Croatia has been good to us. Today it serves up our favourite temperature – 23’c. There are short and unpleasantly hard climbs as we pedal our way north. It is a rather gentle landscape, tame even. If we drugged Esther’s grandparents, bundled them into the back of a fast car and bought them here they could be easily convinced they were still back home in northern Germany. Daruvar 24K into the day and we stop for an early coffee. It has a faded elegance and looks as though not that long ago it was a busy and rather grand place. A big square is lined with the sort of property that costs a fortune to restore.
We are in Stork heaven. Even the smallest village has encouraged three pairs of the birds to nest along their main street. Chicks are now not that much smaller than their parents and hardly have enough room in the nest if they have raised two. There is demanding clapping of long beaks. Many homes follow a standard pattern. Two front windows looking out onto the road from a narrow front aspect, with the property stretching for a long way back from the road in a series of rooms and then sheds and finally animal stalls. There is almost always a well, which is often brightly painted. I now want a home with a well and good clean water.
There is always a large broadleaved forrest in sight to break up the landscape and shade the road as we pass through. Virovitica, the last town in Croatia before the border. It looks as though people have been sitting on their hands waiting for European funding to renovate the town. Many held parties as Croatia joined the EU a few days ago on July1. I hope it works out for them.
We stop short of the border to wild camp. I brew a tea and we sit waiting for the right time to put up the tent. For the first time, things are feeling a bit private, with more fences and a feeling of mine and not yours. A Pheasant calls. It is unmistakable and definitely our first for this Asian import into Europe. A few minutes later and a rustle in long grass near a big willow tree to our right. A Hare, ears impossibly long and vertical now it has come out into open ground. If a Rabbit is a VW Golf, this thing is a Ferrari.
A sliver of moon has risen. It is now a more northern moon, the moon of home and familiar habits. I wonder when we will see the recumbent moon of Asia and the South again. A quiet night, but damp with a heavy dew. A Cuckoo joins the dawn chorus. This has to be our last!
6K of riding to the River Prava and the border. It is being dismantled now that the borders of Europe have been moved. It is now just a glance at the passport and not the long check and duty on a long line of trucks. Martins are flying in tight curves above the river, hoovering up the insect plankton that is riding the air currents above the water.
Saturday morning in the first small town of Hungary, country 31. It would have been a much smaller number if Yugoslavia had not disintegrated and given us 5 extra countries to pick up. We pick up some money before we look up the exchange rate. This is always a dumb thing to do. We may be getting out enough to buy a house here by mistake. We play safe and go for the second last number. This time there are an eye spinning number of noughts involved.
Back home, Norfolk is referred to as ‘ a county flat enough to fax ‘. We have been looking forward to Hungary ever since we found out, that after the Netherlands, it is the fattest country in Europe. We are looking forward to ‘ Norfolk flat ‘ days of cycle touring. We will be on highway 68 for some time. We picked it up at the border and to prove a point, it has given us just 60M of climbing in the first 30Km.
Hungary has little in the way of industry, but the size of the field has more than doubled since we left Croatia. Tractors are more business like, often blue and shiny, and much bigger pulling expensive kit behind them. We have not seen a single golf course on our travels so far this year, not one in 9,000Km. I feel this can not last much longer. Highway 68 takes a fun left towards Nagyatad and a Trabant comes by. The classic cold war vehicle, the peoples car from the former Soviet blocks of Europe. Famously made from something related to paper, the body panels can be used as a food source for a chemical broth of bacteria and recycled. What is far from environmentally sound is the blue-black cloud of smoke that comes out of the exhaust. The engine is a sort two-stroke, meaning that the vehicle has a unique aroma, that hangs in the air on a still day for ages after the car has gone by.
A night on a campground for a much needed shower. Sunday morning dawns bright and clear after a night of mist and moisture. We have shared the campground with the first of the German Campervan Colonists. Each is as brown as berry having devoted many hours of their early retirement to exposing as much flesh as possible to the sun. Much of the day is spent in Speedos or similar at an angle of 90′ to the sun. I, after 7 months in almost constant sun, look pale by comparison. I have no idea how they do it and less as to why.
