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. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 13 Bechet - Turnu-Magurele 79 Km (50 miles)

Well the bathroom may be ankle deep but they do a top breakfast at the 'worst hotel'. This is a relatively short run so I don't have to be off at first light. 

I said yesterday that rural Roumania would be dull but I was wrong. It's very busy. There's a lot going on. There are more horse drawn than motor vehicles on the road, often carrying  ambitious loads of almost anything you can think of from cabbages to tractor tyres but quite often just the family. At the side of the road you can buy local produce though cabbages are definitely in season here. My only purchase was a few small gnarled looking pears which turned out to be delicious. Disappointingly there are no local cheeses or varieties of bread. When you go into a village shop the bread is always identical and rather dull, all the cheese is processed and vacuum packed. The villagers themselves are jolly, far more so than the Serbs. They are used to bicycle travellers like me pedalling furiously towards the Black Sea. they wave and cry "Holas", children often hold out their palms for a low five as I speed past. And there are the Roma. According to a census of 2011 there are 620,000 Roma in Roumania though this may be a low figure as many refused to declare their ethnicity on the census form. As I ride they are everywhere, mingling with the Romanian locals but still separate. In one village I pass a Roma celebration of some sort, there is a battered flatbed truck with speakers blasting out local dance music while forty or fifty dance in the street, the women, all dolled up, looking incongruously glamorous with their coils of shining black hair and jewellery. An infant is being passed around with much happiness so I would guess that this might be a baptism party. More often than not however what distinguishes the Roma from their neighbours is their poverty, though the most depressing Roma settlement that I have seen so far was just across the border in Serbia and was utterly wretched. 

More country matters tomorrow and just in case you had forgotten I am trying to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society. To donate here is the link:  The '1' at the end is important as it differentiates between the old (timed-out) page and the new one. Many thanks to those who have already donated.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 12 Vidin - Bechet 102 Km (63 miles)

I have to ride and I have to start early, even earlier than I thought because (and I'm sure you all knew this) Bulgaria is two hours ahead of London and Roumania only one hour.  The complexities of all this confuse me but it boils down to the simple fact that if I sleep in Bulgaria I have to get up so early (first light!) that I have to miss breakfast. If I had slept in Roumania I could have had a leisurely breakfast in my silk dressing gown while reading a copy of the London Times. 

I cycle round the Euro-loop roads, only noticing, rather late on, that I am prohibited from doing so, but not the bridge itself. I don't care, I am the only person using them. I return to Roumania and Calafat, the route for Bechet is clear and straight. This is the only night for which I have not been able to book a hotel. In theory there is one described on a cyclist's blog as one of the worst that he had stayed at. If that doesn't look good I will turn south and cross the river to Bulgaria and spend the night in Oryahavo. Means missing breakfast though. 

And now the bad news. The next six days are a steady plod through rural Roumania. No scenic splendours just a straight, mainly flat route which my Guide Book suggests you could skip and take the train. Tempting but unthinkable. In any case it will take a fair amount of invention on my part to keep this blog going.

This particular morning, after I have crossed the bridge, is misty, pink and rather beautiful. I stop to take photographs in a local cemetery where most of the crosses have funny little roofs. Most of the massive tomb slabs have sturdy rings and come funeral time presumably heavy lifting equipment is brought in as the next family member is interred in the vault. Should you be considering a move to Roumania to avoid the dismal economic climate in the UK (though my wife seems to be doing her bit in boosting sales in the N Hants area in my absence) then cemetery flowers seem to be the business to be in. The amount of flowers, fresh flowers, in evidence in this densely packed graveyard is extraordinary and every tiny village has a funereal florist, you may not be able to buy a can of beans but you can always buy a new wreath for Granny. 

I am riding parallel to the Danube but for most of the day it is a couple of miles south and apart from a brief glimpse at the end of a lane or a distant shimmering  in a gap in the trees I will see nothing of it. Early in the morning there are flocks of starlings in the fields and for a few moments I find myself in the middle of one that is flying in exactly the same direction and at exactly the the same speed as me and it is quite disorientating.

It's a longish day, yet again the sun shines, and when I get to 'the worst hotel' I decide to give it a go. It's quite jolly and cheap enough but as is always the case it's the bloody shower that let's it down. The difference between a good hotel and a bad hotel is not the concierge, cuisine, location, decor, it's the fact that in a bad hotel the shower leaks instantly and totally the moment you switch it on leaving the bathroom an inch deep for the rest of your stay with soggy smelly bath mats etc. Ugh. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 11 Dobreta-Turnu Severin - Vidin (Bul) 120 Km

Oh woe is me. I cannot cycle. I lie in bed plotting. There is no direct train to Calafat and according to the Roumanian railway map no passenger service there at all. I totter down to breakfast and force myself to eat as many egg based dishes as possible in order to try and stem the flow. Then I ask the raven haired beauty to find someone to drive me to Calafat. She is confused and finds a map to show me where Calafat is. The problem is that I haven't mentioned the magic word 'Taxi'. Universal from Bhutan to Buenos Aires, is there a more universal word? Surely not.  Consternation at Reception. A taxi to take me more than 100 Km! Shocking! For a moment I feel like Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days with an imaginary Passepartout at my side with a carpet bag full of money. Yes I say to the girls at reception "I don't care how much it costs, I want someone to drive me and my bicycle to Calafat" Being Phileas Fogg just for a few moments feels really good. At this point the hotel handyman who has been listening steps forward and volunteers. Sensible chap. With a bit of puffing and grunting we manage to get Cynthia and my luggage into the back of his car and I go off to a bankomat to make sure that I have enough money to pay him. It gives me a certain amount of pleasure to use an ATM belonging to 'The Bank of Transylvania'. So off we go.

