The old possee HGV, Growling Bear, Hans Solo and Ferrous Dude took to the road once more in September 2006, travelling from Ljubljana in Slovenia to Budapest in Hungary.
We cycled a total of 647 kilometres in seven days (see statistics). The first was just a brief transfer from the airport into Ljubljana, but we tested ourselves for real in the foothills of the Julian Alps and on a traverse of the Pohorje Massif at Rogla. The route got flatter in Hungary, where we found some interesting 'roads' and standards of driving that were somewhat lower than those in Slovenia.
We arrived leisurely on a Saturday at Brnik airport, some 28km from Ljubljana, around 4.30pm. After assembling the bikes, we made short work of the journey into Slovenia's capital and found our way to Simbol Hostel.
John discovered his first puncture whilst the rest of us were drawn to the interesting reading matter in the bar opposite the hostel. After trying out most of his second-hand inner tubes and helping a Slovene pimp his ride with a bit of extra hot air, John joined us for a couple of bottles of the local brew. Our jovial spirit carried on for the rest of the evening as we sampled the romantic highlight that is Ljubljana, including a taste of wild boar, teaching our evening waitress the merits of obscure English words and a profusion of local wine and beer. A 2am finish felt like perfect training for the week ahead.
Next morning, Sunday, we awoke early to blue sky, bright sunshine and heat. Combined with our late finish the previous night, John and Jake being awoken extra early by a late-partying Swede, and a lack of breakfast possibilities in the immediate vicinity, this caused us all to be exceedingly chipper. The priority was coffee, food, and more coffee. The small, mayonnaise-infested, raw fish sandwich I found myself with was not exactly the perfect antidote to a hangover, as we sat amongst the most elegant of Slovenian society in the centre of town. Still, at least I hadn't caned it on the marlboro lights the night before.
Around midday we eventually eased our way out of Ljubljana, heading north. After a short while we found ourselves with spectacular views of the Alps ahead of us. Just as we started moving uphill, we came across the town of Kamnik, where we stopped at an ice cream parlour to sample their coffee and a number of air-filled buns from the bakery over the road, all bought through Steve's new-found fluency in Spanish. There were a number of locals in traditional dress trooping along in horse-drawn carts. Little did we know that we'd stopped just short of the town centre, which at that moment was a hive of activity as it played host to the National Costumes Festival. Beer, barbeques and Gibaneca aplenty could have been had, if only we'd known...
Out of Kamnik, we started winding our way westwards into the foothills of the Julian Alps. It wasn't long before our legs and lungs had their first proper test of the trip as we toiled around 6-7km up to a 902m col at Conivica. We rested awhile at the col, eating the rest of our air-filled buns and supping on ice-cold coke. After John had done a striking impression of a Circus strong man and Jake had tried a Barbara Woodhouse on the resident canine, we enjoyed a fast, steep descent down into the next valley. After passing through Gornji Grad we stopped at the turning for Velenje, where John took the opportunity to scrump some apples from one of the numerous trees we'd seen in this part of the world (nicer than olives, eh?). An old lady quickly emerged from the nearby farmhouse, but rather than chastising us, invited us to sample more of her apples, even picking a basket of them from which we could take our choice.
We were soon heading into Velenje, described by the Rough Guide as a model new town built in 1959 with a dour socialist realist aesthetic. Whilst there were certainly some ugly industrial areas out of town, the centre was a lot more inviting than we might have thought. We easily found Hotel Paka, where we enjoyed the bon homie of our moustachio'd hotelier and feasted on a sumptuous meal rounded off by a few glasses of schnapps.
Our third day started with a walk around the centre of Velenje, where we visited a few local bike shops for spares and admired the grand statue of Marshall Tito that dominated the main square. We were soon heading out of town making steady progress towards Vitanje. We pushed ourselves up some decent ascents along the way, but these were just a warm-up for what would come later in the day. Our route from Velenje to Maribor included the highest point of any of our trips: the 1517m peak and ski resort of Rogla, right in the heart of the Pohorje Massif. Of course, we were certain the road didn't actually pass over the high point, so it wouldn't be all that bad ... surely?
After making considerable height gains on our way to Vitanje, we were a little demoralised to find a number of big descents, into Vitanje itself as well as afterwards. Although some of our early work had been cancelled out, we were still fairly high and we still felt confident of conquering our big hill for the day. All this changed as the road descended rapidly once more and we sped to what felt like sea level near Zrece.
