Travel: Hungary over the handlebars
special to the daily
The premise is a simple one: While we are in France for a four-month house exchange with French friends, we will hop over to Hungary for some biking around the countryside.
So I go online and within minutes, find Tradnatura Sports, a family-run cycle-touring company with several great-sounding itineraries to choose from. I like what I read about the company. It is owned by a couple – Peter Beck and his wife Marietta – and that, in addition to van-supported cycling, the tours provide plenty of sight-seeing adventures as well. And best of all, the price is so right!
Soon Peter and I are correspondents. I tell him that I want to bring my full-blooded Hungarian husband to the country of his ancestors. It is time Bill discovers his long-lost roots.”In the e-mails that fly back and forth between us, I can tell that Peter has a warm sense of humor and that he and Marietta will do whatever it takes to make our Hungarian experience safe, informative and fun.
The itinerary I choose has a name: Castles and Spas of Northwest Hungary. There will be seven cycling days and one day of rest. The distance to be covered will be some 220 miles. We will stay in castles, bathe in thermal waters (a huge attraction in lots of middle European countries but especially popular in Hungary), visit cathedrals, monasteries and museums, recreate at beautiful Lake Balaton (the Hungarian Sea), and sample local gourmet foods and wines all along the way.
For sure, neither Peter, nor the advertising blurb do justice to the real thing.
We fly to Budapest where Peter meets us with his light-up-a-room smile. After a welcome dinner at the Normafa Hotel high in the Buda hills, we meet our fellow cyclists: a Swiss, a German, a Brit, a Hawaiian-American, a Mexican, and one other American besides Bill and I. We speak three languages and use them interchangeably. And amazingly, despite diverse ages, abilities and personalities, our mutual love of cycling bonds us together from day one until we say good-bye.
After a morning tour of the Pearl of the Danube (the river divides the city of 2 million inhabitants in two, Buda and Pest), we bus to our cycling starting point – the city of Gyør in the northwest corner of the country. Following a restful night in a former Carmelite cloister and a 20-item breakfast spread in the morning, our group gathers at the starting gate.
Bill and I are thrilled that this isn’t one of the super-aggressive cycle tours we’ve been on before. The daily rides vary from 15 to 45 miles. The roads, with few exceptions, are relatively flat. Even Alexandra, a woman from Seattle who claims she hasn’t cycled much before, does just fine.
Although our cycling days last seven to eight hours, we stop often for sight-seeing. Our lunch hour is actually twice that long. Peter and Marietta take turns cycling with us, alternately driving the 12-passenger van. When it is Marietta’s turn to prepare the picnic, we famished cyclers are in for a treat.
After our morning ride we find her in a park that borders the Danube. She stokes a wood fire. An enamel-coated pot, suspended from a metal frame hangs over the fire. In the pot is a mixture of onions, red and yellow peppers and spicy pork sausage, sizzling together in paprika-drenched oil. The combination -called Lecsø (Letcho) – qualifes as a Hungarian picnic staple, and the aroma draws us in like bear cubs to a honey pot.
As we pedal along quiet roadways, we are never bored. Plains of ripening wheat fields carpet the gently undulating terrain. Vibrant yellow rapeseed fields and patches of brilliant red poppies provide the contrast. Some days we ride for hours in nature preserves, where thick woods shelter us in a tent of green. And every few miles, we come to neat villages with friendly people who wave as we pass by.
Plenty of diversions provide excuses to dismount: A Romanesque church from the 13th century; a cherry tree in a vacant lot whose fruit will fall to the ground if we don’t pick it first; an Esterhåzy family’s Baroque Palace with its park in the style of Versailles; a roadside panzio that sells langøs (lang-osh) – fried bread dough, slathered with butter and fresh garlic; the famous Helikon library, whose 80,000 volumes make up the largest surviving “aristocratic” library in the world; a two-dozen-flavor gelato store.
Can you guess which of these “side-tracks” takes precedence in a road-weary pedaler’s mind?
At the end of the second day, we nearly faint when we round a corner in the city of Hedevår, and a castle straight out of a fairy tale comes into view. We’re even more bedazzled when Peter tells us that it’s our hotel.
The Renaissance-style structure is 400 years old. Our rooms are exquisitely furnished – luxe, luxe, luxe. We dine like royalty in the finery of our jeans and warm-up suits in an elegant library dining room. We give thanks for a day well spent in the tiny, but gilt-embellished chapel at the end of the hall.
In one 12-hour day, we’ve gone from grubby to grandiose; from hot and sweaty to sophisticated and serene. It’s just a little preview of the unending contrasts and surprises waiting for us in the seven days still ahead.
Look for part two of the Hungarian cycling adventure in next week’s Summit Daily travel section.
Frisco resident and world traveler Carolyn Schwartz is a frequent contributor to the Summit Daily News travel section.
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