Mid-morning he drops me off at a petrol station on the outskirts of Calafat. It costs less than £50. I ride gently into town, there's not much to it, and I stop for coffee and toilet facilities at a terrace cafe awash with potted palms. Then I set off for my final destination that day, the Bulgarian city of Vidin. There is a brand new bridge, only completed in June of this year, a 'Friendship' bridge between these two antagonistic nations, funded by the EU. There are several kilometres of loop roads before you get anywhere near the bridge but it is like cycling on a billiard table (please don't try this at home), the tarmac is so smooth. Eventually I arrive at the border checkpoint and am waved cheerfully through by both Roumanians and Bulgarians I set out for the 3 Km bridge proper. It is a Monday morning and in the entire time it takes me to cycle those 3 Km not a single other vehicle uses the bridge in either direction. Not much friendship going on then?

At first Vidin appears to be a shabby, crumbling post communist city, with broad avenues that go nowhere and scruffy parks that no one uses, just like half a dozen others that I have passed through. I have a thumbnail map on my booking confirmation which shows that my hotel is on the riverside and as I get closer the scene changes from despair to joy as I find myself in a park that belongs in Bulgaria's Golden Age. I am not sure when Bulgaria's Golden Age was but I am guessing that it was between the wars, and along the river there is a promenade fronting a string of elegant 1930s buildings including a tiny theatre. There is a Promenade, old men play chess in the leafy avenues in the park and there in the middle of it is my hotel. It's all charming. I have lunch in the theatre cafe and then crash out in the hotel.

Trivia for celeb followers. For many years U2's Bono has been holidaying discreetly in Bulgaria not far from Vidin and has made many generous contributions to local community projects. Apparently the success of Vidin's one-way system is as a result of a massive cash injection from the Irish rock star. In recognition in 2006 the Bulgarian government renamed the province of which Vidi is the capital as 'Bononia'. Bet you didn't know that.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 10 Berzasca - Dobreta-Turnu Severin 115 Km (71 miles)

I have spent all night sitting on the loo. Was it the local water or the fish? I suspect the latter. I come down for breakfast feeling dreadful and eat virtually nothing. I can see no alternative to cycling on and that is what I do. The route continues along the Danube Gorge with more spectacular views. The weather extraordinarily remains fantastic, day after day of warm sunshine the exact reverse of my experiences on the upper Danube in the Spring. According to advanced forecasts there is no rain coming in the next week. 

Before I go on, apart from the fish and the lack of a sign (I am not one to bear grudges), this hotel must have one of the best scenic locations of any hotel that I have experienced. Staggering out onto my balcony between stomach cramps I could see a good five miles upstream and three downstream. 

I pedal gingerly down the road which is relatively flat and winds along the Gorge and I pass the narrowest point where the river is a mere 60m across and God knows how deep. As you can see from the photo it is a bit special even if stomach cramps leave you staring at the tarmac most of the time. There is a killer hill before the town of Orsova which leaves me on my knees but as ever a glorious freewheel into a pretty town with a riverside walk. 

After Orsova the Danube Path joins a brand new (EU funded I am guessing) main road which runs along the gorge and for the first time I am dealing with really fast moving traffic and it is hateful. Because of the nature of the terrain there are many bridges between cliff outcrops and at every bridge the road narrows and fast moving cars (thankfully it is a Sunday and there aren't too many trucks) howl past inches from my left elbow. Worse, there are tunnels. One of the reasons I chose to ride the Roumanian side, which is longer, is that there are many tunnels on the Serbian side. There are only a few on my side and eventually I devise the strategy of waiting for the biggest gap in the traffic coming up behind me and then pedal like fury into the tunnel (having donned my Hi-Viz etc) hoping that I can get out the far end before they get me. It works, I live to tell the tale.

However all this high power pedalling is taking it's toll and by the time I reach the outskirts of Dobreta-Turnu Severin I am out on my feet and it's pitch dark when I pull over to buy water from a bakers shop that is just closing up. I slump in a chair and drink while the kind lady owner bustles round cleaning her display cases. I am not sure that I can get up and nor is she. Finally I stagger out, get my leg over Cynthia and by some miracle of transcendental navigation ride straight to the front door of my hotel. The tall, raven haired and very beautiful receptionist takes one look at me and seizes my bags and marches me upstairs to my room. I sit on the bed and wake up fully clothed six hours later feeling absolutely awful. I cannot ride tomorrow.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Black sea or Bust - Day 9 Kostolac - Berzasca 110 Km (68 miles)

Probably the most interesting day's cycling yet which started with a remarkably frugal breakfast in the Hotel Kostolac. Then off in time to catch the 10.15 ferry at Ram to cross to Banatska Palanka. I went early having read on various blogs from other Danubian cyclists that the ferry sometimes leaves early. Yes there are others who do this. There is one exceptionally earnest young Vegan rider last heard of somewhere east of Tehran who certainly likes to suffer. His daily mileages are staggering and a minibar is an alien thing to him. Anyway a pleasant ride in glorious sunshine to Ram, where the ferry ramp is overlooked by an old Turkish fort. The ferry will leave as advertised at 10.15 so I have time to give Cynthia the once over and a little lubrication and she runs all the sweeter because of it. 

The Danube here is very wide and I look at the ferry which had been described by the plausible rogue back at the hotel as "not really a ferry. It's just made of wood" and he has that about right, there is water showing through the planking, but luckily there is no chance of overloading in that at that moment there is only me, Cynthia and an elderly couple in a Fiat Uno on board. We are about to leave when the ferryman's mobile rings. It's a call from someone down the road asking if he could wait for them. He did and a few minutes later a white VW with two young Serbs bounces down the ramp onto the ferry. I talk to them during the twenty minute crossing. They live in Vienna and have come back to visit friends. They recommend the fish restaurant next to landing ramp but I have a lot of miles to go and the ferry timetable has put me behind the clock. 

