Prague to Budapest cycling tours

Unexploded bombs, rough and disused roads, difficult border crossings – when it comes to building a 9,950km cycle route along one of the world's most notorious political borders, the list of complications is long. But thanks to Michael Cramer, German Green Party activist and MEP, the Iron Curtain Trail is already on track for completion.

EuroVelo 13, the trail’s official name, is Cramer’s passion project, inspired by the need for more sustainable tourism and an aspiration to promote the collective identity of a once divided Europe. Unlike other EuroVelo routes (EU-funded long distance cycling trails that criss-cross the continent), the trail goes out of its way to spend time on both sides of Europe’s many borders – Russia is the itinerary’s only omission. It’s along a stretch of this trail, in central Europe, that cycling tours from Prague to Budapest take intrepid travellers. However, our cycling tours take the experience one step further, delving much deeper into each country (Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) to see how capitals, culture, small towns and countryside change as you travel from east to west of the old Iron Curtain.
Concrete fragments of this not-always physical barrier still remain; plaques mark the spots where escaping citizens were shot dead by border guards and concrete bunkers litter the countryside of the Czech Republic. Where the trail crosses borders, a sign pinpoints the exact time in history when that bit of the barrier fell. Along some of the Austrian-Czech border, where this trip follows the official trail the closest, the route takes a single-track military road flanked by barbed wire and watch towers. Michael Cramer describes it as like “riding through an open air museum”.
It’s sights like these that are missed by tourists looking to spend as little time as possible travelling from city to city. Of course, rural Europe isn’t a museum – and by cycling you’ll actually have time to talk and connect with the people who live there. But you will find life here little changed by the tourism that is now overstretching some of the capitals. Vivien Urban, product manager at our cycling holiday specialists Exodus, explains that “the main focus of this tour is not just the capital cities. While there is some time to explore those as well, there is a big emphasis on cycling outside the cities. The countryside is not so touristy and the people are welcoming”.

What do Prague to Budapest cycling tours entail?

This tour takes cyclists on a south-easterly zig-zag along the former frontier of the soviet sphere of influence. Starting in Prague and ending in Budapest, it packs Vienna, Bratislava and a host of historic castles and towns into eight days in the saddle – leaving three spare for additional sightseeing. Undulating terrain makes this a tour for travellers with existing cycling experience and a reasonable level of fitness but, as Vivien explains: “there is full vehicle support, however, so if someone needs a break they can skip cycling and relax in the vehicle”.

Groups are kept small, limited to no more than 16 riders, meaning the ride is a more enjoyable, communal one, and making sure everyone has time to talk to the tour leaders. Leaders are all local and, according to Vivien, enthusiastic and experienced cycle tour leaders who leapt at the chance to work as guides. A combination of excellent cycling skills, knowledge of the local landscapes and the lived experience of life under communism makes them indispensible to understanding the ever-changing surroundings.
Responsible traveller Peter Perlmutter gave the following feedback on a Prague to Budapest cycling tour: “Do it! It takes a lot to help shape a trip to 4 countries with 16 people and it was done terrifically. Interests in cycling and history and friendships were more than satisfied. It’s the history, the glory, the subjugation, the castles, the rivers and the people. The ability to interact with locals and share instances was great.”
Tours take place between May and October, although the weather can be reliably warm between June and August – in the height of summer it can get hotter than 25°C. For this reason, Vivien recommends anyone looking to avoid the heat should travel in spring or autumn instead. Landscapes are likely to be greener, and more animated by birds and animals, in the spring, while autumn can be colourful and is harvest time for wine.

Living landscapes

Your local guide will encourage you to read the map of the route, so you can get your bearings on the landscapes and history before you. At the same time, you’ll also spot several symbols for sites of natural interest along your way. That's because this very same route is also the target of another cross-country initiative: the European Green Belt. “This part of Europe was strictly guarded for over 40 years, dividing Eastern Europe from Western Europe,” explains Vivien Urban, product manager at our holiday specialists Exodus. “As people were not allowed to do anything in this strictly guarded area, the nature is beautifully preserved.”

The “death strip” is, in fact, teeming with life. Where the River Dyje, a natural border between the Czech Republic and Austria, was once closed to the public, it’s now a paradise for birdlife. Political unrest has protected land from development and areas rich in biodiversity can be found throughout the tour. Over 600 types of fern flourish in the floodplains and forests of Austria’s Donau-Auen National Park, which surrounds the Danube, and some 5,000 animal species call it their home. When it comes to Hungary, Vivien adds that “there are good bird watching opportunities in its National Parks and it has Lake Balaton, which is stunning”.

Since bikes require less infrastructure, and have next to no impact compared to cars, they are by far the best way to explore these wonderfully preserved wildlife havens. Quieter than a car, the bicycle also lets you explore your natural surroundings without scaring off the wildlife, and with only the sound of birdcall to disrupt the silence.

Our top Cycling Tours in Europe Holiday

Cycling holiday in the Netherlands, Germany & Austria

Cycling holiday in the Netherlands, Germany & Austria

European cycling at its best

From £1995 17 days ex flights
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2021: 6 Aug
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Local culture

For most people, no cycling tour through four different European countries would feel complete without spending a day in each capital. But this cycling tour doesn’t linger long in the cities, favouring beautiful Austrian villages and the spa towns of the Czech Republic instead. Vivien Urban, a Hungarian herself, says of Hungary: “there is more to this country than just the capital itself. Many people don’t know that Hungary is a wine country and it is definitely underrated for its wine making. It is also famous for its spas and hot springs, music, dance, food, crafts.”

Since the rise in popularity of Prague and Budapest as holiday destinations, overtourism is becoming a significant problem for the people who live there. Not only that but, as whole districts are being developed to appeal only to tourists, anyone looking for an authentic experience in the city is increasingly likely to come away disappointed.
Taking this tour opens up a side of these countries many visitors never see: cycling through fields of grapevines before tasting wine from the family-run cellar, counting castles as you cycle or eating freshly caught carp in Trebon. If you arrive here in autumn, you might see the seasonal spectacle of Czech fishermen in their oilskins, hauling in the Christmas catch in the same traditional methods used for centuries. Staying a little longer in each area you visit is both a benefit to locals, who many not see many tourists, but also to travellers looking to experience local life. “The combination of the beautiful countryside with small villages and towns forms a wonderful setting for very enjoyable rides,” says Vivien.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: #] [Top box: Pudelek] [Entails: Exodus Travel] [Local culture: pudelek]
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