Vienna – Istanbul Cycle Challenge

Date:29-01-13

Vienna – Istanbul Cycle Challenge

31 August – 19 September 2012

A road trip diary by Sandy Colvine

 

 

Introduction

Why? Why on earth are you doing this? This question, or variations on it, was a frequent reaction from friends and family. To be honest, I have no clear answer. It was something I needed to do, driven on by some subconscious urge. Mid-life crisis? Wanting to show I was still up to it? Perhaps, but it was more about getting away for a bit, just me, myself and I after the hassles of moving to France, starting again, work and above all, the inability to buy new world wines in my host nation.  I wanted to rely on myself for a while and see where it took me, but at the same time it was also a sporting challenge.

I have always cycled and as a geographer, I liked the idea of crossing the major part of a continent as fast as possible under my own efforts; a race if you like. That said, I was also attracted by adventure, discovery and seeing new things and meeting new people.

Some say that I am not a people-person, that I’m happy with my own company. This is a clumsy generalisation and while I do have an independent streak, I do need people. Contact and exchange is very important to me and this trip was to give me some very special moments in the company of some wonderful, warm and kind-hearted individuals that were so important in making this trip come alive and becoming a vivid,  enduring memory rather than reducing it to a one-dimensional  mad-dash blinkered rush across Europe. The Danube cycle trail offered exactly this with a route through 8 countries in just 20 days; a whistle-stop tour of Central and Eastern Europe right to the gates of Asia.

Finally, it was also a good way to lose weight, although 5kg in 3 weeks was perhaps a little extreme. 

Day 1: Friday 31 August, Vienna to Bratislava – 74km

I leave Vienna at around 9am under leaden skies after waiting for early morning showers to die away. It is grey, damp and cool. Hardly inspiring, but I just want to get on my way and into country no.2, Slovakia on day 1. After taking bike paths on ring road round old town, I reach the Prater and take the long arrow-straight pedestrian avenue out of the city. Drops of rain begin to fall as I cross the Praterbrucke Bridge and catch first sight of the Danube canal.

On far side, the cycle path follows lonely, long, straight tree-lined dykes. The tarmac surface is good however, and I make progress under spitting rain. The first scenic highlight is traversing an oil refinery before heading back to the mournful dykes. I’m working on the mentality that it has to get better than this and soon it does as I arrive at Hainburg and stop for a quick picnic lunch sitting on a bench with my back to the railway line viaduct and looking out over the Danube to see large barges ploughing calmly up and down the waterway. This feels more like it. Hainburg, with its historic centre entered via a stone arched gate, is quite pretty so I take a detour and a few photos before heading on. Still on cycle paths, or country roads, after a short climb I catch my first sight of Bratislava in the distance. The high-rise apartment blocks mark the modern-age city ramparts and give me a target to head for.   The weather is blustery, more wind than rain, and the run into the city is tough with long straights alongside busy main roads and a brutal headwind. If there is one thing I know about myself before I started this trip, I am driven by channelling any anger into beating back barriers like this. Cursing loudly helps too and before long I arrive beneath the delightfully elegant Novy Most Bridge which I cross underneath the roadway. After getting thoroughly lost, I find the hostel Pension Portus and shower and change ready to head out for some tourism by 3pm. The historic city centre of Bratislava is pretty and compact and easy to explore on foot. There’s a folk festival on but gathering clouds and gusty winds are a bad omen to those setting up open-air stages in the various squares. I visit Hrad Castle and look down on the roofs of the cities old houses and across the river to the bridge and the starkly contrasting tower blocks on the south side of the river. There are lots of sculpture figures in the streets; a man emerges from a drain cover, another peeks round a corner. I especially like the backstreets of the historic centre which are still paved with rough, uneven cobbles and lined with old buildings with colourful peeling facades. The walk up to the castle is surprisingly steep and overweight holiday-makers puff their way up the winding streets only to be greeted with an impressive flight of steps. Can’t understand the language some use but some distressing words are spoken. And still the sun hides.

 

Day 2: Saturday 1 September, Bratislava to Komarno (SL) – 110km

Wait around until 8.30am after a fairly tasteless do-it-yourself breakfast of bread and jam, but the coffee is good. The worst of the unremitting overnight rain clears before I head out and back across the Novy Most Bridge to rejoin the cycle path route alongside or on the flood bank. The skies are an encouraging lighter shade of grey, but still no sun. There is however, a helpful tailwind blowing me down south away from the city. This is great because the surface is smooth asphalt and I take up a time trial position with my elbows on the handlebars and hands holding the edges of my handlebar bag. This is the day of the Danube cycle path motorway. I do 35km/hr average for the first hour with the tail wind and smooth straights. I wave to a group of walkers and they cheer from the side of the path as I race past. Rain stops at km 45 then starts spitting and showering again all the way to Komarno. No danger of sunburn, but not so cold either. I wear a shirt and rain jacket and cycle in t-shirt for last hour. I meet 2 German girls cycling to Gyor and then on to Budapest. They are camping and their mountain bikes are weighed down with tents, backpacks, etc. It looks a struggle. Compared to them, I am travelling light and have the right type of bike too. I wish them well and pursue the dyke cycleway. The only people I see are three policemen on motorbikes who overtake me unhurriedly on the dyke path. I’m glad to get to Komarno at 1.30pm. This stretch is fast but bleak and I am beginning to hanker for roads and civilisation. I settle in to large room at Pension Delta, shower and do my washing before heading out on the bike to explore Komarno (SL) and Komarom (Hun), twin towns separated by a gridiron bridge. On the Hungarian side is a very large 24hr Tesco which I visit to stock up on food and drink for tomorrow. Otherwise, the place is pretty unremarkable and rather shabby. There is a shipyard for refurbishing barges and diggers are busy demolishing an industrial building creating huge palls of dust that blow across the road to the bridge back to Slovakia. Here, at 2pm on a Saturday, the town of Komarno is dead. Shops are closed, a few bars remain open. The centre is nice enough with an old citadel in need of restoration judging by a few sections of collapsed roof. The pedestrian streets are quiet. Where on earth are all the people?

In summary, a lonely old day along the dykes. I will be pleased to leave them behind. They are quick and direct, but empty and soulless.

