Homer Gets a Puncture

Homer got his first puncture today! We were up extra early today, made breakfast and prepared ourselves for departure from Balatonelle. When I went round the back of the apartment to retrieve our bikes, I noticed Homer’s front tyre was completely flat. I was tempted just to pump it up and continue, but I knew that would be doomed to failure. Once I had disassembled the front wheel and removed the tube, I attempted to find the hole.

But I could not find it for love nor money! I had to resort to the old trick of using a bowl of water. The hole turned out to be miniscule. It was one of those cases where a new tube would have needed to be fitted to fix it, if I hadn’t had a bowl of water handy, so I guess it’s a good job it happened when it did. But anyways, it is probably the first of many, so I might as well get used to it.

Apart from that it, was a very relaxing day. We spent 50km drifting along a cycle track to our next destination, Keszthely, on the very western tip of the lake.

Here are a few pictures of the lovely town we are currently staying at:

Tomorrow we are planning a trip to some natural spa in a neighbouring town of Heviz, which dates back to the time of the East Roman Emperor, Flavius Theodosius, who was supposedly an invalid as a child, but was cured by a natural spring.  The minerals in the water are meant to cure all sorts of diseases, ailments and rejuvenate physical strength. Just in case the spring doesn’t work, the town has a doctor, surgeon and a dentist on standby…

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The Great Emptiness

We are at the Southern side of Lake Balaton, which is virtually a whole series of towns linked together along its 100km coastline. The lake is beautiful, particularly at sunset, and there is every amenity tourists and travellers might need. There are thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of hotels, camping grounds, guest houses, restaurants, bars, ice cream cafes, boat rental facilities, tennis courts, kids playgrounds etcetera. The only problem is that they are all closed and there is hardly a person to be found anywhere.

We cycled 40km today from Siofok to Balatonelle and the place was completely and utterly deserted. The temperature was 34 degrees from 10am to around 3pm and you couldn’t buy an ice cream or a bottle of water. We had to knock on doors, ring buzzers and bells and even walk around unlocked properties shouting “hello?” before we were able to find ourselves somewhere to stay. I have never experienced anything like it. The scale of the emptiness is immense. It’s like residents, employees, business owners and tourists all received a memo to lock up and evacuate immediately. There are no cars, no lights on in the houses, no anything. Just endless lines of hotels and other tourism related business locked up. It is very surreal and if I’m honest, quite unsettling. In most tourist locations, life goes on after the main tourist season is over, but here life has gone – including the people. We were able to quite happily walk in the middle of the road or tramp over roundabouts as there isn’t a car anywhere. The trains that rumble by, don’t stop, there isn’t even a sound of a dog barking.

One thing that does seem to be happening, however, is construction. There are new guest houses and hotels going up all over the place, so clearly there is money in the tourist season to make it worthwhile. I can only imagine this place must be madness during summer, but for now it’s just empty and eerie.

Yes all this means that you are free to enjoy the views and walk along the shore without hoards of people around. You are able to sit on a rock and contemplate with some kids running around screaming at the tops of their lungs, but this is too quiet. We all need to know that we aren’t the last people left on Earth!

We will be heading off tomorrow to the very west of the lake and hopefully back to some sense of normalness…

The Big Storm

It’s been a crazy couple of days for us. A few days ago we were on a rest day at Lake Velence. On that day the wind picked up a lot in the afternoon and got to a point where we had to move the tent away from the lakeside to behind some bushes. Later that night, around midnight, a big storm whipped up, fuelled by the heat of the day. The storm started with flashes of lightning followed by the thunder claps a good few seconds later. The flashes of lightning made the inside of the tent light up like day every three or four seconds. Very eerie. I was attempting to count the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, trying to ascertain if the storm was coming closer or moving away from us. In my sleep induced stupor, I figured that it was moving further away and coupled with the fact that it wasn’t even raining, this seemed probable. However, about twenty minutes later, we were awoken by a massive thunder burst right overhead and raindrops, that seemed to be the size of golf balls immediately began falling onto our tent. The wind seemed to pick up instantaneously and was now battering our poor house. At one stage the wind blew a peg out the ground leaving some of the tent flapping around wildly – but there wasn’t much we could do about it now. Strangely enough, all I was thinking of was the fact that we didn’t have the saddle covers on our bikes! That should have been the least of my worries at the time, especially as we had our panniers outside the main compartment not fully closed as if expecting rain. After about an hour of madness it stopped almost as suddenly as it started. I was able to quickly run out in my boxer shorts and shoes to fix the tent. It continued to blow hard and pour for the rest of the night until the sunrise came and chased it all away. We were just very glad that we moved the tent earlier that day, otherwise we would still be searching for our stuff around the campsite!

