Flood tourism and cycle tourism meet by the Danube

high water levels, Danube flooding, June 2013, Bratislava

Bratislavský hrad Slovakia Eurovelo 6

I have written before about how much I love being by the Danube with its promise of travels through history. However on this trip we saw another side of the great river, a treacherous beast only just held in check by mankind.

The recurring nightmare running up to our trip to Bratislava was that the city might be flooded by the surge of rainwater heading down after torrential rains right across central Europe. We were due to arrive Friday night and the peak flood waters were due just 24 hours earlier.

Consider that this is June. A month’s rainfall fell in two days across the high ground that feeds many of Europe’s great rivers, ground already saturated from the wet spring. Anyone who has been watching the Giro d’Italia bike race knows that it has been an appalling month across much of the Alps. Quickly the news showed the German town of Passau flooded by the Danube and its confluence with the Inn and Liz rivers. Then Prague was swamped by the Vltava River and all along the Danube and the Elbe communities were waiting for the surge.

Vienna itself was almost untouched because it has some of the most extensive flood relief systems in Europe, but now it was heading for Bratislava and Budapest. This was a particularly difficult time because after massive floods in 2002 the new flood defences in Bratislava were only a few years old and had never been tested.

During the week running up to the ECF AGM a planned cycle tour from Bratislava to Vienna was cancelled as the Eurovelo routes became impassable and nobody knew what condition they might be in when the waters dropped.

On Saturday morning we couldn’t resist a bit of voyeurism by walking down to the banks of the river in Bratislava. I was an extraordinarily impressive sight and one that made me realise just how precariously we try to control such massive bodies of water. According to reliable sources (our taxi driver) the river was carrying five times its normal volume of water.

High water levels, Danube river, Bratislava June 2013

One day after the peak we could look across the giant expanse rushing powerfully by the city centre, almost on our eye level behind the flood barriers. It was clear from the lines on the side of the temporary flood barriers that this must have been a very near miss.

Danube SlovakiaShip traffic was banned because of the levels so there were working boats moored all along the banks, but most striking were the floating hotels, keeling over to one side because their entrances were moored below water level. Police were patrolling the banks to stop idiocy – people climbing onto the barriers or trying to get across to the boats I guess.

And it was all such a contrast to the scene behind the barriers. All along the banks are extensive cycle paths and there was an excellent foot and pedestrian bridge slung underneath the main car bridge into the city.Bratislava Cyclists danube bridge

Child cycling by the Danube Bratislava Cycling by the Danube BratislavaIn the stunning warm weather we were among hundreds of people all out for what would have been family and friends bike rides around the river bank. However it was apparent that almost everyone just needed to linger that bit longer to take in the power of the river, and maybe to contemplate just how close they had been to another serious flood.Slovakia

Bratislava Old Town charms us

View over the Danube from Bratislava Castle

Bratislava old town

The missing posts before I started blogging about Velo-city and our summer holiday were the two days we spent en route in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

We were there for the annual general meeting of ECF, my employers, when we bring our members together for a couple of days to do the formalities of running an international association, but also to catch up with old friends from the cycle campaigning world.

Bratislava was selected because we wanted to be in proximity to Vienna so many people could travel on the following week, but to give us a chance to meet in a different environment with a different community.

The meeting itself fulfilled all those expectations but a residing memory will be the number of people who said “Wow, Bratislava, I never knew”

The old town and the castle that overlooks it have been charmingly restored to provide a historic and largely car free environment that are a delight to wander. Bratislava Square

Much of the restoration is quite recent, friends from neighbouring countries were as surprised by the centre as us first timers, reporting that even twenty years ago Bratislava was dark, dirty and industrial. Outside the centre are apparently some of the communist era’s largest housing estates and old industrial centres but as a tourist in the centre one would never know.

The castle overlooks the city and has a great panoramic view over the Danube. It was a hot walk up to the top, especially the staggered staircase but once up there the view over the river and the red roofs of the old town was great, especially from the lovely terrace café.Bratislavský hrad Slovakia Roofs of Bratislava old town

June 2013, Slovakia

The warm weather was also particularly welcome because lets face it we have had a truly awful winter and spring. Time to take a bowl of one of the local delicacies, sheep’s cheese with pasta, and chill out.Slovakia

I have been told so many times by cycle tourists that they get so fixed on the riding that they forget to stop and actually appreciate the towns and cities they ride through. I can imagine that riding the Danube cycle route (part of Eurovelo 6) one could just forget to turn into the old city set just back from the waterside in Bratislava or avoid climbing the hill to the castle.

That would be a huge mistake. And it would be unfair to our hosts, the Ekopolis Foundation (Nadácia Ekopolis, known also as the Slovak Environmental Partnership) and Slovenský Cykloklub who certainly showed us a new destination to enjoy. Bratislavský hrad SlovakiaSlovakiaBratislava Old Town Marks Gate

Not despairing in Budapest

Eurovelo 6 Danube Hungary

Eurovelo Danube Hungary

cannot believe two weeks have gone by since I was enjoying the sunshine of Budapest – it has a sort of “last summer” feel already with the mini-winter that has hit Belgium.

I realised that while I was musing on the Danube and food I didn’t finish my post about the cycling, which is somewhat of an oversight for a cycling blog. I thought I should complete the process because Budapest is such an important milestone in the Danube Cycle Route and a major part of Eurovelo6, the rivers route linking the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube so it may be of interest to fellow travellers. And I want to thank the campaigners at the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kerekparosklub) for their hospitality.

Whenever a league table of European cycling levels is published many people are surprised to see Hungary competing with Denmark in second or third place. In fact when I showed the graph to some Hungarians in Budapest they were surprised too.

