Harrogate to India cycle: Latest from Belgrade

Rhys James and Tom Cartledge in Prague (s)
Rhys James and Tom Cartledge in Prague (s)

Harrogate friends Tom Cartledge and Rhys James set out from Hookstone Drive last month, aiming to cycle from Harrogate to India.

They are raising money for charities The Railway Children and St Michael’s hospice.

The Harrogate Advertiser is keeping up-to-date with their progress. The pair have reached Belgrade, and sent this report.

We have finally reached this epic point after following two of the better known European rivers from the German city of Dresden: the Elbe & the Danube from Vienna.

We have observed and experienced many different things in the last weeks from the changing of the seasons in a quite dramatic fashion, to the changing of cultures.

Snow surrounded us in the Czech Republic and sometimes made it hard to progress with speed or sometimes with any motion at all, and now we find ourselves camping in dusty arid fields and making a necessity of applying sun cream lotion every day and stopping to shelter from the midday sun.

The change has been somewhat dramatic. Did spring vacation this year? because we had no warning of summer.

Upon leaving Dresden on the 1st of April the snow was falling all-around us again and a slight breeze turned the start of our trip into a blizzard; head on of course.

I and Rhys were somewhat used to this by now, but our new friend and cycling partner Alex wasn’t expecting this at all.

The weather conditions soon passed as we progressed to the start of the river Elbe cycling trail.

The Czech border wasn’t far, and the excitement of changing into a new country is a real boost to us.

Following the river down towards Prague seemed like the logical idea, and after an hour or so of cycling the scenery unwrapped in a majestic manner.

If only cycling could be like this all of the time. The name for this region is Swiss Saxony and there be no explanation needed when you lay eyes on the beautiful surroundings.

The snow seemed to have a calming effect on the Elbe Valley and everything was motionless, except for three cyclists adventuring their way through the scenery.

The Bastei Bridge is probably the most famous and idyllic landmark in the area, and sits high above the cycling trial in the sandstone mountains of Bastei.

It has been a tourist attraction for hundreds of years and it is clear to see why, as the bridge connects many of the peaks of the mountains, allowing awe inspiring views of the surroundings inspiring artists such as Casper David Friedrich.

This area was simply one of the best undertakings so far on this trip, and I would highlight it as one of the nicest days of cycling I have ever completed.

Following the route of the Elbe wasn’t to be the shortest or most direct of routes, but this wasn’t on our mind.

We needed to escape the towns and cities and cycle free of traffic for a while. It makes the mind ill at ease to be constantly cycling with cars passing you by, and filling your face with fumes.

The open expanse and fresh air of Elbe Valley was spectacular, and after making our way further and further up the river it was time to depart the romantic river and follow the Vltava down to Prague.

If I could possibly recommend travelling along one river in Europe to anybody the Elbe would probably be the choice as she is graceful, commanding, inspiring and romantic. After splitting from the Elbe, we joined the longer Vltava for a day’s cycle on to the Czech capital: Praha.

Just before we rolled into the Czech capital we had been following the Vltava on a rough off road trail with trees roots under our wheels, a steep embankment to one side of the muddy trail and a 20 foot drop into the river on the other side.

This was a playful experience and made us realise how important it was to experience everything that was thrown in our direction.

A huge hill had to be completed before we were in touching distance of the city, and believe me without bags on the back of your bike most fit cyclists would struggle.

We were starting to experience the mountainous side of the Czech Republic, and received a glimpse of what lay ahead of us.

Entering Prague or any other grand city by bicycle knowing that you have powered the soul transportation is an unbelievable feeling, it felt very special as it was a huge landmark on our trip and almost highlighted a quarter of the way to final destination so there were smiles all around.

Looking back Prague only seemed to represent a mere fifth of the entire journey but it was still a special feeling.

The hills were filling up with buildings and we turned into the city with a pure energy which seemed to hit us slap bang in the face.

This was to be home for a few days with a Mexican architectural student by the name of Juan Carlos.

He is a very hospitable young man, and on our second night he even hosted three more French travelers totalling the number of couchsurfers to 6 on the kitchen floor.

How many people do you know that would open their doors to strangers in such a way?

The real challenge of the Czech Republic came on the push to Brno the second city of this fine country.

We were pushed and pushed on the first day into overdrive, climbing large hills in to snow covered pastures and then flying down the other side with such adventurous speeds only to be greeted by another hill.

There were no flat expanses in this region but we stuck together and covered the ground to the halfway town of Humpolec in good time.

Completing this was a major achievement as we knew that hard times of hills lay ahead, and this was an acknowledgment that we could endure what they threw at us.

To congratulate ourselves we actually took the bikes out on an off-roading adventure to explore the surroundings, this time without the bags.

The bikes felt so light in comparison, but after cycling so far we ended up having to take one of the small ‘one carriage’ trains on a roundabout journey taking hours and hours, and having to change multiple time just to get back to Humpolec at 11pm. This was a reward though as the train visited small quaint hamlets in the hills that we would have otherwise not seen.

The next section of the journey on to Brno was complete madness at the beginning due to black ice lying on the surfaces both up and down the hill roads sometimes making it near impossible to tackle them with peddle power alone.

On one downhill section surrounded by forest the same spot claimed both of us as its victims. I left my bike mid fall and carried on sliding down the hill on my bottom, like a ride at a carnival.

Although it sounds painful it was actually not, and more playful. We laughed it off and completed the journey to Brno, cycling though charming towns such as Jihlava.

The next of our major river voyages began after spending a fine few days in the ostentatious Austrian capital: Vienna.

The Danube which is the second largest river on the continent after the Volga was already wide and free flowing at this point, but offered some of the clearest waters I had seen of any river water so far.

