Danube Bike Tour

A Few Thoughts after 2 weeks of Reflectionlrg__dsc4756

I’d like to think I set out without agenda and with an open mind (if such a thing is possible), my intention to respond to the immersive experience of cycling 3700km through the heart of Europe along the mighty River Danube.  No preconceived agenda save to vaguely follow the rivers course and to react to and absorb the experiences along its course.   As I now sit, 2 weeks after the 5 week adventure, contemplating the interaction, the overwhelming emotions are not what I expected, but the surprises was even more rewarding than I could have wished for.

 

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I feel my thinking should be focused on the immense power and significance of the river and her total domination over a landscape, flora and fauna she has shaped across millennia. For she, the mighty Donau, has defined the very geography of half a continent, determined the boundaries of countries and empires and dictated the actions of man throughout history. Her powers link east to west, north to south and culture to culture. Her immense simplicity and mesmerising scale including the cycle of water and the weathering of time.

 

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But as I sit alone and quiet for the first time in months my observations wander in other directions. For whilst she creates the slowly changing canvas and with flood and drought defines major events along her course, it seems in the day to day that it is man who paints the picture. The appearance of the land and urban scapes above the underlying geology. An ever changing picture in a constant state of renewal. Of forests felled and nature tamed. Huge expanses of agriculture feeding off vast alluvial plains. Dredging and reconfigurations to extract her deposits for our needs and desires.  And of urban and industrial proliferation, decay and renewal over time.

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In this regard I have an overwhelming sense that whilst historically the interaction has been in sympathy with the surroundings in more recent times man has increasingly sought to impose himself “on” the environment, serving short term desires with little regard of the consequences. As if competing with the natural forces. Huge levees and canals, immense hydro electric dams and massively expanding urban centres.  Buildings left to crumble as their purpose has been superceded with more modern technology and ideas.  And along her course how modernisation between countries differs as cultures develop at different paces.

 

 

With population growth and climate change she also bears witness to the ever increasing conflicts between the two. At the time of our exploration unseasonal rainfall combined with snow melt in her alpine headwaters have resulted in extensive flooding downstream in areas remote to the source, rendering huge expanses along her banks an unintended inland sea with literally thousands of “island” houses surrounded by water. Huge fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy generators to meet the souring requirements of a massively expanding population with its ever increasing demand for goods with the associated mass extraction of gravels, sands and limestone for building and industrial development. The squeezing of natural environments into smaller and smaller pockets.

The second observation that draws my thoughts is cultural, an area less obvious to the landscape photographer but unavoidable as you slowly cross half a continent and witness some of the immense justices and injustices we do to our fellows. Of how a modern community of nations along her shores is bridging historical divides and in doing so has brought about the longest period of sustained peace, stability and freedom in a region whose past has included such horrific actions of inhumanity. We have shown passports but twice across 10 countries (entering and leaving Bulgaria and the UK) and made to feel as a welcome neighbour throughout. Scars and differences remain and there is obvious evidence of increasing inequality, particularly in the “Eastern” countries. It certainly isn’t perfect. But its fragility must surely be worth embracing and protecting.

 

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Perhaps, having once been a geography student, one of the most exciting ares of exploration was in the similarities and differences in town planning and architecture across countries including, in particular, the influences of the former Soviet Union – something never before witnessed in person..  At the time, in the 1980’s, the rhetoric was primarily negative towards the Eastern European countries though as we moved across the landscape I saw, aside from differing levels of renovation, dilapidation and ‘sanitation’ of the town and country scape, remarkable similarities throughout the journey.  The new, the old, the ugly and the beautiful, the crumbling.  The sheer diversity. And yet many common underlying threads, held together along and due to the rivers course.

