A day in Budafok (Central Hungary)

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Peter has invited me to join him, the Englishman and the Australian family for a day in Budafolk, the suburb where he and the Englishman live. I am tardy, spending the morning washing my clothes in a washing machine for the first time since I left Australia a month ago. But I arrive on time to enjoy the potato and sausage stew that Peter has cooked up. It’s absolutely delicious.

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After lunch we walk down the road to one of the many wine cellars in Budafok. Few people know these cellars exist because there is no obvious vineyard on the surface. You need to organise a group if you want to tour the cellars but it is well worth it. During Budapest’s golden era in the late 19th century, the hill on the Buda side of the Danube was quarried for rock. After the quarrying was completed, there were all these mine tunnels under the mountain. These were then converted to wine cellars because the area was then full of vineyards. The vineyards might be long gone but the cellars still remain.

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On entering the cellar that Peter had selected for our trip, we each had to put on these cute capes. They would keep us warm in the 14’C cellar.

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There are about 100km (65 miles) of cellars under the mountain. The were once all lined with huge oak barrels but also include some huge concrete barrels that could contain thousands of litres of wine. Many of the wood barrels are beautifully carved. They tell the story of the local wine industry. Unfortunately, improvements in wine technology mean that this wood carving skill is being lost as steel vats become more common than oak barrels.

The tour itself is fantastic. The guide tells us about the history of the cellars and wine production. She tells us about the wine making process. We also learn about the hazards of wine cellaring because wine can give off undetectable fumes that suffocate people in the cellars. They used to use candles on top of barrels to monitor the air quality. If the candles started to go out then it was time to evacuate the cellars. Fortunately, this was not a risk for our visit.

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After our adventure in the cellars, we catch a bus over to the Tropicarium. Both the Englishman and the Australians have children so it is an obvious place to entertain them. I enjoy the walk through the huge indoor tropical animal zoo and aquarium. There are all sorts of animals here including some small monkeys, reptiles and an alligator. There are also sharks, colourful fish and strange sea creatures that I’ve never seen before.

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It’s all a bit of fun.

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But the day isn’t over with the Tropicarium. Budafok has plenty to offer so we take a walk through this quiet suburb. It’s a place of cobblestone streets and cute old buildings.

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Peter organises an impromptu visit to another cellar. This one is used to host dinner parties and celebrations, rather than storing wine. It is also home to this old concrete wine barrel. What is remarkable is the coat of arms on the outside of the barrel. It represents Hungary as it was a long time ago. The National Museum wanted to relocate the coat of arms to the museum but removing it would cause irreparable damage so it remains in this private cellar.

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After walking up to Peter’s home we all return to the Englishman’s home with its incredibly huge front door. We eat pizza and Chinese takeaway for dinner. Pizza is popular in Hungary and is readily available everywhere either by the slice or by the whole pizza. It is cheap, tasty and filling.

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And then my final day in Hungary is over. I catch a tram back to the city, walk across the Danube and catch the last train back to BikerCamp. The city is beautiful all lit up and I decide to come back to see this country some more.

Wandering Budapest (Central Hungary)

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After a late night I sleep in and don’t head into Budapest city until early afternoon. I arrange to meet with a Norwegian who I met at the bar last night. Not a romantic meet up but just a “two guys visiting a foreign city” meet up. I had planned to go to see some of the “sights” like some of Budapest’s museums but I end up hanging out with the Norwegian guy and walking around the city hanging out.

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There’s plenty of random things to see in any city. And Budapest is no exception. There’s this cool motorbike chained up to a lamp post that I would love to ride in real life (sorry to the owner … we did not harm).

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And there’s this strange tribute to Michael Jackson that we stumble across while walking through a city park. I doubt you’ll find mention of this in any guide book. There was even a lady at the tribute laying fresh flowers. I never knew Michael Jackson was so popular to Hungarians.
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I did go to St Stephens Basilica though. It was amazing! Entry is free but tourists are asked to make a 200HUF ($1) donation to the upkeep of the building. I thought the building looked fantastic from the outside a month ago when I walked through Budapest for the first time. But inside it is even more amazing. The ceiling contains stunning reliefs and frescos. Photos and words cannot do it justice. It’s one of those places you just have to actually visit.

