Vienna – Bratislava – Budapest
GAVIN: On the forty fourth day of our trip I set off up the Via Sacra, which ran for some of its length on a strip of gravel alongside a thankfully quiet main road. I passed religious icons and friezes, roadside chapels and drinking fountains, but met no other pilgrims along the way. At one point, the collapse of a raised walkway above a small river led me to detour across via a slippery log (oddly, without mishap).
I climbed away from the road and progressed via Steinbachrotte and Turnitz. Another Wanderweg became a cycle path along an old railway line via Moosbach and Lehenrotte, where the cherry blossom was in full bloom. I had the dubious pleasure of seeing my first snake too, when what was mistaken for a twig, slithered away under my feet.
ARADHNA: I was back on the road again on day 44, in search of gas, diesel, groceries, water and recycling – the eternal search of vanlife! All missions accomplished, I found a good parking spot on the side of a river at Sankt Vëit an der Gölsen with accompanying cycle path. In the morning I was further delighted to find that we were on the edge of a field teeming with dandelions. Even the houses on the far side were bright and colourful, like wildflowers, with a backdrop of the mountains we had enjoyed so much over the previous week.
GAVIN: Lilienfeld’s prettiness contrasted with Traisen’s industrial plants lining the opposite river bank. The town even boasted a Scottish pub, though I didn’t dare venture in. On aching legs and rapidly running out of daylight, I plodded along the river path to Sankt Vëit an der Gölsen, where Aradhna had found a quiet place at the edge of a park to spend the night.
The following day I had the pleasure of Aradhna joining me on her bike as we followed a cycle path numbered 42 (which as you may know is the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything).
Strange sights awaited us such as ducks slaloming amidst the river rapids and mysterious doors to nowhere. I find running with a cyclist keeps my pace up and having Aradhna’s company took my mind off any muscular niggles. In fact, I ran very well that day, despite losing Aradhna just before Hainfeld (a shame really as there was a brewery there complete with tasting rooms she would have loved).
ARADHNA: On our running/cycling route following the Gölsen, I spotted a water fountain which I would be able to drive to and fill up the tank. Making a note of the location, I carried on a little further with Gavin before reluctantly waving him off and turning back, conscious that I had to get Roxy and the water before meeting again for lunch. Sadly, it was a much less picturesque route by road. I really was getting the bug for cycling…
GAVIN: Shortly after Hainfeld, as my route climbed via footpaths and tiny roads, into the hills, I emerged from woodland into one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen.
A well-positioned bench at its head afforded me the chance to sit back for a moment and contemplate it.
As afternoon dimmed to evening, I passed through Altenmarkt and was surprised to see the first World War II memorial I’d encountered outside France. It was a sobering reminder that every German and Austrian village too had its sacrificial young men and women.
A few more trails and forests led me as far as the outskirts of Holzschlag, where Aradhna collected me. We drove around for about 30 minutes before finding a perfect forest hideaway.
ARADHNA: In the morning I was keen to plot an interesting route through Vienna Woods in preparation for our much anticipated visit to the famously beautiful city, which we would reach by afternoon. I gamely set off for the monastery at Heiligenkreuz when, struggling up a slight incline, there were noises coming from the engine and an unseemly aroma of burning rubber. I noticed wisps of steam or smoke coming from the bonnet and pulled over in a panic (at a handy lay-by which happened to have a rather lovely view of the monastery).
Popping the bonnet, I saw the steam (not smoke, phew) was coming from the coolant tank, which was open. Argh!!! Gavin had checked the coolant recently and had clearly not tightened the cap properly. By some miracle, the cap was sitting on the battery, not fallen and lost down some Austrian mountainside. How we got away with that I’ll never know but I was extremely relieved – if rather miffed!
