The Danube: Gyo̎r to Bratislava

dscn3601.jpgAfter two days in Gyo̎r, I set out on the 12th for Bratislava. There was a steady northwest wind all day, but it was not as strong as earlier. North of Gyo̎r, I found myself riding through tidy suburbs with single-family dwellings, set in the middle of vast fields of various crops. The plants were all short, and different bright shades of springtime green – except for the rapeseed (brassica napus), blooming in blinding yellow.

DSCN3490I realized that these isolated villages had been the hamlets of serfs working these fields in medieval times. Each had a very old church in the center of town, but I doubt that the houses, each of modern construction or renovated, with a late-model sedan or SUV outside, held field workers or farmers of any kind.

DSCN3489After 15 km, the bike path dumped me on the E575, just a few meters from the now unmanned Slovakian border post. I crossed a pair of steel bridges, and found myself in the middle of nowhere. I looked at the bike path stretching north to my left. From the raised highway, it looked like dirt, and my heart sank. Instead of turning back, I rode down the ramp to the floodplain and turned onto Highway 506. It was a pitted, miserable track. On a hunch, I went down a side road that led back to the levee, my attention caught by a sign in Slovak announcing the Danube Bicycle Trail. When I rode up to the levee, I was delighted to find that, up close, the bike path was concrete and light-colored asphalt, not dirt at all.

This was the longest, tallest levee that I had ridden so far. The path wound for more than 10 km along the broad, fast-moving channel. The current flowed so quickly that I found myself overtaking a large barge full of containers, struggling upstream. When I would stop to take pictures of something, it would creep ahead. DSCN3493At Gabčikovo, the bike path ended at a massive dam. From where I was on the shore, it looked like a massive wall, and I could not see where the barge was going to go. It steamed steadily into the dam and disappeared. I rode around to the approach ramp of the dam and discovered a double set of canal locks. DSCN3500A small park area provided a clean washroom and some picnic benches, where I enjoyed lunch while the barge rose to the level of the vast reservoir upstream from the dam. I knew that both sides were in Slovakia, so I was confused about who built and operated the vast complex. DSCN3502After tossing my trash, I rode to the right bank of the reservoir and discovered another marvelous bicycle path continuing northwest toward Petralska and Bratislava. This was not the Danube at all. The Danube had become a small river running beyond the trees to my left. Beyond the trees lay Hungary. The big reservoir was entirely in Slovakia. I now understood that the project had bypassed the natural rapids that must have been there with a 30-km long broad, man-made channel and a canal lock. DSCN3512The path took me into metropolitan Bratislava, to the point on which stands the Museum of Modern Art. A sharp left over the dam with sluice works that controlled the flow of the real Danube, and I found myself riding on the right bank of the river again. DSCN3507Notwithstanding the quality of the bike path, I saw only five other cyclists until I reached Petralska, across the river from Bratislava: three recreational riders and two tourists. And no one passed me, so I was alone going upstream. It was a dreamy, pleasant solo ride. It might have been enervating to push upwind all day, but the headwind died off at about the 60-km point.

IMG_20170512_165647After the Museum, traffic picked up considerably. The network of bike paths is heavily used by individuals and groups, especially after work. There are beer gardens located conveniently every five kilometers or so, with dozens of bikes of all types and prices piled around the bike racks and fences, letting their bearings cool while their riders cooled other things at the picnic tables.

The Patio Hostel was easy to find, and a welcome sight after 84 km against the wind. All day long, I spent less than 10 km on a road with traffic. Amazing.

DSCN3518I knew that I would want to spend at least two days sightseeing in the capital of Slovakia, so I booked a bed for four nights. At only EUR 10/night, the “most popular hostel in Bratislava” was a bargain. I sprang for the next level of luxury: the room with four twin beds. Guaranteed lower bunk. I unloaded everything into my locker, and took the receptionist’s recommendation to eat at the 1 Slovak Pub around the corner. First, I took a shower and changed. I got to Tesco just before they closed, for breakfast supplies for the next day, then walked to the restaurant. It felt good to read my book at a proper table with a nice hot meal (goulash followed by elk stew with dumplings). The streets on the way back were filled with young people from almost everywhere. I heard very little Slovak in the clumps of happy people out on a Friday night.

