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
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.
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.
Lunch in Belgrade. Pork chops and beans, elegantly served, everything about this meal was simple but perfect.
Most Morose Nation
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.