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But what I like most is just wandering around seeing random sights, like this old building that is being reclaimed by nature and these rusty old gates.

At night I check out some more of the city’s gay nightlife. The Norwegian joins me on this adventure. We find a quiet lounge bar where a few people are drinking relatively cheap drinks before heading next door to a madcap karaoke bar. The karaoke bar is so camp. Some men can actually sing a bit but most probably shouldn’t apply for their respective nation’s Idol singing contests. I refrain from adding my terrible singing voice to the mix but, instead, enjoy the atmosphere. We also check out another bar with another dark cruising area out the back. In a city where a beer costs about 350-500HUF, beers here cost 600HUF and there is a minimum bar spend of 1000HUF. It’s no surprise that there are probably only about 20-25 men here (it being Sunday is probably another reason).

A grown up’s day in Budapest (Central Hungary)

Warning: This post contains adult themes. If you are likely to be offended, please skip this post and wait until the next one. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Cheers.

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I am exhausted today. I want to sleep in but wake early dreaming of baguettes. Yes, that’s right. I was dreaming about food and lots of it. So it’s just 7am when I am already showered, dressed and walking towards the supermarket to buy some groceries for breakfast. That was the end of my sleep in.

In the mid-morning I head out to find a box to take my bicycle home. This proves challenging and I return to camp with a box that will probably be too small but will have to do in a pinch if I can’t find a better one on Monday. The short 6km return ride leaves me feeling exhausted and wanting sleep. My body feels warm and uncomfortable. Later I try to go out again to ride to the party that The Scientist is hosting. I give in after a few hundred meters again feeling like my body is overheating. The desire to lie down and close my eyes is almost desperate and I message Peter to say that I won’t be able to make the party.

But Peter is not so easily defeated and organises for the Scientist to come pick me up. It proves to be the best thing for me. In the hours that follow I am encouraged to taste some glasses of red wine from some of Hungary’s best wine regions, I eat delicious barbecue food and participate in cheerful conversation. There’s the Scientist and his wife, Peter and the Englishman from the Balaton bike ride. Then there is also an Australian family who are also from Brisbane and their Hungarian friend. It’s a wonderful evening.

When things start to wrap up at about 11pm, the Scientist’s wife offers to drive Peter, the Englishman and me to our respective homes. But the Englishman convinces her to drop them off in Budapest Centrum so she doesn’t have to drive as far and convinces me that I really should go out and experience Budapest’s nightlife on a Saturday, rather than waiting for Sunday. See, I have told him about the gay bars that they have in Budapest and how they are apparently different to those we have at home.

Now is time to block your ears and log off if you don’t like adult content and you didn’t head my first warning. Please do not complain if you read beyond this point. I have left some space so that the text so that you have to scroll a bit to get to the adult material. My story about Budapest would not be complete without telling about the following experiences.

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Once in Budapest Centrum I walk over to the Action Bar. This is one of Budapest’s three gay venues. Action and Coxx are bars while there is another venue that is a dance party venue. The main bar at Action is relatively small. There’s a steep 1,000HUF cover charge plus a 1,200HUF minimum drinks purchase. This is probably part of the reason why it’s so quiet inside on a Saturday night.

Anyway, as I was saying, the main bar is relatively small. There is space for half a dozen guys to sit at the bar, tall tables for another half dozen guys and then benches along the walls in a corridor just off the main bar. The dozen or so men present represent the usual gay bar scene: a couple of young twinks who barely have enough whiskers to shave, a few guys in their thirties, and the rest are all men for whom the glory days of being muscular and fashionable have long since passed (alas, we will all reach this stage so I mean no disrespect in this description).

I walk into a room behind the bar. A gay porno is playing on a big screen television and some guys are sitting here looking bored. One guy is passed out drunk and another is well on his way to passing out. There’s a door at the back of this room and all is dark behind it. This is where Action Bar departs from the gay bars I am used to at home (though I’ve only been in a gay bar twice in the past decade). In the dark room men cruise along looking to see whether they can get lucky. In a corner I can see a bare backside moving and a few guys watching it. I don’t know whether its seedy, comical or businesslike. The half dozen guys just get on with the business of playing with each other without any display or emotion, desire or pleasure. Only two actually achieve climax and the others leave bored. None of the men over 35 get any action at all … they are totally ignored by the young guys and each other. It seems almost pathetic in a way that they show total disinterest in the other men their age and only have eyes for the twenty-something year old muscle boys who ignore their existence.