GAVIN: After apologising profusely for my coolant cap error, I thought I’d better make amends by running a decent pace to Mödling, via some peaceful forest trails and B-roads. Mödling was a pretty satellite town on the outskirts of Vienna and after lunch I made steady progress along the 12 route, a major artery into the city. The only difficulties arose when the pavement vanished into a mess of car showrooms and I had to detour through what appeared to be an exclusive riding school. Fortunately the gate in its perimeter fence was open and I sped on through the city to its shiny modern station for the customary selfies with Aradhna.
ARADHNA: My excitement at reaching Vienna swiftly turned to despair at the traffic. I finally got to the Hauptbahnhof only to find that each time I tried to follow a sign to the station parking, I was thwarted by road closures and one-way streets. By the time I found parking on a street a short walk from the station, I was fraught to say the least. Checking for parking restrictions and finding none, I grabbed a drink for Gavin and went to meet him, trying to shake off the stress of Vienna driving.
I was unimpressed to find a parking ticket on our return from the Hauptbahnhof. It took nearly an hour of searching online to find that certain areas are unmarked yet restricted zones. Yup, officially hate Vienna driving. The city better provide something good for us on our day off as so far it was failing to please.
GAVIN: The following day we declared an admin day as I still had to deliver the project I’d been editing and Aradhna had work to be getting on with too.
After a challenging time attempting to use local wifi hotspots and failing, we drove all the way across Vienna to a campsite north of the city where we availed ourselves of the electricity and laundry facilities. It had proven a stressful day and we were both looking forward to a proper break the following morning.
ARADHNA: Setting off from the campsite, we passed the formidable Klosterneuberg monastery and took a slight detour up to the panoramic viewing point at Kahlenberg. You could see far across and beyond the city, but we found the site profoundly lacking in any sort of atmosphere or charm as we stood on a small tarmacked strip between two restaurants amongst coachloads of tourists duly taking a selfie and moving on to the next site on the list.
We spent the afternoon following a suggested walking tour from a tourist pamphlet. We enjoyed the time together but, as we passed more buildings, each larger and grander than the last, we were disappointed not to discover any chic, backstreet charm to explore. We did see a fantastic rainbow in a windswept fountain and relaxed with coffee and cake at Kursalon Wien in Stadtpark.
The real star of the day was our evening treat of a concert in the Gallery at Schönbrunn Palace, with selected compositions from Mozart and Strauss.
We took an extra cheeky morning off to explore the Museum Quarter and had a wander around MUMOK. I was fascinated by Daniel Spoerri, whose “snare picture” depicted the remnants of a dinner party. Gavin explained that Spoerri would invite friends round and afterwards he fixed everything left over to the table, exactly as it had been left, as a memorial to the evening.
GAVIN: I enjoyed a few more of the Fluxus and Postmodern works than Aradhna, but we both loved the installation and video piece called Amos’ World by Cécile B. Evans, which was inventive, funny and quite moving at times, its subject matter a little reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, as well as the film of the same name.
After a half day’s sightseeing I headed back to the station and I ran quickly through wide Vienna streets, past a power station and on to the Danube’s complicated maze of tributaries and islands. Aradhna and I had a plan to meet-up and cycle along the river’s Eastern bank. Sadly, it was not to be, as a wrong turning (and wayward route suggestions from my old friend Google Maps) took me through a huge industrial plant and a weird leafy island where sunbathing Viennoise seemed to have forgotten their bathing suits. Apparently, I was running through Jamaica Beach, a noted nudist resort. I kept my eyes down and forged ahead.
I found my way to the flood protection dam and called Aradhna. I’d missed the prearranged meet-up spot somehow and unfortunately there was no drivable route from where I now was to where Roxy and Aradhna were waiting. We had to abandon our cycling plan as I ran through a huge nature reserve along the curving line of the dam.
ARADHNA: I was disappointed to miss out on cycling with Gavin along the Danube leaving Vienna. Instead I got to traipse around another supermarket for supplies and get lost around a nudist colony, where I had inadvertently parked in the hope I could get the bike down and meet Gavin. This was not to be and I took a very large detour around a nature reserve miles away from the Danube, before finally finding an excellent parking spot facing the river, at Orth an der Donau.
