It is quite odd cycling through smaller countries. After leaving Poland, I spent three days in Slovakia. Just enough time to learn how to say “hello”, “thank you” and finally “good-bye”. Unlike Poland where I spent over two long weeks cycling from village to village, there was only one large city on my route through Slovakia.
A small country, Slovakia is tucked nicely between Poland and Hungary has over 500,000 Gypsies, 10% of its population. In Brezno, the largest city I visited, Slovakians were the minority. Two mountain ranges sprawl from north to south, and each day I would climb pass after pass and cycle through long fertile valleys. Compared to Poland, which pretty much had the same landscape throughout, Slovakia was a much-needed escape from the mundane rural villages, and endless feral dogs.
Definitely the most beautiful countryside I have seen since Scandinavia! Rolling hills, streams and thick dense forests filled with leaves of all colors. Some of the valleys were flooded with dense fog and at night it would drip from the leaves onto my tent like rain.
After three days of endless climbing my spirits soared as I crossed the Hungarian border. Exchanging money is a major burden! To buy anything outside of a grocery store chain, cash is the only acceptable form of payment. However when it is time to exchange currencies only paper currency is accepted, no coins! By the end of the trip I will probably have over $20 US dollars in coins of all countries! It was a short ride from the border to Budapest, the ancient capital of Hungary. Departing from country roads I cycled the last 50 km on a trans-country highway and held my breath while being passed by countless semi-trucks and cars pulling trailers.
Budapest is the largest city I have visited so far in Europe. Over 20 districts and 2 million people inhabit the urban sprawl. In ancient times the city was broken up into two separate cities Buda and Pest, and the Danube river was the boundary between the two. The cities were united in the late 1800’s, and it became the capital of Hungary. Known as “the Paris of the East” there were so many sights that it was hard to get around to them all. There were at least two of everything castles, famous museums, holy Churches and many other obscure attractions like the mummified hand of St. Stephen.
I spent two days cycling through the city, and thoroughly enjoyed the diverse culture and architecture. Half the city was under-construction and the other half was packed with tourists, what can one expect while visiting the 4th most popular city in the EU. At night the city is literally “plugged in” and lights trace the contours of the famous monuments.
I have noticed that the culture is slowly becoming eastern. Many of the attractions had Turks selling rugs and quilts, and lots of spices and eastern cuisine sold on the streets and in the market place. Lots of Kebab, the cheapest and fastest cuisine available on every street corner. Sometimes the roasted meat is wrapped in a tortilla other times served inside a gigantic “brain-sized” bun. It is nice to have warm food and I am a bit eager to arrive in Belgrade and get my stove working again. Hungary marks my departure from the EU, Serbia, my next destination, is about 200 km south of Budapest, and lies outside of the Union. It will require a separate visa, issued upon arrival but the country will allow me to stay for 90 days unconditionally. My health is overall much better, and I have been consuming lots of sauerkraut, available at every grocery store, (sold in bulk) and yogurt to replenish my lost intestinal flora. I am off to the road again, and will write from Belgrade.