Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

About two-thirds of the way through our ride, spending hours on the bike seat began to take its toll. I know they say you never forget how to ride a bike, but it is surprisingly easy to forget how badly it can hurt when you’re out of practice. Just when I thought I could go no further, we came across a welcome surprise. The Schloss Hof from the trail’s name is not just another village as I had thought. Instead, we unexpectedly began to ride through a Baroque Austrian palace’s grounds complete with gardens, fountains and lots of camels. Along with the palace came the welcome modern conveniences that visitors demand such as bathrooms and restaurants.

Sore and hungry, Chris and I paused at a bustling restaurant advertising various kinds of schnitzel. After adding our bikes to the nearly full racks, we sat down and perused the menu. Since we’ve been spoiled by months of paying typical Slovakian prices of €3-€6  for a meal, the Austrian prices reminded us that the architecture wasn’t the only way the East-West divide lives on. On the palace grounds or not, the sticker shock from a €13 lunch made the decision to pedal back to the Slovakian border for food an easy one. We hopped back onto our bikes, and rode through the palace grounds, stopping to admire both animals and architecture along the way.

The gate in front of Schloss Hof Palace in Austria.

The gate in front of Schloss Hof Palace in Austria.

Not far beyond Schloss Hof, we crossed a funky bridge over the Moravia River and returned to Slovak territory. Again, the transition was obvious with block-style apartments towering over Devínska Nová Ves. As soon our wheels hit Slovak ground we saw an advertisement for a restaurant with a grill, which was much more our style than the pricey Austrian dishes.  A few hundred meters off the path we found the outdoor restaurant surrounded by the smell of barbeque and bursting with bikers.  After locking up our bikes again, Chris ordered a sausage and I ate one of the most delicious grilled chicken sandwiches I have had to date.  Even with an order of french fries our bill came to less than half of what it would have cost for the one meal in Austria.

Since the restaurant was so packed, we non-verbally offered a family a spot at our table.  Because they were speaking to each other in German, we just smiled and gestured, thinking that would be the extent of our conversation.  However, a few minutes into our meal, the man next to me asked where I was from in perfect English. He happened to be from New York as well and now lived in Vienna with his Austrian wife.  His wife and her parents, who were also with them, were from Heinburg, one of the places we had passed through earlier. We had a great chat about the history of Heinburg, teaching English in Slovakia, and what was most interesting for me, what it was like to live in an Austrian village so close to the Slovakian border.  The older couple admitted that even though they lived kilometers from the border, they rarely ventured onto the Slovakian side since they just never got in the habit of it. In fact, even though they had lived so close their whole lives, they did not know one word of Slovak between the two of them.

It felt great to relax and enjoy the beautiful weather with our new friends, but Chris and I knew if we didn’t work up the motivation to get back on our bikes soon, we never would. When I went to go unlock mine, I was shocked to see my lock laying on the ground and my bike still resting in the rack. At first I thought I must have not secured the lock and it just fell off after I had left, but when I picked it up I saw it had clearly been cut through.  I found this really surprising since the bikes were clearly visible to everyone in the restaurant.  As I looked at the cut lock in disbelief, two older men sitting near by started desperately trying to explain something in German. I had absolutely no idea what they were saying, but my only guess could be that someone was trying to take the bike and they had stepped in and stopped it. It would make a prime target since it clearly advertised itself as a rental bike on the side. As baffled as I was, I thanked the men, stuffed the broken lock and my saddle bag and headed back onto the road, very happy to still have a bike to ride back.

The identical blocks of flats come into view as we cross back into Slovakia.

The identical blocks of flats come into view as we cross back into Slovakia.

I think the last section of the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour was actually my favorite part of the whole trail.  It runs between the main road and the river and was bursting with greenery at this time of year.  Also, although the path generally seemed very flat and leisurely, I must not have been crazy when I thought I felt some  slight inclines throughout because I was able to coast down many of the sections of the trail back to Bratislava.  One of the highlights was riding by Devin Castle, where the Moravia and Danube Rivers meet. I had visited a nearly deserted and bleak Devin in November, but the castle area was alive with people and basking in sunlight when we rode by on this holiday afternoon.

From here we continued along the main road, which supposedly has a bike lane. I wouldn’t call the glorified shoulder a full-on bike lane, but the cars passing by were very aware of the possibility of cyclers and gave more than sufficient space. As we neared Bratislava the path split off again and took us through parts of the city we had never seen before. We passed by small restaurants and bars tucked into the riverside trees.  Closer to the center, the buildings grew into modern apartment buildings, fanc shopping areas and upscale cafes set behind a broad pedestrian path.

Riding past Devin Castle, a completely different place from when I last saw it in November.

Riding past Devin Castle, a completely different place from when I last saw it in November.

By the time the new bridge came back into sight we had ridden nearly forty miles. While this isn’t necessarily a short distance, it still didn’t seem long enough to see all of the different places that we did. Most of Bratislava had still been sleeping in on their holiday when we had departed, but we returned to the city as crowded and festive as we had ever seen it.  We rode through the Old Town, past crowds watching May Day festivities and full-to-the-brim sidewalk cafes.  The relaxed, yet festive vibe of the “Big Little City” has never failed to put a smile on my face. Maybe the Austrians don’t know what they’re missing.

We returned our bikes not long after reaching the city center, since I couldn’t really lock mine up if we went anywhere else. The return process was as simple as the pick-up. The couple was very understanding about the broken lock and didn’t take any of my deposit because of it. We bid them farewell and walked, or maybe at this point waddled to Shtoor, our favorite cafe in the Old Town. As much as I enjoyed venturing into Western Europe for a day, I was happy to be back, soaking up the rest of the afternoon in beautiful, relaxed, unassuming Bratislava.

Categories: photography, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

  1. Beautiful post, this must be huge fun!

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