I was then thwarted again from cycling to meet Gavin when, having found the great acclaimed Euro Velo 6 route, the entrance was barred with huge gates and big red crosses. Humph.
In the morning, determined not to be left behind again, I set off with Gavin, meeting up at last with that elusive Euro Velo 6. Grateful for my thick hybrid bike tyres, I happily ambled along with Gavin on the long and straight if slightly dull cycle way.
GAVIN: Halfway through our cycle together, we met a local man photographing butterflies who told us about the turtles who emerge from the river to lay their eggs in the dam’s banks. We realised that, although a little monotonous, the route was alive with flora and fauna. Aradhna was keen to continue so, when barriers and an inactive construction site (it was a Sunday) barred our route, we decided there was no harm in edging round the barricades to get to a bridge over the Danube and proper roads once more.
We got as far as Hainburg before it felt imperative to stop briefly for wine and strudel. I even had a cheeky beer (not an approved form of sports nutrition) and we chatted to two Austrian cyclists who were also enjoying a breather.
ARADHNA: I was very much enjoying cycling with Gavin and as Bratislava got closer I was increasingly reluctant to turn back. Gavin was nervous about the return journey to get Roxy. He asked if I thought I’d be able to manage the 30-odd kilometre cycle back. I replied that I couldn’t answer that, as I’d never even cycled this far in one go, ever in my life! We were each breaking new personal records, I informed him cheerily. This did not ease Gavin’s mind and suddenly he started looking quite stressed, as he considered the very real possibility that I would collapse at Bratislava and leave him to cycle the distance back, having just run the whole way.
We were only about 5km away from the city when I noticed it was getting dark and as our conversation dried up, it was clear that we were both getting a little fatigued. One of us would have to do this cycle ride back and I hadn’t brought my bike lights. I (rather heroically, I felt) turned back towards Roxy and the epic cycle path and waved Gavin off to Bratislava. It was much less fun heading back, alone and with the evening sun in my eyes, conscious that I had to reach the end of this path before dark. But I made it – 60km round trip in the bag!
GAVIN: Meanwhile, I reached the all but invisible border with Slovakia, marked on the cycle path with little more than some disused checkpoints and a garish casino emblazoned unconvincingly with the word “MONACO”.
I stopped briefly to check out some preserved Cold War fortifications and (riskily) take a drink of water from a barrel wedged between two trees, then trotted over another bridge into Bratislava.
The small town was bustling and lively, with pedestrian precincts lined with cafes and restaurants, cobbled lanes and hidden-away bars. I took Aradhna to “Drink at Andy’s” a Warhol-inspired cellar bar shaped like an old tram carriage and adorned with local artworks. Warhol (or Andrej Warhola) was of Slovakian origins, it transpires.
We walked around the castle overlooking the town, saw the reflections on the river and spotted odd sculptures peeking out from unexpected places. Bratislava felt like a very young city, with lively nightlife not yet ruined by the stag party scene.
ARADHNA: In the morning, I inexplicably still had the urge to cycle and found that I wasn’t in too much pain, remarkably. (Traipsing up the steps to the castle the previous night was a whole different story!) I cycled with Gavin over the bridge heading out of the city. I didn’t travel too far this time as I had to return to Roxy before the parking ticket ran out and had the eternal duty of grocery shopping to attend to (which I achieved in a Tesco Metro, oddly enough).
GAVIN: After Aradhna left me I took the Route 6, a pan-European cycle path, along the long, curving flood protection dam beside the Danube. For the first few miles out of Slovakia, a few cyclists and inline skaters were in evidence. As the day grew hotter and I neared the Hungarian border, these fellow-travellers dwindled and vanished.