This is because there are still really high levels of cycling in the rural areas of Hungary, largely driven by economic circumstances. But Budapest itself followed the trajectory of most of the Eastern European capitals after the Iron Curtain came down by embracing the car with enthusiasm. Not long later they had the joys of congestion and cars had overwhelmed residual levels of cycling. Unfortunately this rush to the car was also supported by the economic engine of the EU which financed a whole load of so called improvements in the form of new roads.

When I was first in Budapest in the winter of 2008 with the ECF board we were taken on several bike rides around the city which showed the first signs of a counter-revolution. There were lots of plans to improve the infrastructure and particularly to create attractive riverside routes for the Danube Cycle Route.

Eurovelo 6 Hungary

However back then it was very hard to imagine because what was in place was disconnected and dysfunctional.

Five years later you can see the benefits of that investment. It’s not a wholesale transformation of the whole city but it is clear that there is a really big change, especially along the river. OK, there is a heck of a difference between freezing December and sunny March too but there were also a lot more cyclists everywhere I walked and cycled. The confidence of the bike industry seems to be up too, the cycle show Bringaexpo which was hosting my visit has just moved to a bigger venue.

Eurovelo 6 HungaryAnd credit to the EU funding programme too, from previous spending on “roads to nowhere” a significant proportion of the EU infrastructure subsidy to Hungary has now started going on cycling facilities, especially where it can boost tourism. It means the job can be done properly, for example the Margit Bridge is a protected heritage structure so this tunnel through the bridge footings cost around 3 million Euros so the EU share meant it could be done safely and in keeping the integrity of the structure. There were also wide paths across other bridges, cyclists shared with pedestrians but with plenty of space for both.

HungaryIn the city areas there were fewer segregated facilities but the on-carriageway routes were wide, direct and seemed to be respected by the drivers.

Once we got further east towards the exhibition centre there was a nice ride through parkland which is symbolically important to the advocacy community here because it is the final point of the Budapest Critical Mass. This amazing gathering is not the underground movement of other cities, at its peak it had over 80,000 participants and was joined by significant politicians. Interestingly 2013 will see the last ever CM here because the leaders feel it has achieved as much as it can as a protest movement and it is now joining forces and trying to bring its energy to the broader cyclists groups. It was great to be at a meeting with them and see the injection of passion that comes from that direct action side of campaigning. Diary date 20th April if you happen to be able to get to Budapest – should be a good party.

HungaryAs a visitor who really appreciates the Danube and as someone who has always loved cycling and walking by water I can perhaps permit myself one moan. Like so many countries and cities the waterway is a corridor for other modes of transport.

Hungary Eurovelo 6 In the really bold cities like Paris we see city administrations trying to claim that space back for people. I think the authorities here have bottled it in places, for example south of Margit Bridge they have let fast roads keep the river bank and pushed

Hungary Eurovelo 6pedestrians and cyclists up onto a raised embankment. This means the views are nice enough but distanced from the calm of the water. Just look at these two photos. Stunning view of the Parliament building – then pull back the lens to see what the actual view shows.

t isn’t like this all the way along, but I can’t help but feel that was an opportunity lost.

However if you are planning a ride down Eurovelo 6 or even just a short stretch of the Danube Cycle Route can I recommend you include the Budapest stretch and do take a few diversions across the bridges and out to areas like Hero Square, it is becoming a good place to ride a bike again. See my earlier post for just  taste of the architecture and history in Budapest and from what I heard the ride round Lake Balaton is a treat for future occasions..

And credit to the cyclists organisations and their friends and supporters. The movement is relatively small and underfunded compared to many in Western Europe however they have lots of creativity, bags of energy and a real willingness to work together to go forward. And they do some rather amusing campaigning, always good to see advocacy with a smile.

I look forward to more chances to visit them too, it really feels that I am among friends

 

Spring at last – a beautiful day in Budapest

Danube Budapest Hungary

Searing bright light, forcing me to squint, making sightseeing almost painful.

And it was absolutely wonderful. After weeks of overcast cold weather this spring day in Budapest was like a huge injection of life.

I wrote on Friday how much the Danube always impresses me. But now in the stunning sunlight with the architecture of Budapest on either side I just didn’t want to stop wandering and taking photos. Almost a shame that I had to go and talk cycling!Parliament Building Budapest Hungary Danube Budapest Hungary Church by Danube in Buda Hungary

Last time I was here was December 2008. It was freezing, overcast and we spent quite a bit of our time cycling in the dark. But even then I remember being impressed by the buildings and bridges of several eras overlooking the water, but today they were resplendent in spring sunshine.Chain Bridge and Buda castle Budapest Buda Castle, Budapest Hungary

 

As well as the riverside I had a short time to go into the centre too and I enjoyed the quiet squares just beyond the busy thoroughfares. These grand buildings and statues are typical of these central European cities that were once part of one of Europe’s greatest empires.

Budapest Hungary

Hungarians are a warm hospitable people too, with an extraordinary compulsion to fill visitors with enormous quantities of food. It doesn’t get much better for a hungry cyclist.

If you’ve not been, go.

The Danube always makes a huge impression on me

Margit Bridge

Even  though I am stepping out on a cold misty morning today the Danube never fails to excite me.

Partly it is the huge size, partly I can look down river and catch a first glimpse of the buildings of Budapest along the banks. But it has always done this whenever I have come to it on trips.

But also I think about this amazing corridor that links so many capital cities and countries, running from Germany to the Black Sea. How much human history has been seen along these waters. Something of the exotic perhaps? As a Brit we are often far removed and sadly uneducated about much European history, but when I get the Danube I always feel I should know more.

It is a long standing ambition to cycle the eastern section. Today I will have to content myself with this first view and some cycling along its great cycle paths later.