Epic European Cycle

2015-08-08 : Danube Cycle Trail - Sommerau
Heat wave in Austria. No fun at all. It's their fourth heat wave this year and it's terrible. They are warning people not to do outdoor activities because of the heat. We forced Gabi into an early start today - it's not a matter of preference anymore, it's a matter of health and safety. On good days so far, we'd have the wheels rolling at 9:30, but we've had starts as late as 10:30. Today I told Gabi we would be wheels rolling by 7:30, and we almost achieved that... I think we were rolling by 7:50 or so. We have a very very short window to get some distance behind us before the day heats up. By 9:00, the temperature is rising dramatically, so having the 1.5 hours early in the morning before it gets too hot is good. Once Gabi is done touring with us (tomorrow is her last day), we've decided that we'll probably start doing 5:30AM starts so that we have 3.5 hours before the day gets really hot. We used some gatorade a couple of days ago to keep our electrolytes up, and today we had even more. Brent bought 8 bottles in Enns - 2 for each of us. Between the early starts and the gatorade, we're doing pretty good.
Yesterday, Gabi convinced me that she could do the early start from a Campingplatz, so we cycled past Walsee and stayed at the Campingplatz in Sommerau, which is really just a field behind a large building at a Pension. It was nice, and the proprietors were REALLY nice. We hoped for a storm, but we didn't get one. We did go down to the Fischer Paradies (fish paradise) restaurant 1km away, and it was awesome. And Gabi was true to her word... such a trooper. She made the early start!

2015-08-09 : Danube Cycle Trail - Melk
Today was supposed to be Gabi's last day cycling with us, but there was a miscommunication with her friend in Vienna, and he won't be there until after 10PM tomorrow, so there's not much point in her racing over there. That means she's cycling with us for one more day, which gives her an opportunity to see the Wachau, and it gives me one last opportunity to torment her with an early start. Brent, Laura and I had planned to start doing 5:30AM starts once Gabi was gone. Now that she's with us one more day, we had to compromise - she didn't want to do 5:30, so she negotiated me down to 6:30AM. Later, she negotiated Laura down to 7AM. It's ok - since we came all the way to Melk today, it means we have about a 35km day tomorrow - a short day. We'll spend some time enjoying the Wachau in the early morning cool air.
The heat wave continues, and it is making it hard for us to enjoy the sights. We've just been cycling as quickly as possible to our destination and trying not to die from the heat. We're managing carefully with the early starts, and plenty of fluids (including Gatorade).

2015-08-10 : Danube Cycle Trail - Krems
For our whole tour, Gabi has been talking about seeing the Wachau region of Austria. It was scheduled for the day after her last day with us, and she was quite distressed about that and trying to find a way to see it. Since the mix-up with her friend in Vienna, she was able to ride the Wachau with us, and it was everything we dreamed of - and more. It was completely beautiful and spectacular. Certainly as good as the Loire Valley. We got a nice early start - rolling by 6:45 - and took our time enjoying the Wachau. It was SO GREAT! Tomorrow we have a 5:30AM start, since we won't be committing Gabi-cide by doing so. We have 45km to do and we should have plenty of time to enjoy it along the way.

2015-08-11 : Danube Cycle Trail - Tulln
It is just the three of us - Laura, Brent and I - for our last two days of cycling, so we did what any normal morning people would do when faced with cycling in a heat wave. We got up at 4:00 and were rolling by 5:30. We made the 43km to Tulln by 9:30AM, just as the day was turning scorcher. It was awesome. We had a bit of lunch in Tulln, walked around a bit, found an air conditioned mall where I bought some maps for Croatia, and then made our way to the Campingplatz to relax through the scorching afternoon. I'm soaking my day pack and Brent's cycle gloves, which all smell something like what I understand is the odor of old hockey equipment. Tomorrow, we'll do the same thing to arrive in Vienna, which will be our last day of cycling while Laura is with us. We have a day in Vienna, a travel day to Budapest, a couple days with Michelle, and then Brent and I will be on our own again.