 

Day 3: Sunday 2 September, Komarno (SL) to Vacs (H), 96km

I leave at 8am. It’s misty and cool as I head out across flat farmland. The roads are quiet, so I choose to follow them rather than the dyke which promises a rough track. As a result, I forego a visit to Kelemantia Roman archaeological site but head on through a pleasant succession of sleepy pastoral villages like Patince, Radvan and Moca before heading inland (not that I could see the river much) to Sturovo where the road became much busier the closer I get to the Danube and the border crossing with Hungary. A strong and strangely hot headwind suddenly picks up and I struggle along a flat exposed straight to the bridge at Esztergom. The upside is that finally, I see the sun. It is as if there is a strange climate transition between Slovakia and Hungary as I cross over into Esztergom. This city, with its strikingly impressive, hill-top Basilica dominating the river and surrounding area, was the first ‘jewel’ I came across and makes me feel like I was heading into different lands and cultures, and more importantly, into summer again.

After leaving Esztergom, I push hard to reach Pilismarot in time for the ferry across to Szob. I make it in time (my guide tells me ferries run about every hour) and join a group of cyclists from Manchester, the US, NZ and Germany.

I have a good chat with everyone. The guy from Manchester is riding a carbon racing bike dressed in full RadioShack kit. He is working for 2 years in Hungary for a printing company. The German guy is a 23 year old student called Maximillian (Maxi) who, much to my delight, keeps apologising for being an economist which is a new take on apologising for the war. The first thing he said to me was, “Oh, so you’re the guy going to Istanbul!” (I had told the German girls a day earlier, whom he had obviously met too). He is heading to Budapest that evening and has further to go than me so he pushes on ahead but we were to meet up again later on...  

The bloody headwind persists and the bike route which runs along narrow, winding and sometimes busy cycle paths with occasionally poor surfaces makes for slow progress to Vacs. I stop in Nagymaros and catch up with Maxi momentarily before meeting a retired Australian couple from Shepparton with a mini-tandem and a trailer carrying 2 large suitcases! They have toured Germany and are heading to Budapest and from there, back home.

I arrive at the Pension Zeke in Vacs after resting and rehydrating at the waterfront. It is hot today (30°C?). Vacs is very picturesque, perhaps the first touristy-looking town I have visited. Its Baroque square filled with rose gardens and fountains, lined with cafés and ice-cream parlours seems a world away from the grim featureless stretches between Vienna and Komarno.

 At the Pension, I meet Ahmed, a bright, cheery Algerian who has lived in Hungary for 17 years. We chat at length in French about France, life in Hungary and his plans to move back to Algeria now that he detects a downturn in his future opportunities in Hungary. He is quite damning about Hungary’s politics and economic outlook, but perfectly fluent in Hungarian and clearly no outsider, if you can look beyond the darker colour of his skin which is a rarity in Hungary.

Strange food cravings: 1 litre semi-skimmed milk straight down, ½ litre pear juice...

 21.6 km/hr average, 4.5hrs cycling time.

 

Day 4: Monday 3 September, Vacs to Rackeve (H) – 91km

I leave Ahmed at the waterfront after having coffee together and take the 9am ferry to Szentendrei and across a large island in the river before turning left onto a busy main road heading down to Budapest 41 km away. After playing with the relentless flow of traffic, I eventually find a cycle path that takes me down to the riverside and in to the city. It’s a really scenic arrival in the city centre, right on the waterfront opposite the Parliament buildings. I stop to take photos and cross over to Buda on the Szabadzag Bridge, looking back across to the Citadel. It’s warm and sunny but the route south out through the suburbs is a bit problematic. Erratic signage and poor or busy roads, cycle paths fading out to cracked pavements and dust alongside fast-moving traffic don’t help, but eventually I find my way to Tokol where I stop and chat with a NZ couple who are heading in the other direction with plans to finish their tour in Spain. I begin to see a pattern in the Anglo-Saxon tourers; the destinations count but they are pretty relaxed about getting there. My calendar is not so open-ended, but it helps to chat and swap info on bad roads, good accommodation, etc. It is very hot now, so I flop down to drink in the shade of some trees opposite what looks like... a prison. The route gives way to long straights all the way to Rackeve where I arrive at the Palace of Prince Eugenie of Savoy to spend the night in a spacious, stuccoed high-ceiling room. I do my washing and head out later for a tasty meal of pasta and a nice Hungarian dessert of sponge, cream and nuts? Tesco has clearly invaded Hungary and there is one just down the road for cycle fuel.

4h20 cycle time, 20.98 km/hr average speed.

 

Day 5: Tuesday 4 September, Rackeve to Baja (H) – 133km

5h50, longest day of cycling so far with varied routes but no meetings on the road today. I begin by cycling out of Rackeve on a truly awful one-lane cracked and broken country road leading to a backwater of the main river. The road crosses over onto a large island lined with strange and rather sad tents, caravans and huts of fishermen. They looked semi-permanent and mostly pretty makeshift. The sunrise and the slight mist gave the scene a pretty melancholic atmosphere as the zombified early risers from the camps made their way to relieve themselves in the bush toilets. I’ve never seen what the attraction of fishing is and I don’t see it now either.

Back to civilisation in Dunavesc after a pleasant 12-km run along a grassy floodbank. Thanks to grazing sheep, the hard earth and closely mown grass make a better surface than the gravel, or stone on other sections. The sun gathers strength and it begins to warm my limbs. I find the road again and head on to Solt, now fully in the heart of paprika pepper and garlic country. In some fields, teams of pickers are bent double harvesting the peppers from the surprisingly diminutive plants in small fields. There are also displays of peppers hanging like wind-chimes in the villages I cycle through. Altogether, this is a pretty pleasant section and gets me in good spirits. After Solt, the cycle route runs alongside the busy Route 51 road. Trucks thunder up and down and I am not looking forward to joining it after Dunapataj some 20km further on. For the time being at least, there is an alternative route on the old road which runs parallel to the new one along the top of a flood bank. It is a bit exposed to wind, so I put my head down and race along this.

When I get to Dunapataj, the flow of trucks peters out. Perhaps it’s time for lunch and a few beers? (I saw many truck drivers swilling beer during the previous days). The exception is the coaches which I can’t hear as they approach behind me and suck me towards them as they swoosh swiftly past. Still, I am thankful enough to seek out the cathedral at Kalocsa and say a brief word of thanks to the skies above its spires as I rehydrate under the hot sun. There is a paprika museum close by, but unfortunately I have no time to visit and practicalities with the bike and packs make this complicated. Back onto a quieter Route 51 to Fajsz, I turn off onto an energy-sapping gravel track along the flood bank. Thankfully, it soon becomes a tarmac trail after passing under a motorway all the lonely way to Baja.

