HIRE BIKES AROUND THE HAPSBURG EMPIRE
On my knees at Heathrow airport with a broken spanner and a cardboard box which had just cost me £17.50, I swore: never again would I take a bike on a plane. That was the start of my last trip. This one, to Prague and Slovakia was a kind of atonement for it. I had spent three weeks in Africa without my wife, Sara, and I had some making up to do.
“I want to take the bikes.”
“Yes dear, but do you want to go down on your hands and knees removing pedals on an airport floor?”
“No – you can do all that.”
“Couldn’t we could hire bikes? It’d be less hassle.” [Remember those words – I did.]
Liptovský Mikuláš is a town of 33,000 people on the plain between the Tatras mountains of Slovakia. We arrived on a dull grey drizzling evening, pulled up our hoods, and trudged towards the town centre.
The next day was September 1st, Constitution Day, when the nation celebrates its separation from the Czechs by closing bicycle hire outlets – or at least, most of them. A few miles outside the town, down a long dead-end, lies the village of Záražná Poruba (altitude 634m). If you take the one bus of the morning, get off at the last stop, walk to where the village starts to disappear into the mountains, knock on the last door, they’ll see what they can do.
Such was the arrangement made by the tourist information office, and I must confess to a twinge of scepticism. Now your experience of hire bikes may be different from mine, but I have to say, based on past experience, my expectations were not high. So when we found two half-decent mountain bikes with luggage racks, as requested, I thought: can’t ask for more than that. OK, so one pedal and one steering head were grinding like pepper pots but at least we were moving, and the weather had taken a glorious turn for the better.
The road through Záražná Poruba splits into several tracks climbing through pine forests on the fringes of the Low Tatras National Park (with peaks of up to 2000m, the term ‘low’ is relative). The route to the next valley was harder than it looked, but the view from the plateau in between was our first taste of what would follow.
Then, as I opened the toolkit I had brought from home, I realised we had a puncture repair kit, but no pump.
“Better stick to the roads for now, eh?”
The track rejoined the road by the Hotel Major on the edge of Liptovský Jan. The volcanic activity which created the Tatras has sprinkled the region with thermal springs, used in the past for “rheumatic and gynaecological ailments”, nowadays for waterparks and hotel swimming pools.
Like most populated mountain areas, all the things you’d want to avoid are concentrated on the flat bits in between. Route 18, the original main road, is busy in places, but with a broad hard shoulder, is OK to cycle. As soon as you turn off and begin to climb, the B roads are quiet as an English country lane.
We followed Route 18 through Liptovský Hrádoc, with its ruined castle now part of a hotel, its moat transformed into a duckpond.
By our Devon standards the on-road gradients were gentle: anything over 7% (1 in 14) merits a chevron on the map (maps in all the usual scales are easy to find here, by the way). We climbed into the foothills of the Western Tatras before rolling down a river valley back towards our hotel.
We could appreciate Liptovský Mikuláš a little more in the sunshine. The communist era has bequeathed a ring of ugly concrete tower blocks around its edges, but the centre, particularly the pedestrianised square where we stayed, was lively and well-preserved. When the two countries separated in 1993, the Slovak crown fell against the Czech one, and today at around 57 to the pound, accommodation, food and particularly beer are astonishingly good value.
I had great plans for the following day, but first there was a little matter of a pump to sort out.
“We do not use pumps. My husband, he controls the bikes. Any problem we take them back. He has all the equipment.”
“But yesterday, you were suggesting routes through mountains. Are your bikes immune from punctures, or does your husband’s equipment include a helicopter?” is how I didn’t reply.
I bought a pump and we left the town heading southwest on Route 18, our first stop Lazisco, and the world’s largest wooden church.
Down a forest track and back on the road again, we descended gently over several miles to the hydro-electric dam at the western outfall of the Liptovský Mara reservoir. It was a bit of a climb to the perimeter road but no photograph could do justice to the panorama awaiting us: rocky peaks with halos of cloud reflected over miles of perfectly still water.
The Hotel Bobrovník, on a hill by the shore, looked in need of a little maintenance, but its threshold still seemed too grand to cross in cycling gear. We shared the terrace overlooking the lake with one other couple, paid Sk 68 (£1.20) for an excellent risotto, and wondered why this place had not been invaded by hordes of tourists. If you are reading with interest, I urge you: don’t go there.
My rhetorical question was partly answered on the way back along the northern edge of the lake where a gaudy complex of holiday chalets was under construction. The speed of change was a common theme in our conversations with the few people able to converse in English. Some changes, like E.U. membership are generally welcomed; others like separation from the Czechs are widely regretted. McDonalds, Coke adverts, Anglo-American pop music blaring from every bar and restaurant: just part of life, at least for younger people.
Over the next couple of days we explored routes in every direction. The Tatranská Magistrála is a track, which follows the southern border of the Western Tatras National Park through forests and lightly-grazed pastures full of wild flowers.
We were intending to move on to another centre in the Tatras, when waiting at the station, I had an original idea:
“How d’you fancy Bratislava?”
“I suggested that the other day.”
“Were you not listening to me?”