At 1am a siren sounds and there is a show on the stage. A semi-muscular man of about forty years old with amazing tattoos starts to dance on stage. His style reminds me of Ramone from the Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal. Slowly but not so smoothly he strips his clothes off. He doesn’t even have the fancy rip off trousers and needs to first awkwardly remove his shoes. Oddly, he is being cheered on from the sidelines by a woman who seems to be his girlfriend, which is kind of odd in a gay bar. After stripping to his g-string, the dancer takes it all off, dancing naked on stage with his excitement on show. This would get the bar owner arrested in Brisbane. After the rather amusing routine is over the dancer leaves the stage and two naked men enter. They are young and slim. The oral performance that follows is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen. The guys obviously don’t want to be there and I take my cue to leave the bar.

A day out in Budapest (Central Hungary)

I have two choices for exploring Budapest: use the efficient public transport system or ride my bicycle. I opt for the latter because Budapest is not so big and it gives me total freedom of choice about where I want to go.

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Setting off from the camping ground to ride to Varosliget Park I am taken by just how green this city is. There are 1.8 million people living here and yet there are lots of trees and open parkland areas. They are not the ‘jungle encroaching on the city’ trees that I saw in Bangkok but rather a landscaped and intentional growth of greenery. Many homes have gardens, even the apartment blocks seem to have some sort of garden attached to them. The long unmown grass of early summer adds to the feeling of green space.

The other thing I am loving here is that there are lots of people cycling. They are riding everything from folding bikes to old clunkers, single speed fixies to carbon racing bikes. There’s a simplicity to being able to just jump on your bike and go about your business that is similar to what I experienced in Japan. Bikes and cycling are just a normal part of the landscape instead of a contested cultural space.

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Varosliget Park is an interesting place. The Vajdahunyad Castle takes pride of place on the banks of what is in winter an ice skating rink. The castle is constructed in a variety of styles and was intended not as a castle but as a public attraction. Visually it’s spectacular. I don’t bother with the museum because the whole precinct is overrun with tour groups but I do enjoy cycling through the park past the castle.

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The impressive Heroes’ Square stands in pride of place near the park. As I approach from behind the square I think that no trip to Europe is complete without seeing this type of square displaying a proud heritage. The Heroes’ Square was built in the late nineteenth century to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Magyars (Hungarians). It stands as a reminder of Budapest’s golden era and a draw card for tourists today.

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I continue cycling into the city centre taking in yet more of Budapest’s grandeur. St Stephens Basilica is everything a grand basilica should be: calm yet imposing. Tourists congregate in the square in front of it. Most are well and truly past retirement age wearing khaki shorts and sunburned shoulders. Two couples with different English-language accents greet each other warmly. It appears from their loud words that they have been bumping into each other all around Europe. They compare notes about their hotels, which sound like they are priced well into the 200 Euro range. I am not actually listening in. I learn this all as I cycle past on my way through the square.

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But Budapest is not all grandeur. The city has experienced a turbulent history. The Museum of Terrors is a bilingual open-air reminder of the effects of communism on this country. Over 700,000 Hungarians were taken away to the gulags and 300,000 never made it back. It’s a sobering thought. The museum includes a section of the Berlin Wall and an iron chain sculpture that represents the Iron Curtain. It holds little back in expressing the horrors of the train rides, prison camps and lack of food that prisoners of war were subjected to.

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Down on the banks of the Danube the Shoes by the Danube installation shows the story of the 45 Jews who were murdered here during WWII. They were told to remove their shoes and were then shot, their bodies falling into the Danube to make washing the sins of war away easier. There were people standing there wearing those shoes and the way they are displayed makes it impossible to ignore the cold realities of war. Cold realities that we in Australia have been protected from. And I think about all the people in the world who are currently suffering through the many wars that go on and I wonder why some leaders today must focus on battle, terror and aggression rather than fostering a global culture of peace, harmony and understanding.