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A final realisation is how I have lived for 5 weeks with little more than a bike, tent, and two small kit bags of essentials.  That and a very patient brother who accompanied me and provided the expedition glue.  Desire for material possessions and to consume were irrelevant in favour of food, water and a piece of ground to pitch the tents, with our greatest treats a shower, sink to wash our clothes and a bed in a hostel.  For the purpose of this adventure was not only to experience but to complete a “zero carbon” adventure.  A slow, immersive, essentially carbon free form of travel allowing for observation, consideration and witness to the subtle differences between cultures and environments you simply cannot appreciate when landing and charging through by “modern” forms of travel as we do in the current age. 

lrg__dsc5583-3In this regard this trip turned out to be less perfect than my previous projects (see our website for more of our “Zero Footprint” projects) due to our restricted timeframe and  remote starting point requiring us to book a plane, something I increasingly seek to avoid.  I have learned a valuable lesson and have planted 500 trees at our smallholding in Scotland to help offset the environmental impact.  In future travels I will seek to travel overland by public transport wherever possible, something  I increasingly see as a positive challenge and part of the adventure rather than a burden.  It is the journey that is the ultimate adventure, not the destination.

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I will continue to ponder and I now have the almost childish joy of fully reviewing and processing the images taken on the trip into finished photos rather than the hastily collated images presented here, a portfolio perhaps and potentially even visual stories.  For the photographer this is the ultimate treat and I always love this element of my work.  But as I return to the familiar environment of home I hope I will be able to reflect on the wider observations I have been fortunate enough to witness and to incorporate a few of the lessons into my day to day thinking and lifestyle – and ultimately to then share these with others.

The Little Things

A one litre bottle of Coca Cola in Romania is about € 0.60. In Zurich a 0.3l bottle costs €3.60.

In Romania every garden is full to overflowing with delicious vegetables. Edible gardens. These spill out onto wonderful edible street verges. In Austria infinitely manicured lawns the norm.

As you travel eastwards peeling paint and plaster gives way to straight lines, immaculate plaster and consistent paintwork.

Every village had at least a shop (mostly open all hours) until Austria whereas German villages have few services and you drive to the supermarket 20km away.

We saw horse and plough still working the land in Romania. John Deere and friends the solution further west. I fear John will dominate throughout very soon.

I sensed a legacy of Ceausescu in Romania, the people quieter and more subdued when compared to the effervescent and gregarious Serbs.

Until Austria and Germany the pedestrian remains the prioritised form of transport followed by the horse and bike. The car comes last.

A smiling German seeing us wild camping offered use of showers and facilities without request or compensation.

Be Dammed – over 700 hydro dams stem the natural flow of the Danube and her tributaries, though together they provide some 30,000MW of electricity generation to her peoples. Coal, gas and nuclear power stations litter the banks in all countries, solar thermal (water) on roofs through though PV (electric solar) mostly in “the west”.

A few more snaps (iPad processing only!)

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Danube Bike Tour

The Source

The prize (for teaching J how to shoot a selfie – a 4 week tutorial!)

Today we made it to the source of the mighty Danube. Just shy of 3000km in 22 days of cycling (with 7 non riding days). In truth the source is a bit of a let down after so much magnificence. It is (in J’s words) a ‘conference’ of two small rivers. They also happen to be building a major bridge over the top of it.Oh, and the water was bloody freezing. But we cared not a jot. We’d made it and it was truly wonderful. Hugely satisfying after a week of solid riding since Vienna.

And as we neared the end of our journey so does this mighty river’s commence.We travel in different directions yet share the same stories. At least ours.

Like this obviously…

J sitting on a pig!?

And obviously the pink rabbit

and this – one of our rooms dripping with wet kit

But in this last week since Vienna we have also been through some amazingly beautiful scenery, of which the last day in Germany is exquisite.

We have even seen how clouds are made…

The Cloud Maker

We spent a day in the delicious town of Ulm with its Fisherman’s quarters and stunning Contemporary Art museum

But these last days have also been a time for reflection (you’ve gotta do something at some point whilst spending 7 hours a day in the saddle right). So I ponder each drop of water as it passes any point for a mere instant and as such the river, throughout its course, is in a constant state of renewal. Just as the landscape, cultures, people and towns along its banks. Nothing is static. But the pace of change does vary from place to place. Some for better and some, in my view, for worse. Each country and society, despite their proximity, unique and special. The open confidence and welcome of Serbia. The quiet introverted Romanians. The city vs rural life. My own questioning of why we do the things we do. Will these will be my lasting memory?

