One thing that we hoped this blog might do is give other people who do the Black to Black ride some tips on how to accomplish the fantastic trek. We know that we gave the blog address to other cyclists en route and that some had dreamed of the trip but were worried about path conditions, general safety, wild dogs, etc. Hopefully our blog encourages you all to get all the way to the Black Sea!
We definitely learned a lot and would be happy to give our advice and suggestions to anyone interested. Sometimes our lessons were through trial by fire like when Ezra fretted over whether his bike box would actually fit through the cargo doors of a very small plane between Brussels and Stuttgart.
If you do happen to be going on a cycling tour along the Danube (or anywhere else for that matter) and have come across this blog, please feel free to contact us (via comment) if you want to know anything about our trip. Need advise on how to disassemble and reassemble a bicycle? We learned decent techniques. Where do you get bike box once your done? It’s not an insurmountable task. How do you get the bike to Bucharest from Constanta and then to the airport? Maybe this photo will help give you an idea.
And for those of you worried about road conditions, they’re not all like this post-Budapest:
With the thighs of Hot Bond and the mind of Megahead, the duo could usually push Tarantino at a much quicker velocity than me and Joni. On flats, they could easily maintain a speed of close to 30 km/h while I could only do 25 km/h on my very best days.
We managed to account for the difference in speed by choosing towns 20 to 50 kilometers away where we would meet to ensure there was no major problems on the road. I would often ride with my telephone softly playing music (Black to Black playlist to come) and just enjoy the solitude.
Every now and then, the tides turned and I would take the lead. After the bedlam leaving Belgrade, we hit cornfields with strong tailwinds. Maybe it was the packet of instant-mix coffee that I dissolved in my mouth in the morning, but my legs were feeling it that day. Overtaking Tom and Woody after they had been ahead of me a good twenty minutes or more made my pride surge. For the next hour or more, I became Megahead! Their inability to keep up with my highest gear ratio on full speed made me braggadacious.
Their true kryptonite though: single track off-road trails. Here’s a very short video of their technique on such a gauntlet:
The feat of cycling from the Black Forest to the Black Sea is just one of the many triumphs that we experienced on our journey. We never ceased to remember that we rode in memoriam and honor of Janice Saalfeld, my mom, and that we sought to fundraise $3,000 for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation to contribute to easing the life of others living with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Our outstanding and amazing families, friends and even some people we have never met made achieving our stated goal of $3,000 an absolute breeze– the kind that pushed us 180 km through Romania in less than 9 hours including breaks. We had already passed the 50% mark when I flew out of Toronto on July 21, four days before day one of Black to Black. I remember being pleasantly shocked when Tom and Woody informed me we’d surpassed $2000 as we put shoe to pedal for the first time. By the time I was first able to check our Crowdrise page, our total had broken $2,600. That was in Ulm, Germany on day three. I’d often check the webpage on my telephone if I had a wi-fi connection and read names and amounts as fast I could to Tom and Woody as the ticker of donors quickly scrolled across the tiny screen. Whichever one of us knew the donor would cheerfully yell out the relation and have a sweet sensation of knowing so-and-so had donated.
That day in Ulm was the day before our first 160 km ride, upping our previous daily klick high by 70 km. After our nightly beer gardens exploration, I read the comments people had left with their donations and we all laughed and felt inspired to push through any pain or fear that might make Black to Black impossible. Woody’s dad left a particularly funny omen: “Good luck! I think you’ll need it.” At about kilometer 70 of the next day’s ride, Tarantino’s back wheel was discombobulated… 50 meters from that glorious cycling shop. Good luck if we ever had it!
As the donations kept coming in, Woody wanted me to make sure everyone knew we weren’t riding back up the Danube if we hit $6,000. I believe it was Jackie’s donation that pushed us over $3,000. That felt fitting to me because Jackie is one of my mom’s very best friends and was with Mom every step of the way (even from far away) as she learned about her sickness and fought it for over two years.
As our funds rose higher and higher over our goal, I believe we all felt obliged to finish Black to Black because we were riding for something much more significant than just fun (though we never ceased to have fun– except maybe on that stretch of motorway in Ruse, Bulgaria when my spoke snapped).
At the time of writing, the total donation amount on Crowdrise sits at $3,855, or 129% of our original goal. The actual total is even higher because some people donated offline and their donation amounts are unknown. We have now learned of offline donation amounts and have surpassed $4,000. We now sit at $4,025, or 134% of our original goal. Some people may still feel inclined to contribute. If so, learn the ups and downs of the process here.
