Biking in Eastern Europe on a Budget
When most people think of a bicycle trip through Europe, they picture bucolic rides through southern France, or perhaps the green fields of Ireland or Wales. Cycling through the former Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe can be just as satisfying, however, and a fraction of the cost.
Several forward-thinking organizations have worked hard to set up networks of greenways throughout this region for hiking and biking. The Czech Environmental Partnership group has worked with local communities to point out the benefits of increased tourism and to build local volunteer organization who will assist with access, maintenance, and trail signs.
The result is a surprisingly well-developed network of mostly off-road trails that covers the most scenic parts of Central and Eastern Europe. If you have the time, you could go from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, Krakow, or Bratislava using only two wheels and lots of leg muscle. Within individual countries, including Romania, there are routes that will occupy one day or two weeks, with easy flat trails or challenging trips through mountains.
Biking in the Czech Republic
Biking in the Czech Republic is no secret to the Europeans that pour in each year, but the word is spreading to others as well. Thanks to nearly two decades of ongoing work from the Czech Greenways Travel Club, the biking routes throughout the country are well-marked and organized. Plenty of small and inexpensive hotels in every location display a “cyclists welcome” sign and have facilities for secure bike storage and sweaty shirt washing.
The flattest part to explore, and the best for those who want to tour in some kind of a loop, is the wine region of Moravia, in the southern part of the country near Austria. Here you can ride a leisurely 20 miles a day or a leg-burning 50 miles a day through vineyards and past grand castles built by the Lichtensteins. Nearly every town has wineries to visit for tastings and during harvest season in autumn the collections of wine cellars on the edge of towns are buzzing with activity. Be sure to stop at The National Wine Center in the village of Valtice, where for about $20 you can sample a run of the 100 best wines in the country, judged annually by a panel of experts.
You can set up a tour through the Greenways Travel Club, or through numerous for-profit tour companies based in the U.S. or other parts of Europe. This allows you to let someone else work out all the details and if something goes wrong you’ve got someone along who can make repairs.
Renting a bike and exploring on your own is easy here, however, since clear markings and good trail maps keep you from getting lost. The most extensive rental operation is Top Bicycle Tours in Europe, and they’re never too far away if there’s a breakdown. Start from Mikulov in Moravia to avoid a transport charge, then eventually return to there or drop the bike off at one of the other offices. They will let you drop off the bike for no charge in Prague, Cesky Krumlov (a great historical getaway from the crowds in Prague), or Brno in the Czech Republic, or across the borders in Vienna (Austria) and Bratislava (Slovakia). Expect to pay $30-$40 a day for a well-maintained hybrid bike with all necessary equipment. Tandem, kids’ bikes, and child pull-along trailers are available.
Biking in Slovakia
While the Moravia region of the Czech Republic is full of cyclists in the summer, few travelers make it across to neighboring Slovakia. One tour company’s page for Slovakia has the following note: “Past tour offers have not sold well, and have been pulled. For groups or parties seeking guided trips, please let us know and we can send a quotation.”
Your best bet is to go with someone already active in the region. Top Bicycle (from the Czech section above) runs four bike tours around Slovakia. The shortest is a 4-day Danube Trail from Bratislava to Sturovo, with an easy 165 km (103 miles) total along mostly flat trails. Prices run from $750 to $1,050 for everything depending on whether it is self-guided or organized. Hey, they even throw in a GPS system! The longest route is a 9-day Danube to Tatra Mountains trip of 406 km (254 miles), with more steep and challenging terrain.
Biking in Hungary
The best biking route in Hungary is an approximately 200 km route around Lake Balaton, the country’s main recreational area and the center for many of Hungary’s mineral-rich quality white wines.
Several companies run organized cycling tours around Hungary. Velo-Touring runs tours in several parts of Hungary, including one that goes from Lake Balaton to the sparsely populated red wine region of Villany, plus a tour covering the whole distance between Budapest and Vienna.
Prices run anywhere from $80 to $200 a day per person double occupancy, depending on hotel options and meals. You can do it on your own for far less by just renting gear from a bike shop around Balaton, especially if you only want to ride for a day or two instead of doing a whole long circuit. Prices are generally $10 to $15 a day for good equipment, or $75 a week. The Balaton region is very health-oriented, so many area hostels and hotels also have bikes for rent.
In the Villany wine region, which has a climate closest to the wine regions of France, start with an inquiry to the Villany Wine Region. In the historic town (and wine center) of Eger, find a hotel that also does bike rentals—there are a dozen scattered around town.
Biking in Poland
The Greenways program has been active since 2001, establishing trails and linking them up with others in the region. It is possible to ride all the way from Krakow, Poland to Vienna, Austria (or vice versa) on the network of biking trails joining with those in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Other travelers choose to take the 10-day, 362 km (226 miles) “Amber Trail” journey from Krakow to Budapest in Hungary. It retraces the ancient route used for transporting amber from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. This is a scenic but challenging route though, with days up and down mountains that reach as high as 1,100 meters (3,600 feet).
The Necklace of the North runs in an 870 km (540 mile) loop through the post-glacial landscapes of northern Poland. It crosses several lake districts, natural parks, and small villages. Top Bicycle (linked above) has an office in Krakow, or check in with Cruising Krakow for short-term rentals and city tours by bike.
Biking in Romania
The cycling scene in Romania is not as advanced as it is in the other countries covered here, but the Transylvania region is a good area for touring by bike, with minimal traffic and beautiful mountain scenery. Brasov-based Active Holidays can arrange a structured 8-day tour or you can just rent equipped bikes from them directly for $18 a day to $75 a week.
Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.