Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 21 Tulcea - Kilometre Zero at Sulina 71 Km (44 miles) by Catamaran

No more cycling but for the sake of completeness I have to make a three hour boat trip to the very mouth of the Danube, Kilometre Zero, marked by an old lighthouse on the southern bank. The ferry is nearly full, mostly fishermen and families getting away for the weekend. The ferry is stacked with supplies, cooking oil, loo paper, potatoes etc for local businesses. Most of the way I sit with the fishermen out in the open at the back of the boat, on top of the engines, feeling their power through the soles of my shoes. We pass quite large sea-going freighters heading upstream in what seems to me to be quite a narrow channel until I read that only a fifth of the Danube's flow comes this way. The ferry stops three or four times on the way and passengers come and go. I am getting anxious, the sun is getting lower in the sky and the only reason that I am on this ferry is to get a photograph of myself in front of the lighthouse, not easy if it is dark.

We approach Sulina and it really is getting dark, I crane my neck looking for the lighthouse but there are a surprising number of tall buildings near the landing stage, then through a gap I see it and it's not far away. As soon as I am off the boat I set off at as near a trot as I can manage and there is only couple of hundred metres to go. There is a small museum associated with the lighthouse but that's all locked up when I get there. I seize a passer-by and make him take the rather poor photograph above. Complete. The Danube from source to sea, more than two thousand miles. Darkness falls.

The sense of anti-climax is overwhelming in that this scruffy little lighthouse has no real emotional relevance to me, it is a point on a map, albeit a point with some historical and geographical significance, that I have chosen to target. The point of travel is the travelling not the arrival The travelling is over and I regret it. All that is left is for me to grope my way a further two hundred metres in the darkness to a hotel in order to be overcharged for a poor room and an awful dinner. 

That all sounds a bit grim doesn't it. On the ferry back to Tulcea at first light the next day I do feel a bit less post-coital and take some satisfaction from the achievement of a journey well done, that started in Germany, not very far from the French border and has ended within sign-post range of Istanbul. I congratulate myself and celebrate with an undrinkable coffee from the ferry snack bar and then start to think about 'The Awards'.

The Golden Puncture Kit Awards

Best Hotel
The judges noted the generally high standard, particularly in some very remote rural locations, but some candidates let themselves down purely with poor sealant work on their shower installations. In the end, despite not necessarily being the best in every area, the Danube Hotel in Silistra was so good in so many areas that it was a clear winner.

Worst Hotel
Not since 'Ben Hur' cleaned up at the Oscars in the mid-fifties has there been such a runaway winner of any award. The judges were staggered by the attention to detail and the work that went into making the hotel at Dunaujvaros convincingly the worst hotel of the trip. The filth, the graffiti, the intimidating corridors, the rank smell of cabbage and unwashed humanity, the lack of towels, loo paper,  soap or indeed anything useful in the rooms, the radical notion that breakfast has no part in a hotel's business. The inspired performance of the receptionist, who on being challenged on the towel issue, produced a couple of old sheets instead. The Kostolac Hotel, in Serbia, would have run any other competition close but the hotel in Dunaujvaros (so awful that I cannot remember its name) was in a class of its own. Well done!

Best Hotel Receptionist 
The raven haired beauty at Dobreta-Turnu Severin, who heaved me and my bags upstairs when I felt close to death with food poisoning.

Best Meal
Lunch in Belgrade. Pork chops and beans, elegantly served, everything about this meal was simple but perfect.

Worst Drivers

Most Morose Nation

Worst Roads

Worst City to Cycle in

Best place to take Kirsty Wark for a weekend
Vidin, one of my overnight stays in Bulgaria, had much charm and with it's autumnal Danube promenade one sensed echoes of Last Year at Marienbad. Tulcea, with it's fascinating cosmopolitan quayside frontage put in a late challenge but in the end the judges went for Novi Sad, Serbia's second city. They thought that Kirsty would go for the elegantly preserved/restored city centre, sophisticated night life, the availability of exciting cultural facilities and feel able let her hair down.

The Worst Thing of All
Fucking packing and washing. The problem with travelling by bike is that one is limited to panniers and panniers are a vertical pack. If you need socks and socks are at the bottom then everything needs to come out. I tried to develop a planned pack, knowing that thermal T shirts are in the M & S bag, pants in the Vodafone bag, waterproofs in the plain red bag etc etc but as you progress the dirty washing bag grows and grows like a cuckoo, eventually taking up the whole of one pannier. In the end I just dumped everything out every night and stuffed it all back in the morning. Washing clothes is easy, drying them on single night stops is not. You always end up with bags of half dried slightly whiffy stuff. All rather squalid.