2015-08-12 : Danube Cycle Trail - Vienna
Today was the last cycling day with Laura. Boo! I can't believe it's gone by so quickly. We made another early start (rolling at 5:30), and made it to Vienna by about 10AM. We're checked into our awesome hostel with our awesome check-in lady, and soon we'll head downtown to try and book our Hydrofoil trip for Friday (to get us to Budapest). Gabi has booked into our same hostel, so we should see her again too - her adventure is taking her in different directions than her original plans. We should also see Michelle soon. She is in Vienna with no tour plans tomorrow - it synchs perfectly with our rest day so we should be able to hang out with Michelle tomorrow. It's just synchronicity all over the place.
The darndest thing happened today. It is "chore day" - we need to sort out our transport to Budapest, do laundry, try to get passport photos for our France visa application, look into shipping Laura's bike back to Canada, etc, etc, etc. My biggest concern was getting the transport to Budapest squared away, so once we were settled in to our hostel, we headed downtown to the ticketing office for the Hydrofoil. When we were done there (alas, Hydrofoil-ed... or is that NOT Hydrofoil-ed), we wandered a half a block down the street in search of much-needed lunch. We were just selecting a table, when who spotted us from across the restaurant, but Gabi, who had just arrived there with her friend. I can't believe that in all of Vienna, we ended up at the same restaurant at the same time. We were planning on catching up with her at the end of the day anyway, but that was just a little spooky. Magic Gabi strikes again....??
DAMN! We've been Hydro-foiled. Or, is that NOT Hydro-foiled. A few days ago I wanted to book our Hydrofoil tickets, but their web site didn't have a place for me to include bicycles on the reservation, plus they wanted a credit card number but their page wasn't secured. So, we took our chances on booking when we showed up today, but they are fully booked. DAMN! We are stuck with the train. Icky icky icky!!

2015-08-13 : Day in Vienna
Today was a day full of chores and sight-seeing. Gabi joined us, and we met up with Michelle to go to the Leopold Museum. Then, we all went for lunch at the Sacher Café, and went to the Schmetterling Haus. We also plowed through some chores, including looking for bike shipping options for Laura, and booking our transport to Budapest. Tomorrow will be more chores - Brent and I want to make our first attempt at a visa for France, plus stop by the Hauptbanhof to collect our train tickets and orient ourselves to the station before we have to go there first thing on Saturday with our bikes.

2015-08-14 : Day in Vienna
Annnnnnd... the heat wave continues. Brent, Laura and I set out early this morning to check out the main Hbf (train station) that we'll be traveling to tomorrow morning. Laura, the smart one, realized that tomorrow is Saturday, so we actually should be able to take our bikes on Metro regardless of rush hour, so we're planning on doing that rather than riding to the station. Then, Brent and I set out to the France Consulate where we received our first bit of official run- around. First of all, we went to the listed address, and were told we needed to go to a different place across town. So, off we went across town, but the only person at that office was a general info guy who told us that the visa office is ferme, and we need to make our visa application from Canada (which, according to the internet which never lies, is not entirely accurate). This afternoon I wanted to go for a bike ride around Vienna with Gabi, but the heat wave, and additional errands are preventing that.
Two things I've known about myself for a while are that I get easily overwhelmed trying to ride in unfamiliar cities, and that I have a lousy sense of direction. These things haven't been any kind of real hindrance to me in my real life because I rarely have to deal with them. When I'm riding in an unfamiliar city (for example, when I moved to Edmonton), after the first few rides, it becomes familiar, and then I'm fine. With the sense of direction thing, I'm rarely by myself when a good sense of direction is important, and apparently I hang out with a lot of people who have a good sense of direction.