I will be contacting the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation soon to let them know that our fundraiser is over and will be sure to post any thank you we get from them here. I have no doubt the foundation, their employees and all the scientists, researchers and doctors who benefit from your donations will be grateful for your charity.
Thank you so very much to each and every person who supported us through the fundraiser. You all deserve handshakes, hugs and nods from us! I spent my last night in Europe watching a free performance by the Opera Nationala Bucaresti in a park in front of the National Opera House. I became sentimental realizing I would never get to share this amazing experience I have had over the last month with my mom. Then I grew happy knowing how many people have supported her memory. Fireworks exploded high in the sky over the opera at the end of the night. You are all like those fireworks in my opinion, garnering oohs and ahhs with shouts of joy from the crowd below made up of Tom, Woody and me along with anyone affected by pulmonary fibrosis.
Ezra Anton Greene with Tom Youngs and Jonathan ‘Woody’ Woodsmith
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.
Woody had the bright idea of leaving Belgrade at 5:00 in the morning. No sarcasm intended. It really was one of the best moments of forethought we’ve had on the trip. Though not quite as bright as we hoped. We slept an extra half an hour after we deemed it was too dark to ride at the original departure time. We were out the door of the excellent Selection Apartments by 6:00, picked up pastries and meat rolls at a 24 hour bakery and were making use of Tom’s sweet Cyrillic reading powers to navigate our way out of the city in the dawn light.
Our exit included a narrow bridge and a major highway that at a later hour would have heavy traffic dominated by semi-trucks and busses. Luckily, there was a designated bus lane that we rode in and busses would kindly overtake us in the normal traffic lane. Everything was okey-dokey until I sped past a petrol station in the lead. A dog lying by the pumps rose its head, howled and came charging for me. ‘Rabid Dog!’ I screamed like a little girl and lifted my leg nearest the dog from the pedal to the top frame bar to avoid being bitten. Stupid! I immediately slowed down and was perfect bait for the wolf. Then, another dog, my savior, came bounding from the side and took out the first by the neck. Tom and Woody zoomed past and I was left to gain my speed again while the fat bellies of greasy station attendants jiggled with laughter.
The gas station mutt was only the first of the fiends. Three or four more came bounding from the side roads and ruined houses. They barked and snarled, speeding towards the metal roadside barrier that protected us from them. Woody and Tom made it past them and as I safely avoided the gauntlet, I turned and barked at them to give them a piece of my mind. When I turned back, I saw six more up ahead running towards us. ‘Shit, they have back-up.’
Most just barked from the barrier. Some stuck their heads through and snapped threatingly. One though, a giant German shepherd, sped faster than the tandem at top speed. I was sure it was going to bound over the guard rail, take Woody right off the back of Tarantino and sacrifice itself with its prey under the wheels of a lorry pummeling down the road at 90 klicks per hour. Fortunately, it never made that fell swoop.
We ate our rotten pastries at Pancevo (Woody and I suffered with stomach pains during the next day’s riding), a dive of a town that’s greatest site was a jig-saw painted slug-bug turned into a flower pot for red Afro-like flowers. The rest of the morning’s ride was fantastic. A strong tail-wind and well-paved roads pushed us quickly to Kovic for lunch where we chatted to an old man in German who told us he never went anywhere on foot, not even ten feet, electing bicycle instead. Then, he walked away. A rich Serb who immigrated to the States to start a bunch of Wendy’s fast-food restaurants chatted with us in the town’s one cafe.
Our best company came at lunch though. We had to wait for an hour or so at the riverside for a ferry to cross the river and continue in eastern Serbia rather than rock through Romania. There was another German duo on tandem and a pair of Spaniards also cycling to the Black Sea. Our conversation started slow and simple. Where are you from? Where are going? The usual jazz. By the other side of the river we were exchanging e-mails, singing old country-western and classic rock songs by the banks with the Spaniard guy’s guitar and speaking all three of our languages. Then, I turned to see a short old man with a long beard wearing cycling shorts and a white t-shirt with a small backpack talking to the German girl in French. He easily fit into the joyous atmosphere and told us of his journey down the Danube from Ulm in canoe. And how he lived in Peru three years. And how he hitchhiked across Canada, Russia and China 16 years ago. Oh, he was 72 years old!
We all said our bon voyages after our break and started riding further into Serbia through the most stunning countryside we’ve seen yet, but that’ll have to be told in another post.