The day after the storm we set off for Lake Balaton – a massive 100km long lake in Western Hungary, which is a very popular holiday destination for Eastern Europeans, Germans and Austrians. The heat was insane on the way to Lake Balaton. It was usually around 28-29 degrees for the whole day. I was pretty much burnt to a crisp at the end of the day – despite a few suncream stops. Even my scalp was burnt through the vent in my helmet!

About 30km from Lake Balaton we met a lycra cyclist (you know the type I mean), who was also heading towards the lake. He spoke in Hungarian and I said “English”, then he spoke in German to which I said “Nein” so finally he resorted to English and said “your bike no good, you need one like mine” while pointing to his lightweight carbon fibre speed machine. How could I argue? Truth be told, I envied his bike and his load which couldn’t have held more than a spare sock! Anyways, we chatted for a couple of minutes about our route and other such things, before he zipped into the distance leaving us to drag our worldly possessions up the hill. About three hours and 30km later we met him again (which was rather amazing since we took about eight wrong turns. This time he was coming towards us. He pulled over to assist directions and chatted a bit more. Very friendly chap he was. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the first campsite we had planned to get to. The second one, about 10km down the road was closed and deserted, the third was chained up and shut. Hmmm. It was getting dark at this point and we were both fed up coming across closed campsites. We didn’t have any options left. We had to start knocking on doors (only doors that had a sign outside saying ‘Apartman Frei’). After a couple of attempts someone took us in and we had a nice room for the night.

What a long day it was – time for some food. The whole town was deserted, hardly a person or a light to be found. We came across a cafe by the railway station and tried to order something familiar off the menu only to be told in Hungarian that only certain items of the menu (the bits that weren’t translated into English) were available at this time. After a bit of chatter backwards and forwards the waitress asked a customer to order something for us – at least that what we assumed happened – because two plates of food appeared! It turned out to be very tasty indeed. I suppose it’s a good way to taste new local dishes – get some random strangers to order us a surprise meal!

First Day on the Saddles

And so came the Sunday, the day when we planned to leave Budapest – on bikes! Geoff was worried about getting out of the city, I was scared of cycling those loaded bikes (well over 20kg each), so it did come as a surprise, that we actually packed all our stuff in the morning, had a quick breakfast, took all that stuff downstairs, got it on the bikes and took off. The first miles weren’t the most pleasant – Sunday morning traffic was heavier than anticipated and the bikes wobbled a bit. But then we got out of town (after only one wrong turn) and it was quieter and smelled of early autumn. I was getting excited. We were only supposed to do about 60km that day and Hungary was meant to be flat. So I wasn’t very impressed when the first hill of the day appeared before Budakeszi. The road was pretty narrow and steep and the path next to it had strange steps every once every few hundred meters, which mean’t that we constantly had to get off the bike to push. I discovered that neither getting back on a fully loaded bike going up hills, nor pushing it up is very entertaining – unless, of course, to someone watching you from the other side of the road, having a quiet giggle to themselves.

But we kept going. Distances grew and even though we cycled for hours, we were nowhere near the lake we wanted to reach for the night. We had a quick stop in Etyek for ice-cream, which turned out to be our lunch. From there it was mile after mile, some uphill, some down and it was singing that kept me going. A very random selection of hardly ever finished songs (as I didn’t all the words), yet it helped me focus on something else than slowly passing meters and which part of my body was more sore at that time.

I know that this wan’t the plan. It was meant to be an adventure not an ordeal. But I guess beginnings might be tough and the more we cycle, the easier it will get. That’s why today we were having a relaxing day at the lake (apart from the 8km round trip (walking!) to the shop that Geoff didn’t like at all). If it wasn’t for that and for the wind blowing in off the lake, so bad that our tent nearly got blown away, it would have been a very pleasant rest day…

And here’s what Geoff’s been up to today…

Waking Up In Budapest

Today was just about doing a little bit of sight-seeing and taking in our new surroundings. Within a few minutes of leaving the hostel and snapping our first couple of photographs, we saw our first car crash. Some guy was driving up behind stationary traffic and not paying the slightest bit of attention. He swerved to the left, just in time, to avoid the car in front. Unfortunately, for him, to his left was a two foot high curb which demolished his wheel and axle and of course the underside of his car. Note to self – “watch out for sleepy drivers”.

Did you know that Monika has been spending some time in Jedi Knight school recently? Below is a video of here showing off her skills:

The rest of the day was spent walking from here to there and then from there to over there and then from over there back to there and so on. Monika had her ‘photographers eye’ again and spied a great vantage point from which to take a few pictures of the famous Hungarian Parliament Building. Unfortunately this vantage point was on the other side of the Danube and involved much walking and the climbing of around 500 steps! When we got there, we had to wait until dusk – as apparently this puts the building in the best light. The total walking distance for this day was around 20km. The sooner we get on the bikes the better!