It's a twenty kilometre ride to the Roumanian frontier where everyone is interested in my passport and then I have to face my own personal Alpine section. But first farewell to Serbia, interesting, but would I recommend it for a holiday? Well the Serbs seem a bit dour, a bit like the Poles were when I first visited Poland in the late eighties, suffering from post-totalitarian syndrome. After all it's not that long since Milosevic lost power and a democratic system started to work in Serbia. The scenery and the low cost must make it a winner though, take a car spend a day in Novi Sad, two or three in Belgrade then head for the mountains.

Described in my Danube Path Guide as follows "The next 20 kilometres are especially scenic and can be counted as a natural highlight in and of themselves (??? German publisher!). Hills, woods and lush fertile meadows lift the bicycle tourist's spirit and distract from the hard work that his or her legs must deliver to power the bicycle over the numerous and steep hills." Hmm "numerous and steep".There is an alternative route, cycling round the hill, but that's more than 20 Km longer so I decide to go the direct 18 Km route.
So off I go. How bad can it be? It's the hottest part of the day and I start cycling up and up. I knew it was going to be tough and I have developed a routine, cycle until you can bear it no longer then walk a bit, you use different muscles. The important thing is to keep moving otherwise you become becalmed in despair. On and on, up and up, every curve reveals the slope going up and up. I am drenched in sweat, I've run out of water and I am being tormented by midges. Surely I must be at the top soon. On and on, up and up, my thighs are on fire, my lungs bursting. Why can't I have the same drugs as Lance Armstrong? And all the time at the back of my mind is the phrase " numerous and steep". What if I make it to the top and I do a blissful freewheel to the bottom of a valley but then there is another climb and perhaps another after that. I know that I won't be able to do it. I can only do this once. I make it to the top and there shimmering in the distance is the Danube. I have made it to the top and there is just one hill and I am proud to be there. Then for nearly twenty minutes I don't have to pedal at all, as the freewheel takes me to the very bank of the river. People do these mountain climbs for fun. Idiots!

I rejoin the Danube just a few miles before the start of the Danube Gorge, the most spectacular part of the whole journey and it doesn't disappoint, it lives up to it's billing. I could waffle on for pages about how stunning it all is but photos do it better. These are the Iron Gates where the Danube has scoured its way through the mountains toward the east, Roumania on the north shore and Serbia on the south. At the narrowest point the river is only 60metres across. 

I cruise along the north shore road feeling that I have deserved this reward for my hill climb. My destination Berzasca is about half way along the Gorge and it's just starting to get dark as I arrive on the outskirts of the village. This is not a  job this, it is an independent booking so I have only an address and a phone number, no map. To be safe I stop on the outskirts of the village and ask a couple of blokes. 
"Oh yes. Two kilometres further on, turn left"
To be sure after a kilometre I ask again.
"Oh yes. One kilometre further on, turn left".
On I go and I cycle slowly, checking for turnings or signs advertising the hotel. I ride a great deal more than 1 Km, I almost ride to the next village. There are no turnings. just a couple of farm tracks and a cliff path. It is now pitch dark. It's not dangerous in that there is no other traffic, but I suppose I could have ridden off the edge of the road and plunged to my death on the rocks 200m below. I haul out my I-pad and find the hotel's number and dial it on my mobile. Someone answers.
" Hello I am staying with you tonight, my name is Irwin but I can't find you."
There is a pause. "I am sorry but I think you have a missing number" 
A wrong number. Bugger! But this kind man man doesn't give up on me, after I explain my situation to him he goes off to find the correct number.
"If you can't find them, call me and I will help you again".
I get through and try to get them to tell me how to get there when I don't know where I am and can't see my hand in front of my face. The lady at the hotel does her best but her English is as good as my Roumanian so progress is slow and I am getting very angry. I am about to say "Fuck it! I am going to stay somewhere else." Which would not be the brightest thing to say when there was no other accommodation within 20 Km. Before I say it,  she says in desperation "I will send a boy in red into the road". 
OK. I have to decide whether to go forward or back, I gamble on back and after a kilometre  I see a figure in the road with a torch. It is the 'boy in red'. The hotel is up one of the farm tracks. I am still cross and fear the worst as I push Cynthia up a steep rutted track. The 'boy in red' speaks fair English and makes desperate small talk, trying to placate me as I snarl "There's no fucking sign! There's no fucking sign!" (and there is no fucking sign). But we arrive at the top of the track and there is a brand new, beautiful hotel. People rush to take my bags, Cynthia is wheeled away, I am shown to a room on the top floor and it's beautiful. To be honest people in this part of Europe tend to overdo the decoration but someone classy designed the hotel and the room. I have a bath, I eat, I drink, I sleep but there's worse to come.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 8 Belgrade - Kostolac 89 Km (56 miles)

Breakfast at 6.00 and it was still dark when I left the hotel. Cynthia and I retraced our steps across the railway tracks to the riverside cycle path, back to the centre of the city then we cut across to find the road out of town. A main road but not too scary and on the whole a pleasant day's ride. I stop for the first beer of the day at a rather posh restaurant in Smederevo. I ask a smart young waiter for a large beer. After five minutes he returns to tell me that he is very sorry but they don't have a big beer. "Fine" I say "I'll have a small one. In fact why not bring two".

As I leave Smederevo I cycle past Serbia's biggest steel mill looking very dark and satanic, but soon we are back in the country. My route turns off the main road along a 10 Km stretch of rural delight. It is a hot afternoon, lizards and dragonflies are about and on the lane I pass locals on their way on foot or by tractor to and from the fields. They look cheerful and frankly they are the first cheerful Serbians that I have seen (apart, of course, from the blonde hotel receptionist in Belgrade). 

