Brussels to Kefalonia Part 1

68 Road near NagykaracsonyI had never done a multi-week cycle tour before 2014. Nor had I ever been to Greece. These things needed rectifying, so in April 2014 I booked a budget flight from Kefalonia to London. Now I needed to figure out how to get to Kefalonia. After some consideration I decided to take the Eurostar from London to Brussels and start riding from there rather than riding across Kent. The planned route would then see me ride across Belgium, into Germany and picking up the Danube River in Regensburg, which I would follow until Vienna. From there I planned to head south-west to Szeged, in Hungary, before turning south to cross Serbia and Montenegro, then enter Albania, my final country before Greece. There is a ferry service from Sarandë to Corfu, which seemed an interesting way to approach Greece.

On Monday 28th July 2014 I dropped off the bike at St. Pancras station and crossed my fingers it would be put on the correct train the following morning. I cycled home on one of the London cycle hire bikes and spent an apprehensive evening wondering what was in store for the following three weeks.

Day 1: Brussels (Belgium) to Heimbach  (Germany)

After a snooze on the Eurostar I was in Brussels, as was my bike. Yay! It was grey outside. Boo. I set off from the station and was surprised how quickly I escaped the city, but then I was comparing it to cycling out of London. Being Belgium the road signs were in Flemish and French.

The greyness remained as I cycled through fields of sweetcorn and across the Meuse. I stopped to get my bottles filled up from a women in a village and when she discovered I was cycling  to Germany she went to get me some food. I managed to avoid accepting her generosity by showing her the food I had in my jersey pocket.

The greyness then turned to blackness and a massive thunderstorm started up, but fortunately it wasn’t actually that cold and I managed to find somewhere to shelter while I donned my waterproof. I then came across the Henri Chapelle American Cemetery. The cemetery was empty and peaceful, until the silence was broken by a recording of The Last Post. Standing there on my own listening to the haunting music was a poignant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many young people during WWII.

5 Henri-Chapelle American Cemeter

I then got very confused about whether I was in Germany or Belgium. A few days later I realised I had cycled through a German enclave. Once back in German I climbed over the Eiffel Mountains, enjoying the evening light and gradual climbs. The final descent into Heimbach was wet and I remember mentally telling myself to be sensible on the descent. The campsite I found had a bar, which meant I could easily get fed, and spent some time chatting to a Czech lady who was cycling back to Milton Keynes where she lived. She had a bivvy bag (but a Dutch family let he sleep in the back of their estate car that evening!), very little other equipment and was essentially surviving on fruit as she’d recently become vegan. Suddenly my plan seemed quite sensible.

Day 2: Heimbach to Frankfurt

It rained a lot during the night, but I don’t know if it was that, or the thunder or lightening that woke me up at various points during the night. Probably all three at separate times, but the new tent was fine, and fortunately the rain had stopped before morning, although it was still misty.  However, the little streams were exploding onto the roads and teams of people were out trying to control the floods.

There was a lot of gradual climbing and pretty villages. Around midday I entered the Rhine Valley. I’ve seen the Rhine many times before and yet the size of the river still amazed me. I stopped in Aldi to buy lunch, but I wasn’t allowed to buy my apples because I had forgotten to get them weighed. However, someone saw this & she bought me an apple & gave it to me while I was stood outside Aldi repacking my bag, which was sweet. I then had to cross the Rhine and wasn’t impressed I had missed the access road to the bridge as it meant I had to use the stairs.

12 Near top of Großer FeldbergAfter the Rhine there was more climbing, up to the high point of the day of 720 m, which was just a road outside of Frankfurt (in comparison The Cairnwell goes up to 670 m & the Bealach na Bà is 625 m). There were a decent number of people out of racing bikes, who I assume had ridden up after work from Frankfurt. One could get very fit with such a hill as a training ride.

After skirting through the Frankfurt suburbs, for which I was very thankful I had spent some time creating a sensible track to load onto the Garmin, I was at the Campingplatz Mainkur, which was set right beside the River Main (and a dual carriageway on the other side).

Day 3: Frankfurt to Zirndorf

It was sunny when I woke up this morning and I enjoyed the cycle along the Main River. I stopped at the first open bakery for breakfast and continued along enjoying the sunshine and shade when passing through the woodlands. Cycling in Germany really was very pleasant.

I had a climb up to around 500 m to tackle, which was fine, and then a long gradual descent through a deserted wooded valley back down to the Main. That section was fantastic. I then recrossed the Main, and got my first glimpse of vineyards.

Up until this point I was doing as instructed by my cap, and having a good ride. However, after a cycling along the Main through Würzburg I heard a sudden load crack noise and I instantly realised a rear spoke had snapped, or rather exploded. The wheel was badly out of true, so I immediately stopped. It was a drive side spoke, so I would have to remove the cassette to do any proper repair. I bodged something up using an emergency spoke and rode to the next village, which was 1 km away. There a car mechanic told me there was a bike shop in the next town and he happily drove me the 4 km. However, the owner / mechanic of the shop was in hospital, but his wife let me use the workshop. The friendly car mechanic stayed around and we managed to get the spoke replaced, but I wasn’t happy with the job and the wheel was still out of true. I had arranged to stay with a couple in Zirndorf via WarmShowers, so was wondering what to do. Philippa, in London, realised I could take a train the 50 km and get the wheel sorted in the morning, so that’s what I did. Riding another 50 km on a damage wheel would have been silly.

