A Winter Ride
On a cold bright day in Budapest, I looked over the city from near the top of Gellert hill, where I had been living for the last four years. Platelets of ice rippled down the Danube and gave off gold and silver diamond like flashes of light as they reflected the sun’s rays. The school where I had been teaching was bankrupt. With the disappearance of the school funds came the dispersal of many friends and the end of my time living in Budapest. I decided to cycle back to the UK. On two previous occasions it had been pleasant summer ride of 2,000km, but what would it be like in the winter?
A last look at Budapest from Gellert Hill
Wonderful cycle routes exist along the river systems of Europe, perfect for taking me all the way back home, but these were going to be difficult to follow with 50mm of ice on the surface. My touring bike had been sent home with my personal effects, however, my work bike, with its hub gear, hub dynamo and ice-spiker tyres, was a much better bet for winter conditions.
Riding into a cold head wind with tyres humming on the ice, the bright day changed into an overcast one with light snow. It took ages to reach the pretty town of Szentendre, once famous for wine, now known for its artists. At that time my favourite route was to take the ferry onto Szentendre Island’s deserted roads and follow them around the Danube bend. Unfortunately, the ferry was out of the water and covered in ice, leaving me with no choice but to continue using the cycle path running alongside the main road until it ran out, then ride on the road. On reaching Esztergom, it was already dark so there was no time, as I had hoped, to revisit its stunning castle or cathedral,
At breakfast I was told of a new bridge over the Danube replacing the one destroyed at the end of WW II. This gave me a chance to stop halfway across to enjoy the same view, described by my favourite travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, at the end of his great book A Time of Gifts. The view of the basilica must have changed little over the seventy years since, as a teenager, on his walk to Istanbul, he stopped and had a long look at the country he was about to visit for the first time. For me it was a last look of a country that had been my home. My next visit would be as a tourist. After five minutes or so contemplation, I rode over into what was then for me a new part of Slovakia, with very much quieter roads.
Along the northern side of the Danube runs a raised bank to protect the farmland from flooding. The banking continues, more or less, all the way to Bratislava and beyond. For much of the way there is a cycle track on top of the bank. Hungarian as well as Slovak is spoken on this side of river, and place names are given in both languages, making it fine to greet people with either Jó napot kivanánok or Dobry den.
fishing on the Danube
While stopping to locate myself on the map, five or six deer stopped on top of the banking only a few metres away. I kept very still. They looked at me, then, slowly walked very close to me, on their way down to the river. Just beyond this point I saw a man fishing. He had cut a hole in the ice, and was sitting on the Danube thirty metres from the edge.
To follow the cycle track was difficult. On the island between Komarno (Slovakia) and Komaron (Hungary), where I spent the night at the yacht club, the route is marked on the ground so couldn’t be seen under the ice. It’s a place I’v stayed at many times since because they allow camping in their grounds. Not this time however, I booked a bed for the night before having a beer and tucking into an interesting meal. This is a place where all bits of the animals are served deep fried, including their naughty bits.
Just beyond Komarno, the cycle path turns to gravel for about 40km. The gravel is local so they tend to put much too much of the stuff down, making the going difficult and it easier to ride through the snow at the edge of the pathway than stay on it. Eventually, once back on the tarmac again, despite the ice, the speed almost doubled without any extra effort from me. Close to the parallel locks on the river at Tejka a steel gate closed off the path and I had to find another route by crossing snow-covered farmland. As it got dark, I could see the big ugly communist-style hotel at Cilistov, where I was pleased to find a room for the night. Here there was an effort to transform both the hotel and the restaurant up to modern international standards. The food was good, and, at that time, the prices were modest. Overnight it rained, and a freezing early morning mist saw me fall on my back as I climbed down the hotel steps onto the road. The ground was so cold that the rain had turned into an invisible sheet of ice. Once on the bike I was OK, but my hub gear was damaged and only the top gear could be used. From the road I almost made it back to the top of the banking, but not quite. And, once both feet were on the ground and my weight was off the saddle, I slid backwards the whole way back down to the road again.
