It's not always easy to convey the practical, physical and emotional realities of long-distance cycle touring to family, friends and loved ones. This was especially true for my life partner Asli, whose experience of cycling doesn't extend much past Amsterdam's canals. As such, we deemed it fit and proper that we would cycle the Danube river from Bratislava to Budapest together. 3-4 days (240km) of romantic river cycling hand in hand, exploring old churches, candlelit dinners and other such euphemisms was the dream. In reality, we achieved this in part, but realised as many would testify: sexy cycling is a rare and wondrous thing, a height rarely, if ever, achieved.
It seemed I had not learnt my lesson regarding over-ambition, especially in this new paired paradigm. An 80km first day after picking up the new steed ('Harryita') late, left a beautiful and aching figure sprawled across the bed for all the wrong reasons. We had stopped in the remote Hungarian village of Nagybackjsi, 15km shy of our planned Warmshowers host, the uncertainty of where our bed would be caused some frayed tension that could be wound back together over two bottles of wine and a hearty dinner. Despite the cross and tailwind and seamless Danube cycling tracks, this was not the gilded introduction to cycling Asli and I had both envisioned, perhaps a more realistic one.
The second and third days together were both more 'realistic' than the first. Loose gravel tow paths followed by long drags away from the river buffeted by HGVs. We were left eating dust as regularly as my reassurance of "the next bit really is more beautiful, really. The Danube bend is world-renowned'. How many times can a boy cry wolf before he gets a helmet hurled at him?
The Slovakian border town of Komarno threw up a fabrication of interest, when exploring the town before dinner, we passed into an enclosed square. What caught the eye most was an unmistakably Gaudi-esque apartment mini-castle, adjacent to a classic Austrian wood chalet. As I looked about the square, it reminded me of a more extreme version some of Amsterdam's higgledy-piggledy streets where no two buildings seem quite of the same period, design, height or indeed vertical. Asli sped to the truth faster than me: 'it looks like they've tried to put the whole of Europe here'.
From the official website's broken academic english translation: 'the Europe place creates the atmosphere of the townsmen environment in the heart of the town... which was a natural human claim was erased from the life of the two generations in the era following the war, during the forty yeas of lasting censorship...'
This was the most significant and certainly the quirkiest soviet echo so far, a disneyfied response to the previously enforced cultural uniformity.
After the giant Basilica of Etzegrom (pictured, find Asli for scale) and it's panorama of the Danube, the slog metamorphosed into the rolling romantic idyll we first pictured. Groomed cycle paths sweeping through cobbled Hungarian riverside villages finally enabled conversation to flower and the cliched in-saddle hand-holding to appear.
There was no need for my past carrot and stick work, the beauty of the 'Danube Bend' brought us swiftly into Budapest. She, and we (!), had made it, completed our first cycle tour together, learnt that much more about the other's psyche, are closer for it, and I think can more easily empathise with the challenges each of us face in the rest of this year.
We had earned our Unicum shots (royally blessed 40 herb-blend Hungarian the spirit - a more complex Jager), and our the rest of our night in the dizzyingly eclectic infamous ruin bar 'Szimpla's'. Special shout out to our wonderful host Ayliss (a long-lost friend of Asli's) who toured us around, and even gave up her own bed for us!