The best travel writing, I think, paints pictures of people just as well as it does mountains and canyons. Anyone can go to Vienna; but the unique story is the one you capture at the bar on the outskirts of town in Camping Neue Donau, drawn out over beers, told by a 71-year-old British man who has cycled there from St Petersburg and who it turns out has also cycled through India, once lived in Iran, and is treating himself after a few weeks in the Balkan forests.
Cyclists along the Rhine kept themselves to themselves, and I worried for a long time that I wouldn’t collect any stories and would have to fill every article with increasingly zealous descriptions of mountains, and also that I might go mad. When Ross and Alessia (Rolling East) cycled away from the Austrian campsite I’d raced to meet them at in Au an der Donau the morning after they cooked me the finest asparagus risotto ever to be made on an MSR stove, I thought it would be my last night of campsite company.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the same way that eastern Europe has taken me by surprise with its idyllic roads and zen drivers – lorry drivers wave you ahead of them at junctions, motorists practically cross international boundaries to leave you space on the road when they pass – I have found that the Danube and its cyclists, its caravaners and its campsite owners, its farmers and its shop owners, open up as you ride further east. I have sat over bottles of Austrian wine comparing kit with a couple from south London; I have shared beer in a campervan with two local surfers; I lazed in a spa with an Austrian poet and drank far too much whiskey with a couple of retirees in their seventies who had recently canoed the Danube. I have barely been able to keep up with the new series of Twin Peaks.
After two months riverbends, campsites and old towns blur into one; but faces and their stories stay sharp. So I don’t remember a great deal about the campsite at Tulln but I do remember Will and Jaz, humble but obviously accomplished cyclists from London heading for New Zealand. I followed them slowly towards Vienna, about a day behind because I had time to spare before meeting a friend in Bratislava, and because the cycling was like something out of a dream. Snatches of marching band music blew across the Danube – it was the feast of Corpus Christi and everywhere was festivals – while I freewheeled down the 16% gradient towards the Wachau valley. I’m overtaken by a man on a bicycle towing a canoe – a snatch of chat from the German cyclists alongside me, “If he’s tired he can always sit in the boat”, “Maybe he doesn’t know the boat is there?” – and I’m at Krems to camp amidst the vines.
In Vienna I meet up with Martha, a friend from home, then sit in the shade near the Karlskirche – it’s 36 degrees – and watch a young American run her tiny son over to a flower bed to show him that the flowers look like they’re waving their arms hello. When they’re gone I walk over to look and – I think I am more delighted than her toddler was – they do really look like they’re shouting out Woohoo!
They’re there, waving at me, cheering me on the next day from the riverbank as I ride from Vienna – bidding goodbye to Steven, the British cycle touring vet from St Petersburg who looks like Sir Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan – through an unexpected nudist beach to Eastern Europe. I stand on the western side of the Iron Curtain – all that remains of it is an open, blue gate – and think pretentious thoughts about walls and borders, and then a wasp stings me on the foot, so that my last act in western Europe is to shout out something I won’t repeat because I know Granny reads this blog and cross into Slovakia peddling with one foot and waving the other in frantic circles.
I stopped for days in Bratislava and it wasn’t nearly enough. Two nights at the Camping Zlate Piesky campsite waiting for a friend’s long-looked forward to visit I swam in the lake and explored its sprawling Soviet-era complex and the 24-hour Tesco next door. Hannah has booked us a magnificent 5* hotel, Marrol’s Boutique, and I have to keep pinching myself that it’s not all a wonderful dream as we dash from a motorbike festival to an indy coffee bar to a microbrewery; in between filling up on the little potato dumplings a Slovakian nun had recommended to Hannah on the flight over. I had expected a city of stag parties and lad culture, but instead at Mad Drop brew bar I watched an earnest young man lean his cigarette hand on a straw boater while with the other he held up a worn hardback and drank espresso. I could have been back in Dalston.
I thought things would get harder after Vienna. But a smooth cycle path and a thunderstorm coaxed me to the Slovakian border town of Cunovo, where I camped in a waterpark and was surprised to see the couple next door carry surfboards to their campervan. They come over to my tent later with an enormous fruit salad, and we sat on Magdalena’s in-van double bed while she explained why she was giving up her job as an architect in Vienna to become a cowherd in the mountains, and I told Peter why I thought Bratislava was the greatest city on earth.
Then on into Hungary – still glorious cycle lanes, almost glorious enough to compensate for the brutal headwind and the fact that my front hub is making an alarming clicking noise. At the next campsite in Mosonmagyarovar – which has the highest number of dentists per head in the world (the town, not the campsite) – I decided it was a problem that could wait until Budapest to fix, and joined the canoeing retirees – Wolfgang and his wife – for beers that turned into whiskey that turned into French liqueur and a banging head when I set off in 34 degree heat on dirt tracks the next morning.
I wonder if the hospitality can get any better, and then I am swept up by the kindness of Mark and Judy, a couple my parents’ age who have cycled further than me to arrive at Gyor – from Amsterdam, via the Mosel as well as the Rhine and with a detour to Salzburg. They treat me to dinner and we put together the pieces of our two trips where they intersect, like a giant jigsaw: they give me the welcome news that an elderly Japanese man I had encountered weeks ago at the start of the Danube made it to Vienna, they met him on a campsite near there, and I assure them that they didn’t miss out when they chose to skip the blue water lake near Ehingen.
Now, at Acs near Komarom, Annie and Hannah, two Dutch women who I think are sisters, fed me coffee and then sat poised by their caravan to offer help before I even knew I needed it: there is a bucket for me to do the laundry I had left in a pile outside my tent, here is a bag of clothespegs so I can take advantage of the fierce sun, the strong wind and an early finish. The campsite owner – really, I think it is his garden, and it costs about £3 a night to stay here – has brought me a free, freezing beer and my own suite of garden furniture. I spent almost two months regretting that I’d bailed on wild camping after my brush with the Dutch law. And now, as I prepare to reach Budapest and embark on the third and most remote stretch of the European leg of this tour, through eastern Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria to Turkey, I wonder what I will do without the company and the caravans and humid evenings rolling with laughter at lapses in sign language because none of you speak the same language but – as Wolfgang said to me – we point and we smile and it doesn’t matter.