New design, Ulm

One thing that doesn’t change – ever – is the appalling quality of my brothers jokes. My lovely wife would probably say the same of me but no. If certain regimes remained along these banks I would have traded him in to their torture departments. But I will put up with them for he has shown the true meaning of the word stable. He should have been named Thomas – of tank engine fame. I could only dream to be thus. For how is it possible to have those ailments around your posterior and barely give them mention at the end of the day. A beer, assos and an ice cream simply would not be sufficient if I had been in that situation and everyone, I mean everyone, would be well aware of them I can assure you.

Thomas with his sweet potato ice cream.

Cheers bro, for another memorable experience. And for putting up with me for an entire month.

We now head south towards Zurich, family and our lives. And I can’t wait for that either. I fear one more post will beckon before this though, with reflections and thoughts on what has been a profound cultural experience for me set around a river of spectacular power , beauty and magnitude. But not for now. Now I am simply enjoying relaxing with a sense of peace and satisfaction. That I have accomplished the challenge we set out to achieve.

And that this beer that sits beside me is really mighty fine..

Danube Bike Tour

Concentration

And so we leave the lights and glam of Vienna to continue our exploration of the landscapes and cultures of the Danube. Yet how apparent it is becoming that we are passing through cultures, each unique and each special. But these differences will form a post I am still mulling over. But this I cannot ignore.

Mauthausen sits on the Danube. Deep into Austria. Rarely heard of. But it carries a dark shadow. Above a pretty town sits a holocaust memorial to those who died, were tortured, murdered, starved and who were treated in the most inhuman of ways because they did not fit the “political norm”. Anyone who spoke out, dissented, was of the wrong creed in the minds of those with the power to decide.

Some of the “names”

Wikipedia can only estimate that between 122 and 320 thousand people were murdered here. The reality is we simply do not know. How cheap a life.

It did have a gas chamber but it’s preferred techniques of resolving the ‘problem’ was to force work the inmates to death. Literally. With any excuse to maim and murder if ‘rules’, however tenuous, were disobeyed. Can you imagine prisoners being forced to push fellow inmates off the top of a quarry cliff before having the same done to themselves.

Each country who had citizens killed in Mauthausen has erected its own memorial

I am left numb. I simply do not comprehend how we can be indoctrinated to either give or to carry out the order to act thus. And yet, with little reading, it is apparently all too easy, at a national level if the appropriate political and social conditions abide. what happened at Mauthausen happened within the lifetime of my parents. It happens elsewhere today. And it will continue to happen. I wonder how often we will, as then, turn a blind eye.

Example. Our Government does not speak out on the current atrocities in Yemen because it supplies arms to their opponents. A nation stays quiet.

As we travel up this river I realise I have friends whose parents escaped such persecution – crawling under barbed wire fences. I know others whose relatives died as a result. I even know people whose relatives were part of the machine that gave and carried out the orders. Here, in this place, it all comes together. This is where such things happen. Where protagonists melted back into society after the event – never to face the music, just as records and faces were lost.

The huts were designed for 300 inmates. They often held 2000. The foreground shows the shadows of former huts.

Memorial to those who did not make it

Disposal unit

Someone’s brother, father, mother, friend, enemy

Forced hard labour in commercial quarries – inmates were required to carry 50kg stones up the “stairway of death”

The gas chamber – imagine closing that door

Mauthausen

We have now visited Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. I have looked across the Danube to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think of their recent pasts. The mixed races, creeds and classes in each. I think of the lovely receptions I have received. I think of subdued responses and wonder why that might be. I think of the smiles and jokes. Of those who interacted and those who did not.

And I wonder how close and yet so removed this has been from my life. A television screen. Newspaper ink on my fingertips over latte. £5 to a raffle cause.

I think of the places I see in the news where this is happening today. And how little is done to make a difference. I feel very naive.

I think just how small Mauthausen actually is for all it’s past. Through the estate on a hill. Follow the brown sign. The buses come and go, as do we. The birds sing, the sun is hot and the view is serene. And the smell of summer is just so beautiful.

Danube Bike Tour

On Agendas and Tolerance

There are many forms of travel that take you to many amazing destinations. Designer tours that fill your days with locations beyond compare. A package of amazing value in the sun/shade/snow/surf. But the more I travel the more I think it is experiences that make me whole. The unexpected. The unique. The unknowing. Allowing yourself to be sufficiently “open” to take the left turn when the guide book says turn right. For such moments to remember you need not travel far.