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But let us return to Budapest’s grandeur. Because this is the overwhelming sense I have here. Of a city that is architecturally stunning and easy on the eye.

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A city with a motley collection of architectural styles blended together harmoniously through time.

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My ride takes me along a short section of the Euro Velo 6 and out of Budapest’s downtown towards Memento Park. The urban landscape quickly disappears and gravel trails run alongside small farms and large gardens. I am not even 10km (6 miles) from the city center yet it almost feels rural. There are orchards and vegetable patches, horses and guard dogs. Two old men talk to each other as they stand at their respective gates on either side of the road. I’m sure the conversation has been going on like this for decades. I am taken aback that one of the men is wearing nothing but a skimpy pair of speedos and farm boots. In Australia men won’t even wear speedos to the beach, let alone while standing at their farm gate talking with their neighbour on a public road.

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I make it to Memento Park. This is the largest collection of communist-era statues because most were destroyed or melted for copper. Being a big fan of spy movies and books, it is only natural I should want to come here. After-all, no spy story is complete without three stanzas: the glamorous European chateaux or castle party, the narrow cobble stoned European street car chase and the communist baddies with the thick accents. I have been visiting the glamorous European chateaux and castles here in Budapest, cycled along cobble stoned streets so now I need to meet those who inspired the communist baddies.

The statues in the park share a powerful story. It’s easy to see why they would have caused terror to those who did not agree with the regime and emboldened those who did. As a form of persuasive communication they are impossible to ignore. Me … I am glad I didn’t live in that time because I would have lived in fear. Especially with such powerful statues dominating cities and villages everywhere.

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On a lighter note, there is a Trabant car at the park. The coolest thing about it is that you are allowed to sit in it. Now I feel like I am properly on the set of a spy movie ready for that car chase down cobble stoned streets.

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The afternoon sun is beating down on me by the time I leave Memento Park headed back towards Budapest and the camping ground. I am grateful that the first part of the ride takes me downhill so the air rushing past me can act as a cool fan. As I roll I take in the views over the Danube where the city meets the farmland. I let out a “whoop” as I realise I am actually here. I keep saying it but I kind of can’t believe how fortunate I am to be living this lifestyle.

Down in the city I meander through small streets and lanes zig-zagging my way back to the camping ground instead of taking a direct route. I stop for gelati and sit on a chair outside the shop watching the people passing by. There are terraces everywhere and people sipping coffees or beers lost in conversation. Trams rattle by and I even see a trolley bus. The sun warms the render on the sides of the buildings while the trees shade the streets. It’s been a very fine day indeed.

Budapest style (Central Hungary)

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I wake early after my first night sleeping in a bivy bag feeling refreshed and rested. Instead of the grey nylon of my tent, the first thing I see is the sky through the windows created by tree leaves above my head. It’s invigorating to be outdoors already the moment I wake.

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The area around the camp ground is gorgeous. Flower boxes brighten drab walls and old trees accent yellowing homes. Windows come in a range of shapes, not just square. And the security bars on the windows are ornately designed making homes look more homely than prison block. My eyes drink in this new landscape that is as unfamiliar now as Asia was when I first arrived there last September. I know this sense of newness will evaporate as I spend more time here on this grand continent of Europe so I want to make the most of the sensation.

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I wander down to the Penny Market to buy some supplies for breakfast. As happens in each new country, the supermarket shelves are a mystery and wonder all at once. I cannot read the labels on most of the products and Google translate doesn’t always recognise words because I don’t know how to make the dots and commas appear above the letters I type. But at least there is plenty of familiar fresh produce. Fresh fruit and vegetables are piled high in displays near the supermarket entrance. Ripe bananas, oranges, apples, tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes and melons are just some of the many offerings. Signs show their countries of origin with many coming from further to the west. But my favourite section is the bakery aisle. All sorts of delicious fresh bread products are stacked high and priced to sell. A bread roll costs HUF14 (4.5 euro cent or 6.5 Australian cents), a croissant is about HUF90 (30 euro cent or 41 Australian cents) and a sweet pastry is about the same price. I’ll have to be careful not to pack on the calories here with the temptation to indulge being so high. Fruit and vegetables are also amazingly cheap compared to Australia. I pay about 10c for a banana, which would set me back about a dollar at home and a head of garlic costs me about twenty cents, which is one tenth the price at home. Eating well will be easy here and that excites me.