When the Border came it was subtle to the point of near-invisibility. Most notably, the tarmac gave way to gravel and an aerial ballet of swifts carried me into the land of the Magyars.
After a relatively easy day’s running, we made camp near the Danube (our attempts to park right by the water were thwarted by hideous swarms of mosquitos and midges) and woke to an incredible cacophony of birdsong. There was even one bird whose call closely resembled a squeaky door in a Hammer Horror film.
I took a wrong turning the following day, ending up at a tiny promontory where there had once been a bridge but now a Danube tributary gushed over a twenty foot gap. I briefly considered wading over but, remembering my near-disastrous experience attempting a river crossing in the Highlands, decided against it. An unusually fast burst of running took me back to the turn-off I’d missed.
ARADHNA: In the afternoon of Labour Day (1st May) I decided to drive to the nearest town, Györ, where it occurred to me for the first time that we had left the Euro zone and I needed some currency – I didn’t even know what that was in Hungary! Luckily I was in a town so ATMs were plentiful and I had mobile signal to look up the essentials. Yes, this is normally the sort of research that one does before leaving home, but that had been what seemed like a lifetime ago. Thank goodness for smart phones and no EU roaming charges!
We found another quiet woodland pitch that night, by a popular local fishing spot near Nagybajcs. The following morning it was back to Györ for Diesel and groceries, and much more smart phone use to try and decipher Hungarian pastry fillings in a language that is utterly different to any I’m familiar with.
GAVIN: The river thwarted me again on 2nd May, with a road bridge seemingly under partial construction and closed to pedestrians. Once more I took to the flood dam and headed for Györ.
The city was loud and full of commerce – I saw trains loaded with brand new Audis and VWs ready for transportation. With some difficulty, I located a cycle route out of town and into the fields.
The next few days were pleasant, if a little uneventful. We stopped at a campsite at Ács, where the kindly owner Laszlo invited me to join him and a party of Dutch holidaymakers in a round of beers and home-distilled palinka, the local fruit spirit, which I knocked back, much to the amusement of the table. It was sweeter than I expected and devilishly strong. As the conversation turned to my exploits and then to European politics, I was surprised to find the Dutch (mostly in their 60s) were in favour of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Sensing a conversational impasse, I tactfully withdrew.
The days were becoming hotter, the terrain largely flat with gentle undulations. On May 4th we reached Tata, a town with a pretty square and church, on the edge of a lake of the same name. At the end of another long, hot running day, I tripped on my way down an uncharacteristically steep hill and sprawled hands first across the gravel. Partially winded and with a bloody wound in my left palm, I nevertheless continued to where Aradhna was waiting with her trusty bicycle.
ARADHNA: I arrived at Tata in time to cycle round the lake. Passing a castle-turned-museum at the top of the lake, I continued through the main town square (with an impressive yet desolate church building), and on to something that looked (on Google Maps) like a park on the edge of town. I came across a watch tower and church at the top of a mound overlooking an unexplained large stone circle, next to a geological garden. An odd mix! The area was deserted and rather eerie. I cycled back round to the lake and up out of town to find Gavin so we could circle the lake back to Roxy together.
Gavin had had a trying afternoon dodging unforgiving Hungarian drivers and losing fights against the hard gravely roads. The day ended on a high, however, as we treated ourselves to a meal at a lakeside restaurant by the boathouse.
Gavin had a “Castle Defender’s Roast”: pork medallions, potato wedges, fried onions and tomatoes. I was surprised and pleased to find appealing vegetarian options and had a cous cous and tofu salad. Dessert was a shared local speciality, Somlói Galuska, a soft sponge cake with chocolate, nuts and cream.
After seeing Gavin off in the morning, with spirits a little renewed from the indulgent meal and peaceful lakeside sleep, I spent a leisurely morning sitting by the lake with a coffee before setting off once more, Budapest in arms reach.