Back in my room, I stretched out on my assigned bunk, and fell soundly asleep.

DSCN3525Saturday was logistics and work day. I did the laundry in the free washers and dryers, and went shopping for my meals for the next three days. I had an article to review, so I finished that and delivered it. The weather made it a good day to be indoors again. I have been lucky that way.

DSCN3523Sunday, I walked around the historic center and the downtown area by the river. Bratislava has a very compact historic center, making it easy to cover the main sights in a two- or three-hour walking tour. The Blue Church, famous for its Secessionist architecture (only built in 1910), was located in a quiet residential neighbourhood, and clearly, the neighbourhood supports its church. The faithful were lined up outside the two entrances to hear the service over loudspeakers. Unlike other Catholic countries I had visited, these people dressed up for church on Sunday. No big parking lot, so these people walked there. DSCN3531The National Gallery had three main exhibitions, which illustrated the contrast between the Communist era and the rest of Slovakian history. One was about fashion during the Cold War; another was a retrospective on Milan Adamčiak, who was a fan and collaborator of John Cage. DSCN3547Adamčiak started as a cellist, became a sculptor and painter, and a proponent of integrating art forms, including audiovisual works, well before the easy era of digital art using computers. The “Impermanent Collection” was not a mistranslation: the SNG had temporarily rearranged the Permanent Collection into themes to make space for a renovation. DSCN3545I was particularly impressed by the Medieval wooden statues, some of which had the polychrome removed, exposing dramatically the artistry of the carver. The “UFO Tower” on the Novo Most (New Bridge) took an idea from the Space Needle in Seattle; DSCN3535an upscale restaurant offers diners a spectacular view of the City (not in my budget). Saint Martin’s, the ancient church where the Kings of Hungary were crowned for three hundred years, was a classic Gothic Cathedral. Saint Martin was famous for the legend of giving his cloak to a beggar. IMG_20170514_155855In typical Catholic fashion for the day, the marvellous statue in the church shows the French soldier (Saint Martin de Tours) as a Hungarian officer.

DSCN3562Bratislava also has an exceptional amount of public statuary to be enjoyed for free. Much of it is whimsical, like the “Man at Work”. One does not have to be Slovak to rate a statue: Hans Christian Andersen adorns the large pedestrian boulevard, the Hviezdoslavovo námestie.  DSCN3551

I had an early supper at a pub across from the Cathedral and continued walking. Back at the Hostel, I settled into the Bar Patio in the basement with a beer and wrote until midnight.

Monday, I thought that I would ride around to some of the sights. IMG_20170515_133040But I met Jackson Duckworth as we were both finishing our respective muesli breakfasts and washing the dishes. He was going to the Devine Hrad, a medieval castle 21 km upstream. I had read about it, but had not planned to see it. A big shout out to Jackson for mentioning it. DSCN3581We walked to the bus station and caught the No 29 bus to the Castle. We spend several hours walking the site, admiring the views of the Danube and Morava River floodplains, and learning about each other. Jackson is a very interesting young man. DSCN3584He was in the last months of a “gap year” doing what so many 18-year olds used to do when I was that age: taking a year off between high school and college to travel. He had the traditional backpack , an adventurous spirit, and a tight budget. I hope that our paths cross again, often.

DSCN3592Back in Bratislava, we had dinner at Saint Martin’s Pub, where I suddenly thought that I had dropped my glasses and my power pack at the bus stop at the castle. We took the bus back and quickly determined that the missing items were not there. The bus driver brought us back without making us get another ticket. Back in my room, I found that I had left the glasses and the power pack behind, so that was a happy ending.

I put in another evening working at the table in the Bar Patio, checking out things to do before I had to be in Vienna. I was way ahead of schedule. I decided to visit the Esterhazy Castle (Schloß Esterhazy), and maybe camp along the Neusiedler See. I booked two nights with an Air BNB in Eisenstadt and turned in. My snoring roommates had no impact.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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