After a train trip I had a relaxing evening in Zirndorf with my WarmShower hosts. This was the first time I’d used WarmShowers and it was brilliant. There was also a bike shop in Zirndorf where I could go in the morning in the hope they could sort out my rear wheel.

Day 4: Zirndorf to Straubing

I turned up at Bike Devilz when they opened and within 30 minutes I was on the road again. Thanks guys. The ride out from Zirndorf involved lots of big open fields and massive skies. The fields all have wild flowers growing along their edges, which was beautiful.

After that section I then entered more forests with big, long, roads. It was tough going because of a headwind and a lot of false flat, but pleasant nevertheless especially as the trees provided me with a lot of shade. I stopped in beautiful Freystadt to refuel at another bakery. The churches started to look very orthodox in style, which gave an impression I was heading eastwards.

Just before Regensburg I caught my first glimpse of the Danube, which I would be following for the next few days. Suddenly reaching this famous river felt magical, especially after the problems of yesterday.

26 Danube river

I followed the Danube for about 50 km to the campsite just outside Straubing. There were loads of people out on all sorts of bikes, from carbon race bikes to people pulling along kids and the campsite just had more and more people arriving on bikes. The assortment of luggage was impressive. As were the mosquitoes, which is the downside of camping near the river. In the evening I walked into Straubing and was not expecting the town centre to be a medieval gem with people sat in the main square eating and drinking. The atmosphere was fantastic and I thought about what towns we have in the UK: Swindon; Milton Keynes etc. Hmm….

Day 5: Straubing to Mauthausen (Austria)

30 Danube east of StraubingThis morning I woke up and was sad to know I would soon be leaving Germany as I had had a fantastic time cycling across the country. I’ve been to Germany a number of times before, but I was still surprised at what a fantastic country it is for cycling. However, before I would leave I had about 90 km to ride from Straubing to Passu and it was another fantastic morning.

After 10 km I found an open bakery, so that meant breakfast time and I then carried on my way to Passu, following either cyclepaths or empty roads. Passu centre was lovely; and hot. I found a drinking fountain and dumped my cap into it in order to cool down, and another cyclists followed suit.

After Passu I was in Austria, and for about 30 km I followed a relatively busy road, albeit on cyclepaths. Leaving Germany seemed to have been a mistake and perhaps staying on the left hand (Germany) side of the river would have been better. I did get to see one of the massive dams that now controls the Danube. The noise the water was making was incredible.

After that 30 km section things improved again and the section around the Danube Bend was fantastic. Just bikes. Lots of bikes. And hills rising up from the river, like the Wye Valley bit on a much big scale and loads of places to stop for drinks or food. Und Schlösser. I also happened upon a Czech couple who had a flat tyre and were lacking a bike pump, so rescused them.

39 Ferry crossing at OttensheimJust before Linz I took a ferry to cross the river, although I had to wait for the ferry to return from the other bank. Waiting made me realise how hot it was, and later I say a sign saying 28 °C and that was 4.30ish. At least a lot of today was in shade of trees, and it would get hotter as I headed further south.

I stayed on a great campsite just beyond Mauthausen (infamous for the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, which I didn’t visit), after having raided a supermarket for food for the next day as there would be little open on a Sunday.

Day 6: Mauthausen to Vienna

I thought I was ready to go at 7 am, until the valve on the front inner tube failed when I tried to pump up the tyre. After fitting a new inner tube I was off just after 7 am and shared the river path with a speed skater. The early mornings are a stunning time to ride because the world is pretty empty, the shadows are long and everything is peaceful.

Flooding is clearly an issue in some parts of the area as massive floodwalls were in place in some areas, along with the height of the floodwaters in 2002. The roads are open, but it would seem that concrete blocks are dropped into place when there is a flood warning.

I had another ferry crossing, where I chatted with an American women, who worked in London but lived in the Black Forest and was married to a Dutch guy. During the day the scenery changed from narrow gorges, to open plans and vineyards. Safety is clearly an issue in Dürnstein!

48 Bicycle access to a bridgeGetting on the bridges to cross the river can be, erm, interesting:

Somewhere around Tulln an der Donau I meet an Austria student who was out for a 60 km ride. We rode along for another 15 km chatting away and successfully avoiding getting wet. I was offered accommodation, but decided to press on to Vienna as I didn’t want to make my next day any longer than the planned 230 km. Then on the approach to Vienna I ended up talking with a Romanian guy who been on the road for about four months and was slowly heading back to Romania.