On this trip J and I decided well before the off that there was no agenda. Take each day as it comes and follow your feelings (thanks OB1 for that idea) – oh, and the fact we HAVE to be in Montpellier in the South of France for 29th June. The journey is the important thing, not the destination. As a result of our non agenda policy highlights so far have included bumping into the Pope, overtaking the Tour of Hungary bike race (no, wait a minute, the road we wanted to be on was blocked by police as the Tour flashed by in a blur of Lycra and shaved legs) and eating cheese and bread with a delectable smorgasbord of people from France, Germany and, er, Germany. Been eaten alive by mosquitoes, crossing 7 borders and tasting each unique culture and drinking lavishly local Unicum and Palinka in the middle of the day in a remote field at “Tsigi’s” caravan.

“Tsigi’s” amazing bar in, well, actually I have no idea where it was. It was in a field though, if that helps you find it.

In Vienna we said no tours, museums or galleries. We did say yes, following advice from Phyl and Neil the day before – see earlier blog (thanks both so much) – to 3 euro tickets to the opera to see Don Pascale accompanied by the Vienna philamonic orchestra.

I could see almost every 1709 faces of the audience at the Opera!We were standing in the back row – it was like looking into the Grand Canyon such was the scale of the hall

But in Vienna we also had the privilege to gain a glimpse of my first gay pride parade. An event that makes you realise that people are wonderful unique and amazing things. One of the most happy events I have ever been too. Thanks to all the mad, happy, ex centric, lunatic, chromatic, fantastic, crazy, normal, colourful, out there, “really!”, outrageous, stunning, is that legal, beautiful, ageless and totally bonkers individuals who felt comfortable enough to express their own skins in an environment of joy and peace to show how positive the world can be when we each show a little tolerance.

Attendance should be mandatory. It was my privilege. I am so grateful to you all.

In the words of the amazing singer songwriter Mary Gauthier –

“Drag queens and limousines,

Nuns in blue jeans,

Dreamers with big dreams,

these are my friends”

Danube Bike Tour

What is it about people?

Everyone should visit the Museum of Terror in Budapest. Or one of many like it. And then ask yourself why is it that we can act so outrageously towards each other – and then so quickly forget and do the same thing again.

The actions of both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Hungary (and many other countries just decades ago) resulted in the persecution, torture, starvation and brutal murder of so many. But for quirks of fate that could have been my parents and grand parents. And they were and are not bad people. Just normal folk like you and me.

Boundary to the Jewish ghetto in Budapest – wall erected 29 November 1944

Some of those who didn’t survive the occupations

Persecution of minorities and the subjugated then reoccurred in the Yugoslav wars ending in just 2001.

Extremism of any sort, in whatever disguise, must not be allowed to win. Don’t turn a blind eye or be fooled by rhetoric and propaganda. They feast on denial.

Soviet Propaganda posters

Behind closed doors – Prison loo

Please can we never have to open a museum like this again.

Museum of Terror

Danube Bike Tour

The Big Slog

So it’s time to man up. A big push from Belgrade to Budapest. 4 days and some 350+ miles. Which for me is a lot. I am definitely a man who rides a bike rather than being a cyclist. Yes, I wear padded Lycra shorts but I don’t shave my legs and I shy away from skin tight shirts as it is not pleasant for anyone frankly. And guess what, those shorts definitely don’t make you ride any better and my bum is still sore!

A significant bank (only occasionally tarmac as here) is one of the main cycle ways along the river Through Serbia. On the river side nature reserve (and LOTS of water!) and the other commercial farming.

As the peddles turn relentlessly I ponder how my mental riding state changes over time. Brash at the outset for which I paid for two full days after for pushing too hard on the hills, to more considered and respectful of the challenge. Or, having just read Scott Jurek’s amazing novel depicting his record of 46 days to complete the 2900 odd miles of the Appalachian Trail, is it that agonising muscles finally become accustomed to the torture? For the pain remains and my bum, thighs, calf’s and wrists continue to protest at the forced labour, but they now seem located for the most part in a side corridor rather than in the same room. Have I just learned to live with the pain as I know I still have to wake up in the morning and carry on? or is it just the Ibuprofen?

