I’m sat in my flat in Vienna, reading Ezra’s post from far away Bucarest and it’s got me going over my favourite moments of our epic cycle. It’s great to be home…I knew from the first hungover moments in Constanta the morning following our arrival and subsequent celebrations that I wanted to get back to Vienna…but joy at homecoming is definately mingled with sadness that it is over and some weird daydreaming moments when I feel like I’m ghost cycling. Hell, yesterday Dani and I even went for a swim in the Danube, I think I just wanted to check it was still there! So, two days after leaving hot, scary, messy, rundown Bucarest, here are my ups and downs, in no particular order…I’ll start with the lows.
Our hours in Constanta rocketed by about as fast as Toody (or Wom) on Tarantino with hurricanesque tailwinds. As soon as we snapped celebratory shots of us above the Black Sea, we were looking for celebratory drinks and then more celebratory drinks. We partied as tourists party in Maieia, the strip of land between the Black Sea and a long lagoon in the Romanian resort town. It seemed like a really crummy version of Cancun which notes how bad it really was.
Within seven hours of going to sleep (yeah going not awakening), Tom and Woody had booked flights back to Vienna and Berlin (including a spot for Tarantino) and we had our bikes loaded underneath a bus destined to Bucharest or The Capital of Faff. After a dismal 24 hours in the city which included a night in a hotel where sleaze doesn’t even begin to describe the occurrences on the street, Tom and Woody had rode Tarantino to the airport where I met them after a bus ride. Our last actions together were to wrap the tandem in bubble wrap and share one last drink together. Woody left first and I was next on the bus back to the very cool and friendly Funky Chicken hostel. The staff helped me find a store with a box for my bike and the last of the puzzle pieces to make this trip an absolute success seems to have fallen into place.
As I chill out in Bucharest, I ponder the best and worst times of Black to Black. Top three lists are called for:
Best Riding Days:
3) Regensberg, Germany to Passau, Germany (150 km): despite losing my wallet and having to climb a mountain to a castle where we slept this ride proved I could do the long days
2) Belgrade, Serbia to Srebrno Jezero, Serbia (130 km): wild dogs, fast riding and singing with other voyagers by the Danube
1) Srebrno Jezero, Serbia to Drobeta – Turnu Severin, Romania (130 km): Iron Gates River Gorge! nuff said
Worst Riding Days:
3) Silistra, Bulgaria to Constanta, Romania (120 km): steep cobble hills, hot and humid weather, high head winds and numskull drivers
2) Ulm, Germany to Ingolstadt, Germany (160 km): first long day with several unexpected hills, got lost and major bonking when I ran out of food
1) Kolocsa, Hungary to Osijek, Croatia (160 km): rode 75 km with my brake pads engaged, head winds, hot weather and never spent my 8,000 forints
Favorite Cities (excluding Budapest cause I already knew it):
3) Svishtov, Bulgaria: great beer garden, friendly people, cool economics university with a stone amphitheater where we watched a meteor shower
2) Ulm, Germany: tallest cathedral in the world, great river front and nice restaurants alongside canals
1) Belgrade, Serbia: Bohemian quarter, great street food (Chinese and pizza), bridges with bicycle elevators, happening nightlife on a Monday and lit basketball courts in the fortress
Least Favorite Cities:
3) Ruse, Bulgaria: broke a spoke on the major highway, lots of shoddy apartment blocks, crappy riding in and out of the city
2) Bechet, Romania: a bit shit
1) Drobeta – Turnu Severin, Romania: real drag after riding through the Iron Gates River Gorge
3) Singing songs with the other travelers in Serbia and the appearance of the mysterious 72 year old Frenchman who was canoeing the Danube
2) Dancing on stage with Ojos de Brujo in Krems, Austria
1) Laughing uncontrollably with Tom and Woody in Gabcíkovo, Slovakia for reasons we don’t even remember
Least favorite memories:
3) Watching my water bottle explode as it fell into the road and under the wheel of a lorry outside of Novi Sad (and the water didn’t even splash me on the hottest day of all!)
2) Tarantino’s back wheel bent to smithereens after it went into a pothole on our third day riding
1) Losing my wallet in Dilligen, Germany on the fifth day riding
That’s about all for now. I won’t classify the people I met but there were loads of great characters on the road: Dani, Claudia, Peter, Werner, Ivan, Veneta, our fellow ferry boat travelers, the crowd in the rakia bar and party animals in Constanta. The best of all has to be Woody though who I didn’t know much before this trip and became close friends with over 3,000 km in 22 days! Going through such a gauntlet brought Tom, Woody and me together in absolutely unexplainable ways.
One of our biggest taboos during our trip was talking about arriving at the Black Sea as if it was a given fact we would arrive at our final destination. Throughout our journey, it became a necessity to end any mention of Constanta or the Black Sea by saying “if we arrive at the Black Sea.” Whenever we became cocky or confident, it seemed our bikes broke down or the Danube threw a major obstacle in our face such as a pack of wild dogs or a bent-to-high-hell wheel. This was never more true than our final ride from Silistra to Constanta.