The day’s route was only short, and connected possibly the closest laying capital cities in the world: Vienna and Bratislava.

We fought against the wind early on but this couldn’t wipe the smiles off of our faces as the sun was finally out to play.

As we only had a short distance to cover in order to reach Bratislava we decided to split up our day and relax in the Danube National Park during the midday and use the time to do more exploring into the area by foot.

We played around with camera angles, lunched and read by the side of the quiet trail.

The landscape looked like something that belonged more in the Australian outback during wet season, or somewhere along an African river, it was a rather sight and completely changed our expectations of the area.

Finally after spending close to five weeks in the snow since leaving Amsterdam we had some natural warmth to help lift our spirits.

The cold is really be one of the most depressive conditions to cycles through, but we are so glad that we had set off during that time of year just to be able to see the fine contrast between winters longing and summer joyous start. To see the response of the local people, the reaction of own attitudes towards cycling, and the time we could physically spend on the bikes, it was amazing.

Whilst couchsurfing with a Slovakian tour guide called Peter in Bratislava we managed to experience a lot of unusual un-touristic places, from dinning in an old theatre to drinking local wine with local people in the market. For two large glasses of the regional white we paid a mere one pound, and sat back and surveyed the locals cheering, chatting and singing away.

The atmosphere was electric, and possibly was made better been the only outsiders in the place. The city has a very attractive old town which has already seemly opened its doors to the English stag party scene, but if you can veer off of these routes a huge amount of Slovakian charm is waiting for you with a huge smile.

Spending only two nights in Bratislava, and not seeing much else of this fine country hung over my head like a guilty conscience as we cycled on towards Hungary on Saturday, April 13.

The place had a great vibe and the people that we were lucky enough to meet really made it special.

Saying goodbye to places you enjoy is possibly the hardest aspect of traveling, but I never expected Hungary to obtain so much of a large personality.

Our plan was to follow the Danube to Győr, stay one night there and then cut across the hills near Tatabanya into Budapest. We longed to see more to Hungary than just the river life.

Couchsurfing in Győr was more than a new experience for me, and also a first for Rhys too.

During my couchsurfing days I have stayed in large and small apartments, interesting anti squat buildings and student housing, but in Győr we were met by our host’s son and led into a disused student dorm.

In the two days that we spent there we didn’t meet out host, but only spoke to him on the phone and felt like rather regal guests staying in a shady part of town. The space was actually very nice, and we were the only people bar a caretaker staying in a 30 – 40 room building: bizarre is an easy choice of words to describe the experience.

As we were lucky enough to be staying in such a crazy abandoned and empty school building we decided to stay for another day to catch up on some work, and try to soak up more of the attitude available of this small Hungarian city. We walked into the picturesque town center with one focal aim of eating the Hungarian specialty: Goulash. As you can imagine this isn’t too much of an effort in here. We decided on a restaurant which would allow us to relish the sun and the charming architecture all-around of us. The goulash was plentiful, if not a tad to over oiled but exploding with flavor and personality. This dish is surely one of my favorites. When we saw the ice cream deserts which they were serving the children inside of us passed out with excitement and two huge Sundays were ordered! It was such a fanciful food day!

Moving on towards Budapest we camped just outside of Tatabanya which is famous for having the world’s largest sculpture of an eagle and Europe’s largest bronze statue.

Camping in this region was fantastic, and gave us a chance to experience another side to Hungary which we hadn’t imagined yet.

The hills into Budapest were relentless, and the nearer you got to the capital the worse the road conditions seemed to be.

When we were finally reunited with river, and were given a tour of Budapest our jaws were scraping the floor.

People might say that Prague is one of the more beautiful cities in Europe for its examples of baroque architecture, but when you step into Buda or Pest all of the buildings are just fabulous.

I could write and write about how spectacular the castle is or how Hungarian House of Parliament very much over shadows our own houses of parliament but I would recommend that you yourself visit this fine Diamond on the Danube to experience it for yourself.

After a hard few months of traveling (harder than most) it was time for team saddle sore to take a bath, and an epic one at that it should be! We had been looking forward to the bath houses of Budapest for the last week, and after asking for some recommendations from Kata our host we arrived over the river into a delightful little bath house.

When passing through the turn style into the changing area we were handed loin clothes which at first perplexed the pair of us, as the man exclaimed that they were for our faces. The cheeky smile on his face made me wonder how many tourists fell for his little prank.

The bath house is made up of four temperature gradient changing pools surrounding one main communal pool.

Business deals appeared to be clinched, and that wasn’t all. On venturing into the steam room we quickly retired back to the pools as the heat was over powering.

The sauna was much more relaxed, and the extremely cold plunge pool was awakening.

The dark atmosphere was relaxing on so many levels. It was actually very nice to spend some time relaxing and feeling like you could be anywhere. None of the hustle and bustle of the city: great!

This past week we have completed our last leg of following the great European rivers, and made our way down through beautiful Hungarian towns such Kalocsa, Baja and Mohacs meeting and couchsurfing with some fantastic individuals and families representing Hungarian personality in full robust form.

We crossed in Croatia for an hour or so and then on into Serbia where we presently reside.

The thoughts going through our heads recently have been which route to take on to Istanbul.

We had thought of cycling through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Greece, or down through Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece or straight through Bulgaria and on to Istanbul.

We let the spin of a bottle decide as we have no set plans or time constraints and it revealed that we will now be cycling on to Sofia and through Bulgaria with the more direct approach.

Leaving the rivers behind will be an emotional choice, but soon enough I’m sure we will be cycling on through Turkey into the Asia and all along the coast of the Black Sea, enjoying new adventures.

Find links to donate to charities the railway children and St Michael’s hospice at www.saddlesore.moonfruit.com