What I have also acknowledged is that riding with full kit including bedroom, bed, and kitchen means a level of weight I am very much unaccustomed to. I remember the same feeling on the solo trek last year (see prior blogs) where the additional weight seems exponentially more impacting on the body than the extra pounds of actual weight over a normal ride. Whilst I am pretty well pack efficient from prior knowledge I do have a camera, 3 lenses, filters, a tripod and an iPad amongst gadgets I “simply couldn’t do without”. Tell you what, around 3pm every day if someone showed me a dustbin I would be mighty tempted to devolve myself of the lot! I even brought my electric shaver. WHAT ON EARTH WAS I THINKING!!! In my defence I have used all the items in my bag save the tripod and two long sleeve merino tops (tee shirt weather!). J even used the first aid kit when within an hour of landing as we assembled the bikes he got it in his head he didn’t need all his fingers and tried to chop one off! (In my opinion this is taking weight saving too far).

They do have a lot of bees. Such a shame they don’t eat mosquitos!

Back to the ride. We pushed on from Beograd early and soon found ourselves following the banks of the river. Everything was flooded. Literally for hundreds of miles (it will be interesting to see where and when it finally ends). The reason is apparently that mainland Europe has witnessed a extreme weather event in that it has been exceptionally wet throughout May. All that water , together with the seasonal snow melt from the Alps has led to the Danube being deluged, the problem becoming exacerbated the further down stream you go.

Flooding at Belgrade

A perfect example of climate change where the impacts are felt most far away from the source. The locals just watch as the waters rise inch by inch and destroy everything. Utterly powerless to do anything. I can only image the cost. We hove seen many hundreds of houses on the banks of the river not only flooded but 10 metres “offshore”. It is a most bizarre feeling when the sky is blue!

Row of houses underwater and “offshore” in the river

Not unanticipated some, but not many, have found solutionsthrough complete rebuild on stilts

without wishing to to bore you about the ride (lots of turning peddles) I will move on to Novi Sad, our first night out of Belgrade. OMG. Another revelation. We were expecting (why I do not know) a slightly depressed post Soviet declining industrial town. What we got was possibly one of the most buzzing cultural centres I have ever visited. It like a huge festival was going on. But for the fact it is almost entirely locals. And of all ages. Out on the streets I the centre having fun and – yes I know this is weird – communicating. Yup. It’s true. And guess what. Without mobile phones. It was a truly lovely site. The kids were on stage singing and dancing with their teachers, wandering the streets as classes or with parents. No bad vibes. Just fun. I LOVE THIS PLACE.. I love the Serbian people. They really do go out of their way to be helpful, though never in a smarmy or condescending way.

There are even young people (lots of them) voluntarily playing sports – the city has provided a huge variety of options from five a side to outdoor gyms to running and cycling tracks to…

In 2019! Crazy I know but true. Obviously very old fashioned but am sure they will realise their errors soon 😉

Night time at the coffee shop

It is quite disturbing seeing generations mixing together and having fun!

Corridor!

Arty bridge

lots of Soviet architecture but lots of foliage, clean, respected and great for walking/cycling etc

Lots of things being developed, revamped and made good

But off we go again having calculated we need do at least 112km a day until 27th if we are to make our train in Zürich. We had our longest day in the saddle to date today ending up in A lovely little town (again) called Sombor where every other person seemed to be getting married. Which was great save that it meant our room was not available (and because Serbia not in EU no roaming so we didn’t get the message coz we are tight that way! But Serbians to the rescue again and a lovely lady came a cleaned out a room in an apparent so we could stay. Dear of ’em. Tomorrow we push on again as we try to make Budapest in 2 days.

Ah how I enjoy my evening beer!

Danube Bike Tour – 6

Belgrade Rocks

I am not a city person. I think I have already said that 48 hours is more than enough in a capital. So we will leave Belgrade after a single day. But oh, how this town has a vibe. It is confident without being precocious, friendly without being sweet and relaxing without being laid back. There’s history, pain and rebellion but no malice or fear. This town is going forward with pride. This is a town to relish.

It is also home to the very great Nikola Tesla. He was some dude!

