Sunday, August 4, 2013

european tour: vienna to budapest via bike

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.  You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
-Cesare Pavese (via "Writing Away")

A few years ago, R mentioned to me that for his 30th birthday he would like to go on a bike tour in Italy.  We missed his birthday, but the idea of biking in Europe stayed with me.  So when it came time to plan our {belated} honeymoon, I started exploring the idea of doing adventure travel.  During my search, I found Velo-Touring which offered guided rides through Austria and Hungary.  It was substantially cheaper than what I was finding in Italy, and a long desire to go to Budapest, led me to present the idea to R.

I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I commute on my bike, but this was nothing compared to spending 6 solid days on two wheels.  Also, with not many people sharing about their experience online it was difficult to gauge what the group or ride would be like.  For us, it all turned out to be amazing!  This post would turn into my longest one yet to describe each day on here, but I will say that the ride itself was relatively easy {highly recommend bike shorts and a hat that does not fly off in the wind}.  I say easy, mainly because nearly the whole 250 miles was flat.  It is still riding a bike for 8 hours a day and it was hot.

There were 12 guests + 2 guides.  It was a mix of people from Europe and the US, and we could not have asked for a better group to spend a week riding through the countryside with.  In total, we rode around 250 miles from Vienna to Lake Balaton, where we hopped in a van to ride the final hour to Budapest.  The whole landscape was very picturesque with rolling fields of wheat, sunflowers, vineyards and vegetables.  It was also wheat harvest, which made the scenery very reminiscent of Kansas in the summertime; combines and grain trucks included.  In contrast to the US midwest, the towns are closer together and are truly villages, with narrow roads, brick sidewalks, 300 year old churches, small "castle" and homes built on Roman ruins.  

Our days started around 9 am, after some "warming up" and the shout of, "Indulás!".  Then riding all morning, stopping to take short water and rest breaks every 6 miles or so.  Around 1, we would stop for a leisurely lunch.  Most days were picnic lunches that we bought at grocery stores in the morning, but a couple of times we were fortunate to stop in a village and visit a local restaurant.  After lunch, it was more riding until we arrived at our destination for the evening, followed by group dinners.

The highlights were that nearly everyday there was a "surprise" addition!  During the week, we visited a charming village named Rust, where we were introduced to storks.  Storks actually spend the summers in Austria and Hungary, building nests on top of the locals' chimneys or telephone poles and raising their babies.  In Rust, there was a nest on nearly every house, filled with 3-4 baby storks.  Another day it was the village of Sopron, "The Most Loyal Town", where the buildings were built in the 13th and 14th century on top of ancient Roman ruins and marked by the Fire Tower.  Sopron also marked our introduction to delicious Hungarian wine and brandy!

Next, it was an exclusive tour of the Palace of Esterházy.  A gorgeous palace that was once occupied by the Hungarian royalty and home of the famous composer Joseph Hadyn.  After WWII, it was occupied by the Russian army, but in recent years has undergone a significant renovation, and was absolutely gorgeous!  Later (on the same day), we visited a local "spa", or more accurately a small water park.  After many hours of riding in the sun, it was the perfect opportunity to relax in the pools and have some fun on the water slides!  Needless to say, it was a true highlight of the trip!

Another day was lunch at a local park, where we climbed wooden statues and played on the swings and monkey bars.  Then, an afternoon in Heviz, where we swam in a thermal lake.  Our final stop before Budapest, was in Keszthely on the shore of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe.  Our 8th floor room of our Soviet era hotel had a balcony that overlooked the lake. However, the hotel that night was also hosting the European championship for womens boxing, so it was full of young teenage boxers, which made for a very interesting atmosphere.

Our final day, we rode along the shore of Lake Balaton, zigzagging through tourists, RV's and other cyclists.  For our final rest stop, we decided that a swim in the lake was the perfect ending to the hot day.  So changing in 1 tiny bathroom, we rushed out into the waist deep water; splashing, floating and enjoying the final moments before heading the final miles into Budapest.   

Overall, the trip was an incredible opportunity to meet new people, to learn a little more about their world and cultures.  And, if anyone is looking for a bit of planned adventure in their travels, I highly recommend Velo-Touring and our amazing guides, George and Steve!

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