Sunday, September 16, 2012

More Danube Bike Trail: Riding into Austria

Continuing from last week's Danube Bike Trail post, when I'm not heading southeast on the Danube Bike Trail, I go west into Austria. Bratislava is, of course, spitting distance from the Austrian border, and the village of Hainburg an der Donau is about 11-12 miles away via the Danube Bike Trail, and is an obvious destination. The scenery along the bike path in Austria is a bit more interesting and varied - nice lush and rolling hills, smallish crops of corn and sunflowers, a few small picturesque vineyards, and of course, the ruins of Hainburg castle perched atop the hill overlooking the town. Between Bratislava and Hainburg very little of the Danube Bike Trail actually goes anywhere near the Danube, and much of it strays kind of far inland. This stretch of the path also has a few slight, gradual hills as opposed to the almost mind-numblingly level path going southeast in the other direction, making it a bit more interesting as well.

I had this goal of getting Terezia to ride with me to Hainburg so that we could stop at one of the cafes along the river and have a beer, and then complain about how expensive the beer is compared to Slovakia. And that's exactly what we did!

Terezia borrowed her mom's clunky single-speed cruiser and we took a leisurely ride out to Hainburg on an amazingly gorgeous early September Sunday afternoon. Terezia's brother Tony insisted that she wouldn't be able to make it to Hainburg on that bike, but c'mon - the thing may not be ideal, but it has two wheels, two pedals, and it's not broken, so of course Terezia and the bike handled the ~22 mile trip just fine. So take that, Tony!

From the Stare Mesto, you cross the Novy Most (now called SNP Bridge) and pick up the path in Petrzalka, which starts off straight as an arrow.

After a few miles you hit the Austrian border and the old border patrol check point, which thanks to the EU Schengen Area open borders agreement, is completely uneventful, save for a pub on the Slovak side.

After passing the check point, if you look off to your right you can see Bratislava's Karlova ves district in the distance, which is a dense cluster of panelaks nestled on a hill on the opposite side of the Danube (from Austria). It's like Petrzalka but with a view! I swear, when Karlova ves and Petrzalka were being built back in the days of communism, Austrians on the other side of the border must have been scratching their heads.

The panelak insanity that is Bratislava's Karlova ves borough, as seen from Austria.

The path continues on, running parallel to a highway that is moderately busy with cars, most of which seem to have Slovak plates. A good number of Slovaks work in Austria because the pay is generally better, and some of these people may be commuting to work depending on the time of day, while others are probably going shopping.

Eventually you hit the tiny village of Wolfsthal, which is pretty unremarkable, given that a two-lane highway runs through it. Unfortunately, the bike path temporarily fizzles out at the start of the village and you have to join the cars on the highway through the center of the village for about half a mile. But given that most of the traffic consists of Slovaks who are probably paranoid about the potential complications and penalties of clipping a cyclist in a foreign country, most cars give you a wide berth when passing you. Then the bike trail picks back up and all is tranquil again.

After Wolfsthal, the path becomes a bit more scenic, and at certain points you can see Bratislava's Devin castle ruins off in the distance.

Be sure to click this one to enlarge: off on the horizon, that light brown smudge at center-left is Devin castle
Signage along the bike path in Austria. 
Hainburg's hilltop castle ruins.

Once you reach Hainburg, you ride through the town and eventually (finally) reconnect with the Danube. The town is nice, quaint, and looks awfully similar to a lot of Slovak villages in terms of the architecture and layout. The center of town still has one of its medieval gates and its fun to see busses barely clear it when driving through. Walking through Hainburg for the first time, however, it dawned on me that the town was definitely compromised by having a fairly busy highway run through the center of it.

The shore along the Danube is pleasantly scenic and mellow. It's also kind of isolated from the village because it's cut off by a thick wall on top of which there are train tracks and a little station. The wall itself seems to be there to prevent the town from getting flooded, something that's happened numerous times throughout its history.

An old postcard of Hainburg, as seen from across the Danube.

