Friday, 30 July 2010

A Day’s Cycling in Romania

At 6am the phone alarm rings, we fumble around for the snooze button, desperately seeking those last minutes of sleep before the first rays of the sun heat up the tent and the day begins: A typical day cycling in Romania. 

Getting dressed in the tent requires the skilled execution of a number of Yoga moves. Once suited and booted we open the zipper, peeking out to get an impression of the weather and as result what kind of day we will have. The dream is a strong tail wind with some cloud. Today it’s going to be another hot day with some wind, looks like a tail, so we will make another sacrifice to the cycling gods. ||

No showers are available but a mighty fine river serves as a good place to have a morning wash. The Danube river water is very soft and feels lovely on your skin. We fire up our trusty stove to boil water for coffee while we start packing up.

IMG_4767

This place was marked on our map as a campsite, but when we rocked up the previous night, there was no campsite to be seen. The owner of the nearby house was obviously used to cyclists turning up on her doorstep and a few looks of desperation later she let us stay on her lawn.

When the water boils, we make coffee and have breakfast. Usually, breakfast is cereal with milk or yoghurt, fruit, bread and Nutella or jam.

We wash the dishes under a nearby tap and complete packing up, leaving the camp between 8am and 8:30am.

Within the first few minutes of being on the bikes we quickly get an idea of any aches and pains that will accompany us for the day. Guy specializes in achy knees whilst Freddie dabbles in a little shoulder pain.

Cycling through local villages, we overtake some horse and carts, and almost everyone we pass waves to us and bellows enthusiastic greetings, even a passing train toots, with the conductors hanging out the window and waving.

IMG_4798

IMG_4866

After cycling for about 25km the first stomach rumbles announce it’s time for our first snack break. 

IMG_4810

Having well stocked food supplies is essential, so we find a small shop and stock up on food for the day, not even looking twice at the Coca Cola vending machine.

IMG_4816 

Cycling through a watermelon market we stop to take pictures of the horses with their carts loaded up with melons, as well as cars with melons piled up on their roofs. One of the friendly traders gives us a 4kg rock melon as a gift, not the ideal gift for a cyclist but we take it with open arms.

IMG_4930

IMG_4931

We cycle for another 25km or so before we find a fuel station on the way to refill our fuel bottle. Normally a full fuel bottle lasts a week but we like to keep it topped up. Total fill cost; 20 pence.

IMG_4823

Looking for a bench or a field to have lunch, we find a nice shady spot under a tree.

IMG_4838

We have bread, tinned mackerel, cheese and tomatoes for lunch, and yoghurt for dessert. We also find a plum tree nearby.

IMG_4835 

IMG_4832

We cycle until mid afternoon for another 25km or so through small villages and open farm land. Adorable village children like to greet the strange looking tourists with high fives and race us on their their creaky oversized bicycles.

IMG_4841

IMG_4851

IMG_4848

By mid afternoon, it’s time for our daily ice cream. While Freddie goes ice cream shopping, Guy attempts to show the locals a map of where we have come from and where we are going.

IMG_4900

IMG_4902

Today is a good day, as the roads are much better than expected. We had been warned to expect extremely potholed roads and terrible drivers in Romania, but somehow we managed to escape this. We have cycled on good roads with considerate drivers through most of our stay in Romania.

IMG_4904

By late afternoon, we start to think about accommodation. This could be a campsite (though they are increasingly rare in this part of the world), a wild camp, ideally hidden from view and with a nearby river to wash in, or a hostel or hotel.

Sometimes the campsites that are marked on our map don’t actually exist, but today we spot a sign.

IMG_4909

We have cycled 101 km today, with quite easy conditions, flat roads and a tail wind.

We check into the campsite, but first we must greet the dogs. Stray dogs are everywhere, and most of them have been quite shy and very hungry. Sometimes they get lucky and we donate some bread to them, soaked in milk is a house favourite.

IMG_4911

We set up Boris, our tent and tuck the bikes in.

