When the going got tough

The last time I was in Croatia, I recalled as I sat in my sweltering tent at 2am, dabbing hydro-cortisone cream on one of the 40 mosquito bites to which I was having an allergic reaction, I was reviewing a luxury hotel in Dubrovnik, lazing at waterside bars and searching out truffles.

I’d expected the Eurovelo to get harder after Bratislava, mostly because that rhymed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t. In fact, for a combination of reasons, things got much harder after Budapest.

First there was the heat. It crept then soared to 40 degrees, and Nicolas and I still doggedly cycled through the heat of the day, long days riding from 8am to 8pm. 

Then there were the roads: the day we left Budapest we merrily decided to take the off-road options. It was a mistake we would never repeat: the unsurfaced flood dykes had baked solid in the sun, a mountain-bike course of hard ridges and bumps that was so tough to ride we slid down the bank to the long grass of a field and ploughed through that instead, at about 5km an hour. 

Finally there were the mechanicals. Probably as a result of our off road adventure, one hot midday, with a sickening crack, my rear pannier rack took its last bump and made a bid for freedom with such force it sheered the steel eyelets to which it was mounted clean off the bike frame.

And yet, possibly because my previous cycle tours have been so patchworked with minor disaster – there was the time Miranda and I went wild camping in England’s Wendover Woods and got caught in a snowstorm; or the time we accidentally entered France along a motorway and escaped by flinging our bikes and bags into a river; or the time I took my housemate Olly careering down an unpaved mountainside in Bosnia; or the time we had to pick our way across a minefield – the wonderful upsides still hugely outweighed the downsides.

Nicolas and I wild camped our first night in southern Hungary in a spinney in the centre of a cornfield. At night deer nosed boldly around our tents. The next day – covering more than 100km – we stayed with Peter and Julia, hosts on the social network Warmshowers, drinking wine their friend had made and eating fruit Peter’s parents had grown. In the morning Julia took me aside as I was packing my bag and gave me a pair of beautiful wooden earrings, shaped like sunflowers, that she had made herself. “I woke up with this feeling that I should give them to you,” she explained. “So I went with that feeling.”

We ride hard another day and cross into Croatia, where the wide, stark Hungarian plains give way briefly to warm scented forests and hillsides. The generosity of the people we encounter is incomparable: our first night, the campsite owner sees us hunched over camping stoves and brings us a harvest of vegetables from her garden. The next day we knock at a door in a village to ask for water: inside, Boris sits us at his kitchen table and feeds us homemade fruit squash and plum brandy. Our final night, we struggled to find a place to wild camp – unlike in Hungary, wild camping is illegal in Croatia, so we had to be cautious. The farmer we asked for help was so despondent not to be able to offer us space that he gave us an enormous bag of fruit then escorted us to the nearest village, taking us door to door until he could find someone with a lawn we can sleep on.

In the end, we decided not to stay on the village football pitch, as he proposed – it felt just a little bit too exposed – and we make the mistake of climbing out of the village to another unending, cultivated plain. Secluded glades were few and far between, so we turned down a tractor-flattened track and made do with a patch of baked earth. No sooner had we both decided that barely grounded pegs would probably hold our tents in place than a monumental thunderstorm rolled in, drenching our attempts to cook dinner, threatening to sweep away the whole camp. I realised the 2 litre bottle of water I had bungeed to the back of my bike – half our water supply – had fallen off in transit, and then I made the most grievous discovery of all: my little jar of Marmite had upended in my food pannier, coating the whole bag in sticky black inedible deliciousness.

Were I on my own, I might have been a bit glum. But as I sat in my tent, pinning the groundsheet down with my bodyweight as the storm threatened to rip it away, wondering how on earth so many mosquitos had managed to bite through the 99% deet I had been wearing, I heard laughter outside my tent. 

Before we retreated from the storm Nicolas had announced that he would change into his swimming kit and shower in the rain. I thought he was joking, but as I tentatively unzipped the tent door, in the darkness I made him out, shower gel in one hand, living up to his word. His tent – which, to be brutally honest, died long ago in Vienna when a man playing volleyball fell on it – is barely together, billowing in the wind. Later he will send me a text from inside describing it as being “like a dying animal trying to take off for the last time” – but for the time being he doesn’t care, and he is dancing in the lightning.

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