On arrival in the outskirts of the town, I find, unsurprisingly, a big Tesco to buy lots of drinks as I am extremely thirsty. The days in Hungary have been very warm (30°C+) and I have easily gone through 4-6 litres each day. Baja itself is very pleasant, with a large cobbled square lined with big, ornate buildings.

One of these is the Hotel Duna which is where I am staying for the night. After a shower and clothes wash, I explore the town centre which is relaxed and quiet. People seem to be back at work, or ending their day by meeting for a drink. It has less of a holiday feeling but happily, the women are still wearing very little to enjoy the last of the summer heat.  Average speed: 22.17km/hr

Day 6: Wednesday 5 September, Baja to Osijek (Cr) – 104km

A misty start, as usual, as I leave Baja on an unpaved dyke road to the village of Szeremle. In comparison to other sections, the surface is good here and just as well too as I have 20km to do on it to reach the ferry at Mohacs. On reaching the slipway, I buy a ticket for me and my bike at a booth using a few words of Hungarian. The trip is quick; just 10 minutes. Mohacs is very laid back and sleepy-looking as I cross through it. People chat calmly in the streets while many settle on benches and watch the world go by. There’s no reason to stop and little to make me want to, so I head out and begin the last 13 km along Route 56 which take me to the border with Croatia. I have noticed that border crossing zones are strangely quiet both sides, almost eerie and it is quite a relief to find human life when you reach the first active town or village. And so it was with the passage into Country number 4 here. I pass along the straight flat roads bordered by large stubble fields; all the crops here having been harvested. I look for any changes as well as human life. There are none. In this area, Croatia has a slice of the Hungarian Plains and acres of cereal, maize fields stretch on for miles. There is one change though. Sugar beet now appears. I pass through small lacklustre rural villages and suddenly climb the first hills which are a bit of a shock, especially as they are short and sharp. Still, the descents are good and the relief lies in my favour thereafter. I see a couple of cycle tourists stopped on the side of the road who overtake me when I stop further on. They head to Batina but I take a shortcut on the 212 and enjoy a long, speedy descent. I stop for lunch and some shade in Knezevi Vinogradi (Vino = wine? There are vineyards everywhere now and the Croatian wine is apparently pretty good). Sitting in a small park next to a primary school I hear children learning English, their voices audible through the open windows, “Hello!”, “Thank you!” Have to resist the temptation to go over and speak to them.

After a rest, I complete the last 20km to Osijek. The skies darken and drops of rain start to fall. I hurry on and arrive just before 2pm in the old town which looks to be protected within a citadel to the right of the main road as you arrive in the city. It feels like going back in time. Cobbled streets and many historic buildings line the route to the hostel Tufna. Many buildings seem to be used for colleges as there are young people everywhere drinking coffee and soft drinks in the many cafés. There are the unmistakeable traces of bullet-hole impacts on the coloured facades of many buildings. Osijek was a hot-spot during the Balkan conflict (which I later read about) and it is odd to think that most of the young people I see enjoying the life here now were not born when these same streets were filled with running gun battles and perhaps, the odd tank.

The weather clears and after a shower and the now customary exercise of washing clothes, I visit the modern city centre which is pleasant enough. It looks rather recent with many brick and concrete buildings. Perhaps there was a lot of damage done? Among this, I find a street of lovely ornate townhouses with colourful and decorative features on their facades. They are all in a poor state of repair and this is real shame as they have bags more character than the buildings that surround them. Perhaps they will be snapped up when tastes change in a few years time.

I buy some food to make tea in the hostel kitchen (pasta and arriabata sauce and panacotta). Yes, not very Croatian, I admit, but I have found that if there is any cuisine that seems to be ubiquitous in central Europe, it is Italian food. I return to find a chain-smoking Croatian, or perhaps he’s Russian. He is pleasant enough but speaks no English and eventually opens a window to release the vast clouds of smoke he generates, which is very thoughtful of him. There is one other guest, an Austrian girl called Mirjam who has just arrived on her bike too and, strangely enough, works as a freelance translator in Vienna. We chat and decide to cycle together the next day on the road to Belgrade.

4.5hrs cycling time. 22.70km/hr average speed.

 

Day 7: Thursday 6 September, Osijek (Cr) to Sremska Kamenica (Sr), 126km

Up and away by 8.15am. Spots of rain and overcast but nice temperature. I cycle with Mirjam along the south side of the Danube towards Vukovar. There is a stark contrast in relief between the north and south banks of the river. To the north, it is largely flat with what looks like many old meanders and backwaters while to the south the land immediately rises up into low hills which undulate all the way east. This means more effort, but the climbs along the winding route are neither too steep nor too long and I enjoy the descents. 62km/hr is the record today. At times, the road becomes pretty busy, with trucks being the ones to watch out for. We pay little or no attention to cars, but most people respect distances as they pass us. After turning off to Dalj, the traffic calms and it is more pleasurable until we reach Borovo and the run in to Vukovar which is noisy and very busy. We take a snack break beneath the Vukovar Water Tower, a strange and sinister symbol of the war. It’s pitted sides and twisted steel bars emerging from broken and battered reinforced concrete rise high above us and is strangely captivating. Nowadays, the tower lies in a modest little park with a few benches and play equipment while just next to it is a newly built housing estate. There are no information panels, nothing.

Onwards, up and down, enjoying the variation in the ride compared to the arrow-straight flats of the previous days. Traffic calms down after Vukovar and the run to Ilok and the border with Serbia is uncomplicated. The surprise is meeting Max again who emerges from a garden away from the road after being fed by a local. He catches up with Mirjam who has stopped to walk up one of the short steep hills. Max seems in better spirits and more sure of where he wants to go. His intention is to go to Romania and the Iron Gates and see what options are open after that. The three of us cycle together to the border as the skies darken and rain threatens. After border formalities, as elsewhere, the road is deserted. To me, there is a clear difference. Serbia presents impressive heaps of fly-tipped rubbish and many older cars (Yugos and old VW’s for the most part). We continue to climb and descend along the virtually traffic-free roads, now under fairly heavy rain. Locals wave and saying hello. The villages are very simple and very rural. Lifestyle here is clearly modest with no frills. Traffic returns on the outskirts of Novi Sad which lies on the north side of the river across from us after cycling round an immense and ugly cement works. We leave the hills and drop down to the narrow plain on the south side and begin the run-in to Sremska. The final 10km are not pleasant (heavy traffic on narrow and steep urban roads) but we press on before Max splits from us to look for a hostel in Novi Sad while Mirjam and I head for the hotel I had booked in Sremska Kamenica. I used my iphone GPS to find the road leading to the hotel and after walking up a steep road and over some railway tracks, the hotel emerges and is a welcome haven after a fairly tiring day what with the hills, traffic and the weather. The room I had booked is a twin, so Mirjam is quite happy to share. She is quite a tough, determined, yet reserved young woman and not put off by the prospect of sharing a room with a 45-year old bloke whom she barely knew. At least I don’t snore and wander around butt-naked. After showering and clean clothes, we go to the bar and restaurant for a well-earned beer or two, a hearty soup and our first shopska salad and nice chat.

