Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bicycling to Bratislava

  OK, I have something I would like to say to the Austrian people: LEARN HOW TO MAKE MAPS.  Those who do not enjoy rants may scroll down to the first photo below.

  You have read previously of the hiking adventure in the Wienerwald, during which we eventually decided that the lines on our map had been randomly drawn just to indicate "there are trails in the woods here."  Well, the map I bought (worst 7 euros I ever spent), supposedly depicting the bike path along the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava, was of the same caliber.  For aspiring map-makers, a few tips:

1) It is helpful to provide the names of streets.  At least the major ones.  Or at least the ones you want those following your map to actually take.

2) Choose an appropriate scale for your map.  When users of your map are on bicycles, showing an entire town in an area of 5 mm by 5 mm, and showing the many turns of the bike path through the streets of that town as a single 2 mm blue line running straight through that town, is less than helpful.

3) Depict things that are real.  Examples of real things: roads that actually do exist, that users of your map might see in the real world, and also see in your map, and thereby draw some helpful correspondence between your map and reality.

4) Do not depict things that are imaginary.  Examples of imaginary things: paths and roads that do not exist, which users of your map might see in your map, and for which said users might search for fruitlessly in the real world.

5) This is a sort of corollary to 3 and 4: When making maps, it is helpful not to consume excessive doses of hallucinogens, so as to better maintain your sense of what is real and what is not.

  OK, there we are.  Sometimes it's good not to hold things inside, you know?  So.  We started our adventure at the Simmering S-Bahn station:

  There we rode to Lobau station, on the north side of the Danube, because the bike ride there isn't particularly pleasant or interesting.  At Lobau it's easy to get onto the bike path along the Danube, and you're immediately greeted by beautiful sights:

  The ride is supposed to be about 60 km.  We got riding at about 7 AM, so I figured roughly 15 km/h, 4 hours, 11 AM, plus an hour for stops and such, so I told the train group we'd meet them in Bratislava at noon.  The first cloud on the horizon:

  In the distance is Sarthak, pumping up his tire.  It turned out he had a slow leak in his tube that necessitated pumping every 15 minutes or so.  He was quick at pumping, though, so this hardly slowed us down, compared to other mishaps.

  We rode along the Danube for quite a while; rather longer than we should have, in fact, having missed our turn some ways back.  I think we rode an extra six kilometers or so as a result of this.  After backtracking from that, we followed the correct route through the middle of a chemical plant of some sort:

  As the son of a chemical engineer, I have a certain appreciation for such places, and it wasn't smelly or anything, so fine.  This is the scenery of southern Vienna, so be it.  There was a small hill at the far end of the chemical plant.  Arame at the bottom of the hill:

  Arame at the top of the hill (click for the big photo that really shows her facial expression :->):

  Now we crossed into a rather nicer section of the path, through a national park:

  The trail here was still fairly shady, which was lovely.  It wasn't long, though, before the sun discovered us:

  Doing it again, I would actually start at 5 AM, not 7 AM.  That would be a bit painful, no doubt, but it is so much more pleasant riding when the sun is low and the air is cool.

  Note that we have lost one member of our group.  Jack zipped off on his own, wishing to ride faster than the, uh, glacial pace we maintained.  He did indeed reach Bratislava before noon, so my time estimate was good, in principle.  But for the rest of the group, things worked out rather differently.  (Cue ominous music.)

  We wandered through agricultural areas:

and forested areas:

and eventually, having triumphantly recognized the right turn from our map despite the lack of any road name, landmark, or other indication, we came back down to the Danube.  Here we piled onto a large ferryboat, and made ourselves at home.  We set to work patching Sarthak's tube, and refilled out water bottles, and so forth, and the operator of the ferry said he'd be happy to leave whenever we were ready.  Great!  So we finished up the patch job, and got organized, and then told the ferry guy to set sail.  At which point he gestured to the little wooden boat off the side of the ferryboat!  The contrast between what I thought was going to happen and what actually did happen was very funny to me.

  So we piled in, with our bicycles, and motored across the Danube in this little boat, maybe 15 feet from bow to stern:

  On the far side, we got a bit lost amid jungle-like vegetation, ancient overgrown cobblestone tracks, and (I'm pretty sure) natives silently tracking us with poisoned darts in the blowpipes:

  I felt like I was in the Amazon!  I don't think that was where the makers of our map had intended that we would be delivered by the boat.  We missed the bike path, and ended up riding on the non-existent shoulder of a major road for a quarter of an hour, with cars whizzing by us honking their horns.  Uh-oh, I feel another rant coming on.  Drivers: PLEASE DON'T HONK AT BICYCLISTS!  It is startling, and the surprise can make the bicyclist jump, and that jump can cause a swerve into traffic, and that swerve can cause an accident.  We know you're there.  We can hear you from miles away, with your big noisy engines and your roaring tires.  You don't like us, we don't like you.  Fine.  Let's keep our interactions to a minimum.

  Anyhow, we made it out alive, and were soon back amid the wheat fields and the beating sun:

  And the sun was really beating down by now.  It didn't feel that hot when we were riding, because the wind cooled us off, but the moment we stopped we would be covered in sweat.

  We turned off that lovely paved bicycle path above, onto a gravel track, because our map told us to.  This was a mistake, albeit a scenic one:

  We saw several of those roadside shrines along this route, which was surprising to me, given that Austria is, like most of Western Europe these days, fairly secular.  But there they were.  The sunflowers were the best part of the whole day.  The problem with this route, however, was twofold.