IMG_4914

After a truly disgusting shower with foul smelling water, we cook dinner. Spaghetti with tuna and tomato sauce and cheese, as usual. We chat to some other cyclists for a while before we say good night.

IMG_4917

IMG_4918

When we crawl into Boris, we are weary from all the high fives and waving, but touched by the warmth of the Romanian people. Not every day on the road is this exciting, but Romania certainly offers some of the most interesting and entertaining cycling we have done so far.

IMG_4912

Good night!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Into the Balkans

Croatia – Serbia

On our last night in Hungary we got a recommendation for a campsite from a group of Hungarian cyclists we met whilst sheltering from the sweltering 38 degree heat. Upon arriving at camp we were no sooner unpacking out tent when we were visited by a little four legged friend who took great pleasure in lying on our ground sheet whilst we were trying to set up Boris.||We soon discovered his weakness for a good old belly rub

IMG_4549   IMG_4546

Cute, we thought but in reality his intentions were not as honest as first thought. Whilst we were distracted his two accomplices were accessing one of our food panniers, quietly burrowing their snouts in to detect any remaining food morsels. Fun and games carried on through the evening but the most entertaining was watching them run off with a fellow campers sandals, one sandal each, delight stretched over their little furry faces.

IMG_4560

At camp we had just one fellow camper. A nice German chap with an impeccably organised camp. We later found out that he is from the same small town as Freddie in Northern Germany, Uetersen. Seeing our fellow Germans camp setup was somewhat shocking as we realised that order can be maintained during camp, unfortunately we are yet to reach such a standard.

IMG_4556 IMG_4553

The following day we had a bit of a border crossing bonanza as we crossed from Hungary to Serbia then from Serbia to Croatia. Arriving at the border is always a little nerve racking as not be able to progress would mean much back tracking. Fortunately we were greeted with smiles and waved on.

After only 15km into Serbia we were already crossing into Croatia. Inside Croatia our first task was to find some Croatian cash. We managed to find an ATM but between the three of us we had no idea of the exchange rate so were unsure of how much cash to withdraw. In the end we based it on the price of a custard slice and figured 200 custard slices would be enough to survive on for two days.

Our one and only night in Croatia was at Vukovar, a town that has seen its share of blood shed from being bombed heavily in WW2 and then being virtually completely devastated during the Croatian War of Independence. It was sad to see that virtually every 5th building had some evidence of war.

The heavily damaged water tower remains (only just) as a memorial to the war.

IMG_4569      IMG_4597

Unfortunately something we did not capture on camera was the friendliness of the towns people towards us, this was something that continued all through our short but memorable ride in Croatia.

The only problem we had in Vukovar was the lack of accommodation. The one hotel was too expensive so we asked the locals if they knew of any other options. Whilst I was doing this a German couple came up to Freddie in the street to chat. As it turned out they were rafting down the Danube all the way from source to sea over a six month period on a, wait for it….home made raft! It sounded pretty crazy so we soon fell into conversation. Hearing about our accommodation predicament they kindly offered us a pitch on their raft. Immediately the thought of a pitch so close to water brought back memories of flooding in Donauwoerth, but unfortunately curiosity got the better of us and anyway how many times can you sleep on a raft? They led us down to the harbour where the raft was moored and from first glance you could tell it was built by a skilled craftsmen.

Marek is a carpenter by trade and a very talented one at that judging by the handicraft. Boris was unable to fit on the front deck of the raft so we had to pitch him on the mariner next to the raft.

We weren’t totally sure if the pitch was legal, well we knew it probably wasn’t so when a police boat entered the harbour our hearts dropped. The officer on the front deck took one look at us then smiled and waved.

IMG_4587 IMG_4578

Back on the raft Louise and Marek had whipped up a lovely meal.

IMG_4575

Despite the pending thunder storm we had a terrific night sleep and will always remember the kindness of Louise and Marek whose adventurous spirit and “no worries” attitude was very inspiring.