At any rate, we got to the little outdoor cafe overlooking the Danube, and interestingly, all the people around us were speaking Slovak, and even the waitress was speaking limited, broken Slovak to the clientele. Hainburg is clearly a popular weekend destination for Bratislavans.

A nice cold beer to make us totally dehydrated for the ride back to Bratislava!
The Danube Bike Trail goes through Hainburg before crossing the white bridge in this photo across the Danube. 
Today a thick wall with train tracks on top separates Hainburg from its shore along the Danube, presumably because of a long history of flooding. 

I had a goal of, at some point, riding all the way to Vienna and taking the train back to Bratislava. It's totally doable, and it's an easy, flat ride. However, after passing through Hainburg and crossing the bridge over to the north side of the Danube, the path suddenly transforms from well paved to tightly packed gravel. Not ideal, but just barely ridable enough for a road bike. But after a little ways further down, the path devolves into dirt. I don't know how long it continues as a dirt trail, but needless to say, I really didn't want to take my road bike through it. I was kind of surprised, actually, because I have this stereotype of Austrians being really on top of things, and that the path would therefore be nicely paved all the way to Vienna. Not so, apparently. *Shakes fist at Austrians for not living up to stereotype.* But it's entirely possible that it only carries on as a dirt path for a 1/4 or 1/2 mile, so who knows?

At any rate, the ride back to Bratislava is kind of fun, as at various points you start catching glimpses of its funky and distinctive landmarks off in the distance.

Heading back to Bratislava. 
Sorry for this heinously blurry photo (my camera takes crappy photos when you zoom in beyond a certain point), but this is what you see of Bratislava from the Austrian border. 
The Bratislava castle and St. Martin's cathedral suddenly appear through the foliage along the path. 

Of course, once you're in Bratislava, the lovely UFO-shaped SNP Bridge is there to greet you and subdue you with laser beams.

Not a challenging ride by any means, but kind of fun, and good for those mornings when I don't have lots of time but want to get a ride in. Next will be getting to and riding up the bike path along the Morava River, and/or crossing the new "Chuck Norris" cycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the Morava near Devin into Austria.

(Click here to see recent photos and sets on flickr!)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Danube Bike Trail

So, in late June I got an old Peugeot road bike that I bought fairly cheaply from some guy on, which is kind of like the Slovak craigslist. I'm truly a sucker for those vintage, classic frames, and these old Peugeots are pretty sturdy and reliable. But I also wanted something that wasn't particularly special so that I wouldn't cry if something bad happened to it. I've dated the bike to 1980-81, and it was an entry-level model, nothing fancy. I had the brake and shifting cables replaced, and it needs a bit more work - could use a new crankset (I'd like to switch it to a triple), and maybe a new front derailleur, and at some point down the road some new wheels might be in order. But this bike fits well, it's a good solid frame, and it offers a pleasantly smooth ride. And this thing is fast!

So, given that most of Bratislava's streets resemble the pockmarked and pitted face of an acned teen, and as such are probably more conducive to the thicker tires of a hybrid or mountain bike (not to mention, Bratislava in general is not particularly bike friendly, i.e., no bike lanes, tight narrow roads, etc.), what the hell am I doing with a road bike, you might ask?

Well, there are bike paths along the Danube, going in both directions, and (at some points) on both sides of the river. Known as the Danube Bike Trail (or Dunajská cyklistická cesta in Slovak), it's actually part of a long bike path that runs along the Danube (obviously), which starts in Passau, Germany, goes through Austria and Vienna, and eventually meanders down the river to Budapest. For the most part, the paths are well paved and smooth, free of potholes, broken glass, and crazy Slovak drivers, and are generally quite flat. I've been riding the trail in either direction 3-4 times per week.

The part of the Danube bike trail that goes from Vienna to Budapest.

My friend Wade and his son rode from Budapest to Vienna a couple of years ago, and while I don't intend to make that kind of trek anytime soon (at least not with my bike in its current state), I do ride these paths as often as I can.