Slowly the landscape becomes more industrial again, or perhaps I should say post industrial, because the waste ground on either side of the road is littered with vast chunks of obsolete machine and as I ride along I try and guess what these their original purpose was and in most cases I have no idea. I am getting near my destination for the night at Kostolac and scattered among the industrial detritus is my hotel. As I approach I fear the worst, unlike nearly all the hotels on this trip which have been done via I wrote (yes in the post) to this hotel but got no reply but as it appeared to be the only hotel in the district I thought I would risk it. Welcome to the second worst hotel so far. One thing it did have going for it was a plausible rogue behind the reception desk with very good English. I mentioned my letter, he waved that away saying that they had a room available for me so no problem. Looking at the pigeonholes behind I would say he had fifty rooms available for me. If you book through you can guarantee one thing, the hotel has a computer not the case here I would guess. Nor indeed did they have much. my room was foul and overheated "Oh sorry we have heating problem, we are linked to power station", the bathroom looked like an abattoir and bizarrely the room was furnished with rickety book shelves, nothing else apart from an ancient office swivel chair with its stuffing oozing out. I popped down to enquire about the Wi-Fi password from the rogue. 
"Ah sorry there is a problem, the Wi-Fi only works on the second floor" I was about to ask for a room on the second floor but couldn't be bothered. I went back upstairs and heaved the office chair out onto the rusting balcony and sat in my boxer shorts drinking beer and was well content as I watched local life while the sun set. I went down to ask where I could eat.
"You could have dinner er supper here"
"OK. What would that be exactly?"
"It would perhaps be meat and some vegetables"
"Hmm sounds good I'll try it"
Served by a white haired version of Lurch from the Adams Family dinner consisted of a Wiener Schnitzel served with some mashed potato served in an interesting wave pattern on the plate, peas and carrots. It could have been worse. 
The bill for room, breakfast and dinner came to 14 euros and one can't complain at that price can you? And I didn't.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 7 Belgrade (No cycling just tourism)

I had promised myself that whatever I did in Belgrade on my 'day off' it could not be strenuous. The first six days of the trip had proved tougher than I had expected and my body was not recovering overnight, a day off was desperately needed. The night before I had tottered off to the nearest restaurant as directed by the hotel receptionist and had promptly fallen asleep at the table. 

So what does one do on a non-strenuous day in Belgrade? Start with a tram ticket. Go to the main station, have a coffee and watch goings on there. Then a general walkabout. There are a fair number of impressive buildings, squares and so on but nothing breath taking. There is a pedestrian 'Old Town' full of fashion chain stores but certainly the best was the fortress that sits high above the confluence of the Danube and the Sava with stunning views all round. I had a delicious lunch of roast pork and beans in an old fashioned restaurant and then just loafed.

One thing that I have noticed is that all Serbian drivers talk on their mobiles all the time. It took me a while to find out that as part of a campaign to cut down on road deaths caused by drivers sleeping at the wheel the government insists on the use of mobiles when a vehicle is in motion. On the spot fines will be imposed by the police who are vigilant in this respect, penalties for drivers of public service vehicles are particularly heavy. At the border foreign visitors will be issued with cheap rate chat-line numbers in their own language that they can use while driving in Serbia.

What else did I do in Belgrade? Ate a disgusting pizza and went to bed early. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 6 Novi Sad - Belgrade 94 Km (60 miles)

I parted from my beautiful hotel room with great sorrow and pedalled east towards Belgrade. My guidebook warns of a big hill soon after leaving Novi Sad and they weren't kidding. It takes me the best part of an hour with many stops to make it to the top. Easily the longest steepest hill that I have ever come across, a near death experience.  After that the route levels off and comes in 10 km chunks between each village. In one there is a single shop with a tree and a bench. I stop to buy a some water and a loaf of bread and I sit on the bench. I am joined after a few minutes by an elderly grey bearded man clutching a bottle of beer. He turns to me and says "It's a long way to Tipperary my friend". That's a great introduction I thought. We talked, he had lived in Canada, hence his decent English. He had been in London. "Peekadilly Sorkus, Layster Square" he said longingly. He came from Belgrade but had a dacha in the tiny village where we sat. "You use the word 'dacha' in England yes? It is quite common I think". I didn't say that friends of mine often said "We are going down to the dacha in Dorset this weekend" though of course it's true. As I disappeared along a dead straight dusty road he shouted  "It's a long way to Tipperary my friend" at my back. 

I was making good progress and was on target for an early arrival in Belgrade when I hit the last twenty kilometres all of which were on a busy main road. Not so much "Abebe Bikila, Abebe Bikila, Abebe Bikila" as "Fuck that bus is pulling over", "Shit that bastard is turning right" "Bollocks I've taken the turning onto the motorway". Twenty kilometres of high stress survival cycling with not a pavement, cycle lane or back road available. At last I make it to Zemun, a suburb of Belgrade, on the west bank of the River Sava (which joins the Danube at Belgrade) and I could ride along an arcadian riverside walk for ten kilometres until I get to the bridge to cross over to Belgrade proper. There may be a city less bicycle friendly than Belgrade but I doubt it. Even the cycle path on the bridge over to the centre wasn't wide enough for two bikes to pass each other, one had to pause while one set of handlebars were lifted over the other. I was unclear where my hotel was other than that I had misjudged how far it was from the centre as the street it was in didn't figure on any of my maps. I turned to my trusty Blackberry, no map showing at all, I pulled out my I-Pad, no map showing. In desperation I walked Cynthia into a posh hotel nearby. The blonde receptionist was happy to help and when I showed her the address of my hotel she said "Oh yes I know it. It's not so near" then seeing my frazzled expression added  hastily "but not so far". She scribbled on a street plan showing a very simple route following the road outside the front door up the east bank of the Sava. "And I can cycle that road can I?" I asked. "Oh yes no problem".

