and river. The border into Slovakia was non existent- not even cars were stopping. The only thing that seemed to mark the border was a casino called Monte Carlo. The path continued alongside a motorway into Bratislava, but the cycle route went underneath the carriageways and onto the next bridge with the snappy name "Most SNP." The rain had eased since lunch so we were feeling drier.

A wander through the town told us instantly this was different to Vienna. Alongside the river were restaurants; surprisingly full at 3pm, and the old town was a tangle of narrow steep pedestrianised streets within fifty metres of the three lane motorway that soars through the western edge of the City.

We try Slovakian wine in a classy wine bar called Wine Not? There are lots of interesting looking places to eat, much cosiness with candles and pride in the wine.

If Vienna is the strict parent, clean, showy and orderly, then Bratislava is the petulant artistic child, unashamedly proud of its graffiti, diverse shops and cafes, and clash of history and modernity. We loved it.

Day Three - Bratislava to Hungary (Gyor)

We left Bratislava and found our way onto the straight, flat cycle path out of the city. It followed a dual carriage way for a while and then went through a nature reserve. With the wind behind us again, we flew along and barely saw another soul.

We appeared to cross the border into Hungary - the only way we knew was because the Euro 6 cycle route signs changed colour.

Once out of the village of Rajka, the cycle path followed the road with a kilometre countdown to the town of Moson-Magyarovar. Unfortunately the rain returned and we squelched into town, desperately looking for coffee and cake. The Hungarians obliged and we found the local equivalent of Birds cafe, with 2 coffees and a posh cakes for around £4 in total.

The whole of the rest of the route was on flat roadside cycle path. I hate to admit that it was a bit monotonous through arable farmland. We could have been in Norfolk to be truthful.

The rain stopped and "lunch" was a raid on the local roadside Spar shop, and we munched Tuc biscuits, nuts and cheesy spread on a bench. Classy.

We reached Gyor by 3pm and a walk around town led us to the wine bar - all tables supposedly reserved, which seemed odd for a weekday afternoon. Maybe we were just too scruffy and musty smelling for the place. Instead we found the John Bull English pub. Wine wasn’t listed on the menu but the waiter said that there was a "Portuguese wine" or a Cabernet Sauvignon. We chose the latter, and watched with dismay as he retrieved the bottle from the fridge and poured, so it was way too cold. Then he charged us £12 for the pleasure, which by Hungarian standards so far was way too expensive.

We made up for it with a decent value supper in a local restaurant and washed it down with alcoholic coffees (I tried the Espresso Limoncello ... not as good as it sounded) at the cosy Cafe Frei (Good review on Trip Advisor planned).

Day Four - Gyor to Esztergom

We made off out of Gyor following paths through the industrial zone. Part of the route was on bumpy gravel past small houses each with a row or two of vines in the garden, all looking less than eager to burst into bud any time soon.

After a place called Bony, we turned left and into the full force of the wind and up a hill that meant I had to drop down a few gears! Finally we could turn right, but the route was across very bumpy track for many miles. I said “See-ya” - hello - to a Hungarian man who said "See-ya" back. After more bumpy cracked paved road lasting several miles, we were then into a forest, thankfully it hadn’t been too wet otherwise the terrain would have been horrendous.

We stopped at Komaron where, having craved hearty soup, we found a lovely cafe that served perfect hearty soup. Following the road out of Komaron, we were promised the “vineyard clad edge of the hilly hinterland.” Instead we got a busy A road for around 20km with every Hungarian lorry, coach, van and petrol head taking risks to overtake us. It was a horrible experience, but we made it alive. Five miles outside Esztergom we had the miraculous sight of a roadside bar, so we went and quenched our thirst with a pint to celebrate being in one piece.

Day Five - Esztergom to Budapest

With a shorter day ahead of us, we took the opportunity to wander around Esztergom before breakfast- we found our way up to St Stephen's church where we had a great view of the Danube. It was the first time since Bratislava that we felt close to the river again, and on this Hungarian stretch, the towns embrace the river more. It's odd to think that there's a different country, Slovakia, on the other bank. We packed up the bikes and wheeled them ten yards down the road to a small cafe where we had coffee and cake (becoming a daily staple). We learn that the French Fancy style of cake that I enjoy is a "Mignon" and a large chocolatey Wagon Wheel is an "Isler".