We walked and did the Tesla museum and open top bus tour (great way to find your bearings btw) and as a result and leaving wanting more. But not this time. So here’s a few snaps of nothing much. Tomorrow we commence a bit of a hike to Budapest which should take about 5-6 days so if we don’t meet before (Serbia not in EU so doesn’t benefit from unified roaming – one silly benefit of being in the EU) have a great few days.

Will miss you Beograd…

Newtown

Nikola Tesla. Official dude

Serbians allegedly killed by Albanian terrorists and NATO gunfire in the troubles – protest outside the Parliament Buildingif we brought back the Republic would you put down your phone?Contrasts remainIndependent thoughtPlug me InBoy was the streetfood good.Tourism growswere on the Up

We’re going places

Danube Bike Tour – 5

We Stopped for a Tortoise Wandering Down the Path

So 48 hours it seems is more than ample for your average capital city and we are back on the road again. Ok. So that isn’t strictly accurate as to make up for the lost days due to the storms we have decided to Train across the flatlands to the Iron Gate, a hydro electric dam across the Danube that allows passage into Serbia, the third country of our tour and the more mountainous region of the Balkans.

The flatlands of Romania

The train ride did allow us to see the flatlands in all their glory, which indeed they were, though having already ridden through similar for several days we didn’t feel as though we were missing too much. As we neared Drobeta (the name is much longer than that but let’s face it you probably don’t really care that much) the hills appeared and the excitement grew, as did the worry. Why did we want to give up the easy flatlands for hills?

Train Architecture

As we crossed the Iron Gate (no photos allowed!) we were stopped by Serbian border control. But beaming he just wanted to tell us we had gone the wrong way and needed to be the other side of the building. And in truth he do date has represented the wonderful Serbian people. So friendly and welcoming. But also very proud. What lovely people. That is to say nothing against the Romanians but their reserved nature became more exposed with the contrast. I wonder if all those years of brutal suppression have yet to yield their influence on the next generation?

And so to two days of cycling the gorges. Limestone cliffs and crags plunging to the waters below. We’re in snowmelt (in the Alps upstream that is) so the waters are somewhat turbulent and the odd major tree floats gently past,which the fishermen in their tiny boats do their best to avoid. We meet Joy and his family – Chinese but living in Dubai – who share their food with us so graciously. We move on and camp amounts this glorious nature, which overnight included yea more rain which stopped as we awoke from our slumbers.

The magnificent Gorges Splitting Serbia from Romania. Last photo is our wild camp site

As the lands became flatter so we approached our second ferry crossing. And this one was magnificence itself. The best ferry I have ever had the privilege to ride. Basically it was a barge with a tiny toy tug boat lashed to the side. The ends were open and you could fall off almost anywhere as you walked the wobbly planks of its deck. The crew finished siphoning a can of diesel and hand winched the drawbridge an inch or two before we departed, turned and chugged to the far bank. upon arrival at the other side there was no ferry terminal, just a earth shore. To overcome this apparently small problem they simply rammed the front of the barge into the river bank, before getting off, shovelling the loose dirt they had piled up into any pot holes they may have created and asked the cars to disembark. Sublime.

Is that really the ferry?

Within minutes we were in the very different world of mozzie alley. Which actually isn’t an alley or it’s real name. But for the next day and a half we feared for our very lives as we ran their gauntlet through a very stunning nature reserve. These things literally chased us on the bikes. I saw them follow James in gangs before landing on his back as he cycled to rip the shirt off his very back. OK, they didn’t actually rip the shirt of his back but there were many piercings. We had no alternative but to continue and pretty much all the way to Belgrade we barely stopped and where we now barely dare to go out so defaced are we.

Meltwaters from the Alps plus significant rains to the north cause flooding 1000 miles downstream. Dam waters are released in advance to try to mitigate the impacts

Mozzie 150km Alley

We are informed that it is the unusual rains and damp threat have made them so prevalent this year. I just hope there’s been a drought as we head further north! The amazing habitat they have within their control has been created by a huge flood defence that must run some 150km (so far) up the east bank. Think Live and Let Die and the Louisiana swamps and you are well on track to this little nature reserve. Stunning – the wild life is immense – but bring the right clothes.