Ha! She might just have well said that I could cycle the Monaco Grand Prix. I survived for about a mile before I took the only turning off available, a no-entry road leading into the Belgrade Trade Fair site. The whole site, which was buzzing with visitors, appeared to be completely fenced in apart from the entrance and exit which fed straight out onto the four lane death trap that I had just fled. I studied my map carefully and saw that in theory there was a cycle path on the riverbank itself. In desperation I had an imaginative conversation with one of the car park attendants. We both imagined that we understood what the other was saying. At the end of it he pointed to a gap between two buildings and Hallelujah! there was a hole in the fence and I could escape onto the cycle path. Two miles upstream I had to leave the path and drag Cynthia across some railway tracks and up some stairs to the street where my hotel was located on the second floor of a shabby shopping centre. It was  pitch dark when I got there and next time I will spend the money staying at the posh hotel with the blonde receptionist.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 5 Ilok - Novi Sad (Serbia) 41 Km

At only 41 Km this is a half day ride. I decide not to leave at first light but at second light. I consider for a moment leaving at third light but decide against it. The hotel in Ilok is good, the rooms arranged to one side of a courtyard. A decent dinner too and it all costs tuppence. The Serbian border is only 3 Km away but there are hills. At the Croatian border post I am waved through and a small dog sitting by the side of the road decides to accompany me. If I stop he stops and I stop several times to rest on the next hill. I start to have a fantasy that this loveable mutt will come all the way to the Black Sea with me. I have a volume of Ibsen plays with me so I decide to call him Henrik. After a couple of miles  we arrive together at the Serbian border post where he plonks himself down in a comfy spot in the sun and leaves me to carry on alone. Oh well.

It is discernible as I pass through the first few Serbian villages after the border that they are poorer and shabbier than their Croatian counterparts a few miles back down the road,  and the people are less cheery. Normally I say "Good morning" and wave or at least nod as I ride through a village and normally there are a couple of old gaffers who will wave back. I imagine that after I have passed one will say to the other " Oo Aar. There goes the last cyclist of the summer." After a few minutes his companion will reply " Oo Aar but one cyclist does not an autumn make" and so on. But here in these first Serb villages I am ignored and also ignored by Serbian drivers who are intolerant of cyclists and the entire morning's ride to Novi Sad is by no means comfortable. 

Novi Sad is the country's second city and has been called the Athens of Serbia. I was going to make a cheap crack along the lines of that being the same as saying Stevenage is the Florence of Hertfordshire but when I arrive on a hilltop high above the city I decide that that would be unworthy of the beautiful city below me. A delicious freewheel down to the Petrovaradin Fortress on the south side of the river before crossing one of the two remaining bridges into the city. Nato bombing in 1999 destroyed all three of the original bridges and only two have been replaced, a line of reinforced concrete stumps being all that remains of the third. I cycle up a broad boulevard and find my hotel almost immediately. It is brand new and a bit smart and, joy of joys, there is a bath. The city has a large university and swarms with very beautiful young women who are out in force in the warm sunshine. The centre of the city is attractive and I loaf for a bit before hitting the local art gallery which is good and walk a fair way to visit the railway station which is quiet, lacking all bustle.

I have a dinner of sausages and local bread straight from the oven in a tiny cafe down a back alley. Interestingly even this miniscule establishment has wi-fi. To bed early for I know that the Belgrade run will have to be a first light start.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 4 Suza - Ilok 99 Km (61 miles)

Ever since leaving Budapest I have been riding more or less due south following the Danube but now the river turns east, the Danube Path however (well marked in Croatia) keeps going south towards the city of Osijek. Serbia lies on the other side of the river and I am now riding through one of the main war zones of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Very soon I see my first 'Beware of Land-mines' notice. According to my guide book an estimated ninety thousand of them were laid throughout the country and they are still being cleared. Do not stray from the path the signs say and I will not argue with them. 

First stop is Osijek, a town on the River Drava which joins the Danube at Vukovar. It's a handsome town with a few buildings showing bullet pockmarks, leftovers from the nineties. In every town I pass through I try and visit the railway station. Always interesting, always a special atmosphere and quite possibly some trains. Osijek station itself is unremarkable, a crumbling Austro-Hungarian building or perhaps it is later, but plonked next to it is a brand new pedestrian/cycle covered  crossing that is a spectacular essay in steel and glass. I can only presume that the EU or perhaps a local who made good, manufacturing corn plasters in Indianapolis, stumped up. Why didn't they spend the money rebuilding the station? As I sit and watch most of the locals just wander across the tracks clutching their shopping and their children. 

I head out of Osijek aiming to be in time for a late lunch in Vukovar, which sounds like the title of a naff travel book. A Late Lunch in Vukovar, the heart warming story of a man suffering a late mid-life crisis who gives up his job in marketing to cycle along the Danube. In Vukovar he falls in love with a barmaid named Eva and decides to become an aubergine farmer. Imagine the heart warming and hilarious adventures of the happy couple as they struggle to survive in the tough world of the Croatian aubergine market. Picture the cast of picaresque local characters, Kaspar the incorrigible local handyman, Ivan, the village Romeo, who lusts after Eva, and Father Ciprijan, the drunken priest who comes to play chess on Saturday nights. Imagine the comic scenes as local goats eat all the hero's shoes and Eva's mother attacks him with a carving knife after a soup misunderstanding. It'll be in the shops before Christmas.

 Vukovar was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war between the Serbs and the Croats, though it was somewhat overshadowed by the siege of Sarajevo. Google some images, they are not for the squeamish. In a siege lasting 87 days 2000 locals held off more than 30,000 Jugoslav National Army troops. The city is still rebuilding and there are still spectacular bombed out ruins dotted about, not least the battered water tower, which has been preserved by the city council as a memorial to the siege.

