Archive for July, 2010

Our first taste of eastern Europe

July 31, 2010

After leaving Austria, the next country we went through was Slovakia.  We approached the Slovakian border with our passports ready, as our guidebook said that we would have to get in line with the cars and go through a checkpoint.  When we arrived at the border, however, we saw cars driving right past the abandoned border patrol building, and the bike path continued without interruption.  Since Slovakia is part of the European Union, you no longer have to get your passport stamped.  Another bonus: Slovakia uses the Euro just like Germany and Austria, so we didn’t have to switch to a new currency.

We spent a night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and then over the next few days we criss-crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary a couple times, since the Danube forms the country border at that point.  Finally the Danube makes a sharp turn south (this is called the “knee” of the Danube) and continues in that direction through Hungary.  Here are a few highlights from that time:

  • Gyor, Hungary – Actually, the highlight of this city was our experience with trying to get out of it.  Our map of Gyor seemed to be out of date, as the roads on the map weren’t matching up with the roads we were riding on.  At one point we were standing by the road studying our map, and a tow truck driver pulled over, beeped his horn, and said something to us in Hungarian.  We shrugged our shoulders and he got out of the truck and came over to give us directions.  We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but he described the route to us in Hungarian anyway.  He finally resorted to drawing three circles on the ground to represent the traffic circles we were supposed to go through, and then he pointed in the direction we were supposed to go.  Shortly thereafter, we passed a girl on a bike who stopped us and asked which direction she was going.  It turned out she is from Germany, and she’s riding the same route we are, but without a map. (That’s a whole lot easier in Germany and Austria, where the routes are well marked with signs, but once you get into Eastern Europe it gets harder.)  We decided to ride together, and between our map and her ability to speak enough Hungarian to ask for directions, we were able to find our way out of the city.  We rode for most of the day together, and it was refreshing to be able to connect with someone on a deeper level than just buying a Coke or asking for a hotel room.
  • Esztergom, Hungary – In this town we happened upon a cultural festival in the main square.  On the stage, the program alternated between a group performing traditional Hungarian dances and a musical group playing traditional Hungarian songs.  There were also some food vendors around the square, and we indulged in a taste of home with some “American hot dogs.”  Even that turned out to be a bit exotic though, as our language barrier resulted in some spicy ketchup on our hot dogs. As we sat and enjoyed the program on stage, we noticed a poster for a Hungarian gospel choir that was supposed to perform that evening.  We thought it would be interesting to see the choir perform, but we couldn’t understand the information on the poster to know where the concert was supposed to take place.  As it turned out, they were the next act in the cultural festival!  Many of the songs they sang were in English, and we got a kick out of being the only people in the crowd who could sing along as the choir performed DCTalk’s song “Free at Last.”
  • Mohacs, Hungary – This was the last town we stayed in before crossing the border into Croatia.  We couch surfed (www.couchsurfing.org) with a girl and her family, and this was one of our favorite experiences in Hungary.  Her mom made Hungarian goulash and crepes for supper, and the next day we went out with our host and her friend to find some cultural sites in the town.  Among our stops was the workshop of Englert Antal, a man who makes the traditional wooden Buso masks used during Carnaval celebrations in Hungary.  (www.englertantal.hu). He explained the history and meaning of the masks and even let David try out some carving techniques!
  • Condition of roads/paths – Sometimes the bike route is just a path worn into the grass on top of the dike that runs along the Danube.  Sometimes it is a gravel path (one of our least favorite surfaces), and sometimes the path looks like it was paved about 30 years ago and has since crumbled. Once in a while we actually get a nice smooth bike path.  And sometimes we have to just ride on the road.
  • Communicating with people – Hungarian is one of the few European languages that is essentially unrelated to any other language.  English therefore, has almost no words or even roots of words in common with Hungarian.  Whereas in German, you might be able to get the gist of a sentence like “Was ist der nächste Halt?” (“What is the next stop?”), the Hungarian “Mi a következő megálló?” offers no linguistic clues to the English speaker.  With that said, some of the Hungarians we talk with do speak some English or German.  (German is a very helpful language to know here!)  Some people say they speak a little English, but they never actually say anything in English; they just listen to us talk and then they respond in Hungarian.  If we are talking with an older person, sometimes they will bring over a younger person to talk to us in English.  Some people only speak Hungarian and there’s no one around who speaks English, so we just communicate with gestures and pointing, and we complete the transaction while speaking two different languages to each other and not understanding what the other person is saying.  Fortunately the process of buying a Coke is pretty universal, and the words “Coca-cola” and “Pizza Hawaii” are the same in every language we’ve encountered so far.  Pepperoni pizza is not what you’d think, though.  We ordered that once and got a pizza with spicy green peppers on top.  We are learning a few Hungarian words, like thank you and hello/goodbye.  In Hungarian you can actually say “Hello” (sounds just like the English word hello) to mean hello or goodbye.  It feels really funny to leave a store and say “hello”!

A traditional Hungarian dance at the cultural festival in Esztergom

In Hungary there are still some thatched-roof houses...notice the satellite dish

Englert Antal, a local artisan, demonstrates how to carve a Buso mask

A typical bike path along the dike next to the Danube in southern Hungary

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One last little bit of Austria

July 31, 2010

Before leaving Stockerau, we took a train into Vienna and spent a day exploring the city and looking for our old apartments and the places where we used to hang out when we lived there.  Lindsay lived in Vienna for two summers (2003 and 2004) as part of her German studies in college.  During her first summer there, she took classes at a language school.  We looked for the school, but we weren’t able to find it; apparently it had moved to another part of the city.  We did, however, find the apartment that she lived in that summer.