Entering Vienna was easy as I rode down the Donauinsel, although I was still trying to dodge the rain. Clearly the lady in her 20s on a mountain bike and flat pedals was trying to do the same because I couldn’t drop her despite us riding at approximately 30 kph. I commented on how fast she was as I turned off for the Neue Donau campsite (not recommended as the camping here felt grubby and the site is situated between motorways and train lines). The rain I had been trying to avoid eventually hit Vienna around 9 pm with an amazing thunderstorm.

Day 7: Vienna to Balatonalmádi (Hungary)

This morning I left the Danube behind, which felt strange having ridden along the river for the past few days. We will be briefly united in Hungary and Serbia. I rode out of Vienna via the dockland area and the airport, which was clearly signed, which impressed me a lot.

After that I climbed over a small hill, which after the last few days was a welcome novelty, and then dropped down to the Neusiedler See, surrounding which is a vast area of agricultural land that is not dissimilar to the fens. I was delighted to discover I had a tailwind.

I then entered Hungary, which was a moment of celebration as it meant another country closer to Greece, although the only thing to note I was now in Hungary was a road sign as I was still in the flat lands and on loooooooooong straight roads. There was far less detail on the wikimap I’d put onto my Garmin compared to Austria etc. This meant any feature, eg a road junction, was something to aim for to break up the boredom. There were some people cycling in the villages, but I only saw one recreational cyclist all day, which was in contrast to the last few days.

Initially my road was a single carriageway main road that was full of lorries. There was no alternative, so I just had to suck it up, as did the locals I saw. At least the tail wind helped to get that 10 km done with quicker. Turning off that road put me onto rubbish surfaces and tarmac had appeared to have been thrown at the road in the hope it would become flat. It was mentally tough going as I constantly had to pick out the best route through the holes. The towns felt a bit rundown, but the one good thing was the drinking fountains that came in useful as the temperature was increasing. It felt very “eastern”.

Near to Lake Balaton I entered woodlands and hills. The roads were still rubbish, and in some parts covered in gravel, but there were very few cars, and it was beautiful scenery. I slowly climbed the hills and even saw a rainbow, which was very pretty.

63 Avoiding dual carriageway on the approach to VeszprémThen the final 30 km were all downhill, but the only problem was the dual carriageway on which cycling was prohibited, which was sensible because there was no hard shoulder. However, avoiding dual carriageway would have meant riding an extra 40 or so kilometres. Hmm. I slowly set off down the gravel verge of the dual carriageway and then found a track through some fields, so I slowly bounced along the track. I wasn’t impressed, but it was only for a kilometre or so before I hit tarmac again. After fighting my way through Veszprém I arrived at Balatonalmádi alive, so went for a swim in the lake to relax after a long day and contemplate what the following day would have in store for me. I predicted some busy roads, some roads with terrible surfaces, flatness, heat and boredom.

Day 8: Balatonalmádi to Szeged

I set off from Balatonalmádi in the glorious morning light. The best parts of each day seem to be those early morning hours when the world was still quiet, the shadows still long and the coolness something to savour. There is a route right around Lake Balaton, which is something I’ve also fancied doing in a day, but today I just rode a few kilometres, enjoying the views across the lake and seeing the old fashioned train that runs up to Budapest:

All too soon I left the lake behind and then was back onto busy roads (Route 64) or badly surfaced roads. However, after a bit I was cycling through picturesque fields with fluffy clouds and artistically arranged haybales. And sweetcorn, of couse, because everywhere in Europe seems to grow sweetcorn! The roads were very much still straight. To infinite and beyond.

The next mental checkpoint for the day was Dunaföldvár as this would be where I’d get to see my old friend, the Danube River. It felt strangely comforting to see the river again, and also the signposts for the EuroVelo 6, which is the cycle route down the Danube, although this time our paths were merely crossing.

After Solt I was on more busy roads and while the flat topography and well surfaced road meant I could make quick progress, I did have to put up with a huge amount of traffic. In Kiskőrös I stopped at a water fountain to refill the bottles, whereupon a Hungarian couple started asking me about my trip as they had also done some cycle touring. Looking back on things I realise I should have taken photos of the people I meet on the roadside, but at the time was just grateful for the converstation. At least after Kiskőrös there was a cyclepath, which gave me some peace from the lorries and at Soltvadkert I turned off the mainroad. Yay! However, my joy was short-lived when I realised my nice quiet road was so badly surfaced doing 20 kph was basically impossible as I was being shaken all over the bike. My wrists hurt from trying to control the bike, and this went on for about 50 km. To help I sent some rude messages back to Philippa in the UK and loudly cursed the road. It didn’t help. So I stopped for a break in Csólyospálos, bought some food and got given a free expresso, so suddenly the kindness of people made things seem better. I set off for the final 30 km of the day in a better mood, and managed to arrive at my friend’s flat ten minutes after a massive thunderstorm hit Szeged. At least I wasn’t putting up my tent tonight!

Day 9: Rest day

I spent the day in Szeged enjoying an easy day of eating, stocking up on some things like batteries and taking things easy. Distance wise I was about halfway to Greece, and I knew the distances I would be covering each day could now start to decrease.

The GPX tracklogs from each day are below:

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