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  • Jamie Shannon

Slovakia to Budapest. Tough times in the Tatras but a shot of Pálinka awaits!

With that massive country of Poland now behind me, new challenges and interesting places would be unleashed. My aim was to follow the roads south west and around the highest passes of the Tatras mountains to the east which would help me stay on course for arriving in Budapest on the 11th. Time is of the essence now as I have already booked my accommodation in Istanbul and thus it is imperative that I arrive on time.

Cycling through Slovakia - what a lush, green and beautiful place you are!

The views after I had crossed the border were just fantastic. I could see the mountains in the distance which formed an unbroken line right across the horizon. I felt quite daunted by this view and I just hoped that I could find a road that followed a river or valley or something. I remember how difficult crossing the Alps were last summer and I did not want a repeat performance.

I stopped for breakfast by the side of the road and two police cars pulled up. I actually had quite a nice chat with them as they spoke reasonably good English. This was a plus. Conversation had been hard to come by outside of the cities in Poland and so I was thankful for any scraps I could get.

I’ve only had the use of one earphone since Warsaw and even this was now to spitting out incoherent noises. Every town I now passed was a chance to buy new ones but they were all just too small to have an electronics store or if they had one, it was closed. When I finally arrived in a large town, and having asked a few people about one, I again found it closed. I ended up having four ladies in the supermarket all trying (and failing) to direct me somewhere else. On the plus side, they managed to write down some simple Slovakian phrases that would get me through the next couple of days. I really disliked not knowing how to say hello and thank you when I met someone and so I tried to learn these phrases in every country I passed.

I had to get off the highway some time later as the increased speed limit made it off limits to the likes of me. I found some small and quiet roads that eventually led me to the town of Dolny Kubin and it was here where I found my electronics store. I was happy again.

After eating some tasty sandwiches for lunch, I rode on south and began the dreaded climb through the mountains that were now closing in all around me. It was hot and sweaty work I can tell you. I just kept grinding away whilst keeping my head down in order to not see how high I still had to climb. It was exhausting work particularly in thirty degree heat but as always, the scenery was just fantastic.

I must have spent a good twenty minutes flying down the other side and which eventually led me into the town of Ruzomberok.

I cycled another five km’s south where, although it was still only 18:00, found a place to camp that was just too good to pass up on. I spent the evening in pleasant surroundings and getting fourteen hours of rest too. Rest that was thoroughly needed.

What's the problem with only using maps for navigation? They can run out...

I was presented with a minor but immediate problem today – I had run out of maps! I had actually been using a map of Romania that contained a large portion of both Hungary and Slovakia but my route now took me west and thus ‘off’ my map. I just continued along the main highway, with a piece of paper tucked in my pocket that had a list of towns to head for on my way to Budapest.

I following some gravel paths for the remainder of the morning and by 11:00, I began what would become the biggest climb I have yet encountered. In all honestly, it wasn’t so difficult looking back as I was now getting into the swing of things. What made it difficult of course was the constant stream of traffic moving along beside me. Bare cliff faces hung over the road on both sides thus the road was kind of narrow which meant all the traffic had to wait for me to get around a bend for instance. I didn’t care. So they would lose a few precious seconds. You know, I’m also just trying to get somewhere too.

Anyway when I did reach the summit, well almost, I pulled over at a large auto garage in order to procure some water. The guy who gave me the water came back outside just as I was about to pull away and gave me a shot glass as a gift with the town name inscribed on it. Nice man. Travelling this way just seems to bring out the best in people.

What an amazing feeling it was to reach the summit though. I spent the next hour almost cruising downhill. So much so though that I opted to stop several times just to check my breaks. I didn’t want an accident at the speeds I was doing.

When I arrived in the small city of Bankska Bystrica, I got very lost trying to locate first a Lidl and then a McDonalds. I must have done three laps of the city when I at last found the Lidl. With some groceries bought, I headed off into the direction of Zvolen.

Just as I was leaving, thunder erupted overhead and I knew I was in for some torrential rain. Why god why? In no time at all it came pouring down making cycling all but impossible due to the visibility and standing water. I pulled over and dived into a bus stop with some other people where I apologised for the fact that I was about to change my clothes in public.

With my rain gear on, I set out again but it just didn’t end and once again I found myself taking shelter from the elements under the roof of a Tesco garage of all places. It was just relentless.

With the rain showing very little sign of abating, I decided that I just had to get on with it. I slipped on my hi vis and re-joined the road to Zvolen but within another ten minutes I was taking refuge again, this time in a garage.

Well it was a quite miserable 20 km ride south to Zvolen. Cars whizzed by and sprayed the contents of the road in my face and trucks were pushing me off at regular intervals but make it to Zvolen I did.

I ended up doing another 45 km’s or something before finding, one has to say, a pretty awful place to camp – inside a building site.

It was just a fantastic feeling waking up in my tent with the sun already beating down. I knew the scenery would again be awesome today and I was also nearly in Hungary where I would be seeing a friend from Amsterdam; I couldn't wait.