The Best Thing of All
The ferries? The exhilarating freewheels? The sheer foreignness of it all? The raven haired beauty from Dobreta-Turnu Severin? All have a case but in the end, in the judges opinion, it  came down to a short list of two. The landscape or to be more accurate the landscapes, stirring, vast, sweeping, inspiring, leave no cliche unturned, every day delivered something to make one pull off the road and gawp. Finally what about the weather? From the day that I left Budapest three weeks ago not one drop of rain has fallen and if one was feeling uncharitable one could say that a couple days were cloudy but in general every day was perfect cycling weather. Since the same person was responsible for both the final nominations we should discuss it no further and simply say that the Golden Puncture Kit Award for 'The Best Thing' goes to God and we will certainly be interested to hear who he/she thanks in his/her acceptance speech when he/she comes to receive the award which will be presented at a ceremony after the Basingstoke Cycling Club Fun-Run on November 23rd.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Days 19 & 20 Constanta - Bajia - Tulcea 130 Km (82 miles)

I ride out of Constanta along the Black Sea shore. Lots of traffic and those right filters are the very devil but soon the road widens, the traffic thins and I find myself on the Romanian Riviera. Mile after mile of hotel blocks, all empty now but presumably packed in summer. There is a scruffy beach running along behind them dotted with odd concrete remnants of a previous industrial life. Finally the party stops and I am riding in petrochemical land, massive and stinking plants line the shore some still operating, some a mass of rusting wreckage. It's another glorious sunny day with a crystal clear sky and the chemical stench is unsettling. Depressingly I see a roadkill victim on the pavement ahead, I assume it it is a dog with no road sense but am surprised to discover that is is an otter with no road sense. 

I cross the Danube-Black Sea Canal again at the very point where it's sea locks feed into the Black Sea and then the road turns back inland and in the first village I have to swerve round a group of women standing in the road. One of them had dragged a carpet out of her house and was using the flat surface of the road to give it a good seeing to with soap, water and a scrubbing brush. Her friends were both guiding the traffic past and giving her helpful advice.

The villages thin out and I am back in a world of huge skies. At one point I stop to drink and as I look to my right the whole of the top half of my field of vision is blue, no clouds, no vapour trails, no birds, pure blue. The bottom half of my field is pure green, a crop of some sort, winter wheat perhaps, but there are no hedges, pylons or trees just pure green. It's so simple and so spectacular. 

It's a short day's ride to Baija and I am enjoying an exhilarating downhill freewheel when I catch a flash of a sign indicating my hotel on the right so it's slam on the brakes and a hard right hand turn into the surprisingly posh forecourt dotted with expensive cars. Hard to explain in a village that is Nowheresville on the road to Nowhere. The explanation is supplied by a splendidly laconic Dutchman that I meet in Reception later. I think the Dutch can do 'laconic' as well as any nationality on earth. He is there commissioning a state of the art, EU sponsored, grain press that produces, by massive and cleverly engineered squishing, vegetable oil that can be used for fuel or cooking and 'ready to eat' cattle cake. The man who owns the plant next door also owns the hotel and it's easy to tell him from the other Romanians standing around in Reception. He's the one striding back and forth shouting at someone over the phone. Shouting into one's mobile is a very Romanian thing, surprising in a people that in other respects I have found to be rather mild mannered. The Dutchman confides that this man treats his workers like serfs. Over breakfast the next morning we have a conversation that encompasses both the New York Mafia and ice hockey. 

On the road again for my last day in the saddle. I am in mostly open country and am surprised to be pulled up by two soldiers at a road block. Initially they say that I cannot go through and I am about to start waving my map around when they have an instant change of heart and cheerfully  wave me through. Signs further down the road indicate that this area is used for army training but I see no evidence of this. To my right is a fortress perched on a rock, dominating the landscape. It is Cetatea Heraclea, described in my guide as "probably Roman" and in its shape and position remind me slightly of Bamburgh. At the next village I stop for a beer at tiny shop, from the direction that I have just come from I hear the sound of explosions and it's obvious that there is some army training going on after all. I pass a sign that says that I have entered the Danube Delta National Park, the landscape doesn't change, the main delta area is further north. Finally the last high speed freewheel down into Tulcea which almost literally deposits me nose first in front of my hotel, a large waterfront affair with great views along the river. Tulcea is a busy port, there are ranks of modern cranes a little way upstream and on the adjacent quayside the many passenger ferries that connect the isolated communities in the delta come and go. One can also take a boat upstream to Galati or Moldova and downstream to Odessa and beyond. 