The cycle track into Bratislava was at that time one of the best best-kept secrets of the region. While it is no great surprise that I was on my own as my tyres buzzed along the sheet ice in January ’02, this had also been true, when in August ’98, I had ridden the opposite way along this same track. It was here that I had seen the most spectacular display of bird life in all my experience of cycling around the world. The river traffic is some distance from the north bank at this point, and the birds could mass in this large undisturbed area. On the occasion back in ’98, as well as the birds normally associated with water, there were clouds of small swallows, so exhausted they were falling dead on the cycle track around me. In recent times, with an opening up of the area, and an increase in wind surfing, the bird life, while still considerable, is a fraction of what it was.
Despite horrible concrete tower blocks around its periphery, Bratislava is a city I love. There are wonderful places to eat and drink and the old town is being restored to its former glory. It has a great history. During the time the Turks occupied Buda, it became the capital of Hungary. The Hungarians still call it Pozsony. After Napoleon defeated Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz, the treaty of Pressburg was signed there. The Germans still call it Pressburg!
On this occasion, its streets and bridges were covered in ice. My normal Danube crossing, on a cycle path alongside a railway line, was closed and I was forced to use one of the main bridges. I decided not to stay, and instead ride on before stopping for a coffee in the walled-town of Hainburg. Just beyond this pretty Austrian border town, while crossing the Danube bridge back to the north side of the river, I had a puncture as a result of a spoke breakage. The tyre was split beyond easy repair, and it was clear I would have to get a new one. I spent the last part of Sunday afternoon walking back into Hainburg along with many Austrians who were out enjoying the afternoon sunshine. The next morning, after a good breakfast of homemade bread, butter and jam, I went to the cycle shop. It had closed for good. Close by was a tool shop and general store that also sold cycle tyres, but unfortunately, it did not sell the correct length of spoke. I set off for Vienna on a standard mountain bike rear tyre and a wobbly wheel.
inside Hainburg’s walls
It was at this point I realized just how good my Schwalbe ice spiker tyres were. With the new standard tyre on the rear, the slightest pressure on the pedals resulted in the back wheel skidding round and attempting to overtake the front on all but the softest snow. The banking was becoming more difficult to follow as it drifted north out of sight of the river. I was finding this part of the route so different from the summer months when streams of cyclists frequent these paths and navigation isn’t a problem.
Vienna has many cycle routes; there is a whole book devoted to them. There are even several routes following the river, which divides around a large island. A canal also ferries goods to the city centre. It forms a large semi-circle from the Danube, south and north of the city. I wanted a cycle shop and headed for the centre where, with the help of a woman cyclist, I found one. They didn’t have the part I wanted for my hub gear, but they did find me the correct length of spoke.
misty morning near Tulln
It was a misty morning when I approached Tulln. On my first journey along this way I had been surprised at the number of pubs that earned a living from the passing cyclists. Tourists had gone so they were all closed for the winter, but as local people were still using the cycle paths for commuting, ice had been cleared away. I headed for the cycle shop in the town centre. They took my filthy bike into their workshop, cleaned it up, replaced the broken bit on the hub gear, and best of all, they refused to take anything for either their work or the spare part. I was on my way again with seven gears instead of just the one, and a warm feeling towards Tulln on an otherwise cold day.
Crossing back to the north bank of the river as the day became brighter, I rode along the slightly hilly and very beautiful stretch between Krems and Melk. Looking up to the hillside above Dürnstein, I was reminded how unwise it was of King Richard the Lionhart to upset the German nobles during the 3rd crusade. Shipwrecked on the way home, he was forced to travel overland, where he was captured by Leopold of Austria, in Vienna, and spend 13 months in this cold looking castle. But, no doubt, being a king, he would have the chance to enjoy the excellent wines of this region. Richard’s hard pressed subjects paid a huge ransom. This money, in turn, paid for the city walls that, in another age, helped keep the Turks out of Vienna. On my visit, the grape vines were bare but the castles on the hills and the old stone villages looked wonderful in the sunshine. Roads were clear except for small patches of black ice.