The River Danube flows through Vienna to Bratislava to Budapest, with its famous cycle route sprinkling tourist maps of the Slovak capital with bicycle symbols. So where do we go to hire bikes?
“No bicycle hire in Bratislava: cancelled, kaputt, finito.”
“All the bicycles were stolen. I think you can hire bicycles in Vienna…”
“…but you can not bring them into Slovakia – they will take your passports.”
It’s strange how depressing a beautiful city can be when you don’t want to be there. We dined on a floating restaurant, watching the lights creep over the Danube as the steady procession of cyclists faded into the dusk on the other side. By the second beer I was in the grip of a serious obsession. First thing next day we would take the train to Vienna. If there were no bikes on a Sunday, we would fly to Budapest, or buy two new ones, or follow the Bratislava custom and steal a couple.
The good news in Vienna’s Sudbanhof station, was that yes, cycle hire was possible. The bad news: 32 Euros, twenty-two quid a day, each.
Refusing to accept this, I set off to find the central tourist information office.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Sara on the way.
“I’ll feel better when you’re sorted – one way or the other.”
Oh ye of little faith. Following a list (with no prices) and a hunch, by lunchtime, I had found a place by the river: €50 for three days, willing to accept Sara’s out of date student card instead of a passport, and we were rolling.
The route back to Bratislava was longer than expected, nearly 80km, but what a ride! The Donauradweg follows the Danube downstream almost the whole way. A tall woman on roller skates slowed me down to give me a leaflet. I was going to refuse, but stuck it in my back pocket and carried on.
I should have realised we were going wrong when I caught sight of two naked men cavorting on a sunlounger. I realised too late that we were on an island – a dead-end, reserved for naturists.
A helpful man showed me where we had gone wrong. Instead of turning right by the cavorting men, we should have turned left to follow a dyke: the ‘Danube Flood Protection Dam’, which limits the flood plain, enclosing the rich wetland habitat of the Nationalpark Donau-Auen.
A few miles from the city, the skaters and dogwalkers thin out. We stopped at a cyclists’ café, where I pulled out the leaflet. At first, I hoped my bad German was deceiving me (it wasn’t – see below). The Transport Ministry and Vienna City Council are planning to build two motorways through the city end of the National Park, with one part following the riverbank we had just cycled. With protest letters written in my head, we pressed on.
At the old fortified town of Hainburg an der Donau the route climbs away from the river and towards the border checkpoint. Approaching from the West in a golden sunset you will see Bratislava at its best, the castle glowing on its southern slopes, a different city welcoming me back.
The next morning we packed a few clothes, left our main bags in the privat (like a B&B) and set out for a longer ride, with a night somewhere in Hungary. We passed some interesting characters leaving Bratislava on the river route: skaters in bikinis, a mother skating with a baby buggy and a Gandhi-lookalike in swimming trunks, riding a tricycle with balloon tyres.
A few miles further out and we were on our own. As the river flows into a wide canal, the route turns perfectly straight and totally flat, disappearing into a mirage of shimmering heat.
It was a relief to turn away from the water at Gabčikovo, along a quiet B road, through fields of sunflower and maize, with trees providing some shade.
A bicycle symbol indicates the bridge leading to the Hungarian border, but the road on the other side, like several others we saw in Hungary, was out of bounds to bicycles. A horn-blowing oil tanker tried to flatten Sara just to make the point.
Eventually, we reached Györ, the regional centre, just in time to watch the sun set from a hotel balcony.
The return trip on the Hungarian side follows a separated cycle path through small towns and villages. The planning system seems looser here. The suburbs of Györ stretch through miles of unmade cul-de-sacs, self-built houses and plots for sale. The countryside was just as flat but more heavily wooded, and somehow more interesting.
Finding a decent map (much more difficult here) had taken most of the morning, so by mid afternoon, Vienna was still nearly 100 km away. Mea culpa if I was pushing her too hard but somewhere near the Monsoni-Duna river I heard a cry from Sara.
“Something’s gone twang in my right knee.”
We rolled into the town of Monsonmagyaróvár. The next train to Vienna, the last one we could catch, was due in 15 minutes, and they didn’t accept credit cards at the station. I threw my bag in Sara’s direction and sprinted towards the town centre. I found the bank – no cashpoint, flew inside.
“Haben sie ein Automat?”
Please, please work this time…
Magyar, Deutsch, English. We are processing your request – thank God!
Bikeless on a late train back to Bratislava, we dined on crisps and a half-price out-of-date salad (which cleaned out our Euros) and cracked open a bottle of mineral water to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
Sara: “Well at least it’s been a memorable one.”
“Hmm. I was just thinking, we’ve been through the four main countries of the old Hapsburg Empire. Sorry this week hasn’t quite gone to plan…”
“Does anything you arrange ever go to plan?”
www.fahrradverleih.at 22 Reichbrücke Tel. 263 5242
www.lobauist.at (in German)
www.lobauautobahn.at/themen.php?tid=25466&kid=950 (Brief summary in English)
Letters of protest can be sent to:
18 Belgrave Mews West
London SW1X 8HU