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Stocked up with a bread roll, sachet of hot chocolate and banana I wander the local streets again. A moggy (cat) begs for a pat and I can’t help but oblige. It’s pretty, friendly and the colour looks amazing against the dark stonework of the house it is “guarding”.

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Peter arrives at around 10am to take me into Budapest. Peter is a local who I met through an Australian cycling forum. He is organising a group tour of Lake Balaton next week that looks amazing. We drive into Budapest city and I am immediately taken by the grandeur of this capital. I have seen Budapest represented in movies (just last week I saw Spy) but didn’t expect it to be quite so impressive. The Parliament rises majestically from the Danube. Peter tells me that it was built at a time when Budapest was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a hint of sadness in his voice as he recounts how those were wealthier times for his home city.

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We scramble up steep streets and lanes until we reach the tomb of Gul Baba. Peter explains that this is the northern most point of pilgrimage for Muslims and that many Turkish people come here to pray. The story of Gul Baba is written in English near the tomb but, as usual, I haven’t read it properly. I am too busy taking in the visual surrounds like the colours and shapes of the buildings in the view below.

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Naturally, we go to Budapest Castle. I instantly recognise the main quadrangle as the scene or many movies. And Peter’s Hungarian accent accentuates my sense of being in a spy movie (no direct reference to the movie of the same name that was filmed in this city). I feel a wave of “wow I am really here” wash over me as I take in my surrounds.

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Peter tells me that the Fishermen’s Towers part of the castle was built many years ago to attract tourists to the city and it certainly has worked. It’s only shoulder season and already the tourist trade is booming. Little flags and signs bob in the thin crowd as obedient guests follow along, pretending to be interested in the lengthy explanations of the guides while really just wanting to take selfies with the monuments. Or at least, that’s what the comedic side of my mind likes to imagine they are doing.

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Not only are the towers picturesque but the view from here is amazing. I look down on the Chain Bridge, Parliament and Budapest’s big square riverside mansions. The city’s history is apparent in its architecture. There are styles dating back centuries, even though many of those old buildings have been rebuilt in that style. And then there are the odd communist-era structures that are so ugly and functional but form part of the city’s story.

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Back down on the Danube we walk along the waterfront back to Peter’s car passing the cruise boats from which the tourists following flagged guides came. These large low boats will make their way from here to Western European capitals in Germany and Holland over the course of the next 12 to 15 days. I can see into the rooms in one of the ships and it looks clean, plush and luxurious with river views from the bed and seating areas. It’s not for me but I can see why wealthy (or indebted) retirees select this option as a means of seeing Europe’s grand river capitals.

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Back at camp Peter helps me mark up some interesting places on my maps of Hungary and Slovakia. He has a keen local knowledge and I am grateful for his help. I totally change my route plans and get excited about the coming weeks. We make an arrangement to meet up on Lake Balaton next week when his tour is going to be there and then he drops me at a nearby shopping mall because I need to buy a European charger for my phone and laptop (I brought an American one with me by mistake). On my walk back to camp I take in more of the flaking paint, flower boxes and decorative doorways that make up this part of Budapest.

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I settle in for a few hours of work before going out for a walk in nearby Nepliget Park in the cool evening air. It’s light from 5am to 9pm so there is no need to rush through the day. In the park children kick around on scooters, young men use the gym equipment to do body weight training, teenagers run under the watchful eye and stopwatch of their coach, people walk their dogs and couples cuddle on benches. Not a bad way to conclude the day.

Arriving in Budapest (Central Hungary)

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After 24 hours of travel I arrive at the relatively small Budapest International Airport. Instantly I notice that I am once again surrounded by people speaking a language I cannot understand who all look different to me. I can pick the other Australians in the disembarking passengers. They are mostly older and holding brochures for Danube boat cruises. There are also quite a few passengers from Hong Kong who are on a group tour together. Pretty much everyone else looks and sounds Hungarian. And I know that once I clear customs, I will become a foreigner in their country who has to adapt to their culture, food and language. It’s a thrilling thought.

