The best way to think of the last three days is a corn beef sandwich where the two slices of bread are beautifully fluffy croissants.
Day 84 was a breeze and pretty breezy at that. We had a strong easterly wind pushing us along and no rain for the first time in a fortnight. The morning's highlights included crossing from Austria into Slovakia and opening a jar of Nutella at lunchtime. Big news. It was lovely.
By 3pm we were in Bratislava. For the first time, we were foregoing our wild instincts and staying in a hotel. To be fair it was a well-placed and very cheap botel made necessary by an absence of city-camping. Having left anything unvaluable in our cabin, we went for an afternoon in Bratislava.
After a couple of hours walking, a cheapish meal and one of the coolest cafes serving spicy lemonades and chocolate-blueberry cheesecake; I feel adequately informed to summarise Bratislava: it's small for a capital city, it's a great contrast from its noisy neighbor Vienna, it feels very much a part of the Eastern Bloc and the amount of intriguing bars coupled with the cheap prices made us want to experience every nook and cranny. So that's the first slice of bread.
Now for the meaty bit. Day 85 started for me with a long run and a subsequent cracking morning view from Bratislava castle. Day 85 proper began with us making the most of the complementary breakfast included in our botel package. Then, having unlocked the canoe from her perch on some railings, we paddled off into another rainless morning.
Recently we've been following the advice available from the Tour International Danube 2013 report when going around locks and damns. With some fairly ambivalent advice for what will hopefully be the last set of locks for a good 1300km, we went to the right. After scrambling up and down a bank, following a tight channel and climbing through some nettles we decided going right was a bad idea. So we went back through the nettles, upstream up the channel and over the bank.
After consoling ourselves with bananas, we re-entered the water and decided to go for the left and the canal. This meant paddling a good 500m in front of the large dam and with a heavy crosswind across a barrier in the water.
Unfortunately, scarred by the earlier hour lost, we chose not to follow the sport sign for the old danube and instead slowly tacked to the far left hand side. Eventually we made it and began our journey up the canal.
Initially it was scarily wide and we stuck to the side. Then it narrowed and became scarily choppy with a very powerful crosswind. Any nerves that we did have were reinforced by a 10ft sign painted on the black tarmac bank saying no sport boats. And those nerves stayed as we spent the afternoon between motion sickness in the front and mental fatigue from fighting the wind while steering in the back.
Finally we made it to a hydro-powered dam at the end of the section of canal. Reassuringly, our map had told us that the damn opens twice a day to create a huge surge of electricity- when you're about to paddle across the front of the dam this doesn't do much for your confidence.
To start with we opted for the lefthand side for our portage. However, once we'd unloaded the boat, the long walk that the left would require led us to a change of plan. So after some Austrian style malt loaf and a re-loading of the canoe, off we canoed to try the left hand side.
Half way across the front of the hydro-electric dam, Jimmy hears shouting. There's a man waving madly and pointing towards the bank where we've just left. His tone isn't angry but instead frightened. Despite the maltloaf, we were still pretty nervy and our Slovakian friend did not help matters. So we again changed tack and made back for the left again. We unloaded again. And then we started the long drag around the lock.
By the time we reached the otherside, it was half 6 and the sun was going down. I was asleep on my feet and struggling to lift the canoe and we still had a way to go. As we looked on for the best way to get from the height of the lock to the water below, the guardian angel of security guards arrived. He showed us the best way down to the water, helped carry the canoe half the way and leaves me with a positive view of all his Slovakian countrymen.
By the time we reached the water, the sun had disappeared. It was 7 o'clock and we had about 15 minutes before it would be pitch black. We canoed for a good 10 of those minutes. We stopped as soon as we were out of the power station zone. We unloaded with speed brought on by the new fear of being on the water in dangerous darkness. Jimmy set up the tent and I cooked couscous with spicy tuna and mushrooms in the dark. Shattered, we went to sleep, hoping we wouldn't be too conspicuous in the morning. And there's the meat to this sandwich.
We awoke, surrounded by Slovakian soldiers holding machine guns.
Only joking. We awoke to a morning that was not only rain-free but positively sunny. For the first time in a month, we were canoeing t-shirtless again.
And with the sun out, we've had a day as pleasant and reassuring as a warm buttery croissant for breakfast. After a short easier section on the canal, we rejoined the Danube river and so the Slovakia-Hungary border. We snacked and lunched sitting on pebbled beaches and we even squeezed in a nice cafe in the Slovakian half of Komarno. After yesterday's stress it's been a calm day where we've nonetheless made 74kms past autumnal willow trees and sandy coves.
And that's your sandwich: two soft and pleasant days with some dangerous meat in the middle. Now whose Hungary?