On this trip, though, the constant novelty of where we are has really amplified these things and I now feel aware of them very frequently. I have finally gotten into the habit of staying firmly behind Brent when we're riding in an unfamiliar city, even though my natural tendency is to ride in front, and Brent's natural tendency is to *not* ride in front.
From Brent: What can I say; it's still stinkin' hot in Europe. It cooled off for about 2 days after I wrote the last letter but now we are working on at least our 8th day in a row of temperatures in the high 30's. The predicted highs for the next 3 days are 37, 37 & 38. Not great cycling weather. Every evening we see clouds that look like thunderheads forming in the distance. We've all been hoping for rain to cool us off but so far it hasn't developed. The closest thing to rain was about 5 days ago in Sommerau. At night there were 5 or 6 flashes of lightning to the south but they were so far away that the thunder was undetectable.
From Brent: I thought that I could talk a bit in this letter about some of the unusual things I've encountered in Europe. Nothing too outrageous, just things that that have struck me as being different from home. So, in no particular order:
  • Two-way doors and windows are pretty common in Europe. By two-way I mean that they hinge in 2 different directions. They normally have a handle that rotates. With the handle in the 'down' position the door/window locks. 'To the side' and it opens fully, like a regular door. 'Up' and it hinges at the bottom, the top opening about 6", like a transom. The first time I ran across one of these I just turned the handle until it stopped (up) and pulled. I thought the door was going to fall on me!
  • Scooters (Vespa-types) are allowed on many of the bicycle paths. We've seen a few people touring by scooter.
  • I've seen quite a few "Stevens" brand bicycles around. They are designed and built in Hamburg. Too bad they spell the name wrong.
  • There have also been a few bicycles-built-for-two on the trails. One cool configuration has a recumbent on the front and a regular bike on the back. Both riders get a good view forward.
  • There seem to be a lot of canoe & kayak clubs in Germany. Many of them have very basic campgrounds beside a river or lake where you can set up a tent for 5 to 8 Euros per person.
  • There is a lot of smoking in Europe. At least more public smoking. It's hard to have a beer or a meal outside without sitting next to someone who's drawing on a cigarette.
  • It's also perplexing to see cycle tourists stopping on the side of the trail for a smoke-break. A couple of nights we camped beside a cycle tourist who chain-smoked in the campground.
  • There are cigarette machines all over the place. It's not unusual to find one on the sidewalk in a residential neighbourhood. The vending machines require you to insert a driver's licence or ID card before they'll sell cigarettes.
  • I went into a gas station in Dillingen to buy some beer. At the checkout they had a display selling cigarettes in 7-packs. Attached to the display was a little shelf with loose cigarettes on it. The sign said, "Take one. Try one."
  • The drinking age in most of Europe seems to be 16.
  • "Radler" is a nice drink. It's like a mildly alcoholic (3%) ginger-beer. Very refreshing after a day of riding.
  • Urinals in Germany are not for use by short guys. I'm 5'8" and I can use them OK but if I was 5'0" I'd have to angle upwards or use a toilet.
  • And the toilets are getting weird. The first odd one I saw was in Ulm but they are becoming more common. The back half of the bowl is raised above the water level and flattened; and not very far below the toilet seat. When you poop it's laid out on this porcelain platter. The first time I used one I was afraid that there wouldn't be enough spare room to wipe. But so far no big problems...When you flush, high pressure water sprays from the back of the toilet bowl and pushes anything on the platter forward, where it falls into the sump and is flushed away....It's best to close the lid for this operation.