6.5hrs cycling time, 19.45km/hr average speed.

 

Day 8: Friday 7 September, Sremska Kamenica to Belgrade – 100km

 

We leave the hotel later at 9am and cycle into Petrovardin, on the south side of the river across from Novi Sad. Again, an impressive citadel dominates the Danube at this point and we cycle alongside the

river on a small track before joining a busy, but bearable road south leading out of the town. The climbs come quickly, with a 6km slog up a broken, cracked road surface with trucks frequently passing us as they heaved themselves up the 8% gradient. Sometimes, they pass a little too close for comfort but in keeping to the very edge of the road, we avoid contact. At the top, I said goodbye to Mirjam who was going more slowly than me and had some sore knees that she wanted to protect as much as she could to before reaching Belgrade. It was nice to share the road with someone, but I appreciate being back on my own and get my head down to Belgrade. That said, there were some fast straights, but there are also some steep climbs and, again, some terrible road surfaces. On one section, between Beska and Stari Slankomen, only half the road has tarmac. This means that I cycle on the wrong side, but a helpful tailwind pushes me on under the hot sun as and I take up a time trial position and hustle down the road at 40km/hr. I stop to pick a few deliciously crunchy apples from the many orchards that line the road. At Novi Banovci, I make the mistake of following a dirt track option to avoid a busy road, but the signage is poor, or non-existent and I get very lost finding myself on farm tracks miles from anywhere. I stop to ask 3 farm workers who are combining a field (or rather one is, the other two are looking on, chatting and smoking) and follow the direction of fingers pointing to the woods on the horizon. The dirt tracks between the fields are bone dry and I leave a trail of dust in my wake and a thick coating on my bike and me which is rapidly becoming my version of a fake tan. I can see the outskirts of Belgrade now, so I am not worried. After 10km along a fairly unpleasant busy road lined with warehouses, truck depots, petrol stations and outlet stores, I find the cycleway signs once again and follow a very picturesque route into the city along cobbled streets and pretty old town houses. The Arca Barka hostel is a floating hostel on the Danube just a couple of km from Belgrade. Immediately opposite, are a park and paths and cycle tracks to go into the city. The welcome is warm and helpful and I settle in to a 5-bed dorm with 4 German skateboarders, then write up my diary and check messages sitting on the terrace looking out on the river. Just an hour later, Max arrives. Again, purely by luck (I think...), our paths had crossed and we both head out later to explore the city and get something to eat (yes, pasta as it turned out). The centre is dominated by a long central pedestrian avenue with many shops and cafés and a great many people milling around. It feels nice to be in the city again. After eating, we buy ice-cream and I stop by a pharmacy to buy a tube of Aloe Vera gel to treat my rather tender bum. The chemist was right, it did work wonders and continued use plus going commando meant that things were much more comfortable thereafter.

 

4h47 cycling time. 21.08 km/hr average speed.

 

Day 9: Saturday 8 September, Belgrade to Bela Crkva (Sr) – 126km

I leave the friendly Arca Barka hostel at 8am after breakfast and promptly get lost in central Belgrade as Max and I try to find the right road across the Danube to reach Pancevo. This was a departure from the regular route as it was described as of little scenic interest, busy and hilly and plenty of factories to admire with accompanied fumes to breathe in. After reading a blog of some American cyclists, I had decided to follow their example and take a flatter route immediately north of the Danube and east to Pancevo before skirting south and further east to Bela Crkva and the border with Romania. The trouble was I didn’t have a map except for the drawn directions I made from their website, so getting out of Belgrade was always going to be difficult especially as signage was non-existent and there were road works. After the best part of an hour and 8-10km, Max and I rattle across a narrow-laned busy bridge to the north bank tailed by impatient buses and trucks bearing down on us. We find some signs to take us along a flood bank track and leave this 4-5km further on to join a dual carriageway in the direction of Pancevo. I knew from the blog that it had a broad bus-lane that doubled as a cycle lane and sure enough, we find it and from then on made good safe progress to Pancevo where we stop to buy food and drink for the day. The Serbian blue cycle path signs are well-detailed but sporadic, so much so that you are almost elated to see one and even more so if you can find 3-4 in succession. We find enough of them to reach a 10km section of unpaved dyke where we stop for a rest before rejoining a quiet country road to Banatski Brestovac and eventually, Kovin. At this point, we are right next to the Danube and a large group of locals are having a party under the shade of trees and some jump into the fast flowing waters. By this time, a head wind has blown up and Max and I relay each other to help keep a decent speed up. Just after Banatski Brestovac, we are joined by a young German couple, Tino and Anne. Later on, at a pit-stop in a small village, we meet a French couple coming from the other direction. We have a good chat and become the main source of interest for the locals in this tiny one street village. We swap info about the route ahead and where we had been. It was one of those increasingly common yet funny situations where you stop in the middle of nowhere and suddenly, you meet cyclists who come by within minutes. It turns out Tino and Anne are heading for Silistra and then onward to Istanbul. We cycle together as a foursome for the rest of the afternoon taking up the road and relaying each other – a real road-train. It is hot and sunny and as we near Bela Crkva. The landscape changes to become more hilly with dry pastures on what appears (and was confirmed to me later) to be sand dunes. Large drainage channels cut through making for a picturesque scene. Just 10km before Bela Crkva, Tino and Anne leave us to head south and over the river by ferry to a campground for the night. We exchange contact info and hope we might meet up later on the road through Bulgaria.

Max and I cycle on to the town and find the very welcoming Villa Jezera, a large room to share, a hearty goulash meal, cold beer, Scotland v Serbia live on TV (0-0, thankfully) and bed. It has been an enjoyable, long, but productive day with good progress made and some pleasant encounters along the road. The scenery is changing and becoming prettier, promising even more for the next stage to the Iron Gates.

5h37 cycling time, 22.45 km/hr average speed.