What followed was a gruelling 19km climb, which included just 500m of road that wasn't inclined against us. Most of us hadn't been anywhere near first gear for some years until Rogla, none of us enjoyed the attention of swarms of flies, and we didn't have any luck thumbing lifts from local farmers on their mopeds. After enjoying a bit of rapport as we yo-yo'd up the hill with a local lass also biking her way up the mountain (surely cheating without the panniers?), we all found need to restock our water from mountain springs and take numerous breaks. The hunter-gatherer instincts came out in all of us, especially when I descended from view at one pit stop to start picking wild raspberries, prompting the others as well to go feral in the forest.
Finally, the peak arrived. And it was the peak itself. At least there was a pizzeria at the top. We needed the food. We had hoped for an easy descent the other side, but hopes were soon dashed as the road quickly turned from tarmac to a very bumpy gravel and dirt track. We had conquered the mountain, but now it tooks its revenge! The next 12km was a hair-raising descent on a narrow track with sheer drops and plenty of hazards to test our biking skills and courage. With a bit of caution our only incidents were a few panniers flying off and a couple of punctures for Steve. Then there were the Slovenian mountain bikers laughing at us, of course...
The ascent and descent of Rogla, however, took their toll on our timings for the day and the night drew in long before we reached Maribor. Steve switched on his Super Trouper and Jake and I took turns to drive our peloton onwards to Slovenia's second city. After some help from a local we found Hotel Tabor, from which we ventured into town proper, crossing over the Drava river on the way. We found Cafe Ranca, one of very few open eateries, which served us fast-food Balkan style: a kind of Serbian version of a burger in pitta-style bread. Not exactly cordon bleu, but quite ample when swilled down with a dark beer or two.
After our exploits on the mountain the day before, we were more than happy that our fourth day was to be our shortest (bar the prolog into Ljubljana, of course). I was doubly glad as Rogla had also taken revenge on my knee. Patched up with a striking flesh-coloured knee-support graciously lent by Steve, I was ready to see if I could struggle my way through the rest of the trip. As it turned out, I'm now a convert to the view that copious and extreme exercise can sometimes be a cure for bad-knee syndrome.
As we headed out of Maribor our navigational expertise was put to the test. Our chosen road turned out to be another dirt track, found at the back of an industrial estate. Still, it went the right way, which is more than can be said for some of the other roads we took that morning. We had a very enjoyable ride up and around a vineyard-strewn ridge with stunning views in all directions, even if we tried out roads that took us towards all points of the compass. We eventually found our way, although this included a disquieting, if brief, stretch along Slovenia's road number 3, where we managed to induce a multi-mile tailback of lorries that struggled to get past us.
We soon found a quieter route, finding a lovely pizzeria with fine views for lunch in the sun, before heading close to the Austrian border, through Murska Sobota, and on to Moravske Toplice and Pension Oblak for the night. Whilst the bar opposite stocked some of the trusty dark beer we'd been finding so enjoyable and had some lovely views in the early evening, Pension Oblak itself struggled to live up to its billing of serving up local Prekmurian specialities.
We eased our way out of Moravske Toplice fairly early, despite some confusion over the hotel bill, when we had to pay cash. Fortunately, the Pension allowed us to pay with several different currencies! This would be the last patch of Slovenia that we'd see on our trip, as we soon eased ourselves upto a very quiet border crossing near Kobilje. Although the barrier ordered us to stop, there was no sign of action until John knocked on the window of the border post and out popped two guards, one Slovenian, the other Hungarian. They eyed us curiously, seemed reluctant to bother with our passports and sent us on our way.
That morning saw us take an attractive route through the Hungarian countryside, as we zig-zagged along quiet roads in the sunshine. Lunchtime came as we arrived at Gellenhaza, a quiet town about 5km south of Zalaegerszeg. We encountered a few local drunks (memories of Puertollano), but a very friendly waitress who patiently listened to our primitive attempts at Hungarian and served us a mixture of tasty goulash no matter what it was we really asked of her.