Before setting out on this trip I tried to do a bit of reading, a bit of research, so that I could talk politics in a Serbian bar with confidence. I tried Misha Glenny's history of the conflict and found it so badly written that it irritated me and I gave up. I had a crack at Rebecca West's Black Lamb Grey Falcon, an account of a journey through Yugoslavia in the thirties,  but at over a thousand pages that was far too long and self indulgent. Luckily I have with me Mark Mazower's The Balkans - From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day in 150 pages, a miracle of condensation and clarity. He challenges many of my preconceptions, preconceptions that I think many of you may share with me. Based on the news coverage of the nineties, I came out here with the idea that Serbs are paranoid angry and violent, that the Croats are a bit less so and have nice beaches and that  the Bosnians spend their time doing flower arranging and drinking tea. Another preconception that we all have is that the Balkan nations are in their very nature more bloodthirsty and barbarous than other European nations. Well that's a given isn't it? Possibly not. Mazower makes the point that if you examine European history in general we in the West have had our moments particularly in our Colonial history and that by and large the mish-mash of  Balkan peoples have rubbed along OK, albeit for several centuries under Ottoman rule. A lot of this public perception stems from the reporting of the Balkan Wars that took place in the decade before the First World War. Mazower mentions one practice that particularly appalled Edwardian newspaper readers at their breakfast tables, that of the decapitation and display of one's fallen foe's head on a lance or tied to one's saddle. A British army officer of the time made the point that in a confused theatre of war with no public media it was a very sensible way of demonstrating to your own people that the dreaded leader of the opposing faction was truly dead and here was his head to prove it. No point carting the whole body around, the head is all you need to make the point. Having argued that Balkan folks are just like you and I, who does Mazower blame for the carnage of the nineties. Slobodan Milosevic. Without his Greater Serbia ambitions would all of this have happened? 

On a politically lighter note, if you watch the Eurovision Song Contest, you will have noted that in the Balkans, regardless of the mass graves,  the twelve points will always go to the competitor's previously genocidal neighbour. Short memories or an example of how Eurovision genuinely brings people together?

From Vukovar I am back close to, but largely out of sight, of the Danube. The landscape is no longer flat, I am riding past orchards and vineyards and am confronted with increasingly brutal hills. The road runs flat along an upper plateau then plunges down to a village then up again. The hills are truly steep and you could argue that the pain of going up is compensated for by the thrill of freewheeling down. However the downhills tend to have quite tight curves and while under normal circumstances you would like put your feet up on the handlebars, unwrap a choc-ice and shout 'Wheeee' as you hurtle down, here you have no idea if a crocodile of primary school children is being herded across the road by a pair of elderly nuns just round the bend and so you have to destroy your brake pads easing gently down.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 3 Baja - Suza (Croatia) 83 Km (52 miles)

I arrived in Baja close to collapse and had to have a bit of lie-down as soon as I have checked into the hotel.  Eventually I tottered out for dinner at a Hungarian/Mexican restaurant which was not bad. In the morning I could barely move and tried some 'better late than never' stretching exercises which hurt and didn't help. Breakfast was dull and when it came to settle up there was no one in the hotel to pay. Once that was sorted out I cycled round the town which is quite elegant with a Hapsburg style square open at one end to views of the Danube in the valley below. All in all the absolute antithesis of Dunaujvaros the night before. Perhaps World War Two missed Baja and blew away Dunaujvaros. The weather is ideal for cycling, chilly starts then the sun breaks through but it never gets too hot. The leaves are on the turn and in every village old people, only old people, are busy sweeping them up so that their lawns and verges are clear for the next day's leaf fall. 

A large chunk of the morning was spent on a dike path with a good surface but with monotonous scenery. It backed onto the gardens of the villages that I passed and everyone keeps geese and goats. A deer galloped across the path just in front of me but mostly monotony. 

Then through a gap in the trees appears the ferry to Mohacs. I arrive just as it is landing folks from the other side and I can ride straight on. We chug across the Danube in glorious sunshine. I love these Danube ferries, it's as simple as that.

 Mohacs is famous for the battle that was fought there in 1526 when 25,000 Hungarians under the command of their king, Louis II, decided to take on 100,000 Ottomans led by Suleiman the Magnificent. This was a very poor life choice and they were duly massacred. There is an ugly monument to this defeat in Mohacs, but then Eastern Europe is dotted with ugly memorials to military catastrophe. I stop for beer at a cafe in the leafy central square. My wife complains that I never send her photos of me so I ask the waitress to take one of me there sitting outside the cafe. She recoils as if I'd requested something much more intimate and blankly refuses. I don't think that there was any room for misinterpretation so I am a bit depressed by this. 

I move on and cycle to Udvar, the Croatian border, where joy of joys, there is a customs post. A pretty blonde Hungarian lady wants to look at my passport and so does a Croatian border guard a hundred metres further on. While I applaud this observation of traditional border crossing niceties it's hard to come up with a reason why they bothered to do this. There was no computer link in either of their roadside shacks so there was no way that they could check if I was a well known Ukrainian gun runner making a desperate bicycle dash to hole up in a Belgrade bordello until the heat was off. They both checked that I looked like the photo in my passport that was all. I suppose I might be trying to cycle across Europe using Shirley Bassey's passport for a bet but that seems unlikely. Anyway on into Croatia which appears to be deserted. It was a Sunday but in the first half hour the only humans I saw were two little girls taking a dog for a walk, otherwise spooky silence. 