GAVIN: With my hand disinfected and bandaged, I set off into hillier terrain, my mission to make it as close to Budapest as possible. I passed the entrance to an arboretum at Agostyáni but only had time to stop at a bus stop bench flanked by carved tribal totems. The pretty village of Vértestolna and lake at Tarján surrounded by holiday chalets were highlights of the day’s running before it all went a little wrong in a forest, as it so often does.
After following a pristine but unused cycle path for several miles, I lost the trail Google Maps had prescribed and tried to regain it by means of some tread marks through a field. Thirty minutes later I was battling my way through thorny, insect-ridden thickets without anything approaching a trail to follow, using my Garmin to point me at a dirt track a quarter of a mile up the hillside. Much swearing later, I burst out onto the red earth pathway, my legs a network of scratches and insect bites.
Fortunately the rest of the run that day was blissfully uneventful, featuring lush hillsides and B-roads lined with white-blossomed “black locust trees”, whose heady scent was almost intoxicating in the early evening light. At Gyermely I encountered the strange apparition of a metal Transformers-styled scarecrow guarding the fields. We stopped for the night at the edge of a rapeseed field and I awoke determined to reach the capital.
ARADHNA: I could definitely see differences in the local towns as I drove closer to Budapest, much busier and built up. It looked like I was circling a range of hills to the West of the city and felt a little frustrated that there were no roads from this side to drive up and enjoy the reported views. After several hot and flat days in Hungary, I was starved for more interesting terrains!
Instead, I drove straight into Budapest after lunch and spent an hour exploring the Varisliget park, not far from the station where I would soon meet Gavin. The park was lively (a bit too lively perhaps, due to numerous drunken – English, I’m afraid – stag parties on Beer Bikes) with a fun and relaxed vibe.
GAVIN: The 6th May took me from Máriahalom over the hills in searing heat. The black tape I had wrapped around my hand to keep my bandages on was bleeding beads of sweat within minutes of me setting off. It would prove a challenging day.
The route became dustier and drier as I headed towards a nature reserve; a forested area located beyond dry, dusty fields. The presence of a father and son, cycling past, reassured me that this was not remote wilderness. It was, however, very quiet as I entered the forest and began to climb. A trail marker provided further reassurance as I reached the hill’s summit and looked out across a panorama of tree-clad slopes. A quick dash down the other side of the range of hills brought me to the town of Nagykovácsi and a lunch stop outside the American school.
From that point on, satellite towns began to give way to well-heeled commuter belt and then leafy suburbs as Budapest sneaked up on me. A period of difficult running along busy roads without pavements ended as a cycle path conveniently led me through the city’s District II towards the unusual chevron-shaped Margit bridge over the Danube. From there it was a short run to Budapest’s impressive central station. After the disappointment of Munich’s train stations and Vienna’s glassy modernity, the old-fashioned stately grandeur of the building provided a perfect climax and some great photo opportunities.
We found the city in party mode, our first choice of parking spot taken over by a street festival with live music and beer tents. We resorted to the quieter streets near the university (we role-played mature students so we could sneak into one of the buildings and use their loos). We were looking forward to exploring properly on our day off.
ARADHNA: We both loved Budapest! It wasn’t much of a rest day as we spent the whole day walking round the city. Grandeur, history, cityscape views, art, culture, character: Budapest has it all! The highlights included the Halászbástya (or Fisherman’s Bastion), weaving through the streets of the Jewish Quarter, coming across more incredible wall art at each turn and exploring Szimpla Kert, the “ruin bar”, where we enjoyed local beers and a jazz jam night.
We took another cheeky morning off to check out the Great Market Hall and savoured the city atmosphere with an early lunch by the river, before getting back to our journey. We will definitely be returning to this buzzing and vibrant city.
Heading back to Roxy through a snowfall of dandelion blossom, we hit the road once more. This was the big one as our next Running the Orient stop wouldn’t be till Bucharest, Romania…