As I check-in I mention to the receptionist that I might like to sell Cynthia. Yes, yes, heartless I know, but the hassle of getting her packed up for a BA flight from Bucharest is daunting in my current circumstances. I find that I can't be bothered to wash any clothes so decide to go shopping for a T-Shirt or two and perhaps some socks. Shopping in Romania is very simple and cost effective. You enter the shop, you look round for a few moments, you quickly decide that there is nothing in the shop that you would want to buy between now and the day that hell freezes over, you leave the shop having spent nothing. Simple and cost effective. I go back to the hotel and wash my 'smalls'.

This is the end of cycling but the official end of the Danube is marked at Kilometre Zero by an old lighthouse in a small town called Sulina, some 70 Km east, which can only be accessed by a catamaran ferry. The town is quaintly described in my guide book as "disadvantaged" by the lack of road access. I go off to check the timetable which is confusing as shown on the internet and made no clearer by various bits of paper selotaped near the ticket office window, the ticket office being shut. The hotel receptionist reassures me. There is one boat going east leaving every day at 1.30pm and one returning, leaving Sulina the following day at 7.00am. The journey takes three hours. That evening I leave my room to venture into Tulcea's Entertainment District which is the bar downstairs, as I cross the foyer the receptionist calls out "Hey Mister! Mister! I will buy your bicycle", and she does buy it, for her husband's birthday. I ask if he is a keen cyclist. She says no but he's getting fat and maybe he needs to be a keen cyclist. The deal is done and I think that Cynthia will have a fulfilling new life here in Tulcea under a fat Romanian.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 18 Murfatlar - Constanta 20 Km (12 miles)

20 Km, the shortest ride of all, deliberately arranged by me so that I can spend some time in Constanta, which should be an interesting place. It is a port on the Black Sea. Yes I have reached the Black Sea but before you bombard me with congratulatory emails be aware that I haven't finished, because before it gets to Constanta the Danube takes a sharp turn north and flows a further 200 Km becoming the Danube Delta (known as 'The Big Squelch' locally) before issuing forth into the Black Sea. I have two more days riding and a 70 Km boat trip to get to Kilometre Zero.

I mend my puncture and ride into Constanta along a busy main road. On the way I cross the Danube-Black Sea Canal, built by others as frustrated as I am by the river's contrariness. As ever in this part of the world about one third of the buildings in the city are empty, if not derelict, and it's often hard to guess at what part in their life cycle they may be. Are they under construction, just awaiting a cash injection, planning consent or for a bribe to be paid or are they on the way down, rusting and crumbling to dust waiting for the bulldozers which never seem to come. Just before I reach the city centre there is a sign pointing to the right, that gives me a brief tingle on excitement, "Istanbul" it says. It's tempting, it's not very far,  but I stick to the Danube.

I am booked in an Ibis Hotel which seems unadventurous but just what you need after more than a week with the old ladies and stray dogs out in the sticks. For once I am in a busy bustling hotel, I am not the only guest which had become the norm. Such an early arrival gives me a chance to catch up with some washing, in fact as I write this I am watching pants dry. 

I walk down to the beach, flat grey sand, I prod a toe into the Black Sea which is extraordinarily still, absolutely soundless. I have lunch at a smart little cafe by the harbour which is deserted but the barman tells me that in summer it's "kind of crazy". Into the Old Town where there is a massive drainage scheme in progress and half the streets are impassable but I can walk up to the famous archeological museum and admire the statue of Ovid outside. "Why a statue of Ovid in Constanta?" I hear you all ask. Ovid was a hugely popular Roman poet who at some point pissed off the Emperor Augustus who exiled him for the rest of his life to the remote city of Tomis now called Constanta. No one knows what it was that Ovid did. The reason I mention it is that I like the 'Metamorphoses', his best known works, and have recently been reading Ted Hughes's version of some of them. Best of all, each story is tube-journey length, you can whip through one between Baron's Court and Covent Garden. No problem. If you, like me until recently, despise poetry, there are prose versions available. So have a go at Ovid, you will like it.