The route out of Esztergom follows the Danube so was very pretty and busy with walkers and joggers. We joined Route 11 again, but the weekend traffic was thankfully lighter and there were other Lycra cyclists around so we didn’t feel so isolated. We stopped for coffee at Domos, where there was a ferry service to Budapest, but not until 5pm, so we couldn't cheat. Following the Danube we cycled on through the pretty town of Visegrad, and then stopped at a strange roadside shopping precinct and had a hot dog and coffee in a Hungarian version of Greggs; complete with teenagers pigging out.

Some off road, Danube-side paths made for easy cycling for a while and we stopped for afternoon tea at a cafe before attempting the tricky way finding through Budapest’s outskirts. There was a horrible stretch of cracked potholed concrete where we overtook the same "old boy" several times as he knew the route, whereas we kept going wrong or checking the map. Tortoise and hare came to mind. The Route 6 signage got rubbish, just at the point when we needed it most, and we had a frustrating pedal around railway tracks, residential streets and finally found our way onto the riverside path that we could see led us to where we needed to be. We just needed to not run over tourists who were in our way. We entered the City over the impressive (but crowded) Elizabeth bridge.

The bike hire shop turned out to be 400 metres away so we returned the bikes before the shop closed at 6 - Dirty Donna and muddy Monty, our trusty steeds, were returned.

Supper was a pub around the block - we watched in amusement as a couple on the next table ate their meal blissfully unaware that they had set fire to the napkin with the tea light, and the fire was spreading and causing quite a stench. The lady even took more bread from the basket that was almost on fire. We did wonder if we were part of a candid camera, but the waiter spotted the fire and dealt with it abruptly.

Day Six - Enjoying Budapest

We invested in a day ticket for public transport and took the metro to the Government building. There was a road race taking place and lots of runners were going by... this went on most of the day as there was both a half marathon and a 10km race with staggered starts. We went to the waterfront to look at the “shoe memorial” and then decided it was cake time. We found a cafe called the Box that did amazing square donots in a million different flavours filled with cream. The world has come a long way since Dunkin Donots.

Fuelled up with fat and sugar, we took a riverside tram a few stops to the Elizabeth Bridge and climbed up to the Freedom monument - 40 floors, but it gave great views over Pest.

Back on another tram to head back to the restaurants that are built into floating boats - lunch with a view. Turns out to be a bit posher than we wanted, but we could still have a course and a drink for £20. There was a funky market taking place on the riverside with food stalls serving enormous hotdogs, rooster testical stew (I didn’t try that) and what looked like huge Yorkshire puddings filled with cheese, stew or anything really.

We weren't sure if this is a regular market, or something put on for the running festival.

A foodie trip to Budapest wasn't complete without seeing the Grand Market - it’s an undercover affair in a large glass domed building. The ground floor stalls were a vegetarian's nightmare; crammed with meats (enough chorizo to feed many African countries) and vegetables, whilst upstairs was tourist paraphernalia.

We also stopped off at Cafe Frei to see how it compared to its Gyor counterpart- the menu was in English so we we more adventurous, my sister having a health drink (coconut and other fruits with Gurana for stamina) and I had a cup of melted Nutella (they called it Australian Hot Chocolate) just in case my fat and sugar levels were in danger of dropping.

By the time we got back to the apartment we had clocked up over 39,000 steps and climbed 71 floors! Needless to say I slept very well.

After a whistle stop tour of the food and drink of three countries, it was time to take the 2 hour train back to Vienna and fly back to Bristol.

We planned and executed the holiday independently, using Easyjet flights, Airbnb accommodation and Vienna Explorer hire bikes.

However, if you were interested in doing this route with less work, Exodus Holidays offer the same itinerary but with hotel accommodation (minimum four star) and will transport your luggage whilst you cycle.


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