Lindsay's first apartment in Vienna, above a bakery

During Lindsay’s second summer in Vienna, she took some classes at the University of Vienna on topics like German art and literature, and teaching foreign languages.  During that same summer, David came to Vienna with a group from college for a month-long cross-cultural trip.  The group took language classes at the language school Lindsay had studied at the previous summer, and we all lived in an apartment building close to the language school.

University of Vienna

University of Vienna

The apartment building where we lived in the summer of 2004

That afternoon we had lunch and spent time reminiscing in a restaurant we had frequented during our time in Vienna.

That night we said goodbye to our host family in Stockerau and prepared to resume our biking trip.  The next day we stopped in the center of town to get some things before leaving, and we ran into one of our students from the English camp.  She wanted to know why we were still around after the rest of the Americans had left, and we explained to her about our biking trip.

On our way out of Austria, we visited an area called Carnuntum that is famous for having many Roman ruins.  We visited the ruins of a Roman arena.  We were surprised that we were allowed to walk through, and even on, the ruins.  In the museum at the arena, David tried on a gladiator’s helmet (OK, not the real thing, it was a reproduction).  It was quite heavy and hot…it was hard to believe they actually wore helmets like that!

Walking on the Roman ruins

David’s new bike helmet

Quick update

July 27, 2010

Hey everyone…just wanted to give you a quick update to let you know that we are still alive and well. Since we left Austria, we have biked through Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. Today is our first day in Serbia. Tomorrow we hope to reach the capital, Belgrade.
Hopefully we will be able to get some full-length posts up soon, once we find some wi-fi for our laptop, rather than just catching a couple minutes here and there on a computer at the library or youth hostel.
Stay tuned for more details…

Slovakia, here we come!

July 13, 2010

In our last post we were still in Germany, but very close to the Austrian border.  Biking into the second of the seven countries that we will be biking through was exciting, though if you blinked at the wrong time you’d miss the border crossing.  On the one side of the trail a small rusty sign getting enveloped by the tree it was nailed to marked the location of the “landes grenze” – the country border.  There was no one there to check passports or anything – a perk, I suppose, of travelling within the European Union.

Austria proved to have some of the smoothest, flattest bike paths that we’ve been on yet.  Also, the path often stayed close to the Danube, unlike some of Germany where you catch periodic glimpses of the river as you navigate through scenery that consists of mostly fields, forests, and small towns.  Our first day in Austria was our longest biking distance so far – just shy of 100 km.  The distance seemed much shorter, however, as terrain is usually a bigger factor in biking fatigue than your actual distance.  That night we stayed in Linz, the third biggest city in Austria (though that actually doesn’t say too much – a quarter of the Austrian population lives in Vienna.  Most of the rest of Austria is rural).

Our next day of biking included an excursion to Mauthausen, one of the largest World War II concentration camps in Austria.  The sobering atmosphere of the camp was augmented by clouds and rumbling thunder that rolled in just as we arrived at the camp and that lingered as we toured the bleak grounds.  The storm clouds passed just after we left Mauthausen, however, and that evening we got to the small town of Grein after another day pleasant biking.

The biking after Grein was on smooth, flat terrain, but we noticed the flipside to being on these ideal bike paths – scads of other bikers.  The stretch between Passau and Vienna is by far the most famous section of the Danube bike path, and many groups rent bikes and panniers to do a three or four day trip.  We don’t count ourselves among their ranks, however, as we’re biking a much longer distance and our clip is about twice as fast as most of theirs.

The afternoon and evening of the day after Grein was, however, perhaps one of our favorite times here so far.  We entered the Wachau region – a beautiful area with ancient small towns surrounded by mostly vineyards and apricot orchards.  We explored a medieval tower with spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower.  Apparently this tower is always open for curious people like us to explore.  If there were anything this old in America, I’m sure it would be off limits for passersby to investigate.  From the top of the tower we had a great view of the Danube and the town until dusk set in and we had to end our enjoyable evening in the Wachau.

The next day we were scheduled to get to Stockerau (a city not far from Vienna), where we would meet a group from Lancaster to do a week of English day-camp at a church in Stockerau.  Around mid-afternoon we came to a large sign beside the path that said simply “2000.”  We checked our map and found that we were 2000 kilometers from our ultimate destination – the Black Sea (the entire river is 2840 kilometers long).  That day was one of the hottest days so far, but we knew we would be able to get a long shower after meeting up with our host family.  We met up with the group and with our host family, the beginning of our short-term mission section of the trip.  This section of the trip deserves its own blog post, which we will hopefully have up soon.

Today we are biking from Stockerau through Vienna, and tomorrow we hope to enter our third country – Slovakia.  This means we’ll be leaving some now familiar things – the German language, the Euro, and, in some cases, well-marked bike routes.  And we’ll be entering countries where the city names have more diacritic markings than actual letters.  But we are armed with a bike route book and a phrasebook with all of the eastern European languages that we plan to encounter – what more could you need?

Austrian Border

The border crossing into Austria

David touching the Danube

David touching the Danube

Riding through the countryside

Riding through the countryside

Vineyards in the Wachau region

Vineyards in the Wachau region

Riding through St. Michael

Riding through St. Michael

On top of the medieval tower in St. Michael

On top of the medieval tower in St. Michael

Only 2000 more kilometers to the Black Sea!

Only 2000 more kilometers to the Black Sea!