After lunch we started on a circuitous route that would help us avoid the main roads, on many of which Hungary seems to ban bicycles. As we headed East of Csatar we found ourselves confused as to which tiny, steep concrete path constituted the road drawn on our map. After some deliberation and exploration we chose on one that took us rapidly up. As we crowned the hill the concrete gave way to grass and earth and we were confronted with a choice of rutted tractor paths. We chose to continue heading East, a direction found only with John's trusty compass, enjoying more ruts and a brief spell of slipping and sliding in deep sand before eventually making our way back to paved roads. Once back in something resembling civilisation we soon cleared all uncertainty of our location after an exchange of hand gestures and gruff utterances with a not-so-likely looking Hungarian.
The compass and more guesswork soon saw us on a better grade of road again and we made headway towards first Heviz, then Keszthely, where Hotel Bacchus and a night of fine wines awaited us. The Rough Guide says that Bacchus is the place to eat in Keszthely, and it sure didn't disappoint. The town itself didn't reveal much on our post-meal stroll, save for empty streets and a generous helping of strip clubs.
The penultimate day on the road was to be our longest in terms of distance: a total of 148km from Keszthely to Szekesfehervar. An early start was needed, but we knew most of it would be on the flat, with over half the distance taking us along the shore of Lake Balaton. We chanced on a cycle path that appeared to circuit the lake off road and soon found a gentle rhythm, despite the occasional interruption, including a lengthy phone call from Steve's boss (something about a late report?).
The cycle route occasionally took us along the side of the main road and infuriatingly often took us on big detours to and from the shops and esplanades by the lake, but in general scenic views and quiet paths were to be had. One such area was the Badascony wine region, where we traversed some cobbles and every house seemed to have Zimmer Frei. Steve also managed to unseat himself when cycling into a patch of sand whilst looking at the view. One big detour took us away from the lake as we started to hit the heat of the day, so we had a mid-morning pit-stop in a little village a few clicks before Zanca.
After Zanca, we spent more time along the lake and soon reached Balatonfured, the main resort town towards the north-east end of the lake. I opted for sausage and chips, whilst the rest of the gang tucked into large platefuls of spaghetti bolognaise, topped with cheese cunningly coloured the same as the spaghetti. It was soon time to hit the road once more, so back on the bikes for the rest of our Balaton tour, then we headed inland, taking in a lot of gently rolling countryside as we laboured towards Szekesfehervar.
Our destination seemed to get further away at times as we gradually ate up kilometre after kilometre. The highlight of that stretch had to be John and Steve taking Jake's lead and slipstreaming an evil beast of machinery being towed behind a giant tractor. I struggled with my knee to catch the other guys up, but I was quite glad to steer clear of the dust and dirt, not to mention keep a safe distance from some meaty prongs of metal.
We eventually rolled into Szekesfehervar and with the aid of directions from a taxi driver found our hotel in what appeared at first sight to be quite an unsightly, bustling modern city. Just behind the hotel, however, was the old town; a hive of cobbled streets and historic architecture. Our tired legs did their best to explore the sights, the most notable of which was John's onion soup at dinner, although apparently it was no where near as tasty as the goulash sampled by the rest of us.
The final day and another early start. We headed north out of town across an open countryside of ploughed fields with greyer skies than we'd had to date and a strong persistent wind from the East. Steve soon remarked on how the Hungarian Plains were weeping, but after an hour or more of riding the sun broke through again. We soon headed West towards the capital, quickly passing through Csakvar, then on to Bicske, where we saw our first working horse-drawn cart of the trip (save for the ceremonial ones we saw in Kamnik of course).
We could have pushed on to Budapest before lunch if we'd really wanted, but stopped in Zsambek for a spot of greasy-spoon nosh, Hungarian-style. A sometimes sullen cafe owner was soon charmed into a smile after serving us lycra-clad boys some Gyros. Not long we were on our way, quickly and unexpectedly passing the town sign of Budapest as we began toiling our way up a steep incline some kilometres to the West of the city. Little did we know that we had a 527m peak to get over as we passed directly through the Buda hills. Going up, however, meant that we had a fun descent into the city proper, even if this also meant a few near misses with buses determined to keep to their true course.
We soon winged our way to the edge of the Danube and after a quick stop near Elisabeth Bridge to get our bearings, high-tailed it to the Chain Bridge for a photo call before crossing over to Pest to enjoy a big beer by the waterfront. Job done!