There is no oversize baggage sign but there are three lost luggage counters and all have queues of people waiting. Eventually my bicycle emerges from behind a locked door. Someone had to be called to open it and drag my bike out. You need to pay for trolleys here at Budapest Airport so I copy the technique of the baggage handler and drag my bike box through the airport like it is a donkey that refuses to move (fortunately the bike box slides, unlike a donkey’s hooves). Customs ask whether the bike is new and when I tell them it isn’t they just let me through.

I’m getting much better at traveling with my bike. Whereas in Adelaide almost a year ago I cross threaded the pannier bolt in my front forks, now I know to take my time. I hack open the bike box because the only sharp instrument I have is inside. Then I slowly pull everything out and methodically set the beast of burden up. An hour after my flight landed I am ready to ride.

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As I leave the airport I notice how much easier it is to ride with bikepacking kit than panniers. The bike feels light and nimble. The bike bags weigh less than the panniers and I can’t carry as much gear so it’s a win win. I have done some research so ride out of the airport towards the #4 highway. I cross the overpass and walk about 500m (1/4 mile) next to the highway to the Shell petrol station that someone else mentioned in a blog post. I am sure there is a better way through the airport but I’m not sure whether the red circle with a bicycle in it means bicycles are forbidden or allowed on the road inside the airport boundary. If they are allows, then this 500m inconvenience isn’t necessary but it’s only a 5 minute walk anyway.

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From the petrol station I follow a path next to the #4 highway until I reach Ulloi ut (Ulloi Rd). Blue bells and poppies (I think that’s what the flowers are anyway) line the roadside and I fall instantly in love with Hungary just for this alone. I had read that the ride from Budapest to the airport is horrible but those people must have been traveling in some seriously gorgeous places because I find it quite okay. Mind you, it is Sunday afternoon so the roads are quiet and almost all the businesses in this light industrial area are closed.

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I pedal along Ulloi ut for about 10km sometimes on the road and sometimes on the footpath. The locals are riding in the same way changing between the two randomly depending on traffic (both vehicle and pedestrian). I don’t mind the footpath because I get to relax and take in my new surrounds. I have these crazy moments when I shake my head and think “how kitsch and fake is that … what did the architects think, that they were in Europe or something”. And then I laugh at myself because I am in Europe. I’ve traveled right across the globe and am actually in Europe so of course everything looks European. It’s funny how the mind works.

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Not far from my destination I come to Nepliget, a large urban park. I cannot help myself and have to turn off to explore the trails. I love how green everything looks. The trees are totally different to those we have at home and even the grass has a different texture. I ride alone happily watching people walking their dogs, a trio unwrapping boxing strapping from their fists after a sparring session and couples cuddling on benches. I feel energized despite the long flight.

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I am almost at camp and have to navigate through quiet suburban streets. The buildings are so old. They look like they have been built for a movie set. I can’t help take yet another glamour shot of my bike in this exotic setting. It’s the colour of the walls, the shape of the windows, the grandeur of the attached houses and the sense of age. In a nearby garden a man lays on a deck bed tanning the whole back of his body wearing nothing but a skimpy g-string to cover his pudgy nakedness. Yep … I am in Europe alright. The sun is shining and the locals are making the most of the onset of summer.

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I have booked three nights at BikerCamp Budapest. I am pleased with my choice of accommodation. The hosts greet me at the gate with a smile and welcome. I can select any site in the campground (which is just the back garden of their home). There is a separate series of structures that include showers, kitchen, fridge, tables and chairs, power points and free fast wifi. But what I love most is that birds are singing in the trees despite the close proximity to this large city of 1.8 million inhabitants. The hosts arm me with a swag of maps and information so that I can enjoy their city.

It’s late afternoon and I am tired but I want to get my body into the right time zone. I walk to a local shop to buy some groceries for dinner. Then I plug in my laptop and punch out about five hours of work before I slide into my new bivy and sleep soundly for the night.