Now it's time to talk about the last twenty kilometres of the day, every day really. In the morning I am all revved up. I shake off the aches and pains that have developed overnight, jump on Cynthia and knock out two and a half hours of top rank cycling. Then it's a break for coffee and a bun, another couple of hours then a beer. At this point there shouldn't be too far to go but, no matter how far, the last twenty kilometres will be a killer. Mostly I have been confronted with twenty kilometres of flat road running past unendingly dull flat farmland. In the distance I can just make out the church tower of the next village and just possibly the church tower in the village after that and there's nothing to do but cycle it. This is the moment to concentrate, are my feet perfectly positioned on the pedals? Are my legs pumping up and down vertically? Have I got rhythm? Rhythm is everything in cycling. I say to myself Abebe Bikila - Abebe Bikila - Abebe Bikila. Why Abebe Bikila?  He was an Ethiopian soldier who won the Olympic Marathon in Rome 1960 and in Tokyo 1964. Kon Ichikawa made a remarkable documentary film Tokyo Olympiad (find it if you can) and the climax was a stunning sequence showing Bikila running, the film cuts away to other scenes, other events, but always cuts back to Bikila and the film is cut to the rhythm of his running. The commentary is oddly dead-pan but poetic/heroic. It's very moving and has stuck with me ever since. So with every breath I say Abebe Bikila and it works, I go faster. Who says sport doesn't have the power to inspire us. When I flag there is always a quote from The Wild Bunch. William Holden to Ernest Borgnine who has just fallen off his horse due to mixture of exhaustion and senility "C'mon you lazy bastard". That works too. Finally Abebe Bikila - Abebe Bikila - Abebe Bikila. I am there. At the hotel. I stumble in barely able to carry my bags. Will they have a defibrillator handy? Will there be beer. Yes there will. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 2 Dunaujvaros - Baja 120 km (75 miles)

Extraordinarily enough I didn't get bitten in the night and slept quite well. In the morning I didn't trouble the hotel about breakfast but walked down to a bakery where I had an abject cappuccino and a couple of rolls. Dunaujvaros is a rather dismal place, the people look poor and they look tired.The two go together. It's a far cry from the zip and zap of contemporary Budapest only fifty miles upstream. The town is sat on top of a hill overlooking the Danube and running along the hilltop is a splendid park full of dog walkers and teenagers sitting on benches wondering who they are. I too sat on a bench and with the sun setting behind me watched a vast moon, magnified by the Danubian mist, rise in front of me and I didn't worry too much about who I was.

I was determined to make up the time/distance lost the day before. I had to get back on schedule. The schedule is everything, without a schedule we are nothing, without a schedule we are no better than the earthworms that aimlessly tunnel away beneath our feet. So I left at first light, not something people do very much in the twenty-first century, having plotted a complex route avoiding proscribed main roads and involving a wide arc to the west along farm tracks and country lanes. A cold grey start to the day but, as my wife will tell you, I am mercilessly cheerful in the morning and there was much to see. I saw a cavalcade of fifteen young boys cycling in to town each carrying several sacks of empty plastic bottles, each sack larger than they were. I saw an old man driving an ancient motorised tricycle who stopped to feed some cats in a derelict house and I saw twenty men arguing about how to get a car out of a ditch. Never say that rural Hungary is dull. 

At about 10.00am I was back where I should have been but with another 87 km to go. So head down and go for it. The path at some points ran along billiard table smooth tarmac roads recently constructed on top of the dikes that prevent the Danube from flooding or along busy main roads, which was not so good, but most importantly it was fast and flat. Flat the landscape certainly is. Hungary makes Norfolk look positively Alpine. It stretches featureless away into the distance, endless farmland with not a landmark in sight. God rural Hungary is dull! I think I may be cycling along the edge of the Great Pannonian Plain, which extends away to the north and east and from which pancakes derive their name. 

I stop for beer in a tiny village where two locals eye Cynthia appreciatively and I stop for coffee in a pretty town called Kalocsa. I stop to inspect a field of paprika, now is the time to harvest paprika. I stop to drink water and eat peanuts. I stop because I am tired. I plod on and make it to my target Baja where the hotel turns out to be a joy. I am back on schedule. Saints be praised!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Day 1 - Budapest - Dunaujvaros 103 Km (63 miles)

It started well enough. Good breakfast in my smart hotel. Finding my way out of Budapest should have been easy. Find the Danube, check which way it's flowing and follow it, but it took me a while to thread my way through the construction sites and cul-de-sacs along the river bank before I found  the Danube Path (E 6) to be a pleasant potholed lane with holiday homes on one side and the river and reed beds on the other. A fine morning's ride in bright sunshine, a bit chilly for shorts, most of it on a long island between two branches of the Danube and it was when I was approaching the southernmost tip of the island, where there was a crossing to the left bank of the river, when my way was blocked by a lady sitting on a chair in the middle of the road. She was wearing the uniform of a security company and behind her was a construction site. "you can't come through here" she said. Or at least I assume that was what she said. She said it in Hungarian and for all I know she may have said " I can tell from your smell that you are an English bastard and there is as much chance of you coming through here as having lunch with the Pope on the moon". I remonstrated, I mimed walking through, pushing Cynthia along in a very sedate manner, I showed her on the map how far I would I would have to cycle back to find another crossing. She was unmoved. As we talked I noticed that she had a very pretty fish tattooed just below her right ear which was nice. 

I studied the map and  I realised what a blow this was. A fifteen kilometre ride back to a ferry to the right bank that, for all I knew, only ran in the summer. I would be on the wrong side of the river but there was a bridge thirty kilometres downstream and there was a main road to get to it. Main roads are unpleasant for cyclists, with trucks thundering past a few inches from your elbow, but they have the advantage of being flat and fast. I could perhaps make up the time the I lost backtracking. I decided to go for it and cycled back the fifteen kilometres and was told by a local who spoke German that the ferry did run every hour and that I had just missed one and that it was to be found down the first turning on the left. God smiled on me because there was a tiny bar by the ferry landing stage so that I could drink a beer in the sun while I waited. Once across there was only a few hundred metres to ride before I got to Route 6. Once there I discovered very clear and unambiguous signs saying that cyclists were not permitted on this road. I returned to my map and plotted a zig zag course that would take me off into the country to the west of the river but would eventually get me to another less main road that went where I wanted to go. I pedalled on but when I got to what I thought was a less main road found the same signs prohibiting cyclists. At this point I got a bit pissed off and thought "Am I going to get nicked in the time it takes me to cycle the 11 kilometres to Dunaujvaros?" "Probably not" I thought and just got on with it and it was mercifully flat and fast.