I walk down to a bike shop to see if I can find something to transport Cynthia home in. I have decided to fly back from Bucharest and need a special bag to get her on the BA flight. I have consulted the internet and have seen some ingenious improvisations but the chances of getting the materials together here seem unlikely. I also pop into the station because I like stations and this is a good one. 

Returning to the Ibis Hotel I meet a man from Essex who is in charge of a gang of dockers from Essex who have been flown out to Romania on a training mission. They work for London Gateway a state of the art port facility which is about to open on the north side of the Thames Estuary. The funding comes from Dubai and the same company runs an equally big facility in Constanta so our boys have been despatched here to practice on the cranes etc. Very big boys toys. 

I eat in the hotel and pay the penalty for breaking one of the basic rules of travel. It's awful and I go out into the night in search of dessert and in finding a cake shop find also that Romanian health and safety rules don't cover holes in the street. The drainage contractors have left dozens of enormous holes unprotected and I nearly fall down one.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 17 Silistra - Murfatlar 114 Km (71 miles)

A long ride with hills, numerous if not steep, predicted by the Guide book, so definitely a first light 'no breakfast' Bulgarian start. In less than ten minutes I am across the border back into Romania and climbing the first of the hills which is a big one, but as the sun rises so do my spirits. The views are magnificent, to my left the Danube and to my right vast sweeping landscapes, the sort of landscapes that stir the soul. Pretentious but true. It's a hard day's ride but the terrain changes all the time, I stop to watch a village football match, at lunchtime I ride through a valley dotted with Roman remains. Hills or not, a great day for cycling and I arrive at my hotel which is tucked away down a 500m track in a Nature Park well before the light starts to fade. Irritatingly I get a puncture, my first of the trip, just as I arrive. 

They are not expecting me but rooms are available so no problem. There is a wedding in full swing and for supper I am parked in an empty corner of the reception. It's pretty loud and for my money the further you go east in Europe the worse the music gets. However I have the capacity to write the blog in almost any circumstances except sitting in a quiet room. My favourite writing places are airport departure lounges, very productive. So while I tap away at my I-Pad the wedding guests perform endless dances where they all link hands in a big circle, then move in, move out, a step to the left. It's so silly, why bother?

I sleep well despite the thump thump of the wedding going on late into the night below me.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 16 Oltenita - Silistra (Bul) 76Km (48 miles)

Reminder - here is the link for my Just Giving page, you can make donations to the Alzheimer's Society there -

 The cold snap yesterday was a flash in the pan, today is warmer and as I progress through  yet more Romanian villages the sky clears and the sun comes out. Not a long ride nor a particularly interesting one. I am overnighting in Bulgaria again in a town called Silistra on the south side of the river. There is a ferry across and as you get off you can turn left and stay in Romania or turn right into the border crossing to Bulgaria. The ferry is larger than some and more ramshackle than most. A big truck, a bus, a dozen cars and a mass of foot passengers fill it to capacity and there is much structural creaking and groaning. I eye the only two lifebelts that I can see and calculate that I can get to them before any of the women and children standing round me, so I relax. Cynthia will have to taker her chances.

Bulgaria, in the shape of Silistra, is as pleasant as my last visit. The town looks more prosperous than its Romanian counterparts, a beautiful central park, proper shops and better dressed people. I ride gently round looking for my hotel, asking directions once or twice and it's made clear to me that I am an idiot and that I've just passed it. I have and the reason being is that the Hotel Danube looks far too posh for my expectations and I have ridden past twice without noticing it. A newish building with a stylish old fashioned hotel inside. It has a coffee shop that could have been parachuted in from Vienna. Once I have checked in there is enough sunshine left in the day to enable me to take Cynthia out into the park and replace her front wheel brake pads. Later that evening I was able to watch Arsenal beat Liverpool, the end of a perfect day.  

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 15 Ghiurgiu - Oltenita 73Km (45 miles)

It's really cold in the morning and I fear that my good, nay miraculous, run with the weather has ended. I get out my thermal M&S vests from the bottom of one of my bags and think about, but decide against, wearing my son's skiing gloves. The route runs due north along the main road before diverting off to the east onto more familiar country roads. There are hills at first, open and dotted with sheep, the same grey brown as the rough pasture that they graze on. The shepherds patiently plod along behind them. What do they think about all day, day after day, wandering alone apart from their dogs in this grim landscape. Women? Football? Sheep? The sheepdogs are not patient and if I am within range will rush up to 'see me off' before I can sheepnap one of their charges. 