IMG_4586 

The following day we already crossed back into Serbia to stay in Novi Sad (Serbia’s second largest city) for a couple of nights. Serbia felt poorer than Croatia, with more litter on the side of the road and feral dogs roaming some of the streets. People were very friendly though, and we had many toots and waves, as well as some people slowing down in their cars next to us to chat and ask us where we are going.

Monday night in Novi Sad felt like Saturday everywhere else, with busy cafes lining the streets, adults and children eating ice creams, young people getting ready for a night out, and a brass band playing on the town square.

We’re still riding with Di and will hopefully stay together until Istanbul. She is always chirpy and it’s sure is nice to have a change in conversation at times! We have certainly found our match when it comes to ice cream appreciation.

IMG_4641

Her partner, John, has been our control centre back in the UK, Internet researching, arranging accommodation and mapping the best route through Bulgaria for us as our current maps soon run out.

After Novi Sad, we only cycled for a day before we arrived in bustling Belgrade for another rest day. During our stay we came across Vladimir, a local who works for the hostels in bringing backpackers to their establishments for a small commission. As we had already prebooked our hostel, he had no benefit in taking us there but showed us the way anyway. He had kind eyes and a lovely laugh, and just as he left we hastily decided that we should ask him if he would do a walking tour with us to show us the town. I ran after him and proposed the idea. He seemed delighted and and quickly stressed it would be cheap and we should not pay if we don’t enjoy it. Six hours later we had seen most of Belgrade’s important landmarks, ate at a local Serbian restaurant, ridden on countless buses and trams for free, and gone back to his home momentarily whilst he hung his washing out!

IMG_4624

Vladimir had amazing knowledge of world politics as he was involved with the Liberal Democratic Party for seven years. He works very hard, meeting tourists at the train station at all hours of the day or night, and taking them to hostels or even to sleep in his tiny apartment. He has managed to squeeze up to 14 people into his living room at 2 Euros per person. He also looks after his dad who is ill and lives in a village near Belgrade. We had a fantastic time, though our feet did hurt a bit more than they should after a rest day! Belgrade has no major attractions, but it has an interesting history and a lively cafe and restaurant culture that was certainly worth visiting for a good few days. Vladimir showed us some of the government buildings hit by the US in 1999 by guided missiles, unfortunately they also hit a hospital.

IMG_4639

Leaving Belgrade in 40 degree heat, we wild camped in a corn field by the side of the road. It was a good little campsite, but the heat in the tent was immense, we were lying down with waves of sweat pouring off us, unfortunately unable to camp in the open air due to mosquitoes.

IMG_4647

Luckily there was a campsite near Valiko Gradiste on the following day. It was located next to a swimming and fishing lake called the Silver Lake. Sheltering from a thunderstorm at a beach bar, we started chatting to Marco and his dad, Sasha, who own the campsite. They started buying us drinks and got the man at the bar to cook up some traditional Serbian sausage and barbequed bread for us.

IMG_4665   IMG_4666

They refused any offer of us buying them a drink or paying for our food, saying we can do that when they come to visit us in our country. Marco kept saying what a pleasure it was for him to talk to us, and that guests in Serbia are treated with the highest respect. They offered for us to sleep in a caravan if our tents were too wet, and offered the next night at the campsite for free. We felt humbled and grateful that we were so well looked after. Unfortunately we did end up having to stay a little longer than planned as the Serbian sausage came back to haunt Di in the early hours of the morning! Stoically she soldiered on with a few naps en-route.

IMG_4681

The ride from the lake took us along a stunning road the hugged the Danube and with the mountains of Romania rising up on the other side and the threatening storm clouds it was a thrilling sight. We happened to stumble across a camp site the offered a pitch right on the rivers edge. There is a little jetty on the left which looks perfect to launch in from for the morning swim.