  One: the gravel roads were a problem.  Arame, in particular, objected to the "commotion" (I love that word choice) that they subjected her hindquarters to, and chose to walk her bicycle along them for long stretches.  This was not, it turned out, as fast as bicycling.  Also, somewhere around here, Sarthak's tire started leaking again, perhaps thanks to the gravel, or perhaps due to my poor tire-patching technique.  Back to pumping every fifteen minutes.

  Two: now off the marked bicycle trail intended by the authorities of Austria to be followed, we were at the whim of our map.  We had not realized, before this point, just how bad the map was, because each of our turns had been marked by an Austrian bike path sign.  Our map now showed a complex series of turns onto increasingly small side roads, with no indication of the names of those roads, and no way to tell whether you were on the right road or not.  It was high noon now, and so the sun provided no sense of direction.  We soon lost our bearings completely.  Which way was the Danube?  Which way was north?  We got briefly rescued by a local bicyclist, who pointed us down another gravel road, but her directions made no sense to us (she said to turn left at a silo, but where was the silo?), and we were almost immediately lost again.  We wandered through a trackless wilderness of sunflowers and wheat for an eternity:

  Until, purely by chance, we stumbled upon an Austrian bike path sign pointing towards a town that we recognized on the map.  It was even in the right direction!  The clouds parted, the angels sang, and we set off for the town of Petronell-Carnuntum.  The sunflowers were again transformed from strangely menacing anthropomorphic heads nodding in silent laughter at our plight, into cheerful harbingers of the pleasures of civilization that awaited us in Bratislava:

  Well.  We never made it to Petronell-Carnuntum; the bike path signs led us around it somehow, and I think we got derailed onto the wrong path, and we were back in the trackless wilderness again.

  But we eventually got found, and followed a shady lane:

to Hainburg, where we relaxed:

  If I look a little tired in that photo, that's because I was.  But there was a cure for that:

  That, my friends, is a one liter mug of Radler.  I still don't really like the taste of it that much, but it's incredibly refreshing, so it seemed like the right choice at this juncture, and I didn't regret it.  If I look happy in that photo, that's because I was.  :->

  After eating a bunch of food at this establishment (the Donau Cafe-Restaurant of Hainburg), we set off again past some nice medieval-looking walls:

  We were soon greeted by our first street sign (i.e. not a bike path sign) for Bratislava,

some more Roman ruins (we think, but they were inconveniently situated at the top of a hill),

and our first view of Bratislava in the distance:

  Let's get out the zoom lens for that one:

  That's Bratislava castle on the left, and the bridge over the Danube, and an observation tower at right that is a famous landmark of Bratislava.  With tears in our eyes, we rode off towards this distant vision of happiness.

  And promptly got lost again.

  Here we are somewhere between Hainburg and Bratislava, but where exactly, we will never know:

  You might note that Nimi is not pictured here.  She got slightly less lost than us, somehow, and crossed the border to Slovakia about an hour before us.  So now we were three.  But we got found again, thanks to some good directions from the locals, and to make a long story short (well, OK, it's too late for that I guess), we soon reached Bratislava:

  Perhaps I have complained too much about our map.  For comparison, here is the map posted at the edge of Bratislava, showing the trails in the area:

  OK, I have to admit that's even worse than our bike map.  Slightly.

  We got to the observation tower at about 5 PM I think.  Maybe it was 4:30.  Anyhow, only four or five hours later than scheduled.  Not bad, eh?  Tour de France, here we come!  Here's the tower from the bottom:

  Miraculously, we ran into Jack, the long-lost first member of our group, there at the base of the tower, and we were soon reunited with the whole train group (who had reached Bratislava at 9:30 AM, but had not really earned it, and who were therefore deeply shamed and saddened by their inadequacy), and we went up to the top of the observation tower for some views:

  That last is the Cold War-built section of the city, with a very different character from the parts built both before and after.  From the top of the tower, we saw a public pool, and that immediately realigned our goals.  After some drinks and dessert in the observation lounge of the tower, we descended back to ground level, located the swimming pool, discovered it was closed, convinced the very nice young men in charge of the pool to let us swim there anyway, and had an absolutely glorious swim.  No more sunscreen, no more sweat; the miles fell from us as if it was the Fountain of Youth.  After some more beers lounging around by the pool, it was getting quite late, and we more or less rushed into the old city, ate a hurried dinner at a decent restaurant (I had chicken in a paprika-cream sauce; after exercise I always crave chicken, not to mention butter and salt!), and rushed off to the 10:30 PM boat back to Vienna.  The only photo I actually got of the old city was this:

  It seemed like a beautiful city, though, similar to Prague in many ways, but smaller.  I shall have to return, obviously.  Now all that remained was the night ride on the boat from Bratislava:

back to Vienna, and a midnight ride on the U-Bahn back to Simmering.  It was an utterly exhausting day; having gotten up at 4:30 AM, ridden my bicycle for about 10 hours, and gotten back home after midnight, I was ready for bed.  All I've accomplished today is two loads of laundry, the writing of this blog entry, and two (count 'em, two!) naps.  Now it's time to head in to the city to watch the last match of the World Cup!


  1. I in no way feel shamed or inadequate. I realise my limits, one that includes being better equipped to dancing than biking...and I even managed to get nice touristy shots of Bratislava :P