Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

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.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Starting Again October 2013

After a summer of relative idleness it's time to complete the journey to the Black Sea. I will be restarting in Budapest where I left off  in June. Why the summer gap? Family stuff mainly. We have been renovating the front of our house and my eldest has been negotiating A Levels and university entrance, in which he was triumphant and he has now departed to the School of Oriental & African Studies in London. The other major advantage of starting this leg in the autumn is that the mosquitoes that infest the Danube delta in Roumania will be gone. It is 1000 miles from Budapest to the 'Kilometer Zero' stone at Sulina on the Roumanian/Ukrainian border on the Black Sea. I will be spending 3 days in Hungary, 2 in Croatia, 5 in Serbia and 13 in Roumania. Apparently the early sections, particularly in Serbia, are scenically attractive but even my ever enthusiastic guide book describes the landscape in  Roumania as so monotonous that it might be worth considering using the train. Perish the thought!

I have managed to book accommodation in advance, though this has proved tricky in Roumania where there are several long sections with no hotels showing in even the most stringent Google search. Rather than sleep under a hedge I will have to cross the river to hotels in that well known dormitory nation, Bulgaria. In terms of tourism there are only two big cities en route, Novi Sad and Belgrade and there are no cutesie-pie Black Forest towns with cobbled streets and fairy-tale timbered houses. In Croatia there are land mines and mass graves, in Roumania mile after mile of underpopulated farm land. Through it all rolls the mighty Danube, by this time polluted as hell, making the major contribution to the world's most polluted sea, aptly named the Black Sea. On the plus side there is the linguistic challenge. On the spring trip I had "get through the day" German and was able to communicate with ease, this time I don't have a single word of any of the languages that I will come across. Does 'pivo' mean beer in the Balkans? I hope so.

If you read the blog of the spring leg you will be aware that I callously sold Doris, my previous bike, to  the Assistant Manager of my hotel in Budapest so a remount has been required. I have ventured a little further upmarket in my purchase of Cynthia, who has both disc brakes and front suspension. The latter, taking pressure off the wrists, may be the difference between pleasure and misery. We have been getting acquainted on the Hampshire lanes around Basingstoke and I think Cynthia is the girl for me. 

As before I will be aiming to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society. It's a vicious illness that did for my Mum so do what you can but above all enjoy the Blog. 

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map