2015-08-15 : Arrive Budapest; Meet Michelle
Transit day. Train from Vienna to Budapest, with a connection in Gyor. I hate hate hatey hate taking the train with loaded touring bikes. Wrestling the bikes on and off the trains is brutal and securing them on the train is awful. Hanging them up is the worst, but it's all bad. I wish the boat had worked out. I should have pre-reserved, but we didn't know for sure that that's what we'd be doing. Oh well... we can do the train if absolutely necessary. At least we didn't have to hang the bikes up on either train today.
We took a lady we didn't know (before) on the tour from Donaueschingen to Vienna. We certainly know Gabi now - we have her number, and she definitely has ours. We all had to make huge adjustments to form a functioning team, but we did it. I have to take a moment to say how absolutely impressed I am with Gabi for doing the tour. She had almost no pre-conditioning, no cycle touring experience, a borrowed bike (her sister-in-law's mountain bike), borrowed paniers (her brother's old old set), brand new el-cheapo sleeping bag and tent, and no sleeping pad at all. I'm astonished that the tour didn't break Gabi or her gear. She did the whole tour with us, except for a couple of much needed "train days". Our hats are off to you Gabi, you're one determined cookie!
I'm not crazy about a lot of things about the Windows Surface... and I'm certainly no fan of Windows 8, but I'm super impressed with how my Surface has held up so far on this trip. It has been bumped and jostled for over 2000km so far, through rain, humidity and severe heat, and it is still functioning just fine. It does refuse to start sometimes when the battery is low, but Laura found a process (involving a secret chant, an intricate dance, and the sacrifice of a small mammal) for forcing it to start anyway, which works very nicely. If it holds up for the rest of our trip, I will be even more impressed. I don't expect it to live beyond a six-month tour, though.
As far as train travel days go, this one was not bad. We had to board and disembark from three trains today - the regional train in Vienna to get to the Hbf, the train from Vienna to Gyor, then the train from Gyor to Budapest. We didn't have to hang the bikes on any of the trains, and the latter two were roll-on - no stairs! I still hate train travel with bikes, but today was pretty darned gentle as far as train travel. Whew!
When we got to Budapest, things didn't start off great. We were hot and thirsty. I went to the Info desk and asked the woman if she spoke English, to which she replied "NO!!! Hungary!". Uh-oh. But, I still asked her for a map of Budapest, and apparently she understood that because she pushed a map at me and shoo'ed me away. We had a quick bite, and then Brent and Laura figured out how to get us to our hostel from the train station. We started off angling towards the river thinking that we might take a ferry down a ways, but when we got to the river there was a nice bike path so we decided to ride. All in all it went quite smoothly as long as I just kept my mouth shut and let Brent and Laura do their thing. Shortly after checking into our hostel (which has AC!!) we set out to meet Michelle and went to Monk's Bistrot for dinner. I had the duck breast and it was seriously the tastiest meal I've had since... I can't remember when. It was amazing!
As soon as we left Vienna, the terrain became flat flat flat, and the towns and buildings became so much more plain and utilitarian than all of the beautiful ornate architecture we've been floating in lately. There was one bumpy section before Budapest that was nice, but for the most part, everything was very flat and boring, and we're glad that we chose the section we did to cut out of our tour. Budapest is a very beautiful city, though, and we're getting more great architecture to feast our eyes on.
From Brent:

After Vienna we were running out of time to get to Budapest to meet Michelle so we hopped a train that took us through Slovakia. It was my first look behind the old Iron Curtain so I was looking with wide open eyes. We had to transfer trains and I must say that the one we moved onto in Slovakia was much nicer than the one we rode out of Vienna (but then Vienna has a real mish-mash of gear, some of their trams are very modern and some look like they might be from the 1930's). It was kind of cute to see the uniforms of the staff on the Slovakian trains and stations. I was particularly taken by the hats. Hats are something that I always thought the Soviets placed a lot of importance on and the style seems to have stuck. Ladies with red pill-box hats and men with military style hats with over-sized flat tops and red bands.

The area of Slovakia that we travelled through looked to be economically depressed. There were a fair number of factories and office buildings close to the track that looked abandon or in poor repair. We passed one building that had a Soviet-style bas-relief in the concrete over the door. I wasn't fast enough to get a picture as the train rumbled passed.

At some point we crossed into Hungary and as we approached Budapest I could see the general conditions of the buildings and roads improving. When we got to the train station it was still a bit of a shock (but only a bit). It reminded me more of a third world train station that the ones we had left in the West (Including Frankfurt, which was no dream), with small private stalls vending trinkets, fast food, fresh vegitables, phones, shoes, anything. And the whole place could use a cleaning.

Hungary is part of the European Union but not part of the Euro Zone, they have their own money. Laura and I went down to the basement and swapped our Euros for Forents. I don't know if we got a good deal because the math was too complex for me to do in my head. We all ate pizza standing beside the tracks before Rhonda went to get traumatized by the lady at the info desk who couldn't or didn't want to speak English - "No. Hungary!"

But the train station was the worst part of our time in Budapest. It all got better from there. Rhonda had booked a place for us to stay and it took us a while to find it but once there it was all good. The staff was excellent and friendly and our place was close to the Underground. We got multiday passes and the city was ours.

2015-08-16 : Visit Kalocsa
Today was a really refreshing break. The temperatures were cooler than they have been... I'm sure we didn't break 35C, and if we did, it didn't last more than a couple hours. We took a 2.5 hour bus ride out to Kalocsa (pronounced kah-loo-cha) - the town that Michelle lived in 15 years ago teaching ESL. After the enormous hustle of Vienna and the overwhelmingness of Budapest, it was a relaxed, pleasant trip and fun to experience Michelle's trip down memory lane.
I think Brent and I are giving up on getting the long term visitor visa for France. Brent found the web site of the French consulate in Vancouver which gives a more thorough list of things you need than what I'd found. The requirements include an in-person interview before you leave your country, three months of bank statements (printed off the internet don't count unless they're stamped by your bank), and a police check. We clearly don't have those things and to get them wouldn't be impossible, but pretty much as close to impossible as you can get. That's ok. We'll find ways to entertain ourselves outside of the Schengen Area. Their loss. ;)