The weather was becoming much warmer as I cycled through Austria. Some tracks were now free of ice and snow; others had snow melting alongside, spreading pools of water across the track, which turned to ice overnight. The worst surfaces were where the snow had been rutted with tyre marks and refrozen into icy blocks, or where the shade given by the mountains or forests had prevented the snow melting at all.
The few hotels open in the depth of winter were well prepared for cyclists and there was always a place to lock the bike. I was soon used to being told that I was the first cyclist of the season by friendly staff. Almost like being the first cuckoo in spring! In Austria and Southern Germany, a shandy is called a radler, which is also the name for a cyclist. A few had to be tested for quality.
My ideal route then, as now, which demanded frequent crossing of the river, had to be scrapped. There were no ferry crossing in operation in Austria during January and, over some stretches, few bridges. Despite this I rarely had to travel on a road for long and was able to stick to cycle paths. Linz, Hitler’s favourite city, had a grand plan drawn up for it by Albert Speer, his architect. Only the bridge was ever built, and I crossed over it into the City centre to find an hotel. In 2009, Linz became the European city of culture. This was no thanks to Hitler, it is now a very pleasant old town with modern facilities.
Passau, where the Inn and Danube meet.
The last 100km of Austria, between Linz and Passau, had twice caught me out with heavy summer storms. This was third time lucky, with only a slight dusting of snow. Part of the cycle route alongside the river was officially closed, and it was very difficult to ride, over the blocks of ice, along what is normally a delightful shaded stretch before a ferry crossing. As the ferry was closed the main road was taken for the last 40km into Passau, where I crossed the bridge over the Inn. Passau is famed for being the junction of three rivers, as well as the Inn and the Danube there is also the Ilz. The city is a delightful place with lots of bookshops, old buildings and good places to eat.
Heading for Regensburg, the best route was to stay north of the river until the bridge at Vilshoven, and then navigate a large stretch of road building where a new cycle way now exists; then cross back to the north and stay there, avoiding crossing into the centres of Deggendorf and Straubing. Once Regansburg was reach, and the four bridges crossed to reach the south side, I had a fantastic view, as I crossed the last of these, of Reganburg’s most famous old bridge the Steinernen Brücke. It’s a normally muddy track out of Regansburg, which this time was covered lightly with snow and patches of ice. Beyond the railway bridge, I transferred to the road and stayed there all the way into Kelheim, avoiding my more normal route of crossing to the north side of the river at Bad Abbach. Kelheim has a number of decent hotels, all of them were closed, but I found excellent accommodation above a bread shop.
Regensburg’s old bridge
Deciding not to take my original route along the Main-Danube canal all the way to Bamburg, but instead following what is now my favourite part of the journey, by turning off from the canal along the Altmühl and then Tauber rivers to join the Main at Wertheim. Along the Altmühl Tal (the valley of the Altmühl), cycle paths wander along the forested edge of the valley below limestone cliffs. This was then a wonderful mix of tracks, a few were still mud, more were limestone, and some were tarmac. It was here, in the limestone cliffs, just after the publication of Dawin’s Origin of the Species, that the first feathered dinosaur fossil was found, suggesting a link between dinosaurs and birds.
ducks at Riedenburg
a confusion of cycle routes
With a change of direction came wet, warm weather. Rain had melted some of the snow before the sun came out to make a fresh bright morning. Many cycle paths were now under water, however there is a network of small roads, bypassed by all but local traffic, where cyclists have priority, and I was able to use these. The Altmühlsee is a huge lake on the Altmühl river, just north of Gunzen Hausen. On my first visit there I had enjoyed riding around the lake on a network of well-planned cycle paths. On this occasion the paths, along with minor roads, were under water, making the lake even larger. The surface of half-melting ice formed one great rippling sheet of dark blue. The rest, free of ice was a sky-blue mirror, reflecting the trees and the buildings. Beyond the lake, the Altmülh was getting much smaller as it got closer to its source. It was time to change river systems.