 

 

Day 10: Sunday 9 September, Bela Crkva (Sr) to Eselnita (Rom), 139km

New country number 6. The Romanian border lies just 11km to the east of Bela Crkva along a straight and gently rising road leading towards much hillier country, giving Max and me a taste of what was to come on this section of the trip. We stop just short in a small down-at-heel dusty village for Max to change his Serbian Dinars into Romanian Lei. A small dog trails over to me and flops down in the sun on a dusty track where I wait. Every so often, Romanian cars pass by in both directions. There is hardly any Serbian traffic. Once through border control, a steep and winding climb takes us south over the tail of the Carpathians and down to the Danube. Again, the roads are eerily quiet. The 6 km climb is bloody tough going and seemingly never-ending. I grind up it in my smallest chain ring while Max advances more quickly up ahead, disappearing round the next bend ahead which does nothing for my morale. Eventually, I find him pretty knackered sitting on a rickety bench at the summit. I had only been a few minutes behind him, so I felt slightly better. Although, the landscape is covered in pine and broadleaf forest, there are occasional openings to take photos of the plains below. The descent down the other side to rejoin the Danube is slightly marred by the poor concrete slab surface which means having to deal with a bump over the gap in each 10m slab and trying to absorb the jolt so as not to lose a pannier. The effort was worth it as we are rewarded with views of the most scenic part of the Danube so far. Low forested hills now line the river as it winds its way lazily east. Looking further east to our route, we can see the hills rising to create the gorges leading to the Iron Gates. While taking this all in, two cars of noisy Italians pull up to enjoy the view, stretch their legs, smoke and chat loudly to each other. The only thing they didn’t do was piss in front of us. I didn’t think much of Italians at that precise moment.

Temperatures begin to climb to between 30-35°C with little shade. I put on plenty of sun screen and what with the long climb; fluids are disappearing fast as we pull into Moldova Veche, the first main town in Romania. We venture into the town centre, along a long single street with a terribly broken road surface. There are nothing but houses and not a shop in sight. An old man emerges from a garage door and crosses the road ahead of us. Max calls to him to ask where the shops are. He gestures that there are none but immediately turns and goes back into the house he had just come out of. He then invites us in, leaving us in the company of an elderly couple (his relatives, perhaps?) who take us to their kitchen across a tidy courtyard filled with flowers in pots. There, we fill our water bottles and they invite us to sit down and eat some delicious cheese-filled savoury pastries that the woman is quickly deep-frying on her cooker. They are delicious and she and her husband keep on gesturing for us to eat more while we try our best to converse with them. I think the husband might have been of Serbian origin but I can’t be sure. As a thank you, I ask to take a picture of them standing in their courtyard. They then thank us with hugs and kisses and seem to give us their blessings. It is a wonderfully warm and very heart-warming moment as they wave goodbye and send us on our way.

After finding a bank and a supermarket on the outskirts of town near the main road to Orsova, we head on right alongside the river with evermore impressive scenery as we cycle into the gorges in a turning blustery wind and fierce sun. We stop for a lunch break using an old makeshift bus shelter with a bench as shade from the sun. The river is lined with people fishing. Max said he would stop a while to take photos and drop behind while I go on. We arrange to meet near Svinita where I think there might be some accommodation. While more spectacular than the Serbian side, the Romanian bank of the Danube has far fewer towns and villages and therefore shops and hotels/pensions. As I reach Svinita (102km), it is clear that there is nothing here for me, so I cycle on and text Max to say so. He has a tent, so ultimately I am not worried for him but it is shame to split up, but I have to find a roof over my head. I have little choice but to go on to Dubova (130km), but options in between are either very expensive, or have no room. The road which up to now had been pretty smooth is now cut by sections of hard core and then old sections of tarmac road which are spectacularly pot-holed. By now it is after 6pm and I stop on a climb near the Iron Gates to ask a frontier guard scanning the river and a passing yacht through if there were any “Pensieuna” up ahead. He says Dubova, which lay just beyond the Iron Gates. The road leaves the river to climb up behind the cliffs, then steeply down and then back up into Dobova. Again, there is no real town centre and the one hotel I do find has no room. I know there are other possibilities at Eselnita so I push on past the monument to Decebalus Rex and sure enough, I find a lovely hotel on the waterside complete with bar, boardwalk and soft seating right on the river’s edge. The beer tastes particularly good this evening after a long and tiring day.

6 hrs cycling time, 22.65 km/hr average speed.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 11: Monday 10 September, Eselnita to Drobeta Turnu Severin – 50km

As I had done many more km the day before than planned, I have less to do today to reach Drobeta. There is little possibility of extending this to another town further on as the distances and availability of accommodation in small towns and villages were dissuasive factors. In addition, my plans for taking a train to Bucharest from Calafat were taking shape thanks to Irina. So, I decide it would be the opportunity of a gentle run enjoying the last of the gorges before rejoining the flat plains of southern Romania. My legs ache quite badly this morning and I am well down on power. Added to this, there is a nasty headwind as well as a good long climb from Eselnita to Orsova. The result is that I plough along without much spark. My misery is exacerbated by an annoyingly squeaky chain which rhythmically bleats out its discontent as I grind up the hills.   Fortunately, I find some lubrication at a tyre centre just outside Orsova where ask for a slosh of oil. Two friendly guys speak some English and we understand each other for one to produce a small bottle of engine oil from his van which I apply to the chain with a paper towel. I wash my hands clean in the garage and after that progress is sweet, but the E6 is a bloody nightmare. The road surface is good, but it is a main freight route, full of cars and big, big lorries passing by at high speed. Fortunately, I have no close shaves and arrive at the Sip barrage before a series of small tunnels and a very long run in to Drobeta.

On arrival, I cycle around the town centre looking for visitor info, but there is none. I even stop and ask at a travel agency. It is 2pm, so there is plenty of time. I wander through the lively, colourful and neat streets towards the main landmark, a rounded, ornate grey stone water tower with turrets and spires.  It is quite a sight and has recently undergone a restoration which has clearly been sympathetic. Beyond this, is a wide boulevard carrying the main road through the town. Here, I find the Pensiuena Europe and check in. After a shower and chat to the family at home, I go out to explore the town. On arriving, it seemed nothing special and I was not much inclined to stay, but little by little, old houses and town centre buildings with really attractive architectural features begin to emerge. Many tiled roofs are rounded, tapering to points and descending to wrap themselves around the tops of windows like a floppy cap. One particular house with these features looked more like a cross between Gaudi’s hand and a fairy story house in an enchanted forest (here, it sat on the side of the boulevard). I find a park to cool down in (it was 30°C+). There are plenty of interesting little shops too. This place is rather growing on me. Eventually, I head back to the hotel and stop by a Carrefour Market with food to make an evening meal and supplies for tomorrow. I hope my legs will be better in the morning.