And it was as we cycled through this stretch that I spotted something on the track in front of me. Heading in my direction is looked like a moving stone. I slammed on the breaks (and James ran full pelt into the back of me) as we stopped literally within inches of… a tortoise. The real deal. Pretty cool in my book. He got fed up almost immediately however and retracted into his shell and before we could think to take photos the pestilence attacked from all quarters and we were forced to move on. (I think they could strip you to the bone quicker than piranhas). I remain pretty stoked at meeting a tortoise while out for a cycle though!

Eventually we recrossed the river, this time by bridge, and into the capital of Serbia, Belgrade. We visit a laundry who for 5 pounds will wash and dry our stuff (I wouldn’t touch it myself and I hope she has a bad sense of smell) and head for our room

First Belgradian architecture

We head for our hostel where our room quickly resembles a clothes rack as we seek to finally dry out our things!

Our room in the hostel resembling a clothes line (in our defence the room is seriously grim but it was only £8 a night each so we aren’t complaining – too much). My favourite bit about the room was they advised the sink as the “en suite”.

(I can only apologise for my brother)

Who below gets his own back with a few snaps of Ted!!!

Definitely not in Mozzie Alley!,!

Ted suffers a small refreshment

Danube bike Tour – 4

And so we met the Pope…

Well, this might be a slight exaggeration but it’s my story so I can tell it how I like. But first of the trip to Bucharest.

More big Star Warzy beasts in the fields

We were up early to catch the train. And promptly sat on the platform for 2 hours waiting for it to leave. Not to self – extra hour in bed next time. The first stage of the journey was pretty uneventful but then the train stopped where we had to change. But they had forgotten to build a platform. So we just got out (have you ever tried to step down to ground level off a train with two fully laden bikes?) and walked across the tracks. Stations Romanian style.

Our train – just stopped at platform 6. Except there was no platform (which is in the foreground) so I guess we just stopped at 6!

Here’s the actual platform! look hard and you will see the efficiency of land use, namely wheat growing between the tracks!

We then had to haul our bikes onto the new train which barely stopped to let us on. it was even higher off the ground! And some 50 minutes of standing by the toilet later we pulled in to Bucharest Gara du Nord (no, it does not bear any resemblance to the Parisian station of similar name). Google guided us to the hostel – a shocking £12 a night for a family room with en-suite in a capital city – and with bags dropped we set off. Within minutes police started blocking off roads and helicopters started hovering overhead. Bank robbers I thought and secretly hoped (preferably Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or maybe Keyser Soze – because if you’re gonna meet a villain it might as well be a good one!)

But no, along come the Pope in his Pope mobile. Well there’s a thing that doesn’t happen every day. The Pope. I have to confess I wasn’t expecting that.

Very poor shot of Pope in his Pope mobile

Pope met (ok so a touch disappointed he was waving at the crowd on the other side of the street but hey, it’s not every day you meet the Pope) we wandered on, only to bump into a slightly oversized palace built in the 1980’s by the then dictator Mr Ceausescu – who if you remember came to a slightly sticky end.In truth not surprising if that is what he was spending the country’s money on!

Mr C’s place and detail of the back door

After food (pretty revolting) we wandered a while before returning to slumber. A few snaps from the donder below.

mmm. Beginning to think my camera has tendencies to the less celubrious

Next morning we’re off again, like a couple of excited hobbits. Adventure 1 – work out the tube network so we could go check out the big market. We actually excelled in this task pretty well we thought and rewarded ourselves with a coffee, a pretzel and a sticky bun of non specific denomination.

The Subway

A train

The Pretzel bar

Then back to Mr C’s palace to see some modern art, something I rather like partaking of when in a city. I have to confess that the build quality of MrC’s palace leaves something to be desired and it is definitely more impressive at a distance. Some of the art was very pleasant though, I must say. Except for the video on male circumcision which I felt a tad unnecessary personally and made me a little wet of eye. From the roof you also get a pretty good view of the cityand a “slightly” monstrous church of some denomination. The only words I can think of are utterly outrageous (though apparently Mr C didn’t like churches and had many destroyed which could account for this rebellion in front of his house).

slightly Outrageous church(under construction) – compare the size of the building beside it!!!

We then saw another building that suggested why the quality of Mr C’s palace was not all it was cracked up to be.