We got through the Bulgarian/Romanian border with relative ease early in the morning. Then, as soon as we headed eastwards, the roads turned to cobbles and sloped upwards. All morning long we dealt with jiggly arms and particularly tricky nobby hills. The sun was smoking the land early and sweat just sopped off our arms and backs. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the scenery of terraced wineries and farm fields, with even one Dervish Monastery, taking us away from the Danube for the lady time. A herd of goats and sheep blocking the road and hunched over old folk creeping along with canes to the monastery were more of a laugh than a hinder.
Near lunch, our lackluster breakfast took its revenge as the rolling hills got steeper and steeper and our energy levels bonked. I even got a puncture four klicks from our planned meeting spot but was able to ride into town on low air. Tom and Woody whipped up sandwiches while I displayed my vastly improved ability to mend a flat in short time. We were back on the road before an hour’s time and all thinking without saying it that the smell of salty winds was in the air.
The hills were becoming fun and somewhat easy when the traffic evacuating Constanta started about 45 kms from the end. A long line of cars with no central destination poured out of the city. Jerk after jerk zoomed into out lane to gain a second’s time on their overall traveling time. Cuss words flew from our mouths and some not-so-nice hand gestures may have been flashed.
About 15 kms from Constanta, we came rocketing out of a forested section of road to be hit by an incredibly strong headwind that decelerated us to snail speed. We inched along the final stretch of highway with the exhaust of cars clogging our lungs and dismal views of hideous fuel refining factories to the south of the city.
Nothing would keep us back though. Out energy grew as the building grew bigger around us and older and more refined the closer we got to the center. A few traffic lights slowed us down in the last couple klicks but about 4:00 yesterday we reached road’s end and saw our first glimpse of the blue Black Sea. Our journey from the Black Forest to the Black Sea is done!
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.
It is day 20, country number 8, 2 days to go until Constanta and (fingers crossed) our first sight of the Black Sea. The Danube was never gonna let it be easy though…
After our encounter with fellow cyclists outside Belgrade we passed into the Iron Gates, a dramatic gorge like valley crowned at the entrance by the mighty fortress of Golubec. It was definately the scenic highlight of the trip, although it did throw in some enormous climbs and pitch black tunnels, the first of which I zoomed into with my sunglasses on and wondered why I couldn’t even see the white lines. The final tunnel, 350m long, was so dark we could hardly see the road and ended up crashing into the curb and losing our panniers in the blackness.
The next challenge was Romania, a whole different ballgame. Without trying to build it up too much we set our targets on a 180km day across the flood plains and, in the main, it went very smoothly. We passed through village after village in the kind of poverty you don’t really expect to find in the EU. Woody delighted in waving at smiling old folk sat sleepily by the side of the road and kids ran straight out to greet us with high fives and, in our particularly annoying instance at the start of a huge climb, a skipping rope held across the road at neck level. They seemed to find it very amusing. We also suddenly became the fastest thing on the road as car were replaced with horse and donkey drawn carts.
Our over night stop in Bechet, which was a bit shit, was about as rural as we’ve gone. There was a disco though in our hotel, only active on Saturdays, but the hotel owners son decided to turn on the entire thing just for us, spin some techno tracks with brain numbing bass, get out the chairs and turn on the lasers. We just stood in the middle of the empty dance floor with a beer in our hand wondering what the hell we were supposed to do next. We were saved from pulling out the upper body dance (lower body being exhausted after the 180km) by the lads father who came downstairs to turn it all off before all of his guests left.
We’d had enough of the flood plain and the scenery was monotonous to say the least, so we decided to make it another bit one and get to Bulgaria. Despite a flat on Ezra’s back wheel we made the ferry in the nick of time and, after navigating the most disturbingly smelly and industrial border I’ve ever seen on the Bulgarian side, we made it to Svistov and breathed a sigh of relief. We’d arrived, back in the future. Supermarkets, vehicles powered by motors and not animals, banks, and other such things we take for granted.
Bulgaria has still had it fair share of new challenges to throw at us on day 20…it’s got hot again, we scaled the biggest hill of the tour this morning, got another flat and a broken spoke on the outskirts of Ruse, where I now sit in the English Guest House. Just to keep him on his toes, Woody got stung/bit by some nasty bug coming into town that made him curse and shout, but at least he forgot his arse pain for a while. There’s more to come, big climbs tomorrow and then, on the final day, our map showed about 8km of hilly COBBLED streets. If that doesn’t send all our spokes pinging out into the Bulgarian Danube then maybe we’ll be in Constanta on Monday…
Thanks so much for all your contributions to our fund raising efforts, it’s really incredible that we’ve pushed way beyond our target! Cheers!