 

Day 12: Tuesday 11 September, Drobeta Turnu Severin to Calafat – 100km

After a good breakfast and slightly less aching feeling in my legs, I set off once again on the wondrous E6 out of Drobeta and cross a series of hair-raising intersections before turning off south on highway 56A to Calafat. No real need to look at the map as it is the same road all the way. Fortunately, it turns out to be smooth and pretty straight, running along the banks of the Danube. As a result, I take up my now finely honed time trial position which is becoming ever more comfortable and speed down the road towards the day’s climbs. My legs seem to be on the mend and I have much more power than the previous day. I grind up the first 4.5km climb, stopping to take some photos of the river down below me. Pretty soon, the far bank will change from Serbia to Bulgaria. After a nice descent, I meet a headwind on the flat plains to the south. This changes mostly to a side wind and there was nothing for it but to assume the time trial position again and push on through. The landscape is flat or low rolling with harvested fields of cereals and maize. The predominant colour is yellow or gold with everything looking very dry indeed. There are very few trees and this type of rather empty, barren landscape would persist until Giurgiu and beyond. I feel better about deciding to take the train to Bucharest as this would clearly not be a very interesting section, notwithstanding the lack of accommodation options. That settled in my mind, I head on to Calafat. I miss a call from Max. I call him back to find he is 15km ahead of me on the same road. He says he’d wait, so I push on and race along the good surfaces to eventually find him at a roadside convenience store where we sit and refuel with just 48km to go to Calafat. Although the traffic is relatively light, there are a good many trucks. When each goes by me, I have to counter a ‘push’ and ‘suction’ effect. It was not too alarming except when one whooshes by unannounced by the usual growl of a big diesel engine and catches me by surprise with my elbows on the handlebars. I swear quietly to myself.

The rural villages we pass through look considerably poorer here than elsewhere in Romania. At Cetate, when stopping for a breather and photo, a group of Roma kids come over to us to chat and chance their arm. One was in a wheel chair while most of the others were barefoot, wearing torn or tired clothes. They joke then ask us for money and then food. I point out that I am not carrying much and what I have, I need for energy to pedal. If I give them my food, I will not be able to cycle. This is met with understanding nods and they leave us be. There is no trouble, but life here is clearly difficult and we do feel a bit like voyeurs gawping at the poor.

With 13km to go to Calafat, the road turns abruptly west and finally the troublesome head/side wind becomes a tailwind. I make the most of this and time trial at 30-40km/hr all the way, leaving Max far behind. I wait for him at the entrance to the town while I take in the new bridge being constructed over the Danube to Bulgaria, the flyovers and the motorway heading to Bucharest and Bulgaria further east. Calafat is a port and border town. There is little remarkable about it except for the curiously outsize boulevards which suggest it was either as case of outsize Communist design or was once much busier than it is today. I think it could be the latter. There are street kids pestering us here as well. Nice floral empty parks have a slightly abandoned air to them as do some of the squares. All it needs is a little attention. The hotel Panoramic is a throw-back to the lost years of communism and the wonders of dodgy taps, broken door jams, cables crudely run under carpets, non-functioning TV’s and air-conditioning units. Later, I make the TV work (the cable was unplugged) but the newish a/c unit lies silent and unused with a tell-tale sign of burnt electrics on the plug. Downstairs, is a red velour coated lobby with 4 clocks telling the time in New York, Moscow, London and Tokyo. The lift to the first floor (which lies slightly above where most first floors are habitually located) descends when you enter it as if on a spring. A metal grill must then be shut and a loud click heard before you press the button to rattle rapidly and uncertainly upwards. Two grown men just about fill all available space and if you do not position yourself carefully in the cabin when entering, it is nye on impossible to turn and extract a limb to press the button to go up or down. The manageress is however friendly and laughs as we try and curse the lift into operating. I wash some clothes (which I later leave behind in the room) and Max and I bed down to get up for the 6.05am train to Craiova and onwards to Bucharest tomorrow.

Day 13: Wednesday 12 September, Calafat to Bucharest by train

Up at 5.15 and away without breakfast to Calafat train station for the 6.05 to Craiova. It is still dark but after a brief run through the grid pattern of streets down to the station, we find the ticket office open in a large hall and buy tickets to Bucharest with a change of trains at Craiova. The ‘train’ is an ancient three coach affair towed by an equally old diesel shunting engine. We mount with the bikes and leave them in the entrance against chained double doors on the other side of the carriage. There is plenty of space as not unusually, the place is not packed out at this time in the morning. Eventually, the guard arrives checks our tickets and barks that we need tickets for our bikes. We knew that this might be the case but on many occasions, this is foregone with a few lei for the conductor. This one didn’t seem too receptive to that (though we didn’t try), so I go back to the ticket office and duly got the tickets after the woman behind the counter takes a fair time to get the computer system to accept the issue of tickets for both trains. Off we go at a heady 30 km/hr, rocking and rolling along with a series of stops at spectacularly run down stations, halts and stops in the middle of nowhere for who knows what reason. Daybreak arrives and we have more to see though the flat uninspiring plains do not hold our attention for long. 3.5hrs later and just over 100km away from our point of departure, we arrive at Craiova, a large town, or small city, acting as a regional transport hub and displaying a large industrial estate and modern 1960’s concrete central square. 30 minutes later, our train to Bucharest North arrives. It is a regional express and travels at least 60 km/hr. It has corridors and comfortable clean compartments running along the length of each coach. We have numbered seats on our tickets and eventually find them after leaving our bikes at the far end of the carriage in the least inconvenient place for the passage of passengers. The journey takes some 2 hours but is much more bearable apart from the smell of an elderly man sitting next to me who smells like he has shat himself and takes regular swigs from a plastic bottle of beer tucked away in his holdall. I see a vast smart-looking vineyard as we approach Bucharest which suddenly seems to spring up in the last 15 minutes of our journey providing a stark contrast to the fields and trees up to then. The fly-tipped rubbish piles are impressive. We arrive at Bucharest North station, the main station for the city, and leave by the main exit to be greeted by extremely busy, noisy traffic and a line of taxi drivers asking us if we want a taxi while plainly seeing that we are wheeling bikes. No maps can be found to lead us to the East hostel I have booked and it is only after I walk into a plush hotel to the Concierge’s desk and speak in my most well-spoken English despite being dressed as a grubby cycle tourist that I receive a city map and ample instructions on our route as well as all the sights to see while I am in the city.  Max and I brave the traffic bristling with nerves and irritation to cycle about a km to the East Hostel, near the old city, where we settle in. Staff are polite but rather cold. Apparently, the interior has been recently painted and they are paranoid about getting any tyre scuff marks on the walls. Unfortunately, this inevitably happens which tests their patience but after surviving the hellish traffic, I think it is clear to them that we are in no mood to give a shit about a tiny mark. My first impressions of the city are therefore not great, but that will change.