flooding near the Altmühlsee
The walled city of Rothenburg is very impressive in every respect. Its imposing position, dominating the hillside, speaks loudly of past power. Careful rebuilding after the last war, when 40% of the city was destroyed, gives a living monument to the past, yet it is a pleasant modern city. The story about Rothenburg I most like dates back to the thirty-year war, when the protestant town was about to be destroyed after the victory of the catholic General Tilly. He was given some local wine in a huge vessel of more than three litres, by the Celler Master. He rather liked it, and promised the town would be saved if anyone could down the rest in one go. The former Mayor, Georg Nusch, saved the town with a single gulp. He died soon afterwards.
Below the city is an interesting double bridge over the Tauber. In all respects, except one, it looks Roman: the Romans never reached this spot.
double bridge on the Tauber
Between Rothenburg and Wertheim is one of my favourite 100km stretches of cycling. There are a number of quite large towns linked by good cycle paths, minor roads and hilly woodland trails, all are marked with Liebliches Taubertal sign posts. On this ride, only the woods still had evidence of snow.
forest trail near Wertheim
From Werheim, where the Tauber reaches the Main, to Frankfurt, flooding was a major problem. Along with cycle paths either side of the river, short stretches of main road had to be used, and yet many times I still had to turn back from a promising route when it disappeared underwater. Closer to Frankfurt, more and more people were riding on the cycle paths. They often ignored flood warnings. For a few kilometres I did the same, splashing hub deep through the water. It was a very muddy cyclist that presented himself at one of Frankfurt’s better hotels that night.
along the Main
At the beginning of February, the sun was warm and the wind had dropped. It was easy to follow the cycle route back to the north side of the river and ride to the junction of the Rhine and Main. Being the weekend again, the sunshine had brought out the crowds. The cycle paths were so full of people it was difficult to ride the bike at all. When I stopped for a snack at a café, I had to move my bike while tables were put outside for lunch. It was 20˚C. On the news I was hearing of storms raging across the UK.
The ferry between Rüdesheim and Bingen works all the year around. I crossed to the west side. Just out of the town there is an excellent cycle path, high above the Rhine, and away from possible floodwater. At that time, on a stretch of the road with little space for the railway and cycle path, the authorities were starting to build a steel structure over the Rhine to accommodate a new cycle path. It is now complete and has taken about ten years to build. It must have cost millions. A demonstration of how far the Germans will go to make cycling safer.
To avoid major cities, I didn’t want to follow the Rhine all the way to the North Sea. For a long time I was experimenting with several possible routes home. My present route heads further north to Remagen, before crossing to other river systems on the way into the Netherlands, and then taking ferry home from Rotterdam. But on this journey I climbed 500m above Boppart before dropping down to the Mosel. A hilly ride followed on small winding roads over first exposed farmland, and later pine forests, where cross country skiing routes had been marked out. Dropping down from the hills I reached the Belgium border.
Without a good quality cycle map of Belgium I rode for a long time on cycle paths alongside busy roads. The storms that had been news item in the UK, hit me with a vengeance as I battled against a gale and was lashed with icy rain. Despite the tough conditions there were always cyclists out training in Belgium – that’s why they are so good! Once I got close to Gent, an excellent map was acquired with the cycle routes marked. I was then able to follow a track alongside the canal to Zeebrugge and catch the ferry home.
My time as a teacher had come to an end in Budapest in 2002, but my love of the place has stayed with my. Almost every year, either as part of a longer ride; or as a ride in its own right, I find myself wandering down those wonderful paths to Budapest, which is still my favourite city.