2015-08-17 : Bites & Sights Tour
It has been sounding like it will be darned near impossible to find a bike box in Budapest so Laura's been fretting and wondering what to do about her bike. Of course we were going to try and find a box, but she was also prepared to take the bike to the airport and have it shrink-wrapped (for a fee), or, worst-case scenario, leave it behind. The night before last, we asked the young fella at our hostel if he knew of a bike store nearby. He said he didn't, but he'd looks some up for us. Then, he said to leave it with him overnight and he'd have it for us in the morning. Apparently he was on night shift and happy for to have a "project". The next morning, he had about twenty "x"es on a map for us. Laura chose four to try - two each near a couple of Metro stations. This morning, I found a book and map store that I wanted to go to, which happened to be fairly near a Metro station, and near a fifth bike store which Laura had NOT selected to try for a box. We went off to the map store, and Brent and Laura went off to the bike store. First try, Laura gets a box. The young fella there actually took a bike out of a box and gave her the box. What a relief! It's a very very small box, but we brought it back to the hostel and using her superior spatial skills, Laura managed to fit her entire bike into it. What a relief!
Our main plan for today was to go on a Bites and Sights tour which Michelle had organized a long time ago. It was AWESOME! We walked around the Market Hall, then to various restaurants and points of interest. The tour was supposed to last until about 5:30, but we ran about one hour over. Our tour guide, Sandor, was awesome, and his assistant, Agnes, was wonderful. I will definitely consider more Bites and Sights tours in future if we have the opportunity.
After our Bites and Sights tour ended, we walked across the street to an English Bookstore. While we were in the store, a torrential downpour started. The bookstore was closing, but they decided to take pity on us, and a couple of other shoppers and let us wait it out for a while. When it didn't let up, Brent, Laura and I decided to make a run for it. Michelle stayed hoping to wait it out longer. The streets were running with water. Young Hungarians filmed us walking down the street from their dry balcony. The stairs down into the Metro were a cascading waterfall. The first floor of the Metro station was a lake, with people huddled all over. The Metro was running - yay! When we got to our stop, it was raining more lightly and there was some water running down the stairs but it wasn't a river (yet). We waded to the hostel. I checked to see if there had been a cancellation for tomorrow night so Brent and I can stay at the hostel and wait this out, and luckily, there was a cancellation so we'll be staying here another day. Thank goodness we don't have to be on a train or a bike trail tomorrow!
From Brent:

I have to talk about the Subway. We were on the Green Line and it is Soviet Era. I have to say that it ran fast and efficiently but it lacked some of the finer touches of Western Subways. The trains accelerated hard, braked hard and howled as they ran down the track. I'm sure the sound level in the cars exceeded Industrial standards at home. Riders should be issued ear protection. The trains run to a tight schedule. At the stations the doors open and you have about 45 seconds before a tone sounds. About 5 seconds later the doors slam shut so hard that they bounce. You don't want to get caught in one of those when the train speeds away. Most of the stations are the same layout and design but the 2 colours of the decor are different at each station.

Budapest is a very nice city but has the look of a place that needs a bit of maintenance...Don't get me wrong, they're trying. Budapest was the second city of a great empire until about 100 years ago but then got about 80 years of poor management. They're working hard to make up for it. Vienna has had a better ride since the break up of Austria-Hungary and it looks it.

We had a flash flood while in Budapest. We had stopped at an English-language book store when it started raining hard. We hung out for a bit but finally decided to go out. It only took moments to be drenched, after that there was nothing to do but enjoy it. We kicked and splashed our way though ankle-deep water in the streets of Down Town while people stared at us. We got to the Subway station and the stairs were a waterfall. We hopped the train to our station and climbed up another waterfall to a park with calf-deep water boiling up from overflowing man-holes. We got back to our hotel and a short time later we heard that the Subways had been shut down, there were power outages in some parts of the city and some of the hotels in our neighbourhood had flooded rooms. But it was all good with us.

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