The Forest to the Sea

Approaching 3000

The Serbian countryside grew more and more stunning the further from Belgrade we travelled. Shortly before a ferry that crossed to the south side of the bank, we took a shortcut along the grassy path on top of a dike. The path proved too bumpy for the duo on the tandem, so Woody got off and ran 2 km alongside Tom who steered the bike through the obstacles that included gravel paths disappearing into grass and grazing sheep and cattle.

The Danube grew very large before it thinned and cut through the Iron Gates Gorge. We stopped at Srebrno Jezero (Silver Lake), a town recommended to us by Ivan, our very friendly hostel manager from the Selection Apartments in Belgrade. The town turned out to be a weekend getaway for Serbs but had a nice lake that Tom and I took a dip in while Woody zoomed on to the next town to get eating supplies for the following morning. The eats and drinks were a bit dull that night, which was alright considering we had the Iron Gates to take on the next day.

Tom has already mentioned that day’s adventures, but it was absolutely stunning riding alongside a road clinging to the cliffs of this gorge slicing a line between Serbia and Romania. The highlights included a massive face carved into the stone in the Romanian side, a chit-chat with a Swiss tandem duo cycling from Istanbul to Zurich, rock layers twisted, turned and crimped by millennia of seismic activities and strong tailwinds pushing us up and down steep trails. The lowlight of the day was definitely the Iron Gates themselves, an ugly dam and lock system at the end of the gorge. Though the white caps on the water were snapping as we cruised into Drobeta – Turnu Severin, a weird town that looked half-built with asphalt roads torn to bits, an incredible water tower, lighted fountains in the middle of busy streets. We couldn’t quite tell if the city was half built and abandoned, half destroyed or in the midst of rejuvenation.

Romania’s southwestern countryside was incredibly dry and arid. It reminded me much of the American west– somewhere like central Idaho. The townsfolk were thrilling at first, kids running out to say hello and slap high fives as we zoomed past and old folk smiling as we said ‘Hola.’ For the first time this trip I felt like I could understand the language a bit because Romano is a Latin based language and has many similarities to French and Spanish (languages I actually speak). Many people spoke those languages too giving me the opportunity to make use of them.

The paisanos in horse-drawn wagons, selling watermelons and other fruits alongside the road really peaked my anthropological curiosity. Most were of a darker complexion and wore fedora hats, hand-sewn dresses and other traditional clothing. As I have learned, the Romani are made up of three sub-groups: the Gitanos (gypsies) in south-western Europe, Roma in central Europe and Romani in Romania. They are descended from a group that immigrated from India in the distant past and were once nomadic people living off the land and by the alms-giving generosity of others, though now they are mostly sedentary. I’m sure everyone is aware of the racial stereotypes that come with gypsies. From my experience in Romania, no one tried to rob us or pick-pocket us. A few asked for money but went about their business when we said no. Some old woman did try to pull a fast one on Tom by not giving his change back and tricking him to pay twice for the same bottle of water (though that could happen anywhere).

I got into a conversation with a young woman in Turnu-Magurele, where we stopped for lunch, about her life. Strangely, she was wearing a shirt with a nouvelle-art print of a gypsy. The girl spoke Spanish because she had lived in Spain for three years and German from living in Germany for two years, so she did seem to be somewhat nomadic, at least as much as me. She kept telling me she was Romani and appeared truly proud to be from Romania. I do wish I had more time to learn about the Romani and their culture today, weeding out the misconceptions and misunderstandings.

After town after long town of high-fiving mania and extreme poverty, Romania began to lose its appeal. We raced to catch a ferry to Svishtov, Bulgaria to get a breath of something new. A damn flat on my bike almost ruined that plan, but Woody and I managed to fix it while Tom kept a very bright 17 year old boy entertained as he practiced his English and told us he dreamed of studying in Switzerland.

We made the ferry to Svishtov with about five minutes to spare and entered Bulgaria through a dismal port with post-apocalyptic looking cranes with claws scooping piles of black soot and animal feed into barges on the river. The stench was horrible and the thousands of pigeons, sea gulls and other birds looked as if they might peck us to pieces. A very steep hill past decaying block apartment complexes had our hopes for the city and Bulgaria dashes. Then, it all changed and we came out on a nice square with trees, statues, a beautiful Orthodox church and several bars and shopping stores.

Veneta, our very kind hotel receptionist, showed us to a remarkable traditional Bulgarian restaurant that had no clear entrance from the road. It looked like just a metal gate to any other house I’m the district. Inside, it had a water wheel, tables with place mats in traditional weave patterns, hanging plants and a parrot. I ate a lamb, Tom ate chicken in a cream-based sauce and Woody got chicken on a sword. Veneta then gave us a tour of her hometown and gave us a brief history lesson on Bulgaria’s history and geography and how Svishtov fits into that. We ended in a stone amphitheater behind the Economics University Academy watching shooting stars streak across the sky in meteor shower.

Yesterday and today, we had some great riding curving around and over arid hillsides with Danubian tributaries cutting cliffs into the siltstone. One even had an Orthodox Monastery. Ruse and Silistra have been quieter nights as we’ve been very tired. Ruse gave me a bad taste in the mouth because a spoke on my front wheel snapped 5 km before the city on the onramp to a very busy highway. I had to walk the bike 2 or 3 km to a park and take my wheel apart to fix it while feeling lost in the middle of derelict apartment blocks. In the end, the city center was quite nice and typical of other European centers we have seen. We had our final beers on the Danube last night with another picturesque sunset in a beer garden alongside the water and a big park with Roman ruins and a sculpture garden in Silistra. Today we say goodbye to the river and Bulgaria when we ride into Constanta and end Black to Black…. If we ride into Constanta.

Ezra Anton

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