As Tom and Anton have both below covered most of the good and the great of the 22 days cycling across Eastern Europe I’ll just give my brief (ahem, expert) opinion on some of the beer gardens we frequented along the way, barely a duffer amongst them…
Whilst my German is still pigeon at best even I could sniff out the “biergartens” on offer in south Germany and Austria, and they didn’t disappoint. Whether it be on an Island on the Danube with a Cathedral view in Ulm, supping with the Gods in a monastery on the banks of the river or a traditional Bavarian spot with enough lederhosen floating around to make any nearby cows run a mile it’s safe to say we enjoyed this leg of the trip. Drinking like Kings in a beer garden in a Castle up a massive hill in Passau also passed the time, beat that.
Budapest threw up a contender for beer garden of the trip in the fantastically eclectic Szimpla bar. From a band playing what could loosely be described as “music” to the buzzing atmosphere and paraphernalia dotted around the place we knew this would be hard to beat. Whilst the midnight hour striking sent us packing for a much needed rest I for one will return to this place in the future to do it justice. Venturing south in Hungary and expecting little from the small town of Kalocsa we were confronted by a beer garden of biblical proportions. Biblical in the sense it could have doubled as Noahs legendary Ark, apart from the midges flying in two by two this was an absolute winner with top notch food and cracking decor in the attached pub to boot.
Croatian beer gardens offered nothing spectacular to write home about but the locals were friendlier than a bunch of keen Jehovah’s witnesses and they definitely knew how to pepper a waterside with decent drinking establishments. Serbia was a country none of us knew that much about but came out top of the trumps with the holy trinity of good beer gardens, friendly locals and cracking scenery. Novi Sad proved the exception to prove the rule that many mainland European countries shut down on a Sunday with one street in particular transforming into a 100m long, 10 bar, beer garden deluxe that was still rocking when I managed to drag Anton away around midnight whilst he was still tying the laces on his dancing shoes. Belgrade went along the more traditional route with some baritone singers providing the sound track to several enjoyable beverages before we discovered the joys of shots of Rakia, nice.
The final leg skirting along the borders of Romania and Bulgaria started slow with some Romanian towns that offered little in the way of aesthetic wonderment but beers that danced their way down my throat showing a larger can indeed be “all that”. We were then lead on a merry dance by our lovely hotel receptionist Veneta in the Bulgarian town of Svistov who like the Pied Piper showed us to a hidden gem of a beer garden, the Meghana Bai Ganio, complete with a water wheel, squawking parots, Bulgarian paraphernalia adorning the walls and many a great beer.
After about 2500km we were sure we’d found our winner and so it proved with only some nice if unspectacular beer gardens to finish the tour to the Black Sea. However stumbling across a gangster hideout / lair that doubled as a beer garden/swimming retreat was welcome relief from the heat of the day. And don’t get me wrong, supping frosty beer after frosty beer on the beach at the black sea whilst the sun went down was good and all, just gets a little samey after a while. Jealous some? Fantastic trip and thanks for all those who’ve sponsored us on our merry way. And to Tom and Anton, don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in 3 weeks. Apologies for the daily lubeing ritual.
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.