For the southeasterly path, I cross the Danube and head down the right bank. The path goes from Petržalka down through Čunovo and past the Danubiana modern art museum, and continues on down the river, well into Hungary. I usually get about 20-25 miles (maybe somewhere halfway between the Danubiana and the dam that crosses the river to Gabčíkovo) before turning around and heading back. My goal is to make it all the way to the dam by Gabčíkovo, cross the river into said town, and head back up the path on the left bank. But that would be about 80 miles round trip, and I'm not quite there yet, stamina-wise.

At any rate, the south/eastward path is well maintained and super smooth. Locals seem to love the stretch that goes from Petržalka to Čunovo, along which there are actually two parallel paths that run on both sides of a canal. The scenery does get a bit samey and slightly tedious at times, but there are stretches where it's fairly nice. The biggest challenge is the damn headwind. Often times, the wind blows downstream, so I'll fly down the path only to turn around and find myself having to downshift because I'm riding right into a formidable wind the whole way back. I suppose the headwind kind of makes up for the lack of hills?

Between Petržalka and Čunovo there are several outdoor pubs located roughly every few miles, and on hot weekend afternoons they're usually pretty bustling, not to mention a bit tempting.

Cyclists have to contend with a good number of in-line skaters, especially on weekends. They tend to sway side to side as they're cruising along, sometimes taking up the entire width of the path, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are cyclists trying to pass them on their left. On hot days you typically see the female skaters totally oiled up and basically wearing nothing but bikinis and the men wearing only shorts. Some of them really haul ass, pretty much always without elbow and knee pads. I'd sure hate to see one of them eat it.

At one point you pass a small, picturesque lake that's on the outskirts of a village called Rusovce, which on hot days is swarming with people. But I've noticed that on weekday mornings one of the lake's shores is sometimes taken over by a clan of nudists who are, of course, all in their 60s and pretty out of shape.

On really hot weekend afternoons, this lake is teeming with people. The day I took this photo  obviously wasn't one of those days. 

Once you reach Čunovo, the path veers left and you cross a lengthy modern dam that passes over a section of the Danube that is so wide that it almost resembles a lake. The dam doesn't cross the entire river, but it takes you to a peninsula, the northern tip of which is home to the Danubiana modern art musuem. It's a nice gallery that hosts exhibitions of contemporary modern art and has a cool, offbeat outdoor sculpture garden (and strangely, at the time of writing, the impossibly clueless and/or totally callous lunkheads who run the museum still have the Asma al-Assad page up on their website. What the hell?).

The Danubiana, lovers of both modern art and the wives of brutal, murderous dictators

After passing the Danubiana, the path looks like this (below) for miles and miles (and miles), and you practically have the road to yourself. The scenery becomes mind numbingly repetitive, and I kind of suspect it more or less stays that way until you get down to the picturesque area in the north of Hungary known as the Danube Bend, which begins after you pass the Hungarian border town Esztergom. But that is probably about 100 miles away.

Getting to Gabčíkovo would be nice, although someday I'd like to try to make it all the way down to Komárno, a town straddling the Danube (and the Slovak-Hungarian border) apparently named for its healthy mosquito population, but which is known for its massive historical military fortification. It's pretty far, though (maybe 60-ish miles from Bratislava) so I can picture myself having to take the train back.

Next up: riding the Danube bike trail into Austria!

(Click here to see my photos!)

Sunday, September 9, 2012


So, as promised in last month's Naschmarkt post, here is a post devoted to Miletička, Bratislava's (semi) outdoor produce market. It's a wonderfully funky place, with a lot of that endearing Bratislava/Eastern Bloc brand of grittiness (complete with a canopy that blends old sheets of corrugated steel and canvas tarps). Finding the produce may initially be tricky for some, as it's literally ringed by hordes of vendor stalls selling worthless garbage, funeral flowers, and cheap designer knock-off handbags and tacky clothing. When it's not the dead of winter, the place is a madhouse, particularly on Saturday mornings when it appears half the town is there getting its produce. We try to make it out there when we have time.

Obviously, Miletička is the place to get fresh locally grown produce. All of the basics are covered, depending on what's in season. Terezia's manager, a Slovak-Hungarian from Nitra, actually knows some of the vendors and even haggled with them in Hungarian when she went there with him to do some shopping for the ambassador.