I was only 40km’s from the Hungarian border now. When I came into Krupina, I managed to spend the last of my euros. I had 2.50 left and I managed to spend 2.45 which I think is pretty good going. More staring from various people here too and so, as was my custom now, I said hello to about fifteen people in total. Some actually said hello back which I was surprised at.

I also stopped for gas too which is a little strange to say when you’re cycling but I need it to cook. Well actually, I didn’t really need it but I wanted water and so wanted to buy something too. I spent 20 cents in order to get my petrol and got 4.5 litres of water to boot. Oh how I love not spending money. Brilliant.

When I arrived at the last Slovakian town of Sahy, something happened in my little head that I wasn't quite expecting. Something I wasn’t all too sure if I could accomplish either: I thought that perhaps I could make it to Budapest today. It would of course mean cycling in excess of 140 km’s and who knew what kind of roads lay ahead. I just thought, if I could do 100 today, then why don’t I just cycle that last 30 and sleep in a bed after enjoying some good food. It could be done. Hell It would be done! It would be difficult to say the least but it was a challenge I was willing to accept. Let’s do it.

It was eleven by the time I had crossed the border and I had already done 50km’s as the road was mostly flat and the wind somewhat elusive. I thought, you know what I could actually do this. I wouldn’t arrive by noon which is always my preferred time to arrive in a city but If I could make it by five or six, then that’s pretty damned great too. I cycled on and no sooner had I crossed into Hungry than the hills reared their beautiful faces, one after another. Up and down they went turning an easy morning into a torrid afternoon.

I knew I had about 30km’s to cycle after which I would reach the Danube and ultimately flat land. This was my holy grail for the rest of the day but I just never seemed to reach it. The hills just rose up and down all around me and the gradients became increasingly silly. Even some of the trucks were struggling. There was nothing I could do but push on and on and just hope for the best.

When I arrived in a small village I went into a shop to see if I could get some cash and some refreshing drinks to help me along but with no machines in the village I was out of luck. Even If I did manage to find some cash, I had no idea how much to get out as I didn’t know the exchange rate. Bloody hell. I pushed on still further up and down and after tackling one more mighty hill, I decided it was again time to pull over and rest for a while. I just collapsed. I was exhausted and nearly beaten and I just wanted this to be over. I wanted to be in Budapest and sat on a terrace with my friend drinking ice cold beers. Surely this time would arrive today.

A little later at about two I rode up one last hill and came out the other side to find myself staring out over the plains of Hungary. I was such a momentous feeling to see the flat land of Hungary at last and with the town of Vac in the distance, I decided to turn on my Mp3 and enjoy the huge downhill section to its fullest. At last!

I very nearly took a wrong turn when I arrived at the bottom, cycling onto the motorway. I had second thoughts when I remembered that it was at this point on my 'map' where I needed to change direction and head towards the Danube and so I pushed my bike back down the hard shoulder to the exit and ten minutes later I was in Vac, enjoying a well-deserved rest.

Having asked a couple for the time, I couldn’t quite believe that it was still only half two. Half bloody two! I was 30km’s north of Budapest and so had cycled 120 km’s by half bloody two. I really was quite astounded at what I had accomplished and it just goes to show what you can achieve when you have a goal in sight.

The funny thing with regards to the time was that I had on me five different electronic devices all with clocks too. After a few weeks of zig zagging my way through Eastern Europe, my camera, laptop, mp3, phone and my kindle all had wildly different times thus I couldn’t rely on any of them.

Anyway I got going again a half an hour later as I knew from experience that its one thing getting to a city. It’s a whole other ball game making your way through 15 km’s of suburbs, ghettos and industrial areas. I did stop off at a Lidl along the way though to get some food and beers ready for my arrival which was also where I realised it was already the Euro’s. Another added bonus! I get to watch England play in Budapest. Not bad I thought.

In the end, it was an easy enough run into Budapest with the road I had been travelling on throughout the day taking me right into the middle of the city. It was just the sheer scale of the road once I got there that made it difficult. It gradually turned into a six lane highway with an amount of traffic that really made cycling a real headache. It was just too busy for me, particularly after the long day I had had. I just had to make use of cycle paths, side roads, pavements and fly overs to make my way to the centre.

I continued on, and arrived, finally at possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. It was the Parliament building. Incredible. Words can’t describe how I was feeling by this time

Now I just had to find my hostel – one small building in a city of two million with just a stupid tourist map I had picked up but for once, It wasn’t so difficult.

When I arrived at the address, there was again no sign for a hostel but there was a bar next door which was open at the front. I asked the people there if they knew of it. They didn’t but then I remembered my hostel in Krakow and so walked over to the door for a closer inspection whereupon I saw a very small sign on the intercom. Thank goodness. It was 7 pm now and I could relax. I was beat.

I walked back over to get my bike whereupon the guys in the bar asked where I had come from. I just replied Krakow but then they asked “only Krakow?” and so I told them Estonia after which I told them it was actually England and. At that point, they told me I needed to drink a beer with them and a shot of palinka. Strong stuff! Ouch!

I was in Budapest! Yeah baby!!!

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