IMG_4710

If all goes to plan we will will cross the Danube some 100km downstream and venture into Romania, the home of Count Dracula. ||

3,000 km photo

We had just climbed a long hill in 40°C heat to get out of Belgrade when we hit the 3,000km mark. We had to have an ice cream to cool down, and followed up with two more later in the day before we wild camped in a field for a hot and sticky night. Luckily the temperature dropped down to 16°C a couple of day later for a short while – we forgot how much easier it is to cycle in cooler temperatures!

IMG_4643||

Monday, 19 July 2010

Our first week in Eastern Europe

Bratislava – Budapest – Hungary/Croatia border

After recovering from the bed bugs, we were keen to go explore Bratislava.  We had hooked up with a “free” walking tour of Bratislava which was run by a young Aussie who gave an interesting insight into its rich history and was keen to take us outside of the old town and talk about some of the darker days that other tours tend to avoid.

||

The cafe culture was certainly alive and swinging with a temptation around every corner of the old city. We found a nice terraced cafe overlooking the town square watching street artists entertain the tourists and Bratislavians alike.

IMG_4228 IMG_4236

The old castle high on the ridge was a great place to look back over the old town perched on the Danube and across river lay ugly soviet style apartment blocks as a reminder of the communist days. The castle which stood the test of time repelling almost all invading armies was finally conquered by Napoleon after two years of continual assault.

The start of our journey into Eastern Europe was a real transition; the roads are dotted with potholes, familiar brands have disappeared apart from Tesco supermarket (some things just won’t leave you alone) and even Freddie has run out of languages to speak. During our first few days in Hungary we cycled through agricultural areas, and even within the villages there are fields of wheat or corn between the houses. There is still a surprising number of cycle lanes, although our fellow cyclists are mainly old men with moustaches and slippers. Many buildings are ugly communist blocks, but there is also a lot of new development going on.

IMG_4380 IMG_4362

On our first evening in Hungary we arrived at the campsite in Györ, which was already full. The only thing the owner could offer us was a caravan for the same price as a tent pitch. Of course we accepted and stayed in a caravan with a little garden for the night. The next two campsites we stayed at had swimming pools, which was great as the weather has been very hot recently, up to 36C in the shade. We are trying to leave a little earlier in the mornings, but we do take a bit of time packing up our tent, having breakfast etc, and so we never manage to leave before 8:30am and end up cycling in the heat of the day most of the time.

IMG_4302 IMG_4317

Last Sunday, there was a cycle race in the area we were going through, and as we rested in a small village, there were already a couple of cyclists sitting on a bench in the shade. We started talking in German, and they were very interested in our trip. They had come from Budapest to watch the cycle race. Both were 70 years of age, but very fit, and they had taken part in the race in the past, and the lady had even won it several times. The man showed Freddie a small church, and told her that his favourite restaurant is in this village. “Please, come with us, I would like to show you the restaurant”, he said. “You are my guests. Shall we go now?” Cyclists never say no to an invitation for food, and so we went to the restaurant. It was actually a Bavarian beer hall, as there have been Germans in the village for hundreds of years (Danube Swabians). We had soup and pancakes, and afterwards we were on our way, strengthened and grateful.

IMG_4336

In Budapest, we booked a centrally located apartment for three nights. As we booked it online, last minute, we managed to get it for a lower price than what we normally pay for a room in a hostel. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining area, washing machine, balcony etc. We never found out what the catch was.

Once settled in, we gave Tony a call. Tony was an Australian contact through Guy’s dad, and he met us near our apartment an hour later. “I’ve got a taxi waiting, it’s too hot to walk. Let’s go up to the castle district.” A little while later, we reached the castle area, perched on a hill above the city. We enjoyed the views of the stunning parliament building and wandered around the castle and church for a while, but then it was time for the next activity, which Tony had already arranged for us. We met up with Tony’s friend Andras, who is a Hungarian historian.