Now this topic came up after dinner today and is probably best broached when we have travelled more and have more people following our blog. But here goes anyway. Tonight we had dinner at a cafe and the total bill came to 4,560Ft, so I gave the waitress a 5,000Ft note and waited for my change. I did not get my change! The waitress had decided that this was her tip. To say I was unimpressed is an understatement to say the least. We choose virtually the cheapest items on the menu and decided against the desserts, just to try and save money. Her 440Ft tip was more than we had spent on lunch! This 440Ft works out at about €1.60, but it’s the principle. I personally think that it’s a bit cheeky to assume you are getting a tip and don’t even bother to bring the change back to the table. Was it our fault for going to a place that expects a tip? Should I have gone up and asked for my change? Do other backpackers/travellers who have no job and are travelling off their savings leave tips in developed countries? From now on, we will be eating in less fancy places (not that this was fancy!) or we will be paying with massively inappropriate denominations so that there will be doubt that I want my change back!

That was lesson number two for our trip. Lesson number one was ‘wear your helmet at all times, even if you are just opening your curtains’.

Day of Departure and Arrival

The alarms went off at 6am – not that we needed them, as we were awake every half hour during the night. My parents were kind enough to come down to Dublin the previous night to treat us to our final dinner and to get our bikes and luggage to the airport the next morning. On a typical soggy, dark September morning in Ireland, we got to the airport in plenty of time, but due to the length of the check-in queue, it was all a bit panicked and stressful right up to the last minute.

There wasn’t much time to say our goodbyes. Now, I won’t lie, airport goodbyes are not nice – in fact they are tough! It was very hard for us to see my parents upset and it’s not nice for us to imagine what they were thinking as we were walking toward security. At least myself and Monika had our exciting adventure to look forward to – even though I had been feeling anything but excitement for the past eight weeks or so. More about that in a future post though. My parents plan to come out and meet us somewhere along the way, so I think we will all be looking forward to that!

Upon arrival in Budapest our nicely packed bike boxes looked like they had fallen out of the plane mid-flight, retrieved forcefully from the den of an angry bear and then dragged bouncing along the motorway at 100kph before being reunited with us at the airport. We were very worried about what condition the bikes would be in when we got to unpack them at our new hostel.

The bedroom to our new hostel was huge! It was almost the size of a football pitch! The ceilings were about four meters high – it resembled more of a warehouse than a bedroom. When we opened the door, I walked straight over to the curtains to open them to let some light in. One of the metal curtain poles fell off the wall and crashed onto my head, virtually knocking me out cold. It appears that we booked ourselves into ‘Hostel de la Death Trap’.

Once I came to and examined the bikes, it turned out that Monika’s bike had a bit of cosmetic damage to the gear shifter, but all in all think we were very lucky not to have more damage – given the state of the boxes. With the bikes rebuilt and ready to go, there wasn’t much left to do but to go and explore – on foot – for now…

Endless Pre-Departure Preparations

Since the last entry on this blog it has been all about preparations for departure. There wasn’t any time for cycling or camping or many of the other things we had planned to do before leaving Dublin. I never realised how much work is involved in moving house and country but having no future address to move into! Banks don’t really like it when you tell them that your forwarding address is ‘a tent somewhere in Europe for the next few months’.

I finally managed to hand in my notice at work (Monika had already been made redundant a few weeks earlier) and so this was really the first point at which I realised that this trip was actually going to happen. Our tenancy notice was also given, utility services cancelled and after a frantic last couple of days packing and placing our items into storage we left our apartment in Dublin.

Our flight wasn’t for another four days, so we booked ourselves into a hostel in Dublin. This would help us get used to life outside our safe apartment. The short cycle from our apartment to the hostel was literally the first time we had cycled anywhere on our fully loaded bikes. We know this wasn’t the best preparation but with both of us having full time jobs and Ireland having year round rubbish weather – there isn’t a lot of opportunities to practice. That short cycle was enough  to tell us that we needed less stuff!! A lot less stuff. We were so wobbly and unsure of ourselves that it was like we had never been on bikes before!

Over the next day or two we managed to remove six or seven kilos of equipment that was previously listed as ‘vital’. We also spend a considerable amount of time repacking our panniers to reduce the weight on the front wheels as much as possible.

Our flight was on 20th September, so by the evening of the 19th, the bikes were packed, the panniers were prepared and we were ready to rock and roll. By this point we were so tired of the planning and organising for the past two months – we both just wanted to get all the stuff on the plane and get there. The next time we would wake up will be the first day of our trip.