Forget murderers and thieves. Helen Moat discovers it's the Hungarian lorry drivers you've got to watch out for
“You idiot!” I shouted, shaking my fist at the cloud of dust. The Hungarian articulated lorry with its double load had taken a line petrifyingly close to the scrap of metal that was my bicycle, before cutting in even closer. I wobbled as the vehicle blasted past, almost sucking me under its wheels.
The smooth cycle paths that skirted the Danube all the way through Austria seemed a distant memory now. We’d had six weeks of cycling bliss: quiet country lanes and well-surfaced cycle paths. The worst we’d encountered was packed gravel back in Germany, while the Austrian Danube Radweg (cycle path) was as good as any of the Dutch ‘cycling highways’.
In Vienna, I’d reluctantly said goodbye to Ulli, a friend who showed us around her beloved capital city. She’d taken us to Prater, Vienna’s famous funfair. We’d taken the pre-war big wheel with its shed-like cabins. Below the grandly detailed baroque buildings and newer skyscrapers, the city cut a path of green, and beyond that, the parallel Danube canal and river snaked towards Slovakia and the great unknown.
We drank coffee in the opulent Central Café, strolled through Vienna’s parks and gardens, admired the unrestrained architecture of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and taken a bus up unto the hills with its Heurige – new wines, leafy courtyards and rustic restaurants. It was our last hooray in the ‘friendly German-speaking countries’, not least because I knew the language.
“Be careful,” Ulli echoed the words of the Alsace cyclists we’d met way back in Northern Germany as she said goodbye. “It’s not as safe as Austria. Go inside a bank to change your money. Keep an eye on your belongings.”
Jamie and I joked about going into the ‘Badlands’ or ‘The Wild East’. As we crossed the border just beyond Hainburg in Austria, concrete blocks of flats stretched out against the skyline above the Danube, just west of Bratislava, monuments to the old communist world. The cycle path skirted the border between Austria and Slovakia, its wooden posts left in situ as a reminder of a once divided Europe.
Bratislava revealed itself as a handsome city, a scaled-down version of Vienna with an olde-worlde peeling charm and cobbled stones that wobbled under our bikes and strangely oozed rainwater from the recent flash-storm. We slept in a shabby ‘botel’ moored on the Danube next to shiny new buildings. The small capital on Austria’s border produces 25% of Slovakia’s GNP and no doubt benefits from its close proximity to its wealthy western neighbours.
The next morning, we were put to the test as we left town. The Danube cycle path was cut off by the building of a new bridge and the diversion signs quickly disappeared. I saw a local cyclist and asked him for help. He shook his head at my English and offered German, but soon came unstuck as his knowledge of the language was simple but the route across to the Danube complex.
“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll show you the way.” He turned his bike around and wove through pavements and under a spaghetti junction of bridges and grassy paths before reaching the Danube. This was our first experience of eastern European kindness.
While Slovakia and Hungary challenged any preconceptions of our eastern European neighbours, the roads were every bit as bad as described. The Slovakians and Hungarians were bit by bit building new cycle paths as far as Budapest, but there were still stretches of unsurfaced roads, broken or raised edges and deep potholes. Worst of all though, were the busy stretches of road that thundered with monster lorries. I knew as we headed deeper into East Europe, there would be fewer cycle paths and more busy roads.
After the hair-raising incident with the articulated lorry, I started putting out my arm as soon as I heard the ominous rumble of an approaching heavy goods vehicle.
“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” Jamie said. “You might just lose your arm!” That evening I bumped into an Australian couple we’d encountered on two previous occasions. As experienced touring cyclists, I asked them how to best deal with lorries.
“Keep a wide line away from the road edge,” Leone advised. “This forces the lorry out. Then once it starts to overtake, move in, creating a bigger gap between you and the lorry in the process – once the driver takes his line, he won’t change it.”
Leone’s advice made a lot of sense. On main roads, it was instinctive for me to hug the edge, but not only did this discourage drivers from moving out, I was more likely to come off the bike as the edge of the road was often cracked or raised. I tried Leone’s tactic, counter-intuitive as it was, and it worked: the lorry drivers moved out onto the opposite lane (also slowing down in the face of potential oncoming traffic); then I moved in as the driver drew parallel, making sure the driver gave me a good berth.
Jamie and I were inexperienced cyclists, but we were learning fast. I would always hate the stretches of busy roads – but I was loving the gradual shift in culture from west to east: The crumbling villages of single-story dwellings and cobbled streets; the slower pace of life; the cave-like shops stacked with foodstuffs; the chatting housewives in the main streets; the fishermen on the Danube, a cigarette dangling from their mouths; the waft of sweet lilac or the soporific sound of the wood pigeon or cuckoo.
And we were also experiencing (lorry drivers aside) genuine kindness from the local people.
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