 IMG_4420 IMG_4412

Together, we visited the Hospital in the Rocks, which is part of an amazing 10km labyrinth beneath the castle area. It was used as a bomb-proof hospital in the World War II, next to the headquarters of the Hungarian military, which were also in the labyrinth. In the Cold War, it was redesigned as a nuclear-proof hospital with an area where victims of a nuclear strike could be cared for. The weirdest thing was that, even though the hospital has not been used since the 50s, a housekeeper and his wife kept the hospital fully operational until 2004. The hospital was secret during this whole time, and for 40 years they had to change the bedsheets every 2 weeks on hundreds of beds, as well as preparing clothes for the patients, disinfecting all equipment and maintaining the generator and other medical equipment.

There was also another labyrinth nearby, which is now some sort of art installation. Luckily Tony knew of a secret access door, so we sneaked in without paying. After an ice cream or two, we wandered across Margaret island, which is in the river in the middle of Budapest. It has lovely parkland and a musical fountain, which could provide entertainment for hours.

We said goodbye to Andras for the day, but carried on with Tony to walk through the city centre, which is a real mix of grey, rundown areas and beautifully restored, turn-of-the-century buildings. Tucked in the courtyards of some of the buildings are very cool garden bars, quite colourful and sometimes only temporary constructions. One of them had a great collection of totally random furniture. We ended up sitting in a sofa carved out of a bathtub. Exploring the large building, we walked up to the attic and happened upon a bike workshop, which is open twice a week and where people can come to work on their bikes or get help with fixing bike problems.

After dinner in a nice outdoor restaurant, we called it a day, but arranged to meet up again the next day. When we arrived, Tony suggested catching a bus tour which we had noticed the day before. We had noticed it because the bus was “swimming” in the Danube like a boat. It was an amphibious bus, apparently the first on the continent, and our hearts did miss a beat when it drove into the river.

We then met up with Andras and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Szechenyi thermal baths. This is a legendary complex of about 15 different pools, saunas and steam rooms, which was built over 100 years ago. The building itself is amazingly beautiful, and we felt quite relaxed and refreshed afterwards.

IMG_4480 IMG_4488

Saying goodbye to Tony and Andras was a little sad, as they felt like old friends after only two days. They have given up a lot of their time to give us a unique insight into their city, and we will always remember their generosity.

Leaving Budapest, we were in for a surprise. We turned off into one of many small paths off the main road to have our lunch breaks, and noticed another cyclist had already chosen the same spot. We quickly realised that we already knew each other! We had met Di back in London in March, at a pub gathering for bike tourers arranged by Alastair Humphreys. She had left London a week before us. We teamed up and cycled together towards the campsite.

Unfortunately it turned out that the campsite only existed on our map. According to the tourist information center, our only option was Aqualand, a fancy outside swimming pool and spa where we could camp. As we were debating what to do, along came a French couple on recumbent bikes with three small kids in trailers. They were on their way to Hanoi and suggested a wild camping spot near a beach not to far away. We joined them and cycled to the beach in convoy. Unfortunately the beach turned out to be packed with people, and the people we asked about camping were very unfriendly. The French couple stayed anyway, but we decided to move on.

A few kilometres down the road we pulled into a small area with river houses. There was a perfect patch of grass, a rarity as the area was very populated. We asked the occupiers of the nearby holiday house, and a friendly young guy told us the grass patch didn’t belong to anyone, so we could camp there. We set up the tents and jumped into the Danube for a much needed bath. We were also nearly eaten up by the mosquitoes, which have been making our camping life hell for the last month or so, coming out in the hundreds on dusk. All you can do is jump in the tent and hope you don’t have to get up during the night.

IMG_4491

The following day, we cycled onwards, together with Di, who is also on her way to Istanbul, though on a slightly different route. Flat farmland accompanied us all day, and again the campsite in our guidebook didn’t turn out to exists. Luckily, we decided to ask at a nearby riverside restaurant, and they let us camp for free, if we consume something at their establishment. This was the perfect excuse to have dinner out, and so we had some lovely Danube fish, enjoying the sunset until the mosquitoes chased us into the tent. Unfortunately there were no showers, so we bathed in the Danube again. Next we are crossing into Croatia for a couple of days before we head to Serbia.

IMG_4511 IMG_4523