Mmmm. So not solid sandstone or marble construction then. Cheeky!

We then dondered round a while longer for Bucharest is no village, walking home past a few more buildings and bits and pieces, before descending into ipad movie night watching the sublimely marvellous “the perks of being a wall flower”.

My favourite building – almost every window ledge complete with air con unit

OK, so it’s now second day here and think that’s enough of cities now. Remind me to ask someone who lives in the city what you actually when you live in a city one day. Fascinated to know. So J and I did a bit of people watching to see and as far as we can make out the major pastime is to spend money. Be it on food and drink, ice cream, toys, gadgets and clothes to make you look individual and cool to other city people, or on getting a ticket to visit attractions and events that are going on. There are a few folk that do jog or cycle around in the park but it does seem as though you still have to buy lots of items above to look cool and individual. P.S. I think we definitely looked individual but they may have thought we lived under a railway bridge or something!

But we did visit first a cemetery – I’ll hand that one to J – which in truth was, well, overgrown!!! Not quite what the guidebook impressed.

But then we headed to a park where they had rebuilt old houses and barns from yester year. It was actually fascinating. Old churches and water mills. Wooden buildings so well build no light gets through the gaps. It was actually a bit of a treasure find. So we wandered round then headed off round the lake before finding a little cafe that sold lentil soup and real lemonade. A fine end to the day.

Interesting detail on wooden church wall

Interior of 1800’s house

Oh, and we saw a man with a very funky electric bike

Man with funky electric bike

Danube Blog Post 3

Best Laid Plans…

So we never set out with a great master plan. Just follow a river to its source and maybe head west towards the coast. Seemed reasonable. But 3 days in and 3oclock in the morning Teds weather curse commenced with a blinding light, lions roar and a torrential downpour. For all but one day in the next week’s forecast the weather symbol was a design of multiple drops of water flashed with a Harry Potter scar, together set against billowing dark grey clouds. Great for camping and cycling. Actually not. So we decided on a new plan.

Go exploring before the rain starts. So we headed out into Giurgiu where we ere staying and then to Ruse over the Friendship Bridge and into Bulgaria.

Ex Empires in Giurgiu

To spend a full day just exploring a town with no agenda is mind expanding. Specifically not having an itinerary, a places to go exploration designed by google. Just see where we end up., When you doing this in a different culture takes it to another level yet again. When you have studied that culture at college but never seen it in real life things rise another notch. But this is also 30 years (ok 32) on and you then have the passage of time, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union and several decades of capitalism. As you can imagine, things couldn’t get much more exciting for little old me.

Soviet Architecture – far less uniform than I was imagining

At this point I should properly mention the patience of my brother. Anyone who has brought up children under the age of 5 knows just how calm of mind one has to be. Well, I truly think I must have tested his on this day as I constantly braked for another image. I had promised I wouldn’t do this but I realise now I lied. I simply couldn’t help myself. I was having fun.

Star Wars Like Monsters scattered decaying across the plain

For the first time we crossed the mighty waterway by bridge. One of only 2 in the whole of Romania (I guess that way if you fell out with your neighbours it would be easy to cut communications!) for the first time we witnessed the sheer scale of the river. She is impressive. And demands respect. And is very, very beautiful.

The majestic Danube – entire cities as toys on her banks

And while I cannot aspire to regarding Soviet architecture and beautiful by any means it does demand a respect. Though I do wonder how many spectacular building were raised to deliver the social and town planners dream. It’s as though a planners model has been executed in real life with little regard to history. Fascinating yet slightly sad.

the new, well actually I don’t know what it is actually. My Bulgarian doesn’t stretch that far

on the way home

So with this interlude over and the weather symbols constant in their disappointing nature, we decide to venture further with our experiment of the cultural and decide to head to Bucharest, with a view to then catching up on lost cycling days by catching a train to meet where we would have cycled to if it had been sunny.

I did start just then trying to write a justification for this strategy but actually realise that I don’t have to. This is our adventure and we can do as we please. And we have both got so much out of more intimate explorations than simply spending all day every day in the saddle constantly striving to attain a goal only we have set. leave the agenda open. It is the journey that is important not the destination. And anyway, this is every bit as much fun.