The Romanian language is rich in proverbs and I have picked a few to share with you and I am sure that you will agree with me that despite their simple origins here in the Balkans that they have some relevance to life in our busy metropolitan world.

"Of two donkeys one will always be the wiser"
"If you lay a fork and a spoon down together the Devil will have his way"
"The fleece of a rich man's sheep will be no longer than that of a poor man's sheep"
"A man that watches his field had better watch his wife"
"A fence that just divides a field is but a fence"

Food for thought I think.

The route becomes more built up by mid-morning and is no longer really rural, it is more suburban, there are no gaps between villages. At lunchtime something interesting does happen. Hundreds of women emerge from their garden gates carrying a tray of food, they take them across the road or next door to elderly relatives perhaps. I think that Nov 1 is St 
Agatha's day, she being the patron saint of food on trays as well as of forestry workers.

All in all a dull day's ride and Oltenita my destination turns out to be a dump and my hotel generally shabby, the shower a true gusher, but there's no hot water anyway. The only redeeming feature is the tripe soup that I have in a nearby cafe, not as good as my mother-in-law's, but very nearly. I go to bed grumpy.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 14 Turnu-Magurele - Ghirgiu 114 Km (71 miles)

The hotel in Turnu-Magurele was an imposing 1960s block in the centre of town next to the Orthodox Cathedral. Running to seed a bit, but old fashioned enough to have a bath. Deep joy. I swopped my front tyre for my rear tyre, the latter was getting very worn, in the hotel backyard. I had the assistance of the hotel handyman and I achieved this simple task with only a small amount of humiliation. In the evening I went shopping for supplies for the next day, a long ride to Ghirgiu. 

Back in the country it was as busy as ever. Every village appears to be populated by hatchet faced little old ladies, often all in black, dress, apron and head scarf though I was delighted one day as I approached one old crone when there was unmistakeable ring tone, she tutted, reached into her apron, pulled out a smart phone, yanked her headscarf back and thrust the phone to her ear in order to have a conversation with her grandson in Dusseldorf or wherever. Interestingly I cannot remember a moment on this trip when my phone has registered less than five bar strength. In the front of every garden fence is a bench. They come in every shape and size, some with elegant circular nouveau style end supports, some could have come from Bromley Station circa 1950, some are all metal, mass produced communist, and some look like a drunk with a squint has knocked them together. Is the world ready for another coffee-table book on Balkan benches? Late in the afternoon the old ladies come and sit and watch the world go by (me). They chat to their neighbours, they chat to anyone who passes, they fuel village feuds by disparaging their neighbour's cabbages and the morals of that neighbour's daughters, the two are often related.

There are dogs everywhere in Roumania, at least two thirds of them are strays. Mostly the strays skulk at the side of the road. Occasionally they get sufficiently bored to charge after me snapping at my rear mudguard but I just pedal on. Sadly I see at least ten a day lying freshly dead by the roadside, no road sense. It would be an interesting study in natural selection to see if gradually a breed of Roumanian dogs evolve that look left, look right etc and don't cross when the Green Man is flashing.

Ghirgiu is a biggish town or perhaps a city and I know that my hotel is out somewhere north. A local cyclist offers to guide me through the centre and as it is now pitch dark I am grateful. Eventually he peels off indicating that I should head north for a further 5 Km. I fall in behind an elderly cyclist who has a large plastic bag dangling off his handlebars. Every time he sees a stray dog, roughly every fifty metres, he throws them a chunk of bread from his bag. 

My hotel is a garish blaze of light nestling between two petrol stations on the main road to Bucharest. I think that I may be the only guest, a normal state of affairs on this trip. After my little 'lie-down' and a shower I go down to the restaurant. I am the only customer, it's a bit chilly and the waiter looks pissed off that I have interrupted his evening watching football out the back. Worst of all is the muzak which not only is awful but faulty and jumps back and forth. I insist that the waiter turns it off, he turns it down a bit, I insist until the volume is low enough to drown it out with my I-Pad. Over dinner (spicy chicken, pretty good) I listen to Charles Lloyd's 'Forest Flower' an album that I bought (only because I liked the sleeve) during my brief stay up at Cambridge. It was recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and has never failed to give me pleasure. After that I listened to Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue' which must be one the 'Ten Best Gramophone Records Ever Made'. What a great dinner, I really enjoyed it. 

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map