Towards the end of the afternoon, Max goes to CFR agency to book a train/coach to Edirne from where he now plans to cycle towards Athens while pretending to be Austrian to save him from being lynched.  I head off in search of a decent map of Bulgaria to begin planning my route for the last part of my trip. I eventually find a half-decent one with distances and both Cyrillic/Roman alphabet names for most of the towns and cities. The city is incredibly busy. Cars park on every square metre available and then more. Whether this is road or pavement makes no difference. The weather is sunny and hot and I stop to buy something to drink as well as pastry to keep hunger at bay. The hostel is pretty central, close to the old city and not far from the Parliamentary Palace. I gradually get my bearings but this is made harder by the fact that Bucharest (happily) is not built on a strict grid pattern. There are many small streets and lanes breaking up any regularity.

I return to the hostel to unpack, shower and relax. I text Irina to say I have arrived and we arrange to meet after 8pm.  She runs late and it is more like 9pm when we finally meet outside the hostel. As an architect juggling 3 jobs (a PhD to complete, working part time with a small city firm and a teaching assistant post at the University), she has a pretty good excuse. She makes up for it by being just as delectable as I remember and we go out for a drink in one of the immense bars in the old town. It is packed with people but we eventually find a table and sink a couple of Ciuk’s. It is nice to see her again in her own city after the campus in St Chamas last year. After some laughs, we talk about plans for the future and my mid-life crisis that she is convinced I am having. We set out the psychiatrist’s chair but I think she needs to soften the sledgehammer blows in her analysis or she’ll never make it in this profession. I think she is having one of her own too as she is planning to drop everything and run away to work on a cruise ship, if I am to believe her. Back to the hostel and bed by 1.30am. Complete contrast to lifestyle of the past two weeks but a nice break before resuming in a few days.

 

Day 14: Thursday 13 September - Bucharest          

The day begins with me planning my route through Bulgaria and Turkey. The hostel has a PC and wifi so I use this to make some initial accommodation bookings and line up some other options that I cannot book via internet. This has been preying on my mind, especially with the language barrier and Cyrillic language road signs. I come up with a route via Silistra, Dobrich, Dalgopol, Burgas and Kirklareli. It is about 650km and should take 6 days. I say goodbye to Max at midday as he is about to leave to get his train to Turkey. I’ve enjoyed his company and his growing enthusiasm for travelling which I think has even surprised him.  That done, I take the metro out west to a Decathlon store on the outskirts of the city to buy replacement cycling shorts and a fluo shirt for the ones I forgot in Calafat. I also buy a new cotton t-shirt and some shorts for walking around the city as the weather is still very hot. The metro is new, clean and easy to use. I spend the afternoon sightseeing on foot. I start to see beyond the bustling traffic and find plenty to interest me with many parks, gardens and fine buildings, including some classic sights like the Parliamentary Palace and the long avenue running down in front of it. As I pass a municipal building, I see some images of the city in the 1950’/60’s and now. It is strange to see how empty and hard all the city’s streets were before landscaping softened them up years later. I walk miles in temperatures in the upper 20’s but it is very pleasant. I take lost of photos and find an English bookshop too. I get back to the hostel at 7pm in time to shower and rest up a bit. Irina is working crazy hours, first at home then at the University architectural service until 8-9pm. It doesn’t seem a very sustainable situation and I can see why she might want to jack it all in. We meet after 9pm for a drink and watch an ACDC tribute band playing a free concert in one of the squares in the old town. They are very good too.

 

Day 15: Friday 14 September – Bucharest to Calarasi     

A rather chaotic day in contrast to the rather relaxing one I had in mind. I go first thing to the CFR agency to buy a train ticket to Calarasi for Saturday morning with the intention of cycling from there to Dobrich, in Bulgaria. I am told however, that bikes are not allowed on the train I want which leaves at 7am. The only other option is a late evening train with a change. I decide to look at options for today as I cannot push back my plans by an additional day. It looks like I’ll have to leave at 3pm (again changing trains halfway). It is 12pm now, so I call Irina who has a map of Kirklareli to Istanbul which she has printed out for me, but yet to give me. We had planned to meet later, but I have to say goodbye to her over the phone there and then. I then go back to the ticket desk to book the train. There ensues a lively exchange between the ticket agent and her boss about interpreting the regulations from the CFR rule book her boss is wielding. The boss wins; bikes are fine and the lady behind the counter rather begrudgingly finds me a direct train leaving from Bucharest Ordo at 6pm. I have to cycle out to the East station but this is a better option as it gives me more time to prepare and pack. The hostel helps me book a hotel in Calarasi near to the railway station as I will be arriving late. I call Irina back to tell her the news and we meet a little later near her architect’s office give me the printed-out map and to say goodbye. 

