Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Budapest, Hungary

Friends: Hungary had been flat for 100 miles from Serbia to Budapest, but not any more. Budapest has hills within and even higher hills as a backdrop. The city is bisected by the wide Duma River. My route here passed through authentic forests and around a lake or two, features of Finland, perhaps providing some explanation why Finnish and Hungarian bear a mysterious similarity that is unique to the two languages and no other.

I was warmly welcomed to Hungary at the border by an official wearing a Lance yellow wrist band, who rides a Trek as do Lance and I. This was my first border crossing where cars were backed up with trunks open and luggage being checked, but not mine, maybe thanks to the wrist band. About ten miles further I was greeted even more warmly by a voluptuous young woman in a mini-skirt standing at a side-road that led into the forest. As I approached, she dropped her blouse and waved me over. Behind her was a dilapidated mobile home.

If I had been Richard Burton, 19th century British adventurer, who made a point of studying first hand the sexual mores of the populations wherever he ventured, even making a trip to the US to investigate the Mormons, I most surely would have heeded this woman's beckoning. But I hadn't had a proper bathing in a couple of days, and having had enough rejection over the years, didn't care to being ignominiously sent on my way, so I just waved and pedaled past.

It was another 15 miles before I came to a town with a bank to change money. Though Hungary is creeping into the EU, it has yet to do away with its forints for euros. I sped through Serbia so fast (two days), and with prices so cheap, I only spent half the 1,700 dinars that 20 Euros brought me. The teller at the bank reacted in horror at my dinars, shaking her head no. All she would take were euros or dollars. Only after asking was I told a large supermarket I had passed a mile outside this city had an exchange service. I suspected as much, and looked closely as I passed it to see if there was any advertisement of exchange, figuring Serbs would make a run up to this hypermarket for shopping, but one had to know. Doubling back was no great disaster, as the prices at the market were better than any I would find for miles and I needed to restock.

It was a relief to be out of a region where road signs were cluttered with letters that were just gobbledygook to my eyes. Other than that, the Balkans were a pleasure that merit much more exploration. They are virgin territory, as I didn't encounter another traveler after the national park in Croatia. I was treated warmly and cordially by all. Hungary has been a good warm-up for Germany and its cycle paths that parallel the main roads, something that I am not looking forward to. There have been occasional stretches here, as in all too much of Germany, where cyclists are forbidden to ride the road because there happens to be a cycle path nearby. But cyclists aren't the only ones discriminated against. There is a common circular road sign with a red slash through it divided into three sections picturing a cyclist, a tractor and a horse-drawn cart. Even when there aren't such signs and there happens to be a cycle path, motorists don't care to share the road, blowing their horn and angrily waving, pointing at the bike path, just as Germans are prone to do.

If the bike paths were smoother and wide enough to pass all the grandmas poking along carrying bags of groceries or rakes or hoes, I wouldn't be so loath to be relegated to them. Fortunately, I am in no big hurry and can poke along myself, as I had to do for about 20 of yesterday's miles.

The going was so flat yesterday, my maximum speed for the day was only 16.47 mph, about half of what it usually is. That meant not even an overpass to descend or a tail wind nor any sprints to flee a frothing canine. With the regular patches of forest, for the first time since leaving Cannes two weeks ago, other than my first night in Croatia, I didn't have to sweat to find a more than passable campsite. I could push on a little later than usual, not having to seize the first desirable site.

The first I tried last night stirred up a swarm of mosquitoes, as the temperature has finally warmed up enough to bring them out. They were thriving with all the stagnant water. For the first time since Cannes I found a spot well enough off the road, that I wasn't woken early by the passing traffic. Instead I had the rising sun warming my tent as my alarm at 6:30. My early start allowed me to finish off the 49 miles to Budapest by noon. I had my choice of a variety of parks and plazas for my picnic lunch. Rather than asking where I could find the Internet, I roamed the
city streets for 45 minutes or so before finding one, as has been my practice lately, a fine way to explore a city. There is a pleasant bike path along the Duma. It is so wide there are bridges across it only every mile or so. There are huge government buildings and museums highlighting the cityscape and monuments atop the hills. The main boulevards are thick in traffic, but the side streets are like those of a small town. Bikes are prevalent here as they have been through most of the small towns I have passed through. I am sorry once again that this is a country that I will only spend a couple days in this time. But its nice to sample a taste of it. It wouldn't take much effort to cover this country by bike. Budapest is not much more than 125 miles from any part of the country. My next destination, the Slovak Republic, lies just 40 miles to the north.

Later, George

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