30Km into a nasty headwind before our first possible coffee stop. This had better not be a trend for further north. We stay on the 68 all the way to Lake Balaton. All the while the fields have become bigger and we are now in the natural habitat of the caravan. As we approach the lake we are informed that this is the largest lake in Europe and that there are 11 Tesco supermarkets dotted around it. The first comes up and is the size of a aircraft hanger, and not a small one.
We often play a game of ‘ how many touring cyclists will we see today ‘. For most of our journey it has lacked much excitement, as the number zero usually wins. Today Esther has chosen the number 4 and I have kept to realistic 3. We are out by several hundred as we join the busy bike path around the lake. Bikes and riders of all possible shape from Lycra racers to rusting dumpster rescues are making their ways around the lakes bike paths. We come across our first sign indicating that bikes are not allowed on the road. We have entered the tyranny of bike path rules that we came to loath last year in Germany. Riding on bike paths is slow, doubly so if they are busy. We cover almost no distance in two days, and make navigational blunders so many times because we stop paying attention. On one occasion we ride for an hour before we realise we are on a ‘ wine route ‘. I zoom the gps screen until we find the lake disappearing behind us.
50Km becomes a good days ride, but eventually we do come to the end of the lake. We find a wild pitch for the night. A brew of tea is on, when a big dog Fox runs across a few metres from the tent. He is a country Fox, but on the cusp of being bold enough to be a town fox. A peaceful night except in my head. I have an injury to my foot. It feels like the early signs of the injury that almost stopped us before we started this trip over 2 1/2 years ago. Back then I needed surgery and 2 months to recoup.
Early the next day we stumble across a beautiful town with an unpronounceable name. If we did a bit more research we would never have these amazing revelations and strokes of pure luck. Esther does a months worth of sketching whilst I spend time on my phone and on line. I am trying to find out our options in dealing with my foot. I find that we can not legally get our home back. It is rented out and under contract for almost 6 months more. I find out that 5% of times the problem returns after surgery. I am lotto unlucky with my numbers.
We end the day on a municipal campground where I am pondering why this country now feels like the familiar. We have been told that ‘ Hungary is a proud nation ‘. Actually we have been told that twice already. We have observed people doing exercise for the first time and dogs being walked by happy owners who throw things for their pets. No longer are dogs something to keep at the end of a short chain that will warn of strangers. In front of me as I write notes are people ready to do Karate. A dozen ‘ angry white pyjamas ‘ in a line. A elderly guy has just walked by the tent. He has toned legs and a purposeful stride. He is doing laps of the park in 70’s Speedo shorts and stopping at one point to do stretching before the next lap. A black belted ‘ white pyjama ‘ turns up on a bicycle. He is late, but I am sure no one has cut him up on his way here.
Not a breath of wind and the first bead of sweat has run dow my back before breakfast is over and the tent packed away. It is going to be a hot day and there is not a breath of wind to bring cooling air. We start to ride, doing our usual meandering of linking villages together with the gps. We are trying to avoid the busy straight roads and are happily making out’ two sides of a triangle ‘ way through beautiful small villages. We manage to find every hill in the area. The village of Bodajk for an early coffee. Chickens are clucking and throwing up dust. It is an area of sandy soil and by afternoon we have gone through more than a dozen forests of Birch and Oak. Villages come up, each is much the same as the last. All have narrow fronted houses stretching far back along a narrow strip of land that almost always has fruit trees and a place to raise some stock. Even the smallest of village will have a minimum of two imposing but often badly designed churches.
Hungary may have just two 10% climbs. We manage to find both. The final one is a cobbled brute to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Pannonhalma Benedictine Monastery. We get there just as it closes for the day, locks the doors and returns to a contemplative life of prayer and growing fine wine. Down the 10% road into the village of Pannonhalma to a campground. We pitch the tent and I get on the phone to my foot surgeon in Glasgow.
I had asked for options. ” Keep going, take injections if the pain gets too bad, you can not do further damage “. He is a cyclist, which you may have guessed. He had diagnosed me on a Tuesday and got a team together for cutting my foot open on Thursday, back at the end of 2010. Morton’s Neuroma is not easy to deal with, we will see what happens.