A little later, I cycle out of central Bucharest through the heavy traffic in the direction of Ordo Station which lies to the North East of the city. I spectacularly overshoot the turnoff by a long way as the station turned out to be tiny and well hidden quite a way from the main boulevard. I stop a man passing by and he kindly gives me the right directions. I have enough time to make it to the station and buy some much-needed water and coke as it is very hot once again. The entrance to this rather run-down station leads onto one main platform which, worryingly, is already pretty well occupied. When the 4-coach train pulls in 20 minutes early, I know this is not going to be simple. It’s mayhem. Crowds of people make a beeline to get on and there is of course, no bike van, or any obvious place to store my bike despite the fact that the ticket agency had insisted that I had to take a train with a bike facility. I see a gap and forge ahead to lift my bike up a metre and ram it into the open single doorway. A woman grabs it from above and I cram it into the end of the carriage next to a window looking out onto the tracks. Hordes of workers continue to get on making for an immense crush where I stand as well as along the corridor leading to the compartments. I would be stood here for the entire 2.5hrs to Calarasi. Food, fags and big 3l plastic bottles of beer are carried on by many passengers. I am totally squashed against others and the smell of stale sweat is overpowering. The man next to me jovially puts down his bottle of beer and pulls up his t-shirt to show me his taut, rounded stomach. If I were to prod it with a finger, I’m sure he would emit a stream of beer, like a fountain. I suppress this disturbing thought. Others grin, chat and smoke and the atmosphere is friendly despite the crammed conditions. Thankfully, the doors remain open and people hang from the steps as the train picks up speed, passing through the suburbs on a single track line hemmed in by many alarmingly big piles of rubbish just dumped near the tracks. Bushes and tree branches which have clearly not been managed in any way scrape the sides of the carriage as we pass.  We eventually join a larger dual railway line stopping frequently at the many small stations. In the first half an hour, more people get on than off. The dual line is EU-funded and brand new so our speed picks up and I watch the km markers mount up as we speed further and further from the city. After about an hour and a half, most of the workers have left the train and I have room to move. The ticket inspector, a solid take-no-shit woman in her 40’s, is very friendly to me seeing that I am clearly the oddity in this environment and saying how it was nice to have well-behaved people. For the last hour, the train’s progress slows and I pass the time chatting to an IT student returning home for a few days to Calarasi where he will help his family pick apples. He’s been on the train the whole time but dared not speak to me in his pretty good English (certainly much better than any of the other passengers) until the carriage was all but empty. It is dark now, and we eventually pull in to Calarasi 25 minutes late. I say pulled in because it is not clear at all where we are. There is no real station as such and where the train stopped, I descend directly onto the tracks and ballast and weeds. I struggled in the darkness towards a lit level crossing and then cycle along the road in the direction of the hotel, seeking confirmation from a woman manning a petrol station nearby. It is a relief to get to the hotel and I waste no time in washing my, now rather fragrant clothes, showering and heading for bed.           

 

Day 16: Saturday 15September, Calarasi (Rom) to Dobrich (Bg) – 106km         

Up early, breakfasted and away from the hotel by 7.45am. I cycle the 15 km to the ferry slipway to Silistra. The ‘terminal’ has two slipways, one of which contained a large portacabin and a pack of wild dogs which predictably hauled themselves up and ran after me barking as I cycle in. A man tells me that the ferry leaves from the landing I had just passed, so I turn quickly to evade the snarling thread-bitten hounds. I buy a ticket for 12 RON at the ticket office and wait with cars, a lorry and other pedestrians for the ferry to disgorge its passengers arriving from Bulgaria before we make the return journey. The ferry is simply a platform pushed/pulled by a tug. The morning sun shines over the flat calm waters of the Danube. The river is quite wide here and the 15 minute journey allow me time to take some final photos before I leave it for good after some two weeks following its course.  

The border control into Silistra is very simple and begins with a dirt track from the ferry landing. There is nothing particularly pretty about Silistra. It seems to have an unusually large number of blocks of flats for a relatively small town. Perhaps there is some significant industry that I didn’t see. I stop to fill up in a supermarket and then easily find my way out on the right road thanks to the dual language signs. The weather is hot again and the steady, if not severe, 5-6km climb out of the town means that I am quickly going through my water and sugar drinks. The pleasant surprise is that this main road is quiet and smooth. Once over the first climb, the landscape opens out to reveal low hills and valleys as far as I can see. The fields of cereals and maize have long since been harvested, but there is much more in the way of small woods and larger forests than in Romania. The hills and descents make for interesting cycling in equal measure and I make pretty good progress south. At one point, I catch up with a group of 3 German cycle tourists from Hamburg. They are fully kitted out and weighed down with gear, panniers high and bulging. I chat with one of them for a bit and find out they are, like me, heading to Dobrich that day and ultimately to Istanbul. In fact, it is now highly likely that anyone I meet heading south in Bulgaria is going to Istanbul. Their pace is slow, so say goodbye, pull away to continue the steady climbs and enjoy the speedy descents. My progress is good despite the heat, but I continue to go through a lot of fluids. Signs continue in dual language so navigation is no problem at all. It is all going very well, too well.

The last 5-6km into the city of Dobrich is a trial as they are mostly uphill on a poor surface. The road cuts straight across the city sometimes on bridges or cuttings. Despite a number of detours off the main road in the approximate neighbourhood, I can find no sign of the hotel I had seen on internet but not been able to book. Instead, I turn back into the centre and stop at the first hotel I see; a small but smart modern-looking hotel and restaurant. They have a room free and I pay 40LEV (£20). I’m not let down; the room is well furnished and very comfortable. I quickly shower and change and head out to explore the city centre. Despite the high-rise, blocky appearance, the city centre has a very nice leafy central pedestrian street lined with shops and cafés. There are plenty of people out an about shopping, walking, talking and drinking at terrace bars. At the far end is a large park with people of all ages enjoying the warm sunny weather.

After stopping to shop at Billa, I return to the hotel and make myself some tea, watch some live Premiership football on Bulgarian TV and got to bed at a reasonable hour. I also receive a text message from Tino and Anne telling me they are not far from Silistra but unfortunately, it is clear that they are too far behind me now for us to meet up before Istanbul.

Day 17: Sunday 16th September, Dobrich to Asparhuhovo – 112km

Today is a pretty nondescript day. There are no cyclists on the road, although, I expect this as most people would have headed to the Black Sea coast after Dobrich instead of my option to see a bit of the interior and not reach the coast until Burgas a couple of hundred km further south. The weather has changed and is now overcast. I follow my GPS indicator out of Dobrich to take a couple of more direct roads not indicated on my map before picking up the main route for that day. The rolling woody, agricultural and attractive countryside continues once again, but today the hills are a bit steeper. There are many more horses and carts on the road and I wave to their sunburnt weather-beaten occupants as I overtake them. There are some tractors too, which I also race with to overtake (well, why the hell not?). After an hour or so, the first drops of rain fall. It is light at first and I continue after nearly stopping to put I rain jacket on. Then, the sun comes out and spirits rise. 3km later, the rather dusty, dirty roads claim their victim and I get a puncture. A large piece of broken glass is embedded in the rear tyre and I flat quickly. I stop to repair it on the side of the road next to a fenced field of fruit trees in a small village. A very doddery-looking man emerges in what looks like a nightshirt from the house next to. His wife comes to retrieve him and speaks to me in broken French while I change the inner tube in light intermittent rain and take some time to extract the glass from the tyre tread. Fortunately, it does not leave a big hole through which the inner tube might bulge and after 30 minutes I am back on the road. The hills get bigger still, but the descents are worth it. I reach Provadija which is pretty ugly and presents me with a long steep climb up a main road used

Vienna – Istanbul Cycle Challenge