Right now in September you can find mountains of sublimely tasty peaches and nectarines, heaps of nice looking grapes, fresh herbs, colorful assortments of melons and squash, piles of tomatoes, and more plums than anyone could possibly know what to do with (Slovaks love their slivovice).

You've also got people like this guy below, who sells sauerkraut in a variety of ways, including stuffed into bell peppers, as well as vendors selling products like paprika and honey.

Miletička can also boast of a good butcher shop, a bakery, as well as a stand that sells some nice looking poultry, including duck and goose. There are a slew of smallish Slovak pubs at one end, as well as a small Chinese joint with a menu that's quite heavy on the fried entrees (fried food figures prominently in the Slovak diet), as well as a langoš stand - langoš being fried dough slathered in garlic paste, cheese, and sour cream (see this post for more on langoš).

However, I do think it's too bad that Miletička is so far away from the historical center, because an increasing number of tourists really dig these kinds of markets, as they offer an authentic slice of local flavor and culture. Aside from Vienna's central Naschmarkt, Florence has both the Mercato Centrale and the non-touristy Mercato Saint Ambrogio in its historical center, to name just a few examples. Not that Miletička really needs more people cramming into its already crowded aisles on a busy Saturday morning, but it would really enhance the overall Bratislava experience from a tourist's perspective.

Getting to Miletička from the center of town requires hopping on the #9 tram and taking it out toward the Ruzinov district for about 10-12 minutes. It's far away from the charming historical center, in a grey and characterless corner of town that no tourist would ever have any reason to venture into.

How about opening up a second farmers' market in the Stara Trznica (old market)? It's a beautiful historical building by SNP square that housed exactly this kind of market during the first half of the 20th century, and which, frustratingly, sits empty and shuttered the vast majority of the time. The city apparently tried to host a market here several years ago, but I'm shocked and puzzled that they apparently weren't able to sustain it.

But at the time of writing this, there was one thing missing from Miletička's dizzying and colorful array of produce - figs!!! Despite the fact that fig season is in full swing this time of year (mid-September), I did not see one single fig. And I really scoured the place, even venturing all the way to the cramped corner at the rear that newbies probably don't realize exists.

And yet, right "next door", in Vienna, there is practically an explosion of figs at the Naschmarkt. What the hell?

As mentioned in my Naschmarkt post, figs are my favorite fruit, so I go totally cuckoo whenever fig season rolls around. Who would've thought that Jeff would move to a place where there are no figs?

There is a similar issue here with medjool dates which, when in season, I can find in abundance at Naschmarkt, but in Bratislava it's as if they don't even exist. Miletička also seems to lack the more interesting varieties of wild mushrooms (another passion of mine), like porcinis and chanterelles, both of which can be found easily at Naschmarkt, and the former of which I know grows in abundance in Slovakia because Terezia's parents go hunting for them every year.

But the fact that I have to hop over the border to Austria to find these things is truly vexing. Again, what the hell?

Why can't we seem to find figs in Slovakia? What do Slovaks have against figs? Is the Slovak palette simply not interested in them? Are figs too expensive? Are growers of dates and figs reluctant to penetrate the Slovak/Mileticka market? I can't imagine that geography or weather would make a difference, given that Bratislava and Vienna are so close and share the same climate. Fig trees, although right at home in Mediterranean climates, can and do flourish in regions with colder winters, so they could conceivably grow in parts of Slovakia. There's no real reason why they should be such an alien fruit here.

Terezia thinks that Slovaks just aren't into in figs. She recalls that you couldn't find them at all where she grew up (except occasionally only the boring dry pre-packaged ones), even after communism, and she has no recollection of anyone even talking about them. She never even had the chance to try them until she came to California.

Vienna is only an hour away, yet in some ways it feels like a world away in terms of the variety of produce and other foodstuffs that is available there. The iron curtain may be long gone, but there seems to be a culinary wall that's not been entirely knocked down yet.

But, at least Naschmarkt isn't too far away, and Miletička is still a great place for your more basic produce, so I shouldn't complain! I'm happy it exists, figs or no figs!