 However the sun was low in the sky and I was still thirty kilometres short of my hotel so I admitted defeat and booked into a hotel in Dunaujvaros. Oh woe is me. Day 1 and I have fallen short of my target and perhaps because of this God ceased to smile on me and  the only hotel that I could find may be the worst hotel that I have ever stayed in. To be fair I knew it the moment I walked in, you can't stay in as many hotels as I have and not be able to spot a dud, but this one may be special. It is in a crumbling Communist era block and everything is filthy, the lifts are covered with graffiti and my room smells, though its hard to tell how many people may have slept in the sheets before me. There was no loo paper and no towels. I went down to reception to demand my rights and frankly if I hadn't been exhausted I would have left then and there but I just asked for loo paper and towels. The lady at Reception was flummoxed. Was this because she was aghast that her staff hadn't provided these basic necessities or because I had the temerity to ask for them. Not sure. But after a lot of fluster she scampered off and came back with half a roll of loo paper but no towels. I repeated my impression of Chubby Checker doing the 'Twist' to indicate that I still wanted towels. "There are no towels" I think she said though she may well have said "I can smell that you are an English bastard etc" but I became insistent and eventually she came back with two sheets and indicated that I should dry myself on them. In that they may be cleaner than the sheets on my bed this may be a result. As I write this I am eying the plaster around the headboard of my bed and there are no tell tale traces of bloody squished bed bugs left by previous occupants which is encouraging.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Getting There Again - Oct 16th-17th

A 5.40am Eurostar is not everybody's cup of tea, not mine certainly, but it is a pleasure to see the sun rise over the misty plain of Northern France and, with the time difference, I was at the Gare du Nord just after 9.00am. A twenty minute wait for Cynthia to be extracted from the Goods Despatch Dept and then a gentle ride down to the Gare de Lyon, where I was booked on a TGV to Geneva and just after lunch I was in Switzerland.  TGVs have a rather pokey bicycle section at the very front of the train. You have to sit in the same compartment as your bike and the windows are tiny but I had a makeshift conversation with a young man from Iran and we were able to congratulate each other that both our nations had qualified for the World Cup in Brazil. A nifty change of trains saw me on my way to Zurich.The geographically inclined amongst you might be muttering that this seems to be a rather roundabout way to go to Budapest, surely Paris-Munich-Vienna would be more direct but I had decided to make a stopover in Bregenz at the westernmost point of Austria. This town, on the shore of Lake Constance, the Bodensee, is where I first met my wife and I nostalgically booked a room in the hotel where she worked in 1988. I also booked an evening of beer with Gerd Alfons, the technical director of the Bregenz Opera Festival, whom I haven't seen for twenty years.   

Austria holds about twenty kilometres of the shore of the lake between Switzerland and Germany and when I first came to Bregenz twenty five years ago there was still a border between Switzerland and Austria. The guard on the train from Zurich Airport would make sure that any passengers for Bregenz were all in the same carriage before the train pulled out of the last stop before the Swiss/Austrian border, he would then lock all the other carriages so that no one else could leave the train in Austrian territory, only unlocking the doors when the train crossed into Germany a few kilometres further on. On arrival the passengers from the Bregenz carriage would be firmly escorted across the tracks to a grubby shed where a couple of bored customs men made chalk marks on our bags. Sometimes I would hire a car at Zurich and immediately after crossing the border into Austria, on a relatively quiet rural road, witnessed the bizarre sight of dozens of prostitutes in hot-pants and 'Saturday Night Fever' hair-dos stationed along the side of the road waiting for Swiss customers to come across and make full use of their facilities in the more liberal Austrian sexual climate.   

For non-opera lovers I should explain that the Bregenz Festival is an outdoor summer event in which a single opera is presented in spectacular fashion on a man-made island a few metres offshore and in front of a 5000 seat amphitheatre. If you have seen the movie A Quantum of Solace you will have seen Bregenz which was used as the venue where the baddies get together. When I say spectacular I mean spectacular, Alfons, leading a team of fearless technicians in some breathtaking engineering feats, many of them underwater. Under the amphitheatre is an indoor opera stage which housed the Samson & Dalila that I worked on in 1988. The indoor stage itself is considerably larger than that of the London Coliseum (it has an 18m revolve) and was used as an alternative venue for the outdoor production (in a semi-staged concert version) on rainy days. I had a lovely time working there and, even if I say so myself, the collapsing hydraulic temple that we built for the finale of Samson & Dalila was one of my better efforts in the field of theatrical production management.

So twenty five years on Alfons and I meet for beer. We had a delightful 'old blokes' evening talking over past triumphs and disasters but mostly we talked about our knees and our retirement plans. At the end of the evening I think we both decided to go down fighting.

In the morning I cycle through the rain back to the station to catch the 6.00am Vienna train which runs almost the full length of Austria and takes eight hours,  with lots of Sound of Music scenery. In Vienna I am not allowed to take Cynthia on a direct train to Budapest and am forced to go to a different station and make two changes on a relatively short journey. I share the first leg to Hegyeshalom, on the Hungarian border, with a train load of Hungarian commuters who travel into Vienna every day.The next leg, to Gyor, is pleasingly quick but the final leg on a stopping train is interminable and, this being Hungary all the intermediate stations have names with more than twelve letters. The train deposits me at an unfamiliar station in an unfamiliar district of Budapest but navigating by Blackberry I quickly find the Danube (hard to miss really) and I am back where I left off in June.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map